What to Look for When Gun Control Fails: America's Cinematic Culture

This undated photo provided by Shawn Moore shows his son Josh, 11, holding a rifle his father gave him as a birthday present,
This undated photo provided by Shawn Moore shows his son Josh, 11, holding a rifle his father gave him as a birthday present, at their home in Carneys Point, N.J. The Moore family claims this photo, posted on Facebook, led the state’s child welfare agency to the family’s house, Friday, March 15, 2013, demanding to be let inside to inspect their guns. (AP Photo/Shawn Moore)

Let's not kid ourselves. Serious gun laws are not going to be passed. If passed, they will be easily evaded. Legislating the use of guns is like raising the debt limit: it can help a little, but not for long. For a sustainable solution a different sort of discussion will be needed and it had better begin now.

The starting point is obvious. Gun use and abuse in America today have taken centuries to develop. The rates of gun violence have varied over time. Although traditions of gun culture may once have had internal checks and balances, these are clearly failing today. A self-protective, one might even say ethical, resistance to guns has been severely undermined. The reason is large but clear. The most important instrument we have for formulating and controlling everyday action -- our imagination -- has been off-loaded to screens and boxes with industrial abandon. This is the underpinning of our cinematic culture and it sustains the abuse of guns.

Although the saying "guns don't kill people, people kill people" sounds clownish even to those who believe it, we can turn the National Rifle Association's rationalizations for gun fetishism into a basis for serious public reflection. Wayne LaPierre -- like many delusional conspiracy theorists -- appears half right. The relation between guns and their shooters is a complicated terrain. It is especially difficult to survey it from the point of view of the citizen.

Still, the most basic facts are clear enough. It takes one person to pull the trigger, two people to make that into an act of violence, and many third-parties to stop the killing. The only deeply effective responses follow from lucid and pragmatic understanding of how gun violence is embedded in civic life. That is, how through motivations, identities, networks, and geography violence perpetrated with guns becomes not just an individual act but a practice involving groups and communities, and for that reason must be undone by them as well.

If this sounds utterly bizarre I urge you to pause now and do two things. The first is to erase from your mind any lingering images of Thomas Hobbes and society as a natural "war of all against all." The second is to go read David Kennedy's gripping book Don't Shoot, which chronicles his inspired and successful partnerships with community heroes -- police, citizens, preachers, and, believe it or not, gangsters -- to bring cease-fire to our precious cities (where much of the violence with guns takes place).

There is quite a bit more to gun violence than meets the eye, but with Hobbes out of mind and Kennedy in view we can begin to see some missing pieces of the puzzle. Where shootings occur -- at the tip of the bullet, on the street, in the town, by some dark hollow or suburban mall, indeed all over America -- other forces connecting gun and shooter hover like the ghosts of centuries.

There may not be good statistics from early 20th century America to specify violence-with-guns, but the murder rate is known. It rose for a decade after the First World War. Then it dropped off dramatically during the time of the New Deal. This decline continued through the wars of the 1940s and 1950s. Entering the 1960s, homicides were rampant again. They increased by 100% in just a decade. As if in homage to that fact, this is when violence came under the rubric of "public health" for the first time. There you have the seed-bed of the present. Several generations of guns and their shooters have been nurtured in this environment.

Shouldn't it tell us something that gun violence changes recognizably from decade to decade? A well-known example is the explosive violence associated with the crack epidemic of the 1980s. But what triggered the larger upward spike in the 1960s? Was it public trauma following the assassination of President Kennedy? Or the escalation of a meaningless and self-destructive war? Or reaction against widespread challenges to entrenched authority? Or social side-effects following the achievements of the civil rights movement?

Questions like these are not about psychology. Focused on culture, answers to them would change the balance of what is true and what is false in the adage "guns don't kill people...." For the fact is that Americans are tightly bound up with guns. Guns are part of our common moods and reflexes. We identify with them. We delight in their presence, their image, their sound, their fury. Even our sense of freedom has come to be defined -- almost more than by any other single thing -- by a relation to guns that is purported to emerge from the "second amendment." The point is that what happens to America in large blocks, groups, or regions and as a whole changes the relation between guns and shooters.

Again, the obvious is important. The vast majority of us do not kill other people. And even the ones among us who do kill others are not all the same. Motives, style, emotions, and meaning are different for spurned lovers, dissed gangsters, desperate workers... and school shooters. There could be a very long list of types.

Yet underlying each distinct social type there is something in common, something the shooter does share with a vast number of Americans. This commonality concerns habits of imagination. It is an image of oneself entering into a scene of conflict with a gun. It is the fantasy of a blazing triumph. It is the conviction that necessity guides the aiming hand.

This American self-image-with-a-gun has very little to do with "self-defense." It is rather a proclivity to project ourselves in a certain way. It is staged and enacted by every boy-child in every household and neighborhood in pretty much the same way -- the finger-gun, the comic gun, the plastic gun, the virtual gun -- bang bang you're dead I win. In the adult it persists as just a fleeting reflex. But it is a cusp towards the crucible of action. A symbol, a habit, a gesture, lurking in the body. Waiting for fellowship with notorious "other factors."

How did we come to picture ourselves in this way? And why is this picture accompanied by sufficient pleasure to overcome the excruciating pain it would inexorably incur? This concerns more than the simple fact of American violence. What matters is our relation to violence, a relation in which symbols carry the main load. We are -- as cultural historian Richard Slotkin has shown -- a "gunfighter nation" that is "regenerated through violence." The American citizen has since the 1940s lived -- as I argued following 9/11 -- in a social condition of "civic war" that is now part of the on-going constitution of our democracy. These are broad features of culture that shape the repertoires and contexts of everyday actions. These are images of self and society that take hold in the presence of guns.

But how? What joins private fantasy to public violence? How does Adam Lanza's sensory deprivation chamber transport him into a classroom littered with bodies? The missing and unmentionable link is our cinematic culture. Cinematic culture is not just the cult of cinema, but rather a longer wave in the way we live together, a stream of things that have been re-figuring us since the early 19th century. Cinematic culture feeds the enormous reservoir of symbols and subject positions we draw upon for everyday action in public.

No one will doubt that Americans -- thinking, speaking, playing, killing -- now depend to a large extent on a wide range of models that derive from motion pictures. Video games -- like Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, or insane applications of such images to "history" in games like Assassin's Creed III -- are only the most sociopathic instance of what is mundanely upheld on TV and at the movies. Yet, cinematic culture stretches far beyond this. Where does it come from and where is it going?

Around 1800 there was in the world joined together by the North Atlantic a period of democratic and industrial revolutions. The homey and tight-knit Gemeinschaft of community suffered the birth of modern individualism. Prominent as concept and prevalent as motivation, individualism made for a starkly reconfigured Gesellschaft, the modern society of strangers joined in a thin and weakly-linked fabric of relationships. This history of modern social life is well-documented and well-known.

Although cinematic culture emerges in parallel with individualism, the two are in a sense entirely opposed. For the essential feature of cinematic culture is the progressive displacement of certain human capacities outside the human body. This includes capacities necessary for that most individual and personal of things: our own actions.

The first of these displaced capacities is simply the ability to move, or animation. The second is the capacity to formulate images with which and from which to think and act, or imagination. Where modern individualism is characterized by processes of contraction and internalization, cinematic culture -- with its displacements of animation and imagination -- implies an effective extension of the person beyond the natural boundaries of his or her body.

What happens to animation under these new conditions? Obviously, human beings are born with the capacity to move, something so basic that hundreds of millenia passed before homo sapiens harnessed other animals to help them do it. Measured by this scale of time, the extent to which the capacity for animation has left the human body since the industrial revolution, and how it has taken up residence in objects and in the human environment, is nothing short of miraculous. Belts, pulleys, wheels, and wings transport, lift, automate, or otherwise operate for a person the movements he or she once had to make with the body alone. These are not merely vehicles, but opportunities for supplementing the body's metabolic energies with mechanically mediated steam, coal, electricity, and so forth. All sorts of kinetic automation -- buses, trains, and airplanes, conveyor belts, elevators, robots, etc. -- may be described as tools, but the depth of our adjustment and adaptation to them over and over again blurs the line between "me" and "it." These things transform the human position in the world by making increasingly wider circles of that world inescapably part of that human position. A person who walks and a person who drives are two different types of persons in two different types of worlds.

And imagination? To understand what has happened to imagination we need to be clear about what it is. Set aside extraordinary acts of creativity and look instead to everyday life. Imagination is the faculty that permits human beings to project beyond any given circumstances; it is how we direct ourselves towards, and through, elements of experience that are no longer or not yet present, whether this involves a tightly-drawn image of the "self" going out for a beer tonight or a fantastic panorama of the society of the future. More or less explicitly formulating those ends towards which the elementary human power of action is oriented, imagination is a central feature of how human beings, in act and fact, add something new to the world.

As with animation, the fundamental capacity of imagination migrated outside the human body to an unprecedented extent in the course of the 19th century. Unencumbered by the body that once contained it, this migrant imagination became an astonishing generator of possibility. It turned us in unexpected new directions.

With respect to the question of gun violence today and tomorrow, one feature of this historical transformation stands out above all the rest. It is the prevalence of paradoxically safe danger. At some point hunting and war-fighting ceased to be the primary support for our affinity with guns. The new world of cinematic culture not only redistributed animation and imagination across the landscape of experience, it became the training ground for patterns of gun use. With corresponding new practices of representation, shooters -- or should we say "shooters"? -- could remain at a safe distance from the violence -- or should we say "violence"? -- which, with ever more sophisticated machine feedback, they caused -- or should we say "caused"? In the circumstances of cinematic culture, as the person who acts relies on the environment to supply much of the animation and imagination required for action, he or she is also buffered by that environment. Self-protective feedback is starkly diminished, and mostly absent where most important: with a gun in hand.

Since the 19th century, it has been fairly easy to perceive the massive displacement of animation outside the body. By contrast, the process that displaced imagination was at first more difficult to track because of the way it stemmed from particularities of the period just before.

Where did things stand two hundred years ago in Europe, at the advent of this great transformation? Since the 16th century, images that serve as models for both the "self" and "society" had been increasingly interiorized in the individual. This special sort of privatization occurred, for example, as the typographic revolution shifted everyday attention away from the cathedral fresco and stained-glass window and towards the printed face of the book. In the age of mass produced words, the reading and writing human subject developed new modes of reasoning, new practices of memory, new ways to use information, etc. Already at the time it was clear (as historians today have shown) that the interiorization of imagination -- taking it out from under the scrutiny of parents, husbands, lords, and masters -- allowed it to figure in new ways in the balancing act between safety and danger, jeopardy and desire. In this sense, new media -- like the modern mass-published novel, especially in the century between Pamela or Julie and Madame Bovary or A Tale of Two Cities -- was a staging ground for cinematic culture.

By the turn of the 19th century, however, the privatization of the "self" was already being met by a second and countervailing tendency. An accelerating circulation of new things and practices of representation -- such as the illustrated mass publication, the museum, tourism, and, of course, the photograph -- elaborated a new common space of images, a public "imaginary." The public sphere filled with increasingly intricate, elaborate, and animated images. Mundane human projections of that which was not present (a lunch, a home, a pot of gold) or that which one was not (a fireman, a father, President) ceased to be merely paradigms for action and became at once spectacle, simulation, and increasingly surrogate.

In partnership with books, the interiorization of imagination continued over several centuries as practices of silent reading and a corresponding mental life were extended from elites to the larger public. At the same time, little by little, new uses of the image were dislodging imagination from its recently conquered seat in the mind. On the one hand, the reading imagination sheltered itself from forces of authority and sanction. On the other hand, the reader's imagining brain remained within the body's frail fortress. The coming of cinematic culture entailed the return of imagination to public life. This occurred under new technological conditions. It changed everything, even the status of the body in action.

All this, again, runs counter to individualism. When at the beginning of the 20th century Ortega y Gasset wrote yo soy yo y mi circunstancia he identified the personal experience of a growing social phenomenon. From where, and with what instruments, do we act when not all of our relevant faculties are aboard the body? While the balance between "me" and "what is around me" has always been in flux, cinematic culture exacerbated this fact and changed its consequence. Boundaries that protect the self became more permeable. The public imaginary became a shared resource for individual actions. As such, some common form, format, pattern, scene, or script came to coordinate ex ante, from within the springs of even the most personal acts, the conduct of multiple citizens, consumers, students, entrepreneurs, and almost every other social type.

Once imagination is re-situated outside the human body in this way, it is more susceptible. The charges of desire increase but so does abstraction from danger. Imagination runs wild.

Ethical guardians and religious authorities have in many times and places objected to the free play of imagination. If you have the impression that you are hearing a plea of this sort here you are mistaken. The facts of cinematic culture are not moralist, Iconoclast, Puritan. The measure of imagination's wildness is civic life itself, which is to say, given the evolving characteristics of human life itself, the very possibility of living together in sustainable communities. Contemporary media research just puts its brand on the obvious in recognizing that a "really heightened sense of stress" and the "rush of stress hormones" -- adrenaline, testosterone, cortisol - "can be fun...when you know you're safe." (Gentile) That does not make it healthy or smart or a public good. Rather the opposite.

In the context of current and future debates about gun violence, this is what should push us to consider carefully the long-term trajectory of cinematic culture: for more than a century the appearance of jeopardy has been enhanced while engagement with images has been further removed from the crucible of action. This is the way images are received by us and it is the intent with which they are formed and circulated. The repeated experience of being safe from harm in apparently dangerous situations breeds particular habits, reflexes, cognitive processes, judgment, and so forth. All that is packed into the many layers of time that are hidden by the most sensuous fact of human action: it happens now. It is all there in the gun -- the one that "doesn't kill people."

Imagination run wild presses towards new forms of violence, new connections between guns and their shooters. This is hard to counteract because it is hard to see the much more general transformation of human beings of which it is a part. The oddest feature here is how in migration imagination has lost its primarily active character. For, in the long history of thinking about human action, passivity has usually counted as its antithesis. With cinematic culture, there comes instead a growing need to accept and channel existing social forces. This becomes a condition and constraint for accomplishing almost anything. Not just larger projects, but the simplest tasks of everyday life. To eat when food supply depends on global divisions of labor, you don't hunt, you wait for a pizza to come.

A glib example indeed. But it stands for profound changes in human qualities: with cinematic culture specific sorts of passivity became a necessary and central feature of action. Across the range from simple to complex actions, the significance of the environment, of the circunstancia, has increased. The person who seeks to interact with another person must increasingly rely on patterns and symbols that have been tried and tested and circulate across large populations. In order to produce desired effects each person must presuppose the probability that strangers will act according to social types, and incorporating this fact into action is the only way one may hope for comprehension and response. Both imagination and action are more and more placed at the service of conformism.

In other words, the most basic relationship between imagination and action changed at the same time that they, in tandem, became inseparably joined with external forces. Precisely by virtue of its externalization, common imagination was further and further implicated in widely shared social practices. This imposed with ever greater force a new social logic on each and every human being, not by way of coercion, but through his or her own need to act.

On every day except the one of the shooting, we stand behind the safety of images, our imaginations opened in ways that ancient and modern critics of representation like Plato and Rousseau could never have foreseen. It is this historical and symbolic architecture that has made us not just a nation of gunfighters but a "gunfighter nation," and transformed our tenuous relation to war-fighting into the everyday citizen experience of "civic war."

A discussion of gun violence turned this way may someday make sense of how guns and shooters are connected, and thus finally advance towards its goal: the actual diminution of gun violence. Perhaps sincere members of the NRA will follow on this path. But even if they do not, it will no longer matter. Recognizing that the slaughter is undertaken by guns and people together, we will be headed towards a solution that is based on citizen responsibility for our technologies and for the technological transformation of civic life, and we will have left them behind.