If you’re anything like me, you probably haven’t thought much about ‘postmodernism’ since taking an undergraduate elective art class — much less how it connects to mass shootings. Being “post-something” speaks to a genre being so well established that a creative space can develop around commenting on what something is thought to be. Postmodern art, film, theater, sculpture, or architecture are alternative representations of what society thinks something is. A John Wayne spaghetti western movie with cowboys riding into the sunset is the modern genre and Django Unchained is the postmodern rendition of it.
Wikipedia actually says it best:
Postmodern thinkers frequently call attention to the contingent or socially-conditioned nature of knowledge claims and value systems, situating them as products of particular political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, subjectivism, and irreverence.
Postmodernism isn’t limited to art. It is only after a genre is established that someone can recognize its existence and provide meta-commentary about it. Anytime the attributes of a genre or topic become so ingrained in popular culture that we have a shared understanding of it, an opportunity emerges to move into the post-genre.
Before shooting up the country music nightclub, the Thousand Oaks shooter posted on social media:
“I hope people call me insane… (laughing emojis).. wouldn’t that just be a big ball of irony? Yeah.. I’m insane, but the only thing you people do after these shootings is ‘hopes and prayers’.. or ‘keep you in my thoughts’… every time… and wonder why these keep happening…”
Beyond being a dark and disturbing message from a killer, this is an example of postmodernism.
We know mass shooting so well that we can close our eyes and see the imagery — candles, makeshift memorials, photos of victims, tearful friends, ‘we love’ or ‘city strong’ signs — because mass shootings are a genre we know too well. We know that thoughts and prayers will be given. We know that mental health will be blamed. We know the deaths will be senseless.
So here we are. This killer becomes different because his words and actions are a commentary on a situation that we all share. We don’t know his motive but it doesn’t really matter because we already know how the story goes.
A postmodern painting of Marilyn Monroe shows the same image of her face in four ways challenging our assertions of what a snapshot of a moment in time can really mean. As we venture into the meta-modern world, a hallway with thousands of mirrors force us to confront countless different representations of ourselves.
We are at a time where this house of mirrors is our only solution to stopping another mass shooting. We already know who the next shooter is because we have watched this story so many times that plots run together and details don’t really matter because we remember how it ends.
Deep down we all know the solutions, we just need to take a long look into the mirrors and decide that we are ready to face the reality of what needs to change.
David Riedman is an expert in critical infrastructure protection, homeland security policy, and emergency management. He is a co-founder of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Advanced Thinking and Experimentation (HSx) Program at the Naval Postgraduate School.