Where there is no history (you make history) : Suburban Violence

There’s an interesting piece up on Jacobin today about the recent massacre at the Newtown, CT elementary school. I’m unfamiliar with the author James Livingston’s work (though his blog is usually a good read) and although I have not read his polemic Against Thrift , it seems to be a buy-side Keynesian response the crisis along the lines of: “Tax the rich, increase the salaries of workers whose increased spending will solve the economic crisis.” This is a far cry from Marx’s take on crisis, which doesn’t make it necessarily wrong of course. I thought n+1’s Benjamin Kunkel was something of a Marxist as he has reviewed in prominent places David Harvey and Frederic Jameson, but Kunkel blurbs this book as “the most important book yet to emerge from the ongoing economic crisis.” This book it seems approaches the underconsumption debate by claiming that a more even distribution of income will solve the problem of a lack of demand for all the commodities that have gone unsold. This is a historic debate which Rosa Luxembourg famously picked up, but in the end, if one reads Marx and all the volumes of Capital, one may begin to agree with him as he writes in the 20th chapter of Volume II that

It is sheer tautology to say that crises are caused by the scarcity of effective consumption, or of effective consumers.

Perhaps I’ll engage more with these issues later as this politics of Tax the Rich! surely fails as an effective politics in the short and long-run.

Livingston, in this Jacobin essay is talking about the young rampage-killer Adam Lanza and has some very interesting points to make. One of the best is his citing of William James’ analysis of a crisis of masculinity James saw dawning as technological advancement eventually disenfranchises a physical masculinity from its traditional role and begins to destabilize masculinity itself. Livingstone writes:

Here’s how James put it: “The transition to a ‘pleasure economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defence against its disintegrative influences.  If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase: fear regarding ourselves now taking place of the ancient fear of the enemy.”

[James] worried that this fear of emancipation from the older “pain economy” would take a regressively masculine form; he knew the manly virtues could be reinstated by the violent means of war, by militarism unabashed, and he designed his moral equivalent—real work with a social purpose—with that possibility in mind.

Back in February I wrote a blog I titled The Duke: Paul Blart / John Pike Part 1 which aside from providing this blog with a frighteningly steady stream of Google image searches for that infamous Mall Cop, attempted an analysis of masculinity in the era of the petty private security guard. John Pike, you may remember was the campus police officer at the University of California who with flat affect pepper sprayed students congregating on the common. The image of his casual comportment and emotionless gesture as he routinely sprayed the eyes of the sitting students like so many weeds between the patio bricks quickly created an explosive internet meme. Very soon one could find John Pike spraying the eyes of different innocents in famous paintings, etc… Christina's World

And then there is John Pike’s uniform. He’s suited up in black with a leather belt containing assorted holsters. He’s wearing black gloves, heavy boots and dons a hard plastic helmet with a chin-strap and clear plastic visor. Although attempting a level of sartorial intimidation that some of the other riot police squads these days deploy (such as the deadly and brutal Oakland PD), what made John Pike’s image so iconic was that his slightly flabby physique fails to live up to the athletic “Black Ops” uniform and image. Even his gait is irregular as he is clumsily caught mid-step in an almost-balletic fourth position.


John Pike, with his baggy black police uniform bulging in the wrong places is the image of the contemporary crisis of American masculinity, one that the movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop embraces at face value and grafts onto a sentimental tale of masculine redemption.

Comedies do not joke around: This 2009 movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop had a budget of $26 million dollars; its total box office ended up at $183 million dollars. That is not only a fat return on a small investment, but like many low-budget films that drive millions to the theaters, its a signpost of sorts as to which way the political winds are blowing. The plot follows the sad slouch of the mall cop who attempts to catch a criminal who is attempting to steal credit card numbers from the mall’s stores and escape to the Cayman Islands by taking hostages and escaping in an airplane. Of course the criminal’s henchmen are a racially diverse group of Gen-X extreme sportsmen who get around on their evil skateboards and BMX bikes. (So much for the glory days of 1980s emancipatory alternative sports films such as Gleaming the Cube and Karate Kid).

Contrary to Peggy Noonan’s desire for the gruff macho masculinity of John Wayne’s Duke to return after 9/11 and straighten the course of a manhood that had been veering off in the previous decades towards decadence and passivity, the rent-a-cop of Paul Blart and his accidental real-life farcical double in John Blart instead paint a picture of the overweight, foolish and sentimental masculinity that struggles and fails with its desire to fill the shoes of a previous “pain economy” of physical skill. The transition to James’ so-called “pleasure economy”  is of course met with a response of the cult of hyper-masculinity, a imperial violence and more traditional forms of martial reaction, but on the home front, Paul Blart teaches us that being a mall cop, though ridiculous, is a perfectly decent job that also puts one on the front lines of the more insidious war against terror. The recent batch of deadly shootings in malls, movie theaters, schools and other suburban commons would tend to render this argument correct.

Livingstone sees the Adam Lanzas (and one might as well add the countless other young men who don military fatigues and accoutrements before they begin bloody rampages against defenseless citizens) as a symptom of this transition of masculinity:

Adam Lanza couldn’t have told us what made him unimportant as a person, or a man.  He lived forward without understanding backward, so he needed a template, a blueprint, a script he didn’t author.  He found it in the insane militarism of American political culture—that’s why he dressed up like a commando and stormed an elementary school as if it were a fortified bunker.  He played his part.

The unabashed hyper-masculine militarism he performed was, as William James suggested, a hysterical reaction formation against the “pleasure economy” we have created but denied—as if we could still locate the source of manhood in the demands of necessary labor, in the rigors of military discipline, in the sacrifice of war.

If Adam Lanza is the tragedy, then the Paul Blarts and the John Pikes are the satyr play. But what is the plot, what does this transition of masculinity mean as materially lived experience?

Is there not a space of history, where experience and family life obtain a historical topography, either rural (peasant or family farmer) or urban/metropolitan? Is this dichotomy too simplistic? Is it too easy to say that peasant experience and the experience of working classes in the urban centers and factory towns were collective experiences, and that collectives entail history, or live experience as history? The peasant experience is especially lived history as land use and its very geographic specificity enables one’s self-reproduction and the reproduction of one’s group (I avoid the problematic word “family” here…) One thinks of the peasants in Mexico demanding the ancient paper land titles from the Church lock-box during times of rural rebellion and unrest. The farms of America and the rural ideal in a different way tied work and experience to a historical development as the frontier grew, vanished, and found other technological ways of manifesting  itself. The crops failing, the farm going under to creditors, the struggle against the market,  the competitive techniques that form the basis of the agricultural revolution that snowballed into what we call capitalism is a history tied to place.

The urban experience obviously offers a horizon so vast and an intensity so strong that each moment offers a million simultaneities, the collective worker is self-evident, the mass worker a stark fact. The creation of history is effortless but also a weighty burden. The neo-liberal project to abandon multiple urban centers (Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, etc, etc) in the wake of urban unrest and falling rates of profit proves the historical gravity of 20th century urban agglomeration: The center cannot hold.

That leaves us with the suburb, where there is no history.

The suburb has no manifest history because it is habitation as negation. Negation of the city, negation of collective living, negation of apartments, negation of danger, negation of violence, negation of blacks, negation of race, negation of riots, negation of work, negation of labor, negation of time, negation of sound, negation of space, negation of land, negation of knowing, negation of history.

The suburb has no manifest history because speaking the history of the suburbs is to speak that which it negates, which is impossible in the suburbs.

What is this land on which these false streets wind their artificial curves?

What must be realized is that the transition of masculinity has a spatial component which is the Suburban. The overweening arrogance of the Suburban falsely proclaims an ahistorical and atomized terra nova. “Here nothing ever happens” the real estate agent joyfully proclaims, although consciously aware of the idiosyncrasies of the market and fluctuating land values, not to mention the spectre of History that always threatens the suburbs in the guise of the City, Race, and creeping Poverty. The nervous suburb negates these with a gate; the successful suburb negates history by surrounding itself with a protective moat of less successful suburbs. This inner sanctum is an impossible absolute zero of anti-history and impeccable, if impossibly surreal taste.

But the Suburban itself is starting to show signs of a historical transition along the lines the William James writes above when he is quoted on masculinity:

“If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase: fear regarding ourselves now taking place of the ancient fear of the enemy.”

The glorious heydey of the Suburban was its birth as Negation in a pure fear regime. But now, with the trituration of almost all forms of urban and non-urban working-class resistance through the abandonment of the cities and the neo-liberal offensive, the suburb loses its originary myth and finds itself without an other. There is nothing left to negate, so it starts to fear itself.

Where there is no history, you make history. The bloody and cruel form this contemporary suburban history self-manifests can only be understandable against the banal and purposefully ahistorical innocence of its victims. The horrible trough the Adam Lanzas plow is not just that of an over-militized masculinity gone haywire, but a furrow in whose declivity grows the horizon of history itself.

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