“You are not supposed to die at school”—an untrue statement. School kills you, but school kills you slowly. Children come in energetic psychotics, and (if the school succeeds) they come out depressive-neurotics ready to study the liberal arts, perhaps their hair has already been dyed blue: it’s a sad, slow death.
This is biopower: the State commands through its control of life and death, through the giving of gifts which place you in service (and debt) to it. The State was so kind as to gift you an education, itself a form of labor, and in return you give back years to pay off your debt, and for those however-many years, you are not to die—an easy deal, and, as you are told, a good deal! Education gives you the opportunity to perhaps be graced with other gifts, that is, other forms of service.
“[B]efore one signed pacts with the Devil to prolong, enrich and enjoy one’s life. The same contract, the same trap: the devil always wins” (211).
A simple deal, don’t die, and so the monkey wrench is simple: die. Not just any death can suffice, however, for death at this point is hidden in a linear path; death is always over there, always at an ever-increasing-away, pushed further and further down by drugs and doctors, hidden deeper and deeper in the closed rooms of hospitals and hospices and behind the glass window and curtains of the execution chamber—so long as death isn’t immediate, isn’t one and the same as life, the system keeps control.
Baudrillard, writing in Symbolic Exchange and Death, distinguishes between ‘Natural’ Death and Sacrificial Death. The former belongs to order of the law of equivalence, of Kapital, and thus of floating signs exchanged (your life is exchanged for death, 1:1, quite a good rate!); the latter belongs to symbolic exchange, an immediate exchange that functions on reversibility rather than equivalence (death reverses life, cancels it, and vice versa). ‘Natural’ Death has scare quotes because it is State-Death, wholly manufactured and artificial (and not in a good way). ‘Natural’ death is the hidden death, death as a terminus.
“‘Natural’ death is devoid of meaning because the group has no longer any role to play in it. It is banal because it is bound to the policed and commonplace [banalisé] individual subject” (185). The dead dies and is placed next to the living as another item, an item with a nominally negative value. The symbolic exchange of death against life is replaced with the sign exchange of death for life.
Lacking a proper social death (and death, symbolically, is social) “All passion then takes refuge in violent death, which is the sole manifestation of something like the sacrifice, that is to say, like a real transmutation through the will of the group” (185). We all love macabre things since death has been so repressed. “Speaking of death makes us laugh in a strained and obscene manner. Speaking of sex no longer provokes the same reaction: sex is legal, only death is pornographic” (204). Sure, you’re afraid your mom will read your internet history and she’ll see that you browse Murderpedia too much, but she’s in the living-room right now getting her rocks off to a Dateline sob story about a young college grad hacked-up before her time to shine. It’s not just your mom, nuns are getting off in convents right now going through the stations of the cross, visualizing a walking corpse being tortured to death; the Church hangs on to power not by managing life (i.e. sex) but rather by managing death, by playing strip-tease with the flock: memento mori!
“We, for our part,” writes Baudrillard, “no longer have an effective rite for reabsorbing death and its rupturing energies; there remains the phantasm of sacrifice, the violent artifice of death” (185). Maybe we Americans do have just such a rite. It seems every so often the desire for death, for a death-challenge against the symbolic debt owed to society, is actualized here and now.
Enter High Priests Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
“We are all hostages, and that’s the secret of hostage-taking, and we are all dreaming, instead of dying stupidly working oneself to the ground, of receiving death and of giving death” (186).
Children are the hostages of school; they are in service and debt to the State, to be paid off by ‘learning.’ “The hostage has a symbolic yield a hundred times superior to that of the automobile death, which is itself a hundred times superior to natural death. This is because we rediscover here a time of sacrifice, of the ritual of execution, in the immanence of the collectively expected death” (186). School shooters perform sacrifice, on the children they kill as well themselves—death becomes chosen, decided, and thus accidental; to be outside the ‘natural’ (i.e. State) order of death is to die accidentally. Inevitably, when we hear about the victims, we hear of misfortune: how unlucky they were to have gone to class, how unlucky they were to have gone to the bathroom, how unlucky they were to have looked wrongly once before at the shooter, and so on. (Mis)fortune is unfortunate to the State, revealing the threat of its unraveling that haunts it, the possibility of the reversal of the symbolic debt of so-called ‘life’ through a counter-gift. “This death, totally undeserved, therefore totally artificial, is therefore perfect from the sacrificial point of view, for which the officiating priest or ‘criminal’ is expected to die in return, according to the rules of a symbolic exchange…” (186). For subjugation, the shooter pays back with immediate death(s), and it works (sometimes), and if only for a moment, Moloch is pleased.
The horror at school shootings comes from the deaths not by necessity but is rather manufactured by the State. At once, the State-News-Media-Apparatus rationalize the shooting in all manners: it was guns! it was toxic masculinity! it was the parents! and so on. Libs and frogs, already hooked into their respective media circuitries, receive their instructions on how to react; the sacrificial death of children is repackaged in the simulacrum, is stripped of its immediacy, and is placed in a linear timeline with “warning signs” or “(in)direct causes.” This is the ideological function of the rationalization process; desperately, any cause is searched for, for if there was no cause, no reason for its State-Escape, then the symbolic exchange took place: if the sacrifice worked, if the psychotic real is here and now, the State is revealed to be powerless, for its only power lies as the doorway between life and death, as the bar between symbolic exchange.
In truth, pleasure (and sometimes even enjoyment) haunts the shooting. Pleasure is of accumulation (and thus the economic order) while enjoyment is of symbolic resolution (and thus belongs to the symbolic order) (60). Certainly the shooter enjoys himself, for he experiences this symbolic resolution—the victims, however, trained to fear death, are in the worst states of their short lives; it is this reason, the individuality of school-shootings, that make them heinous. Who is he to make the sacrifice? Who is he to get all the enjoyment? However, a sickly perverse pleasure is still available for most, for those watching the spectacle unfold. They get to see what they want: to be savage, to die, to be a symbolic event; they also get to be mad and sad and write Facebook posts where the names of the dead become an itemized list to pass through our thoughts and prayers. The heinousness is apparent again: the students lives become exchanged for death, things to exist as alibis for our life, to move our own passions, to bring us to tears, to make us feel, and thus on a second level to be used in the political field, e.g. to ban guns (or to give a dumbass teacher a gun).
In the end, only the shooter has escaped the State. Yes, images of him circulate on tumblr and 4chan, his likeness made into memes to be exchanged among the schizopool of signs, but for an infinitesimal moment, he escaped, he got what we all wanted, death against life, life against death, a spiritual moment in the void of symbolic resolution. This is the true crime, that it’s the shooter who wins.
Baudrillard, Jean. 2017. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Revised Edition. Translated by Ian Hamilton Grant. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.