April 18, 2013
This is one of four posts of a METAPOST–four posts in one! All four posts have been adapted (slightly edited/revised) from presentations made at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference (Washington, D.C.). The session, “Medievalism in Politics Round Table,” was a part of the Medievalism in Popular Culture section (comprised of seven sessions total), organized by Amy Kaufman, who will be posting a response soon.
The genesis of this paper came from a phenomenon that I’ve noticed increasingly over the last year or so, and if you have Facebook friends who are gun fans or if you follow right wing media you might have noticed this too: the proliferation of a certain kind of photograph usually taken at gun ranges in which people dress in camouflage and adopt a macho pose for the photo. These struck me as being just a little absurd—exactly what purpose does wearing camouflage at a shooting range serve, and why take a picture of it anyway? (People don’t photograph themselves simulating topspin forehands at the tennis courts after all.) The reason behind these photos, of course, is that gun fandom is, at this point in our history, crossing the border between activity and lifestyle. Going out to a gun range is not just something that you do, it’s becoming a kind of role-playing experience, complete with anthropomorphic targets and military-style cosplay.
I would argue that this concept of gun culture as identity is really something quite new and it’s manifesting itself in more ways than the posting of cheesy photographs. For instance, just this month, a Pew Research poll on gun ownership confirmed a remarkable shift in gun culture that had been reported anecdotally for years. In response to the question “why do you own a gun?” 48% of gun owners responded “self defense,” easily beating hunting, which came in at 32%. When this question was asked in a similar poll fourteen years ago, these percentages were almost reversed: 49% cited hunting while 26% cited self-defense.
This extraordinary transformation of gun culture has a number of causes (for instance, the decline of rural America, increasingly alarmist conservative political rhetoric, etc.), but I want to talk about one of the effects of that shift. The dominant paradigm of gun ownership has moved from one based on action to one based on potentiality. Hunting is something that you do, while dangerous situations in which you defend yourself are events that you wait to occur. And of course it’s an occasion that’s increasingly unlikely ever to occur in a nation with falling crime rates. I’d like to propose that this paradigm of unrealized potentiality is fertile ground for fantasy. When you can’t use your gun on a regular basis, you dream about ways you can use it. (I should add here that when I say the word “fantasy” here and elsewhere in my talk, I don’t mean it in a pejorative way; it’s intended to be a neutral descriptive term.) Participants in gun culture frequently fantasize about being in an environment in which gun fire is regrettably imperative. (“Regrettably…”)
The central argument of this talk is that the closest analogue of this turn towards the fantastic in modern culture is in the various medieval reenactment communities, such as the Live Action Role Play (Larping) community or the Society of Creative Anachronism. What both the neo-medievalists and modern gun culture share is a desire to correct various aspects of modernity by adapting the practices of an alternative cultural environment. While in the case of medieval reenactors, this environment is predominantly historical, in the case of the new gun culture, the corrective frame is both historical and subcultural: it combines both the outward trappings and the argot of the military with a putatively libertarian social structure that looks towards the pre-modern for paradigmatic validation, but also, increasingly for aesthetics. The key difference between the two cultures has to do with gun culture’s putative claim of hard-headed pragmatism. Self-defense is a completely utilitarian concept; the notion that we struggle to survive is at the foundation of Darwinian theory, the core of Freud’s reality principle. But in modern gun culture, that basic fundamental impulse is rendered as fantasy. This dichotomy generates an uncomfortable and yet fascinating tension in which medieval history is sometimes cited as a rationale: it happened once so it could happen again.
So I’d like to discuss two examples of gun culture that exemplify this turn towards fantasy. I realize that my support for this hypothesis is therefore entirely anecdotal, but I think these examples illustrate these tensions in some fascinating ways. The first is from a website for a company called Threat Dynamics who have a shooting range and other facilities in a suburb of Portland Oregon. This shooting range goes beyond one’s usual sense of what such a facility might be: we’re not talking just paper targets in some outdoor space. Threat Dynamics have what they call “threat simulators,” which are “high-definition video tactical scenarios.” You can get a sense of what’s happening in this image from the Threat Dynamics website: http://www.threatdynamics.com/civilian/tactical-scenarios/. One stands in front of a screen that’s depicting a simulation of some situation—for instance, here a convenience store hold up, and one can fire at the villain of that particular piece. The website says that it’s “recommended” that you wear a belt that gives you an electric shock, so that you can better simulate the experience of being wounded and so that you can learn how to “fight through the pain.”
This talk of “scenarios” is the essentially the language of fantasy role playing and when conducted with guns against imaginary opponents who can “injure” you, this is the firearm version of larping. Medieval fantasy versions of this, only with swords instead of guns and ink instead of the electric shock, take place all over America and Britain every weekend. Beyond this resemblance, for me what’s really notable about the version that Threat Dynamics proffer on this site is an anxiety about realism. It’s true that every digital or physical reenactment, whether a video game or a mock historical battle or whatever, is concerned with verisimilitude; we want our simulacra to be as accurate as possible and we judge them by that flawed and problematic rubric we call realism. But Threat Dynamics is presenting these scenarios as training for a future event, and its website is very anxious that you not think this is some kind of frivolous video game. In a little over a paragraph, some variation on the word “real”—real, realism, reality, etc.—appears nine times. Even the word “tactical”—which by the way is a word that comes up all the time in the civilian gun community—denotes conscious forward planning, the expectation that there will be future application. To talk about tactics is an implicit but unequivocal assertion that you are invested in the real and the tangible
The second instance I want to discuss is one that, when I first conceived this paper, I thought I was one that only a few people know about, but now it’s been written about at The Huffington Post and mentioned on The Daily Show, so it’s been very much in the public eye. This is the Citadel, a proposed walled community/libertarian gun paradise that will be built in Idaho. Here is the website: http://www.iiicitadel.com/index.html. At the moment they are accepting application fees for future residents. Obviously the concept of an anti-government group holing up in a Rocky Mountain hideaway is in itself nothing new, but there are two aspects of the Citadel project that have medieval resonances. The first is the architectural style of the Citadel, which as you can see looks very medieval. The plan is essentially to make a 21st century version of a walled keep of the early medieval period. Apparently, the inspiration is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a medieval walled city in Germany. There are outer and inner walls enclosing a space large enough to contain a small village. (Actually, this reminds me of nothing so much as the Village in the TV show The Prisoner.) There are even medieval towers complete with crenellations. As you can see, the very logo of the Ciatdel itself incorporates this medieval imagery. (Jon Stewart called it “medieval chic” in the brief segment they ran on it on The Daily Show.) The gun factory will be housed within the inner walls.
What you have then is a strange hybrid: the architectural trappings and defensive theory of early medievalism along with both modern weaponry and a very non-medieval sense of libertarian utopianism. You could read the Citadel maybe as an ignorant anachronism, or if you’re being particularly generous, as postmodern pastiche, a kind of Piazza d’Italia for the survivalist set. However, I’d prefer to interpret it as an attempt to locate a social and historical paradigm for individual armed defense. The feudal middle ages is perfect for this for a few reasons: it’s essentially rural in quality rather than urban (yes, I know, the rise of the cities in high middle ages… this is not what the Citadel folks are thinking of), it’s premodern and therefore predates such modern concepts as a state-run police force, and it imagines the feudal polity as independent of central authority. And it should be said that it isn’t entirely my personal reading; survivalist writers themselves have made this connection. Seeing themselves as persecuted believers beset by dangers, the survivalist community looks to the early middle ages as a paradigm. You see this in some of the rhetoric on the Citadel, but a blog to which the Citadel links—the Survivalblog by James Wesley Rawls— states this more explicitly. He writes that, “Closing ranks with people of the same faith has been done for centuries. It is often called cloistering. While imperfect, cloistering got some Catholics in Ireland through the Dark Ages with their skins intact and some precious manuscripts intact.” The backers of the Citadel project see themselves as being the same as those early Christians beset by barbarians. For the originators of the concept, this is the second coming of that dynamic. They are the guardians of Christian civilization mounting the barricades against a secular and cosmopolitan Viking Horde.