The massacre committed by Wellington Menezes de Oliveira in the Tasso da Silveira school in Rio de Janeiro shows that school violence has recently become a social symptom. This posits the challenge of thinking about a new real that is now at stake in educational institutions.
Gus Van Sant, the director of the film “Elephant”, about a massacre in an American high school, chose this title from the parable of the blind men and the elephant. In this tale, a version of which dates from the 2nd century BC in the Buddhist canon, several blind men examine different parts of an elephant: ears, legs, tail, trunk, etc. Each blind man is fully convinced that he understands the true nature of the animal on the basis of the part which he is holding in his hands. Thus the elephant is like a fan, or like a tree, or like a rope, or like a snake. But none of them can see the whole.
School violence has shown new forms of malaise in a domain in which cultural and social ideals and values are transmitted. School not only has become a media stage for killings (in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Carmen de Patagones, Beslan, etc. and now Rio de Janeiro, to mention only a few in a long list of places all over the world), but also for new phenomena such as bullying, students harassing teachers and other students, teachers being aggressed by students and parents.
The social decline of the paternal imago formulated by Lacan at the start of his teaching is correlative to the decline in the semblances of authority: doctors, politicians, those imparting justice, etc. As well as educators.
It is a striking fact that the figure of the teacher, which used to represent a semblance of knowledge, has lost its authority. There is a song in “The Wall”, Alan Parker’s fierce critique of education as a meat-grinding machine leading to an alienating homogenization, which goes: “Hey teacher, leave those kids alone”. The song refers to the ways in which educators mistreat students, and yet it has been turned into a joke in Spain, referring to students’ mistreatment of students: – Hey kids, leave that teacher alone.
Albert Camus says in “The Myth of Sisyphus” that the only philosophically serious problem is that of suicide, as it posits the question of whether life has a meaning. Our choice is to elevate the problem of school violence to an ethically serious problem, where these new forms of bond-breaking do not follow vindication lines, as in the Cordobazo student revolts or the French May 68. For instance, a striking event took place in a technical school in Rosario, Argentina: students wrecked their class furniture, recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube. “This is what goes on in our school when teachers aren’t here…” says the text describing the video, which shows 15- and 16-year old students thrashing the desks and chairs.
Jacques-Alain Miller posited in his course “A poetic effort”, 2002-2003, that the subjectivity paradigm before the death of God was the ethics of sacrifice, the ethics of religion, which in some way has survived to our day. However, the ethics of capitalism is based on diversion: the renunciation of the drives which Freud refers to in “Civilisation and its Discontents” has turned into a command to enjoy, not to give anything up. Diversion – a term which Miller takes from Pascal – has turned into the powerful entertainment industry, and also accounts or certain modes of contemporary subjectivity. In our clinical practice, we come across teenagers who aren’t interested in knowing anything, who, besides failing in school, are only interested in having fun. The Rosario technical school is a clear example of this, as is the massacre shown in the film “Elephant”, which has the structure of a videogame.
Maybe we should state that what is most serious is wrecking school furniture for fun, harass a teacher or a student to entertain oneself, or videogame-style massacres.
Let us remember that Lacan, in his 1972 press conference in Rome, claims, unlike Freud, that religion will triumph as a refuge for meaning in the face of the devastating real produced by science. We are bearing witness to this now – the advance of science, technology, and the market, has had devastating effects on subjectivity, leading to the rejection of social links and of the impossible, to a frailty of links which Bauman calls “liquid love”.
There is also liquid violence, for it isn’t necessarily hatred what drives the current violence.
Violence sells in the mass media, for in the entertainment industry it is rather the command to enjoy and surplus jouissance that drive hypermodern discourse, with no ethical boundaries.
Roberto Esposito, a Neapolitan philosopher and the author of Communitas, Immunitas and Bios, has posited an immunity treatment, arguing that security policies trying to preserve life rather attack it: life being understood not as zoe, pure life, but bios, a way of life. Schools can be turned into camps, with security cameras and metal detectors; yet Virginia Tech had all the latest security systems, which failed to prevent the massacre. The young Korean who acted out had an arms license and a tutor who monitored his antisocial behavior. Chou Seung-Hui had enough time to send his video to NBC, and it was the alarm text message sent by the university to students’ cellphones that triggered his passage to the act.
The massacre in the Tasso da Silveira school in Rio has similar characteristics. Wellington had announced his intentions in Orkut, the social web in which he published his thoughts, and there are also videos from previous days in which he explained his plan. There is a common factor to these cases: on the one hand, there were warnings on the web which nobody saw, and on the other hand these subjects had a need to leave a delusional testimony of their action. Thus these are not only mass murders: the point is to leave some inscription of their hideous actions in the web as part of the reality show to which we daily bear witness. This series of school massacres are not outside current discourse: this is not a school problem, but rather we should not lose sight of its show-like nature, through which someone with serious difficulties to establish social links can make a place for him or herself in the media in a terrible way.
One last remark. Wellington argued that he himself had been bullied. This may be the case, and bullying is part of the problem of school violence, but that does not justify what he did. For psychoanalysis, the subject is always responsible.
translated by Asunción Alvarez