- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
The United States was built on guns — and on the power to control them. During the colonial period, settlers banned indigenous and enslaved people from owning weaponry while distributing guns to marginalized groups who allied and traded with them. More recently, pro-police politicians from both parties have cracked down on gun possession among felons and in ghettoized neighborhoods while keeping it simple for angry young men, such as the Uvalde shooter, to purchase AR-15s.
Patrick Blanchfield is the author of Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence, forthcoming from Verso Books. In his book and in articles for n+1, the New Republic, the Nation, and other publications, Blanchfield uses the insights of psychoanalysis and deep history to understand the United States’ addiction to violence. For Blanchfield, it is “chronically fucked” to frame the issue of mass shootings solely in terms of consumer-side gun control, which too often becomes a vehicle for right-wing reaction and the expansion of policing. Instead, we need to take on our country’s militaristic arms industry and our culture’s insatiable death drive.
Earlier this month, Daniel Denvir interviewed Blanchfield for The Dig, a Jacobin Radio podcast. In their discussion, Blanchfield and Denvir attempt to find a new way to think about guns in a country whose history is deeply saturated with resentment, dispossession, and violence.
Recent mass shootings have punctuated a generalized panic over crime that has been fomented and weaponized by Republicans with, of course, the eager acquiescence of centrist Democrats who never miss an opportunity to declare how much they support funding, not defunding, the police. It’s true there has been a major uptick in Americans killing other Americans since the pandemic, but it’s deluded to think that this has anything to do with the police being defunded, because, unfortunately, that did not happen. What’s more, only murders and other sorts of violent attacks are on the rise. What accounts for this surge in violence, and what accounts for it then being mystified in political discourse as the consequence of a nonexistent reduction in funding for state violence workers?
There are a bunch of ways to unpack this fundamental question of our moment. Some of them are more glib than others, but that glibness is not necessarily reductive. There’s a tragicomic way in which the Democrats are caught in this folly — this perverse dialectic with Republicans — where they’re like, “Don’t worry, we’re going to be tough on crime too,” as if the people who they’re trying to convince are somehow not going to attribute that toughness to the Republicans. It sounds like one of those old jokes about the masochist in having found the perfect partner in the sadist, and together they just make each other worse. Meanwhile, the rest of the world goes to shit.
But I do think we can take a step back from the empirics of crime, or even the exceptional fact of high-profile mass shootings, as opposed to other types of quotidian violence. And we can look at sort of a what you might call the libidinal economy of the United States in the contemporary moment: these interesting configurations of fear and anxiety and blame-making, and these constant shifts of position and projection, which ultimately boil down to the production of a status quo that changes only insofar as it gets more brutal and crueler.
It seems like the mass and nonmass shootings are all part of a larger American infrastructure and culture of armed violence that is not curtailed by police. Rather, it extends from the police, military, and border patrol through the gun shows selling AR15s to the weapons companies with stocks that rise after every mass shooting and to Republican campaign ads that feature candidates ready to open fire against a coming woke apocalypse of open borders and child groomers. What is the relationship between the long history of official state violence and today’s increasingly terroristic forms of civilian violence?
As a thought exercise that underwrites my work in my book and my perspective, I think it’s helpful to think about the deep history of settler colonization in North America and the multiple iterations of settlement and legitimacy and the development of various institutions. We should think about this in a way that doesn’t involve any type of commitment to the terms of the state or the binary of the private sector versus the public sector. I know that sounds very abstract, but I think that if you de-link the conversational circuits that gun talk generally follows — if you step away from debating the right to bear arms or court determinations about self-defense — and instead look at the material political economy of guns in North America from before the United States was the United States up through its present state, certain things become clearer. You see certain patterns of political economy in the distribution of arms, the manufacture of arms, and the use of arms to form alliances between competing groups; you also see the way in which the distribution of arms is intimately tied to negotiations of race and jockeying for hierarchical positions within various long-standing and new antagonisms.
By trying to explain institutions like the Republic of Texas alongside the Confederate States of America alongside the federal entity of the United States alongside various other entities like breakaway Mormon settlers, you can sense the commonalities in the way this continent was flooded with guns. It proceeded to manufacture ever more guns and distribute the prerogative to use guns, in a kind of paradoxical inclusion-exclusion logic of universal access, combined with a universal fact that life is cheap.
The circumstances that we have now — we’re the leading producer and exporter of small arms on the planet; we are an imperial hegemon but also a settler colonial state — differ in degree, rather than kind, from that originary brew, in which questions of legitimacy, authority, or even sovereignty are always explanations that are put on conflicts after victory has been declared and the bodies have been cleared. This is encapsulated by the paradoxical rhetoric of “Stand Your Ground.” As Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz and others have noted, what does it mean to invoke the principle of standing your ground in a country where the territory itself is stolen? If you’re willing to think about contemporary US politics against the backdrop of a more broadly uncanny and estranged history, in which the given terms of periodization and of political institutions are secondary to these deeper structures, you can gain a lot of clarity.
This is the basic history of westward expansion, which made the United States the continent-striding empire that we now take for granted. But is all of this gun ownership and violence specifically an American phenomenon? We’re talking about this fulcrum of American settler colonialism, where violence is or at least appears omnidirectional, where the outer reaches of a frontier state are extended by self-deputized individuals, mostly men, who are tasked with defending themselves and their property in the absence of a strong state. But do we see this sort of violence in other Anglo settler colonies such as New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, or in former British settler colonies in Africa, like Rhodesia? There are without a doubt more guns in this country than any other, and a certain violence follows from that. But does America really stand alone?
I am truly grateful to you for asking that question and encouraging me to think about things in comparative terms, because the easy discourse of US exceptionalism does obscure some striking commonalities. This is one of these things that I find myself disambiguating very frequently with European journalists and scholars, who oftentimes want a monocausal explanation for why the United States is the way it is. Is it about arms manufacturers in the twentieth century? Is it about the frontier, by which they usually mean the Old West? Is it about the Civil War and slavery? In fact, it’s about all these things layered on top of one another. Once you can view the present situation as a complex output of cumulative developments — stacked over time, competing with one another, or producing certain types of synchronicity — you get a lot more clarity. A crucial part of that involves looking at cases outside the United States.
Throughout the history of European colonizers — whether they be trade ventures operating in a corporate model, whether they be Dutch or British or French or Spanish — there is the through-line idea of individuals being able to bear arms as a part of their participation in enterprises that we could call corporate. There are historical differences between the way, say, the French approached the parts of North America that later become French Canada and the way the Spanish and the Portuguese would divvy up colonial spaces as part of a logic of royalty — but we don’t need to get too far into that. It’s striking that, for example, the first British precedent for a right to bear arms in North America is not in the Constitution or even in British law but in the corporate guidelines of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Puritan settlers had a right and even an obligation, stipulated under corporate contract, to be armed, to protect themselves and the broader enterprise of trade, developing territory, and so on. The right to bear arms in this sense was understood as a feature of a corporate enterprise. So let’s just put that out there, right from the beginning, as something that’s decidedly underacknowledged. And in some ways, the text of this corporate guideline is eerily reminiscent of what was later inscribed in the Second Amendment.
If we bracket our commitment to understanding issues of sovereignty — what Max Weber would call the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence — we can think about options for ratifying violence by nonstate or parastate actors, or delegates of the state. In the transatlantic context of the sixteenth century onward, you arrive at all of these interesting formations like letters of marque for pirates. Freebooters were given a specific contract that allowed them — in a sort of extension of the king’s sovereign right to kill and let die — to fly the flag, use cannons and guns, board other ships, steal, plunder, and loot. They could do so as an extension of a prerogative that would otherwise extend only over the coastal waters of the European metropole in question. There are some interesting conceptual articulations of this extension that emerged in this period. For example, there’s a lot of talk about the idea of “hydrarchy,” as in the hydra, the many-headed beast; there are discussions about how these pirates formed a hydrarchy, and they had this distributed sort of sovereignty.
It’s also interesting to think about the seventeenth-century arms trade in a thoroughly transatlantic context. Doing so has a bunch of ramifications. The first is that, in the context of what various historians will call revolution in the development of the fiscal-military state in Europe, there was a bootstrapping process by which state centralization is fueled by industrial, early industrial, or proto-industrial centralization of the ability to manufacture arms and trade them. As the militaries of nations centralize, so do their arms industries. Another point to bear in mind here is that even while colonizers in North America had all sorts of rules preventing indigenous people and slaves from having access to weapons and the technology for making bullets, there was widespread dissemination of weapons as tools for cultivating trade, partnership, and alliances with local groups, for everything from raiding other groups for slaves to ensuring trade of furs or other natural resources.
From the sixteenth to the seventeenth century and onward, the British flooded North America with guns for indigenous people to use, and the French did this as well, with weapons that would travel to the far west via indigenous trade networks. The cross-Atlantic perspective is absolutely vital for understanding this history, because these powers did much the same on the other side of the Atlantic, in Western Africa. There was this idea of giving weapons to local partners both as trade goods of value in their own right and as tools to facilitate slave raids further into the African colony: this sort of divide-and-conquer model was used both on the African side of the Atlantic and on the Eastern Seaboard. There is new and interesting research about European trade of firearms into the Indian Ocean states as well. All of this is to say that state formation, both on the European continent and in the settler colonial periphery, was intimately linked up with a wide circulation of arms and legitimacy beyond the traditional European boundaries of sovereignty.
Outside the United States, does gun ownership correlate with gun violence in the way that it does here? What about New Zealand, Canada, and Australia? What accounts for this seeming American exceptionalism?
“The structure of American violence” is the subtitle of my book. The substance of it is an attempt, as a thought exercise, to narrativize this history but also to describe a theoretical model for the state in question: a society or civilization where guns and the right to distribute them are widely available, but differentially, in order to perpetuate hierarchies and processes of racialization. I call this model “gunpower.” And the question is: how exceptional is this model in a global perspective?
It’s very helpful to think about other Anglo settler states, but also about more contemporary examples in South America and Southern Africa. To get more specific, one thing that I would argue makes the American example singular, is that unlike other members of the British Commonwealth, the Americans seceded from the British Empire and got away with it successfully. In no small part, this was because they had their own weapons as well as vast influxes of weapons from the French. We can talk more about how they then immediately and rapidly built up their own armory system. But the US secessionists, the US revolutionaries, broke from Great Britain using a whole apparatus of formal army and irregular warfare.
Put simply, the British Empire learned from that experience and implemented its lessons elsewhere in the Anglosphere. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that after formalizing British surrender at Yorktown, General Charles Cornwallis wound up in India, where his task was to prevent the settler-elite class of Anglo-Indians from developing a power base that could potentially threaten British hegemony there. Likewise, it’s worth noting that in the case of New Zealand there was a extensive effort to arm certain Maori proxies; later, in Australia, there is a an interesting parallel problem involving the large population of exogenous others, i.e., British convicts. Those are situations where, to put it grimly, the work of ethnic cleansing was carried out over a smaller population than in North America and in a much shorter period of time.
There are some differences between Australia and New Zealand that are worth talking about. For one, while the Maori are absolutely racialized as others, they had distinctive agricultural practices and forts, and they waged a series of wars from the 1840s onward against settlers. A kind of grudging relationship vis-à-vis the Maori produces a social formation that is of course highly inegalitarian, and involves tons of confinement, but ends up in a position of settlement and some degree of stability by the twentieth century. In Australia, however, you have a model, much as in India, of colonial policing, and a systematic but subsequently disavowed effort to eradicate Aboriginal peoples: Aboriginal peoples were racialized as barbarous and savage precisely because they didn’t have farms and they were highly mobile. And over the course of the nineteenth century, what that leads to is parties of settlers, in a way that does resemble the American model, forming ad hoc posses alongside colonial police — namely Aborigines who were drawn from other parts of the continent — waiting until nighttime to find campfires of Aborigines and then just killing them. That’s a history that at least white Australian historians are only now fully turning to.
In the Australian archives, there’s an interesting vocabulary of “dispersal.” You find texts like “the Royal Police and the colonial police and sundry citizens came across a group of Aborigines and then dispersed them.” What “dispersed” means is “shot them all.” But there’s a twofold similarity and difference there with the American model. The similarity is that, yes, there is widespread ethnic cleansing, albeit understood as part of a colonial project and a logic of policing; that project is not the same as the US one, in that it doesn’t have the federalist US model or the state US model. But the other thing that happened is that when, in the mid-nineteenth century, Australian gold was discovered in New South Wales and elsewhere and a bunch of Americans showed up with a ton of guns, the response of Australian authorities was to flood mining camps with police officers. The idea of Americans toting guns the way that they had been doing on the North American continent carried unacceptable risks, whether they were international crime or a repetition of what happened in the eighteenth century with the Revolutionary War.
So the state reverted to a stricter monopoly on violence after the acute period of settler colonial genocide in Australia.
Yes, it did. So there was this combination of a relatively sparse population of Aboriginal peoples, separated by many different languages over a large period of time, but also a campaign of ecocide and an act of enclosure. There was also a logic that in some ways resembles what happened in parts of the United States, in which colonizers who are lower on the social ladder, such as convicts, enter respectable society through killing Aboriginal peoples. They do a very efficient job of killing Aborigines, more so than in North America.
Now, this brings us to the other examples of Southern Africa and Brazil, which are very important to my inquiry and which represent key examples of gunpower. First, let’s talk about Southern Africa. It’s striking that the experience of Southern African colonization resembles the colonization of North America: it was led first by Dutch and then by French Calvinists, transitioning into a brief British holding because of complexities involving the war with Napoleon. Basically, you have a hardy group of settlers who are gripped by an austere Calvinist vision and want to pursue herding and farming and produce large families and who also are at continual war with and practice slavery of Khoekhoe and other indigenous African groups. As the nineteenth century proceeds, British control grows; the Southern African coast becomes a more important spot for refueling and trade, especially once mineral resources are discovered. The Boer farmers resist these developments, seceding from settled coastal areas, moving inward in these great treks, and perpetuating slavery under the name of the orphan trade.
Two things are striking about the polities that the Boers form. First, those polities are strongly republican in a classic Jeffersonian way. In fact, many Boer leaders will invoke Thomas Jefferson and his idea of freeholding farmers making the land productive. The second thing to note is that what these polities run on are not formal armies but a militia-based structure, what the Boer call “kommando.” These are essentially a cadre of men who are obligated to form armed groups — providing their own ammunition, rifles, and horses — that work through a decentralized structure to defend homesteads and to do ethnic cleansing. By the end of the nineteenth century, with the discovery of diamonds, gold, and other mineral resources, the Boers, like the Americans, mounted a successful war against British occupation and then proceeded to get entangled in further conflicts such as the Second Boer War, which didn’t go as well. But here again, the British learn from their mistakes, grant certain degrees of sovereignty to the Boers, and put them on a path toward membership in the Commonwealth and then independence. As a result of this history, both Rhodesia and South Africa, even against international pressure and boycotts, become remarkably prolific manufacturers of arms and small arms in particular. South Africa arms a great deal of the rest of Southern Africa for a long period of time.
Just as the apartheid South African Defense Force is the most powerful military in Southern Africa, if not all of Africa, for quite a long time.
Precisely. And what this produces in our contemporary situation is a state that is analogous in many respects to the United States with regard to gunpower: the stark realities of gun violence impact everything from domestic violence to suicide, from criminalized violence to racial violence, from intragroup violence among the poor to gated communities that protect the rich with an enormous apparatus of private security. This violence bleeds through between military and police elements. That’s why South Africa is, to me, the most striking peer state the US has when we think about the political economy of guns. The comparison is one that a lot of Americans refuse to even consider. When British scholars and journalists ask me questions about why the United States is so terrible, they will only ever suggest New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as counterexamples. If you mention either the phrase “settler colonialism” or the example of South Africa, generally those interviewers don’t answer well.
And yet Brazil, I think, is increasingly a point of comparison for the United States.
That’s the other one, which is really striking, because the story of Brazil is very complicated. In some ways, it resembles the corporate settlement patterns that you see in the United States. But it also has a different sort of geographical logic, wherein major urban centers are founded on the coast, but the interior is extremely inaccessible for long periods of time. Some of these coastal cities have more direct communication with the Portuguese mainland than they do with one another. But over time, you do have this development of slave-raiding parties and of a clear racialized hierarchy, which is fundamentally antiblack, even though Brazilian whiteness isn’t quite the same thing as what we have here.
However, the key point is that formal, nationally sanctioned arms manufacturing on an industrial scale is basically a mid-twentieth-century phenomenon in Brazil; those guns are also exported throughout South America. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that there’s a massive private security apparatus in Brazil and that the Brazilian right, particularly under Jair Bolsonaro, is sort of like a family. Several of Bolsonaro’s sons are clamoring for, in their own words, a Second Amendment for Brazilians. So here we have a parallel case of a highly inegalitarian, highly racialized, extremely violent polity, in which arms are also being manufactured on a vast military scale. Police are heavily militarized, and individual civilians of a reactionary type are trying to emulate the US model — and in the case of Bolsonaro’s sons, actually cultivating ongoing relationships with the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Is there a relationship between the longer duration of these violent processes in the United States and the fact that the expansionist American empire always imagined itself to have a sort of limitless frontier? Of course, as Greg Grandin reminds us, that frontier is not limitless, and we may be finding those limits today.
Yeah, we may be hitting a point where our universe starts to contract and go back to our original big bang in some ways. But I do think that, in the case of the United States, various shifts in labor organization and systems of production were able to rapidly produce new configurations of armed legitimacy to straddle the gap and to buy time for formal state capacity. For example, you have entities like the Pinkertons, who emerge to protect railroads and clamp down on industrial uprisings during the Second Industrial Revolution. The Pinkertons simultaneously operate with the blessing of the federal government in a sort of para-secret-service role; they cross borders and are delegated as rangers by states like Texas in order to track down bank robbers.
You also have groups like Citizens’ Councils or the White League that arise to impose the Ku Klux Klan’s racialized hierarchy. Really, the Klan is the other key example of this. The first Klan is a reaction to the fact that nearly a quarter million black troops return home with their service weapons after the Civil War, and the priority of the white caste system is to disarm them. This violence has a sort of fungibility — I’ve been using this term in lieu of sovereignty for five years, but now, unfortunately, it has other digital associations. It’s helpful to think about American violence and legitimacy, not in terms of sovereignty, but in terms of fungibility: it can be cashed in and cashed out, it’s fundamentally liquid, and it’s a competitive commodity, much like whiteness itself. As the political-economic system changes, the US state is very welcoming to adaptive modes of distributed violence. That’s a recurrent feature, one that takes all sorts of new forms going both forward and backward.
I want to talk about some of those newer forms that have emerged since the summer of 2020. Blue Lives Matter has become core to MAGA ideology. On its flag, the thin blue line is the police. Everything above it is meant to represent civil society, and everything below is the criminal elements of chaos that threaten the order and security of the good citizenry. What accounts for this extreme identification with the forces of repression among large segments of the civilian population at this particular moment in American history?
Blue Lives Matter is an interesting phenomenon to see people embrace after years of critiquing the shallowness of “identity politics.” Jeff Sharlet has written about the origins of the Blue Lives Matter Flag in Harper’s: it came from a small business guy on Etsy. And it’s become an identity, a form of police identitarianism. People identify with the police as a show of support. It’s a job that has become an identity category, which is also taken to be the praetorian class of people on whose shoulders hangs the possibility of protecting civilization against barbarism. It’s sort of goofy, but it’s also uncanny how there are several states, such as Louisiana, where the police are legally a protected class. Spraying “All Cops Are Bastards” on a police car is treated as a hate crime against Police Americans. It’s amazing to think that a profession is granted the same, or even a superior, degree of protection as, say, sexual orientation or religious belief or ethnic background. It’s simply bonkers.
We can put this issue in a comparative perspective through the work of the security studies scholar and sociologist Paul Amar. There are other countries — Omar’s work takes the examples of Brazil and Egypt as key — where police forces facing public crises of legitimacy embark on processes of moral vigilantism, at once top-down and ersatz. These include grassroots movements of police identitarianism that center around protecting the family and the children, that leverage themes of evangelical or fundamentalist religiosity, and that are about defending Brazil or Egypt against quintessentially sexual minorities, against supposed sex traffickers of children, against supposed sexual deviants, i.e., trans people. And these are canny, successful ways for police to consolidate their power, court legitimacy, and get full-throated support from people, even as their brutality and the representation of that brutality in the media remains unchanged.
For decades, pro–gun control liberals have worked with the Right to intensify gun laws that target gun crimes: the mere fact that a felon has a gun is itself a felony. And those measures, of course, do a lot to spur mass incarceration but nothing to control the entirely legal production and distribution of guns. Indeed, the NRA’s image of the honorable, law-abiding gun owner requires the specter of the armed criminal as its constitutive other. The discussion of guns often assumes that we don’t have any gun control in this country and that there is a totally laissez-faire system at work. But you’ve written that gun control is, in fact, a central feature of the landscape of American violence. What sort of gun control do we have in this country? And how does it shape the sorts of violence that we see unfolding today?
I think we can pull back and go for a deep historical perspective here. At that point, we observe that the regulation and distribution — the control, in those terms, of firearms — has been a constitutive if not quite constitutional feature of the North American civilizational settler enterprise. Since the get-go, there has been a perennial concern with who can have guns and what those guns can be used for, and a profusion of situations where people can choose to arm themselves but may be legally killed. So that’s the deep structure here, from my perspective.
Throughout the British colonial era and the antebellum era, what is anathema to elites and to the majority power structure is the idea of bad guys getting guns. And because the bad guys are always going to get the guns, they say that the good guys need yet more guns. But of course, then the bad guys are able to get those guns, and so on and so forth. Now, what’s interesting for our purposes in the twentieth century — and the reason I’m using this sort of abstract language about the “distribution and regulation” of guns — is that the term “gun control,” much like legal fixation on the Second Amendment, only really starts to be used in the mid-1950s. “Gun control” is not a given, naturalized term of American politics, and it never has been. It’s obviously not used in the Constitution, but more importantly, if you look through newspaper headlines prior to around 1955, gun control will come up in the context of, “Well, we’re putting machine guns on planes that are made of balsa wood and paper, so how do they control those guns?”
The term “gun control” enters US discourse when then senator John F. Kennedy proposes a gun control act, a piece of legislation that fails in the Senate. But his act is a protectionist measure designed to safeguard the interests of New England firearms manufacturers, like Remington and Smith & Wesson. Another poetic irony of this is that prior uses of the word “control” in the congressional record are all about import-export regulations. And indeed, the guns Kennedy wants to control are cheap, imported World War II surplus. Right after every American war, there is the problem of a tremendous amount of surplus guns that spread out to the population, whether they be the guns that black Union soldiers go back home with or the case of World War II. In the case of World War I, it’s all these tommy guns that never got into the trenches, because the idea came too late, that produced gun control acts in the ’30s.
In the 1950s and onward, the problem is these large stockpiles of Italian-, German-, and French-made firearms that can be bought very cheaply. The Kennedy plan is to prevent import of those weapons so as to drive up sales of classic American guns — and that’s what gun control initially means. Now, again, talk about the brutal ironies of history: it is precisely by an Italian-made World War II rifle that Kennedy is killed. A bunch of Democratic senators, including Senator Thomas Dodd Sr, attempt to seize upon the assassination of JFK by one of these scary foreign weapons. This is another theme that goes all the way back to the founding. The Dutch are giving Mohawks scary flintlocks; the Sioux are getting their hands on scary Winchester rifles. And “Marxists” like Lee Harvey Oswald, if you want to believe that story, are killing presidents with these scary European guns.
The push for a gun control act in Congress fails repeatedly, but it has both an immediate and a longer-term series of profound repercussions. The first is that when a federal gun control law happens under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in ’68, it is paired with an enormous omnibus crime bill that arms police with military weapons, puts them in schools, and helps proliferate militarized responses through 911 systems. So keep in mind that from the get-go gun control is always about the restriction of bad evil weapons and is always wedded with giving additional funds to the police. Johnson, for instance, has several press conferences where he talks about how our streets are being flooded with “Soviet guns.” Nevertheless, Johnson’s Gun Control Act is an uphill battle because the NRA fights it, and it only really kicks in when Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated and cities around the country erupt in protest. The Gun Control Act then is brought in because the uprisings are too frightening.
The NRA is an organization that came up in the nineteenth century. It was a private charity organization like the YMCA, but it was also about training people in the use of weapons and literally distributing guns from the War Department. It was heavily involved in the arms trade more generally and has always had, even in the 1920s, a strongly xenophobic, anti-Bolshevik tinge. In the 1950s and ’60s, the NRA was in an interesting position, where a lot of its traditional membership were former high-level military brass, but the organization was contemplating a move from DC to the West, to turn toward hunting and outdoorsmanship.
It was during the 1960s and ’70s that the NRA, always a right-wing organization, became deeply involved in the culture war. However, if you look back at NRA magazines from the 1920s, they were already concerned about filthy southeastern European immigrants and their Bolshevik leanings and the fact that people need to stockpile guns to fight off a Bolshevik takeover of the country. There were also a lot of blue-blooded NRA members and naturalists, like James Audubon in the nineteenth century, who wanted to exclude Italian immigrants from having Second Amendment rights.
A lot of the Teddy Roosevelt–era conservationists were ardent eugenicists and nativists as well.
Yes. And it’s interesting that their line was something like “the Second Amendment should not apply to Italians because they are savage bird killers.”
Anyway, in the ’60s, the NRA had a kind of old guard–new guard dynamic. The NRA is considering moving out west and abandoning a lot of the self-defense rhetoric, or at least downplaying that, even though it’s always been part of its deal.
And downplaying the lobbying aspect.
Yes, precisely. Essentially, there is a coup within the NRA led by a figure discussed in Greg Grandin’s work: former border patrol czar and killer of a young Mexican boy Harlan Carter. The coup also involved Byron Engle, whom you may be familiar with from the history of counterinsurgency policing and Stewart Schrader’s work Badges Without Borders. Engle was a huge gun nut and a member of the NRA who ended up committing suicide with a gun, but that’s neither here nor there. He helps bring in Carter and all these right-wing members of what you could call a “deep state,” in the sense that they do intelligence and counterinsurgency work together, to engineer a takeover of the NRA and a hard push toward self-defense, culture war issues, and a reprise of this frontier discourse of defense. But now it’s defending suburbia against uprisings of savage “Negroes” who were storming Fort Apache.
A central organizing feature of the NRA during this transition, which allows reactionaries like Carter and Byron Engle to consolidate their power, is the reaction to the Gun Control Act. So in a very perverse way but in a way that is absolutely legible, gun control — which, again, only means import bans of guns — becomes the thing around which a right-wing NRA right consolidates itself, in a kind of dialectic. And it’s the NRA’s opposition to gun control that in turn leads a liberal tough-on-crime movement, also tethered to the intelligence and policing community, to define itself against the NRA. So the term “gun control” becomes an organizing principle for a fundamentally vicious, self-perpetuating dialectic between reactionaries — who are tethered to the arms industry, a decentralized vision of violence, and red-blooded, jingoistic patriotism — and administrative, technocratic, carceral liberals. “Gun control” is the term through which they can understand one another and fundraise.
Are there forms of gun control that do not rely on the state’s own claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence? Bans enforced by armed cops would not only provide a pretext for further policing but could also lead to Ruby Ridge–type situations. Other strategies, like gun buyback programs, seem pretty anemic to me. The proposal to sanction gun manufacturers seems more promising but might be politically impossible, like so many things we want to do. What are the meaningful alternatives to the gun control status quo?
The phrase “gun control” is chronically fucked. As an organizing frame, it allows for a carceral liberal model to proceed and for a reactionary, ghoulish model to follow it. Every time Joe Biden mentions the phrase “gun control,” the NRA becomes more powerful. A perverse legacy of a gun control push from the liberal establishment might be that the NRA is resuscitated from its current position of financial abjection and corruption as a right-wing grifter organization. I think gun control itself is pretty much fucked, both because it’s always been about protectionist measures for US arms manufacturers and because it’s almost always been tethered to massive arming of police.
Gun buyback programs work in some cases, but they don’t work in others. What are we supposed to make of the fact that there are gun buyback programs in some municipalities, but there are also municipalities where police departments are obliged by law to resell guns seized from crime scenes for profit? It’s sort of a Dutch-boy problem — there are too many holes to plug. And also, don’t get me started about these fantasies of very masculine visions of gunpower on the part of radical organizations, who try to declare things like “temporary autonomous zones.” I’m not knocking that as a venture in the abstract, but doing that within this messy state results in the usual suspects getting shot. That’s part of the tragedy of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle. However, I’m not in a position to gainsay independent self-defense or community defense actions, since one thinks here of Frantz Fanon: a lot of things that are revolutionary involve an acceptance of the death of the revolutionaries themselves.
But I do think that there are tons of non-gun-control options that could make gun violence less of a problem. For instance, in Chicago — whose gun violence people tend to bring up in a trollish way, to minimize massacres — local activists were able to produce a trauma center. So on a triage level, if you have trauma centers, and if you have expanded medical care, people are less likely to die of gunshot wounds. They’ll simply get to the hospital faster. It doesn’t satisfy the perverse impulse of a liberal who wants jackboots with guns to kick down the doors of white people with guns, as if that’s a solution to gun violence; from my perspective, there’s a difference in intensity rather than a difference in kind between liberals who will sneer at the idea of personally carrying a gun but are happy to call the armed police, and people who want to own guns themselves. I don’t see much moral differentiation between those two.
Certain types of gun violence are just the tip of the iceberg of other kinds of violence. Gun violence is uniquely lethal, to be sure, and the consequences of gun wounding are horrible — but gun violence tracks to other types of immiseration, desperation, and denial of opportunities. If you interview youth who carry illegally in various urban centers around the country and you ask what would get them to stop doing that, the answer is generally that they would like to not have to walk through open-air drug markets, and they would like to not have to join a set and get involved in retaliatory violence or otherwise be killed. Of course, the solution to these problems is not to double down on policing; it’s probably some kind of drug legalization. If you ask people, “Why are you carrying a gun as you work in this underground economy?” the answer is, “Because I can’t get a job with dignity that pays enough to live.” These are very basic solutions.
We should also consider gun suicide as a kind of gun violence. If you look at the demographics of who commits suicide that way, the overwhelming majority is white, middle-aged men. The numbers are crazy: I’ve come across United Nations data showing that white, middle-aged, American men are something like 75 percent to 80 percent of gun suicides on the planet, which is really saying something. Any actuary can tell you that when men hit middle age and they face a difficult medical diagnosis, a chronic episode of depression, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a layoff, or the loss of a home, the chances of their shooting themselves get exponentially higher.
Now, hear me out: I’m not saying we need to protect marriage or some bullshit like that. Divorces happen for a reason, and often it’s a very good reason. But on another level, you have to wonder, if life were less miserable, if someone’s losing a job wasn’t all that stood between them and being homeless, if a medical diagnosis wasn’t a ticket to bankruptcy, if you didn’t have to contemplate losing your family farm to some horrible agribusiness, then probably you wouldn’t be as likely to kill yourself — which is all to say that people don’t people generally don’t commit murder and self-harm out of exuberance and joy and a plentitude of options. It happens because of immiseration and desperation and a limited set of possibilities. Part of what I think is so sick about our current situation is that a lot of right-wing figures, like J.D. Vance or Ted Cruz, like to invoke “mental health” as a problem. But they do it in a way that is totally disingenuous.
They do it just to deflect from the guns.
Yeah, exactly. And never mind that people with mental health issues are dramatically more likely to be victims of gun violence, particularly by the police, than they are to be violent themselves. But the truth of the matter is that if we were to have universal health care, single-payer or free, and we were to diminish the stigma of psychiatric care or simply produce networks of social care where people could check in with one another, then people might feel a little less atomized and a little less likely to off themselves.
There is some interesting criminological literature about this, focusing on California, where there’s a lot of suburbanization and immigration from other states. In situations where people don’t know one another, people tend to lose it: California has a disproportionate number of serial killers. It’s not because they listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers constantly — it has to do with the fact that there are a lot of transplants, a lot of people who don’t have organic communities. If you have neighbors, if you have institutions of care, if you have a functioning society rather than a hollowed-out neoliberal hell, then people are more liable to check up on you before you reach the level of harming someone or yourself.
It seems like it cannot be a coincidence that the age of mass shootings is also an era of anomie driven by late-stage suburbanization and terminal onlineness.
Yeah. Some other factors are pervasive militarization, a hyperconcentration of the burdens of forever war on the poorest members of society, an unequal distribution of exposure to risk, and fantasies about guns as a source of power and as things that solve problems. Despite my psychoanalytic commitments, I’m oftentimes drawn to the thinking of William James, the quintessential American philosopher and psychologist. He has this idea of things being “live options.” For a lot of people, turning to a gun to kill their family or kill themselves is a live option; it’s socially imaginable, it’s psychically available, and it’s at hand.
Although American rates of gun ownership have no real analogue elsewhere on the planet, there are countries with very high rates of gun possession that don’t have the same problem with suicide, femicide, or mass shootings. And those happen to be countries with less social inequality, better health care systems, and more social connection in general. Suppose gun control talk is a trap: it produces more types of gun violence, because I do think mass incarceration is gun violence, or is certainly made possible by it. Then maybe making people less miserable and desperate could go a long way toward fixing this problem.
I agree with everything that you’ve said there, but aren’t the guns themselves still a big part of the problem? Don’t guns kill people alongside people killing people? Even if it’s not politically possible right now, shouldn’t we try to target the gun industry’s production of guns?
Let me be clear: we can disambiguate between demand-side elements — which include both making it less socially imaginable to use guns and the worse option of regulating guns through policing — and supply-side elements. There is potential on the supply side, but decades of commitment to the false horizon of gun control and an exceptionalist way of thinking about the United States as an isolated domestic space have made things really, really difficult.
Every time you hear Democratic politicians talk about how absolutely horrible it is that kids in our schools and on “our streets” are killed by weapons of war, you have to wonder, why is it that so many of these weapons of war are made here to begin with? The flip side of that statement is that these killings are okay if they’re on someone else’s street. And in fact, figures like Pete Buttigieg have explicitly said things like, “Weapons like the one I carried in Afghanistan have no place on our streets or in our schools.” The answer is not to appeal to this elsewhere where those guns belong but rather to recognize that if we’re committed to diminishing gun violence at home, that also means diminishing our apparent lust for committing and perpetuating gun violence abroad.
Small arms are the largest generator of fatalities worldwide because they’re durable and cheap, but they are only a tiny part of a gargantuan military-industrial arms lobbying apparatus. It is terrifying and bizarre that defunding, nationalizing, or eliminating the US arms industry in toto, from F-35s to MRAPs to land mines to M4s, is just not something that people talk about in the mainstream.
I think the real sense of futility that people feel is typically expressed in frustrations with the power of the NRA. That’s real, but something deeper, I think, is that Americans know that the country is armed to the hilt, from the military to the police to the home. A generalized disarmament of this country is very hard to imagine, because the people won’t disarm as long as the police are armed and the police won’t disarm as long as the people are armed.
It’s an arms race, a logic of mutually assured destruction on the micro level. And I think you don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to see that the mantra of “From my cold, dead hands” is basically a suicide vow, right? It doesn’t feel like “defiant until the end”; it’s more like, “I’m going to kill myself.” I’d rather have this gun and cling to this power than let an alternative world happen. On the macro level, there are a lot of people who similarly seem to think that the end of the world is better than a diminution of American hegemony. And the macro-level logic is even more depressing, because if you think life is cheap when it comes to guns, the cheapness of life when it comes to $100 million planes and missiles is unimaginable.
There were brief moments in American history, specifically following World War I and in the ’20s and ’30s, where there was talk of ending the “merchants of death” industry. This effort was largely destroyed, thanks in no small part to red-baiting and persecution by Jay Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which led to the suicide of more than a few activists and politicians. But the effort was also undone by the turn toward military Keynesianism, which has been our model since the 1930s.
There is no analogy, even when it comes to the police, to the bipartisan consensus around lavishing funds on arms manufacturers, even when branches of the military say they don’t need these new weapons: “We need to we need to slow down on the F-35s”; “No, we don’t want the Osprey”; “No, these MRAPs are a mess.” We simply throw more and more money at the manufacturers. We need to talk about the fundamental illogic of constantly doubling down on violence on the macro scale because only then can we deal with the relatively piddling manufacture of small arms.
It’s a two-way street, because the state buys all these arms and then arms manufacturers and gun rights advocates really emphasize this relationship to military service. And then, as you mentioned, liberals emphasize that too, but they do so by insisting that murderous weapons should only be deployed on dangerous others beyond our borders. What is going on with the Right wanting to bring the war home and liberals wanting to keep the war confined to foreign realms?
This is the point where some psychoanalysis is helpful, because we’re dealing with people trying to maintain a hygienic distinction between violence that happens over there and that can’t happen here. That’s not how violence works. It’s the folly of being like, “Well, what if we just repressed the repressed better, then it won’t return.” But no — there’s a reason violence workers, such as the police, are more likely to be violent to other people outside of their jobs. There’s a reason why the military has a pervasive sexual assault and suicide problem. You can’t leave things outside the home or the homeland, particularly when these weapons materially come back to the home to be used against other civilians.
In the wake of a mass shooting, I think another Democratic politician tweeted (then deleted) something like, “If you want to use an assault rifle to shoot people, you should deploy to Afghanistan.” This was a remarkably accurate statement of the logic that many people wouldn’t reveal so baldly. I’m not praising it, but I’m saying it’s clarifying.
For example, I believe it was Parkland, where the shooter used a Smith & Wesson M&P 15. The “M&P” stands for military and police, and it’s a semiautomatic civilian version of AR-15 carbine that mimics the one that the military and police use. That’s the one the shooter wanted to use, and it’s one, by the way, that you can play in various video games. I’m not blaming video games, because violence is not monocausal, but it’s thinkable, and it’s a thing you could turn to.
You may recall that one Parkland victim saved other students from being shot by holding a door open to allow them to flee. There are all these media reports about how this young man was ROTC, and he embodied the selfless sacrifice of the US military, this sort of patriotic logic. I’m not belittling him at all — I can’t belittle that boy’s death. But it was also the case that the shooter himself joined ROTC and may even have been kicked out.
So this is a case where we want to have things two ways: we want to believe that militarization is good and carrying guns elsewhere is good, but when that violence happens here, that’s an entirely unrelated and bad thing. And I think that’s splitting, that’s schizoid. That’s not a coherent way to think about the world. But people seem to want to have their cake and eat it too.
And the Right, then, is reconciling that contradiction by bringing the war home.
Yeah. And the Right is freer in some ways because it fully embraced the postmodern slippage of the signifier. It can say whatever the fuck it wants, and it doesn’t have to be coherent; it just has to be half a thought and tap into a certain sadness or desperation, for which they serve up scapegoats. You can see the more constrained mentality of the Democrats when they respond to situations like Uvalde, in which ordinary people of all political persuasions were shocked by a scene of police beating and tasing parents as their children were being murdered. The Joe Biden administration immediately issued a knee-jerk, hagiographic statement about how much it appreciates the sacrifice and service of America’s law enforcement.
We may never know what really happened with the police in Uvalde. Perhaps we should have some faith in the Department of Justice investigation, but we also need to be realistic. The way in which the Uvalde police covered up their failures was standard practice — a kettle logic of misdirection, lies, and saying weird things like “earlier reports were incorrect.” Of course, the police were the source of those earlier reports. It’s all about disavowal and not taking responsibility. What falls out there is that people seem to be unwilling to ask important questions. I have yet to see people ask the police, “Can they confirm that they did not fire into the room where there were children? Can they confirm that they did not shoot any teachers or any children? Can they confirm that they did not choose to isolate the shooter in that room no matter who may have been in there alive or bleeding out?”
Those are legitimate questions, all the more legitimate given the police’s inability to answer anything honestly. All those questions should be thinkable, even though they’re horrible. But instead, it appears that there is an attachment to some type of fantasy image of the “good guy with a gun” and the police. In fact, for a lot of liberals, the police exemplify the figure of the “good guy with a gun.” I think about that completely disgusting David Axelrod line from two or three days ago, which was like, “The inexplicable, heart-wrenching display in Uvalde underscores the indispensable role of the police.” This is political theology, lobotomized; it is perverse beyond perversion.
I do want to talk about video games and whether we should indeed blame them a little. Maybe blame is not the right frame, but there seems to be a point of intersection between video games, particularly Call of Duty, arms manufacturers, and the military. In Call of Duty, characters are troops firing real-life branded guns, and then gun manufacturers use Call of Duty and military imagery in their advertising. I read in the Atlantic:
Fans of the most popular first person shooter games — Fortnite, Apex Legends, Call of Duty, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds — have created dozens of “guns in real life” videos, dedicated to explaining all the similarities between real guns and their virtual counterparts: their weight, their rate of fire, the physical stamina needed to carry and fire them in real life, and their efficacy in each corresponding game. Brownells, a real-world gun and gun-accessory manufacturer, has done the same.
Indeed, until these companies were freed from copyright restrictions by a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, video game companies actually signed licensing agreements with firearms companies. Of course, there’s a long history of people I hold in serious disrepute blaming video games for violence. But is there something going on here?
So this is the point at which we need to talk about overdetermination: this idea that events can have multiple causes, reflect multiple precipitating realities, and produce multiple results, but in ways that are not monocausal or not predictive.
People who are attempting to attribute violence to entertainment products are also very quick to then argue for profiling mechanisms, by which we can determine that so-and-so did this in much the same way as, in the 1990s, people thought that kids who wear clothing featuring Tupac are more likely to be violent. In other words, it’s a false dream of prediction. Whether crude or algorithmic, it’s nonsense, because violence is multifactorial and if entertainment products did generate violence in their own right, we’d have a lot more of it. Many of these arguments are also in bad faith: the NRA will blame liberal Hollywood for fetishizing guns, but if you go to the NRA museum in Virginia, they have an entire hall of guns featured in famous movies. Again, it’s wanting to have things both ways at once, which is a ubiquitous problem under capitalism, but Americans are really gonzo about it.
I’ll also admit that I play a ton of violent video games. In fact, I have very good friends, like veterans who are leftist anarcho-socialists, who I play games with. And I think it’s worth saying, too, that that’s the way a lot of people work through trauma, and it’s a way that people build communities. However, in the video game industry, it’s not just the parts with guns that are subsidized by the US military: a lot of video game physics architecture comes from labs in California, which are university-based but are taking money from the military to work on physics engines. So let’s just stipulate that the military is all over this digital stuff.
The thing that is hardest to talk about has to do with the interface between the imaginary and the real: between the domains of libidinal economy and the imagination of what makes a person a hero, what makes a person agential, and what are they materially able to do. Take the recent manifesto of the Buffalo shooter, for example. He has pages and pages of object-fetishism about his gun loadout. It’s what you’d see on a forum post, but also what you’d see in a Tom Clancy novel — all this talk about which kind of scope he has, whatever.
Conspiratorial or not, I think it’s worth thinking about the fact that we don’t have a mandatory draft, and we don’t have a widespread civilian military training program, but we do have a lively virtual world for training people to handle small arms. There are certain limits, of course — like in Call of Duty you can pick up ammunition, and it works universally in different weapons, which is not real. But even though that’s cartoonish, there are people of certain persuasions who will see these games as murder simulators. However, overinvestment in these games is not the primary red flag that we need to focus on, insofar as red flags that are much more probative of violence get ignored all the time.
Like the fact that these games are being played in places without actual embodied neighborhood communities, such that when people log off of Call of Duty, they move on to 4chan.
Yes, that alienation is real. But also, physical and emotional abuse of women is a much bigger predictor of this type of violence. Abuse is almost ubiquitous among young men who go on to be mass shooters, and there’s very little accountability for it. The young man who was the shooter at Uvalde apparently had a long history of threatening to rape young girls — and nothing was done about it — which seems to me more dispositive and more of an urgent problem.
I’ll give another example: Adam Lanza. He was drawing guns in school, and he loved to play violent video games and design Doom levels. But literally, according to an FBI document dump, a friend of his mother told the police, years before the shooting, that Adam Lanza has access to an assault rifle and is going to use it to attack Sandy Hook Elementary School. The police did nothing because the guns belonged to his mother, whom he killed. So what I’m saying is that, sure, guns in games are part of the imaginative surround — but there’s actual physical harm that is so much more obvious and ignored.
What do you make of mass shootings having taken on a meme-like quality? It seems like shooters are following a script — a script that gets rewritten over time, but a script that was first written at Columbine.
Here’s one way to think about it, which I was talking about with a student and a veteran friend as well. It was striking how, in the early era of the “war on terror,” you would come across these explanations for suicide bombing as a pathological act of nihilism. Oftentimes, it would be explained in terms of these half-baked reading of Hadith, claiming that, under Islam, there’s the world of peace, or the Ummah, and then there’s the world of war. These two worlds are forever in opposition to one another, and the Gazi is the holy warrior who crosses that boundary and wages war. Arabists and scholars of Islam would say, first of all, that’s bullshit — but second of all, it is a pretty canny projection of fascist “war on terror” ideology and the thin blue line stuff.
On the topic of suicide bombings and specifically nihilist activity, there was the statement that these are people who have no purpose other than to sow chaos. They have no purpose other than to destroy themselves. It was claimed that suicide bombing was an act driven only by hate, and hate, as a concept, can liquefy all sorts of complex political or material forces. However, from research about the ethnography of suicide bombers and their psychological profiles, one learns that actually they hold plentiful social motivations. Now I’m not endorsing any of this activity, but there is a social safety net for families of bombers, and even a lot of social pressure to become a bomber, particularly in the case of Palestine, where suicide bombing can be a way of expiating family guilt or perceived family stigma. For example, let’s say you have an uncle who has been accused of collaborating with the Israel Defense Forces, or you’re an unmarriageable young man or a widow — this provides a social logic for what is often seen as just an act of horrific violence and political desperation. There are material and ideological factors that appear to sanction suicide bombing and make it thinkable and make it a thing. You get to pose for the martyrdom photographs and so on.
One thing I have noticed about mass shooters, whether they be of the white supremacist bent or the incel bent, is that the communities they seek to impress do meme and worship the shooters but are also incredibly contemptuous assholes about them. Within minutes after Uvalde, on 4chan and Discord chats, people who had egged him on or knew of his plans were calling him a loser. Or in the case of Buffalo, people were like, “Why didn’t he attack an abortion clinic instead?” In other words, there’s a pervasive type of negativity that feels profoundly nihilistic, because it provides no social insurance mechanism. The act of committing a mass shooting appears to have a kind of solitude or solipsism to it: not only is there no afterlife, but even the people who you might think would celebrate you or benefit from your act are pissing on your grave. And that, to me, is inexplicable and also indexes certain types of alienation that are really disturbing.
It’s hard to neatly classify or distinguish these mass shooting events. Both the Buffalo and the Uvalde massacres fit into the gun problem category. While massacres like the one in Buffalo fall into the political category of far-right racism, the Uvalde one does not, because the shooter did not have a properly political motivation. But does that distinction hold up if both are linked to the same sick currents running through American society right now? Are they not all fundamentally political? Beyond the ideas in a particular shooter’s head, the whole logic of these shootings tends to have a reactionary and antisocial direction, particularly when their targets are schools, one of the more democratic institutions in American society.
I think we can productively think about this in two ways at once. On the one hand, there are obviously mass murderers who describe themselves as part of a political program: the Buffalo shooter self-identified as a white supremacist and wore Aryan symbolism.
The model is the far-right guy in New Zealand, who himself was modeled off of Anders Breivik.
Yeah, exactly — inspired by the great replacement, neo-crusader, imagined community stuff. And yes, they clearly state their motivation. However, this ideology is political in the sense that it describes itself as political, but also it’s an eighteen-year-old pissant kid’s manifesto, talking about demographics and physiognomy and a whole bunch of memes, written at the level of a shitty freshman paper that would get an F. Half of their writing is plagiarized. It’s political in the sense that it has certain political tropes, but it’s not a manifesto in the way that the Communist Manifesto or something by Friedrich Schiller is. It’s not a manifesto in that sense of it having any literary or political depth. I’ve read so many of these things, and they’re all the same regurgitated, tired, pastiche shit.
But we should also stipulate that it’s hard to imagine anything more political than going into a public space and killing people of a particular type: that’s obviously political. It’s part of a broader political gestalt that includes more polite people with blood on their hands at a remove, advocating political programs that are normalized in American society. Here, I think about the El Paso shooting and how in 2019, just a couple of months before it, none other than David Frum had an Atlantic cover article with the question of how much immigration is too much. And the heading was, “If liberals don’t enforce borders, fascists will.” Not to draw a monocausal line from this sort of thought to that asshole who shot up the Walmart in El Paso, but the shooter’s ideas were fetid reflections of stuff that was happening in more mainstream spaces.
More broadly, though, whether or not these shootings are abstractly political, judged by us observers on the outside, they have concrete political impacts. In El Paso, Latino people who were wounded quite possibly didn’t seek medical care; in Buffalo, black people might now be scared to go to the store in the middle of a food desert. They felt the raw political statement of ethnic eliminationism. This also gets at your question of the politics of nihilism: if murdering another human being isn’t a fundamentally politically salient act, I have no idea what else could be. It’s tied to the precipitating structures of political economy, libidinal economy, or what we could call necropolitics, that perpetuate and underwrite all these shootings.
Young men or men in crisis picking up weapons and seeking to vindicate their grievances by doing murder in public strikes at the socius and erodes confidence in public space, but it is also an expression of an entitlement to dispose of other human beings as objects and to express power and satisfy grievances through violence that is also present in a whole suite of other behaviors, above all in femicide, domestic abuse, and sexual abuse. In the broader structure of what theorists might call kyriarchy, it is a whole system of domination.
So we can think about these high profile shootings as expressing in a public and statistically exceptional way a broader calculus of hierarchical human disposability that is baked into our political system and normalized. This logic is not always treated as newsworthy, but it is at work every day.
What many people think of as military-style weapons became mainstream like never before after the 2004 expiration of the assault weapons ban. So this liberal gun ban made these guns all the more alluring. And then similarly, there’s this pattern of gun purchases surging after mass shootings, and that’s ostensibly about gun enthusiasts panicking that any given mass shooting might be followed by some sort of restriction on guns, which never happens.
But I feel like this trend might reflect something deeper. There’s this identity of “gun owner” that has emerged in recent decades and is complicated because, as we’ve discussed, Americans have been armed and dangerous from the get-go, from even before they were Americans. And yet gun owners have really undergone a dramatic process of radicalization against any form of gun regulation whatsoever, combined with a process of radicalization in terms of what kind of firearms they want to shoot and own. The overall worldview entailed by being a gun owner has become more extreme, and this process of identity formation has resulted in gun owners becoming a class in itself. What is this identity? How did it come about, and what is its role today on the American right?
If people self-identify as “gun owners,” then you know, statistically speaking, they’re going to be voting on the right. They’re going to be conservative; they’re going to be registered Republicans or independents who lean right. And they’re more likely than not to be white and male. There is data on this. Recent decades, the past two in particular, have seen this trajectory, such that ownership of guns or, more specifically, the willingness to identify as a gun owner is leading predictor of rightward orientation. I do think that “gun owner” is one of the few identities that you can buy. Purchasing something makes you something. “Jet ski owners” or “sex swing owners” are not legible, immediately given identity categories where you say things like, “As an X owner, I. . . .”
You could perhaps identify as a classic car enthusiast, but in a way the term “gun owner” suggests “gun enthusiast.”
Yeah, it definitely suggests some sort of a response or a relation to it. Early in our conversation we talked about Blue Lives Matter–type ideology, and I think that’s a similar type of formation. Police officer or first responder is a job that you choose to have, which enjoys protected status in some states; the same is true for gun owners, since guns are something you choose to buy that then stand in for a whole assemblage of other politics.
In other words, people self-identify as gun owners as a means of identifying themselves with right-wing social and political America and as adjacent to or in alliance with the armed forces of the state.
If there is a monolithic bloc of gun owners, one whose ideology we want to make sense of in that phrase and from a left perspective, we can see that identity as an entire politics: a politics of the gun. And this politics of the gun is paradoxical, in the same way the thin blue line is paradoxical, where it’s both the limit case but also the thing that makes possible the whole system. In a lot of accounts, the gun is something you need when the state fails — when there’s a burglar coming through your window, when the police are always twenty minutes too late — but the gun is also something that the state has to protect. A whole series of contradictions reside in this, and they all come down to building a politics around the limit case of the failure of politics or around the politics of a basic act of exclusion and violence.
At the same time, of course, the martial culture of paramilitary politics is not just the domain of a white supremacist right wing, although I think that is the majority of that culture at the moment. Paramilitary politics have also been taken up by many in the black freedom struggle, from the American Civil War and Reconstruction to various efforts at self-defense to organized political militias at the height of the Black Power movement. And small arms violence has both been used to repress rural labor struggles and to defend them. What should we think about gun culture on the Left? It has a rich history, but there are no doubt costs to adopting a martial political stance, even in self-defense.
Historically speaking, mounting insurgent violence against a hegemonic order comes with risks and can end in revolutionary suicide or being killed. People are very honest about that, and I think it’s worth bearing in mind. And I think it’s also worth saying, too, that armed resistance groups are a consistent target of state subversion. One of the ways that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI went after the Panthers was by going after militant groups for arms sales, for getting unlicensed weapons, for having weapons that they shouldn’t have had. Particularly if you’re an insurgent group trying to acquire weapons of a legally restricted category without records of those weapons being bought, you come into contact with a criminal underworld and a potential world of informants: people who are working for the police or who are police themselves. There’s also the actuarial risk of the fact that in any place with tons of guns, gun death becomes a nonzero possibility. This is as simple as saying that you’re not going to die in a car accident unless there’s a car around; the gun being there is something that can potentiate events.
There’s a reason that the gun on the mantelpiece is a textbook example of foreshadowing in a play.
Yeah, it’s a Chekhov’s gun principle. By my lights, whatever those are worth, one thing that’s striking about the history of left-wing and insurrectionary separatist movements is that, on the one hand, a lot of them do end terribly. A lot of them are also targeted by the state. But it’s worth saying that at the point where the gun becomes the primary object around which your politics are built, you’re not only courting baptism by fire — living by the gun, dying by the gun — but also neglecting other aspects of what makes any insurgent revolutionary left-wing program worth contemplating, namely an ethos of community care and uplift and other ways of relating that are not just about guns, that are not just about the limit case of being attacked by the state. I’m thinking about food programs — plowshares, if we want to be Biblical about it.
I’ve encountered leftists who seem to think that going into the woods with a bunch of people and shooting guns is the entirety of the ministry. I take that as tragic in some ways, because it risks mirroring the hegemonic logic of politics as just you and the gun making things happen. There’s a reason a lot of those movements fall apart because of femicide or suicide or infiltration. You need a community to defend in addition to organizing around a purely reactive notion of defense.
These are risks that need to be taken all the more seriously if there is no practical path for armed revolution succeeding in the United States, which I would contend is obvious.
It is obvious, but there’s also the tragedy in which a holistic alternative to the state is not as at hand as breaking things, killing things, or buying a gun. Here I think about people who may not be very political or who don’t identify as gun owners but who have to deal with abusive partners of whom they’re terrified; maybe one of them is a cop, and they can’t count on the state to protect them. And they know the risks, but they’re going to buy a gun anyway because that’s their choice.
People also buy guns because they’re afraid of their neighbors and where they live. On some level, those gestures bespeak a desperation and a lack of other options, combined with an ease of access to guns and a facilitation of violent options as being imaginable. A cohesive mutual aid system is a lot less sexy and a lot less at hand. It’s a lot less commodifiable and like easily put on Instagram profiles or badass posters than just toting some gun.
One way to reframe this is that negativity is much easier to both imagine and enact than doing something constructive or positive — which isn’t to say that those two things are necessarily opposed. I mentioned the example of lunch programs in particular because that’s a legacy of the Panthers, one that existed alongside their other advocacy. But it’s worth noting that a lot of them got shot to death and not just by the police.
But the negative vibes are indeed really powerful ones right now. A lot of people are invoking this notion that the United States is attempting to commit suicide: in more straightforwardly Freudian terms, America has a strong death drive, all amid its commitment to doing next to nothing to forestall climate catastrophe or the pandemic. I feel like these recent shootings have just punctuated a long-standing sense, particularly strong since the beginning of the pandemic, that this country is dedicated to self-destruction.
You’ve written a lot about this. What did Sigmund Freud mean by the death drive? How might that concept help us understand this country’s increasingly bleak social and political reality and the state’s commitment to doubling down on that bleak social and political reality?
There are a lot of interpretations of what Freud meant when he talked about the death drive; it’s not entirely clear what he meant, and he is very contradictory about it. Part of what makes this such a recurrent and generative concept for a lot of subsequent theories, psychoanalytic and otherwise, is that the death drive is a concept that can do a lot of work and that can mean a lot of things. Some of them are ugly and scary, and others are possibly liberatory and weird in a different way.
To historicize and define the term within the context of the Freudian output, it’s a concept Freud articulates around the end of World War I. He does so in a strange little book called Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which is really two books at once. The first bit is an account of him clinically and therapeutically encountering people who are suffering from what we would today call PTSD, people who appear to be haunted by these repetitive, unbidden memories. “Memory” isn’t quite the right word because it’s a disassociated memory — memory sometimes implies a cohesion — of events that are near death, for the sufferer themselves or for those around them. These dissociated memories keep coming back.
These are people who are “shell-shocked” from World War I, right?
Yeah. And these are people who challenge Freud’s theories of both pathology and of psychology more generally — of how the human mind is built — insofar as they appear to be stuck on this one episode. Their symptoms resemble what Freud had seen in people suffering from what he would have called a “hysterical neurosis” and what we now describe as a conversion disorder: they’re having fainting spells, they’re seeing things that aren’t there, they’re losing the ability to speak, or they’re developing blindness, even without any damage to their optic nerves. But in the context of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Prussian state in 1918, you don’t get like ushered to the fainting couch and accommodated; you have an officer telling you to pick up a gun and to throw a grenade if you don’t want to get shot. And these people do get shot. They’re not faking it, and they’re not malingering. Their problem, which is psychic in nature, to the extent that it doesn’t have a clearly defined organic cause, nonetheless is real enough that it causes them to be killed, or it causes them to have remarkably tragic life trajectories thereafter.
Where Freud goes from this is basically to produce a very complicated and contradictory vision of how the mind relates to overwhelming negative stimuli. He mythologizes this by starting to think about a countervailing principle to the desire to create, to build, to reproduce — what would be called a libido theory. Freud’s inquiry starts in a clinical space, but it goes towards philosophical, existential, almost theological stakes; this is as close as psychoanalysis gets to what you would an “apophasis,” which is a language for talking about things where languages all fail. Freud argues for a complicated idea that events can befall the human person that cause it to become stuck, continually returning in this movement toward the past; this continual return of the repressed past is destructive, and also produces a destruction of the future and a kind of stasis in the present. People use this conceptual constellation to talk about things like social inertia, the appeal of suicide under certain conditions, and fetishes for violence.
I think it’s useful for thinking about trajectories of continually maintaining borders, conceptual or otherwise, to the point at which things within those borders are actually destroyed: the way in which projections of self or desires to exert power ultimately turn back into a destruction of the self. You can think about this in terms of an autoimmunity function. Guns are super cool prostheses for extending our power, but also they inevitably end up being used on the people who initially used them for the purposes of exerting force and projecting power.
Whether we’re describing something as granular as gun violence or the behavior of our entire society, I think the little organism of the death drive explains a lot. We are late-capitalist humans in the center of a gerontocratic petrocracy, driving around in cars fueled by the liquid remains of previous mass extinctions; in so doing, we are crashing into one another, dying really quickly, boiling the world, and producing the next great extinction. There is a tragic drama and a legibility to what you could call a thanatotelic trajectory: i.e., a driven-ness toward death in the way in which the nonnegotiability of our comfort and the desire to maintain a nostalgic past produces not just death in the present but increasingly commits us to a self-destruction that’s also a destruction of the other.
One way to understand this — and this is one of Freud’s basic definitions of the death drive — is a situation in which the organism will seek nothing more centrally than the prerogative to die on its own terms. That captures of everything from “my cold dead hands” rhetoric, which is both a threat and a suicide valve, to the Donald Rumsfeld– and George W. Bush–era rhetoric of “the American way of life is not negotiable.” We’re wedded to comfort, and the idea of doing things that might disrupt that comfort is experienced as more existentially threatening than the widely understood fact that if we don’t change, we’re all going to die.
There’s this intense focus on comfort, but it’s almost comfort within quotations because we don’t really enjoy it. We never get to enjoy the Club Med or the cruise ship all-you-can-drink bracelet, because we’re always already hungover. We hate it, but we’re committed to the misery. Can we see the death drive operating not only on the frothing far right but also among the shell-shocked “This is not normal, follow the science” center left? And if it does indeed pervade the broader body politic beyond the Right, why is it that the MAGA-fied Republican Party has been so talented at tapping into these sick and violent vibes coursing through the country?
To move from the latter question to the former one, the Right is Walt Whitman–esque in its ability to contain multitudes and to traverse contradiction. The way in which self-destruction and aggression toward others are fungible and interchangeable is very much present in that dialectic of negativity. At some of the Donald Trump rallies I’ve covered, people are miserable, and there’s a guy up on the podium literally making fun of how they look and telling them that they’re all toilets and stuff — but at least he makes these other people even more mad, and his audience can get off on their misery. So it’s like a negative collective effervescence of “At least we can say, ‘Fuck them.’”
One of the cruelest things about the “comfortable” American situation is that everyone seems to think that there’s this basic truth that someone else is getting away with something. You’ve been denied something because of someone else, and at least you can die knowing that they were more miserable than you. I’ve talked to people like this, whose vision of their self-assertion, as their world constricts and health care fails them, is, “At least I can shoot someone before they burglarize my house.” The Right manages to tap into this pure negativity. It both can tap the libidinal landscape of that, and it has internalized the postmodern maxim of the floating signifier such that it can say anything: it’s about power, and language comes afterward.
The relationship of the liberal center to this is a little more complicated because it involves a sort of self-abnegating relation to pleasure. The pleasure comes from saying, “Well, we’re not them. The cruelty is the point for them, but for us the process is the point — even though it’s cruel, and even though we hate the process.”
The center wants to will the superego back into being in American politics.
Yeah. In Freudian thought, the superego is this internalized conscience or authority figure: it’s the dad at the head of the table, it’s the teacher at the head of the class, it’s the judges of history. It’s some sort of reverenced authority who you identify with through your own self-abnegation. For the center, this way of thinking comes out when they say:
All these Trump-ites, they’re gross clowns, look at the ways they contradict themselves, look how horribly they revel in cruelty. But us, we talk about what’s realistically possible. That’s why we need to make deals with these people, because we need to hold the center.
A lot of this involves a logic of passivity and a type of satisfaction. Stating one’s beliefs or voting is taken to stand in for an entire politics because of a sense that if we do these “right” things — as opposed to practicing any type of structural engagement or even seeing our opponents for what they are — then the world will get better somehow. Our purity of heart will combine with our purity of intention to make things turn out okay, as long as we’re able to regulate our misguided neighbors on the Left.
Think about those signs that say, “We believe in science, Black Lives Matter, love is love,” and so on. Yes, those signs are less offensive than the ones that read “Trump 2024” and “Let’s Go Brandon.” It’s a much more colorful, pretty sign. But what does it mean? At the end of the day, a lot of these liberals are still voting to maintain the character of the neighborhood and the facades that they’re building; they’re doing all that NIMBY shit, and they don’t want high-density housing. But also, what does it mean to say that you believe in science?
These platitudes reflect a tremendous energy devoted to forgetting, a tremendous energy devoted to how great Nancy Pelosi is and how nice it would be to have decent Republicans. This is what the liberal commentariat does every couple of years, when they elevate some ghoul, whether it be Rod Dreher or Ben Shapiro, as the face of conservative intellectualism. They write, “These are the beautiful plangent cries of Rod Dreher” or “J.D. Vance is such a whisperer for the forgotten voices of the heartland.” When you read this, you’re like, who is this for? Why are you doing this? But then a couple of years later, you go back, and those same liberal commentators are shocked that J.D. Vance has started basically repeating the fourteen words over and over again or Rod Dreher has recently said bigoted things about trans people or Ben Shapiro is running racist cartoons on his website. And the answer is always: motherfuckers, they were like that the whole time!
Who are they elevating these people for? The center is doing it for themselves, because if there’s no reasonable right, then its own centrist politics don’t make any sense.
That’s exactly right. It betrays the fact that ultimately it has a common vocabulary and shared material interests with these right-wing figures. But also what it’s getting out of this is the satisfaction of being the gatekeeper, of being the ones who are looking over the deck chairs being arranged on the deck of the Titanic and saying, “This is fine, this is the process, it’ll sort itself out.”
Franz Kafka has a parable, a parable about parables. In it, someone comes to an old man and says, “What’s the deal with parables?” And someone else says, “Well, if we just become parables, then we will be rid of all our daily cares.” Of course, you can’t become a parable, but these commentators are attempting something similar: if they just continue to anoint the faces of right-wing respectability, if they’re continually maintaining the machine of this nonexistent center, then they’ll always be there. They will live forever in the realm of takes. They can become takes themselves.
The one cost is, of course, vulnerable people: “We’ll just have to cede ground on culture-war issues,” they say. “If we just give them trans kids, then they won’t come for Roe.” Well, guess what: they’re going to take the trans kids, and they’re going to go for Roe. But the centrists also seem to think that they are floating above these transactions of power. Cynically or not, they seem to believe that if they just hold onto the pure formalism of yore, if we just publicly deny pleasure to ourselves for the sake of this principle — even as we have no principles — then at least we’ll survive this. And that’s how democracies die too.
What’s the political economy of this death drive? Do people sense, even if they can’t quite articulate it, that we’re in this period where capitalism seemingly can’t or won’t make anything new and useful and that all the new frontiers of profit are in ever more abstract financial maneuvers, which have reached their apotheosis in crypto, even as we head inexorably toward climate catastrophe? Is there a material foundation for these bad vibes?
For me, a Marxist political-economic perspective is completely compatible with the psychoanalytic perspective. You can’t have a libidinal economy without political economy, for the simple reason that people are attached to the circumstances of their own oppression. We can think about that old phrase of Thomas Frank’s: “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Like, what’s up with this false consciousness? And the answer is that there’s pleasure in false consciousness. W.E.B. Du Bois said this too: there’s a pleasure in racism for racists. It’s worth thinking about how libidinal satisfaction can drive people’s material decisions.
Regarding completely fictitious financial products, I recently saw that they’re putting Bitcoin mining facilities directly on top of oil wells. They’re just burning the fuel as it comes out of the ground. It’s absurd; I do think it reflects a feature of capitalism in its contemporary form but also in its earlier mercantilist and transatlantic intonations. It’s both that death is incredibly monetizable and life is so cheap, and that the capitalist imaginary, with its constant desire to expand, encourages people not to think about their own deaths. Capital, like Cthulhu, lives forever. And it’s deathless in the way that only the undead can be.
Think about what passes for the fantasies or the life projects of some of our supposedly greatest innovators and most successful people — think about Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk types. Their fantasies are primal-father stuff: I’m going to go to space with my winnings, I’m going to live forever, I’m going to freeze my brain. We’re going to have unlimited pleasure beyond the vale of tears, which at the end of the day is just primitive accumulation, primal-father shit. What kind of system generates so much riches while leaving even its most successful people so morally, intellectually, and imaginatively impoverished? People are always so shocked when the person who has everything and has all the power in the world also turns out to be a serial sexual harasser or whatever. It’s like, wow, you can’t sublimate shit: you’re at the top of the pyramid, and there’s no transformation of the human, no heightened degree of relationality. There’s no depth or empathy that might come from being aware that you are a finite being who’s going to die. Instead, it’s immortality projects and a ton of rape.
And it’s crazy, right? I don’t mean crazy in a stigmatizing way. I mean, it’s madness. And it’s madness as an output of a particular type of reason; it’s a madness of economic reason, but it’s also the madness of primitive accumulation in this neo-techno-feudal mode. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t know how to deal with it, though Freud does have some parables about how the primal father gets dealt with. But there is a way in which this madness is so clearly terminal and its products are so derivative. We ask: What are these people making? And the answer is, well, they’re making either notional abstractions or things that will allow you to Hyperloop away from other people with the car on autopilot, protecting a type of monadized false self-idea. Their whole job is to launder ever increasing misery into abstraction and into baubles of cheap pleasure, to mystify widespread precarity into something that is good.
And I feel like this is also a dark mirror of what we were talking about with the “lanyard class” earlier. It promotes the idea that our democracy is good because you have more choices than ever, albeit for things that you can’t afford; you have to affirm those choices, even though the people you’re voting for don’t give a shit if you live or die. And also, capitalism is great because you could buy even more things that are built for planned obsolescence than ever; flat-screen TVs are cheaper than ever.
And so, is this the political-economic architecture of the American death drive?
I think so. I’m with Freud and his hatred of America as a quintessence of a type of capitalism: this odd combination of righteousness with sleaziness; this mix of religious pieties and the worship of money; this perverse fixation on a family romance of Manifest Destiny, combined with a complete indifference to anything of long-term social value. But we can also think about the death drive in a liberatory way, as Jacque Lacan and others do.
In my work on gunpower, I’m trying to read the United States as a giant machine for producing guns and bodies. Considering the death drive in political, economic, and libidinal terms allows us to see this waste as production: the destruction of people and the creation of all this garbage are actually outputs of energy that serve some sort of purpose. If you look at the situation this way, you get a sense that all this stuff is radically contingent. The tradition of past generations may weigh on us, but right now there is a whole lot of cultural production that’s being squandered, that’s being wasted in repetition, that’s being all deployed toward the naturalization of its own contingency as inevitable, even if that kills us all. Even if you don’t adopt these theories beyond their ability to reveal this contingency, appreciating it might open up new possibilities. Maybe you can ask for more, or maybe you can envision things being otherwise. The very desperation and impoverishment of what passes for our political imaginary and libidinal economy may point to the fact that things could go differently. It’s like when policymakers brag about how “the foundations of our economy are strong,” and that’s really a signal that the economy is built on nothing.
The liberatory vision of the death drive is one in which it enables a total severing from what came previously and a rejection of all this falsely naturalized stuff. There is no reason why people who have more money than God should exist, or why they should be viewed as apexes of human perfection. There is no reason why having an economy should require the sacrifice of vast categories of workers. There is no reason why owning a gun should be seen as granting you security, when in the end you might get owned by the gun itself. There’s no reason for any of that shit. Thinking about the diminishing returns of pleasure, but also the sheer desperation of the system, can open up new possibilities.
Low-carbon leisure could make us so much happier, but we’re committed to the consumption of certain manufactured petroleum products that we buy and quickly throw away.
A broadly Freudian vision of civilization might be helpful here. Freud suggests that we need some amount of rules and hierarchy: for example, we tell kids not to torture animals or to randomly drop their pants in public. Because we’re not Cartesian cogitos, because we’re all differently abled and only abled temporarily at best, and because we’re dependent upon one another and these things called families, we need some structuring principles to protect people; we need to encourage certain types of behavior and discourage other types of behavior. I think there’s a place for that.
But the corollary is that a lot of what is normalized as behavior — naturalized relations to yourself, to your own body, to the bodies of others, to the idea of difference — comes back in this suppurative way, as what other theorists might call a “surplus repression.” I’ll go back to that example that Freud gives of the regulation of infantile sexuality. You might tell your kid not to expose themselves in public, and that may be necessary because you don’t want your kid growing up to be Louis C.K. But a suppurated element grows off of this basic prohibition, in which we then have to talk about whether our teachers are groomers and we have to protect our kids from shadowy predators.
In other words, the constitutive bonds of civilization have trade-offs, where we take a necessary bit of repression too far and end up with new conditions of suffering. Much like every artifact of civilization is also a sign of transformed barbarism, certain types of repression always give rise to this awful surplus. To give another example, we have the amazing technological developments of soap and hygiene. But we also eventually have, as one negative symptom of this norm, people who wash their hands until they bleed; as another, we have people who reject basic hygiene measures, like masks. One has to wonder whether we can normalize our relationship to hygiene, or to contagion, in ways that both ensure the public good and individual flowering but don’t produce these morbid symptoms that are so horrible and cruel and demented.
In rare cases, such as Parkland, waves of activism have emerged after shootings. What sort of advice would you like your work to impart to young activists concerned with reducing gun violence? What sort of horizon do you think they should be fighting for?
I would ask them to resist the received terms in which we deal with these issues. It seems like the problem of social violence has to be segmented into gun violence and gun control, which means cops. Discussions of happiness and well-being seem to always become conversations only about mental illness and stigmatization. A lot of these pitfalls are discursive, and they’re not real in the world, in the sense of being eternal, essential things.
We talked earlier about how the phrase “gun control” isn’t in the Constitution, and it doesn’t really matter until the ’50s or ’60s. Second Amendment scholarship also does not really show up until the ’50s or ’60s. And yet now millions of Americans understand themselves in relation to these concepts and terms. On the one hand, that’s depressing and sad. But on the other hand, that points to a Gramscian hegemony of common sense, which can change. Certain terms become — through political activism, through being rejected, through being interrogated, through being tested against emergent and changing political realities — no longer the terms by which people describe situations, by which people intervene in situations, and by which people understand themselves.
And so, if I would ask anything, it’s just to not get exhausted by the terms that you’re given or to see them as the only way of looking at things. Develop multiple vocabularies for talking about the same problems. You don’t lose anything by being ambivalent, by being able to think two ways about the same concept or the same term, by using multiple terms for the same concept, or even by thinking that maybe a concept is actually multiple concepts. It’s worth resisting the immediate need for action in favor of doing a little bit of reflection and considering that maybe you could produce your own vocabulary; you can take what you need and leave what you don’t, continually revising, leaning into the ambivalence of creation.
That sort of reflection seems to me to be the sine qua non for any type of organizing or thinking. And I think there are people leaning into that one way or another, whether it be abolitionists or people who are thinking about gender in new ways. But that refusal to accept received terms simply because they’re received — and the willingness to create new ones and to test them — seems absolutely essential for conceiving and making a new future.