The Wheelbarrows of Violence
After missing a 7:15am train on my way upstate last Saturday, I was talking to a homeless guy outside Penn Station while doing my best to enjoy a post-failure cigarette, knowing that I’d have to wait another two hours for the next departure. It had been a relatively crappy day for me thus far, but — in the middle of what seemed at first like nothing more than idle conversation — this guy surprised me by offering an important perspective on last week’s bombing of the Boston Marathon, and the subsequent manhunt that ended with the death of one bombing suspect and the capture of another.
“Everybody’s walkin’ on eggshells, but I’m just tryin’ to stay drug-free and feed myself,” he said. “Even in the shelter they watchin’ the news for 24 hours, nobody talking. Well, not me. I ain’t walkin’ on egg shells just cause of what’s goin’ on in Boston. I’m just tryin’ to stay drug-free and feed myself.”
Although, as I told him, we no longer have a choice whether or not to be enveloped by the liquid cycle of 24/7, “real time” news, it struck me that mainstream media coverage of an event like last week’s manhunt would have gained valuable depth if this homeless guy had been hired by, say, CNN as an analyst. His insight represented a deep line of thought that would have undoubtedly helped place that event in a broader, more humanly productive context.
This was a man whose life experiences have left him unable to feel a kick of adrenalin while watching a massive, Hollywoode-esque police search come to a head. Those same life experiences also prevented him from feeling satisfied or victorious after one of the bombing suspects was killed and the other one captured. It’s not that he felt bitter toward his privileged fellow citizens and welcomed their adversity; the homeless guy simply doesn’t have a proper stake in society, and couldn’t feel the sense of loss, fear or anger that the bombings provoked within so many faithful, upstanding Americans. All told (or maybe I should say, as told in the five minutes in which I met him), the homeless guy — in this case, as both an individual and an abstraction — bears a constant burden whose weight is more controlling, pervasive and destructive than any homemade pressure cooker bomb, and so his sense of reality is inherently different than that of his privileged fellow citizens. His sense of what is normal or shocking is, of course, much different.
There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing is the wheelbarrows themselves…
…a similar paradox holds true for violence. At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance.
So I imagine my homeless friend as the ideal guard — perfectly vigilant and eternally patient — who is absent from the story Zizek shares. He is the one who can watch CNN’s news report on the terrorist manhunt and, rather than ridiculing the network (like John Stewart and others did) for its poor journalism, this guy look even deeper and respond to the overexposed, purposefully panic-inducing images with an accusation, and a defiant declaration (albeit one translated by me):
Stop trying to trick me into developing a ideologically uniform sense of what violence is, and what is or isn’t normal! I’m no longer entangled to the lure of subjective violence, and it was your own systemic violence that disentangled me! You can’t flash a destructive image before me and then expect me to forget the destructiveness inherent to the society by which you profit, and by which I remain an outcast and an economic drain on faithful, upstanding Americans! I’ve known all along that it was the wheelbarrows you’ve been stealing, that the gallons of seeming emptiness were simply space in which to store your calculated deceit!”
Which is what we should all be thinking when Anderson Cooper enters his tenth straight hour of coverage on Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, and when our government, law enforcement and judicial system commence their treatment of him as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with our society. The fact is that we’ll always end up being duped — we’ll never “defeat the evil spirit of terrorism” or happily prove that, as Patton Oswalt so deliciously tweeted, “the good outnumber you, and we always will” — if we can’t disentangle ourselves from that lure of subjective violence, just as my homeless friend was forced into his own disentanglement by the unfortunate circumstances of his life.
Unlike a homeless guy outside Penn Station who says it instinctively, we must choose to say: “I ain’t walkin’ on eggshells!” And we must similarly refuse to surrender our attention to the media’s images of physical violence when various politicized debates — regarding the use and regulation of firearms, or America’s prison-industrial complex, among other things — periodically resurface.
Why not look deeper, to those symbolic and systemic roots of violence which Zizek — although he certainly is the first or the only one to do so — goes on to confront in his aforementioned book? Why not begin every discussion of violence with questions about what populations are being chronically disenfranchised by our dominant socio-cultural ideology, and how their struggles are subsequently trivialized in order to maintain our normal state of things? Rather than immediately using the power of television and social media to present violent acts like last week’s bombing as if they’re the most absolutely dangerous representations of some modern-day dissolution of morality, dignity and rationality, why not spend more time within those moments deconstructing the sociopolitical tensions that are more often caused by simple, shared ignorance than individual psychopathic tendencies?
In the coming days (and as part of a process that’s already well underway), we’ll all be expected to develop and maintain opinions about how the bombing suspect should be treated, how effective our law enforcement agencies really are in times of crisis, and what impact this event should have on things like domestic and foreign policy. But it’s not because these are our duties as patriotic, well-informed citizens — it’s because these are the very elements of what’s so alluring about subjective violence. They’re distractions, and, as Zizek writes, they represent a form of violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence.
So instead of using the aftermath of a perceived terrorist attack as an opportunity to feel sympathy for victims of physical violence — to imagine the horror of feeling their physical pain, and witnessing tangible acts of destruction — I’d rather balance their voices with those of my homeless friend outside Penn Station, who speaks freely about a violence he can’t appreciate, and who truly (albeit unfortunately) lives with the mental freedom to remain independent of entanglement to ultimately shallow media images of suffering. Our government would like us to think it is always undertaking the greatest efforts towards vigilance on behalf of public safety; but I think that the thief of Zizek’s story is just now crossing the border, walking away with his empty wheelbarrow while our most supremely confident guards let him pass, feeling only a sense of confusion and disbelief that, yes, somehow, you’ve been duped again.
*This piece originally posted on LitStack 4/23/13*