Within a few hours of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, the film critic Roger Ebert made a provocative observation in a New York Times essay:
I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news…
…Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in.
I don’t want to dismiss the extreme nature of Holmes’ obvious mental illness. Like psychiatrists say about Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Holmes might suffer from schizotypal personality disorder. Certainly he suffers from serious disturbances.
I do, though, want to make two additional points: 1) Recognition through violence is a common theme in American culture; 2) In the age of Facebook, Twitter and reality television, everyone seems to have access to a significant audience, but the recognition it brings is, usually, an illusion. When everyone’s a star, no one is a star.
Thinking a little about these things might open some avenues for understanding the epidemic of mass killings and other violent episodes in our recent history.
First, what do I mean by recognition? Isaiah Berlin said it best in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty”:
What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted – in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposed of my own. This is the degradation that I am fighting against – I am not seeking equality of legal rights, nor liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but a condition in which I can feel that I am, because I am taken to be, a responsible agent, whose will is taken into consideration because I am entitled to it, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being what I am or choosing as I do.
All humans want such recognition. But two things combine in our culture to make it problematic: the celebration of individualism and a mass culture which renders the individual invisible.
The viability of violence as a road to recognition may be uniquely exaggerated in America. Cultural historian Richard Slotkin wrote of “regeneration” rather than “recognition,” but the centrality of violence to the pursuit is the same:
…the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.
Consider this: we are so accustomed to the possibilities of recognition through violence that we place many cultural heroes in disguise to erase suspicions of self-promotion and to guarantee their nobility and devotion to others. Virtually every cartoon superhero has a secret identity. Then there’s the Lone Ranger (“Who was that masked man?”). Or Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name.” John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shoots the outlaw from a hiding place and gives mild-mannered Rance Stoddard (James Stewart) the credit.
The second point, that the recognition conjured by YouTube, Facebook, reality television, etc., is usually an illusion, seems self-evident and is certainly not original. It was 1968 Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” The line is ironic. What it really means is that when everyone is famous, no one is famous.
The drive for recognition is too deep in us to take Warhol very seriously, of course. And it’s certainly true that some gain more recognition than others, at least for a little while. (Quick, name five people who have appeared in one reality show or another over the last decade).
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the frustrations caused by our relative invisibility and the drive for recognition lead to all kinds of aberrant behaviors, like the quasi-violent or abusive rhetoric of some blog commenters (masked as they are by a lone ranger anonymity).
Then there are the ever more extreme claims of a Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Obama’s fake, coded birth certificate!) or a Rep. Michelle Bachmann (Muslim terrorists in the State Department!) or Rep. Louis Gohmert (the Aurora shootings are the result of a war on Christianity!). The drive for recognition leads to an arms race of insanity.
Oh, it’s hard to get a little recognition. Still, Arpaio, Bachmann and Gohmert received massive media coverage. I am not saying these three are nascent James Holmes. But it needs to be pointed out that Holmes has received his media coverage, too.
It used to be enough for a journalist to simply to report the news. Few even knew what any given newspaper reporter looked like. Respect came from one’s peers or a small circle within one’s community. Now, however, reporters must be seen by millions. Celebrity and cable news appearances are a critical part of the job.
I don’t know what the answers are. A little restraint from the media would be good, a little less attention to extreme recognition addicts. Maybe some serious self-reflection by all of us. After all, the world might be a circus, but is our desire for recognition so irresistible that we are happy to become clowns – or worse?