According to NPR’s Sarah McCammon, there are two reasons for seeking meaning in the aftermath of the devastating Las Vegas shooting.
First, understanding the motivations of the gunman can help law enforcement officials prevent further attacks. This is altogether practical, necessary, and important. The second reason, however, is worthy of theoretical consideration.
“There’s also often a psychological need to know,” McCammon writes, “both for survivors—and the larger community.” After a tragic event such as this, there is an insatiable desire to discover an explanatory “why,” for it not only helps the general population make sense of violence, but also provides survivors with a sense of closure.
While we certainly agree with McCammon, we are also captivated by this desire, this need to know why arbitrary events take place. If we employ McCammon’s definition, it is as if “meaning” is a kind of narratival ordering that allows one to comprehend the world after events take place. Meaning comes after fact, and though events are subjected to any number of interpretations, it is necessary to generate meaning after an event in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. This type of meaning, furthermore, is fixed, settled, and, as our colloquialism puts it, “closed.” It is an attempt to cross loose ends, saying: “This is what X meant—case closed.”
But suppose one can neither order nor arrange that which has taken place? Suppose one possesses neither the conceptual space nor the data to organize history? What if all we have is the event in its messy and chaotic concrescence, and the techniques we normally deploy for the sake of understanding falter?
Said differently, what are we to make of an event that defies narratival situatedness precisely because the event resists our current conceptual and political categories? What do we do with a circumstance that withstands instrumental explanations and easy associations? How do we then make sense of it?
In this way, we have encountered the intersection of real-world tragedy, the technics of meaning making, and the indeterminate possibilities that emerge from theoretical ambiguity. In order to explore this conceptual space further, we want to run the “why” or “the need to know” of the Las Vegas shootings through a set of propositions on ambiguous technics.
Our hope is to propose an “ambitechnics” of the event, which is a reflection upon facts that resist categorization in such a way that meaning is deferred and results in the possibility of unforeseen outcomes. Ambitechnics, therefore, is both comprehensible and yet incomprehensible, calculable and yet incalculable, closed or finished and yet open or incomplete.
With this in mind let us propose the following:
- The Las Vegas shooting lacks instrumental meaning because it cannot be situated within a settled political narrative. The meaning of the event, in other words, transcends categorical typecasting.
- Because it lacks coherent meaning, it is ambiguous and remains, in the scope of interpretation, non-totalizing.
- One consequence of this ambiguity is that the event itself cannot be wholly politicized in the common vernacular of post-mass shooting debates. In other words, ambiguity resists the event’s utilization as a mere political trope (e.g. “mental illness, gun access, and the need for constitutional safeguards”).
- The event’s political ambiguity renders it something other, and this otherness allows for an opening, rather than a determinate closure of thought and action. Saying this another way, because the shooting cannot be pinned neatly on (fill in the blank), it cannot therefore be reduced to any one thing.
- If the shooting can bypass reduction then its meaning is potentially opened to new horizons, which might disrupt codified and instrumentalized political dogmatisms and force us to grapple with the meaning of new possibilities.
Make no mistake: the Las Vegas shootings were a homicidal act perpetrated by yet another white male who was able to procure a veritable mountain of high powered firearms (most of which were purchased in the past year). Despite this fact there is something odd about the Republican response to the shooting.
In contrast to times past when the public was privy to hackneyed, nonsensical calls that we not “politicize suffering,” various conservative representatives seem to be finally suggesting a desire to find new outcomes to this polarizing problem. Even the National Rifle Association, a stalwart in excuse-making, hand-washing, and foot-shuffling after American citizens are persistently mowed down by the instruments they champion, has been found silent. A poll conducted by NPR last week reported “overwhelming support for various gun control measures across the political spectrum.”
Following the logic of ambitechnics, it is potentially because the Las Vegas event resists being slotted into the given tropes of either political party. As long as we remain ignorant of the gunman’s motivations (which typically permit causal alignment with any host of explanatory frameworks), we must refrain from conceptually organizing, aesthetically judging, or narratively structuring the event as it is. We cannot neatly excuse the gunman’s “mental illness” as an exception to the rule of the Second Amendment or, as suggested above, proffer weak constitutional safeguards that would ensure that the mentally ill do not purchase guns.
On the contrary, it is the deferral of our desire for meaning—the ambiguity of the event—that allows for unforeseen political negotiations. This might shine light upon the differences in the political response between the Sandy Hook shootings, where the discourse quickly found orbit around questions concerning mental illness and gun access, and the Las Vegas shootings. Where before there was only the entrenchment of party lines, there is now an opening into the possibility for common sense reforms.
To be clear, this is not a valorization of the Las Vegas event. Rather, it is a theoretical reading of America’s “why.” But it is also an inversion in so far as ambitechnics claims that it is the unanswered question that allows for the possibility of an answer, which is never a solution but only the potential for a renewed negotiation in the name of cooperation and reciprocity.
Ambitechnics recognizes that solutions and the instrumental deployment of “solutionism” are illusory in the ongoing processes of politics, which are always narratival reflections a posteriori. The political process, in other words, is a constant rearrangement of the already given encountered through a shared cultural network. In this way, all reconfigurations of the network itself are negotiations between nodal points, which seemingly can happen, à la ambitechnics, given only an ambiguous event.
The Las Vegas event problematized meaning. In doing so, it both deferred understanding and created an opening into the rigid polarization of America’s political process. For the first time in recent memory, guns (or at the very least, bump stocks) were back at the negotiating table. And while this might be simply a mild concession on the part of the NRA and Congress to appease public furor, it remains to be seen whether it is also a gesture that opens up the possibility for further co-determined rearrangements vis-a-vis gun ownership in America, which itself exists in an political asymmetry favoring unfettered gun access.
The question for ambitechnics is this – would any of this have been possible if either the shooter or the event had been quickly classified into a well-worn cultural, political, or conceptual category?
Conservative? Semi-automatic guns? Mental illness? Depression? Freedom? Male? Drugs? Terrorism? Whiteness? ISIS?
If the ambiguity of the event robs us of determinate meaning and closure — if it defers categorization by delaying our ability to neatly classify all of its disparate parts — then it also provides us with an opportunity to rethink the structure of our cultural network. In doing so, it creates the possibility for new connections and negotiations, democratic participation, and political reconfigurations. This is the anarchic work of ambitechnics in our political processes.
Jeff Appel is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Denver. His research interests include religion and technology, continental philosophy, cultural theory, and political theology. Benjamin John Peters is the author of Through All The Plain and Sigurd’s Lament: An Alliterative Epic. He is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Denver. Interested in religion, literature, and semiotics, he is working on a dissertation titled, Narrativizing Theory: The Role of Ambiguity in Religious Aesthetics.