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American Myth and the Embodied Geographies of School Shootings

A Critical Intervention Against Neoliberal White Supremacy

by Coleman A. Allums, Hilda E. Kurtz and Taylor J. Hafley, University of Georgia

I. Parkland

On 14 February 2018, a former student forcibly entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, set off the fire alarm, and began shooting down students who filed into the halls and toward the exits in response to the alarm. Chaos erupted as students pelted down stairways, barricaded classroom doors, and hid in closets to protect themselves from the fusillade of bullets bursting from the shooter’s military-style semi-automatic rifle. 17 people were killed, most of them students, in a little more than six minutes.

On 9 March, the Governor signed a Public Safety Law, which had moved through the state legislature at lightning speed. Specific provisions of the new law include creating an optional “Guardian Program”, named after Parkland football coach Aaron Feis who died taking fire in order to protect a student, enhanced mental health scrutiny and services for students, limitations on gun ownership by people with documented mental illness, prohibition of the sale and ownership of bump stocks, and a new age requirement to purchase a gun. Seemingly comprehensive, these measures remain utterly insufficient to the gargantuan task of effecting (public) life at multiple scales.

Despite the differentiated repetition of the ceaseless death ritual in public schools across space and time, we find our leaders unable to move beyond the politics of problem closure wherein “politically tenable solutions define the problem” (Guthman 2011: 12). Rather than realistic, common-sense compromises around contentious issues, these “tenable solutions” are deeply ideological projects, in that they are indelibly marked and constrained by an expedient ontological absence. Thus the problem is closed to all but the most banal solutions, enacted at localized scales. The possibility of encounter with the true essence of school shootings by predominantly white men and boys, is again foreclosed. Instead, the white, male shooter is fetishized and probed as an atomized, aberrative curiosity, prayers are offered up, and we hold our collective breath until the next time.

II. Moloch and American Myth

If, as Gary Wills (2012) insists, the gun is our Moloch,[1] if the mass shooting is its bloody ritual and this very nation its temple, then we must be its committed mythologists (Barthes 2013). Refusing the analytical terms of popular (read: closed) debate along with the ontological plane on which such debate (re)occurs, we seek to position these events in proper context as necessarily emerging from and reproductive of fundamentally American histories, geographies, and ideologies. Rejecting the fatal, mythic politics of problem closure, we proceed in another direction in order that we might encounter the conditions of possibility for these horrific events.

Our intervention here is impelled by a loss of life, and a conviction that we must think otherwise if there is any hope of living otherwise. As critical geographers, we must rupture the weak sutures of disinterested, common-sense mythology which will never – which never could – put us back together. The question we must ask is not why (why did he do it?) but whence (whence comes this particular violence in this place, at this time?). What is its descent (Foucault 1980) and how can we come to know it otherwise, at the margins of problem closure and beyond?

Baldwin (1998), Bonds and Inwood (2016), Du Bois (1998), Olson (2004), Robinson (2000) and countless others have observed that the fundamental marker of this nation, a thoroughgoing line of descent largely unacknowledged in conventional history and contemporary political thought, is whiteness. Historically synonymous with – and constituted alongside – citizenship and material wealth, whiteness allows one the privilege of being set above while simultaneously remaining invisible as the normative standard of personhood. The white citizen (Olson 2004) claims the right to be acknowledged as an individual rather than as a representative of a (non-white) group or community and is seen as ontologically innocent (Ikard 2017). Perhaps most damning of all, as Baldwin (2010: 136) reminds us: whiteness emerges historically in “slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women”. Whiteness is an active politics, a violent, ongoing project of “securing and protecting privileges” (Olson 2004: xviii) and resisting attempts to limit this racialized (and gendered) accumulation.

School shootings in the US are implicated in this American genealogy, enacting and reproducing whiteness as a political construction.[2] It is a project of white violence, validated by white innocence.[3] And yet we breathlessly fixate on the specifics of his personal story, of the picturesque community where things like this just don’t happen. We wonder aloud and in print: why did he do it?, missing all the while the descent of this violence in this place, leaving unanswered the questions we never ask.

We must know and name whiteness. But the attendant violences of unreconstructed white supremacy cannot themselves produce the specific phenomena of the school shooting. The (historical, ongoing) violence of whiteness is a necessary condition, but insufficient. If we mean to comprehend the becoming-possible of the mass school shooting, we must think seriously about the place-time of the contemporary public school.[4] We must, to that end, think seriously about the project of neoliberalism.

Neoliberal public education sacrifices conventional ideas of public good and rigors of intentional pedagogy at the altar of economism as part of a broader process of structural transformation by which “market logics and competitive discipline” are extended “beyond the economy” (Purcell 2008: 13), producing a new ethic and logic of social institutions. Neoliberalism places economic growth far above the living of lives in a hierarchy of the social good. Economic “growth is not only, ‘as both Michel Foucault and Margaret Thatcher have argued’, the ‘bottom-line social policy’ (Cerny 2014: 2) but also the hegemonic benchmark of political-economic health” (Christophers 2015: 210).

The impacts of this hegemon on public education are difficult to overstate: budgets shrink, books disintegrate, outcomes are quantified and marketized. Teachers become responsible not only for edification but for the very survival of students. Training replaces teaching, as the frantic push for job preparation swallows whole Dewey’s dream of democratic education. The uneven geographies of neoliberal education fail to meet the basic needs of children: education, safety, community, stability, non-commodified social relations. Coaches are armed, police patrol hallways. Students and teachers alike are compelled to reckon with the everyday, bare violences of the neoliberalized state. The passive violence of neoliberalism exacerbates the material realities of inequality, precarity, difference, and death.

Returning to Guthman (2011): neoliberalism is an ideological project which atomizes, isolates, alienates, and responsibilizes the individual. Both shooters and victims are implicated in this violence of neoliberalism. Neoliberal ideology also typically devolves solutions to the most local of scales – a process of problem closure and fetishized scale which is itself racialized. What we have, then, across the uneven landscape of public schools, is not a reckoning with violence, not a re-invigoration of community, but only more white men with more guns, putting more children of all races at risk of direct and abstracted gun violence. Our Moloch, then, is not simply the first order violence of the white shooter, but also the always-already racialized and geographically uneven implementation of tenable solutions, which are themselves nothing more than cynical concessions to racialized capitalism.

III. Bodies

We must reckon with those absences, which, in their very absence, as McKittrick (2006) reminds us, still produce effects. Here, we consider how the absence of critical analysis produced in and through the mechanics of problem closure produces a particular, neoliberalized politics of scale, one that fetishizes the masculinist armed teacher, resource officer, or school “guardian” who will patrol public schools as though they were the (racialized) Wild West – the violent frontier of economic expansion. As perhaps they are.

We are compelled by Guthman’s (2011) argument that our bodies have become the site of the spatial fix, the sink for capitalism’s excess. Piecemeal solutions and problem closures distract from and reinforce neoliberal ideology as the bodies of children absorb the materiality that is the excess of neoliberalism and unreconstructed, violent white supremacy. These problems, like the flesh they rend apart, cannot be closed by a market whose externalities are young bodies punctured with lead.

And yet these bodies are not simply inert or passive material. They are active, vibrant, human: alive with possibility and charged with social connection. In the aftermath of Parkland, we are seeing that the generative and creative social body (Lefebvre 1991; Simonsen 2005) can effect change and produce new futures. Parkland students and people around the world Marching For Their Lives are actively effecting change, publicly imagining new ways of being, and producing new spaces of everyday life. They are moving beyond Parkland, beyond Florida, subverting the neoliberal fetishization of the local in their insistence that injustice is endemic to American democracy, and that it must be challenged directly and systemically. As Trevon Bosley poignantly diagnosed at the March For Our Lives: “It is time for the nation to realize gun violence is more than just a Chicago problem or a Parkland problem, it is an American problem. It’s time to care about all communities equally, it’s time to stop judging some communities as worthy and some communities as unworthy … It’s time for America to realize everyday shootings are everyday problems.”

The everyday problem of school shootings is always already mediated through neoliberalism and white supremacy. It is only in transcending the false finality of problem closure through the rupture of myth, the rearticulation and activation of bodies under racial capitalism, the transformation of the social that we might begin to think and live otherwise. As Olson (2004) reminds us, that which has been done can be undone – we offer the foregoing as one small movement towards that undoing.

Notes

[1] Moloch is the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.

[2] Multiple databases of mass shootings in the US clearly indicate that the vast majority of school shooters are white males. See, e.g., Mother Jones: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/ (last accessed 4 July 2018).

[3] For a more thorough elucidation of this claim than space allows us here, see Ikard (2017), particularly Chapter 2, “Constituting the Crime: White Innocence as an Apparatus of Oppression”.

[4] There are, obviously, public place-times where other sorts of mass shootings have occurred and do occur. We are focused here, specifically, on the mass school shooting.

References

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Baldwin J (2010 [1984]) On being white…and other lies. In R Kenan (ed) James Baldwin: The Cross of Redemption–Uncollected Writings (pp135-138). New York: Pantheon

Barthes R (2013 [1957]) Mythologies (trans R Howard and A Lavers). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Bonds A and Inwood J (2016) Beyond white privilege: Geographies of white supremacy and settler colonialism. Progress in Human Geography 40(6):715-733

Cerny P G (2014) Rethinking financial regulation: Risk, club goods, and regulatory fatigue. In T Oatley and W K Winecoff (eds) Handbook of the International Political Economy of Monetary Relations (pp343-363). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

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Lefebvre H (1991 [1974]) The Production of Space (trans D Nicholson-Smith)). Oxford: Blackwell

McKittrick K (2006) Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Olson J (2004) The Abolition of White Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Purcell M (2008) Recapturing Democracy: Neoliberalization and the Struggle for Alternative Urban Futures. London: Routledge

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