The media coverage of the mass killings at Virginia Tech is following a depressingly familiar narrative. The first 24 hours were a mystery novel: who did it? Clues pointed to an Asian male around 19 years old. Someone who'd just arrived in the United States. From China, someone suggested. The solution to the whodunit mystery turned out to be more disturbing than the original speculation, which revolved around the image of a deranged foreigner. The accused killer is a 23-year-old senior named Cho Seung Hui. He'd come to the US as a grade schooler. He'd grown up in Virginia. On his arm he had scrawled the gnomic message "Ismail Ax."
And he was an English major. This shouldn't be so shocking, but it is to someone who still is, in a way, an English major. No discipline, of course, is any more or less prone to attracting psychopathic weirdos, but horrific nature of Cho's act is utterly contrary to the humanist tradition in which literary studies fits. This morning Matt Lauer interviewed Cho's poor creative writing professor, Lucinda Roy, on The Today Show. She had to read his deranged writings. She responded humanely but ineffectually. In keeping with The Today Show's lurid and mawkish approach to tragedies large and small, Lauer insisted on quoting from a play Cho had written--"Dick must die" and rantings along those lines--a passage that could have been pulled from a Mamet play. Naturally Cho isn't going to be rewriting The Sound of Music in his dorm room with a Glock in his desk drawer. I'm curious about what he read. What kind of literature speaks to a mind like Cho's? Had he read that great tome of madness and unreason, Mody-Dick?
Now that we know the identity of the purported killer, we're in the display of madness stage of the narrative. Today's edition of the Chicago Tribune carries the banner headline "A Monster Revealed." Two memes run through the accompanying story and most of the others I've seen so far in the press: implied rebukes of authorities for missing the warning signs and detailed recreations of Cho's physical appearance and his actions on April 16. Michel Foucault would have recognized both. In his newly retranslated (and newly controversial, judging from the reaction to my earlier post and commentaries from others) History of Reason Foucault discusses the exhibition of inmates European asylums, most famously Bedlam Hospital in London. These exhibitions, Foucault wrote, "assigned to . . . madness a special sign: not that of sickness, but that of glorified scandal." In the eighteenth century "[m]adness had become a thing to look at: no longer a monster inside oneself, but an animal with strange mechanisms, a bestiality from which man had long since suppressed."
According to Foucault the exhibition of madness was an attempt to control and ultimately banish unreason from civilization. He defines unreason as "reason dazzled," the experience of being overwhelmed by a contrary and repressed variety of reason. The Enlightenment banished unreason from everything but its art and literature--Moby-Dick, for instance. Not surprisingly, unreason can't remain repressed for long, and its reappearance still fascinates and horrifies us. That this violence broke out at a technical institution--in the engineer building, no less--is telling. The exhibition of madness allows us to locate the derangement of reason in other people. Otherwise, we might find it lurking within ourselves.