A few months ago I was at a dinner hosted by a long-time anthropologist friend of mine who is an extraordinary cook.  Yet another mass shooting had recently occurred, and discussion shifted to guns.  I articulated my thesis that the gun debate is about affect, rather than all of the reasons people give such as self-defense.  People have what I described as a libidinal relationship to guns.  There is an entire erotics of guns, just as there is an erotics of cars, kitchen tools, and electronic gadgets.  Attachment to these things can’t simply be explained in terms of their use and functionality.  No.  In addition to this, there is an entire aesthetic of these tools, gadgets, and technologies.  Trying to put myself in the shoes of the person obsessed with guns, I think of my relationship to my stainless steel frying pan.  To be sure, I take delight in the functionality of this pan and what it allows me to do.  For example, you just can’t make true hash browns or cacio e pepe, much less pan-fry a steak, without such a pan.  However, in addition to the utility of my beloved pan, there is a libidinal and aesthetic dimension to it.  I cannot fully explain why I love it so, but I am smitten by how it feels in my hand, by the gleam of the stainless steal, by its weight and presence.  Even if the pan did not serve its function well, I would nonetheless be passionate about this pan and deeply attached to it.

I think about this when I try to understand the gun owner, not because I wish to excuse the gun owner– I’m horrified by guns –but because I think this is something that needs to be understood if we’re to change attitudes towards guns.  As strange as it sounds, my heart beats a little faster when I see my pan, and I take great pleasure in the weight I feel in my hand as I brown butter to prepare cacio.  If I cock my head sideways and squint, I can see a similar aesthetics at work with guns.  There is a certain ugly beauty to guns.  I imagine that the gun owner takes a delight in the heft of their gun in their hand, the smell of oil, the way it is beautifully put together, and, above all, the sense of power they feel as they hold it, feel its recoil, and here the loud sound that it makes.  Perhaps many gun owners experience a sort of mad, giddy, intoxication with these things, not unlike the swoons others experience with gadgets like a well designed smart-phone or a beefy muscle car.  Over and above the utility and function of the thing, there is an aesthetic experience in the beauty of the thing similar to the madness of love.

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If I am right, if these are matters of affect and not utility, then this significantly changes the nature of debates about such issues.  Many of us have had experiences with friends who have relationships with toxic lovers or friends.  Or perhaps we’ve been caught in such relationships, only to later look back on our attachment with wonder, as if it were a dream, wondering how– once the spell passes –we could have ever had such a toxic friendship or relationship.  The notable feature of these relationships is how intractable they are to reasoned persuasion.  “Hey, your lover is an abusive heroin addict that stole your credit cards and doesn’t work, and who treats you like a doormat.  Why are you with this person?”  Such arguments seldom persuade or undo toxic attachments.  Indeed, the person who makes them often becomes the enemy.  If this is true, then another strategy is needed in these cases; something other than citing facts and questioning whether or not true utility is involved.  To the gun owner who makes the rationalizing argument– rationalizing because the affect or attachment comes first and the reason for that attachment is only secondarily formulated –that they have guns for self-defense, the observation that gun ownership actually places one in a more precarious position (followed up by statistics) falls on deaf ears.  They won’t hear it, no matter how many tragedies happen in the home of gun owners.  And this is because the attachment and affect come first and the reasons for that ownership are only secondary constructions and rationalizations.

The question I’m raising– using the example of guns, but only the example –is how to deal with this subterranean logic of affect and attachment?  How many things are like this:  our attachment to big cars that destroy the environment, our refusal of public transport and building public transport, our attachment to regular meat consumption even thought it destroys the environment, is cruel, and is unhealthy, and darker things like militant nationalisms and racism?  We suffer and cause others to suffer, it seems, in large part because of our affective attachments.  These attachments appear to be largely intractable to reasoned and factual argumentative persuasion, yet our attachments do change.  Occasionally the spell is lifted.  But how and through what techniques?  I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do think they’re the right questions to be asking.

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