My friend Jorge Riveros forwarded me an opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post shortly after what's come to be known as the "Virginia Tech massacre." In "What the Killers Want," novelist Lionel Shriver reflects on Cho Seung-Hui's demand for media attention in an almost unprecedented display of posthumous self-indulgence and terror.
As you can read for yourself, Shriver's basic claim is that violent acts like Cho's are, in part, made possible -- even encouraged -- by a media culture that feeds off sensationalism and extorts emotional baggage. It's a culture that capitalizes on shock and awe even in the midst of tragedy. It's a culture that somehow validates "being seen" at any cost. Shriver writes, "In an era that has lost touch with the distinction between fame and infamy, so driving is the need to be noticed -- for any reason -- that even posthumous attention will do."
What I like about Shriver's piece is that it doesn't shy away from asking tough, critical questions about the way we've received news about this no doubt horrific event -- how it's been framed, in what ways we are led to crave more information, and so on. Of course it's not that we shouldn't receive news about unpleasant events at all; the issue, rather, is how to avoid legitimating (by consuming) the very culture of media sensationalism that contributed to Cho's belief that he really could be a quasi-martyr. Much attention has been given to the influence violent Japanese manga and the South Korean film Oldboy might have had on Cho. But perhaps the better analogy is to Oliver Stone's satire Natural Born Killers, in which a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde go on a killing spree that the media covers obsessively and effectively wants to go on.
Shriver is less convincing, I think, when she says there's absolutely nothing that can change this culture of media sensationalism. It's highly unlikely (a "pipe dream"), she says, that the media will cease giving "blanket coverage and banner headlines" to these killers. And because, thankfully, we don't live in a police state (though the post-9/11, Patriot Act States would seem to challenge that assumption), the simple fact of the matter is that "Whenever we walk out the door, we take the chance that malice will rain on our heads."
It may be the case that nothing can change the media's voracious efforts to "grab" the audience's attention, no matter what the cost. But if this is the case, it seems to me much more effort should be put into media education -- that is, learning to observe, consume, and participate in media as critical subjects. A key component of this type of knowledge, I would argue, is the Marxian/Debordian understanding that consumer society renders us alienated subjects and has the potential to exhaust our ability to rely on ourselves, and each other (i.e., human contact), for emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical sustenance. Whenever we don't feel sustained in our human relationships, we turn to sundry consumer outlets -- not least mass media -- to again feel whole, or perhaps to be distracted for a while, or even to replace that lack with a fleeting desire (i.e., shopping).
In Cho's case, it's clear he had found "real life" to be so harsh and unwelcoming that he accepted he had no other choice but to stage a (posthumous) media frenzy that would grant him the attention he so desperately sought. Cho was, in short, a thoroughly alienated soul. Further pathologizing him as a "wacko" or "kook" or even a "South Korean," not American, national ("It's not us, good heavens!") neglects Cho's rather common affliction: wanting to be wanted in a hyperreal world.
Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.