Trauma, Liminality, Hope — The Ritual Function of Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore’s 2002 Bowling for Columbine ambitiously seeks to explain what led to the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, with numerous detours into related topics. Moore’s thesis is clear: a ubiquitous, uniquely-American climate of fear fostered Columbine. However, Moore’s documentary, and by extension his diagnosis of American fear, struggles under the weight of “invented facts” (Kopel n.p.) and misleading presentation (Brett n.p.); as one critic asserted, “Columbine was the anomaly, not the norm,” and Moore’s documentary does little to allay that criticism (Franke-Ruta n.p.). Yet, despite its "slippery logic, tendentious grandstanding, and outright demagoguery,” Bowling for Columbine’s “disquieting insights into the culture of violence in America should occasion sober reflection from those who would prefer to stop their ears" (Scott n.p.). Despite its failings, Bowling for Columbine may better be experienced as a ritual; the film may place the viewer in liminality, a non-rational state in initiatory rituals, meant to bring participants to a “threshold,” at which they are fundamentally changed (“Liminality”). Wielding facts and figures in service of its threshold, disregarding accuracy, Bowling for Columbine tears down the ideologies and kneejerk solutions behind which one may hide the senseless trauma of Columbine. At this threshold of powerlessness, with an as-yet unprocessed trauma in full view, the individual may achieve what philosopher Slavoj Zizek refers to as “the courage of hopelessness” (Courage).

The documentary conducts its ritual primarily through interviews. For instance, one may consider news interviews with two female students immediately after escaping Columbine (00:34-00:35), and Moore’s respective interviews with home security consultant Danny Fennell (00:22-00:23) and Buell Elementary School principal Jimmie Hues (01:23). The two students are beside themselves, Fennell is emotionally overwhelmed by the word Columbine, and Hues is overcome by the memory of her deceased student. The trauma is obvious, but the inability to process that trauma is not. In these cases, says Zizek, one “see[s] too much in” the situation and thus “fall[s] under the spell of the wealth of empirical detail which prevents [them] from clearly perceiving … the core of the thing.” The issue is not that they cannot “grasp the multiplicity of determinations,” but that they cannot “constrain [their] gaze” to the trauma itself (Sublime xi). Instead, individuals shield themselves with unconscious fantasies to keep the trauma at a safe distance, a defense mechanism “whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants” and “implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’ ” (15). The documentary’s “typical day” in the US (00:01) illustrates this mechanism well: grotesque or otherwise strange realities presented as quotidian, yet not in ignorance but self-defense.

Through a supercut of news clips (00:44), Moore lists reductive explanations for the trauma of Columbine: negligent parents and society; violent films, games, TV, and toys; Satan and narcotics; and Marilyn Manson. Moore himself unconsciously contributes to this list in “A Brief History of the United States of America” (00:52-00:56), wherein he provides his own explanation for American violence: white people consumed by fear, mostly of ethnic minorities. Moore aims to jeer “white America” through pageantry, but unwittingly he contributes to Bowling for Columbine’s own thesis: the insufficiency of these reductive frameworks to contain trauma. Contra Moore, fear is not the motivation for Columbine but avoiding its aftermath. For psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “the symbolic order, with a traumatic element at its very heart,” as reductive “fantasy … allow[s] the subject to come to terms with this traumatic kernel.” However, this defense “is merely filling out a lack”; “there is nothing behind the fantasy” because the fantasy is a surrogate for facing the trauma itself (148).

Moore seeks further fragile reductions through a comparison of violence in the United States and Canada respectively (01:11-01:22), a farcical exposé of the Michigan Militia (00:07-00:11), and an interview with Marilyn Manson (00:45-00:48). By juxtaposing a paranoid US with a peaceful Canada, Moore forces the viewer to consider that the mere presence of firearms is insufficient to explain tragedies such as Columbine. For added measure, Moore splices in an interview with three Canadian teenagers, who voice an incoherent wonder at the inexplicable difference in rates of violence between two countries with ostensibly no other incongruities (01:11-01:12, 01:21-01:22). Earlier, Moore uses two interviewees from the Michigan Militia—a man who possesses an M16 rifle and little regard for where his shots may go if fired in his home (00:09); and a mother with her talkative toddler in the foreground (00:10-00:11)—to sully the militia’s persona of disciplined paramilitary survivalism. Yet in portraying the Michigan Militia in this way, Moore inadvertently hobbles his comparison of American and Canadian neighborhoods. Rather than portraying the Michigan Militia as particularly American, Bowling for Columbine exhibits their general humanity. The lynchpin keeping this comparison one-sided is Moore’s belief in a uniquely-American culture of fear; however, crumbling under the more general human fear of trauma, the distinction loses its smoking gun. Without this American flavor, violence becomes arbitrary and inexplicable. Furthermore, Moore’s interview with Manson produces a similar effect, cutting through the veneer of the “shock rocker” to Brian Hugh Warner. Manson may as well have conducted this interview without his makeup; clearly well-adjusted, he even holds pedestrian opinions on contemporary issues, denying viewers their boogeyman.

Moore concludes with an interview with Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association (01:48-01:56), and exemplar of the effect this film’s desired threshold. In a messy encounter, Moore presents himself as a card-carrying member of the NRA, luring Heston into a sense of security. Heston falls for this trap, becoming the victim of his own flippancy, offhandedly mentioning America’s violent history and a “more mixed ethnicity than other countries.” The interview has no apparent goal other than for Moore to thumb his nose at another symbolic figure; however, it’s is a fitting conclusion to the documentary. Like his firearms, Heston’s ideology comforts him; however, according to Zizek, Heston’s ideology only makes him “feel free because [he] lack[s] the very language to articulate [his] unfreedom” (Welcome 2). Thus like a Zen master, Moore disorients Heston’s ideological defense mechanisms. Breaking down one offhanded deflection after another, Moore cajoles Heston to the documentary’s threshold. This is not a state wherein one finds solutions, but the abject void in which one senses, as if for the first time, his or her inability to explain away the trauma. As Moore is escorted out and Heston returns wordlessly to his home, the feeling for Moore is victory, having dethroned the King of the NRA, but the effect for Heston is far less theatrical: powerlessness rather than mortification.

In his introduction to The Courage of Hopelessness, Zizek considers the chain-smoking Zeno in Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, who meets with a psychoanalyst. Only when the analyst tells Zeno that he will have to die anyway does Zeno surrender his obsession with quitting smoking—and quits smoking. Finally present in his trauma, Zeno finds real hope (Courage). For the Frankfurt School of psychoanalysis, according to Zizek, this shift “is not just a question … of throwing away the distorting spectacles of ideology … The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things … [T]he moment we see it ‘as it really is,’ … it changes into another kind of reality” (Sublime 24-25). Modern widespread nihilism and cynicism “only provides the ultimate proof that we are more than ever embedded in ideology” (Farce 37). Lost in a cacophony of beliefs, people become so removed from reality that they “forget to die” (Sublime 148), believing “even the dead will not be safe” (161). Bowling for Columbine suffers from numerous issues, but, like a psychoanalyst, it possesses liminal potential. Though not a neat shift from Right to Left, Moore’s film may clear ideological debris obscuring gun violence in the United States, granting Americans a means of addressing their long-standing and continual traumas.


Works Cited

  • Brett, Anwar. “Matt Stone - Team America: World Police.” BBC, British Broadcasting Corporation, 13 Jan. 2005, Web. 24 Nov 2018.

  • Franke-Ruta, Garance. “Moore's the Pitty.” The American Prospect, 22 Nov. 2002, Web. 22 Nov 2018.

  • Kopel, Dave. “Bowling Facts.” National Review, 4 Apr. 2003, Web. 24 Nov 2018.

  • “Liminal.” The Chicago School of Media Theory, The University of Chicago, Web. 23 Nov 2018.

  • Moore, Michael, director. Bowling for Columbine. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., 2002.

  • Scott, A.O. “FILM REVIEW; Seeking a Smoking Gun in U.S. Violence.” The New York Times, 11 Oct. 2002, Web. 22 Nov 2018.

  • Zizek, Slavoj. The Courage of Hopelessness: A Year of Acting Dangerously. Melville House, 2018.

  • Zizek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Verso, 2009.

  • Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 2009.

  • Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. Verso, 2002.


Image credit: Medusa; antefix with head of Gorgona. Fasos Island (?), 4th century BCE. Pushkin museum.