How the Frenzy Feeds: Affect and Delusion

by Johanna Drucker

The only thing puzzling about the tweet-stream smear-campaign bullying tactics that keep Trump’s popularity going is the inability of mainstream analysts to understand their success. These baffled experts keep bringing reasoned arguments to bear, like people debating the flammability of materials while standing in a house that is burning down. The sheer force of affect seems to escape notice, as if by ignoring the tantrum they might restore order. The frenzy feeds on high volume attention — negative or positive — and generates its own energy fields as a result. The implications of this are profound, and the dynamic systems that support this generative activity are integrated into every aspect of our daily lives through all forms of communication. The orchestrated effect of the spectacle of distraction is of course an essential aspect of the constant unfolding of “events” in news space. But the frenzy has its own momentum — and we are participatory instruments in this phenomenon. Recognizing how this works is crucial.

The Enlightenment philosophers who imagined the American experiment into being had no idea of the forces that would threaten its survival. They believed in the power of Reason to triumph over superstition and of Law to control the baser impulses of individuals through the power of the Social Contract. Reason, they thought, would promote common agreement on many matters, such as basic rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (for a select portion of the population). Reason provided understanding of the fundamental truths of the world, descriptions of phenomena in terms that were logical and systematic, not dependent on subjective bias, magic, or superstition. Reason itself had a transcendent, universal, identity, as if it were a self-evident foundation of human knowledge, rather than an invention of it (the “Common Sense” of Thomas Paine).

If Reason could be used to discover truths about the natural world, it should also be able to discern logical principles within the social realm and show it to be consistent in the same way that Isaac Newton’s laws demonstrated predictability in the physical domain. The history and premises of social sciences are grounded in this belief, as if human behavior were governed through some automatic allegiance to a shared understanding of virtues and values. But, as we know, and as generations of post-Cartesians have insisted, the social world is not governed by reason. Nor is the human mind.

Still, the workings of the world continue to be analyzed mainly in mechanistic terms. We think polls can predict, that demographics are deterministic, that people will act in their own best interests — or ultimately, be brought into accord through principles of fairness and good judgement. None of these things are true, of course. Even more to the point, the belief that Reason could shield the project of democracy from destruction is about as realistic as thinking that an antique fire screen could shield us from the effects of a nuclear blast. The scale issues have to be taken into account.

The forces the Founders did not factor into their carefully designed system of government, with its finely wrought checks and balances, were several: the agency of unregulated capital, the id-driven narcissism of consumerism, and the affective potency of social mediation intensified by an exponential rate of communication exchange. In all of these, the transactional velocities are now almost incalculable — and worse, the very efforts meant to counter these forces intensify the very conditions they are meant to help ameliorate. The addictive currency of the symbolic — the realm in which identification with imaginary conditions is produced — combines with the power of the phantasmatic to turn imaginary belief into actual effects. Ideas, rhetoric, language acts — all have consequences in the “real” — but are active agents in themselves, not representations or surrogates. They also did not predict that drug of fossil fuels would transform an agricultural economy into an industrial one stoked on over-production and a threat to ecological survival. Or that massive inequities and abuses would arise as a consequence of unregulated practices. Or that affluvia, the off-gassing of affluent culture, would be so toxic. Or that education would be subtracted from society so that virulent ignorance could produce a fire-storm of affectively driven social pollution with self-justifying rhetoric. No, none of these forces could have been imagined two hundred and fifty years ago.

Human beings do not simply use media, they are media, components in dynamic processes that generate affective forces. This concept is crucial to understanding how the current frenzy of communication feeds on itself — and what the implications are for the future of democracy and global existence.

But across all of these many phenomena, the one unifying element is the affective force of delusion generated by human beings as a medium. The fluid dynamics of the volatile social atmosphere have to be approached non-mechanistically — they are stochastic processes with quantum dimensions. Even the most radical thinkers of the 18thcentury would be puzzling over those phrases.

The group mind is produced by communicative exchange — not as a single entity, but as a force field. Any effective intervention has to begin with analysis of how social mediation works. Almost a century ago, Teilhard de Chardin and Vladimir Vernadsky identified a phenomenon they termed the “noösphere,” which they characterized as an aspect of the earth constituted by consciousness (a third phase of development in the evolution from geosphere to biosphere). Their work continued in the science of noetics. These notions in part drove the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research group, and related investigations into “Global Consciousness.” These researchers tend to separate consciousness from the messy integrated systems of human behavior and exchange, as if it were its own sphere in some medieval hierarchy from matter to animal to celestial being. But this misses the crucial point — the embeddedness of communication which produces energy that feeds from the participation of massive populations. Human beings do not simply use media, they are media, components in dynamic processes that generate affective forces. This concept is crucial to understanding how the current frenzy of communication feeds on itself — and what the implications are for the future of democracy and global existence.

The last few statements here would shade into new-age wack-o land, except that the phenomena we are experiencing in the current networked environments of which we are an integral part require an explanation that isn’t supplied by standard social science or media theory. These study “effects” as if media were “other” than human beings, an external system of channels of information exchange uploading fragments of the real, giving them a spin, and turning them into an echo chamber of biased storytelling. But media do not merely communicate consensual narratives of belief. They are also fed by the feedback loops of identification and processing that engage human beings, minds, affective fields and energy into a larger system. Marshall McLuhan got half the equation when he suggested media were the “extensions” of humankind. He did not recognize that we are the means through which affective fields are generated in communicative exchange. Similarly, the scientists who developed quantum theory only grasped half of the implications of their research by limiting their investigations to the physical world, and not extending it into the social.

To build on these ideas, we need to begin with recognition of the forces at work, and in particular, take into account the power of affect. A single angry person can galvanize an entire room, set the agenda, warp the mood, and command the energies of all present far more than a reasoned speaker. In fact, an unreasonable and affectively forceful speaker has greater power than a tempered one. We are seeing this constantly in the public sphere — but warped through the amplifying systems of mediated exchange. Understanding and reckoning with these affective forces — and how they amplify in social media — will be essential if we are going to move towards survival. Pit Greta Thunberg against Donald Trump. Whose charismatic intransigence is more effective? The future of human life may depend on the answer.

Affect. What is it? How does emotional energy drive human beings individually and collectively? The frenzy feeds from these forces and also produces them. The generative power of emotion flows through human beings. We are a medium for its transmission, but also, an instrumental part of its development. Fury rises in a psyche with unchecked abandon, once stirred, it has no upper limit. Love, jealousy, hatred, lust, desire, cravings — the drives are much stronger than the limits that keep them in check. And they operate at a distance. Amplify this through networked communications, however, and the collective aggregate of volatile energy overwhelms controls. This is not a metaphor. The energy is real and palpable, a physical force generated from psychological sources. We have underestimated the extent to which the social is a medium.

Here the way affective fields work. Consider a room full of people. Now imagine you could see the thermal phenomena or olfactory zones among these people. The situation could be described in terms of molecular exchanges and excitations. An energy field, larger than the individuals, but working through them — with them as component parts — would be apparent. Nothing bizarre or unfamiliar or new-age needs to come into play to describe this field or the participatory role of individuals within it. Then imagine increasing the rate of transactions and the energy in the field would intensify. Describing the specifics of these exchanges requires understanding them as stochastic processes, non-deterministic and complex, but hardly magical. Add to this the capacity of human beings to be identified with virtual communities, multiple identities, beliefs across a broad spectrum all simultaneously and a picture emerges of the ways the medium of the human functions. Face to face situations and mediated systems all produce potent affective fields with volatile dynamics.

As we enter the election cycle in a condition of precarity . . . the challenge is to find a way to push a new paradigm into view and create a charismatic voice for change without falling into fascism. At the moment, the paradigms through which the mainstream candidates conceptualize change are outmoded. You can’t solve an apocalyptic meltdown by changing the energy source on which it is fueled. You have stop and reset the entire system.

This approach posits a different way of understanding the way the frenzy feeds in the current political-media networks. What is this phantasmatic force, this cultural wave of irrational allegiance? How does it generate so much sustained energy? What the rational, educated, and sober analysts cannot address through their methods is the force of frenzy and the phantasmatic conditions in which it operates. The mechanistic approach to social sciences, politics, and media analysis cannot grasp the sheer power of affect as a political and social force. The frenzy feeds itself from this energy while also generating it. This is the opposite of heat-death in the physical world. The escalation of energy in the system intensifies its effects. But what is “the system” that is referenced in that statement? How do we understand its operations and its means?

Addressing these issues is crucial for the next election. At present, no one on the broad stage of what are called “Democratic hopefuls” has a chance in such a contest. They are largely anti-charisma candidates. Flame-retardant responsible rhetoric is doomed from the outset because it is boring — and no one wants to identify, align, with a figure whose tone is a scolding reprimand. Potent lies of delusion spoken with ignorant and arrogant conviction are seductive. Only someone with charismatic appeal will get elected, a figure who galvanizes emotional response. The others remain committed to speaking as if their audiences wanted solutions to problems conceived as real is utterly off-putting, alienating, to the mass of voters who want to conceive of their lives in imaginary terms. Identification is powerful as a tool of celebrity production. It creates a platform for the becoming-real of transformative rhetoric. The speaker who commands identification has influence and power.

Such power can be activated around any agenda. But the difficulty is that reasonable people, so called, have an ethical and procedural limitation — they want nuance, engage complexity, to allow for multiple points of view and opinion. Structurally, that is far weaker in creating affective force than single-minded simplicity. Conservative thinking has always been susceptible to alignment in ways that liberal thought is not.

As we enter the election cycle in a condition of precarity — political, ecological, and social (unrest, inequity, domestic crises) the urgency rises. The challenge is to find a way to push a new paradigm into view and create a charismatic voice for change without falling into fascism. At the moment, the paradigms through which the mainstream candidates conceptualize change are outmoded. You can’t solve an apocalyptic meltdown by changing the energy source on which it is fueled. You have stop and reset the entire system. Ground up. This is going to happen. Whether we meet the destruction with constructive vision is the question. And what does that look like?

Nearly every fundamental concept in social politics and economics need a rework. Aside from the impotence of Reason in the struggle against affect, we need to address the inadequacy of individual and administrative agency against the power of Capital. The legitimating rhetoric of Progress as a continual boon and benefit has to be qualified if it is to serve the urgent agenda — survival. A foundation for holistic sustainability within a global system will require rethinking wages, work, health, physicality, food production, supply chains, and all of the systems for replication of ideology and inequity on which current patterns are based. And dangerous though it may sound, only a charismatic figure will be able to initiate what has to be a massive change in collective consciousness. This cannot be some new-age guru self-help evangelist, but a real visionary with a program to which adherents can attach in sincere belief of the possibility of a viable outcome.

The new paradigm has to be holistic, integrated, sustainable, equitable, grounded in no-growth, managed progress. We need creative vision, not mechanistic fixes on a broken system. We need a reimagined world, one that works, but also is not rooted in industrial practices and its labor-capital paradigms. Socialism was a fix for the abuses of that system, but we need to move beyond the abusive system itself, not merely repair the ills it has wrought. The forces of affect are not going to dissipate and the systems of affective alignment are not going to go away. Only by imagining into being a world of equity and balance, at every level from individual and family group through communities at every scale, can survival be assured — and not just within the species-ist paradigms that privilege human survival above that of all other living things. The work of survival requires radical transformation, sacrifice, and a collective engagement with a phantasmatically conceived alternative to the present downward spiral of destruction.

The frenzy feeds on itself, and expands. We are consumed within it even as we are participants helping to generate its energy fields. Time for change is now.

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Featured Image: Chris Vasileiadis, Dehumanization

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