New Strange Things

For all the hype that circled round the U.S. elections of 2016, for all the drastic failings of the media and of both candidates, as the outcome has settled in and Trump has begun his presidency with a vision of governing by dictat, most observers have realized that there is an underlying sea-change in the way the world operates, part of a great and fateful turning of history. Trump, whatever he may do, momentous and disturbing as he already is, is an effect first, and cause second.

Paired with this deep sea-change, however, there has been a subtle shift in mood across the country, a kind of false calm of equal parts lassitude and polarized rage that could if not nurture and accelerate a decline into fascism, then at least fail to stand in its way. Nothing that has happened so far since the 8th of November or the 20th of January, including Trump’s shockingly pro-corporate nominations and his usual, disorienting (calculatedly so?) ink-cloud of contradictory statements, challenges that impression.

Also, as the media hurried to point out, the election was followed abruptly by a nationwide increase of attacks and bullying of minorities, of hateful slogans and graffiti appearing on campus and school buildings, particularly swastikas. White-supremacist demonstrations with startling chants and rhetoric such has “heil victory” have emerged into plain view with brazen demonstrations at venues on the National Mall, while Confederate flags have suddenly acquired a much greater visibility and even a sort of legitimacy (aside from still being on the state flag of Mississippi). Anti-Semitic incidents, as well, have notched a significant increase, though the causes of these remain unclear.

On the other hand, the size of the increase in these “hate crimes” and other extremist activities has been hard to verify, and a large number of the alleged instances have turned out to be false reports: for instance, there’s the case of the Muslim woman whose report of having her burkha torn off by Trump supporters turned out to be her own fabrication, or the case of a black church that was spray painted with “Vote Trump” and then set ablaze turns out not to have been the work of white supremacists, but of one of the church’s own parishioners. On the other hand, anti-Trump protesters have not always distinguished themselves by classy conduct either.

But while one can debate the absolute size of the effect, it’s hard not to feel that before the Trump campaign, many such acts–both crazed hoaxes and true acts of hate alike–would have been kept down by an overwhelming force of collective shame, by which the rage and disillusionment of the nation was pressurized into solution. Many things can provide a mass-psychological “back-pressure” of this kind—the kind that holds society together and maintains basic civility against our ghastlier impulses—but lately perhaps the best remaining symbol of it was the outgoing president, whose preternatural calm and scrupulous attention to normality, combined with the high authority of the office he held, was able to keep dissolved many of the more unappealing by-products of the country’s slow fermentation.

But if this power of normalization was characteristic of the presidency in general and of Barack Obama’s style in particular, it was also the tragedy of Obama and his predecessors to have contained and compressed rather than ameliorated, allowing the seething body politic to putrefy further, to reach still greater pressures and toxicity, first through the 2008 crisis and then eight years of ersatz recovery—a time that saw an explosion in the wealth of billionaires and a surging stock market, but extremely disappointing overall economic growth and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor abetted, among other things, by ballooning personal indebtedness.

With the Trumpist takeover now a fact of life, one might have hoped that with a few red-meat populist measures, the bottle could begin to be uncorked and some sort of relief was at hand. Instead, it seems increasingly likely that nothing of the sort will happen under Trump, at least not intentionally; instead, he seems to plan on using the psychological pressure that has built up in the masses as a source of narcissistic political energy—to stretch the analogy further, we have gone from an administration that was intently focused on keeping the bottle elegantly corked, regardless what nastiness was brewing inside it, to one that seems intent on shaking it as hard as possible and capitalizing on the mess that follows.

But just as Trumpism itself is at least as much an effect as a cause, the facts of economic disappointment, growing inequality, and a more and more disconnected political class only seem to scratch the surface in explaining the massive changes underway in the United States and around the world. The pressure that is building, the malaise that is felt, the irritation and intolerance that increasingly divides peoples and threatens to spill out on the streets in a spectacle of dueling self-righteousness, does not neatly fit within the economic or materialistic categories that have become the vade mecum of our mainstream writers, thinkers and decision-makers.

* * *

These are more than strange times: indeed, as Trump’s authoritarian measures issue forth by the dozen, and liberal ideas seem discredited or unpalatable over more and more of the globe, it seems that an entirely different kind of world to the one we are used to is appearing before us—yet perhaps it is a world that was always lying latent, but was kept safely in the realm of otherness. As Pankaj Mishra wrote in a penetrating essay shortly after Trump’s victory, “…we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.” He goes on to describe a broad-based “irruption of the irrational” that belies the Enlightenment liberal ideas of the rational “Homo Economicus”.

This observation seems dead-on, and serves as a useful point of departure as one tries to come to grip with events and their meaning. Yet it is only a point of departure; for what are these forces, exactly? What are they like? Where do they come from? And most importantly, what do they want? In search of these answers and a wider motivation for what is happening, many contemporary commentators have found themselves grasping at straws.

Mishra himself finds a possible answer in “ressentiment”—a potent and poisonous mixture of existential loathing of one’s perceived superiors, and the unconscious laying of blame on others for personal failures or, in Neitzsche’s words, “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge”. This build-up of corrosive “subterranean” emotion is the side-effect of a systematic over-application of both the doctrine of rational self-interest and, more generally, “…the rigid contemporary belief that what counts is only what can be counted and that what cannot be counted – subjective emotions – therefore does not.”

Elsewhere in his essay, however, while trying to view current world politics and the ascendance of proto-authoritarian attitudes through this prism of “ressentiment”, Mishra seems to concede that this framework is somehow insufficient, as he toys increasingly with psychoanalytic and even religious ideas. This is, he says, “…a moment for thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, who warned in 1915 that the ‘primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual’, but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again.”

The choice to repair to Freudian theory is telling here, and goes a good part of the way in at least opening the field to the existence of far broader unacknowledged forces within the modern psyche than mere resentment. For while ressentiment may be powerful indeed, it leaves much unexplored, unanswered. Where does the resentment itself stem from, after all? Why should there be a backlash against dogmatic reason and rational self interest if these things are not holding back something much more varied and strange—if, indeed, these things are themselves not as rational as they seem? Further ressentiment suffers from being too simple and singluar an explanation; as a single flavor of emotion, it fails to account for the ramifying baroqueness, the varied perversity of what we are seeing.

It appears Mishra is well aware of these limitations, and seems to ruminate on them, without quite naming them, throughout his essay. Yet with his parting thought—that we need, above all, “a more sophisticated analysis of how today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new and increasingly potent irrationalism into existence” and “…a greater precision in matters of the soul”, the effort turns awry at the moment of its highest promise. We have edged our way into both new—and very old—shores, by conjuring notions of deep unconscious processes, of an innate and ancient human need for irrationality, of strange “subjective” things such as “psychic damage”. We have even mentioned the soul as a subject of some real importance, rather than as a wasteful or non-existent anachronism of an irrational age long since superseded. Yet faced with this panorama of ideas, Mishra’s answer, it seems, is just to turn back round to embrace the very rationalism whose festering inadequacies he diagnoses so well. For all that, the only hope is to turn back to seek salvation in a “greater precision”, a “more sophisticated analysis”.

Not only does this call for “greater precision” sound absurd—as though all a wounded soul (or psyche) requires to restore a healthy democratic culture is a finer pair of forceps with which to examine itself—but it leads to an under-powered assessment of ressentiment as well. After several pages of decrying the emotional barrenness imposed by exclusive deference to the utilitarian, purely material-incentive-focused conception of man, Mishra in the end must fall back on a conception of ressentiment as somehow originating out of a lack of certain material, indeed rational rewards, in this case resulting perhaps from the global inequalities produced by the market system. He thus seems to scuttle his own point, and to embody the very confusion that he set out to disentangle: he has found his way to the threshold where the Enlightenment ends, but dares not take the step into the furious waters at his feet.

This kind of anticlimax is emblematic of the problem we find ourselves in today. We are increasingly aware of an emotional barrenness imposed by modern conceptions of the rational self and the pursuit of efficiency and material reward as ends-in-themselves, and we are increasingly faced with signs that entire dimensions of the collective and individual being—long pushed aside by runaway rationalism and stale self-fulfilling narratives like Homo economicus—are now stirring and pressurizing ominously. We suspect psychological or even other more unsettling forces are in play, and there is a not-imperceptible whiff of something sulfurous or even infernal in the air. Yet we are still so immersed in an incomplete, toy-model form of rationality that we find ourselves even lacking the language to express what is amiss without falling right back into well-worn habits.

* * *

Offbeat as it may seem, whenever considering these questions, I find my thoughts turning towards an odd little movie from 2012, “The Cabin in the Woods”, in which ancient monsters and objects of superstition are kept in a kind of stasis under the earth only by regular sacrifice rituals orchestrated by a sprawling, spotless, technologically-advanced apparatus. (The idea of a movie or other work of art serving as a blueprint or allegory of the layered and ambiguous nature of humanity is a persistent theme, of course. Another film that brilliantly suggests the omnipresence of such forces beneath the veneer of modern and well-normalized life is Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”, but here the dark repressed entities are perceived only indirectly, through glimpses of a sadistic sexual underworld punctuated with occult rites; there is no sparkling technologic intermediary between the two worlds, only good old-fashioned initiation and secrecy-on-pain-of-death.)

According to the “Cabin” blueprint, the cascading events in the US and around the world are not merely due to “political and economic developments” or even the “resentments” described by Mishra, but are indicators of something much deeper: a massive reawakening of deep, primordial and long-repressed psychological forces, which we might call, at most half-jokingly, the “Ancient Ones” or maybe the “Old Gods”. This reawakening, in turn, is not due to the obvious, proximate problems like jobs being outsourced, national and personal indebtedness, but to the gradual failure of a whole suite of “technological” and progress-based assumptions that had previously sufficed—essentially through the bribery of economic growth and the “ritual sacrifice” of the Third World and the planetary environment—to keep the dark chthonic psychological forces in check.

To say “the Old Gods are awakening” may seem overripe or fanciful given the imagery it conjures up, on the one hand suggestive of a panel of Greek monstrosities and on the other a wild Lovecraftian fresco of Others—but there are many ways of expressing the same state of affairs, some more high-flown than others. Even the writings of Lovecraft, over-the-top as they often are, contain a philosophically perceptive survey of the existential problem of Otherness, no less so when that Other is in fact located within our very selves (for instance, in the close of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”). Moreover, given the increasingly fanciful and even ghoulish turn that world events seem to be taking, even the most gothic of descriptions stands a strong chance of being rendered passé by actual developments.

At any rate, if we regard gods as potentialities within some collective human mental landscape (leaving aside issues about their “objective” or exterior existence), then we may restate all this by saying that there are immensely powerful, archaic and often extremely dangerous entities that abide deep within the human psyche, whose workings are evident in human history, and which have long been suppressed out of quite justified fears—critically, during the several decades since the Second World War—but which are now making a comeback.

* * *

Humanity has, for most of its existence on this planet, been enthralled by a miasma of religious ideas, fevered visions, mythic narratives and unconscious urges, locking it into a cycle of delusion, cruelty, and disaster followed by periods of relative calm and order. The modern mind, partly in its supreme pride but also as the hard-won result of centuries of philosophical development, has claimed not only to make do without these urges, but to dismiss them and even forget them wholesale—like some superstitious chaff, thrown harmlessly to the winds by the combine of Progress.

Perhaps of all modern thinkers, none felt the contradictions and ambiguities of this widely-presumed, yet far-from-cemented victory than the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung. Most critical to his ongoing relevance, I feel, is his emphatic refusal to conceive of these issues simply on the level of mechanistic or individualistic drives, as thinkers like Mishra and Freud (and most of the rest of the “enlightened” West) are wont to do. To the contrary, Jung saw human existence as playing out on a far broader scope, on a variety of levels where categories such as the psychological and spiritual, the conscious and the unconscious, and especially the individual and the collective, inevitably blur. Indeed, he conceived of a vast collective unconscious, populated with archetypes—timeless figures and themes integral to the human condition and echoed, often in a cryptic form, through the deep history of human cultures and ultimately, through the entire species.

In Jung’s vision, the excessive “exaltation of the individual” and of rationality which Mishra bemoans is not some singular effect, but part and parcel of a wider pathology; the “psychic damage” it causes goes along with a resurgence of countless suppressed themes and meanings, rather than a mere upwelling of materialist or egalitarian-minded ressentiment. The crucial datum, then, is not one of individual neurosis—though of course at one level of focus there is plenty of that as well—but of a vast connection between the individual cases, reflecting a change in collective thought and mood around the world, tied to deep turnings in the collective unconscious. It is not simply that the Enlightenment is declining, but that the power of the unconscious and the attendant power of the Old Ones is rising.

Jung felt far more keenly than many others of his time and since that the promise of a lasting victory for the rational self (almost like Faustian Man’s proposed final supremacy over Nature itself) was destined to end in a tragic sequence of overreach, followed upon by ever more wild forms self-delusion, and ultimately mass insanity as the unconscious forces, often personified as divinities, erupted into popular consciousness. Even in the calmer interludes—the times when Reason seems to rule—Jung proposes that these unspoken powers do not really go away; they constitute our humanity just as much as do the triumphs of science, high culture, or ethics, and so can only be repressed. In the course of that repression they become more tense, alien, and menacing, and yet the individual’s secret longing for them grows more acute.

The result is an endless chess-game of sorts between humanity’s rational and systematizing qualities (and the protective structures and institutions they tend to build), and its impulsive, nonverbal, and magic-strewn inner life (the realm of the Old Gods, which continually strike out against these structures).

In Psychology and Religion—penned in 1937, just as history’s most shocking outburst of world-madness was well underway—Jung wrote of this contest with great clarity:

“Since the dawn of mankind, there has been a marked tendency to delimit the unruly and arbitrary ’supernatural’ influence by definite forms and laws” (21).

We strive to believe that we have understanding, control and mastery, and to see the world and people as behaving rationally. Yet this delimitation of a comfortingly narrowed and ordered viewpoint only leads us to neglect dangerous other powers accumulating in the psyche; it is equivalent to making the conscious part of the self more keen and self-absorbed at the expense of ignoring what is going on with the unconscious and collective realms. The result of this runaway rationalization is at first an atomized and strangely impotent kind of individual, something akin to Nietzsche’s “Last Man”, who focuses wholly on the realm of his isolated and urbane consciousness—his own personal comforts and entertainment—and not the system in which he participates or the urges that underpin it. As Jung describes this stage,

“…since every person is blindly convinced that he is nothing but his very modest and unimportant consciousness, which neatly fulfills duties and earns a moderate living, nobody is aware that this whole rationally organized crowd, called a state or a nation, is run by a seemingly impersonal, imperceptible but terrific power, checked by nobody and nothing” (60).

In much the same way, we have taken it for granted that our nation (and increasingly the world) must be essentially rational and individually accountable, and that our politics and its institutions are surely constrained and sustained by eternal or Platonic principles of liberal governance, or even a kindly and just “soul” comprising these things. In America we are a “city on a hill”, the “exceptional nation”—and always will be; the same applies to other nations and groups. This assurance, like the assurances of eternal progress, has led us to tune out the “terrific power” that could dismantle these institutions and principles, from within, in a whirlwind of ancestral passion.

It is our obsession with the individual—epitomized of late with the exhaustive attention devoted to the tiniest identity-political grievances of even the tiniest and most esoteric of identity groups—that has allowed our deafness to the collective unconscious, and the Ancient Ones that dwell within it, to grow dangerous. It has become, at once, both the Trumpist-protofascist’s rage and the intellectual lassitude that crucially enables it; it gives rise to the self-conscious despair of the liberal-minded classes and to the increasing violence and volatility of their demonstrations. In short we suddenly find ourselves facing absurdity rearing up from all sides, and we wonder where it all could have come from.

For Jung, this sudden “rearing up” owes to the precarious balance of normality that exists in individuality- and rationality-focused societies; while the seal of acculturation remains intact, all may seem stable and predictable, but Jung warns that if “…some slight trouble occurs, perhaps in the form of an unforeseen and somewhat extraordinary event”, then instantly unconscious and instinctive forces will be called up through the chaos, “…which appear to be wholly unexpected, new, and even strange” (16).

Surely the rise of reactionary-populist-nationalist program all around the world features all of these things, while the past 20 years or so has brought the US far more, in retrospect, than the “slight trouble” Jung requires to conjure up the restive Old Gods of the collective unconscious—“a seemingly endless series of crises”, in fact. But for all that, an even greater issue has begun to rumble in the depths, though it remains largely unspeakable. That is none other than our civilizational encounter with finitude, and hence with our own human limitation, frailty, and of course, mortality.

*   *   *

(To be continued…)

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