Yesterday’s catastrophe is irreducible. It stuns; it stops thought. It stopped mine, at least. I was in my office at campus, working on an article. Completing a section, I took a break to get another cup of coffee and to check out the news. And then I became nauseous. I forgot about writing, I opened up 12 news sites, I turned on a live feed of a news station, and I lingered over twitter feeds. Over three hours passed and I hadn’t really moved—I just clicked here, clicked there, and engaged in the kind of sense-making operations that many others were then undertaking. I watched as collective grief transformed into demands for collective action, into petitions for firmer gun regulation, even into programs for amending the Constitution to get rid of the 2nd Amendment. I watched as, with the same insistence, some demanded that we not “politicize” this catastrophe, at least not yet; that we wait a day, at least, before the political is superadded to this public event of intimate grief. The two positions—the first liberal-progressive in spirit, the second not necessarily not liberal, but certainly one that lends itself to a conservative tactics of delay, to a tactics of diffusal and affective dissipation—establish a similar relationship between the intimate and the political, between the event and the collective meaning we might give it. The narrative would look like this: The catastrophic event happens; it affects us, we who have become an intimate public; and, having affected us, we turn to a collective political vocabulary to negotiate and act upon the affectivity of the event. Intimate feeling turns into a public meaning, and such meanings might have political consequences. Grief—or any other kind of intimate affect—is thus staged as a condition of possibility for public political activity. The latter only appears necessary—truly necessary, such that such a catastrophe will not happen again—due to the way that the former, the felt relation to the even, conducts us to activity. We are profoundly sad, and this sadness propels us to political action—like, say, getting rid of the 2nd Amendment.
But here’s the problem. This understanding of the articulation of the intimate/affective to the political presupposes the sundering of affect and politics. Moreover, it presupposes that the purity of affect precedes the polemics constitutive of political being: Whatever one’s politics, one will have felt horrible yesterday. The purity of our affective lives ensures us access to the pure catastrophe of the event, and guards our motivations from becoming crassly political—even if, say, we want to undertake the eminently politic work of amending the Constitution. But—and here, finally, is the problem—what if the political precedes the affective? What if modes of collective regulation produce what can be felt as an intimate event? We are seeing, now, that grief over yesterday’s catastrophe is providing the condition of possibility for amending the 2nd Amendment. But what of that grief—how was it formed in such a way that it would, almost naturally, mobilize itself into a public vocabulary of redress, of counter-amendment? I want to suggest that it is the 2nd Amendment itself—the history from which it emerged, the culture in which it is embedded—that produces and regulates what can appear as grievable, mournable loss. Let’s begin thinking about this regulation of grief by looking at an ungrievable crisis.
It is obvious, in the wake of this catastrophe, that not all catastrophes matter equally, that not all catastrophes can accede to the category of the catastrophic. It is obvious that not all catastrophes participate in the obviousness constitutive of the catastrophic. Over the summer, for instance, Chicago went through a horrific period of gun violence, of spiking homicide numbers. While this violence achieved national legiblity, it did so not as a catastrophe, but as an on-going crisis, as something that, while exceptional, was ordinary. This crisis achieved ordinariness due to the conjoint operation of its temporalization and its spatialization. Taking place over multiple days, multiple months, the time of this crisis was diffused; it lacked the punctuality of an event. This crisis also took place in “gangland,” in a racialized space where the ordinary is always already in crisis, anyhow. The mounting body count did occasion public outcry, but this outcry was bizarrely regularized through the crisis’ mode of appearance: through statistics, charts, graphs. The deaths were publically considered horrendous, but they were met without weeping; Rahm never cried. The deaths were a police problem, not a collective political problem; they were a particular and particularizable problem, one endemic to racialized poverty. A police problem, these non-catastrophic deaths did not really engender a broad movement designed to take down the 2nd Amendment.
How does this instance of ungrievable, ordinary crisis derive from the 2nd Amendment’s mode of affective regulation, such that this crisis would barely call into question the utility of the 2nd Amendment? Let’s think about what the 2nd Amendment is. We want to think of the 2nd Amendment as having emerged out of a concern for national self-defense, of protecting the family from depredations of the King and Crown or of the emergent federal state. In those terms, we can almost make sense of it. These “well regulated militias”—and let’s laugh, as historians of the colonial Americas, at the ideas that such a “well regulated” crew ever existed—and the well-armed citizenry existed, we think, to protect the U.S. from a kind of political enslavement. And that’s not untrue; tropes of tyranny and enslavement mark the debates prior to ratification of the constitution and the amendments. Good ole Teddy Sedgwick declared it “a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved…Is it possible…that an army could be raised for the purpose of enslaving themselves or their brethren? or, if raised whether they could subdue a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands?” The problem, of course, is that colonial militias typically did far more work ensuring the continued enslavement of slaves than in defending home and hearth from British redcoats. In most slave states in the Americas, participation in a “well regulated militia” was compulsory. Even if such militias never acted—as they did in the suppression, say, of Nat Turner’s Rebellion—their very presence was useful in intimidating slaves from actualizing collective freedom dreams. Moreover, possession of firearms and possession of slaves are statistically related. “Guns are more common in early American inventories,” write James Lindgren and Justin Heather, “where the decedent was male, Southern, rural, slave-owning, or above the lowest social class[.]” (“Decedent” because their data sets were constructed through probate records.) The likelihood of owning a gun increased as did the size of one’s slave possessions: “In 1774, large slave-owners have 4.3 times as high odds of owning a gun as small slave-owners or those who owned no slaves.” Gun ownership was intimately linked to regulating racialized and stratified populations inside of the nation.
Put simply, the 2nd Amendment emerged out of a juridico-politico-cultural matrix in which bearing arms ensured the sovereignty of the white protestant male. (You can check out the English Bill of Rights here to see how this right, in England, emerged to enable the defense of such white prot dudes from “Papists”—itself a racial category in the Anglo Atlantic.) We see traces of this matrix in the vocabulary of the amendment itself—“the security of a free state,” “the people”—terms that mark sections of a population off from others. We might think that such history has nothing to do with us today: there are no more slaves, after all, and descendents of slaves can own guns like anyone else. Yet, the cultural norms and practices that concreted themselves in the 2nd Amendment continue to regulate the distinction between mournable and unmournable life, between grievous catastrophe and non-catastrophic modes of not-being-alive, of death without weeping. By enabling a population—“the people” who live “in a free state”—to defend itself against those who live in a state of unfreedom, the amendment participated in the material and symbolic assignment of value to lives worth living, and thus deaths worth grieving.
We think of the 2nd Amendment as we think of all rights-claims: it works through negation, it says, “Don’t take my guns away.” But it operates positively, too. The 2nd Amendment valorizes one particular form of life by giving this valued life the gift of violence, the capacity to undo other modes of living that interfered with its flourishing. All of us now can perhaps own a gun, but the simple possession of a gun does not mean that we have traversed the threshold of political legibility required to live a mournable life. We can see the enduring capacity of the 2nd Amendment to regulate grief and the grievable in the categories that we are deploying to mourn yesterday’s tragedy. I’ve been stunned by the heteronormativity and reproductive futurism that informs our collective mourning. “They had their entire lives ahead of them—birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own,” Obama said, as he “react[ed] not as a president, but as anyone else would—as a parent.” Here, straightness is both the object and optic of mourning: proleptically straight children will never be able to have “weddings” and have “kids of their own,” and only those who have done so, the “parent,” have full access to the overwhelming grief of the event. Queerness—alternative modes of life—can neither be mourned, nor can queers properly mourn. I’ve been struck, too, by the non-racialization of the victims, whiteness being the presumed race unless otherwise stated. “It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting,” I heard one reporter say of Newtown—as if such picturesque normalcy intensified the tragedy of the event.
If we are to (am)end the 2nd Amendment, we must take care to uproot its enduring capacity to regulate grief, to regulate determinations of well-lived lives worthy of mourning. School shootings induce such horror due in part to the way in which instruments developed to ensure the flourishing of “well regulated” life—normal life, straight life, white life—catastrophically redound against that population. The violent, on-going crises of the everyday that beset life less well regulated—the lives of black men in “gangland” Chicago, the lives of queers, the lives of the poor, and so on—do not and cannot achieve the same kind of catastrophic legibility. The 2nd Amendment never intended to cover such unregulated life, it never intended to provide it the mechanisms of protection required to flourish. As we grieve, as this grief propels us to action, we need to remain conscious of how this grief has already been formed and fabricated by histories that produce unmournable lives and ungrievable losses. As we seek to regulate laws that inhibit regular lives from being lived, we need to attend to the irregularity at the margins of normal life, to the (ir)regular crises of the everyday that never congeal themselves into a moment of catastrophic tragedy.