The trial of the image of James Holmes

In 2012 an American student entered a cinema in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire on the audience. Immediately the media news responded with shock and devastation by immediately mobilizing itself to the scene. The eye of the media fell on Aurora and in its gaze the shooting became fit for public consumption. Elevated above the immediate horror experienced by those who had assembled there in the Century movie theatre, the mediatised gaze raised the random horror to the level of a news event. An authentically shocking event the shooting entered into the economy of commentary, becoming part of a fascinated and morally charged hermeneutics of the dark psycholopathology of American society.

The cameras and the reporters arrived “live at the scene” in order to find out what happened, to ask people, psychiatric and police officials passing stragglers, what happened, how they felt,  what it meant; to go over the details and ask the question “why?” This wasn’t enough, the facts, the fragmentary slices of traumatic emotion, the confusion and fear. As Adam Curtis repeatedly points out, the media, having become obsessively narrative, having assimilated the conventions of the cinema for itself, had to set about constructing a coherent narrative with identifiable characters, associations, allusions.

ABC news soon found itself apologizing for tying Holmes to the then still current right-wing paranoiac grouping of the Tea Party. Bill Warner put forward that Holmes was probably a member of the anarchist black bloc. Elsewhere it seems that media outlets were vying to associate Holmes with either the Democratic or the Republican Party. It took a Redditor with no journalistic training or affiliation to keep things to the facts as they unfolded. It’s interesting to note that journalists commented on how weird it was to read the Reddit thread: all information and no story. The news became fraught with drama and banality, unable to tell them apart, while the prosumer of Reddit reported that facts.

There is nothing unusual in the fact of trying to make sense of things. Human brains have evolved to look for patterns and to connect things up into causal chains. We look for reasons and in the absence of anything to grab a hold of we have the tendency to over-reach in our inferential reasoning. This is only accentuated when automatic cognitive habits come become structural components of the agencies that control a news media that already exhibits an hysterical demand that the flux of information about the world should come in the form of a narrative. The cognitive style of a media that is expecting to find a narrative- and therefore primed to “discover” one-  is the same as that clinical group who have been found to jump to conclusions in decision making with information poverty: the paranoid.

Of course the media eye is our extended eye that turns to face itself with the critical demand that something be reported. This is exacerbated by the existence of social media and citizen journalism which must be phagocytised into the mainstream news media. If they do not say something we will go elsewhere. The satirist Charlie Brooker said in connection to the 24 hour coverage of a hotel room door (it belonged to the parents of Madeleine McCann), that the implicit injunction issued by the media platforms was that we LOOK. We were held as a viewing public in the uncritical passivity of spectators who could only stare slack-jawed at nothing, something, anything. What Brooker left out of the picture was that we return this demand two-fold. In the first instance the audience issues the injunction SHOW ME which means EXCITE ME. Accompanying this, necessarily so where an audiovisual media is concerned, there is the further demand TELL ME ABOUT IT. To make a pun, the paranoiac finds plots everywhere, but we are there whispering into its ear.

After all the excitement and panic and fear, uncertainty, disorienting and the dizzying rapidity of the game of  putting forward and taking back reasons that were not reasons, what was left of James Holmes? After the speculations on his mental state- the kind that have by now become a reflexive trope of mainstream platforms- and the typical debates on whether he was “mad or bad”, the assemblage of an image of an isolated and weird young man with strange hair and a disturbing fixed gaze and sinister smile- the killer’s smile is always sinister; the victim is always innocent; there are roles to play even in death- James Holmes became a name for a series of endlessly circulated images and speculations that doubled and redoubled on themselves. The flesh and blood Holmes was already in prison, already on suicide watch, already- but only temporarily- forgotten. What had become of him? His image had been liberated from him and his name and motives emancipated from their imprisonment as belonging or expressing the man himself. Fragmented into the repetition of a series of voiceless images James Holmes became an image in the Baudrillarian sense. If Holmes was a murderer then he might also have been a suicide insofar as his actions transformed him into the social image of himself that is not his experiential self. Baudrillard was always concerned to demonstrate the evil and the power of the image in its divine and demonic force:

Thus perhaps at stake has always been the murderous capacity of images: murderers of the real; murderers of their own model as the  Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real. All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange – God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference [1].

This is what happens to James Holmes. Franco Berardi will call his actions a ‘symbolic suicide’ and we can see precisely what he means here: by making himself into an image of himself Holmes has succeeded in killing himself through a de-materialisation of himself. There is almost something kenotic about this: a ritual of self-emptying the effect of which was to make him ready to be filled with the grace of the image and of the media commentary, the psychiatric reports, the speculations that would finally tell him who it is he was. In becoming image he at once becomes this emptied flattened surface that exists as a fragment of self-referential simulacra that, travelling through the “uninterrupted circuit”, never comes back to touch the corporeal flesh and blood James Holmes- who is even less real than the image that demands and absorbs our gaze. The kenotic death; the mediatic death;  and also the eventual death of the image of James Holmes as it is ‘crushed by overinformation,  oversignifcation, overreference’ of prisons reports, the psychiatric assessments, the pronouncements of judges and the judgements of the survivors of the attack and the families of the dead [2].

This is the strangest suicide of all: he is murdered over and over, and even his murder is murdered, and it is by his own hand that the murder takes place. Through a long deferral James Holmes disappears. He disappears as the singularity that the name “Jameso Holmes” is supposed to fix in space and time, and he disappears as an image in the ceaseless precession of images, before those images are killed by the discursive productions that engender an over-actual and hyper-realized pulled-apart-in-all-directions series of James Holmes’s that have left him far behind. Of course for us all this means that there never was a James Holmes. It is only in the proliferative virulence of the sequence of his symbolic suicide that a James Holmes comes to exist at all.

Eventually even this disappears. The media look away. We forget. A man lies in a hospital, awaiting trial. That trial has come. Eclipsed by the more important simulations and illusions, James Holmes’s resurrection into the over-bright pornography of audiovisual illuminism- everything must be seen and heard and you are really right there, telepresent and live through the screen- has gone largely unnoticed in the UK. I understand that it’s been on television in the United States. Holmes is said to have considered and rejected the methodology of the serial killer as too personal, too meaningful, too intimate, and yet there he is on the screens again, fracturing and fragmenting and being brought into mediatic focus: a compulsive serial killing that he can’t bring to an end, a serial self-killing that cannot be finalised.

Holmes’s lawyers are going for a not guilty by reason of insanity plea. One has to wonder whether Holmes is satisfied with his mediatised suicide, whether he wouldn’t prefer to have the mechanisms of the state finally come to save him, to put the flesh to death: to finally separate him from the virus of the face that is no longer his and a name that refers to no one.

In the next post I’ll look at the elements of Holmes’s “ritual” of multiple symbolic suicide in the murder of others. I will also separate it from the idea that he wanted to die but could only enact his rage on the others- a popular but fallacious psychoanalytic interpretation of aggression. In doing so I’ll engage a bit more with Bifo’s treatment of the Aurora shooting.


[1] Baudrillard. Selected Writings

[2] Baudrillard. The Violence of the Image. 


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