As has been noted many times, the most fascinating elements of the phenomenon of school shootings
are (1) the almost universal expression of some measure of sympathy with the shooters
and (2) the immediate sense that, in some respect, media saturation
is at least connected to the problem.
Whatever one's particular intuitive feelings about demographics in high school (jocks, geeks, etc.), the value of the media in American society, or the amount of empathy one ought to feel for the shooters, the fact remains: as a cultural event, school shootings seem to invite investigation into larger questions concerning American culture.
Chief among these: what common bond connects almost all of us to the shooters? And how does the media affect the situation?
In this post-modern era, most people are acclimated to the absence of moral systems; we assent to the subjectivity of cultural beliefs, and we guide our behavior according to the ethical principles we accept personally, usually without invoking external justification. Though some older individuals have difficulty with this, a surprising number of younger people consider it natural.
However, the post-modern era is also the post-structuralist era, and though the issue of social morals may be satisfactorily settled for most, the question of identity is more troubling than ever before.
If all forms of conscious communication are instantaneously reproductive, if every identity has been explored, analyzed, categorized, and therefore reduced in advance, how is one to select or develop or appropriate a "way to be?"
For example, when adolescents rebel, parents expect it; rebellion has been co-opted by psychology texts, and is no longer a vital or authentic way of freeing oneself from one's parents. It has become a cultural institution, devoid of personal meaning.
The same is true for almost every form of behavior: how often are we identified with movie characters? "Dude, you're acting just like Tyler Durden?" Or with newsmakers: "You're an Eric Harris waiting to happen?"
But it is not simply contemporary popular culture which has already rendered every form of identity inauthentic; the "great books," classic theatre, and nearly every form of narrative or cultural information exists now in such ubiquity, thanks to the Internet, television, etc., that an unexamined iteration of human identity is difficult to locate.
In the face of mortality, developing an inimitable identity is crucial; no one can accept living and dying as an indistinguishable variation on the general human prototype. But the pervasive institutionalization of every act, of every text, of every identity make this very difficult.
In adolescence, when people are struggling to construct their personality and demographic allegiances, this situation is acutely felt. Everything one might do has been turned into a primary text already; it has been seen in a movie, on TV, heard in a song, written about in a book or an article, and is consequently useless; the hyperbolized blather about individuality heard in high school halls is a response to the absence of unexplored potentialities.
What to do? Such a situation seems to make life impossible; how can one live a life when one's every thought, every habit, every emotion is a facsimile, a derivative reproduction of widely circulated fiction and news?
One can attack the sole immutable, irreducible quality of human society: life. No matter how many texts are disseminated by media, no matter how many narratives are proffered by culture, death is always a profoundly shocking event, and it always resonates.
A 15-year-old boy who feels that his life is a pathetic amalgam of suffering and inauthenticity, whose entire existence has already occurred and continues to occur for billions of other people, whose shame comes from his reflexive awareness of the impossibility of living anything other than a derivative, appropriated existence, values neither his life nor those of others. They are not lives to him, but texts: articles already written.
But in killing people, in terminating the only state of being anyone knows, he penetrates the layer of post-structuralist non-reality, and actually acts. He achieves power over the systems of information and media, and is no longer reduced by them into pseudo-existence. No one can deny the authenticity of death, the very real effect of bullets, the vitality of murder.
Unfortunately, the 15-year-old boy must either die or go to jail, and he has devastated the lives of countless survivors in his sad quest for legitimacy. His actions are unconscionable, and he has in effect accomplished nothing but the vindication of his unstable ego, and that too will be decimated after the fact.
But in examining his motives, we can perhaps begin to address the real causes of these crimes. Perhaps American culture places too much emphasis on authenticity (I cringe whenever I hear someone call someone else a "phony" or a "wanna-be," as we are all phony and we all want to be something, and admitting it doesn't change a thing). Originality should be celebrated, but individuals absorb and appropriate and recontextualize cultural sources to create identities, and people should not be ashamed of doing so. To expect anything else is to establish an impossible standard: there have now lived on Earth 86 billion people, and possessing some of their facets is substantially better than trying to kill as many as you must until you feel real.