[Editor’s note: The following is a 2016 commentary from Notes From Disgracedland’s Bjarne Knausgaard who regular readers will recall pens some of the best political/economic color around. We are featuring it here this weekend in light of the events that unfolded in Pittsburgh on Saturday]
The Tropic Of Chaos
Three years ago (in 2013), I came across an interesting book, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts. The original (The Summer of the Century) and its English version title (The Year before the Storm) give a complementary summary of its importance for the rest of the century. There has never been a year like 1913, a true big-bang for arts and culture. Vienna was the cultural capital of the world and Berlin was just emerging on the scene. Everybody was there, Freud, SchÃ¶nberg, Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, Egon Schiele, and Alma Mahler, while young guns, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Tito made a brief appearance on the scene. Elsewhere in Europe, things were happening as well, although somewhat less concentrated. The first and second Balkan wars were over, the Ottoman Empire had been driven out of nearly all of Europe, King George I of Greece was assassinated. On the New Continent things were developing fast. The Mexican revolution started in February, and the US made its voice heard in the art world with the Armory show, while, at the same time, undergoing significant institutional and political transformation with an Amendment to the US Constitution authorizing the government to impose and collect income taxes and the creation of the Federal reserve System. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin had their first public appearances. The first assembly line as well as the Camel cigarette brand were introduced , stainless steel invented, MDMA (aka ecstasy) synthesized for the first time, and the all-purpose zipper patented. The world was buzzing. Creative forces were building up together with (positive) political tensions. Things could hardly look better. The world appeared to be in balance, only to fall apart a year later. The rest was silence.
While reading the book, a short paragraph caught my attention commenting on the only two mass killings that took place in that year. This is the factual summary of the two events:
- The Bremen school shooting occurred on June 20, 1913 at St. Mary’s Catholic School. The gunman, 29-year-old unemployed teacher Heinz Schmidt, indiscriminately shot at students and teachers, causing the death of five girls and wounding more than 20 other people, before being subdued by school staff. He was never tried for the crime and sent directly to an asylum where he died in 1932.
- On September 4, 1913 Ernst August Wagner, killed his wife and four children in Degerloch and subsequently drove to MÃ¼hlhausen an der Enz where he set several fires and shot 20 people, of whom at least 9 died, before he was beaten unconscious by furious villagers and left for dead. After several psychiatric assessments diagnosed him to suffer from paranoia, and thus becoming the first person in WÃ¼ttemberg to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, he was brought to an asylum in Winnenthal, where he died there of tuberculosis in 1938.
Mass murder has become so commonplace that having only two such occurrences within a year strike us as odd. For comparison, in 2013 there were close to 80 mass murders (they had to be alphabetized by the place of occurrence – on the average about three for each letter of the alphabet).
Intrigued by this comparison, I collected the data on mass killings in the last 100+ years looking for some clues about the trend. The data reveal a rather disturbing pattern. Since WWII, the number of mass killings (defined as an idiosyncratic, not state-sanctioned, killing spree with multiple victims) has been growing exponentially at a rate of 5% every year. This means that every 20 years or so, the number of mass killings triples (1.0520 = 3). For example, between the 1970s and 1990s, the average number went from 10 to 30, and between the 1990s and 2010s it went from 30 to 90. In 2013, when I looked at the numbers for the last time, we had around 80-90 mass killings, or one for every third business day. Allowing this trend to continue would take another 20 years for this number to triple, which meant that by the mid 2030s there would be one mass killing every business day.
The arrival of 2015 has announced something new! We have achieved this rate in less than two years: from 90 in 2013 to over 350 in the last year. The number of mass killings in 2015 exceeded the number of calendar days — every day somewhere someone’s fuse went off! This was not supposed to happen before the 2030s. This is how crazy the world has become. The future came too soon — we have already reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could have been ignored, are taking over. The destabilizing forces are becoming stronger than those responsible for restoring the equilibrium.
But, nothing surprises me any more after subjecting myself to the ordeal of watching the republican debate in the last weeks, something I had never attempted before (and am unlikely to repeat again). The obscene spectacle of this year’s presidential elections is a real game-changer, a true political big bang that will set the template for future public discourse everywhere. Its consequences will be studied for years to come. The political landscape will never be the same. Are these men really the best this country (of 350 million people) has to offer?
For several decades now, modernity has been operating between two fatal modes: Carnival and Cannibal — it has been transfixed by the spectacle of its own creation and self-annihilation . The current republican campaign is a culmination of of this trend which has finally reached alarming proportions where the system can no longer bear it and which, by the force of its own absurdity, has made an illegible long-running process instantaneously legible by the sheer power of the event.
Current political discourse no longer has a solid empirical backbone. Nothing is binding. Politics exists mostly in the kingdom of words. It creates parallel narratives and fragmented reality. As a consequence, society has become disoriented and confused due to the gradual loss of all frames of reference and distorted cognitive coordinates. It suffers from loss of shared reality and a chronic inability to form consensus, which becomes its main cultural dimension. The political body is afflicted with split personality – collective mental disorder in need of shock therapy. This collective “mental instability” becomes its intrinsic cultural determinant and enters the center stage of public life.
Watching this bizarre orgy, this unabashed display of vulgarity I am beginning to converge towards the realization that the biggest collateral damage of this century has been empathy – not really a natural emotion but a cultural concept and a psychological condition that is cultivated and refined and which, in the absence of cultivation or under ideological pressure, can disappear or be completely extinguished . Most certainly, there can be no room for it in the winner-takes-all environments.
Early attempts at creating conditions for social atomization started in the 80s with sustained camping to turn material poverty and absence of luck in general into something shameful and repellent. The anti-war movement, pacifism and public empathy together with conditions nurturing these currents had to be eliminated and replaced in all areas with culture of aggression and violence. Through the appropriation of public spaces and resources into the logic of the marketplace, individuals were dispossessed of many collective forms of mutual support of sharing. A simple and pervasive cooperative practice like hitchhiking, for example, had to be transformed into a filled act with fearful, even lethal consequences .
The result of this state of affairs, and its purpose, if one wants to attribute it to a particular ideological design, is to prevent us from hearing each other, sharing our pain and expressing our underlying discontent through a single voice that can be heard. The net effect is anger, frustration and withdrawal of libidinal energy. Depression becomes the only adequate emotional response to this state of affairs, a privileged position of anyone capable of reflective thinking.
Since the beginning of the crisis I struggled to understand why in the times of epochal crisis, when change appeared inevitable, trillions of dollars have been spent on preventing change. The escalation of violence, which gained new momentum in the last years, is not due to reaction of the oppressed (e.g. revolution), but is the flip side of the resistance to change. When change is as necessary as it is politically impossible, rage capital becomes the new political currency and the systemic rise of violence becomes the price to pay for forcing the acceptance of the unacceptable. Mass killing becomes a suicide in displaced mode, a somatic response, a reaction of the physical body, to increasing precarity, hopelessness and fragmentation of the social body. A depressed and desensitized subject, no longer burdened by empathy, transforms personal lack of courage required to pull the trigger of the gun pointing at his own head into a high stakes video-game type spectacle with the practical certainty of being killed in the end.
It is not easy to kill another human being. It is a deeply traumatizing experience, for a killer, of course, especially if it is his first kill. 100 years ago, mass murders were result of an idiosyncratic mental disorder – killers always ended in an insane asylum. In contrast, 21st century mass killings have acquired strong systemic overtones with high degree of commonality across different occurrences and individuals, and have become an integral part of the spectacle. Contemporary mass murderers, when seen in hindsight, show a strikingly similar pattern. Depending on the vantage point, they can be seen both as heroes and as antiheroes. They are all ticking time bombs whose trigger could have been anticipated and possibly prevented were it not for the lack of resources. Unlike their early 20th century peers, contemporary mass murderers are largely rational individuals or people on a planned mission (murder or suicide), perfectly aware of what they are doing at the time of killing. For the most part, their behavior can be argued, reasoned or explained by underlying social factors.
102 years later, we are undoing the cultural big bang of 1913 with a cultural collapse and symbolic annihilation — a continuation of the general debasement that has dominated the political landscape of the last four decades. This is a full blown explosion of Carnival & Cannibal, a cultural mass murder and eventual cultural suicide. It is depression externalized through aggressiveness, a typical male reaction (we are yet to see the emergence of female mass killers on the scene). Collateral damage? A split on the political right, fascisization of the political body and the barbarization of the social landscape.
If some 20 years ago I saw a sci-fi movie with these images of the future, I would have walked out of the theatre. Today, I want to do exactly that, to walk out of the spectacle, only I wouldn’t know how to find my way home.
 Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal, Seagull Books 2010
 Franco Berrardi, Heroes, London, Verso 2015
 Jonathan Crary, 24/7 – Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London, Verso 2014