April 21, 2007 § Leave a comment

As the narratives proliferate over authority, responsibility, and blame in the aftermath of the tragedy at Tech, professionals and laypersons alike struggle with a “story” that will bring causal sense to the event. In keeping with our predilection for construing violence as about or by individuals, more and more attempts to “know” the shooter and his motives appear in blogs, newspapers, and special reports. There is always a profound anxiety surrounding such attempts, especially in light of the troubling imbrications of the concept of the individual with violence (many gun control arguments assume a kind of prophetic relationship to the potential of violence and personal freedom).

Even within professional circles there is a troubling focus on preventive measures and blame coming to the fore. At the Chronicle of Higher Education’s site, faculty and staff debate the level of preparedness available on campus, as well as the level and degree of intervention into a troubled student’s life. Interventions, incarcerations, response plans aside, what is really “preventable” about this crisis?

Our mental health system in the U.S. is as broken as health care. No question. Yet, how do we know when someone will cross a line and do violence to themselves or others? Any attempt to bar anyone with mental health issues from participating in education would make the mission of higher education an impossibility – not least because some of the most talented, sensitive, and promising students and faculty themselves have struggled with depression, mania, even schizophrenia. Such afflictions by themselves are not indicators of future violence. And there is the further problem of knowing when personal affliction foments under the influence of a cultural addiction to violence.

The group of English professors at Tech who, as one describes it, put together a “task force” to try to help Cho, did as much as they could under very difficult circumstances. Moreover, who is to say that Cho might not have found another possible future in his pursuit of proper treatment, the cathartic act of writing, and encounters with the power of language? For every Cho, there is the writer, thinker, maker who finds a way to re-mix the alchemy of troubled soul, dysfunctional world, and individual responsibility. We just never know. It is often the caring patience of a professor or mentor – a person with the insight to face unnerving behavior with understanding and a willingness to let one “work through it” that means the difference between the creative life and the life of isolation or worse, of giving back instead of falling away.

Edgar Allen Poe, one of our better-known troubled minds found, for a time at least, productive power in his madness. But he inflected his “symptom” through his ability to de-individualize his affliction; to let it groan for all of us in a way that made us think more expansively about repression, torment, and dis-ease. Poe himself was confused over whether he was suffering in the face of a world gone mad or a dysfunctional mind. His best work shows how the two are hard to parse. I have thought often over the last few days about Poe’s art of the doppelganger: the “ghostly counterpart” of the self. Some ghosts speak back to individual madness to transform it: Hamlet’s father asks for remembrance more so than revenge, for his son to imagine him “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” But Hamlet hears less the cry for collective remembrance than he does the beckoning of a “fair and war-like figure” and he turns on himself and those around him. Some ghosts we want to conjure to speak and others we want silenced: We have hungered for stories about who Cho was and what his “motives” were; but we recoiled to see the ghostly images in his own video of an angry, insane young man mimicking militia-style poses and ranting against greed and loneliness. Such apparitions swell the narrative. Liviu Librescu, professor of engineering killed in the shooting and survivor of the Holocaust, carries so many ghosts with him out of this world. Too many war-like apparitions anymore to make out solitary selves; singularities; causes.


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