Friday, March 1, 2013

Guns and Aesthetics

A number of times in the last few months the issue of aesthetics and firearms has arisen, notably in connection with the recently proposed ban on what are called assault weapons.  I say "what are called assault weapons" because it's difficult to decide which weapons should be included in that category. The assault weapons ban tries to categorize them by asking whether they meet at least three out of a short list of criteria.

Many guns are semiautomatic - that is, each pull of the trigger fires a round and then loads the next round - without being assault weapons.  Most of the duck hunters I know use semiautomatic shotguns, for instance.  Their guns only hold three rounds (as stipulated by the law that governs the hunting of migratory waterfowl) but those three rounds can be fired in rapid succession, and most of the guns can be quickly made to hold more than three rounds - usually up to five.  Some small-game guns that fire .22 caliber rounds (one of the smallest and least powerful bullets commonly available) are also semiautomatic; and I'd guess most of the handguns sold today are semiautomatic as well.  But few of these guns qualify as assault weapons.

Which ones are the dangerous ones?

Critics of the ban point out that for this reason (among others) the criteria for assault weapons are merely aesthetic.  Banning guns on the basis of aesthetics will do little or nothing to solve the problem of gun violence, they say.

I haven't looked into the statistics, but I would guess that most gun deaths in the United States involve semiautomatic handguns and not assault weapons.

Which leads me to the question of whether the aesthetics of guns matters.  

My answer is not about what laws we should enact, but about whether aesthetics matters anywhere.  And the answer is that every one of us knows that aesthetics always matters.  It affects the kind of car we drive, the clothes we wear, the way we wear our hair.  Even those who profess that they don't care about these things almost certainly do care.  Everyone who studies advertising and marketing knows; songwriters and filmmakers know; everywhere we turn we find a human environment in which we have made important choices on the basis of how the visual aspect of our belongings and edifices makes us feel.

They aren't just vehicles for our bodies, but for all the other things we wish to convey as well.

The Best View In Warsaw

When the Nazis were retreating from Warsaw they dynamited the city, block by block, leveling nearly every building in the city.  After the war, the proud Poles gathered photos and paintings and rebuilt the city, brick by brick, to look just as it had before the war.  No doubt this was much harder than simply rebuilding, but they knew: aesthetics matters.  It is the expression of people who will not be put down.  Visual culture can be used to rally a nation, to embolden hearts, to renew hope.

Years ago, when I was working in Poland, one of my students offered to take me to the top of the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw.  The building was a "gift" from Moscow, and the building rises from a huge footprint to a soaring tower that overlooks all of Warsaw.  When we reached the top and gazed out on the city, Tomek said to me "This is the best view in all of Warsaw."  

"Because the tower is so tall that you can see everything?" I asked.

"No," he quickly replied.  "It's because this is the only place in Warsaw where you can't see this damned tower!"  The building was a "gift" but it was also a visible reminder of Russian Soviet power.  Everything from the wide footprint to the dizzying height to the architectural style was an aesthetic expression of domination.  The Soviets knew: aesthetics matters.  Visual culture can be used to intimidate and oppress.

You Are A Sign

Regardless of what you think of the proposed ban on certain kinds of guns, this should be obvious.  Go to a gun shop or a gun show sometime and ask yourself whether aesthetics matters in guns.  It might not matter enough to inform our laws, but the guns we make and buy for ourselves ought to tell us something about what is in our hearts.  The thing we hold in our hand, like the car we drive and the clothes we wear, is something we project to others, a word we are silently and visibly speaking.  As I have written before, the gun is not a neutral element in this speech.  It is a word we speak, but it can be a word that speaks us, too.  Let me tell you what every polyglot knows: some words in some languages open up new thoughts that you didn't think to think in your native tongue. The technologies we deploy may be the same; as may the visible aspect of those technologies.  Nothing is ever neutral; as Peirce said, everything - everything - is a sign, and we ourselves become signs as well.

This doesn't answer the question of what kind of laws we should have.  I think that question is secondary to this question: what kind of people should we be

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