There’s a tendency when faced with something of this drama and horror to try to discover a meaning of some kind in it — to try and parse it in some productive way. My experience is that there’s nothing to be achieved for that. I feel like all of the TV cameras are there saying, Here’s someone else saying why this is happening. Someone gets up and says it’s really all to do with video games. Then someone else gets up and does “if we had better mental health services.” I happen to agree with all these problems. I think violent video games have a negative impact on the people who play them; there seem to be many studies which reveal that. I think if we had mental health screening of an adequate nature in the school system, we could probably catch people before they escalate to levels of psychosis and dysfunction.

But I don’t think that you can just make up a laundry list and say, “If we only took care of these 10 things, it would go away.” I think the capacity for this horror is out there. What one eventually has to come terms with is the fact that it’s unknowable. “Andrew Solomon: There’s no meaning to be found in Sandy Hook” by David Daley, December 19, 2012.

I knew about Andrew Solomon because of his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (which won the National Book Award in 2001; see Google Books for a preview of it). Although I do not agree with everything he said in this interview, I found his general assessment of the situation to be much more nuanced than most of what I’ve read in the past couple of days.

I’ve previously wrote about the challenge a community is likely to face when confronted with a tragic situation where some aspects remain unknowable. The challenge is even more difficult when the tragedy stems from within the community itself:

This precarious situation ―the “apparent contradiction” I opened this entry with: to know what is or must remain unknowable― could be said to be the immediate horizon of our coming coexistence. The problem could thus be formulated that way: how are we going to create adequate conditions for our togetherness while facing ―if not producing― the very threat which could dissolve it? (On the threshold of knowledge: Pythagoreans, irrationality and the experience of modernity)

The current lack of a clear cause or of a satisfying explanation following the events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14 can be disturbing. It is as if the tragedy was twofold and thus twice as hard to overcome. First, members of the community ―including many kids― lost their lives. Second, those who survived are denied (to some degree) the possibility to clearly grasp what happened and why it happened. Probably in direct response to this distress, some may feel the need for simpler explanations: to pinpoint one simple cause and blame most of what happened on it (be it guns, mental health, God, video games, movies, etc.) What is asked for in this process is an “epistemological closure”: the breach produced by what is unknowable must be closed up and sealed by shared knowledge.

At the time of writing, it’s nearly impossible to navigate through the information torrent being poured both online and offline without bumping into narrative devices that served this very function: “Here’s why…”, “The simple truth about…”, “What really happened…”, “What you must know…”, “What it means…”, “Once and for all…”. The sheer level of noise produced and reproduced in this manner can be dizzying. It reminded me of what Janet Malcolm once wrote about our ability to “tinker with actuality”:

We go through life mishearing and misseeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up. […] we tinker with actuality in order to transform the tale told by an idiot into an orderly, self-serving narrative. (The New Yorker: “Iphigenia in Forest Hill” by Janet Malcolm, May 3, 2010, p. 38; subscription is required)

In order not to drown in this furious stream of information, some common sense advices can be applied (I’m borrowing part of those advices from the now defunct blog Bellum: the advices they issued had to do with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster):

  • Presume headlines are deceptive. Do not trust paraphrasing. This implies that one should refrain from participating in the diffusion of an article (or any piece of information) one hasn’t carefully examined and fact-checked. Original sources for significant quotes should be tracked down and checked as well.

  • Beware of so-called “expert on mass murders”. Writing a book doesn’t make one an expert on anything. All the “expert” label provides is authority: it’s not a guarantee of accuracy nor intelligence.

  • Beware of interpretation or arguments allegedly based on statistics and “studies”. Numbers can be manipulated in many ways, just like academic studies. Numbers and studies do not provide proof by themselves: instead they require careful examination and cross-examination. If possible, one should access and review the original source for any data used to support a view or an argument or a narrative.

This whole process is time consuming. But the value of the information harvested in this manner is directly proportional to the effort one is willing to put in the task.

• • •

[UPDATE–March 5, 2013] In The Writing of the Disaster Maurice Blanchot wrote about the aporetic experience of disaster. Among many interesting (and moving) ideas, he made the following remark, which I find relevant in light of the issue at hand here (the relationship between the production of explanations –knowledge– and our ability to deal with this disaster):

The disaster, depriving us of that refuge which is the thought of death, dissuading us from the catastrophic or the tragic, dissolving our interest in will and in all internal movement, does not allow us to entertain this question either: what have you done to gain knowledge of the disaster? (tr. by Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [1980]1995, p. 3; in French L’Écriture du désastre, Paris: Gallimard, p. 10)

See previously: “I call disaster…” by Maurice Blanchot, 1980

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