What if the ‘gun debate’ is, fundamentally, a confusion?

Bee_A1-536x409Or, America doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a race problem.

Over the last few days, in response to the shooting deaths of a Virginia news team consisting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, a familiar cycle of debate has occupied news media and, if my own feed is any anecdotal indication, social media as well; the ‘gun debate.’ Columnist Nicholas Krystoff, for instance, reminds us that “more Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.” Given such an ‘epidemic’ of gun-related deaths, one more-or-less unique to American society, it seems crucial to determine how, exactly one might reduce this figure. The form this debate has taken in the last several decades of American political theater should familiar enough to readers that I don’t need to rehearse more than the basic arguments here. Either–the story goes–the solution to the ‘gun problem’ lies in some form of increased regulation of access to guns, or it lies in distributing guns broadly enough to dissuade shooters from risking reciprocation. And so, invariably, the question is framed in terms of the appropriate form and level of ‘gun control:’ are there any, and if so what are the correct, limits to be placed on the ability to access guns? Presumably, mental health, the existence of a criminal record, etc. are common indices that such controls could be framed around. I want to suggest, however, that this approach to the question of gun violence in America is fundamentally confused, no matter which ‘side’ of the debate one occupies. It should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of American society that gun violence itself simply indexes other antagonisms that structure American society. And, I want to suggest, it indexes one antagonism particularly directly: white supremacy, or, antiblackness. If this is in fact the case, then it follows that to frame the problem in terms of ‘guns’ is to reify the index at the expense of the antagonisms indexed. Without attempting to offer a comprehensive model or account of the racialization of American gun issues, I want to offer a few brief indicators that any analysis of gun deaths in America that presumes to actually address the problem needs to move away from the question of ‘gun control’ or its inverse ‘gun rights’ and directly address questions of antiblackness.

1. First of all, one cannot forget that the question of race is always tied directly into the history of ‘gun control’ debates. From the explicit framing of the Dred Scott decision in terms of keeping firearms out of black hands,1  to gun control’s place at the forefront of the KKK’s early agenda (culminating, notably, in the institution of the Black Codes), the early history of gun control in the United states is more-or-less explicitly the history of the disarmament of black Americans. One cannot forget, for instance, that the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968 was viable in large part as a response to the Black Panther party’s open-carry occupation of the California legislature in response to California’s own Mulford Act of 1967, which was explicitly framed to disarm the Panthers in the face of the police. If the history of the ‘gun control’ lobby is tied up with antiblackness however, it is not the case that, conversely, the emergence of an organized ‘gun rights’ lobby has been any less tied to this history of antiblackness. Gun shows, of course, are one of the most consistent places one can go to find far-right, explicitly racist organizations recruiting. Further, even the rhetoric of more mainstream conservative gun advocates relies on a barely concealed specter of racialized criminality for intelligibility. Homeowners should have guns because, after all, the ‘criminals’ will always-already have them, and homeowners should be prepared to defend themselves from criminal (read: black) interlopers.

2. Secondly, there’s the transparent disconnect between the incidents of gun violence that ‘bring up’ the gun control question, and those that make up the sorts of alarming statistics that Krystoff draws attention to. The perpetrators of the sorts of randomized mass shootings that make up the news cycle, after all, overwhelmingly take the form of young, white men. And yet, the faces on both sides of the figures Krystoff cites are overwhelmingly black. The difference in both kind and degree between these subsets of gun violence raises a host of racialized questions. What is it, exactly, that makes white men far more likely than any other group to take life indiscriminately when they feel slighted? Why is it that black Americans die of gun violence at such staggering per capita rates? (Blacks, for instance, accounted for 55% of deaths at the end of a gun in 2010, but only 13% of the overall population) To answer these questions would require asking about the conditions that connect blacks in America overwhelmingly to intractable poverty, poverty to violence, etc. It would require asking questions about white power and entitlement. It would require examining a whole host of questions that have nothing to do with guns per se.

3. Finally, taken together, these two indicators point towards possible explanations for the statistical confusion that underlies both sides of the gun debate. Advocates for both increased controls on gun purchases and for deregulation of gun ownership can smugly point to statistics that seem to indicate that their position, and the narratives that undergird it, more satisfactorily explain and can deal with the realities of American gun violence. Both sides would claim that these massive statistical variances can be explained by flaws in the research methodology of the ‘opposing’ side. But what if there’s a simpler explanation for the wide, almost random-seeming divergences between rates of gun violence and national gun policy? What if the factors effected by gun control legislations are more or less exogenous to the causes of gun violence in America? What if the only way to address ‘gun violence’ in America is not to address guns at all, but to address the ongoing operation of antiblackness in the structure of American society?

1.”For if [the protections of the Bill of Rights] were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police […] It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, […] to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

On the Uselessness of Bodies

In his essay “On Religious Illusions,” Raymond Geuss draws parallels between the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School and religion on the grounds of what Geuss sees as their shared relationship to the Enlightenment, broadly conceived. Namely, the regime of Enlightenment thought has given a certain disproportionate weight to the concept of “usefulness” when it comes to the evaluation of claims. This should not be confused with utilitarianism, for empirical facts can be useful in a non-utilitarian sense—though Geuss’s point is perhaps especially true in the case of utilitarians.

Geuss argues that for people like Horkheimer and Adorno, this intense focus on the instrumentality not only objects and ideas but action as well is part of the problematic logic of capital. The Enlightenment has made two critical errors: A sharp distinction between what is instrumentally useful and that which is inherently valuable; the development of criteria for the rationality of instrumental action (i.e. that which is guided by instrumentally useful empirical facts). There is no criteria given, however, for judging that which is purported to be inherently valuable, or for the rationality for action that is done for its own sake. A truly free society, says Geuss of Adorno, would reject this distinction between instrumentality and inherent value as having no purchase in reality.

In other words, the inherently valuable is useless on the view of the Enlightenment according to Geuss’s reading of the Frankfurt School critique. The path to resisting this ideology is not to then become useful, but to remain useless in order to disrupt the system. In other words, for Horkheimer and Adorno, religion’s uselessness is actually its greatest advantage. Geuss writes:

Religion does not fit into the modern world of universal functionality, and thus could, under some circumstances, become a bulwark against the closed world of bureaucratic domination which resulted from the full realization of the Enlightenment project, that is, against what Adorno called “the administered world.”

Of course, for Adorno, this sort of uselessness-against-administration can’t simply be uselessness as such—or any-old-uselessness. It must “instantiate an autonomous configuration of meaningfulness and value, and also effectively resist and maintain itself against the infinite ability of our society to assimilate and co-opt deviancy.” In other words, the truly useless must eschew all attempts by the logic of the capital-instrumental complex to reify it and thereby neutralize its threat.

On whether or not religion can accomplish this, Geuss is extremely doubtful. But his disdain for religion, I think covers over too quickly the radical potential this view has for reading other structures of domination, especially those in which economy and race, or economy and sexuality (or all of the above) are tied together.

This post is titled “On the Uselessness of Bodies” because as I was reading Geuss’s essay, I was struck by how quickly he connects action and what he calls “the metaphysical need” (i.e. religion) such that inherently valuable action is always a response to some kind of ideational desire. This is, I think, an ironically Protestant oversight on his part (the starkly anti-materialist activity of religion). As such, any consideration of bodies is thoroughly omitted from the discussion. But I think there is a strong sense in which we can use the concept of uselessness to read the treatment of bodies of color under white capitalism. Consider the rhetoric of most white conservatives on questions of the relationship between bodies of color and poverty: Laziness, entitlement, etc. In other words, useless. The rhetoric in response to the rioting in Baltimore, Ferguson, and the other protests around the country is similar: Riots accomplish nothing; the protests prevent hard working [useful] people from getting to their jobs, etc.

Geuss writes, “To be really useless is not simply to drop out of the society completely into the underclass of delinquents, deviants, terrorists, or the long-term unemployed.” The problem is that this too misses what it means for bodies as opposed to action to be useless. Impoverished black bodies, or other impoverished bodies of color, defy the white capitalist complex not because their action is merely inherently valuable as opposed to instrumentally useful. It is rather because their bodies themselves are not instrumentally useful and therefore not valuable. Inherent value plays a different role in the status of bodies in this reading of uselessness. Bodies are perhaps one of the only things in the logic of capital today whose value extends beyond utility/commodity as long as they’re white. White bodies are inherently valuable. Bodies of color are thus useless in the double sense of being neither inherently valuable nor instrumentally useful.

To take this reading of bodies via uselessness to its full conclusion, however, entails that these bodies remain useless since the demand of human flourishing, according to the Critical Theory, is not to fix the current system but to overhaul it completely. This is the logic of riots over against the logic of the current system which demands that people destroyed by it work within it for change. It is for that reason that people of color and those in solidarity with them must riot and protest. They must remain useless to the current system, because it is only in this uselessness that there can be any radical hope for a different future.