There have been a number of articles recently in my column about a form of aggression that I have called crimes of numbness. People become so numb as a result of the frictionlessness and excessive mediation of experience created by modern technology that they find the only way to pull out of it is to explode out of it through random explosive acts of physical aggression. In particular, acts of random murder.
Something that is less discussed is the growing amount of aggressions turned inwards towards oneself in the United States. It is astonishing. Methods vary but two frequent ones are overdosing on pills and cutting one’s wrists. Then there are the more incremental methods of self-destruction like eating disorders and drug and alcohol addiction. But the latter are not necessarily engaged in with the conscious purpose of suicide. People just sometimes find that their self-destruction is so impelling, that they are drawn towards death.
On the other hand, many of the people who formally plan to commit suicide, find a way to sabotage their plans. Just the planning and preparing the suicide can be so abrasively stimulating that the actual suicide is no long necessary. I have noticed that there are many patients in psychiatric hospitals who have attempted suicide many times. The ongoing attempts are explosively stimulating and are enough to pull a person out of his technologically-based numbness.
So what kinds of experiences are conducive to this kind of extreme desperate self-destructive behavior. I would like to start by saying that I truly believe there are multiple layers of causation involved in this pathological numbness. And yet an extremely important layer that is mostly overlooked is that of getting involved in all the different manifestations of screen reality: movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets. These are all vacuumized worlds where the immediate impact senses of touch, smell and taste all have a minimal or no impact. Granted there are the explosive high-impact forms of content connected to such themes as violence, hate literature and pornography. But in spite of the high impact they create on the surface, because they are mediated screen reality forms of content, they are shallow and don’t have a sustained enduring impact by themselves. It is the fact that all these different forms of content occur behind a numbing screen that separates people from the kinds of organic stimuli that help them feel alive. People are attract to violence, hate and pornography on the internet, because these forms of content do temporarily shock people out of the numbness created by experiencing the external world through a screen. But in the long run, it is the screen that is the new controlling factor. It is the screen that has the largest influence in putting people into numbness. The screen that appears to be opening us up to all sorts of exciting new worlds and content is blocking us from a world and content essential to our identity as human beings. Many people react to being blocked on the outside by trying to set up extreme forms of stimulation within.
And again there is a desire on the part of many potential suicide victims to plan and prepare a suicide, experience the full extent of the inner pain, the inner tension-pocket, that comes from knowing that one is about to terminate one’s life and then find a way to step away from the termination. Either there can be a mistake in execution, or the potential victim can perform his act in such a way that other people accidentally discover it before it’s too late, or the victim can actually tell the people around him after he has performed an action before it kills him. Interestingly the involvement of the people around him in preventing his suicide becomes a vehicle by which the potential victim cannot make a fully destructive impact in his action, and yet he preserves an imprint through the unforgettable memory it leaves in the people around him. A memory that becomes permanently connected to his life narrative and becomes a part of the collective memory of the people around him. This memory of the potential victim’s failed suicide attempt becomes a part of the potential victim’s personal surrogate immortality in preparation for his real natural death in the future. It is a negative memory, not one connected with a positive achievement. But when a person is too numb for a positive constructive achievement, then for many such people an extremely negative achievement attached to one’s ongoing memory is better than no achievement at all.
We have been talking about 3 different ways of hovering around death: people who plan and prepare for suicide and then commit it; people who plan and prepare for suicide knowing that they have built into their plan an escape hatch that prevents them from going through with it and people whose habits or life style are of such a high risk (e.g. drugs, alcohol, anorexia, and racing cars) that they can eventually lead to death. There is actually a fourth way. Sometimes people who suffer from depression can experience an event that is so emotionally painful, so disappointing, so demoralizing that it acts as a sudden trigger to killing oneself. The immediate figure cause is the trigger. But the ground cause is the depression. It is a depression in which a person is already experiencing his life as a living death.
In the modern world, all these suicide and self-destructive situations have one thing in common: they are all attempts to pull out of a numbness generated by the extreme frictionlessness and mediation created by modern technology and, in particular, modern consumer technology. This is all in contrast to suicide in more traditional organic societies, which is based on an excess of organic stimulation, an excess of emotion. Here suicide is more like an introjected version of a crime of passion. A person becomes filled with anger, with rage founded in a disappointment, a demoralizing situation, an embarrassment or a betrayal. And if the person feels blocked by scruples, by lack of fighting ability, or by lack of an appropriate opportunity, then he turns his aggression inward.
Today we are very focused on the violence demonstrated in mass shootings, police shootings, and gang shootings. But go to a psychiatric hospital, and see if you are able to get to a cafeteria there at lunch time and see the lines of adolescents who are there for outpatient programs to deal with their self-destructive behavior and, in particular, for attempted suicide. The numbers are astounding. But there is much less focus on them than the people involved in mass shootings, police shootings and gang shootings. Granted that there is a common layer of causation involved in all of them: the sensory distortion from modern technology, and in particular, the numbness that comes from the experiential vacuum created by the immersion in the screen reality of modern consumer technology. Mass shootings, police shootings and gang shootings are crimes that occur today that are caused by numbness or more precisely by people who find the only way to pull out of their numbness is through explosive destructive actions. People who attempt to commit suicide today are also looking for an explosive action, but rather than feeling alive through hurting others, they do it by turning their aggressive energies inward and hurting themselves. Perhaps they are so numb that they are not alive enough to expel their aggressive energies towards external targets. Because what is being dealt with is self-inflicted violence, it can be kept in the family and isn’t necessarily made known to the general population. Which is why we hear so much more about mass shootings, police shootings, and gang shootings than suicides. But suicides are so much of a danger, if not more so, to the fabric of human society than externalized killings. Most of us are far more likely to know someone who has committed suicide or attempted to commit suicide than people involved in externalized killings. Suicide is definitely a serious problem with which we have to deal, and will need to do so for a long time to come. To bring potential suicides out of their numbness, we have to find a way to wean people from the addiction to modern technology. This is the starting point.
© 2018 Laurence Mesirow