Posted by: Johan Normark | January 17, 2011

Killing machines

In Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic John Protevi discusses the way the subject is circumscribed in close-range killing and he exemplifies this with the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Central in his argument is his concept of body politic which is his reworking of Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of political physiology. For them the organism is a hierarchically ordered body in a hierarchically social system. Organism is a term of political physiology where the somatic biological system is patterned by a social system

Protevi’s body politic concept captures “the embodied and embedded…character of subjectivity: the production, bypassing, and surpassing of subjectivity in the imbrications of somatic and social systems. Individual bodies politic are cognitive agents that actively make sense of situations: they constitute significations by establishing value for themselves, and they adopt an orientation or direction of action” (p 33). These are not just individual human beings, they are also groups and institutions.

In the case of the Columbine killers (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold), they formed a killing machine, a transverse body politic where they as a group emerged as something quite different than they separately would have been able to do. This body politic was also affected by liberal laws and rights concerning firearms, military training, the school system, etc. Assemblages of many different scales and temporalities helped to form this killing machine.

Protevi argues that it is not who is willing to kill that counts but who actually is able to kill. A body politic must develop to a point where it can overcome or bypass the inhibition to kill at close range. Protoempathic identification is of importance in this inhibition. Seeing or even imagining the death of the other triggers a scenario where it is one’s own death that is being visualized.

Technology, teamwork, command and dehumanization are all used to enable military killing by circumscribing the protoemphatic identification inhibition. These factors help to lower the intensity of the act of killing so that it falls below the threshold that otherwise would inhibit close-range killing. The soldier doing the killing is “not the individual person or subject but the emergent assemblage of military unit and nonsubjective reflex or equally nonsubjective affect program” (p 153). It is the body politic doing all the violent action.

Running berserk/amok are ways in which rage drop the subject. It is the body politic that is the agent in the state of rage. The subject no longer experience what is going on, it will only experience the aftermath. This aftermath can, however, be devastating for the subject. Odysseus mourned his “death” as a warrior since the everyday life he was facing was boring because its triggers could not  push him beyond that threshold of endorphin release. Protevi believes that the Columbine killing machine committed suicide, not because Harris and Klebold felt remorse once their subjects began to reemerge, but because their killing spree had been so intense “that their whole lives afterward would be just too dull to face” (p 159).

Protevi, John (2009). Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

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