I started the blog because I wanted to find a space to explore the relationship between people, places and objects outside of my day-to-day work as an archaeologist. I always wanted to find the contexts where aspects of the deeply rooted human past cross over with experiences and issues in the present . Then try to develop new perspectives on our current relationships with each other, the environment and technology. It’s with some trepidation that I tackle the issue of gun crime and gun culture, but in the two weeks since the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings the subject has rattled around in my brain. Perhaps it’s because so many children the same age as my daughter were slain, or the proximity to Christmas or the fact that there is a real chance this tragedy will mark a watershed in western attitudes to guns but I haven’t been able to ignore it. I’ve come to the conclusion that our cultures relationship with the gun is an immediate and urgent issue to address and if the wider discipline of anthropology really has nothing useful to say on it then we are failing the society which supports our subject and careers.
So what have I got to say, as a mud-scraping archaeologist interested in early stone tools, which could be of any use? Well not much and certainly I don’t have any answers. What I do have is an inkling of perspective which comes directly from my own experience of gun culture and from my work considering the relationship between early humans and technology. I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to adopt and promote a radical and perhaps rather esoteric perspective into the mainstream if we are to collectively change cultural behaviour towards these lethal artefacts.
So to begin requires something of my own personal perspective. As a kid I was obsessed by guns and the military. I spent the ages from 5 to 10 pretty much dressed in camo, was rarely without a plastic replica firearm and utterly consumed every war movie, comic or coffee table book on weapons and warfare I could lay my hands on. German weaponry in particular captured my imagination: from the futuristic looking Luger to the sleek lines and folding stock of the MP40 submachine gun. The MG42 and Twin-magazined Oerlikon were modeled in detail on the hundreds of toy soldiers and model aircraft I amassed and I longed to own a real weapon of my own, which finally at about 11 I achieved, in being given my first Airgun. But until that moment I had only interacted with the simulacra of the gun, rendered in Hong Kong factories in brittle plastic, without any real knowledge of the weight or feel of the real thing. But having watched so many hours of glorious Technicolor footage of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Michael Kane, Steve McQueen and other obvious heroic role models wielding guns, it seemed that by simple mimicry I was able to emulate the movement and ergonomics of handling the lightweight plastic objects as if they were made of wood and metal. I would hold them as if they had weight, slow my movements down when raising the object, hold the object tightly and precisely when taking aim and after vocalising the report of the bullet fired execute a perfect kick up or recoil of the weapon. Despite having never held a real gun, somehow my brain had mapped the experience of using a firearm through repeated exposure to media portrayals of gun use and my own mental and play-acting rehearsals of the use of these weapons. By the time I was six I firmly believe that the gun was hard wired into my brain and represented an object fairly central and of especial significance in my personal inventory of material cultural.
Now all this appeared to have happened despite the fact that I grew up in the UK. My parents didn’t own guns, nor did any immediate members of my family, no one in my town ever showed me a gun and before I was 14 and joined the cadets I never held a firearm. Even the police didn’t carry firearms when I was a kid. However, the gun still permeated 1970’s culture enough to embed itself deeply in my pre-adolescant brain, reinforced largely by positive role models including the war stories of my Nazi-fighting grandfathers or the SS/Bandit/imperial Stormtrooper-killing heroes of Hollywood.
When I finally became an adult the nascent obsession had thankfully waned, I left the cadets, grew my hair, and began to find new heroes, one’s who wielded guitars, pens and poetry. But I still continued to find excitement in movies in which guns occupied central totemic positions, from Leone to Tarantino: Scar Face, Taxi Driver or Dirty Harry the central characters of pivotal cultural reference points were augmented by that most powerful of personal accessories: the gun.
Now I could conclude here and add to the long running argument that guns are just fetishised too much in western culture though tv, movies and video games. But that argument has been forwarded too many times to carry any real weight and I think we need to look deeper to find any real hope of a solution. There is another glib logical progression which starts with the liberal thesis “Gun’s kill people”, the realist/conservative antithesis “No People Kill People” and the more enlightened synthesis “People with guns kill people”, I’m not sure really that any of these statements get us anywhere on their own but what they do is open a chink of useful light in the relationship between humans and objects that I feel might really be use here.
If I go back to my six-year-old self and think about my relationship with the gun as both a Platonic concept and plastic simulation, I get a very clear sense of how my relationship with that object transformed me as an individual. In the long-term my brain was hard-wired through play, imagination and handling to map the space the gun occupied and my ergonomic relationship to it. So much so that I could throw it from hand to hand, spin it on the trigger guard and flip it 360 and hold the gun in a firing position. This wasted ability could have easily been tracked on a musical instrument, paint brush or other creative tool but my object of choice was the gun. Instead of developing the neurological mapping of strings, piano or the QWERTY keyboard my brain mapped the geography of barrel, grip and trigger and the performance of drawing, raising, aiming and firing. Such mapping is not simply the acquiring of task specific skills, it represents the transformation of a young and malleable brain around an object. It is not simply a child learning to use a tool through play; it is the moulding of a nervous system around an extended part of its extended material culture. The effectiveness of the interaction is so loaded with values and endochrinal reinforcement that it is far more than simple skill acquisition going on here. I found playing with toy guns fun and exciting, I dread to think what was going on in my brain and those of my friends when we lay in wait for each other and sprung up simulating the emptying of a clip into each other bodies until one of us pretended to go down. I do know it was fun and I enjoyed it, that makes me suspect the experience released endorphins and adrenalin, that our play was creating powerful peak experiences around the use of simulated lethal technology.
Are those same endorphins activated when we watch a movie gun fight or laugh at the wise-cracking humour of our gun wielding heroes? If so it is easy to imagine the possibility that our relationship to the gun is far deeper than cultural, we may in some respects have a biochemical relationship with it. Taking our cues from the theory of the Extended Mind, first developed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, I feel that if we are serious in wanting to unpick ‘gun culture’ we have to understand fully the relationship between our biology, cognition and technology and stop viewing them in separate ways. The Extended Mind paradigm sees cognition as not being limited to the mind or indeed the body but existing outside and separate or, more correctly, in the space between the subject-object duality that often separate us and the material objects of our culture.
If we can explore how individual consciousness is transformed permanently by exposure to or use of an object, and how that transformation is reinforced and accelerated by cultural values we may begin to see the gun from a different perspective. Not simply as a tool which can be either in the ‘right hands’ or the ‘wrong hands’. Not as an object which we should either have the ‘right’ or ‘no right’ to own, but as a powerful cultural virus which maps so perfectly to human fears, drive for empowerment and security that we are struggling to control. We might conceive of the gun as occupying almost a new class of object, one where ergonomics, evolutionary imperative and efficiency lead to its extended and deep embedding in the biotechnological human nexus. We might add the handaxe, sword, automobile and mobile phone into this class too but the guns lethality is what makes this embedding so immediately toxic.
The power of an object to transform the individual into something greater, something more than human, sits at the core of the Extended Mind approach. As a species and individuals we constantly reconfigure around technology as it extends our individual and collective tolerances and influence. While we have a pretty good handle on behavioural and chemical addiction we are perhaps only at the beginning of understanding the deep embedding of technological co-dependence. Until we stop viewing the Gunman as just a man with a gun, and start viewing the Gunman as an augmented organism, a resulting cyborg nexus of biology, cognition and technology, detoxifying societies riven by gun crime might be near to impossible.