Why aren’t individual stories good enough? This is a question that has occupied a lot of my time for the past decade.
I have a good sense of why various concentrated kinds of intellectual projects (such as social history) have so consistently pushed to typify or generalize from vividly idiosyncratic instances of a single person, institution or community. And I know that no matter how particular the case in front of us might be, we eventually have to relate it to something other than itself to make sense of it. Meaning-making is always a comparative act.
Still, there’s a common impulse to very quickly fit a local or individual narrative neatly into some larger issue, and in so doing move beyond the unsettling contradictions that any closely-examined life will inevitably reveal. So it’s been with the story of Amy Bishop, accused of killing her colleagues at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Reading around the web today, I’ve seen numerous conversations that take in the details of the case in a quick glance and proceed from there to argue that it tells us something about gun control and gun rights, about tenure and collegiality, about the pressures on scientists to produce, about the dilemma of youthful achievers when they hit middle-age, about autism-spectrum disorders, or about gender inequality.
I honestly don’t get it. Isn’t Amy Bishop herself interesting enough, as we learn more about her background and life? For that matter, aren’t the feelings and trauma of her colleagues’ families and her institution sufficient to draw our attention and sympathy? Amy Bishop seems to me for the moment to explain primarily herself. Of all the stories she is said to stand in for or suggest, in any of them, she is pretty much the only person to have done what she did. There have been many tenure denials in the last five years, but no one has gone into a meeting and shot their colleagues but Amy Bishop. In every story she is being made to carry or exemplify, she’s the completely idiosyncratic exception.
This isn’t just about scolding the weakness of our pattern-recognizing skills in the public sphere. (Another example: whatever you think about the science of global warming, one unusual month of snow in one narrow band of North America doesn’t tell you shit about it.) I also just get depressed that we feel such a need to rush past the mysteries that confront us any time there’s a rupture in the fabric of everyday life. We spend our lives guessing about even the people we know most intimately, often having to add surprising new information or unguessed-at dimensions to that knowledge. When an event like this comes along, staging the autopsy of a stranger’s life for a nation of coroners, there should be enough to occupy our conversations and trouble our uneasy hearts in that spectacle alone.
Additional note: Margaret Soltan’s been doing a great, eloquent job making this point. I guess what interests me is that there is a tremendous resistance to this kind of riposte to the public chatter.
Elsewhere, the use of Bishop to score cheap points or soapbox continues unabated, and as it gains momentum, becomes more and more indecent. One of the latest trends is to fasten on to her supposedly radical political views, known largely through a single reported characterization by a colleague, and pronounce this case to somehow reveal something about liberal professors.