Humanities on the Edge Book Review: Adam Kotsko, "Why We Love Sociopaths"
Overcoming the disappointment that Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths didn’t actually offer much help in terms of understanding why I chose the last several people I have dated, I was compelled to consistently think of the times I have had the most sociopathic fantasies and identifications. My first thoughts, of course, drifted to the marauding hordes of graduate students I manage to spend so much time associating with these days. Do I actually walk in the company of sociopaths? Before passing judgment, I thought I would re-familiarize myself with some basic terms. According to the oracle of explanatory knowledge, a sociopath is “a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience” (dictionary.com). Observing the obvious cross references, I followed the link and was reminded that a psychopath is “a person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme ego centricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.” (dictionary.com); so there’s the answer: graduate students are generally not sociopaths, but they are definitely psychopaths. Case closed.
One of the achievements of Adam Kotsko’s book is how it asks all of its readers to consider their engagement with sociopaths and sociopathic fantasies. The first line appears to be a disclaimer: “My greatest regret is that I’m not a sociopath” (1). The average reader would presumably respond with something along the lines of “oh yeah, me neither.” But this one sentence, this mutual confession, belies the real problem: that we do indeed love sociopaths, that we celebrate their exploits every day. Indeed, the subtitle of Kotsko’s book is A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. He describes the subject of his analysis: “The fantasy sociopath is somehow outside social norms—largely bereft of human sympathy, for instance, and generally amoral—and yet is simultaneously a master manipulator, who can instrumentalize social norms to get what he or she wants” (2). Since I, like Adam Kotsko, do not consider myself to be a sociopath, I paused to think about the times I have had the most sociopathic fantasies. Though I have worked in many different fields, there were two long stretches (three years each) that I spent in a five foot square cubicle in one of the corporate spaces that Terry Gilliam warned us about in Brazil (1985). Any time I hear the term Late Capitalism these are the first places that pop into my head. Was there ever a greater engine built for the generation of sociopathic fantasies than those panopticon battlefields where you literally have to keep your head down to avoid being spotted in a moment of not working?
Indeed, it is the fantasy of the sociopath explored by Kotsko, but also the need for the fantasy that drive his discussion. In these characters, he argues, we can project our desire for control. In other words, “In a broken society, it seems, only a broken person can succeed” (14). The fantasy sociopath is also a progression, an outcropping of the myriad new forms of humanity appearing in popular entertainment over the last few decades. Last week, Dan Froid reviewed Kotsko’s book dealing with Awkwardness. Why We Love Sociopaths is an extension of the work done in Awkwardness: “In contrast to the sociopath, then, whose lack of social connection makes him or her master manipulator of social norms, people caught up in the awkwardness are rendered powerless by the intensity of their social connection. Thus we might say that at second glance, the TV sociopath is the exact opposite of the awkward character—the correspondence is too perfect to ignore” (5). To track the course of the sociopath, Kotsko follows in the tradition of the trinitarian theorist by identifying three categories of fantasy sociopath: the schemers, where “sociopathy borders on psychopathy”; the climbers, who “use their skills at seduction and manipulation to get ahead”; and the enforcers, whose sociopathic devotion to police work “leads them to continually violate the law” (16-18).
The clearest examples used to illustrate the category of the schemer are the adult-oriented cartoon shows with decades-long staying power: The Simpsons and South Park. One of the most interesting aspects of Kotsko’s analysis is the deliberate calculation to transfer the narrative emphasis in The Simpsons from Bart (the son) to Homer (the father) who becomes “the fantasy of a child who not only has the body of an adult (this phenomenon is all too familiar), but can act on his childish motivations without suffering the consequences” (23). Homer is spared from the consequences of his action because the show resets every week; a temporal loop erases the events from the previous show, a device acknowledged within the show itself on more than one occasion. This looping setup becomes amplified in South Park where the children remain children while still appealing to adult escapism. Kotsko expresses his concern at the most outrageous of the South Park children, Eric Cartman, who is the inversion of Homer Simpson—an adult trapped in the child’s body without knowing it. However, he does acknowledge moments where “Cartman does seem to be very aware that he’s a child, and that is in recognizing how much a child can really get away with” (26).
Indeed, as Kotsko continues to explain, “One of the things that allows human society to function is that children don’t realize how powerful they are” (26). This argument offers a further illumination of some recent investment by Queer Theorists into the realm of children. Specifically, The Queer Child, by Kathryn Bond Stockton, describes how the construction of the child as a concept proves to have astonishingly negative and material consequences for both the child and those who seek to protect the child by delaying their development: “Delay is seen as a friend to the child. Delay is said to be a feature of its growth: children grow by delaying their approach to the realms of sexuality, labor, and harm. The point of delay as a boon to growth is to shelter children from these domains” (62). But this delay leads directly to an abstraction of the actual child, which is problematic as the child eventually discovers for themselves realms of sexuality and labor and harm. The situation, according to Stockton, leads to a paradox in which “we fear the children we would protect” (62). I think Stockton’s formation here dovetails nicely with Kotsko’s argument about the child schemer. As the adult as child, Cartman also embodies the inscrutable strength of childhood itself. What better vessel for libidinal investment? We can be crass, sexist, racist, and destructively rebellious with glee. Motivated by “boredom, selfishness, and petty jealousy,” the scheming sociopath “fulfill[s] the fantasy of the TV sociopath in a particularly enjoyable way, but also in a way that is difficult to take seriously” (Kotsko 41). They function, as Kotsko argues, as release valves.
The discussion of the sociopathic category of the climber is inaugurated with a genealogy of the rise of the reality show where the name of the game is “avoiding exclusion rather than positively ‘winning’” (42). Furthermore, game play “seems to have been uniquely effective in encouraging betrayal and petty backbiting” (42). The cost-effectiveness of this programming caused the broadcast networks to flood their primetime lineups with “reality” shows. Kotsko also recounts how the major cable networks seized on audience dissatisfaction to launch a series of controversial and now legendary shows that included The Sopranos. What followed in the wake of this confluence of events are highly regarded series like The Wire, Mad Men, and Dexter—all of which abound with sociopaths. Kotsko grounds his discussion of the climber in an analysis of The Wire and Mad Men:
“Just as with reality shows—which probably are ‘realistic’ in the minimal sense of portraying how people would ‘really’ act when placed in their various contrived situations—the ‘reality’ that is at stake here in more fundamental than the surface-level authenticity of office equipment [Mad Men] and urban slang [The Wire]. The reality at stake is found in the harsh worldview of both shows, their cynical and unsentimental portrayal of life as a continual power struggle. Like a jaded reality show contest, nearly every character in Mad Men or The Wire is ‘not here to make friends.’” (Kotsko 49)
While Kotsko’s review and analysis of these two seminal shows is convincing on many levels, his secondary accomplishment is well worth noting. He is able to make both of those shows seem somehow appealing to those of us who have never watched them (or never watched very much of them) without piling on the academic guilt. What do you mean you haven’t seen The Wire? How can you possibly understand the decline of America? You’ve never seen Mad Men? How can we possibly have a conversation about anything at all?
Kotsko turns to the third and final category of the Enforcers. This kind of sociopath breaks society’s rules in order to save it. Ironically, I found Kotsko’s analysis of this disturbing material the most enjoyable because he lets his wry humor fly. Specifically, his epic takedown of the series 24 is among the very best that I have ever read. His most important critique deals with the ludicrous world building necessary for these sociopathic enforcers to function. As Kotsko explains, “The Counter Terrorism Unit, a (thankfully!) fictional law enforcement agency, is made up primarily of incompetents, obstructionist bureaucrats, and a truly amazing number of moles—at least one per season” (70). There is comfort in the idea that the society whose rules need to be broken is so blatantly artificial. It is somewhat concerning to think of the show’s target audience masturbating with homicidal glee at a world the show’s creators attempted to construct without even a nod to realism. The paradox, of course, is that the broken social order is re-inscribed as a result of the sociopathic enforcer’s actions. The artificial nature of the world necessary for this fantasy sociopath would seem to make it a myth or ideology. But it isn’t. It’s a cartoon. The time loop required for the comical scheming sociopath is simply an elaboration of the time loop of a day that is marked out by hours, twenty four to be exact. At one point, Kotsko calls Jack Bauer “the Eric Cartman of rogue law enforcement” (71). This statement seems irrefutably true even if the stakes are decidedly higher.
The schemer in their petty rebellions, the climber’s self-serving machinations, and the enforcer’s rejection of social norms each in their own way reinforces the broken social structure. Ultimately, Kotsko opts for a more positive sociopath, an as-of-yet-unknown sociopath who can rebel and transform, figures like Jesus and Socrates. But hasn’t late capitalism already appropriated the sociopathy of these pre-capitalist figures? How many times has Jack Bauer already been cast in a messianic light? And what about those other sociopaths, the ones that aren’t ready-made heroes? Don’t they also reinforce the broken system? What, after all, is society’s response to every gunman who shoots up a theater or elementary school? Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure similarly looks at the roles, tropes, and motifs of cartoons before making an abrupt shift to discussions about subject negation in feminism and fascism. Halberstam argues that failure is productive in confronting capitalism. I think the idea is intriguing, but I have trouble with the extrapolation of this analysis to praxis. Similarly, I am not ready to make this final leap with Kotsko. I’m not saying he’s wrong, or even that his final move isn’t a logical result of his very interesting and quite sound analysis. It’s just that I can’t envision a post-capitalist world or the means to get there. But Kotsko does answer the question implicit in the title, and he does so with aplomb. Why do we love sociopaths? The answer seems to always be the same. We love sociopaths because that is what capitalism demands of us. In our soul-killing jobs (some of us imprisoned in fabric blue cubicles), capitalism demands we fantasize about scheming against, climbing over, or killing those around us. What will capitalism demand of us next?
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print
Kotsko, Adam. Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. Washington: Zero Books, 2012. Print.
Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growind Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.