Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner and the Affective Contagion of Violent Rhetoric

Almost from the moment Jared Lee Loughner's assassination attempt was first reported, many in the print, televisual, and networked media (and a handful of politicians) have claimed that his actions were motivated or influenced by the increasingly heated rhetorical climate that has prevailed in the US at least since the 1990s when Republicans undertook a coordinated campaign to delegitimize the Clinton presidency. The past several days have seen an intensification of objections to this claim from across the political spectrum. Moderates and those on the left have argued that such a claim only further perpetuated a hostile and violent political and media climate. On the right the most common argument was that there was no evidence that Loughner had been exposed to any of the offending rhetoric or that he was politically motivated in any way.

John Protevi has written a persuasive blog entry contesting the linear, mechanistic notion of causality that underlies these defenses from the right. This causal logic informs this comment left on my previous blog entry: "there is literally no evidence tying Loughner to the usual overheated rhetoric people have been complaining about." Protevi argues that human action is much more complex than such accounts of "billiard-ball" causality suggest. The violent right-wing political rhetoric of Palin, Beck, and others could have influenced Loughner, Protevi argues, even if he had never directly been exposed to any of it because actions always occur within complex social environments.

In his brilliant 2008 book, Affective Mapping, Jonathan Flatley details the ways in which Heideggerian stimmung, or mood, and Raymond Williams' structure of feeling, describe how individual and collective affect can be influenced by the affective environment created by natural, social, cultural, and technical factors. Mood, Flatley argues, extrapolating from Heidegger, is how "historical forces most directly intervene in our affective lives." Flatley follows Heidegger (whose experience in Nazi Germany made this evident almost daily) in seeing moods as "an atmosphere, a kind of weather," which are not inner states but work through us both individually and collectively. "Stimmung is a collective, public phenomenon, something inevitably shared. Moods constitute the 'way in which we are together.'" Flatley likens Heideggerian stimmung to Williams's concept of "structure of feeling," but sees the latter as more social or even class-based. Thus where anger would be a mood, the anti-government attitude of the Tea Party would be a structure of feeling. Both, however, work to mediate individual and collective affectivity and action.

Seen from the perspective of mood or structure of feeling, the relation between Jared Loughner's actions and the violent, anti-government rhetoric of politicians and media figures on the right becomes more clear. Repeated assertions of the appropriateness of using violence against elected government officials when one is unable to use democratic measures to get one's way produce a structure of feeling and an anti-government violent mood within which individual and collective political action and affectivity unfold. We do not directly have to read or hear any particular call for anti-government violence for it to influence our actions. The totality of such violent rhetorical expressions, repeated ad nauseum in print, televisual, and networked media, provides the atmosphere or environment within which our relation to the government takes shape.

While the current anti-government mood or stimmung does not directly cause any particular action, it does, in Fltley's terms, provide us with the knowledge of "what is collectively possible at [this] moment; it tells us what our shared situation is and what may be done within that situation." It is from this perspective of mood or structure of feeling that Jared Lee Loughner can be seen to have been influenced by the violent anti-government rhetoric that has become an unfortunate but inescapable feature of media and political discourse on the right in the first decades of the 21st century.


michael- said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michael- said...

Skip that, it's actually here:


my bad.

Marc Tasman said...

Yes, very clear. I appreciate the metaphor of weather and mood. But can or should specific individuals be blamed, or even indicted for creating the weather? http://www.petitiononline.com/IndictSP/