Issue 19, Past Issues
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Elusive Memorials: Blind-Spots, Insight, and Gun Violence at the University of Texas at Austin

Trevor Hoag

This essay is dedicated to the victims/survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut (2012), and to victims/survivors of (gun) violence everywhere.1

It is not you who will speak; let the disaster speak in you,
even if it be by your forgetfulness or [ . . . blindness].
— Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster2

A forgetful memory of events.

The morning of September 28th, 2010, I shuffled half-asleep from the bedroom to my office intent on perusing the Web. After checking my email and the news, not a lot stood out. However, while reading Facebook posts from members of the UT-Austin community, my blood ran cold:

Trish Roberts-Miller (September 28, 2010 at 8:29am):

just heard there is a shooter on the UT campus, at 21st and Guadalupe.3

Trish Roberts-Miller (September 28, 2010 at 8:44am):

Lots of sirens, and I’m sitting in my dark office filling out forms.4

Clay Spinuzzi (September 28, 2010 at 8:45am via @spinuzzi on Twitter):

apparently campus is on lockdown due to armed shooter. i am in my regular class, which doubles   as a bomb shelter.5

Confronted with these posts and other media, disbelief was short-lived. The nightmarish scenario that had played itself out again and again in recent US history was repeating; the university had been blindsided and there was little one could do but watch. Before long, reporters arrived at the scene and began filling in the details, providing a much-needed rhetorical figuration of the event in words and images, but there was still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the situation, an ungraspable or “forgotten” excess. There was likewise alarm concerning the possibility of a second gunman, and SWAT began combing the campus prepared to meet any potential threat with deadly force.

Around the same time as a reporter for The Daily Texan snapped the image above, it became known that the first and only gunman had fired shots with an AK-47 near UT’s Littlefield Fountain and fled into Perry-Casteñeda library only to commit suicide on the sixth floor. Little was known about his motives or whether he was suffering from psychological illness. The sixth floor of the library was “Closed for Renovations” for a few days but reopened in less than a week, quickly relegating the event’s horrors to oblivion. I felt compelled to see the top floor of the library afterwards, to retrace the shooter’s steps, and met the stares of giggling students to complement the barricaded corner where he had taken his life. His name was Colton Tooley, and those who remembered the sophomore math major described him as “quiet, intelligent, and helpful.”6

Although Tooley had the opportunity to kill many of his UT-Austin cohorts that day, he instead encouraged them to flee the scene. His was thus the only life lost, but the event recalled the shootings that claimed the lives of fourteen on the University of Texas at Austin campus forty-four years earlier. On that day, August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, former marine and engineering student at UT-Austin, ascended the university tower and opened fire on his fellow Longhorns after killing his wife and mother at home.7 Not surprisingly, the Whitman shootings and the Tooley shooting-suicide have left a scar on the university that remains to this day, yet it is one that many would prefer students and members of the community remain blind.8 However, it is perhaps this scar and the vulnerability it evinces that expose the conditions for the university’s “community” itself, as well as an open question whether the “forgetting” of such events produces problematic and/or desirable outcomes.

Indeed, rather than presume it is condemnable that a memorial to the 1966 shootings did not exist until 2006 or it is imperative the UT community construct a permanent memorial in relation to the 2010 shooting, this article will raise the question concerning the effects of blind-spots, of constructing/not constructing memorials, by analyzing specific memorials that already exist or have ceased to exist. I also will suggest how insights regarding memorials at UT-Austin are applicable to other memorials, especially when it comes to the unforeseen ethico-political value of blindness/“forgetting.” Regarding those insights more specifically, I turn to the work of Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida to show how memorials entail a simultaneous remembering and forgetting of events, and argue that the partial communal forgetting of events is not only inescapable, but often productive. I then turn to Bradford Vivian and Gilles Deleuze in order to contend that memorials rhetorically express their content in a different way each time without representing an original event, and argue that there is no inevitable connection between communal forgetting (“blindness”)—or the “forgetting” entailed in repetition—and violence. Finally, aided by Judith Butler’s thoughts in Precarious Life, I conclude by arguing that, with the proper care, a certain way of seeing/unseeing, memorials can preclude violence in the wake of tragedy by helping one to grieve for the “un-grievable,” and by exposing a “community” based upon shared vulnerability to harm/loss—a stance that sharply contrasts the refusal to recognize one’s ultimate blindness to potential dangers, and is perpetuated through a violent, hyper-assertive (or hyper-masculine) ethos. In sum, then, I rhetorically advocate throughout for the ethical and political worth of blindness (“forgetting”), and emphasize the degree to which insight (“remembering”) is thoroughly saturated and produced via blindness itself.

Case Studies: Ropes, Notes, and Stones

In order to begin engaging the question of blind-spots regarding memorials at UT-Austin, viewing them is an apparent first step. Here is an image from the Austin American Statesman of the memorial to the Tooley shooting of September 28th, 2010 [Fig. 1]:


Figure 1. UT-Austin instructor Trevor Hoag hangs a note on Tooley’s Memorial, Austin, Texas, Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman.

This memorial’s site was the UT-Austin “green,” a lawn that lies in the shadow of the UT tower and that contains lounging students on sunny days. Students composed the memorial out of thin rope wrapped around two trees, adorning it with yellow flowers. They likewise hung clothespins from the rope, and encouraged UT community members to attach notes along its length. Given that the notes were outwardly visible, one could see that they included reflections on the shooting and questions for Colton Tooley. The notes, including those of my students, also expressed grief, anger, and fear, along with gratitude toward university police. Some notes paid respects to Tooley and contained hopes that he had found solace in death. After a single day, the memorial disappeared, but its absence seemed to leave behind a certain “presence,” one evoked by an apparition of ghostly memory [Fig. 2].

Detail view of memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the 1966 shootings at University of Texas, Austin.

Figure 2. Detail view of memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the 1966 shootings at University of Texas, Austin, courtesy of Liza Lagman Sperl, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.

Above is the memorial to the Whitman shootings of August 1st, 1966. Administrators dedicated it forty years after the tragedy and it was the product of much controversy regarding the University of Texas’ fraught relationship to the shootings. Administrators christened this memorial space the university’s “Tower Garden.” However, it is typically called “The Turtle Pond” by members of the university for the following reasons: constructed from 1934-39, the turtle-filled ponds significantly predate the shootings; the ponds surround/obfuscate the memorial itself, somewhat blinding viewers to the memorial’s existence; and lastly, from the street the bright white sign for the Turtle Pond is highly visible whereas it is easy to overlook the bronze plaque embedded in the stone sitting several yards behind it. Its inscription reads:


remembers with profound sorrow

the tragedy of August 1st, 1966.

This space is dedicated as the


a memorial to those who died,

to those who were wounded,

and to the countless other victims

who were immeasurably affected by the tragedy.

In this inscription one finds recognition of (and sadness concerning) the Whitman shootings, though few specifics such as the names of victims or details concerning what happened. There is thus an ambiguity concerning the placard’s rhetoric akin to that which surrounds the memorial itself and its relation to the Turtle Pond—which is especially the case given the spatial relation at play, where it seems the memorial serves as the Turtle Pond’s hidden heart.

Monumental Failure and Success

Now that the UT memorials are out in what philosopher Edward Casey calls the “koinos cosmos where discussion with others is possible,”one can begin exposing and evaluating their relationship to communal blindness and insight.9 Certainly, the memorials render “visible,” by calling to memory, specific tragic events that occurred, along with various sentiments and attitudes towards those events. However, that a memorial’s primary power and worth resides in remembering, in making visible, is a supposition that needs problematizing, especially since the events that the 1966 and 2010 memorials remember (and the type of events many memorials pay tribute to) are what Maurice Blanchot calls disasters. For Blanchot, a disaster is not simply a catastrophe such as a university shooting; to deem something “disastrous” is to provide it with a particular ontological-epistemological status. Blanchot argues that “[t]he disaster is related to forgetfulness—forgetfulness without memory, the motionless retreat of what has not been treated—the immemorial, perhaps.”10 And what he means is that when disastrous events strike, their blinding magnitude overwhelms the capacities of those who undergo them, and thus one can never remember them consciously/fully.

For example, in the case of the 2010 Tooley incident, UT students, teachers, and staff described the situation as “surreal” and questioned the reality of what was happening.11 In disaster, it is as though repression strikes before memory ever takes place, and hence the disaster is “that which, in other words, cannot be forgotten because it has always already fallen outside memory.”12 Furthermore, just as one cannot comprehend disasters such as the 1966 and 2010 UT shootings, one cannot finally grasp them in language or writing.13 Any attempt to write about or memorialize disaster will run up against a horizon of in-articulability, and any memorial meant to provide rhetorical form for disaster will remain blinded to a significant “forgotten” excess. What this entails with regard to the memorials in the present study is that their effect is a simultaneous forgetting-remembering of the events in question—which is why Michael Bernard-Donals contends that “we should give up on the idea of memory as a kind of representation” and view it instead as “an intersection of remembrance and oblivion.”14 However, rather than understand this effect as a weakness of the memorials in question, it is the coexistence of blindness and insight that demands communities continually re-call the events that said memorials memorialize, re-deploying them towards just socio-political ends, rather than thoughtlessly lay them to rest.

Likewise, one finds in operation a double movement regarding the possibility of mourning akin to that concerning memorials and their capacity to recall disaster. For as Jacques Derrida points out, any attempt to mourn finds itself troubled by the “im-possibility” of such an undertaking, and this is due to the finite capacity of the trope/figure (that is, the “monument”) to rhetorically articulate an event or a subject’s life. Take, for example, the 2010 memorial surrounding Colton Tooley. Here one finds an attempt to produce a figure of Tooley’s life or at least the event residing at its violent conclusion. There is, on the one hand, the event of Tooley’s life/death, and on the other, the memorial-trope that expresses this event so as to pay it respects. There exists, however, a radical break or fold between the event of Tooley’s life/death and the memorial to it such that any memorial will feel inadequate due to the selectivity of its expression. As Derrida points out, this feeling of inadequacy strikes because although the memorial-trope involves a “movement of interiorization [that] keeps within us the life, thought, body, voice, look or soul of the other,” this movement requires circumscribed images, language, and so on, rhetorical expressions of a life “which are only lacunary fragments, detached and dispersed—only ‘parts’ of the departed other.”15 In other words, a memorial-trope can only articulate fragments of a life while remaining blind to a “forgotten” excess. This is why Derrida argues that through the processes of mourning “we learn that the other resists the closure of our interiorizing memory,”16 and that any attempt to rhetorically figure a life in memorial form will “fail” in its attempt to do so. A memorial can only selectively contract a life into the form of an image, but if one desires to remember, one has no choice but to undergo this partial blindness that the trope/figure/monument requires. Again, though, as I will continue to emphasize, it is this invaluable and inescapable “failure” or “forgetting” that challenges a community to keep the question concerning how to re-call an event or subject forever open.

Given that any attempt to memorialize a life in rhetorical form will fall short, Derrida thus asks which is preferable: to remember a life knowing that memory is selective, or to “forget” a life, leaving it respectfully un-touched by rhetorics? Indeed, for Derrida, the one who mourns is caught in a double-bind. One can claim that mourning is possible, and in turn produce a selective image of someone, or one can deem mourning im-possible, refusing to engage in the blindness that remembering/figuration require. Hence, for a brief moment in Memoires for Paul de Man, Derrida suggests it might be more ethical to “forget” someone by leaving their life un-expressed or un-selected rhetorically. For as he suggests, when it comes to mourning, for example, remembering Colton Tooley or Charles Whitman/his victims, success fails, not only given that succeeding involves a contraction of the other into an image, but “[i]t makes the other a part of us, . . . and then the other no longer quite seems to be the other.”17

Derrida likewise argues that “an aborted interiorization is at the same time a respect for the other as other, a sort of tender rejection, a movement of renunciation which leaves the other alone, outside, over there, in his death, outside of us.”18 So turning typical rhetorics of mourning on their heads, he suggests at least momentarily that “forgetting” someone may be more ethical or respectful than remembering them, given that forgetting leaves their life un-reduced in the form of a rhetorical image. However, Derrida ultimately deems this line of thought unacceptable, at least on its own, for how can the most ethical line of action be simply to forget those whom one is attempting to mourn? Of course, for him it is never as simple as choosing either to remember or to forget, and one is prudent to take this lesson to heart when evaluating the effects of proposed memorials on communities.

Eventually, Derrida suggests that ethically responsible mourning demands one straddle the line between remembering and forgetting, between the possibility of mourning and its im-possibility. Unlike Freud, he argues that “there can be no true mourning,” no eventual closure found through remembering and interiorizing, no simple choice between knowing when to memorialize or when to let go.19 There is instead a ceaseless negotiation in play, and the need to recognize that any memorial will simultaneously mourn someone or some event successfully as well as blindly. The only way that so-called “true mourning” is possible, then, is to attempt to negotiate between these two paths, realizing that one can never remember a life in an un-selective or a-rhetorical fashion. Hence, Derrida concludes that “[t]rue ‘mourning’ seems to dictate only a tendency: the tendency to accept incomprehension, to leave a place for it, and to enumerate coldly, almost like death itself, those modes of language which, in short, deny the whole rhetoricity of the true.”20 Mourning, therefore, is a ceaseless process, an endless “working-through” that calls one to remember-forget again and again, and to recognize the rhetoricity of one’s articulations in mourning; for example, never foreclosing on one’s memory of Colton Tooley or Whitman and his victims. It is increasingly clear, then, why one cannot say that the effect of the 1966 or 2010 UT memorials is to “successfully complete” the mourning of their respective events. Instead, these memorials reveal how the attempt to mourn is simultaneously a sighted and yet blind undertaking. The memorials and the form they take call for ongoing discussion, debate, and revision without foreclosure—such as in the case of the 1966 UT memorial and its questionable visibility and ambiguity. Indeed, deconstructing a memorial’s supposed telos leads one to set the rhetorical agon in motion. It does not call for quietude or nihilism, but for re-calling memorials and thus for repetition—for instance, as I will show, by reconsidering them as sites for grieving the seemingly un-grievable, and for exposing “community” in the sense of shared vulnerability/loss.

Repetition and the Return of Violence

As with the selectivity of memorial figuration, one can likewise problematize another commonplace concerning memorials, namely, that they preserve the memory of some event or subject across time in enduring/unbroken fashion, that is, without punctuation via the imperceptible blade of forgetting. Indeed, memorials are often charged with the task of keeping a memory present or visible, and repeated in the form of an unchanging legacy. This concept of memorialization therefore involves an implicit supposition concerning the repetition of the same, or as Charles Scott puts it, “[t]he basic meanings of memory in this context are those of presencing with a loss of original presence.”21 Memorial memory is thus often conceived as relatively unchanging, as recalling an event that was once fully hic et nunc but today is preserved only by fastidious remembrance. However, the contentions that memorials re-present an original event or that memory maintained through a memorial is preserved in an unchanging way are problematic. For as evidenced by the 1966 and 2010 UT memorials, “[m]emory is unavoidably, and sometimes maddeningly, inconstant. It sustains a sense of the past in bewilderingly protean ways.”22 Memory, in other words, is inescapably re-produced through forgetting (“blindness”), and towards such manifold socio-political ends that it demands one’s continual attention.

Take, for example, the 2010 Tooley memorial. On the day it appeared it expressed its content in a particular fashion, filling one with quiet melancholy as well as a desire to attend and touch its fragile structure. This is not surprising given that the event was much closer and the memorial’s affective force was greatly heightened. When viewing an image of the memorial today, however, the experience is much different. The event’s rhetorical force has significantly dimmed and the specific content of the community’s notes is unavailable, lost beneath the waves of forgetting. What this means, then, is that the memorial is functioning quite differently multiple years after the event than the day following it, and provides a clear example of why Bradford Vivian argues that communal memory “encompasses a landscape of recollection shaped not by stability but by ongoing redistribution—or remembering—in which forgetting is an unavoidable and oftentimes productive catalyst.”23 The memorial to the Tooley event does not therefore express itself in an enduring way; its rhetorical modes of expression “wander” across time with various modes/degrees of visibility. Viewing the memorial today involves a process of re-membering, reproducing memories of the event as well as of the memorial itself.

Hence, it is little wonder why Scott argues “we are formed in memorial processes of return and recurrence,”given that memorials return for one to perceive-recollect in a new manner each time. What Scott suggests as well is that what is repeated in a memorial is not a static memory but rather, difference.24 Each time one views a memorial, difference/“forgetting” returns (unforeseen), producing the memorial anew and re-producing its audience anew in return. Vivian therefore enthusiastically avers that “[m]emory does not repeat an ideal and original impression of the same ‘unrepeatable’ event ad infinitum; it repeats a series of performative differences and transformations that supply the mere semblance of such an ‘unrepeatable’ origin.25 Indeed, memory does not repeat itself in the same way each time, as evidenced by my own experience of the 2010 memorial, and Vivian points out as well that if one genealogically traces back this repetition of different memories conveyed by a memorial, one will not find some original event in its glorious or horrifying presence but only another repeated difference. This is because, for instance, the Tooley event and the memories stemming from it were never fully “present” such that one can repeat them in memory in enduring, uncontaminated fashion without remaining partially blind to the event or blindsided by unforeseen futures, an observation that supports Vivian’s contention that “[m]emories subsist in a state of dispersion but do not exist in the form of a unified or stable presence.”26

In order to support such arguments further, consider this image of the 1966 memorial [Fig. 3]:

Figure 3. View of the 1966 Tower Shooting memorial from afar.

Figure 3. View of the 1966 Tower Shooting memorial from afar, courtesy of Pieter Edelman, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.

This image of the memorial is taken from across the street rather than close-up, and reveals the memorial itself as rather small/reclusive in comparison to the larger “Turtle Pond” site that can waywardly re-direct or block one’s gaze. When compared to the earlier image of the memorial, it is therefore easy to see how the memory it produces is different depending upon how and where one is viewing it, or even whether one knows that one is viewing it. The memorial is repeated here but with a difference, forgetting, becoming. And this is no small point, for as Vivian argues, “[c]onceiving of memory as a repetition of difference rather than a repetition of the same enables one to value the productive capacity of forgetting and mutations elemental to even the most apparently monumental forms.27 Hence, memorials metamorphose and “become” regardless of whether or not they are carved in stone, and this means that they often possess an unforeseeable power to shock and surprise—such as deploying them to grieve for the un-grievable, or to highlight the “forgotten” operation of “community” as shared vulnerability.

The theme of repetition also extends to the blindsiding return of violence throughout history. The authoritative line of thought regarding this matter is typically credited to George Santayana, who famously argues that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”28 This line of thought likewise finds an analogue in the Freudian notion that one is condemned to repeat or “act out” until one can recall the unconscious factors underlying one’s behavior. In both cases, the prevailing wisdom is that “forgetting”—whether blindness to historical lessons or unconscious motives—perhaps inevitably leads to repetition in the form of violence. However, I want to problematize this line of thought regarding the inevitable connection between violence and blindness/“forgetting.”

Indeed, the prevailing argument on the relation between blindness and violence is that if one “forgets” an event, for example, by not memorializing it, one is condemned to undergo violence of that type again. As Gilles Deleuze puts it, “[i]n these cases, that which repeats does so only by dint of not ‘comprehending’, not remembering, not knowing, or not being conscious.”29 Repetition follows the absence of memory or blindness. However, Deleuze responds that “an inverse relation between repetition and remembering is in every respect hardly satisfactory, in so far as it makes repetition depend upon remembering.”30 For Deleuze, to have repetition depend upon remembering is problematic because for him repetition is primary; it possesses an ontological priority. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze fleshes out this argument in the form of a reversal, contending that the relationship between repetition and repression/(“forgetting”) has been badly misconstrued. Along these lines he explains:

I do not repeat because I repress. I repress because I repeat, I forget because I repeat. I repress, because I can live certain things or certain experiences only in the mode of repetition. I am determined to repress whatever would prevent me from living them thus.31 

To unpack Deleuze’s argument in the service of the current investigation, consider here the 2010 Tooley incident. Positing a causal relationship between repetition and blindness/“forgetting” might lead one to argue that because UT-Austin “forgot” about the 1966 shootings by not having a prominent enough memorial, the university condemned itself to have someone like Tooley appear and repeat Whitman’s violence.32

By contrast, a Deleuzian would contend that the repetition of violence was primary, and that Tooley’s violence repeats Whitman’s but with a difference. A Deleuzian would likewise observe that after the traumatic incident there was a palpable repression of it throughout campus, which one could sense in the nervous voices, trepidation discussing what happened, the “feel” of the campus, and so on. There was a complex, initial repetition and thus the need for collective repression arose. This occurs because it prevents one from having to re-live the painful event in memory, including confronting rhetorics that relate one back to it by association. But as Deleuze and others suggest, unfortunately the only way to heal from such an event is to “repeat” it, to re-live (re-member) it in some fashion. Of course, repeating here does not mean repeating violence, but re-membering the event in an attempt to rearticulate it discursively, affectively, and so on; it is a rhetorical process of re-appropriation (and failure to appropriate) that allows one to take up a new relation to tragedy. It is a therapeutic movement that one might facilitate with the aid of a memorial.

What the Deleuzian argument entails, then, is a challenge to the notion that repetition depends upon blindness/“forgetting,” and will de facto bring about violence. By contrast, Deleuze contends that “[w]e are not, therefore healed by simple anamesis [remembering], any more than we are made ill by amnesia. Here, as elsewhere, becoming conscious counts for little.”33 In other words, likely no amount of awareness concerning the 1966 UT shootings would have prevented the Tooley incident; no amount of remembering would have precluded it. There is no inevitable connection between blindness and violence such that violence is more probable in the wake of forgetting. Or as Vivian puts it, “[f]orgetting, in logical terms, no more guarantees the repetition of past injustices than memory ensures their prevention.”34 This is not to suggest, however, that there is no value in lessons regarding past historical traumas such as the genocides in Armenia, Darfur, Germany, the Americas, and elsewhere, but there is no deductive connection between becoming aware of (or remembering) tragic events of this type and preventing future violence. Something more is required in the form of political/pedagogical intervention, for as Deleuze points out, becoming conscious counts for little. This entails, therefore, that one effect of a memorial, that is, the awareness it produces, is simply not enough to prevent violence. But in the following section, I argue one can deploy a memorial in ways that may help prevent violence that go beyond merely overcoming blindness.

Before moving on, though, it is worth tarrying a bit with the question of violence, and like Deleuze, perhaps attempting to turn this question on its head. Specifically, it is worth asking whether in some instances a memorial—particularly when accompanied by specific political rhetorics—might actually serve to bring about violence. Taking up this question, one can return to the 1966 memorial and its relation to the University of Texas Tower. Although this may sound strange, many who attend UT-Austin share the following experience: when walking on campus anywhere the tower is highly visible, subjects often report the sense of being “sighted” or surveilled. Some even fear being shot at from the tower itself. This panoptic and quasi-pathological experience is perhaps best evidenced in the title of former UT-Austin rhetoric professor Rosa Eberly’s article on the 1966 shootings: “Everywhere You Go It’s There.”35 For this is indeed how it feels: everywhere you go, It watches, and one feels naked before the tower’s open eye(s), subject to a peculiar psychological violence, which makes it more understandable why the university would endeavor (consciously or not) to prevent students from knowing about the events of August 1st, 1966. This, of course, does not make the university’s attempt to blind its members to information regarding those events any less problematic, but it does help one understand the university’s motivations. Granted, simply viewing the 1966 memorial, especially given its obscurity and ambiguity, does not provide details concerning the shooting events such that it might induce the tower’s surveilling effect (this is likely the point), but it would not take much to move from reading the memorial’s plaque to investigating the event. Hence, even if not directly, it seems one effect of the 1966 memorial may be to induce a paranoid psychical state in relation to the university’s tower, initiating the sense that “Everywhere You Go, It’s There.” So although becoming conscious may count for little when it comes to preventing or bringing about violence, the troubling psychological effects produced by the UT tower perhaps constitute a significant and unnerving exception.36

Regarding violence, it is also worth mentioning a relation between the Tooley incident and the problem of surveillance. In the days following the event, police presence on campus increased, and several notes on the 2010 memorial were tributes to the UTPD. Furthermore, whereas the response to the 1966 shootings was an increased demand for stricter gun laws, the response to the 2010 shootings was quite different. For instance, many touted Bill 354: Texas Concealed Carry on Campus as a solution to the threat posed by figures like Colton Tooley. John Lott from the University of Maryland was visiting campus the day of the shooting and claimed that “concealed handguns would have benefited students . . . because those with a concealed weapon would be able to defend themselves.”37 And Stephanie Klick, Chair of the Republican Party in Tarrat County, Texas, tweeted the day of the incident: “[t]oo bad for UT students that Conceal Carry on Campus did not pass during the last legislative session.”38 Indeed, some felt the appropriate response to the events of September 28th, 2010, was increased police presence and the availability of firearms to students, faculty, and staff. Thus, the rhetorical question becomes: in the wake of this event and others like it, would permanent, visible memorials to such events reinforce the desire for increased police presence, or serve to promote the passage of laws like Bill 354 by inducing heightened states of fear? It is impossible to say, but in asking this question one acknowledges the fact that the mimetic response to violence is often blinding rage and a cry for war, and one of the deleterious effects of a memorial is sometimes to amplify that cry.

Precarious Life: Responding to Tragedy without Violence

Indeed, one potential effect of a memorial is to serve as a focusing-point for fear, rage, and retributive violence. Employing a memorial towards these problematic ends is possible because they do not simply express their content without the specific rhetorics that subjects/audiences utilize to frame them. One can see such an articulation taking place at the University of Texas at Austin where bellicose rhetorics led many to respond to the Tooley shooting-suicide with a cry for war. If this claim concerning war seems hyperbolic, consider that on the day of the incident not only did some advocate for “Conceal Carry on Campus,” but a tank appeared on University 21st Street to counter the threat posed by a single young man.

Responding to the Tooley incident with an armored vehicle or pushing for permission to carry guns into university classrooms provides one much to consider, and in turn, a statement of Judith Butler’s leaps to the fore, namely: “[i]f we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war.”39 Here, then, one can consider how one might employ a memorial toward such ends, asking if with the proper accompanying care whether a memorial can help a community to respond to violence in a non-violent manner—an undertaking that, in specific ways, demands one “forget” the typical function(s) of memorials.

It is my contention that a memorial can help to arrest cycles of violence when it serves as an object of rhetorical deliberation. However, this is the case only if the memorials in question are accompanied by those who can deploy them towards this end. For instance, it is possible for educators/activists to view markers like the 1966 and 2010 UT memorials as indicative of “community” and as focal-points for grieving. But as will soon become apparent, the types of community and grieving that I want to expose here are radically different from their garden varieties. For what the following exposition will pursue are the tasks of employing a memorial to grieve for the “un-grievable” so as to assuage blinding rage, and to expose an invisible “community” in the sense of shared vulnerability to affection and wounding/loss.

The first theme I will take up is grief, given that responding to violence with violence often involves the incapacity to grieve. As argued previously, grieving is not something one can “successfully” complete, but what is at stake here is the inability to begin grieving at all. For instead of allowing oneself to grieve, recognizing that traumatic events have taken place and emotionally confronting them, what often occurs is a hyper-assertive (or hyper-masculine) attempt to dispel grief and grieving’s affects by force. As Butler puts it,

[w]hen grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of an action invested with the power to restore the loss or return the world to a former order, or to reinvigorate a fantasy that the world formerly was orderly.40

Indeed, rather than engage in the supposedly “feminine” activity of grieving, many often refuse to grieve as though there is no time for it, claiming it is an activity reserved for the weak—they then lash out blindly at the object of their grief in an attempt to eliminate it, believing they can set things right again. The subject feels that they can become a hero by dispelling grief and its possibility, and this is likely part of the reason why Diane Davis avers that “if there is something like an ethical task for rhetoricians, if there is, it would need to involve the deconstruction of heroics.”41 So is there another way to respond to grief? Or as Butler puts it, “[i]s there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence?”42

Returning to the memorials in question one can see that, for example, the 1966 stone and plaque might help one to acknowledge the Whitman event and grieve for its victims, even if one only reads its vague description, feels a rush of sentiment while standing beneath the tower, and is affectively soothed by the calming space of the Tower Garden. Likewise, the memorial regarding Tooley’s shooting-suicide helped some come to terms with the tumultuousness of the previous day, especially as it facilitated an instance of the “talking cure,” as one cathartically poured out one’s thoughts and feelings, hanging them up outside oneself. Thus, the memorials indeed appear to promote the processes of mourning that Butler suggests may help one respond to violence in a non-violent manner. However, it is important to make things a bit more problematic here. For although grief is “im-possible” to undergo, grieving for the innocent victims of tragedy is typically easier than grieving for those who are not so readily grieve-able because they are “responsible for,” or at the center of, violence. But perhaps those whom it is most necessary to mourn to arrest cycles of violence are the violent themselves, especially as long as they serve as objects of ressentiment and blinding rage. This, though, is a difficult task, one that in some cases may seem futile, but it is task one is called to nonetheless. And a memorial may constitute precisely the kairotic opening that an educator/activist needs in order start such a process.

For instance, when it comes to initiating the grieving process, the blinder often preventing subjects from viewing someone violent as grieve-able is the notion that atomized “individuals” are solely to blame for their transgressions as sovereign, willing agents, a notion stemming from humanistic discourses on selfhood and freedom. For when one operates from the premise that subjects possess “individual responsibility” and are the prime movers behind their deeds, one is typically incapable of, for example, seeing how Whitman’s behavior may have been brought about by a malignant brain tumor or that Tooley may have been reacting to a secret life of loneliness and despair. Outmoded theories of subjectivity therefore preclude one from understanding how there were likely forces that produced the violent behaviors of these men that were beyond their control, and undergoing something similar could, terrifyingly, happen to anyone. Standing before the memorial, then, one might exclaim (channeling Victor Vitanza) that Tooley and Whitman are one of us! They, too, are victims of the disaster. For when one is incapable of recognizing the radical Nietzschean innocence entailed in the notion that subjectivities are produced, one can only judge someone like Whitman or Tooley as monstrous, as inhuman “creatures” undeserving of grief.43

But on the contrary, if grieving’s initiation becomes “possible,” this may help to arrest cycles of violence based upon revenge. Working-through grief is important as well because “I am as much constituted by those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I disavow,” so by opening one’s eyes and overcoming oneself in submitting to the activity of grieving, one may transform the world into a less violent place.44

This is all to say, therefore, that grieving has incredible political ramifications. On this point Butler agrees, saying, “[m]any people think that grief is privatizing . . . [b]ut I think it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”45 Here one is carried into the question of “community,” but a community based upon the affective ties, non-declinable relations, and (singular) bodily vulnerability that characterizes living beings. Thus, the community at stake here is not that with which most are already familiar—coalitions based upon rhetorics of identification regarding common aims/values. Granted, one can employ the 1966 and 2010 UT memorials to furnish a sense of community as it is typically understood, but there is another “community” conditioning the first that calls for an exposition.

Indeed, although community is typically understood as a coalition based upon identifications and concern with a common cause, in the wake of tragedy at the University of Texas at Austin and other sites of (gun) violence, there is a call for “reimagining the possibility of community on the basis of vulnerability and loss.”46 Community is not always something one builds. Rather, inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy and others, Butler calls one to view community as “pre-existing” on the grounds that beings living in proximity are characterized by a shared exposure to affection and wounding/loss, a shared precariousness of life to which many stubbornly remain blind; or conversely, there exists a stubborn refusal to recognize one’s inescapable blindness when anticipating the instant of one’s always-untimely death. Butler exposes this relational conception of community in order to rethink ethics and politics. She points out that since beings exist “in community,” this means at least two important things: first, “community” means sharing a vulnerable existence with others that no one can abdicate, and second, everything that one does will affect everyone else “in community” such that one only acts/exists as a result of having been affected by others. In the case of the University of Texas specifically, this means that the university body is characterized by an inescapable/“blind” susceptibility to wounding and harm, and that anything a member of this singular body does will affect everyone else in proximity. The members of this community are thus “responsible to” everything that happens within it.

Concerning the ramifications of affirming one’s exposure to violence and wounding/loss, that is, the inescapable reality that one might be blindsided and killed, Butler explains that “vulnerability takes on another meaning at the moment it is recognized, and recognition wields that power to reconstitute vulnerability.”47 Thus, Butler suggests it is willing blindness to one’s vulnerability—or blindness to one’s blindness—that is at the heart of responding to violence in problematic ways. For instance, in the attempt to banish the fact of one’s vulnerability to wounding, say, by being caught unawares in a university shooting, one may wildly brandish one’s power/arms in an attempt to convince oneself and others that no such vulnerability exists. This is why with regard to the shared vulnerability of community, Butler avers that “[t]his is a condition, a condition of being laid bare from the start and with which we cannot argue. I mean, we can argue with it, but we are perhaps foolish, if not dangerous, when we do.”48 Dangerous, for example, because some believe they can overcome their non-declinable capacity for wounding by bringing guns into university classrooms. However, no matter the size of one’s arsenal or phantasy of mastery, one will never become capable of escaping the vulnerability/“blindness” that characterizes one’s life shared in community.49 This why Butler emphasizes that “[t]o foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way.”50

Thus, to emphasize the sense of “community” at issue here one last time, I want to return to the 2010 Tooley memorial as a map capable of illuminating its operation [Fig. 1]. Consider the memorial’s transience and fragility. It remained on campus for a day and was only minimally engaged. Herein one bears witness to the vulnerability of life, as one sees how the life of someone is, as the topos goes: “Here today, gone tomorrow.” Consider as well the relation between seemingly “individual” lives and the shared (singular) life of community. The memorial mapped Tooley himself, a singular life, while simultaneously pointing to a traumatic event that unknowingly, blindly, non-declinably reverberated through thousands of lives. Lastly, consider the structure of the memorial, how it was held together by fragile bonds, an image of the hidden relations or ties that hold together the university community. And the memorial-map’s capacity extends even farther as it points to how these bonds are the conditions for one’s words, as in the memorial a rope supports the community’s heartfelt notes. When framed in these ways, the memorial reveals its power and serves educators and activists in their attempt to rethink that “community” which binds together every-body at the University of Texas and beyond, regardless of whether such a community “forgetfully” eludes one’s gaze.

  1.  With every iteration of this article toward publication—its initial drafting, submission to In/Visible Culture, and publication, a new mass shooting tragedy occurred to which I re-dedicated the piece itself. The Sandy Hook tragedy was the latest in this series of heartbreaking events.
  2.  Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock. (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995), 4.
  3.  Trish Roberts-Miller, Posting on author’s wall, 28 Sept. 2010. Facebook posting.
  4.  ibid.
  5.  Clay Spinuzzi, Posting on author’s wall, 28 Sept. 2010, Facebook posting.
  6.  Tony Plohetski and Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, “Inquiry: Shooter showed ‘no red flags’” Austin American Statesman, 30 September 2010, 1.
  7.  There is some disagreement about the number of Whitman’s victims. I have chosen fourteen as that number because I am not counting David Gunby (who died thirty years later), or the unborn fetus of Claire Wilson.
  8.  As Rosa Eberly points out, “the university’s strategy, intentional or structural, to repress memories of the Tower shooting has been extremely successful: fewer and fewer students know about the shootings every year, and in two or three decades few people will be alive with individual memories of the event” Rosa Eberly, “Everywhere You Go, It’s There: Forgetting and Remembering the University of Texas Tower Shootings,” Framing Public Memory (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2004).
  9.  Edward, Casey, “Public Memory in Place and Time,” Framing Public Memory. (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 2004), 25.
  10.  Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 3.
  11.  Hicks, Nolan. “Gunman terrorizes campus,” The Daily Texan, 29 September 2010, 1.
  12.  Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 28.
  13.  ibid, 7
  14.  Michael Bernard-Donals, Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance in the Wake of the Holocaust. (New York: State University of New York, 2009), 15.
  15.  Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul De Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University, 1989), 37.
  16.  ibid, 34
  17.  ibid, 35
  18.  ibid, 35
  19.  ibid, 29
  20.  ibid, 31
  21.  Charles Scott, “The Appearance of Public Memory,” Framing Public Memory (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2004), 150.
  22.  Bradford Vivian, Public Forgetting (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 2010), 1.
  23.  Ibid, 115.
  24.  Scott, “The Appearance of Public Memory,” 151.
  25.  Vivian, Public Forgetting, 125-126.
  26.  Vivian, Public Forgetting, 128-129.
  27.  George Santayana, The Life of Reason. Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1906), 284.
  28.  Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University, 1994), 16.
  29.  ibid, 18.
  30.  ibid, 18
  31.  ibid, 18.
  32.  Although I want to exercise caution not to assume anyone’s position, provided her earlier arguments regarding the absence of a memorial to the 1966 shootings, I wonder if former UT professor Rosa Eberly would argue that forgetting the event led to further tragedies.
  33.  ibid, 19
  34.  Vivian, Public Forgetting, 9.
  35.  Eberly, “Everywhere You Go, It’s There” (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2004).
  36.  It is worth mentioning that regarding the UT Tower’s surveilling effects, this experience is so wide-spread that beyond Eberly’s and my own reports, one could easy generate hundreds of others.
  37.  Nolan Hicks, “Gunman terrorizes campus,” The Daily Texan, 29 September 2010, 2.
  38.  Stephanie Klick, Posting on author’s feed. 28 Sept. 2010. Twitter posting.
  39.  Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (New York: Verso, 2004), 12.
  40.  ibid, 30.
  41.  Diane Davis, Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2010), 89.
  42.  Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 30.
  43.  In contrast to the existence of a memorial for Colton Tooley, something that was likely possible only because community members considered him grievable (since he killed only himself), consider the memorial to the school shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. There, although memorial stones exist to the thirty-two students shot and killed by Seung-Hei Cho, no memorial stone exists for Cho himself. It seems the VTech community considered Cho ungrievable, monstrous, even though he was a long-time sufferer of chronic psychological illness that often went without treatment or legal intervention. Students at VTech made an effort to include a memorial stone for Cho but it did not ultimately succeed.
  44.  Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 46, 21.
  45.  ibid, 22.
  46.  With regard to “communities” concerned with the shooting event(s) on UT’s campus, one group deserves a special mention given that they responded to the 2010 Tooley shooting with gaiety and laughter, and in and doing so, forged a sense of community on campus. One only has to watch the viral film “UT Shooter Blues” on Youtube to see how it is possible to respond to disaster without violence or fear. Also see, Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 20.
  47.  ibid, 43.
  48.  ibid, 31.
  49.  As an example of the phantasy of mastery maintained in the wake of the 2010 UT shootings, consider this excerpt from a Facebook conversation between myself and a undergraduate acquaintance on gun-control: It is my belief for example that unless I am put in a situation where the shooter is highly trained in force-on firearms use, that I will be able to control the situation. I say this only because I have been through weeks worth (sic) of simulated live-fire scenarios and have been stress tested enough to where my reactions are as instinctual as they are surgical. Unfortunately, I imagine he is not alone in his self-aggrandizing (and arguably delusional) self-appraisal,but it stands as a perfect example of attempting to banish one’s sense of non-declinable vulnerability.
  50.  Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 30.

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