Twentieth of April in the last year of the twentieth century. In the space of an hour, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, senior students at Columbine High School, massacre one teacher and twelve fellow students, while injuring twenty-seven others. The pair then commit suicide.
The Columbine High School massacre marked a turning point in the eyes of many, in that it implied the conscious creation of a mise-en-scène, given the meticulous preparation and the elaboration of intellectual motivations in the diaries written before by the two boys before the massacre. It also had an enormous impact on the American imagination, inspiring two film directors to produce movies depicting the events at Columbine.
Just two years after the massacre, Michael Moore released his Bowling for Columbine, which was intended to describe the social background, if not the causes, of the criminal act. The film focused on the systematic use of violence by the American foreign strategists and military, the easy accessibility of weapons in the open market and on the internet, the obsession of American society with fear and military aggressiveness, and the violence which has generally pervaded North American daily life.
Although Moore’s account was persuasive, it showed only a part of the story. While it focused on the social context, it lacked any insight into the subjectivity of the perpetrators – the psychopathology of human beings exposed to electronic hyper-stimulation during their formative years, the special fragility of the first generation to grow up in the virtual age.
The following year, in 2003, Gus Van Sant released his film Elephant. Here, the director chose to delve deep into the psychological, to deal with the substance of the deranged subjectivities at work, and to try to grasp the intimate suffering of the two young men who conceived and performed the crime. Van Sant describe not only their aggressiveness and their violence, but also their confused search for tenderness, their frustration and loneliness, as it played out until their final act of self-destruction.
Obviously, we cannot reduce such a complex event to a mere combination of social, psychological or ideological lines of causation. In any such sequence of acts there lies something that goes far beyond any logical explanation. Yet, it is possible to see this form of psychopathology not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a symptom of a widespread form of suffering. This is what makes Gus Van Sant’s movie so interesting.
In his journal, Eric Harris wrote of his admiration for natural selection, and of his wish to place everyone in a version of the computer game Doom so that he could see to it that the weak die and only the strong would live.
Not surprisingly, the addiction of both young men to video games attracted the attention of journalists, critics and psychologists. It is widely assumed that protracted exposure to highly violent video games may produce an effect of desensitization in the minds of young people like Eric and Dylan, but this superficial observation, in focusing on the content of video games, fails to take into account the cognitive and psychological mutation produced by prolonged immersion in a digital environment. It is not the content of the game, but the stimulation itself, that produces the effect of desensitization to the bodily experience of suffering and of pleasure.
Clearly, not everybody becomes a mass murderer merely because they play video games or engage in digital stimulation. But the mass murderer is only an exceptional manifestation of a general trend in this general mutation of the human mind.
In her 1975 book The Show and Tell Machine, Rose Goldsen describes a future generation of humans transformed by the mediascape – then mainly characterized by TV and advertising – and foresees a telling mutation in the field of psychology and language: ‘We are breeding a generation of human beings whose primal impressions come from a machine – it’s the first time in history this has occurred.’
Television and, more recently, the digital revolution have ushered in formidable transformations to the human mental environment. The fact that human beings learn more vocabulary from a machine than from their mothers is undeniably leading to the development of a new kind of sensibility. The new forms of mass psychopathology of our time cannot be investigated without due consideration of the effects of this new environment, in particular the new process of language learning.
Two main developments demand consideration: the first is the dissociation of language learning from the bodily affective experience; the second is the virtualization of the experience of the other.
This first aspect of the transformation is particularly interesting. According to Luisa Muraro, an Italian writer whose work is mainly dedicated to elaborating a feminist philosophical perspective, access to language is fundamentally linked to the affective relation between the body of the learner and the body of the mother. The deep, emotional grasp on the double articulation of language, on the relation between signifier and signified in the linguistic sign, is something that is rooted in the trusted reliance on the affective body of the mother. When this process is reduced to an effect of the exchange between machine and human brain, the process of language learning is detached from the emotional effect of the bodily contact, and the relation between signifier and signified becomes merely operational. Words are not affectively grasping meaning, meaning is not rooted in the depth of the body, and communication is not perceived as affective relation between bodies, but as a working exchange of operating instructions. We can expect that psychic suffering will soon follow.
Beyond this, a second transformation has happened in the psychological sphere: young people spend their early formative years in a constant relationship with info-machines, while experiencing less and less face-to-face bodily contact with others. Children are increasingly removed from the bodily presence of other children and subjected to a virtual form of communication with distant entities whose body does not belong to a sensitive and sensible space.
Sensibility itself is at stake, here. Sensibility is the faculty that allows human beings to understand those signs that are not verbalized, and that cannot be reduced to words. Sensibility (and sensitivity, which is the physical, erotic face of the non-verbal ability to understand and to exchange meaning) is the interpersonal film that makes possible the empathic perception of the other. Empathy (the ability to feel the pleasure and the sorrow of the other as part of our pleasure and sorrow) is not a natural emotion, but rather a psychological condition that is cultivated and refined, and which, in the absence of such cultivation, can wither and disappear.
There is much evidence to suggest that this mutation in the experience of communication is producing a pathology in the sphere of empathy (an autistic trend) and in the sphere of sensibility (desensitization to the presence of the other). And this mutation of the psychic and linguistic interaction may also be at the root of the contemporary precariousness of life. Precariousness is not only the condition of labour in the age of global deterritorialization, but it is also the fragmentation of the social body, the fracturing of self-perception and of the perception of time. Time no longer belongs to the individual, and the capitalist no longer buys the personal life of individuals; instead, people are erased from the space of work, and time is turned into a vortex of depersonalized, fragmentary substance that can be acquired by the capitalist and recombined by the network-machine. Cognitive labour in particular – the work of information and imagination – is particularly susceptible to the precariousness rule. Being immaterial and purely informational, this kind of work does not need to be localized in a physical space. It can be transferred, fragmented, fractured and finally recombined in the abstract space of the internet.
Winning for a Moment
On the day of the massacre, Eric Harris wore a white T-shirt on which the words ‘Natural selection’ were printed in black. References to natural selection also occur in Harris’s diaries, as they will do, years later, in the writing of Pekka-Erik Auvinen.
Like the large majority of the generation that has grown up in the Neoliberal decades, the young Eric Harris is totally persuaded that the strong have the right to win and to predate. It is the natural philosophy that he has absorbed in the social environment in which he was educated, and it is also the underlying rationale of the video games that he loved to play. But the young man knew very well that he was not going to be a winner in the social game. Instead, he decides that he will be a winner for a moment: I’ll kill and I’ll win; then I’ll die. The murderous action is conceived as revenge for the humiliation that he has suffered in the daily game of competition. The bullying that he endured at school is described in painful detail in his journal:
Everyone is always making fun of me because of how I look, and how fucking weak I am and shit. Well, I will get you all back: ultimate fucking revenge here. You people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for my knowledge or guidance more, treated me more like a senior, and maybe I wouldn’t have been as ready to tear your fucking heads off . . . That’s where a lot of my hate grows from. The fact that I have practically no self-esteem. Especially concerning girls and looks and such. Therefore people make fun of me... constantly... therefore I get no respect and therefore I get fucking PISSED.
and ‘Whatever I do people make fun of me, and some- times directly to my face. I’ll get revenge soon enough. Fuckers shouldn’t have ripped on me so much, huh! HA!’
His friend Dylan Klebold also knows that he is destined to be a loser, and likewise wants to be a winner, for an hour, before a violent death. He wrote: ‘You’ve been giving us shit for years. You’re fucking gonna pay for all the shit! We don’t give a shit. Because we’re gonna die doing it.’
Harris and Klebold’s psychology could be synthetically described as a suicidal form of the Neoliberal will to win. In the wake of the Neoliberal proclamation of the end of class struggle, the only social categories remaining are winner and loser. No more capitalists and workers; no more exploiters and exploited. Either you are strong and smart, or you deserve your misery. The establishment of capitalist absolutism is based on the mass adhesion (mostly unconscious) to the philosophy of natural selection. The mass murderer is someone who believes in the right of the fittest and the strongest to win in the social game, but he also knows or senses that he is not the fittest nor the strongest. So he opts for the only possible act of retaliation and self-assertion: to kill and be killed.
This Metropolis built of Kryptonite in which no Superman dared set foot, where wealth was mistaken for riches and the joy of possession for happiness, where people lived so polished lives that the great rough truths of raw existence had been rubbed and buffed away, and in which human souls had wandered so separately for so long that they barely remembered how to touch; this city whose fabled electricity powered the electric fences that were being erected between men and men, and men and women too?
Eric Harris wanted to join the United States Marine Corps, but his application was rejected shortly before the shootings because he was taking the drug Fluvoxamine, an SSRI anti-depressant, which he was required to take as part of court-ordered anger management therapy. The autopsy reports showed that he had Fluvoxamine in his body at the time of death. Fluvoxamine works by inhibiting the uptake of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, from the spaces between nerve cells following its release. As a result, a greater amount of serotonin is available in these spaces to attach to other nerves, which in turn stimulates them. Neurotransmitters are released by nerves, travel across the spaces between nerves and then attach to receptors on other nerves. Many experts believe that an imbalance in neurotransmitters is the cause of depression and other psychiatric disorders.
But neurochemistry is not sufficient to explain depression and mental suffering at large. We need a broader picture that encompasses both cultural context and social background.
Modern culture and political imagination have emphasized the virtues of youth, of passion and energy, aggressiveness and growth. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of physical energy, and semiocapitalism is grounded in the subjugation of the nervous energy of society. The notion of exhaustion has always been anathema to the discourse of modernity, of romantic Sturm und Drang, of the Faustian drive to immortality, the endless thirst for economic growth and profit, the denial of organic limits. Growth is not simply an economic phenomenon, but a cultural concept, linked to the vision of the future as infinite expansion.
In the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome asserted the need to re-structure social production in accordance with the finite nature of Earth’s natural resources. Capitalism responded to this warning by instigating a cognitive transformation in production and by creating a new semiocapitalist sphere, thus opening up new possibilities for seemingly endless expansion.
Economic phenomena have long been described in psychopathological terms (euphoria, depression, slump, up and downs . . .), but when the production process involves the brain as the primary unit of production, psychopathology ceases to be a mere metaphor and becomes instead a crucial element of economic cycles. Throughout the 1990s the overall economy expanded literally euphorically. Prozac culture became an integral part of the social landscape of the internet economy, which was expected to unfold in the manner of infinite growth. Hundreds of thousands of Western operators, directors and managers took innumerable decisions in a state of chemical euphoria and psychopharmacological light-headedness.
But although the productivity of the networked brain is potentially infinite, the limits to the intensification of brain activity remain inscribed in the affective body of the cognitive worker: these are the limits of attention, of psychic energy, of sensibility. While networks have produced a leap in the speed and in the very format of the info-sphere, there has not been a corresponding leap in the speed and format of mental reception. The receivers, human brains of real people made of flesh, fragile physical organs, are not formatted according to the same standard as the system of digital transmitters. The available attention span for the info-workers is constantly being reduced, involved as they are in a growing number of mental tasks that occupy every fragment of their attention span. They take Viagra because they don’t have time for sexual preliminaries. They take cocaine to be continuously alert and reactive. They take Prozac to block out the awareness of the meaninglessness of their working activity and life.
The first symptoms of this imbalance were already visible in the first months of the new century: a psychopathic phenomenon of over-excitation and panic. Inevitably, as with a patient affected by bipolar disorder, the financial euphoria of the 1990s gave way to a spectacular depression. After the years of irrational exuberance (as Alan Greenspan described them) the social organism was unable to sustain any longer the chemical euphoria that had fuelled its enthusiastic competitiveness and economic fanaticism. The hyper-saturation of the collective attention culminated in a social and economic depressive collapse.
Just Do It
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders the syndrome of ‘running amok’ is described as a form of sociopathic behaviour consisting in uncontrollable rage and related states of deep depression.
‘Running amok’ is an expression that comes from the Malay language. In the original Malaysian context, a man who has previously shown no signs of violent anger acquires a weapon and, in a sudden frenzy, kills or injures anyone in the vicinity. Running amok is a way of re-establishing one’s reputation as a man to be feared and respected, but is also a way of escaping the world when life has become intolerable, and generally culminates in suicide. It’s a culture-bound syndrome, whose manifestations are shaped by the cultural context and expectations.
We may describe this syndrome as a form of disconnection between the rational elaboration and the act. The person suffering from depression feels guilty because s/he is unable to compete and to win, in an environment saturated with incitements to act, to mobilize energies. A violent break from the thread of depressive paralysis can sometimes seem to be the only way out – an action separated from reflection, an action that does not imply any future, a visible sign of existence, of mobilization, of energy. A violent acting out, as disconnected from a conscious elaboration: just do it. Nike’s motto is a good introduction to the cycle of depression, catatonia and psychotic acting out that can culminate into spectacular murderous suicide.
Just do it: violence, explosion, suicide. Killing and being killed are linked in this kind of acting out, although the murderer may, exceptionally, survive. When running amok, the borders between one’s body and the surrounding universe are blurred, and so is the limit between killing and being killed. Panic, in fact, is the simultaneous perception of the totality of possible stimulations, the simultaneous experience of everything, of every past, every future. In this state of mental alteration the distinction between the self and the universe collapses.
In Freud’s time the environment was essentially repressive, and acting out took the form of repetitive and compulsory acts. The compulsory act was part of a neurotic framework of denial and repression. Today, the psychotic framework of hyper-stimulation and constant mobilization of nervous energy is pushing people, especially suggestible young people, socially marginalized and precarious, to a different kind of acting out: an explosive demonstration of energy, a violent mobilization of the body, which culminates in the aggressive, murderous explosion of the self.
Arctic Sea Ice
Contrary to negative feedback, which maintains stability in a dynamic system through a reduction of the exciting factors, positive feedback is a process in which the effects of a disturbance on a system result in an increase in the intensity of the factors which generate the disturbance. In other words: A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. Thermal runaway, for instance, is a situation in which an increase in temperature provokes a further increase in temperature, often leading to a destructive result.
An example of positive feedback is the overheating of the atmosphere caused by the greenhouse effect – a process which is already reaching a point of irreversibility.
According to meteorology experts, summer 2012 was the hottest summer ever – or rather, the hottest so far. On 28 August 2012 scientists reported that sea ice in the Arctic plummeted to the lowest level on record, a confirmation of the drastic warming in the region, and a likely harbinger of larger changes to come. Professor Jennifer Francis, a scientist who studies the effect of sea ice on weather patterns, of Rutgers University, told the New York Times: ‘It’s hard even for people like me to believe, to see that climate change is actually doing what our worse fears dictated. It’s starting to give me the chills, to tell you the truth’.
Scientific forecasts based on computer modelling have long suggested that it could take until mid-century before the Arctic would be free of summer sea ice. But the prodigious melting of 2012 lends credibility to more pessimistic analyses that suggest it could happen before the decade is out.
‘The ice is thin,’ said Professor Francis.
This is an edited excerpt from Heroes.