For Us All: A Love Letter to Our Students On the Occasion of the Isla Vista Shootings, May 2014

UCSB is a research university. That means faculty are engaged in scholarly and scientific pursuits they feel passionately about, whether they are contributing to research on aging, or trying to understand why the arts have been so valuable to our species as to have been, forever, our companions. These preoccupations often seem to take priority over teaching and getting to know our students. We teach a lot of large lecture classes. We dream about sabbaticals. But UCSB promotes undergraduate research as a way of involving undergraduates directly in that part of our mission, and we also teach (and wish we could teach more) small seminars, and we work with our undergraduates in labs, through internships or research assistanceships, on senior theses, in campus activism, on committees. We don’t always know our students’ names, but even if we don’t, we know our students’ faces. You keep us thinking about what matters, about what we need to learn, and what kind of knowledge we need to make, for the future. You keep us young. We hope we give you things too—a feeling for what a body of knowledge is, and can do; ways of thinking, making and doing that change your brains and minds forever, so that all we’ve learned in the past can be part of what you will take into the future we won’t otherwise be able to share with you. Our minds and our hearts are so much more entwined than we realize.

What the faculty have learned in the aftermath of the Isla Vista shootings is how much we love our students. Perhaps love isn’t the right word for the bonds that link people who think, learn, and work together, who share interests, even fascinations. We need a richer lexicon to describe these relationships. But we will use the word because it expresses something of the intensity of our concern, regard and gratitude for you.

We love you. You are part of us, and we are part of you. We know learning is difficult and that you manage a lot of boredom and anxiety every day. We know we don’t always connect well with you, as people or as experts in our fields. But when news of the shootings spread, we were desperate to know whether or not you were okay. We emailed you, telephoned you, scanned news sources, hoping you would not be among the dead and injured, feeling dreadful because we knew somebody had to be among the dead and injured, someone who was smart and hopeful, someone who was important. We’ve been so relieved to hear from you, so worried when we haven’t. I didn’t hear back from Chris Martinez, a student in my Honors Seminar, because he was killed by Elliot Rodger.  I’m heartbroken.  We’ve all been overtaken by our feelings. But we are glad to know, and want both the living and the dead to know, how much you mean to us.

Research on social connectivity is growing more brilliant every day. There is still much we don’t know about how feelings and ideas become, or always already are, communal phenomena. But we know that feelings and ideas are transpersonal. And so we know, partly because we are part of a knowledge-making community, how really true it is that we are all affected by the shootings, how much we have reached out to each other, and how long it will be before we can enjoy again the shockingly good fortune of being alive. We are just so terribly sorry for those who had to leave us before they were ready.  Chris, we don’t want to say goodbye to such a brilliant and kind young man.  I can’t, yet.

Please be well. If we can help, tell us, and we will tell you. If you need peace and quiet, we will be respectful. If you want to cry, we will cry with you. We will protest the unfairness of life right alongside of you. Please be well. Remember that we love you.

For My Students

The title of my last blog post horrifies me today, as I contemplate the shootings and injuries of so many UC Santa Barbara students last night in Isla Vista, CA.  Still I ask my students and my university to face this nightmare rather than soften or obscure it.  Isla Vista needs our attention.  It has been preyed upon by slumlords for decades, and now has one of the highest population concentrations in the world.  That population consists largely of exploited, neglected students abandoned to the tender mercies of “market forces,” and even more exploited and neglected Mexican-American families, many of them recent immigrants, all “living” anywhere from 3-5+ people to a single bedroom.  For that matter, it’s not hard to find 4 or more people renting one leaky garage, or people living in closets and paying hundreds of dollars a month for the privilege.  The violence of the recent police response to the vast party known as Deltopia suggests that the situation in IV has been misdiagnosed, and for a long time.  Our students need to feel that the larger community cares about their welfare.  They have been stranded in Santa Barbara’s out-of-control housing market, with very few beds available in UCSB dormitories, at the mercy of vendors selling the worst possible crazy-making food, with more liquor stores than salad bars. It is, in short, a ghetto.  And people nobody cares about tend not to care about other people.  The older families living in IV are beleaguered by and suffer from open conflict with the party houses that are taking over.  No one is helping them either.  I hope the community will treat IV not as an unruly world in need of crackdown but as an unruly world in need of the kind of attention that encourages a return of respect and concern.  Sheriff Bill Brown has made clear to the press that he regards this (so far) as the work of a “madman,” and he is right in a way.  But Elliot Rodgers, who appears to have been the murderer, was a young man in very deep trouble.  Probably nothing and no one could have stopped this violent acting-out against women–Rodgers posted a video on YouTube (now removed) that excoriated women, especially sorority girls, for refusing his sexual advances, and vowed to avenge himself, and then killed six people (we don’t yet know how many were women) and critically injured seven more.  But how different is he from the frat boys who put date-rape drugs in women’s drinks and then violate them sexually?  Not as much as said frat boys and their parents and the society that nearly always lets them off the hook would like to think.  But everytime a symptom “breaks out” in Isla Vista, there are flurries and posturings, and then once again nothing is done to address the context that imperils the lives of young women, and sometimes young men, thus perpetuating the cycle of carelessness and dehumanization.  What Isla Vista needs is serious rent control, housing codes, and enforcement thereof.  It needs medical and mental health clinics. It needs a town government.  It needs a little care.  


As concerned as I am for student mental health, I have to part company with those who are asking for warnings on syllabi and the like about potentially triggering classroom material. My chief objection to this kind of labeling is as follows: we don’t do justice to the phenomena of suicide, depression, war, trauma, by referring to them as “course material.” They are everywhere. They are the tragedy of our time and of all times. They are happening to you and to me and those we love and those we don’t know but still care about. They affect and shape all of our ways of producing knowledge, not just literary or film studies, but history (whose stories get told, and by whom?), economics (are we driven by rational interests or passion?), statistics (counting the dead in World War I), chemistry (Big Pharm), psychology (the American Psychology Association’s refusal to condemn torture), physics (the Bomb). Some disciplines are good at generating the appearance of neutrality and dispassion; others are more candid. But, as Michel de Certeau put it, each knowledge discipline is subject both to the “law of the science” and to the “law of the group.” Even this distinction is too clear-cut, since scientific practice is itself heavily determined by the law of the group; scientists used to resist multiculturalism, fearing it was an attack on “universals”; now comparative research helps us make many more fine, and important, distinctions (cultural differences in how caregivers address infants, for example) than we once could. In my understanding of psychoanalysis, we need, above all, to be aware of our “badness” so that we can learn to bear the almost-inevitable concomitant of unbearably bad feelings, so we can free ourselves as much as possible from Blake’s “mind-forged manacles.” We do not have a problem with course material. We–I–have a problem with a world that turns a blind eye to cruelty.

The War Against Veterans

The above link indicates that in a recent vote, U.S. Republican Senators voted overwhelmingly against improving health benefits for veterans, and U.S. Democratic Senators overwhelmingly in favor. I wish this made me feel better about the Democratic Party’s commitment to the people’s health, mental and otherwise. But it certainly makes me feel even less hopeful about the Republican Party’s approach to healthcare. It is stunning, is it not?, how many southern and western states benefit financially from hosting large U.S. military installations, but don’t think they should invest in the well-being of the soldiers who live and work there

The message sent by such political gestures is a shaming one: if you can’t afford the (preposterously expensive) private medical care available in the U.S., then you deserve neither health nor life. In other words, the decisions this country makes about healthcare don’t simply neglect or aggravate our difficulties, they compound them psychologically.

As an educator, I try to communicate to my students that their minds matter. In a different way, I try to communicate the same feeling to the people who see me for psychotherapy/psychoanalysis. Since minds are embodied–the feedback loops between minds and bodies are innumerable, complexly organized and highly active–our bodies matter too. But the forces deciding our healthcare, while masquerading as considerations of scientific and statistical fact against speculation and sentimentality, have no regard whatsoever for the knowledge being produced today about the nervous system and its many needs for things that (according to the Gradgrinds of today) are neither “necessary” nor even obviously “useful.” (See my book STAYING ALIVE, which argues for the interdependence of thriving and surviving). After complexity theory, there is no such thing as a drop in the bucket, because there are no more buckets; we can never know what kinds of effects our actions will have–all we know is that they are likely to have multiple unforeseen reverberating effects throughout many different networks of force, power, and desire. So, despite the hopelessly naive (from a political standpoint) nature of the following suggestion, I suggest it nonetheless: we all have to do everything we can to believe in the importance of every creature’s life, because our assumptions about what does and does not affect us have been put all in doubt. Hierarchies of value are no longer supportable in the era of causal parity and strange attraction from a distance. That is to say: love where you can love, and where you can’t love, respect.