We will never defeat the system on the plane of the real… We must therefore displace everything onto the sphere of the symbolic where challenge, reversal, and overbidding are the law.
– Jean Baudrillard
Here and there – in the pie-strewn faces of Bill Gates and a host of other politicos and celebrities, but also, and more demonically, in the massacre-suicide at Columbine there are signs of a renewed heterological activism. Signs: because in the media wherein these ruptural gestures, in being completed, are immediately inscribed, there are nothing but signs. Heterological: because, taken to the limit, a limit to which these examples at least point, the activism in question conjures with what is absolutely unassimilable to the ruling order.
Bataille’s “heterology” – from the Greek word for difference – concerns the different as such. It is the difference that must be expelled from the same in order for the same to be the same. In bodily terms: excretions of all kinds; in the body-politic: sacrifice and the sacred. For Bataille such expenditure is both a law of nature and the locus of our highest needs. But, if so, we must also acknowledge an inconvenience. Reason would homogenise everything, but what is reason to do when it encounters what it excludes? When it comes into contact with paroxysms of laughter, weeping, screaming, orgasm, or exultant destruction? What can it do when, having admitted the inadmissible, in the ecstatic pursuit of “clear consciousness,” these paroxysms surge through reason itself? That is why for Bataille there could not, strictly, be any “science” of such an object. There could only be a “practical heterology.”
This did not mean, though, that reflection had to stop. To the contrary: if “practical heterology,” in asserting itself, were to become the practice of heterology, then, by the same right as any other, this practice, or rather, as transmuted into a politics, this meta-practice, would have its own theoretical moment. It is this precisely which Bataille himself sought to provide in the writings that have survived from his activist phase in the 1930s, and which culminated in 1936-39 in the twin project of Acephale and the College de Sociologie.
In tracing Bataille’s trajectory, from the Surrealists onwards, what some have especially noted is his quest for a certain “experience” of community. With Acephale that quest became explicit. The secret cultic group that operated behind the scenes of the public talks and discussions that comprised the College de Sociologie climaxed a decade-long preoccupation with how – against the Christian idea of communion, from which only the element of sacrifice was retained – the sovereign, and expending, singularity of the individual could yet be combined with primal bonds of association. In its ecstatic signs and forms, and above all by living in the imminence of a voluntary human sacrifice, the group would try to realise in itself – non-fusionally, and non-hierarchically – a fully headless, i.e. acephalic, condition.
This was conceived no doubt as a prototype of what might be achieved, after the Revolution, on a grander scale. In a period of deepening danger and gloom, it can also be read as the first stage in a privatising retreat. But its fuller significance has been hard to interpret, and not only because its participants were sworn to a secrecy they kept. What this significance might be only comes into focus when we realise that community, or the search for a community that excluded one, was not the only thread that connected Acephale and the College back to earlier versions of Bataille’s project. There was also the continuity of a practical intent: an intent that, from the opening salvos against Breton in the late 20s, insistently linked what Bataille was already formulating, in anthropological, psychoanalytic, and Nietzschean terms, as heterology and excess, to a maximalist transformist politics.
In the Use Value of De Sade: an Open Letter to my Current Comrades, Bataille had conceived the emancipatory process as having two phases. After the Revolution, in the shape of “an anti-religious and asocial organisation having as its goal orgiastic participation in different forms of destruction,” “practical heterology” was to be unleashed to create a maximally free “cultural” zone. The needs this would satisfy would themselves have arisen in “the violent excitation that results from the expulsion of heterogeneous elements.” But first, to break the impasse, head off fascism, and create the conditions for sovereignty for all, the Dionysian forces of the aroused proletariat were to be channeled into a grand sacrifice (no metaphor) of the ruling class. In preparation for the feast, the immediate political task was to awaken these forces, direct them against the class enemy, and prevent their containment down some self-defeating Parliamentary road. Hence Bataille’s objections to the merely literary defense of de Sade. Hence the direct action street tactics of Contre-attaque. And hence, also, Acephale. The group and its praxis was not just an experiment in community. Nor, in its forms and its mission, did it just anticipate the practice of heterology in the Revolution’s triumphant phase two. It was also, in the here and now, a strategy, its delirious movement towards sacrifice and apotheosis an intended symbolic move. This move in turn, it was hoped, would trigger others, summoning up the energies deemed necessary to shatter the capitalist state.
Acephale, then, was<//i> a radically mobilising micro-politics. Its peculiarity, as such, was two-fold. First, in the demobilising wake of the failed General Strike, the wave of militancy had receded, so that the task was not just to direct it. It had, in the first place, to be evoked. From this change in emphasis stemmed the project’s “areligious” mysterium. At the climax of the group’s inner practice, the exorbitant forces of a final class sacrifice were to be challenged to appear. This catalysis, secondly, would be undertaken as an action in itself. Like Dadaist art, it would have no immediate use-value. In its recourse to sacrifice, the useful would be destroyed. Not that it would be passive. The point would be the gesture itself. A performed symbol, it would be itself performative in the larger sacrifice it engendered. Here, then, and without precedent, would be a lucidly conceived politics played out wholly in the register of what a means-ends rationality could only call magic.
Minus the blood, there are echoes of such a politics in the Situationist concepts of derive and contestation. In the impish antics of the 60s something similar was spontaneously discovered on a larger scale. But few have examined, or sought to develop, Bataille’s startling “change of terrain” as a thought in itself. One of the few who has (though without this being much recognised by his many fans and detractors) is Jean Baudrillard, most explicitly in his writings of the 70s. Baudrillard reformulates the turn in a variety of ways – from production to seduction, from the critical to the fatal, from the scene to the obscene etc – linking these tropes to a revised understanding of capitalism as marked by the fusion of signs and commodities, orbital circulation, and a de-referentialising “third order” of simulation. In Symbolic Exchange and Death, he characterises the required change in perspective, in its fullest extent, as a “move to the symbolic.” At stake, he makes clear, is an entire paradigm shift, with implications for practice as well as theory.
This is not to say that Baudrillard simply repeats, in an updated context, and in his own idiom, the theses of Bataille. If he has done that, he has also modified the problematic itself. Bataille had contrasted a “restricted economy” of utility and economic exchange with a “general economy” exuberant with bio-solar waste and excess. For Baudrillard, the former (transmogrified into general exchange and the hyper-real) is counter-posed to an order of “symbolic exchange,” rife with ambivalence and escalation. Thus, in a return to Mauss, the focus shifts from expenditure, sacrifice and excess to the ambivalent reciprocities of gift, challenge and counter-gift.
In that context, Baudrillard’s “Symbolic” serves as the irreducible other not just of power and utility, but also of the markets for money and status. As for what it replaces, prised from its home-base in Bataille’s solar-dependent “general economy,” heterological expenditure is relocated in the cancerous overproduction of signs, things and money engendered by capital itself. It is this excess, finally, which “challenges the social,” and thereby holds the promise of a devastating counter-challenge. In substituting the Symbolic for the heterological, it may be said, Baudrillard replaces a force with a dimension, which gives him an excuse for taking flight in metaphysics. It should be noted, at the same time, that Baudrillard does not just withdraw into quietism. It is rather that, after a brief flirtation with apathy (the refusal of meaning) and terrorism (offer back a violent death to those who would give us a slow one), the counter-gift he himself chooses to offer is simply that of his own – mimetically “excessive” – practice of theory.
Be that as it may, in Baudrillard’s reformulation of Bataille’s search for a heterological politics three fundamental propositions are retained. First, he continues to posit a dualistic social ontology in permanent tension with itself. Secondly, he identifies a contradictory trend with regard to this tension, in which on the one hand a totalising regime of capitalist production and consumption has impoverished and suppressed a more primordial order of being, and on the other hand this latter proves inextinguishable. And thirdly, in the possibility that this repressed might stage a bloody-minded, or carnivalesque, return, he likewise sees a potential for disturbance in which dormant fault-lines are reactivated and, perhaps, a cataclysmic reversal can occur.
Such propositions, in all their extravagance, lend themselves to experiment. One can imagine a research program devoted to that end. Of course, the revolutionary eschatology that underpinned Bataille’s own “science of the scared” – and which still haunts Baudrillard – has become virtually unthinkable. If the efforts of the College were to be continued today, moreover, these efforts would have to take account of the changed conditions under which the “heterological” and the “Symbolic” can, or do, still appear. This, in turn, would require attention to the way in which the pan-commodification of culture and communication, combined with the technological transformation of the latter, has altered the very constitution of the social – especially, perhaps, with regard to the primal level at which the dynamics of gift and sacrifice are themselves presumed to operate.
It is, at any rate, against the background of an investigation that might be developed along these lines, that I venture to offer some reflections about the incident at Littleton Colorado that “shocked the nation” (as they say) six months ago.
To suggest, as a starting point for understanding “Columbine” that we should read its meaning in the light of Acephale will no doubt seem scandalous. It implies a perspective in which the sanguinary gesture of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold might be viewed with something less than total panic and condemnation. At the same time, it will be said, the comparison is strained. The motives of the reactive semi-literates who murdered their classmates (and one teacher) at Columbine High, were light years from the highly sophisticated reasonings of the gauchiste intellectuals who gathered at the blasted oak of Bataille’s secret group and who, after all, killed no-one. The comparison traduces the memory, does it not, of both Bataille and of those gunned down?
All this may be granted. Yet the action at Columbine does come into the same frame if we grasp it as an instance of that more general “move to the symbolic” that Baudrillard has extrapolated from Bataille. Indeed, like the sacrifice envisaged for Acephale itself, what Harris and Klebold offered us on Hitler’s birthday was a deadly counter-gift, a performative symbol as fatal strategy, a contestative transgression that staked itself in the game.
To examine Columbine from this angle has one immediate advantage. It enables us – against all diabolising and reifying – to recover a sense of agency with regard to the actors at its centre. It enables us to do so, moreover, not to hold them accountable yet again, nor indeed to get lost in their subjectivity; but to permit what has been defined as a tragedy (irrational, and “externally” caused) to be examined as a meaningful act, an act whose outcome can be assessed in relation to its own horizon of meaning.
Such an assessment, however, is only possible if we disentangle ourselves from the ideological effects that the original action blindly provoked. We get nowhere by reconstructing its meaning from within the therapeutic, preventative, or repressive discourses which covered up the social wound in the aftermath. Which is further to suggest that we must also disentangle the successive but distinct moments of “Columbine” itself.
There was, it must be said, not just one symbolic event at Columbine, but two – each of which, moreover, had its own discursive effects, and its own mimetic reverberations as the events on the ground spread into media virtuality. If the first event was the mass killing that echoed out into threats and shootings in schools as far away as Alberta, the second event (in fact, a whole string of them) was a reparative ritual in which “the shooters” were excreted, the evil they represented was given names (like “the culture of violence”) and made the object of a moral crusade; and in an outpouring of prayers, condolences, policy initiatives and donations, the “community” – of the school, the locale, and “the nation” – was healed and restored.
In effect, I am proposing that instead of continually interpreting the first event from within the stock codings induced or imposed by the second, we should re-examine the relation between them by considering the meaning of the second event in terms of the first. In so far as the second event – likewise a kind of sacrifice – reversed and erased the thrust of what had provoked it, this would be to reposition the original act – in its own terms above all – as a practical failure.
Let us turn then to the action itself: what are we to make of its motive? what subjectivity did it incarnate? in any case: what kind of action was it, or was it aiming to be? As information has dribbled out of the police investigation, some facts have emerged which undercut several mis-impressions that were instantly, and tenaciously, formed. Some are trivial – it was likely not Cassie Bernal but Valeen Schnurr who was asked if she believed in God. Others are more important. They disconfirm reductions.
In the first place: the shootings cannot be understood as just a crazy individual act. It is true that Eric Harris had been on medication after an anger management program for vandalism, and that he had stopped taking his Luvux five days before the event. It is also true that Harris, up against the relentless he-man expectations of his decorated, missile-testing father, had just been notified of rejection by the Marines. The grounds – instability as evidenced by his medication – closed the loop and precipitated a crisis. All this fits the profile of a mass killer, tipped over into an explosion. But, as Harris’s diary clearly shows, the April 20th action had been planned long in advance. Besides, Klebold had no such pattern and came from an ostensibly happy and integrated family. Nor was he just an easily led sidekick. He was the lead techie. He was also an ideological influence. Half-Jewish, he was an obsessive anti-semite; it was likely Klebold who sparked the idea that the massacre should occur on Hitler’s birthday. In any case, they participated equally in the shootings themselves. This was emphatically a team effort.
It would be a mistake, on the other hand, to construe the shootings as simply a form of victim’s revenge. This, again, is not to deny that Harris and Klebold had real tormentors and persecutors. They were fag-bated and pushed around in the halls and food lines for being physically weak and socially marginal. They were punished for hanging out with the other pariahs – not that they fitted in even there. But if personal revenge was a factor, the action itself both under and overshot any such motive. There was no planned hit list (the worst bully had left the school three months before). Nor, when they went on the rampage, is there any evidence that they particularly singled out “jocks.” Those they actually shot were random targets of opportunity. It was the gleeful capriciousness which survivors recalled.
Nor for the same reason – again, a plausible construction – can their action be made intelligible simply as a right wing rendition of white male rage. If it was the latter it was not necessarily the former. They did not focus on women, gays, or feminists. Nor, more especially, did they target visible minorities, or Jews. There remains, to be sure, the fact of the chosen date. This indicates, if nothing else, the fascination (in the absence of an active left) that far right slogans and symbols have come to exercise for more than one anarchic current of youth discontent. A birthday present for Hitler certainly suggests a connection with Buford O Furrow, Oklahoma City, black church burnings, and assassinations by “The Order.” But as the cop who looked at Harris’s garrulous notebooks commented: “they weren’t into all that white supremacy stuff.” There was no ZOG, no racial project. It was equal opportunity hatred. This is evident in Harris’s “what I love; what I hate” essay posted on his Web page a year before. They hated everything and everyone they encountered. If they hated Christians they also hated non-Christians. If they hated pacifists they also hated “jerks on the road” and the boastfulness of their military-obsessed peers. They exulted in that hatred as itself a mode of identity. To wave the figure of Hitler in the face of the world was just another way to hate it. After all, according to Harris’ web site, he hated racists too.
The full meaning of their action only becomes clear, however, when we reconstruct what happened on the day.
The initial mystery for the police was why (given all the armament and opportunity) so few were actually shot. The swiftly discovered answer was that the shootings were peripheral to the main purpose. Harris and Klebold entered the school only after two massive propane bombs, timed to detonate in the cafeteria at break time, had failed to go off. After killing a few people, and terrorising many more, they went back to the cafeteria and again tried to set off the bombs. When that failed, after more shootings, they called it quits and shot themselves. The whole plan, in short, went badly awry. The idea was to kill everyone at the school. The intended significance of their act was in what it failed to accomplish.
But what was the meaning of that? The intent, to repeat, was to kill everyone. Or, to put it differently: it was to immolate the community of Columbine High – themselves included – as a whole. Here, though, we must be clear. Nothing indicates that the action was aimed against the school in its official capacity. It did not foreground the principal, the teachers, the classrooms. The centre of devastation was to be the cafeteria. Ground-zero, that is, was the informal and commensal gathering place of the peer-group, the public zone of those whose corporatised and subcultural rituals made up (via a clique-transcending “school spirit”) the designated community of the school. This was not, then, Blackboard Jungle, nor was it a rerun of If. Students were in no wise being represented as the institutionally or culturally oppressed. To the contrary: the youth-based “we” of the school was itself at the forefront of what was being negated. In nihilating its members, the “school body” as such would be torn to shreds.
Three comments can be made:
The first is to note the absoluteness of the antagonism, an antagonism that extended from the peer group of the school to the first-person plural as such. If the intended action at Columbine shares, with that of Acephale, a destructive animus towards a communion mode of being-together, it does so not with the thought that a different (and better) mode of community might thereby result, but with the thought that being together at all deserves to die. By blowing everyone up, the possibility of sublation is negated along with what its own negation would negate. It would be banal to call this self-defeating. The aporias of the action illuminate a real impasse. The attempted destruction of a pseudo-community (itself the imposition of a communing unity on a jungle of anomic and power-and-money-mediated competitiveness), coincided with the impossibility, from the midst of that experience, of even imagining any other kind.
What manifests itself in the space of that blockage, secondly, is a particular kind of nihilism. It is a nihilism, evidently, that is mired in reactiveness and can only abstractly negate. The lack of anything to affirm is rendered positive only by becoming an active will to annihilate. At the same time, the lack of an affirmed self with which to affirm is met by identifying (to the point of personification) with the negating impulse itself. It is the hateful negation of a hateful world; destructive rage self-affirmed. Such a spirit – manifest in real and fictional moral monsters, as well as in the audio-visual surround of attack games and industrial music to which Harris and Klebold were supposedly addicted – may be taken as a signature of the times. But if we are to interpret it symptomatically, let alone meet its challenge, the emptiness to which it is counterposed should also be placed in the picture. That the Columbine action was posthumously defeated lies not only in the way in which the outrage provoked (as was inevitable) a counter-revenge of the sacred it violated, but in the way in which one will to nothingness failed in its effort to trump another.
The third point follows immediately from this. For all its self-negating reactiveness, what the Columbine action embodies has to be taken seriously, not only as a cultural sign but as a singularity bearing the trace of an actual experience of the world. This is especially hard to take in. How could the ordinary and immediate world of human beings present itself to materially pampered youth in an affluent suburb of the richest and most powerful region on earth as hideous beyond redemption? That such a view could be other than projective, that it might not be reducible to the unconscious effects of a family drama, and that even here there might be an authentic basis for “hating everything,” is intolerable. That is why, we might say, Harris and Klebold did what they did. How could that experience, and what it implied, be really communicated, except in a way that made it as indigestible as it was impossible to ignore?
It may be doubted, of course, whether their gesture would have symbolically failed any less even had it succeeded in its technical aim. To have avoided the reaction which swallowed up the meaning of their action, Harris and Klebold would no doubt have had to sacrifice only themselves. But then it would have been a different action. And the negative will expressed in it would have had to be both much more, and much less, than it was.
In the event, and precisely because there were other victims, their self-sacrifice could be readily displaced. On the one hand it could be absorbed as justice – a retribution, to be sure, that did not go far enough, and which required more scapegoats to be found. At the same time, the sacrifice of all those innocent others – including, as the focus for a wider identification, the traumatised students and families left behind – could itself take centre stage. There indeed, in the rituals of grief and condolence it could provide an occasion to heal the wounds and turn the page.
The degree of emotional identification and support this elicited was extraordinary, as was the extent of all manner of giving. It was as if not just the traumatised but the gods themselves had to be propitiated for the evil that had been done. Indeed: for did not the disaster of Columbine mean that the gods had been angry, and that the community itself was in debt?
The offerings ran in two directions:
The first, made urgent by panic, mobilised energies (since Harris and Klybold were no longer judicially available) against whatever could be blamed for what they had done. Along this line ran campaigns for responsible parenting, reduced media violence, and gun control, plus a myriad initiatives to promote safer schools. These ranged from stricter security, see-through lockers, and massacre preparedness drills, to attempted interventions – through diversity programs, anti-violence mentors and the like – into the climate of violence generated within the institution itself. The second, as it were “positive” direction for giving, swelled from a plethora of flowers, tributes, sympathy messages, and support for “the cause” into a full chorus of self-restoring love-for-others taken to be at the heart of community itself. Columbine, in this context, became the figure for a collectivity that extended far beyond. The Mayor of Littleton, noting that the school was not in the city boundaries, declared that this did not matter in terms of help since “we are all Columbine.” At the centre of this effort, nonetheless, was the restoration of the school community itself. Its culmination was the highly publicised ceremony of August 16, 1999. On that day, after the grief counsellors had done their job, and the buildings had been renovated in a cleansing that left no trace, the students and teachers held an inspirational rally under their principal, paraded back to their buildings, cut the ribbons at the entrance, went through a further school-enclosing human chain, and, after a solemn first assembly, re-commenced being Columbine High.
What Harris and Klebold hated, one has to say, was rendered no less hateful for all this expenditure of good will, which had the further effect of completely mystifying the nature of the reparative operation, as well, by consequence, as the motives of anyone who might find the totality, even as repaired, infinitely awful. To the contrary, what all the scapegoating, risk-reducing, community-healing measures did was to reinforce the outer order of the school (and other schools) while artificially pumping up the non-community it enclosed in a false collectivity. All could proceed, moreover, without those involved even having to suspect that there might be something empty or inauthentic or servile in the collectivity being ritually restored; still less, that it might be against this ground that the figure that had disfigured it might reveal its true face.
In one small but important respect, however, the praxis of restoration was not without its own moment of learning. That moment touches, indeed, on a dimension of the Columbine events – their mediation by media – which opens out onto a much larger issue. This concerns the relation (both as such, and under contemporary circumstances) of the Symbolic to the live.
A week before the Columbine re-opening, the ordre du jour had been announced at a press conference. In recounting its steps, the Communications Director was asked why a human chain? It was he explained, only half-jokingly, “to keep you folks out.” The day had been devised, he went on, as a “take back our school.” And the school was to be taken back, not just from the killers and their stain, but from the “media” as well. The school’s image itself was to be reclaimed. When reporters discovered that this would go to the extent of physically barring them from the in-school assembly that climaxed the day, a storm erupted. It was settled by a compromise: just two fixed cameras in the hall, plus a restricted space in the school grounds from which to conduct interviews, if they must.
On the side of those who devised the ceremony, two media-related insights were displayed. The first was that, through the way in which “the tragedy of Columbine” had become a celebrity event, to be commercially exploited as an audience attractor for ad-based media, a kind of theft had taken place. In its appropriation and circulation as a media icon, the school had been, in every sense, alienated from its “name.” A liberation of that name – and of the power to shape it
– was accordingly in order. A second insight lay in the insistence that the holiest ceremony of the day be, if possible, off camera, and at any rate preserved from the disrupting indignity of the media circus at work. To be fully authentic and effective, this was to say, the symbolic could only transpire in the moral proximity of the face-to-face, and in the full enjoyment there of its autonomous self-possession. If the messy compromise arrived at showed how difficult such self-possession could be, the initial insistence provides evidence that the symbolic retains, even on the side of adaptive order, a contestative energy of its own.
In a curious way the same thought – that the live is the essential zone of the Symbolic, and that the media’s simulative and promotional panopticon must be excluded for the Symbolic to even appear – was enacted by Harris and Klebold themselves. To be sure, they were massively mediatised. Strikingly unlike the Columbine survivors, they freely abandoned all claim to shape their self-representation (the price, after all, of celebrityhood). But this was only after they were dead. The event itself was sprung as a surprise. Its only witnesses were those directly involved. Its horror was that of a movie which had suddenly become real. Here, though, was a further paradox. Harris and Klebold seemed themselves to be imitating the media. The plot was a replay of Heathers, the dress-up recalled The Matrix, the shootings repeated the mannerisms of Quake and Doom. A year before, in a media arts exercise, they had even made a video of themselves playing out the scene of what they eventually did. It was a hall of mirrors, and their action only repeated what it reflected back. There was, though, a crucial difference. This repetition translated the celluloid and the digital back into the embodied real. This simulacrum became flesh. In effect: the military spirit in the technology had conjoined with the I hate everything nihilism of industrial music and youth rage to create a Golem. In that very translation, and not only because of the physical violence it immediately unleashed, a bolt of energy was released.
In the passage from the simulacrum to the live one may find a more general formula for the irruption of the symbolic in our day. The pies that now hit faces did so first in the slapstick of Vaudeville and in the films of Keaton and Chaplin. The Diana complex – the realisation of death by media – might be elucidated in similar terms. Rather than pursue this thought further, however, I will conclude with a speculative question.
In the double symbolic event of Columbine, a sacrifice elicited a sacrifice: which is to say, that two variants of the sacred confronted one another. This commonality was obscured, however, by the way in which, on both sides, the drama was lived out, and overcoded, as an irreducible contest between good and evil. In part this reflected a real contradiction, in part a displacement into competing nihilisms, in part a Manichean dualism that is a core element of American Protestantism and suffuses the culture as a whole. What symbolic gesture could have been devised then, we might ask, which would have transcended this dichotomy?
At Columbine, it may be said, the conditions for such an impossible conjuncture did not remotely exist. But then, under what conditions would they? At such a point, one might surmise, not the simulacrum but the Word might become flesh, though with the angels joining the devils, and the devils joining the angels, it would surely transpire as something closer to Acephale, and closer still, perhaps, to what last stirred, for some, in the thickets of ’68.
Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939 (ed. & trans. Allan Stoekl). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Echange and Death. London; Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1993.