As has been noted many times, the most fascinating elements of the phenomenon of school shootings are (1) the almost universal expression of some measure of sympathy with the shooters and (2) the immediate sense that, in some respect, media saturation is at least connected to the problem.

Whatever one's particular intuitive feelings about demographics in high school (jocks, geeks, etc.), the value of the media in American society, or the amount of empathy one ought to feel for the shooters, the fact remains: as a cultural event, school shootings seem to invite investigation into larger questions concerning American culture.

Chief among these: what common bond connects almost all of us to the shooters? And how does the media affect the situation?

In this post-modern era, most people are acclimated to the absence of moral systems; we assent to the subjectivity of cultural beliefs, and we guide our behavior according to the ethical principles we accept personally, usually without invoking external justification. Though some older individuals have difficulty with this, a surprising number of younger people consider it natural.

However, the post-modern era is also the post-structuralist era, and though the issue of social morals may be satisfactorily settled for most, the question of identity is more troubling than ever before.

If all forms of conscious communication are instantaneously reproductive, if every identity has been explored, analyzed, categorized, and therefore reduced in advance, how is one to select or develop or appropriate a "way to be?"

For example, when adolescents rebel, parents expect it; rebellion has been co-opted by psychology texts, and is no longer a vital or authentic way of freeing oneself from one's parents. It has become a cultural institution, devoid of personal meaning.

The same is true for almost every form of behavior: how often are we identified with movie characters? "Dude, you're acting just like Tyler Durden?" Or with newsmakers: "You're an Eric Harris waiting to happen?"

But it is not simply contemporary popular culture which has already rendered every form of identity inauthentic; the "great books," classic theatre, and nearly every form of narrative or cultural information exists now in such ubiquity, thanks to the Internet, television, etc., that an unexamined iteration of human identity is difficult to locate.

In the face of mortality, developing an inimitable identity is crucial; no one can accept living and dying as an indistinguishable variation on the general human prototype. But the pervasive institutionalization of every act, of every text, of every identity make this very difficult.

In adolescence, when people are struggling to construct their personality and demographic allegiances, this situation is acutely felt. Everything one might do has been turned into a primary text already; it has been seen in a movie, on TV, heard in a song, written about in a book or an article, and is consequently useless; the hyperbolized blather about individuality heard in high school halls is a response to the absence of unexplored potentialities.

What to do? Such a situation seems to make life impossible; how can one live a life when one's every thought, every habit, every emotion is a facsimile, a derivative reproduction of widely circulated fiction and news?

One can attack the sole immutable, irreducible quality of human society: life. No matter how many texts are disseminated by media, no matter how many narratives are proffered by culture, death is always a profoundly shocking event, and it always resonates.

A 15-year-old boy who feels that his life is a pathetic amalgam of suffering and inauthenticity, whose entire existence has already occurred and continues to occur for billions of other people, whose shame comes from his reflexive awareness of the impossibility of living anything other than a derivative, appropriated existence, values neither his life nor those of others. They are not lives to him, but texts: articles already written.

But in killing people, in terminating the only state of being anyone knows, he penetrates the layer of post-structuralist non-reality, and actually acts. He achieves power over the systems of information and media, and is no longer reduced by them into pseudo-existence. No one can deny the authenticity of death, the very real effect of bullets, the vitality of murder.

Unfortunately, the 15-year-old boy must either die or go to jail, and he has devastated the lives of countless survivors in his sad quest for legitimacy. His actions are unconscionable, and he has in effect accomplished nothing but the vindication of his unstable ego, and that too will be decimated after the fact.

But in examining his motives, we can perhaps begin to address the real causes of these crimes. Perhaps American culture places too much emphasis on authenticity (I cringe whenever I hear someone call someone else a "phony" or a "wanna-be," as we are all phony and we all want to be something, and admitting it doesn't change a thing). Originality should be celebrated, but individuals absorb and appropriate and recontextualize cultural sources to create identities, and people should not be ashamed of doing so. To expect anything else is to establish an impossible standard: there have now lived on Earth 86 billion people, and possessing some of their facets is substantially better than trying to kill as many as you must until you feel real.

After reading mills' text on school shootings and post-structuralism I started thinking about the reasons why a school kid would run amok. I began to link the subject matter with other thoughts of mine about related subjects. I also found some other nodes on E2 that seemed to tie in with the general problem, so of course they're hardlinked at the appropriate places.

Let's begin with the groundwork: All people are in need of identity. Especially in today's individualistic society, a person needs to be somehow distinct from everybody else. If somebody becomes indistiguishable from others, then that person ceases to be an individual. In a way he or she therefore ceases to exist. Being distinct is the key to your survival. Else you become an unperson.

Look at a TV soap or something similar. Notice how all the characters are happy and without any real problems. Notice how perfect they are - much better, much wittier than you can ever be. And above all, much more interesting. Just watch enough TV and their fictional life will become more real than your own, because while everybody pays attention to them, nobody pays attention to you. You are uninteresting and therefore you do not amount to anything. You are irrelevant. This puts you in danger of effectively ceasing to exist. (1)

Saving yourself from Oblivion
Of course, you would like to continue to exist. So what can you do? You must become interesting enough to make people notice. And there's basically two ways to do that. Either you can look at the interesting people and try to imitate them, or you can try to distinguish yourself in some other way.

Role Models
Do you smoke? If so, why? Look at movies: there's that classic image of the cool guy smoking, in all its variations. Todays incarnation is the machine-gun-toting badass having a smoke in a corner after just mowing down a small army of Bad Guys. Or an older variant: the powerful, cigar-smoking mafioso. So you might subconsciously begin to imitate them, and start smoking. This has nothing to do with your being stupid or gullible - I've noticed it on myself. Though I am a rather vehement non-smoker, I have caught my right hand in a very revealing gesture several times now: My index and my middle finger, held together, stretched out. Just right to hold a cigarette. And I hardly ever watch TV.

Many people can stave off their fears by imitating people they think are more important than themselves. Cliques are also another way to get yourself acknowledged. If you adhere to the standards of a clique (clothing, language, who to beat up), its members will respect you, and you will belong. Cliques are basically groups of people constantly re-affirming each other's importance.

Reaching for the Top
That doesn't work for everybody, however. Social outcasts and those who are simply a bit too perceptive to get caught up in those trends have to find other ways. As I mentioned above, the other way to matter is by distinguishing yourself from the others in some interesting way. There are many ways to do this. Science, Sports, Good Works, Art, Writing (a good bet if you're reading this). Unfortunately, it isn't really sufficient to do these things. You have to do them reasonably well. What's the point of being an artist when people are indifferent to your work? What's the point of trying to help people when you're incapable of it? So this way of escaping from oblivion is barred to many. To be honest, it's barred to all those lacking the necessary talent, ambition or stubbornness.

Drugs and Violence
Having exhausted the harmless ways of dealing with this problem we now turn to the dangerous ones.

Drugs are a great way of getting over your feelings of worthlessness. Just get yourself high enough and you won't feel anything bad at all. Problem is that you can't stay on drugs all the time. You got to get money for them. Oh yes, and they might kill you eventually.

What's left for the social outcast without any hope of success and without ready access to drugs? Somehow he needs to make other people notice him, somehow he must show that he amounts to something, show that he can't just be ignored, traded for the people on TV. Somehow he has to become more interesting than soap operas. And the easiest way to do that is to appear on the evening news. Shoots a few people and he's on. Suddenly he matters more than soap operas, if only for a short time. What comes afterwards does not really matter. All that matters is his short moment of glory.

(1) If something does not affect the world in any way, does not interact with it, then it does not exist. An example: I posit the existence of a giant blue dog in your backyard, digging up bones. But when you look outside and notice neither blue dog, nor bones, nor holes, then you will conclude that the giant blue dog does not exist.

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