The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona on Saturday has prompted a vigorous debate about the role of violent right-wing rhetoric in prompting the criminal behavior of Jared Lee Loughner. Many sensible people (mainly on the left) have sought to blame politicians who urged their supporters to "reload" or to make use of "Second Amendment remedies" or to "overthrow the liberal government." Less sensible people (mainly on the right but disappointingly in the conservative, i.e., mainstream, media as well) have argued that laying blame in this way only further inflames an already volatile climate. The arguments against this "false equivalence" between rhetoric on the right and the left have been widely distributed and are persuasive.
The current debate has seen the revival of a favorite NRA meme--"Guns don't kill people; people kill people"--as well as its extension to rhetoric or words. The most brilliant discussion of this meme that I know is Bruno Latour's, in his 1994 article "On Technical Mediation." Latour criticizes both the sociological determinism of the NRA (who see guns, or technology generally, as only a neutral instrument) and the technological determinism of those who blame gun violence on the technology itself. For Latour, agency is always hybrid and distributed; it is the actant formed by the alliance between gun and shooter that kills people. Latour cleverly diagrams how agency is commonly detoured or translated into some other form when actors encounter other potential actants.
Thus, an angry man who finds a gun becomes a different agent that an angry man without one; the alliance of man and gun produces the potential for a different action than an angry man alone, transforming the possibility of say violent words or physical violence into the possiblity of gun violence. Similarly a gun on the shelf of a gunstore is a very different agent than a concealed weapon brought to an Arizona Congresswoman's meet and greet.
This schematic account of the relation between agency and technical mediation is of course only a sketch. Latour sees action as always occurring within more complex assemblages or networks of humans and nonhumans, individuals and institutions, words and things. Which brings us back to the role of the current right-wing political rhetoric in Saturday's shootings. It is of course an oversimplification to blame the shootings on such technical mediators as Sarah Palin's famous map of Congressional districts in the crosshairs, as disturing as such images are.
But it is even more simple-minded to claim that such images and their accompanying rhetoric, circulated and amplified in the print, televisual, and networked media, play no role in acts of violence like that committed by Jared Lee Loughner. As I have argued in my recent book, technical and social media work to mobilize individual and collective affect and action. By premediating acts of violence against elected officials, such mediations as Palin's map, circulated and remediated by mainstream and participatory media, work to mobilize all sorts of actions, including those for which Loughner was the trigger.
As an agent, Loughner cannot be understood simply as an isolated, autonomous human (sane or insane). Rather his action must be seen (like all action) as the act of a complex, hybrid agent or quasi-agent, an assemblage made up of a troubled young man who liked to read and saw himself as a dreamer, the rhetorical incitements to violence proliferating on print, televisual, and networked media, the Glock 19- 9mm gun that was legally purchased at Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson on Nov 30, and other potential actants yet to be identified. Neither guns nor people kill people. People are killed as the result of complex chains and hybrid assemblages of humans, nonhumans, rhetorical mediations, and countless other potential actants. To think that violent right-wing rhetoric did not contribute to the agency of Saturday's murders is as simplistic as the politicans and media figures who spouted, circulated, and amplified such rhetoric in the media.