A subject interrupts daily routine through an assault at a landmark building in New York City. Shots rang on the streets, 10 individuals were hurt and in split seconds media outlets storm the scene. A question jumps from the lips of those present and is channeled through the journalists piecing together of the puzzle: was it a terrorist attack?
The media's insistence that what took place this morning in the Empire State Building is "not terrorist related" underlines the precariousness of being, the heightened sense of frailty that lies in this present. Life is terror and our existence is a struggle for refuge against fear and anguish. However, our sense of normality is mediated by convincing ourselves that we are safe. Safety, then, is only achieved temporarily as a process. It is a fiction we construct as an oasis in the midst of a desert, although this oasis is more precisely a mirage.
The precariousness that branches out of an-other's interpellation informs how we live. As part of bodily life, we cannot preempt the vulnerability to a sudden address from elsewhere. (1) To be addressed presents itself as a fundamental act for being; it is simultaneously intersected with a feeling of loss and fulfillment. This ontological paradox stems from the tense relations in being named, that is, with how we are defined semiotically and how the material operations of language work on the body. Hence, we are continually being set and left out, we are identified and blurred. The contours of interpellation are cut through by violence or by how "we are given over, without control, to the will of another"; it is "a way in which life itself can be expunged by the willful action of another." (2)
The focus on today's shooting and its negative relationship to terrorism brings to the fore a central characteristic of being in-the-now. But, what calls our attention may be the site itself where the event took place. We forget that these are the life conditions of people in working class neighborhoods in Detroit, in favelas in Rio de Janeiro, in the streets of San Juan, in the city of Aleppo, and in many other places around the world. We even seem to disconnect the event from events that took place today: the 19 people who were shot in Chicago and the verdict on mass-murderer Anders Breivik's case in Norway. The same media outlets that this morning obsessively directed their glance over Manhattan and built a narrative of exceptionality -soon the rotten apple metaphor will surface-, define these other sites with a sense of normality and disconnectedness that denies its citizens the possibility of being outside of violence.
As language operates through their discourse, we come to believe that violence is extraneous to life in the US. The discourse on the token marginal and solitary subject as inherently anti-social or violent is a poor way to grapple with a traumatic event like the Aurora theater massacre, or the Sikh Temple massacre. The murderer's of the world grew up in society and it is time to recognize that these are our monsters.
But fear is Empire. The topography of the site stresses the ubiquity of fear in times of anxiety. Debates over the past, the coming or the occurring collapse drive a collective sense of anguish, a feeling of loss. The frequency in public displays of violence suggest a growing angst that cannot or will not recognize its root. An im-possibility to identify what is lost or what is to come drives the condition of the mourner.
From the top of the building, a glance over the city serves as a purview of the fractures in Empire, the continuous recurrence of collapse. The edifice functions as a site for imperial memory since its inception: from the violence of capital in the midst of the Great Depression to the perpetual state of aggression of an anxious Empire.
(1) Judith Butler, "Violence, Mourning, Politics," in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004: repr., London: Verso, 2006), 29.
(2) Judith Butler, "Violence, Mourning, Politics," in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004: repr., London: Verso, 2006), 28-29.
(Update I: 1:21pm ET)
Two readers pointed out two events that should have been mentioned in my piece, so I have added them. (Anders Breivik's case conclusion in Norway today and the multiple shootings in Chicago last night) I have included a mention to James Holmes' movie theater massacre and the Sikh Temple massacre. Also, I edited-out the word "spectral" from the first sentence of the same paragraph.