Mass Shooters in Our Boring Dystopia
April 9, 2022
Mass Shooters in Our Boring Dystopia Doug Lain June 7, 2022
We are accustomed to approaching the mass shooter as an individual, or as a statistical anomaly. Out of 300 million, Y will be traumatized when they are young. Out of 300 million, Z will be born with a genetic predisposition towards violence. Out of 300 million people, X number will be sociopathic. When viewed in this way our social task is to develop treatments for the shooter demographic, that is, if the costs of those treatments don’t outweigh their benefits. But what this approach leaves out is the possibility that we might overcome the initial conditions and change the probability ratio. Let’s step out of the usual frame, put aside familiar narratives and prefabricated solutions about gun control or the need for more guns, both of which are repeated on a loop in the wake of shootings in schools, grocery stores, concert halls, and nightclubs. Let’s address the phenomenon of the mass shooter, not as a technical problem, but as a symptom and symbol of our society’s decline into boredom.
The quintessential example of the bored mass shooter is Brenda Spencer, the 16-year-old Californian girl who lived across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary. On January 29, 1979, she opened fire on school children waiting for the school’s doors to open. Brenda Spencer is a prime example not because of the level of carnage (after all, by today’s standards, she barely qualifies as a mass shooter, having only killed two people and having merely injured nine others), but rather because her act of violence was recorded in song, as was her stated reason for murder. The Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” was released the summer after the crime, and described Brenda’s motives or, rather, her lack of a clear motive.
While Spencer was living in squalor and had suffered a traumatic brain injury, the reason she gave to a reporter from The San Diego Union-Tribune while she was barricaded in her house was, “I Don’t Like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
While it may seem glib to take Brenda at her word (the various traumas she’d suffered in her young life surely contributed in various ways to what the staff at a facility for truant students deemed was a suicidal depression), still, neither Spencer’s trauma nor her depression undermines her own assessment. When the reality of boredom is understood we can see that what she said was true.
Why did Brenda aim the semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle her father had given her for Christmas at Grover Cleveland Elementary School students?
Because she was bored.
According to an essay entitled “Boredom: Where the Future Isn’t,” written by Dennis Brissett and Robert P. Snow and published in the journal Symbolic Interaction in 1993, “Boredom, in its most basic sense, is an experience of the absence of momentum or flow in a person’s life.” At its most extreme, boredom is the feeling that accompanies the realization that one has no future.
In this sense, boredom is a very modern feeling. In a recent video explaining Guy Debord’s book Society of the Spectacle , I argued along with Debord that the desire for a future, the idea that one should live a life based on change or on irreversible time, was a product of the bourgeois revolution. Debord claimed that before the bourgeoise took charge of society, life and society operated within cyclical rather than linear time. The agrarian mode of production, governed by the rhythm of the seasons, was the mode of production that produced cyclical time. Changes might have occurred but predictably. What had been in the past was always sure to return in the future.
And it wasn’t until after the bourgeoisie broke with the aristocracy, broke with the idea that the universe was a reflection of an unchanging divine reality running in a loop, that history — and, with it, the significance of the future — was thrust upon society and the world.
Boredom doesn’t arise from mere tedium alone, or from a lack of stimulation, but, more significantly, as Brissett and Snow argued, from a lack of social involvement in what’s going on. Boredom is what you feel when you’re frustrated and stuck, and time stands still. But it was only after we were all collectively living in historical time, after the overcoming of traditional forms of life, that social involvement necessarily meant creating something new or meant creating a future.
In 2015 the late leftist thinker Mark Fisher started a FB group called “Boring Dystopia.” According to the Guardian , he conceived of it as a place to post examples of “Silicon Valley ideology, PR and advertising ... [distracting] us from our own aesthetic poverty, and the reality of what we have – which is just all these crap robots.”
But just as the Silicon Valley ideology and advertisements for technological wonders are the very form that our aesthetic poverty takes, boredom is the way that our sense of dystopia is felt. What is dystopian is what cuts off or cancels the future we’re meant to be striving for, mainly a better future, a better tomorrow. A dystopia is a society that denies a future that, in order to be socially engaging, will have to be aesthetically and materially rich for everyone. A dystopia is a world wherein the future is no longer interesting because it does not even promise to make us free. The mass shooter is a bored individual and their violence — while caused by a variety of particular reasons, including the trauma they’ve suffered in today’s dystopia — is also caused by a universal need to connect. Brenda Spencer, for example, didn’t give up on connecting to the world through a future but insisted on shaping that future negatively, violently, and senselessly. She was so bored she didn’t see an alternative. In his recent article on the phenomenon of the mass shooting for Sublation Magazine , the Hegelian scholar and author of the upcoming book “Enjoyment Right and Left” Todd McGowan wrote that “no one, not even the most ardent supporter of gun rights, can admit to any enjoyment of [a] mass shooting.” But what this leaves out is the mass shooter herself. After all, can we imagine that Brenda Spencer wasn’t enjoying herself when she said that the reason behind her action was that she didn’t like Mondays?
But what we should recognize in Spencer’s enjoyment is that it is, quite clearly, the enjoyment of defeat. The teenaged mass shooters, even those of them gripped with crazed, right-wing, racist ideologies, are attempting to end their boredom, most of all by ending themselves. When he described his concept of a boring dystopia to a reporter for Vice in December of 2015 , Fisher said that the boring dystopia known as capitalism always tries to justify its existence by claiming that it is at least efficient. “You might not like it, but it works.' But Britain is not efficient,” Fisher said. “Instead, it's stuck in a form of frenzied stasis.”
Those of us who can recognize our own boredom, are tasked with breaking free from this stasis. We are also, most likely, called upon to give up on being efficient and quick with our solutions. What we cannot do is break free of the problem immediately. We can’t, as John Zerzan, the primitivist anarchist suggests in his essay on mass shootings entitled “We Heard Screaming” merely give up on having a future. We can’t return to some safer form of social life, one that is not self-reflective, not technological, and not interdependent. Our struggle to break free of our boredom will be more difficult than a trek into the woods, just as it will be slower than what we can achieve with a bullet. To overcome a boring dystopia will ultimately be more frightening than giving up would be; it’ll be riskier than picking up a rifle was for Brenda Spencer. In 1922, around the time the Bolsheviks had to abandon their efforts to break from capitalism and retreat into what was called the New Economic Policy, Vladimir Lenin wrote an essay entitled “Notes of a Publicist: On Ascending a High Mountain.” In it he related a parable to the reader: Let us picture to ourselves a man ascending a very high, steep, and hitherto unexplored mountain. Let us assume that he has overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers… He finds himself in a position where it is not only difficult and dangerous to proceed in the direction and along the path he has chosen, but positively impossible. He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit. He has to tie a rope round himself, spend hours with an alpenstock to cut footholds or a projection to which the rope could be tied firmly; one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal.
When it comes to overcoming this boring dystopia we are, perhaps, in a similar position. Rather than moving ahead and finding a way to directly connect to our lives, to take responsibility for our futures, it now appears necessary for us to plumb the depths of our alienation, to dangle in space alone without any assurance in advance that we will find our way back to each other.
And in terms of a future, perhaps we will have to go backward before we’ll be able to move forward. This article is based on a Critical Cuts video published on the Sublation Media YouTube Channel.