Part 1 of 2
by Aris Janigian
In the first chapter of this book in-the-making, which I’ve titled “American Hystericalism,” I demonstrated that America is at a crossroads between two ideals, Individualism and a new ideal, which I called Identity Communitarianism. This new ideal, on the rise, particularly among American youth, has surface resemblance to traditional liberalism, but scratch a little beneath the surface and you will find that it rejects liberalism’s core values: tolerance for speech and expression, harmony among people of all races, creeds and colors, equality between the sexes, suspicion of intrusive government bureaucracies, and stress on class as the primary source of society’s ills.
In California, the only place I ever called home, you could find these principles defended to the teeth in nearly all metropolitan newspapers and radio stations from KCRW to KPFK in the south to KQED in the north, including Pacifica radio, and shows like Democracy Now. This shift in attitude, which roughly coincides with the shift in labels from “liberal” to “progressive,” is nowhere more evident than in the rhetoric and politics surrounding sex. Americans have fittingly associated sexual policing with conservatism, the Republican party, the Religious Right, but this appraisal needs serious updating. For the past ten years or so progressives have joined ranks with those they’ve been in pitched contest with on nearly every other social issue. When it comes to sexual matters, “left” and “right” have forged a bizarre yet effective alliance, or, to borrow a military term, a “pincer movement” that has left America—as I intend to demonstrate below—one of the most sexually hystericalized countries in the world. But before studying this in greater in detail, I first need to establish that sex—how, where, why, and with whom it is expressed—is part of a larger battle between totalitarianism and individualism, slavishness and freedom.
“The sex instinct creates a world of its own,” observes George Orwell in 1984, and for that reason it is the chief vexation for all ideologically driven regimes who hope to shape society in their own image. Sex is the great flux, but Totalitarians aim to limit all flux, bring all variables, whether art, religion, philosophy, education, ethnicity and race, even diet into smooth orientation with the ideal. The ideal model is always aimed at societal harmony, or, to put it another way, reducing as close to zero friction in the system.
To achieve this Totalitarian systems want to fix the future in the present. Totalitarian systems do not wait for things to unfold step by uncertain step; they take steps to fold things as they are into an ideal pattern or model which is generally immutable and that preserves the bureaucracies above all else.
China and North Korea continue to adhere to zero covid policy in spite of the pain and horror it might wreak on its citizens for the simple reason that the ideal model counts more than do the citizens. But, it would be inaccurate to claim that totalitarian systems are inherently revolting or ethically wrong. Democracies are not only rare in history but rare even today. Only 6% of the world population live in true democracies, the balance of humanity governed by everything from what they call “hybrid democracies” to autocracies. One might even argue that humans are congenial towards authoritative systems, so long as one’s basic needs are satisfied, fear is low, and social harmony is high. Totalitarian systems can also be very efficient, as individual rights that might get in the way of progress are, by fiat, nullified or modified. China built 40,000 miles of high speed rail in just 15 years and, after just about the same amount of time, California is still struggling to finish 119.
Naturally, letting people do their own thing, live and let live, “get off of my cloud,” etc., is threatening to these systems. But even more dangerous are an individual’s thoughts and attitudes that stir beneath the surface and can remain opaque, impenetrable. Totalitarians seek to bring all things into perfect transparency and visibility. In a recent New York Times story called “An Invisible Cage” reporters found “the more than 1.4 billion people living in China are constantly watched. They are recorded by police cameras everywhere, on street corners and subway ceilings, in hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Their phones are tracked, their purchases are monitored, and their online chats are censored. Now, even their future is under surveillance.” That which shimmers just above the surface—jokes, satire, and irony—a way to have your say without outright saying it—is especially intolerable. Though the mechanisms are now available to infer our behaviors and attitudes near instantly via data collection—China is clearly King of the board here, the West, perhaps, the infinitely facile Queen—for most of human history one’s internal life was indecipherable, as taxing a fact to parents of a dour teenage kid as it was to rulers and their coup plotting subjects. Over the course of history, if privacy is the measure, societies far less “free” than our own were actually freer.
But it is not just the obdurate insularity of the self that is a threat to totalitarian systems; the self, per se, is an antagonist towards harmony, because for it to exist a differential with an other must exist. I am me because I am different than you. This differential raises exponentially the potential for friction in the system. In almost all totalitarian regimes dress is reduced to a standard costume, like the Mao Suit, or the black pajamas of the Khmer Rouge, in an attempt to obliterate difference. To our American founders protecting, even fostering difference was worth the risk, because friction was the source of good: debate, free markets of ideas and commerce, private property. All this made for the bettering of humankind. America’s determination to protect individualism has required a highly calibrated system, hammered out over generations, with laws and norms that are specifically aimed at the promise of keeping the fire from raging out of control and consuming our society. The fire always threatens to jump the fence, either into anarchy or Communitarianism. You could almost say that America is a controlled dystopia from the start; it can only pray for a more perfect union.
As much as it is a source of pride and private pleasure, the western ideal of Individualism is hard to maintain. Protestantism demanded that one stand naked before God and account for one’s life. This injunction, of course, was central to Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism, and is part of our national mythos, captured in heroic feats of imagination from small parties to lone individuals, from Thoreau to Daniel Boone to Jack Kerouac to Neil Armstrong and his “That’s one small step for a man…” The closing soundtrack for Easy Rider went, “All he wanted was to be free.” An American axiom, if ever there ever were one, echoed from the remotest Ozark shack to the most open California highway, or better, freeway. Let’s finish up by saluting Peter Fonda in Wild Angels: “We want to be free. Free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man!”
But the Western Ideal of Individualism is the source of defeat and exhaustion too, and, as Covid illustrated in technicolor, can sometimes be a mortal danger to the community. If salvaging the Individual from the ravages of The Man (a slur against The State and its bureaucracies) was central to 60’s and 70’s counter-culture, America has also registered Individualism’s dark side with dystopian narratives where humanity is reduced to isolated individuals or families fighting for survival in one form or another against impossible odds, from pop culture’s “The Hunger Games” to Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Road.”
Extraordinary resources, both innate and acquired, are required to stand alone amidst the unremitting pressure exerted on us by both nature and society. It is not true that life was harder for our ancestors just because nature was harsher. Hardship has many faces, including mental and spiritual. Rootlessness, alienation, anomie, even angst are chronic conditions associated with Individualism. Throughout the 20th century they have been identified by artists, social scientists and philosophers each in their own way. The burden of Individualism is a little easier to bear in countries whose citizens are relatively homogenous, where a person is nested in home and even homeland, with familiar rituals, rites and a binding sense of history. In America the intermixing of so many tribes is not only the source of discovery and fusion, but of loss and confusion. Particularly as church, community and family erode, even the average person in the prime of their life must marshal phenomenal vigilance and strength to keep from withering under the endless material demands that America currently makes of its citizens. Just in terms of money, nearly 60% of Americans are one pay check away from destitution. America’s extreme rates of crime, depression and anxiety are in no small part due to the feeling of being adrift in a vast sea of possibility that for many people is little more than a sea of indifference and cruelty.
The zero-point of friction is highly seductive. Especially in such an environment. Almost all religions promise the zero-point, of course, if not in this life—usually in the aftermath of an apocalypse—then in the hereafter. Buddhism tells us that the perverse demands the ego puts on itself (nearly everything a Westerner strives for) is in fact the source of all human misery. Where religion is eclipsed, secular versions promising the same zero-point of friction have filled the void. For Marx, it was achieved via a process that unfolded over centuries, culminating in the struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The resolution of the age-old question of friction ends in at least metaphorical conflagration, the ashes from which might rise a communist state where the reborn self—finally liberated—would join a society “each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Russia of 1917 didn’t quite fit this model, so Lenin force-fitted the masses into the model, as did Stalin. Tens of millions of lives was the cost.
Post-Marxism, the philosophical basis of Identity Communitarianism, is the most recent American iteration of this ideal. Like Marxism itself, it wants to reduce friction in society to the zero-point, but here friction has nothing to do with class. The new struggle is between People of Color vs. Whites, Non-binary genders vs. Straight people, Women vs. Men, Muslims vs. Christians, etc. For Post-Marxists class has nearly vanished as a problem, leaving our current capitalist system unfazed. Take one extraordinary example: universities, the hallowed germinating grounds for these ideas are so exploitative of their adjunct professors that “nearly 25% rely on public assistance, and 40% struggle to cover basic household expenses,” reports Inside Higher Education. One college tried to hire adjuncts at zero salary. Like a religious order vow of poverty, you find examples of professors teaching Post-Marxism while living in their cars or doing sex work to survive. Predictably, Universities’ blue collar employees don’t fair much better. The new struggle is now resolved by transferring “power” from one identity group to another via a host of measures that go by names like “equity” and “diversity.” Meritocracy belongs to the old dispensation of American Individualism. Physical violence is no longer necessary to vanquish the enemy. In the “information age” cancel culture suffices. This form of brown-shirt democracy uses the well-honed tools of shame, revenge, rumor mongering, intimidation, silencing, character assassination, but most of all “de-platforming” to effectively disappear people from the domain of influence.
What needs reshaping is always the human. The model is always built just right, based in “science,” all other models are “misinformation,” “disinformation,” or “mal-information,” dangerous propaganda or pseudo-science. Should you point to science that refutes their model, Post-Marxists will deploy any number of measures to repudiate that science, or even scientist. De-platforming was used against several highly reputable scientists that disagreed with the total shutdown of society demanded by the CDC during Covid. Other scientists are regularly blackballed for disputing additional Communitarian dogmas.
Consider the case of the Harvard social scientist Roland Fryer, Jr. Following the killing of George Floyd, Post-Marxists demanded we believe the hystericalized claim of police rampantly killing black people. This spurred months of rioting and looting, unleashing utter anarchy in countless American cities in the summer of 2020. Fryer inconveniently found that Blacks are not killed in greater numbers per their ratio of the population than Whites by police; in fact, Whites were killed in higher proportions (a finding that was both corroborated and not by other studies). Fryer’s findings were so alarming the modelers ended his career by way of an hystericalized sexual harassment complaint. When all else fails to oust a dissenter, the mere accusation of sexual assault or harassment almost always does the trick. That he was a black man initially inclined toward the prevailing catechism before his research was undertaken was beside the point. His facts did not fit that model; it is he, not the model, that must change. Nazism purged German culture of literature, art and history, that did not fit the model. Post-Marxists are likewise purging academia of dissenting voices, including in virtually every field of the humanities. Historians must now shape their narratives to dovetail with Post-Marxist ideology, an alarming trend as noted in an essay published by James Sweet, the president of the American Historian Association. Days after publishing the piece, which essentially bemoans the loss of objectivity and neutrality and, in fact, reality in the reporting of history, he offered an apology to colleagues he might’ve offended. Science too was “reimagined” for its fidelity to the Reich’s racial ideology. The Nazis racialized “objectivity” and promulgated what they called “German” physics, chemistry, and even mathematics. Post-Marxists similarly racialize the hard sciences today.
And far from being in contest with capitalism, the new form of capitalism, which we might call activist-capitalism, is now a partner in social transformation. As the CEO of Twitter, Pareg Agrawal put it, “We are now a critical part of the fabric of public conversation.” “Flagging,” “De-amplification,” “potential for harm,” “appropriate context,” “steering the conversation,” “recommendation systems,” are all part of what Agrawal calls a “healthy public conversation,” which is decidedly not a democratic conversation. Agrawal says it plainly: “Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation. The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.” This is totalitarian modeling at its finest. That Elon Musk, who is currently negotiating to buy Twitter, might disrupt the model made him a target of extreme hystericalism across nearly every major media platform and organization in the country. Pundits and editors could not brook Musk’s radical opinion that Twitter should be a forum for free expression. Naturally, he was recently accused of sexual harassment. A member of the cabin crew for SpaceX’s jet fleet claimed Musk pulled out his penis and promised to buy her a horse in exchange for an erotic massage. He seems to be weathering the absurdity better than most.
Post-Marxists, like the Religious Right through most of the 20th century, believe The State should play its part in shaping the hystericalized new order. It’s important to admit that The State is only peripherally related to who is President, or, even, who our congressional representatives are. It is very nearly a stand-alone organism—vast bureaucracies with extraordinary power and budgets—that effectively lives outside the ecology of the democratic process, as Edward Snowden demonstrated and the reason he is reviled by The State to this day. These bureaucracies are, in effect, totalitarian systems within our system. We consent and cede power to them almost reflexively. Our robotic lock-step with the Center for Disease Control’s mandates during the Covid-19 crisis is an obvious example. Because these are system-within-the-system their budgets—NSA, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security—barely change. Most notably fixed is the Military budget of the United States and when it does shift, it almost always goes up, regardless, again, of who runs it, who is in Congress or who is the Commander in Chief. Our angry mistrust of The State that arose in the 60s and 70s, the bitter sense that those who led us into Vietnam and the Watergate fiasco were liars and hypocrites in a system constructed of lies and hypocrisies, diminished precipitously after 9/11. The same mechanisms of The State used to surveil, intimidate, and control us—particularly Muslims during the “War on Terror”—have now been repurposed to reduce friction in society to the zero-point along Identity Communitarian lines.
To accomplish this, our present government, like Mr. Agrawal, has actually gone so far as attempting to dictate the nature of speech and opinion that is dangerous to The State. What is “healthy” and what is not. At a time when a vast majority of Americans believe that freedom of speech is in jeopardy, The Department of Homeland Security, a bureaucracy so enormous it’s entirely likely (if not designed) to survive even should our democracy collapse, is now funding what it calls a “Disinformation Governance Board.” This is all in harmony with Identity Communitarians’ endless drum beat that the greatest threat to democracy is democracy itself, by which they mean unregulated (by them) freedom of thought, expression, and even movement. Dozens of “serious” think tanks, including The Brennen Center, The Council of Foreign Relations, The Brooking Institute, not to mention near daily opinion pieces in major periodicals and newspapers, now back this hystericalized idea as though it were perfectly commensurate with America’s founding principles.
How does the State get away with this? By our acquiescence and with the help of social and regular media, clearly. But two more important structural factors, I believe, have contributed to our obeisance to (not necessarily happiness with) all forms of corporatism, whether that be The State or big business. First, is the death spiral of small business and the concomitant rise of corporate megaliths to meet our needs for goods and services and to guarantee our wages and salaries. Small business owners are a bulwark against totalitarianism, foundational to all democracies, including ours, as evidenced by their outsized participation in civic life and elections. One survey showed that “95% of small-business owners say they vote regularly in national and local elections and 69% have contacted an elected official on an issue related to their business; 63% have given money to political candidates.”
While it is true that small businesses can be a source of rumor and fear that spread hate and prejudice with precipitous speed through communities, they also play an important role in radically decentralizing the economy and creating organic flux in the culture—each business amounting to a kind of ant colony—a source of constant motion, exchange and dialogue. Totalitarians have always found them an irritant; they would rather foster large businesses with whom they can more efficiently partner to streamline decisions and realize, in broad scope, their bureaucrats’ goals. Hitler’s killing machine could not have gained traction had it not paired its madness with Germany’s largest corporations. Ümit Kurt has recently argued that the vast transfer of market share, bank accounts, property, and other tangible assets of tens of thousands of Armenian owned small businesses into the coffers of the Turkish state or state functionaries was one of the primary drivers of the Armenian Genocide.
The bureaucratic response to the pandemic, essentially totalitarian and China inspired (even if for good reason, though that is still up for scientific debate, including whether The State actually fomented mass hysteria in respect to the virus) predictably devastated small businesses, and wildly increased the wealth of large corporations. But small business proprietors were getting driven to the brink well before then. “The United States has long held itself out as a nation driven by entrepreneurs and small businesses, and for generations, it was largely accurate. Today, the U.S. has become something different: a nation of employees working for large companies, often very large ones,” is how a detailed Wall Street Journal article on the radical rejiggering of U.S. businesses summarized it.
Many people now not only work for a big business but live-work in workplaces of unprecedented splendor. Some tech companies blur the boundaries between the individual and the corporate in degrees that put the “company town” of the past to shame. There are tech campuses which are, as a Guardian article describes them, “calibrated lands of fun, wherein staff offer their lives, body and soul, day and night, in return for gyms, Olympic-sized swimming pools, climbing walls, basketball courts, running tracks and hiking trails, indoor football pitches, massage rooms and hanging gardens, performance venues, amiable art and lovable graphics.” The pandemic has changed things some, as people work more and more from home, but this creates another scale and type of intrusion. People have always worked from home, in fact, for most of human history home and work were one and the same place. But the current fusion of work and home that Covid helped create is entirely new: now your employer has virtually stepped into your home. What this augurs for the future is uncertain, and we should not reflexively accept this fusion as benign just because it saves us a commute.
But large corporations, which are states within a state, are nothing next to The State per se, which is the largest employer in the country by orders of magnitude. We shouldn’t be surprised that so many Americans are agreeable to The State and its dictates when, in one form or another, it employs 15% of the workforce, or nearly 24 million people. If you factor in “government contractors,” it rises to 18%. On top of that, a staggering 59 million people or 21% of the population is on some form of government assistance. Not smart to bite the hand that feeds you.
Second, what we might call valet-surveillance has heightened our comfiness with being watched by corporate powers, allowing for what was hidden below the surface to rise to historically unprecedented visibility. We willfully submit ourselves to valet-surveillance for the intimate and instant attentiveness to the exigencies of life it affords us: anticipating our needs, often in advance of our very awareness of those needs, making uncannily precise suggestions to address those needs, and delivering those suggestions to our doorsteps or fingertips. For valet-surveillance to accomplish its task we must renounce a large part of our world—attitudes, behavior patterns, beliefs, preferences, even our bodies— not merely our external location and locomotion. Dating apps like Match.com or E-harmony, that solicit our deepest traits and desires to tailor suit us to a lover are the most obvious examples, but they extend to goods and services as well: as but one mundane instance, many ink-jet printers today communicate with the maker so that a parcel of ink will show up at your doorstep before you are even aware your ink is running out.
We are in symbiosis with corporate powers to such a degree it is almost unthinkable to challenge them short of collapsing our capacity to function in the world, and not just pragmatically. Corporations have become extensions of our collective egos; they should reflect our political and ideological and moral realities. We require they join the hive, that their policies mirror our own. When their policies are not in concert with our attitudes, we demand they change. When in concert to abandon them is to abandon ourselves.
Michel Foucault identified the panopticon as the emblematic social architecture of the 19th century, where we found ourselves monitored from multiple perspectives. But in a matter of a few generation something far more intrusive has materialized, a kind of omni-opticon, a virtual country-club prison, where others watch over us even as we watch them watch us, and, just as importantly, not watch us—producing a feeling of being “ghosted”—even as we watch over ourselves. Our fear of being turned into “ghosts”, not being on the guest list at the club, is now greater than our fear of psychological enslavement to the system; tantamount to Greek “ostracization” or Catholic “excommunication.”
A recent article titled Stanford’s War on Social Life gives us a startling view into what the omni-opticon looks like in practice, a preview into the boring living space or, to borrow from Hitler, lebensraum, Identity Communitarians have in store for us all. In the blink of an eye, one of the most daring, ribald, self-organizing campuses in America, a place where idiosyncratic genius and hyper- individualism was valued in the hot extreme, has been replaced by a colorless, bureaucratically flattened, cool and frictionless kindergarten playground based on the values of “fairness” and “community.” Author Ginera Davis writes, “In less than a decade, Stanford’s administration eviscerated a hundred years of undergraduate culture and social groups. They drove student groups out of their houses. They scraped names off buildings. They went after long-established hubs of student life, like fraternities and cultural theme houses. In place of it all, Stanford erected a homogenous housing system that sorts new students into perfectly equitable groups named with letters and numbers. All social distinction is gone.”
Our diminished sense of Individualism, our diminished need to be individuals, even our diminished faith in being an individual is reflected in our most coveted institutions. As but one data point supporting how pervasive this view has become, a recent Pew Poll found that nearly 80% of Democrats or leaning Democrat believe the government should be involved in protecting people from themselves, a position unthinkable to our Founding Fathers.
But, this shift would not be possible without the emergence of what I call the Social-Mediasphere (SMS). Time and again research has demonstrated that the SMS is injurious to one’s sense of self. The reasons and processes by which selfhood is battered in the SMS is multivariate and highly dynamic. Most obviously, the SMS puts enormous strain on us to be far larger than we are or can conceivably be. How can the self preserve itself when it is in relentless and ruthless comparison with others? When in human history has anyone had a thousand “friends,” much less a million? One can hardly bear what one sees in the mirror next to the achievement and glamour of Instagram or Twitter others, and at the same time one is spurred into a kind of mandated exhibitionism to be noticed. It should be no surprise that countless American youth report experiencing what is called “imposter syndrome,” a feeling of inadequacy, persistently falling short, phoniness. “Virtue signaling,” like we saw on the Yale Campus (found in part 1 of this project), is a predictable compensatory response to a miniaturized and tentative view of oneself.
Hegel, and later in the 20th century, social psychologist George Herbert Mead, posited that recognition by another was the foundation for personhood. It was only vis-à-vis others that we materialize, that consciousness forms. This recognition requires intimate interactions, a world rich in the nuances and contexts of human exchange, including, for Mead, minute ones, such as reading and responding to another’s intonations and facial gestures. We now live vis-à-vis untold others in the dimly lit Social-Mediasphere where intimacy is corrupted, “recognition” by another fleeting, tantamount to kind of ephemeral celebrity.
The SMS feeds not so much from one person as from, and upon one’s, feelings. “Likes,” and expressive emojis, are effectively stand-ins for our persons. Screen names are to the SMS trolls what hoods are to Klansmen. The SMS amplifies feelings via iteration with others’ feelings, until something like an emotional hive or mob emerges and Individualism is even further blurred, eventually to the point of vanishing. What transpired on the Yale campus, analyzed in the first part of this series, mirrored a dynamic that happens in the Social-Mediasphere every nanosecond. In fact, in some ways, what happened on the Yale campus was a real-life simulation of SMS actuality.
This is the perfect breeding ground for hystericalism, which is to the SMS what the moon is to the tides, the gravitational force that keeps the seas convulsing. Again, this blooming of affect in echo with others gives rise to the hive, as opposed to nurturing Individualism, which is premised upon deliberation, dialectic and contest with oneself and others. Rousseau’s Confessions is one of the first and finest instances of this internal deliberation. It helped give birth to the Enlightenment and American Independence, both premised upon a heightened exercise of reason and debate as a tool in the construction of Individualism. Individualism retards the hive process. Gen Z, but even more so, Millennials, may be the first generations in centuries to take steps backward in respect to advancing the ideal of Individualism and selfhood. Post-Marxists enjoy using the term “othering” to describe the dehumanizing attitude and perspective Patriarchal or Colonizing societies takes toward marginalized peoples, but what it fails to account for is how the SMS contributes to the “othering” of ourselves from ourselves. It’s almost as though we are there but, then again, not— holograms.
Lastly, I’d like to say something about empathy, which is required, nearly demanded of us all, but especially our youth who have grown up with it as a moral goal strangely higher than even love. This expansive state of mind requires robust selfhood. Only a self sure of its footing can step into the shoes of another. Yet, we ask kids to master this mind-set as though it comes easily, naturally. We ask them to practice empathy toward others when they’ve had virtually no opportunity to practice on themselves, to find their own unique perspectives and attitudes. Children and teens, whose brains are still forming well into early adulthood, are barely allowed to pass through those mental and emotional states that are part of their evolution—envy, disgust, competitiveness, and blind ego-centrism—in our megalomaniacal haste to make them into small-scale mystics. We seem to have lost faith in the basic reality of child development, that if we let kids get out of hand they’ll never come around. One wonders whether because of our punitive, and unforgiving approach towards the past, our contempt towards our forebearers and even parents for the grave mistakes they’ve made, we fear allowing our children to pass through those normal developmental stages that mirror those grave mistakes in miniature.
In such an atmosphere, Individualism is a daunting proposition. Letting go of this daunting proposition, of course, is what nearly every religious tradition, and its endless offshoots promise—from the practice of hot yoga to the basic tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery programs to everyday injunctions advising we “just accept life the way it is.” Though self-transcendence is available to us, it requires rare traits of introspection, discipline, quietude and, most difficult in capitalist societies, eschewal of materialism. For the masses transcendence generally comes from being swept up with other people, usually in an ecstatic setting or moment, whether religious or secular, elevating or debasing, nurturing or destructive. Totalitarian systems offer us a doorway to vanish into a reality where we might finally be relieved of the burden of ourselves in friction with others. This is their perennial seduction, and their perennial horror.
Then there is the other seduction, sex. The most general form of transcendence, the purest, most intimate, and most universal form belonging to the “economy” of what George Bataille calls “squandering” is eroticism. It is an exudation of human energy that is profitless, has no utilitarian value, and, in fact, is a violence against all efforts that might reduce humans to functionaries of The State.
What separates us from the bestial is our need to transcend. In the collective this transcendence is expressed in sporting events, carnivals, concerts, dance parties and ecstatic religious gatherings of the tent revival or Black Gospel Church sort, etc. But, sex “thought of as filthy or beastly,” writes Bataille,“ is still the greatest barrier to the reduction of man to the level of thing.”
“Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy,” Orwell echoes in 1984.
Eroticism involves at least two actual people in happy and heated creative collusion (the reason porn viewing is antithetical to eroticism). It sets its own rules and breaks them at will; it fashions its own walls, detours, trapdoors, hidden closets. It is perverse because it is not transparent, it is evil because it is done in the dark, outside the glare and calculus of The State. Totalitarians revile all means of squandering except as they can harness it for their own ends, but because eroticism is a private transcendent affair, it is, and always has been, a distinct type of menace requiring an emphatic degree of hystericalism to quell.
Even more threatening, is the way the friction in the bedroom dissipates the friction in the streets. Eroticism’s greatest power lies in its capacity to take us to the zero-point of friction, making the State’s friction resolving role superfluous, ridiculous, or at best seriously compromised. “All you need is love,” taught the Yellow Submariners. Which also explains why, for instance, the use of zero-point mind-expanding drugs, like magic mushrooms or LSD are crimes against the State (quite literally, as they obviously don’t qualify as crimes against an other). The State wants to safeguard for itself, and, in America, for corporations, all modes of squandering. Elaborate pageantry—a perennial mode of squandering— was central to Nazi ideology. Bands and massive banners, thousands marching and singing in ecstatic unison in the streets; the enveloping drum beat was necessary to drum up energy for the killing machine. For Totalitarians, the power to transport us above and beyond our lives-as-a-mechanical-means-to-an-end should redound to them alone. With that power they have people wage bloody and futile wars with themselves in the form of endless introspection and self-doubting; they have people wage war against each other. Lastly, they use that power to spur their populace to wage spectacular war against foreign others. The Military Industrial Complex is another kind of Castration Complex.
America has always been wary of the flesh’s pleasures. Our Puritanism has always lived uncomfortably side-by-side with our libertarianism. Except for brief periods—the 1920’s and late 1960’s— we never embraced—as do the French—libertinage, which, of course, is the carnal expression of liberty itself. The Puritans were deeply conformist, hostile to individualism and its attendant eccentricities. Their pinched, moralistic, highhanded vision of society disgusted their fellow Britons, one of the chief reasons they were booted out of England. Like Identity Communitarians today, Puritans had “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” H.L. Mencken observed.
Puritanism has long outlasted the Puritans themselves, attested to by our determination to keep sexuality’s pathological potential alive at all costs. Freud has been an indispensable ally for the past 120 years since he published “Interpretation of Dreams.” For Freud, sexual or what he called “libidinal” energy is essential, primal; it animates everything from our private fantasies to the construction of civilization. How it is channeled and expressed; how it is blocked or shunted aside, diffused or focused, determines our individual and cultural development, our psychological salubriousness and sickness. The shadow eroticism casts is excruciatingly long. The nature of early erotic bonds can have outsized consequences, in fact, for Freud, those bonds are the keys to unlocking the mystery of our adult miseries. Sex was the seat of Anna O’s miserable hysteria, as it is the seat for nearly all neuroses. Though Freud and his theories have been largely discredited, puritan Americans have absorbed and cemented into their collective consciousness his fundamental thesis of sex’s inordinate power to shape our persons, particularly in the negative. That thesis animates most Post-Marxist hystericalism today. Non-consensual sex of any type is portrayed by Post-Marxists as being nearly boundless in consequence, reverberating through the victim’s psyche and body again and again, even decades after the transgression occurred.
In a recent lawsuit, a woman sought damages from the singer Bob Dylan for sexually assaulting her back in 1965. The woman was 12 at the time, and is now in her mid-60s. The complaint protects her identity, in spite of her advanced age, a legal right unprecedented for adults in the court of law. According to the complaint, over a period of six weeks Dylan groomed her “to gain her trust and obtain control over her as part of his plan to sexually molest and abuse her.” Few details are provided in the 13-page complaint, the vast majority of it dedicated to enumerating with certainty the psychological, economic, relational, and physical consequences of the injuries “of permanent lasting nature,” a proposition, given the fifty years that elapsed since the alleged assault, patently conjectural. The enduring consequences thesis of sexual trauma, a la Freud, is accepted as prima facie, particularly by the media who regularly use the term “survivor” to describe anyone who has suffered any type of sexual abuse or harassment, including cat-calling. In fact, the facts are mixed. Though research has shown victims of sexual assault and rape, especially where it is severe or repeated, can and often do suffer consequences well into adulthood, many other victims do not: “Women’s responses to childhood and adulthood sexual violence are complex and highly individualized. Some survivors experience severe and chronic psychological symptoms, whereas others experience little or no distress.” No scientific study that I’m aware of documents the long-term consequences of sexual harassment. But, when it comes to sexual matters in America, recognizing complexity is tantamount to denial. On the other hand, what is undeniable, is that America defaults to the degrading and pathological aspects of sex reflexively. Sex’s joyous and liberatory reality is granted only grudgingly by The State. When was the last time you heard a President or congressperson laud the virtues and transcendent wonders of fellatio or cunnilingus?
“The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it,” writes Orwell in 1984. But to dirty it The State must illustrate in lascivious, nearly vicarious, detail just what dirty is. It must make a public production of it. Puritans publicly shamed sexual transgressors by branding, or having them stitch letters, A for Adultery, or P for pollution, on their outer garments.
Back then punishment was premised on direct testimony or physical evidence, so most of these crimes flew right under the Puritans’ radar. It is only in the modern era that we begin to tempt the sin out of its lascivious lair and refuse to sit idly by as the crime materializes in the miscreant’s imagination. It is not enough to catch the criminal, to bring him to justice, the criminal must be apprehended even as longing gathers. To accomplish this, the illicit must be elicited.
In 1984, Winston and Julia are not forbidden to have sex; the precise opposite is the case, they are encouraged but only as unwitting participants in a game or stage play directed by The Party (synonymous with The State). Winston approaches Mr. Carrington, an antique shop keeper, who shows him a room where the couple will be guaranteed the privacy they so yearn for. The lovers meet there regularly, sharing their bodies and their thoughts, before the affair is suddenly and violently exposed as a ruse, the kindly proprietor a secret police agent. Every intimacy has been watched and presumably recorded for posterity in this perverse stage play, all to hammer home for the public the dimensions of what is damnable and not.
This is how entrapment looked in a fictional totalitarian dystopia, but we are not so far removed in whatever version of hystericalized dystopia we currently find ourselves in. Sixty years after Orwell wrote 1984, and 35 years after 1984 itself, 2019, police issued a search warrant to a South Florida massage spa manager. The warrant, designed in the wake of 9/11, allowed law enforcement immediate access to sites where terrorists acts—dreadful bombing, mind-altering mayhem—might be in the making. On a tip, law enforcement suspected a bomb might be planted in the spa, so they presented the warrant, vacated the premises, assiduously searched, found nothing, and left. The spa went back to business, so to speak, as usual.
What both the patrons and workers were unaware of was that, while they were out of the building, law enforcement planted cameras in the massage room. For the next nine months they surveilled from the exterior and recorded from the interior the most intimate goings-on, watching mostly middle-aged Asian women and mostly middle-aged men come and go—alas, after they’d mostly come.
When the bust came, it made front page news. Martin County Sheriff William Snyder who led the charge announced in a pre-raid news conference that that, in fact, was the intent: “There will be a newsmaker in this one.” According to Vanity Fair, this effort involved multiple players in the government bureaucracy, consistent with a true terrorist plot, including, “Local officers working alongside Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.” Among those arrested was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Martin County is largely Republican and largely white. In terms of cultural issues, it may have been the first and last time they and The New York Times were on the same page, so to speak. “The Monsters Are the Men: Inside a Thriving Sex Trafficking Trade in Florida,” read one NY Times story, typical of the both the liberal and conservative media’s coverage of the take-down. In fact, surveillance of this sort was happening for years in cities red and blue, during which mass arrests of clients, owners, and massage therapists shuttered most of the estimated 9000 “rub and tugs” across the country. In San Jose alone in excess of 100 of these spas were closed. A quick google search of “police bust massage parlor” gives 10 pages of results between 1995-2000. From 2000-2005 it goes to 16 pages. From 2005-2010 it is 18, the next five years 19, and then jumps to 22 from 2015 to the present.
In an attempt to root out the perpetrators of these fiendish doings, police went so far as pose as clients, sometimes getting naked and occasionally even illegally partaking in certain pleasures (and dummying up the report, afterwards) as part of their investigation. “Undercover officers sometimes engage in sexual contact with spa workers during stings, records show,” was the subheading of one Washington Post article. In yet other cases, police would shutter a business, reopen it with undercover police acting as massage therapists, and invite johns in for a muscle soothing hour. Other police departments have pressured massage therapists for names of johns who had frequented their spas with the intent of going after them after the fact of the act. There were months long investigations, demanding extraordinary police resources.
Reporters hardly ever look deeply into these busts. An exception was the Willamette Weekly, in a piece titled “Portland Human Trafficking Arrest Aren’t What they Seem.” It found that “85% of the arrests made by the Human Trafficking Unit result in only a solicitation charge.” The term “human trafficking” is often used interchangeably with “sex trafficking” in reporting on this crime. The former might involve a foreigner, usually an Asian woman, who might be made to work in seedy conditions. So, it’s very possible that not a single case of “sex trafficking” occurred in all these busts, much less ended in convictions.
Actual arrests for sex trafficking are almost impossible to ascertain from local police departments, and, in fact, the peer-reviewed literature surrounding it is confoundingly slim. The US Justice Department puts it this way, “In 2000, Congress authorized the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. While states subsequently passed laws criminalizing labor and sex trafficking, few traffickers have been prosecuted in the following years due to systemic reluctance to prosecute, inevitable jurisdictional and case complexity, and little participation by sex trafficking victims in the prosecution of traffickers.” That’s one answer, the other is that sex trafficking, though obviously a reality, is largely hystericalized. That was the conclusion of a detailed study of massage parlors in Los Angeles and New York in the wake of the Kraft affair. Hardly a multi-billion-dollar top-down criminal enterprise, the narrative promulgated from local police departments to news reporters, the study found that these were mostly mom and pop operations. It found that far from the women being forced into abysmal sex slave labor, women found out about the jobs by word of mouth, took it because it offered more money than other job options, and that they feared arrest and deportation far more than an assault while doing their massages. As for the Kraft sting, predictably, the initial charges of sex or human trafficking were eventually dropped for lack of evidence, and three women pleaded guilty to prostitution and prostitution related charges.
It is important to pause here to remind ourselves why hystericalism is so difficult to stamp out. In criminal trials the Supreme Court has ruled that unanimity is required for conviction. The truth of the matter is left in abeyance if a single juror decides not to convict. Whenever unanimity cannot be reached, it is a hung jury.
Hystericalism depends upon a “hung jury” in the public sphere, claims that can be refuted, but not entirely. The prosecutor in the public sphere has no rules; no judge guiding evidence and deliberation. No bailiff, no sequestering of jurors to prevent them from exposure to prejudicial information. Truth is on the loose, hanging in the air, to be fanned this way or that by heightened rhetoric, mainly emotional appeals to hate and fear. From fragments of truth hystericalism blooms. Opposing sides have fought it out in the “court of public opinion” for generations: mudslinging, rumor mongering, scare tactics and other such tried-and-true methods of coercing the masses are a feature of our public “conversation” from the earliest days of the republic.
What is new is the swiftness and efficiency, effectiveness and ubiquity, institutionalization and bureaucratization of these extra-judicial measures. The endless fragments left in abeyance in the public sphere are ready to be picked up and hystericalized at any moment and by anyone, and with profound consequences. There are now countless cases where employees, from the bottom rung to executives have been “executed”—fired, retired, demoted, or censored—for the mere “impression” that they are racist or sexist, even, amazingly, if their partner has given that impression. As I write this, “Princeton Fires Tenured Professor,” is the headline of a NY Times story. The reason for the firing? Professor Joshua Katz failed “to be totally forthcoming about a [consensual] sexual relationship with a student 14 years ago that he has already been punished for.” But as was the case with Mr. Fryer cited above, these sexually hystericalized charges were resurrected to punish him for a quite separate offense, in Katz’ case criticizing Princeton’s mandated adoption of Post-Marxist dogmatics in an essay titled “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,“ which he penned for the publication Quilette. Again, the model is always built just right; what needs reshaping is the human. Just as crucially, the actual prosecutorial and judicial processes is becoming irrefutably hystericalized. In the next section of this essay, I will use the New York Attorney General’s complaint against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as a prototypical example.
Hysteria is one of the perennial dangers of democracy, cited as far back as Plato. With instant communication and sharing platforms, what might have waxed and waned is now a constant, where we are committing our society to a form of information incest, information-DNA mirrored again and again where deformities form in but micro-generations. Hystericalism is now a genetic-structural problem. The profitability of this mode of engagement to the SMS and its corporate allies is immense and intoxicating. Hystericalism has been monetized to such an extent, made so profitable, put so many millions into the pockets of MSNBC, FOX, The New York Times, The New York Post, and their “corporate sponsors” that it is one of the primary engines of our cultural economy. What used to fight the hive depends upon it. More ominous, I believe, is the current conjoining of the SMS with The State. Totalitarians love nothing more than a crisis. They have only up until recently lacked an efficient mechanism for ginning crises up, one “shock and awe” after another. Hystericalism is now a powerful political tool to silence dissenters, magnify self-censorship, monitor bodies, heighten conformity, and direct resources to achieve objectives tangential to the public interest and antagonistic to American Individualism. From #MeToo to the Trump-Russia collusion; from the Covid-19 lockdowns to the Ukraine war; from the Black Lives Matter Riots to the Capital Hill riot, the trial runs are over. We are facing a future where 9/11—the likely launching pad for all this— is here to stay. A threat to democracy? We are there. American Hystericalism is it.
(Sexual Hystericalism is Chapter 2 of a book length project in the making called American Hystericalism, also first published in The Artifa(ctuals).