Panic America

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment


It’s not highly original to invoke a pathological metaphor for describing a nation. But panic is different. Because it contains a threshold between individual and collective forms of asocial behavior. Take the example of the highway. As I have claimed before, America is organized around the highway as a means of transportation, a means of communication and it may also serve as a general metaphor of sociability. Each auto-nomous unit traveling on the highway tries to stay in motion, and reach their destinations with the least troublesome effort. There are only a few rules and separate lanes make orientation easy. But as soon as there are too many automobiles, erratic drive patterns begin to increase, as many start looking for their own advantage by changing lanes frequently, accelerating and breaking more often, thereby disturbing the otherwise smooth flow of vehicles. Although all are oriented in one direction, the disturbance in the pattern of flow creates ripples way beyond the congested zones. I think of panic as something like this rippling of disturbances that occurs for no immediate reason, but that has real effects elsewhere.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes individual forms of panic as anxieties that are not shared or even perceived by others. Clues of the environment are interpreted in only one direction – to increase panic, threat, helplessness – which can amount to becoming a sense of self (perception). Panic as a collective behavior is most often associated with natural disasters or economic panics. Watch the holiday videos made in Southeast Asia during the 2004 tsunami, where the same big wave that was great fun at the beach tips over to become a lethal threat. This moment of changing perception describes panic. Similar in economic panics. A small number of  investors begin to see a threat, a decline in returns, and begin to sell unprofitable assets. Like the driver on the highway changing lanes quickly, they cause disturbance in the usual behavior of others by disappointing chiefly the expectations of others as to what constitutes ‘normal behavior’. They signal a change in the very ‘normalcy’ and contribute to a collective rethinking of procedures among all others. This, in turn, makes the situation worse. Whatever the decisive factors in a panic situation, each has a moment of passing a threshold from normalcy to emergency.

Created by and A-.M-.

Panic America in Words: c/o and A.M.


When a crowd gets into a panic, it is unable to look for the source of its unease, unable to change the situation or even analyze possible solutions. Panic breaks out when a certain number of people gets uneasy at more or less the same time. As they see the conditions of ‘normalcy’ dissolve, they start violently defending their own self-interest against the interests of others. When a large crowd of people, at concerts or demonstrations, gets into a bottleneck situation, a long time will pass before individuals start to protest or move out of the situation. It’s the time before the threshold and the level of tolerance seems to be very high, assuming that anyone will prefer a state of normalcy – even in distress – to a state of emergency.

Yet, after passing the threshold of realizing panic, the cycle of self-interest eating up social norms begins. Panic breaks out. Defending one’s own self interest against all others, in turn, provokes the exact same reaction. In a panic situation, help can only come from the outside or through a sudden change of the situation. Panic is a defense mechanism and will subside as the threat that caused it disappears.

By breaking the thin tissue of normal social conduct and interaction panic questions the assumed normalcy of our environment, of our sociability and brings up a residual anarchic element in human psyche that is all about survival of the fittest. The pursuit of self-interest suddenly becomes apparent in its asocial consequences during a panic situation:

“[T]he usual rules according to which individuals adjust their behaviour so as not to work at cross-purposes are nullified. In the more dramatic instances of collective panic, people trample on one another in vain efforts to reach safety.” [A panic situation] “encourages the intensified pursuit of individual rather than collective goals.” (LMK (Lewis M. Killian)/NJS (Neil J. Smelser) “Collective Behaviour” (pp. 556-567). The New Encyclopeadia Britannica, Macropedia, vol. 16, 15th edition, 1988, Chicago: Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc. p. 561).

Panic describes the moment of the threshold, not its cause or effect. “Panic America” then neither postulates that America is panicky, nor that it’s more prone to such disorders than other nations. America is the testing ground for the limits of the threshold of panic, constantly shifting the balance between productive self-interest and disastrous self-interest.

Modesto, California 2012


American Magic and Dread

November 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

The title of this post is not mine. It goes back to Mark Osteen’s fabulous book on Don DeLillo‘s fiction and its concern with modern media. But ever since reading that book, the tautological nature of the title, so apt and precise to describe the fiction of DeLillo, has remained with me as a shortcut to a European perspective on America. In a similar way, Liam Cennedy argued that for Europeans, America remained an object of study and also an object of desire (h/t Ida Jahr). Same tautological structure of interest (magic) and despair (dread). Yet, seen from the right perspective, and I speak spatially here, that picture above does make sense to someone driving DOWN the alley in the wrong direction, while for someone driving UP the alley, the letters are just nonsense. The irritated bystander (read: European) perceives the interdiction and the definition at the same time, as mere commands phrased in the same alphabet. This yes/and – no/but structure still seems to capture what many think about America as a cultural space, although the no/but-faction is gaining ground.

Paul Virilio coined the phrase of a projectile image, projecting through space at radiant speed, reflecting on screens and surfaces, thereby reorganizing our perceptions of space at the same time. Now, in addition to these spatial metaphors of images – between the ground floor and the observation deck – there is a temporal dimension of the image, which altogether can go beyond its spatial origins. It’s the visceral and viral image, which resonates in digital time (not space, how anachronistic).

DeLillo was able to capture this mode of being obsessed with images as a fundamental quality of American culture, images as part of the magic, for sure, but also images as the source of dread, of unease, and instability. In Cosmopolis (2003) and Underworld (1997), to name just two, DeLillo weaves the objective certainty of the image into a matrix of uncertain perceptions – phenomenological irritations in the face of photogenic magic. In one short passage, Jeff’s fascination with a video of the “Texas Highway Killer” turns into an ontological journey into the self, an image beyond the consumerist self of wryly calibrated image particles.

Jeff became absorbed in these images, devising routines and programs, using filtering techniques to remove background texture. He was looking for the lost information. He enhanced and superslowed, trying to find some pixel in the data swarm that might provide a clue to the identity of the shooter. (Underworld, 118)

In the constant run of images this clue to an identity is no longer directed at identifying the “Texas Highway Killer” but is used as a vehicle to see an image of oneself gaining shape in an endless swirl of half-codified, half-creative forms of repeated interaction, documented amply in forums and on pinwalls. If there is such a magic of uncertainty, then America might still inhabit the space of attractions. But as the magic of uncertainty of the image surpasses the national turf, it becomes a temporal trope, actualized at haphazard conjunctions of identity processes. One may feel urged to warn: “Do not enter” – “Entrance only” – at your own risk.

Additional background reporting: GC Commentary: BV, JP, JK and IJ.

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