What is a lone wolf?

We have heard this phrase a lot over the past week. It is used to signify that someone has operated without clear political or ideological motivations. But here’s the thing: “lone wolf” as a concept is precisely a political and ideological fantasy. Sometimes we want to be a lone wolf so as to seem extraordinary; and at other times we want to label someone a lone wolf in order to marginalize them.

The idea of a person existing in isolation, or able to achieve something on their own, holds up the entire “free market” ideology and every political argument that subtends and supports such an economy. The lone wolf theory imagines that a person can merely linger in a freely moving state, somehow within and yet beyond all the normal strictures and structures of society. This theory also dismisses the lines that cross over and complicate this free state: capital flows, food and waste networks, gun and ammunition supply routes, firearm modification tools and techniques, communications platforms and interactive systems.

Taken literally, “lone wolf” is a curiously naturalizing phrase. It turns the person into an animal, a predator—ah, but here we’ve already admitted the non-aloneness of the lone wolf, as a predator by definition requires prey. The lone wolf theory postulates cause and an effect, clear and distinct. There is a hungry predator, and vulnerable prey. Even as this complicates the myth of singularity, the narrative manages to get absorbed into the trope.

To have a lone wolf, we need not only a flourishing ecosystem with a range of species, but presumably we also need a wolf pack at least somewhere nearby. An isolated organism simply could not occur, and in if this appears to be the case we must look for other members of the species as they most certainly exist.

In this case the lone wolf is no aberration at all. The pack is dispersed but evident: individuals who mistake individuality for priority, and who have internalized personal preference as a default modality.  But an outward looking investigation, such as this, is then not useful because it implicates more of them, more of us.

Call it the anthropocene or globalization, just call it living on a planet: we know that things are more enmeshed, more confused, less isolated. Even if we would prefer things like “America first,” the slogan contains a hidden admission that there is a second, third, fourth, and so on—a list of other entities which it turns out may not be so easy to order and rank. There are always more of us around, aiding and abetting, giving and taking.

So, the phrasing is tweaked and strengthened, and the lone wolf is described to have committed an “act of pure evil.” This is an ultimate othering, an effort to cast out once and for all. As if such a thing can be decisively identified and routed.

Yet, how would a pure act cross over to the impurely evil realm, namely over to the land of the free? If the act were purely evil how did it get entangled with everything else that is assumedly good? If something pure can be tainted, was it ever really pure in the first place?

Things are not static. That’s part of the problem with the lone wolf theory, and with the accounts (so far) of the events that took place in Las Vegas. The lone wolf theory is a linear model but ecosystems are complex, with shared driving variables. The flourishing ecosystem in which the lone wolf appears to thrive is a culture of gun idolization and fetishization, of viral media and visual technologies. There is no lone wolf. There are known attractors (mass shootings) and available mechanisms (guns). There are established patterns (confusion, chaos, outrage, mourning) and ready outlets (TV, social media, op eds). And, as I write this, I necessarily become part of the matrix. But I already was a part of it, through my seemingly passive consumption and spectation.

The lone wolf is not used to signify a dynamic entity but rather is a rhetorical maneuver that seeks to freeze and contain the subject. But the lone wolf is also an existential costume that one can put on. However, to don this garb is to require its legibility: namely, the gaudy context of recognition, fear, replication, perhaps even warped admiration. For, it is no coincidence that a leader who conjures the “act of pure evil” has also been described as a lone wolf.

Later, if inconsistently, the lone wolf is called “sick.” This is a contradictory descriptor, though, because the lone wolf is by nature a healthy designation. Regardless of whether the lone wolf is imagined to be operating with ill or admirable intents, the figure is a rugged individualist, a naturalist icon of sorts.

Yet, to pathologize the lone wolf is to raise questions about symptoms, and this too disturbs the model. Symptoms can turn out to be inseparable from an illness and its environment; where the discrete body begins or ends cannot be easily diagrammed. If “sick” functions as an abject pejorative, it also insinuates the lone wolf as a body into a bigger body. What is the scale of this sickness?

The lone wolf theory asks for a linear understanding of the world: A predator charges in and wreaks havoc on a community. Or, conversely, a lone wolf takes charge, drains the swamp, and returns things to a previous (imaginary) point of balance and normalcy. Either way, it is imagined as a one-way causal chain—even if unplanned or unanticipated.

But life doesn’t work like this. Even as time seems to march forward and as things may appear to be linear or neatly causal, the trajectories within are always dynamic and manifold. So, recourse to singular members of specific species does not help matters. Metaphors can only get us so far, and not necessarily in the right direction.

Are you a dove or a hawk, an elephant or a donkey? Is the market bearish or bullish? Can a lone wolf also be a red herring? These animacies are neither innocent nor innocuous in their attempts to describe a set of straightforward affairs. Even through innuendo, such caricatures suggest an unconscious acknowledgment of complex ecosystems where real animals coexist in fraught and dynamic form. Humans not excluded.

We must admit and account for the dynamism of the situation—of ‘situations’ in general as matters of scale. The task is difficult but necessary if we are to not fall into traps of linear thinking. The woods are full of such snares, if not of lone wolves.