Archive for October, 2015


Rampage as a Team Instinct: When symbolism breaks down.

October 18, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

We’re social animals, with an instinct for group competition that’s evolved to intensify     solidarity, as in team spirit. Cooperation to win makes the group stronger and insures survival. Heroes, families, and tribes compete in order to expand, lead, and dominate others. In civilization, where strangers live together, the emphasis is usually on team     sports that act out warfare without the bloodshed.

In rampage killing, the symbolic quality of sport breaks down. Opponents become enemies. Defeat means death. Almost all rampage killers role-play the warrior-hero. When they dress in combat fatigues and use military weapons, psychiatry calls them pseudo-commandos. They convince themselves they’re revenging or rescuing what’s right. Police said the killer in Oregon had “a philosophy of hate,” as did Dylann Roof murdering black churchgoers, and Anders Breivik in Norway. A neighbor of the Roseburg killer reports that, “The way Chris [Mercer] carried himself was like ex-military almost—combat boots, camo pants, white shirt, brown shirt. Every day it was the same thing.” As in a war, he had body armor and was “armed for a long gunfight.”

Whatever the motive, why does rampage take the predictable form of an indiscriminate assault with guns blazing? Why this model and not another? Yes, American culture is awash in guns and heroic, paranoid stories about vigilante guns saving lives. Military weapons are readily available. And in the most expensively militarized country in history, about half of rampage killers have had military training—far more than ordinary murderers. Headline news and movies provide lavish models to follow.

All these tools presuppose a split world organized around us—or me—versus them.

Football games sometimes injure or kill the players, but part of the thrill of the game is the effort to temper do-or-die fury with skillful restraint. With a gun, a rejected player can dictate a new game and take a starring role. The wannabe hero competes with innumerable opponents, which raises the stakes and tactics to survival pitch.

Most rampage killings have a copycat quality. The Columbine killers frankly aimed for record-breaking infamy that would compel Hollywood and cow the world. They were competing for heroic celebrity. If you’re depressed or aggrieved or frightened of your own insanity, as Adam Lanza was in the Sandy Hook school savagery, the wish to be a “big man” can be irresistible. It shows up in the fascination with Hitler and Satan and messianic heroes. They’re superhuman masters of life and death. In shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner imagined he was saving the nation. As in terrorism, the violence can end in suicide, yet death in a blaze of glory can seem more alluring than an insignificant life without meaning.

What these behaviors have in common is the berserk belief that if you free yourself of all inhibitions, you can get access to amazing powers. Running amok, you feel pumped up, beyond taboos and doubts, indifferent to pain and death. You risk suicidal chaos, yet abandon generates a nervous system rush that feels superhuman. With weapons blazing, the warrior role enables you to run free, mowing down opposition, for a touchdown.

But here’s what we often overlook: rampage killers dream of heroic domination so overwhelming that they can command the world’s respect and abject reverence. The rampage is a nightmare demand to belong.

The Oregon killer sympathized with rampage killers such as Vester Lee Flanagan, because “he was all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are.” His conclusion?  “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” In another entry he commented: “People like [Flanagan] have nothing left to live for, and the only thing left to do is lash out at a society that has abandoned them.”  What he calls “limelight” is the glow of belonging and the spotlight that confirms you exist and you matter. The terror is to be alone and in effect dead.

Conventional wisdom imagines berserk fury to be out of control. But in fact, as copycat rampages demonstrate, you can manipulate the fantasies and physiology. Like James Holmes in Aurora Colorado, and Adam Lanza, the Roseburg killer was on the edge of control but also planning record-breaking devastation, as he signaled on an anonymous chat-room the night before. Chris Mercer was a student at the community college, desperately uncomfortable with others and desperately unhappy. It seems likely that he murdered other students because to him they represented a rival team—and rivals who were winning.

Berserk abandon is not some rogue pathology. In fact, it is all around us today. When bungee jumpers plunge into a chasm, they are role-playing at suicide. Their calculated abandon is a form of play-death and rebirth. Rebounding, the jumpers feel more keenly alive and fearless. Pumped up to emergency levels, the nervous system reinforces a conviction of resources beyond humdrum everyday limits.

Countless American movies are fantasies of abandon. Bullets and bodies fly, but the hero emerges unscathed to claim the girl and a fertile future of more life. When this plot gets boring, the quest for more thrilling extremes becomes self-intoxicating. In an age of digital effects, the studios’ competition to develop ever more convincing mayhem becomes part of a movie’s story and a selling point.

Since WW2, and even more so since 9/11, Americans have been cultivating abandon as a style. If you have history’s most expensive military, why not use it. Every quarrel acquires do-or-die urgency. Propaganda demonized Saddam Hussein, and now the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq has created the nightmare of ISIS, historic refugee panic, and widespread chaos in the Middle East. This is a gunfighter mentality gone amok.

In its deregulated speculation, Wall Street took extraordinary risks, endangering global finance. To score points with excited partisans, politicians look for excuses to shut downgovernment. The same dynamics appear on a personal level in binge behavior from drug use to gambling. The allure of abandon promises to turn anxiety and depression into adrenalized potency, as in rant broadcasting’s focus on “enemies” in order to enjoy putting them down.

Underlying all such berserk righteousness is survival anxiety. Soldiers run amok facing literal death. But social death can be just as powerful. To lose face, lose hope, and to lose your mind to mental illness can also be a form of death. You can see death-anxiety behind the struggle over health insurance, in fantasies about “death panels.” A Tea Party rally audience “Cheered [the] Idea of Letting Uninsured patients Die” (ABC News,13 Sept.11). In such examples people focused on fears of victimization, then fantasized about aggression. Berserk style makes “take no prisoners” thinking seem natural and even heroic.

Guns may be the chief marker for the berserk mentality. After a rampage, gun sales surge “as buyers express fears that politicians may use the shootings to seek new restrictions on owning weapons” (AP, 25 July 12). The purchasers want to be able to kill in a pinch. Never mind that data shows that guns bought for self-defense are likely to kill the wrong people. Never mind the childish NRA fantasy that pictures gun-owners as dead-eye vigilantes killing insane killers.

Like Dylann Roof’s murder of black folks at prayer in a church, and like the cops photographed murdering black men, panic is explosive and labile. When panic and rageare confirmed, the hysteria is indiscriminate. American Christian lynch mobs did unspeakable things to their victims. Demagogues today cunningly press one hot button after another: immigrants, abortion, nigger rapists, terrorists—tools to push people to an emergency pitch.

The psychology of abandon recognizes that all these behaviors show our instinct for group protection and power. Rampage killers regularly kill to attack a hated group on behalf of some real or tacit group. Sometimes they identify with other rampage killers as if they form an army of “buddies.” Even isolated, they behave as if “my side” is triumphing over “them.” Psychotic or not, they can act as if their rampage has the “as if” quality of a football game: warfare in which the feelings are intensely real and yet death is only symbolic.

After the Oregon rampage, President Obama reasoned on television about the need for gun control. Some spectators cheered the message. But you can be sure that those who openly despise the mixed race president felt gut hostility to his appeal: a virtual fight with the president and with his “fans.” Civilization is a football game that excited strangers can attend without confusing numbers on a scoreboard with an enemies list. When the game leaves some players face down and bleeding on the field, it’s time to reexamine team spirit.


used with permission
Source: Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse:used with permission

The psychology of abandon studies borderline behavior and emergency physiology. In slang we talk about flipping out, running amok, losing it, etc., Berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring, since it promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare and business to politics, sports, and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.


Is Your Learning Style Paranoid?: What’s New Can Be You

October 5, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

In a supermarket the other day I noticed an attractive young woman and then, with a shock, her right hand. With a mix of fascination and anxiety I saw that the hand was a stump with a thumb and, where her pinkie should have been, a middle finger opposing her thumb like a pincer.

Intellectually I wasn’t startled at all: birth defects happen all the time.  Every pregnancy is a fabulous storm of genetic information shaping the growing fetus. Not surprisingly, messages occasionally get misdelivered, mutated, or scrambled. Such variability makes evolution possible. In every family of puppies or kiddies, the individuals have a different mix of traits. You may recall the famous Russian ethologist who mated the tamest individuals from different litters of Siberian foxes and eventually produced two different animals: the usual ferocious fox and new foxes tame as a lapdog, with juvenile (neotenic) physical and behavioral traits.

Some genetic variations turn out to be adaptive, some crippling or even fatal: some more or less irrelevant. What surprised me in the supermarket was the fascination and twinge of anxiety I felt at the sight of the young woman’s peculiar hand. Unless she wanted to be a pianist, the mutation presented no serious obstacle to an effective life. Yet its strangeness had an uncanny quality, and I could see why the woman casually kept the hand covered around strangers.

What’s going on here?

We’re psychosomatic(link is external) creatures. We generate our conception of reality by combining feedback from our bodies, parents, and cultures. In learning particular rules and facts (The stove is hot, don’t touch it) we’re also developing categories that enable us to judge new things by relating them to what’s already familiar (hot, cold; pleasure, pain, etc). In thewisdom of slang we learn by “absorbing” or rejecting new anomalies that don’t fit what we already know. The more you can absorb, the wider we say your knowledge of the world—your experience—is.

Meanwhile back in the supermarket, there I am puzzled by the fascination and anxiety the unusual hand stirred in me. Fascination is an emergency response to something unexpectedly new. Confronted by a potentially good or dangerous anomaly, fascination focuses and concentrates your attention.

Attractive people promise more life. Movie “stars” or pumped up body “builders” invite hero-worship—transference. They look more or less like other humans, but their exceptional features have the quality of fetishes. Like money, religious symbols, or the flag, their beauty or strength has power we identify with.

At root, the power we imagine in positive anomalies seems to offer more life, and more life means less insecurity, less danger, less death. Attractive young people signal fertility, a long life ahead of them. Idealizing them, we can attribute all sorts of talents and virtues to them.  In a supermarket this is especially pronounced. The store is a temple of symbolic immortality. You gaze at blood-red animal cuts, fun sweets, and lively packaging. Everything is “king size” or “super.” Mr Clean will wash away dirt, disease, and death.  In panting color the magazine rack presents “out of this world” hair styles and invincible new cars. In the freezers food is imperishable, and in the pharmacy life can be rescued from decay.

In such a fantasy world a birth defect is jarring. Since we’re highstrung, vulnerable animals, with radars always scanning the horizon for threats, we’re apt to feel—hello—anxiety.

Anomalies show that the world is bigger and stranger than “our” reality. Even anomalies that promise more life rattle us, but in that case we interpret our response as positive “wonder” or as the kids say, “awesome.” By contrast, anomalies that threaten to limit or impair life remind us that our bodies are fragile and impermanent. They arouse associations with injury, futility, and death. And such a response is especially disturbing because often it’s a gut response, not a conscious judgment that allows us to feel smart and masterful.

As Michael Polanyi(link is external) reminds us, never mind Freud, most of the time we don’t know why we react as we do.  A strange face may strike you as appealing or repellent. You recognize the new visage as a gestalt:(link is external) you don’t analyze lips, chin, eyes, and other features to assemble your concept. Like the uncanny answer to a riddle, the face clicks into awareness, often making a positive or negative impression. You’ve unwittingly processed the information before you come up with a conscious account of the face. You know more than you can say.

But that’s not all. The gut reaction to an anomaly is usually characterized bymoral aggression. You “fight” a “bad cold”; genetic variations are birth “defects” or  “abnormalities.” The fear is that otherwise the anomaly will contaminate or infect you.  In the wisdom of slang, what’s surprising threatens to “freak you out.”  Much of the time an anomaly may be harmless or even beneficial, but as in paranoia, we feel it has a menacing quality. If you misjudge an anomaly, you may be using it as a scapegoat, blaming it for faults that really lie elsewhere. It is easy to scapegoat immigrants and other races, for example, exaggerating superficial differences. Gut-level self-defense can turn them into abnormalities. Your hostility may be scarcely conscious yet it pumps up the nervous system’s emergency chemistry as well as righteous self-esteem.

It’s useful to see that the negative, even evil associations we attribute to some anomalies are delusions. They’re grounded in our nervous systems and the false categories culture has taught us. Our reactions are prejudiced, based not on evidence but on limitations in the way we’re built. In a classic experiment monkeys panicked when shown the severed head of a monkey. The severed noggin was actually harmless, but the monkey subjects weren’t assessing the evidence, their shock was instinctual. They reacted as you and I react when terrorists behead a human captive.

Civilization means living arrangements that allow strangers to live together. And the awkward truth is that other people are always anomalies. Civilized imaginations have to keep getting used to anomalies. One way is to think of them as variations or exceptions rather than defects, or as a new opening to be explored . Ultimately tolerance comes from recognizing that though we often cling to cherished categories like a child’s safety blanket, reality is variations in motion, not a polished rock.

Prejudice isn’t just about racism or hating broccoli. It’s what happens when your gut reaction to the strangeness of being alive starts to panic. Think of the common cold that stuffs your head with moldy dishrags and spills sand into your windpipe and lungs. What causes that misery isn’t the cold virus—the anomaly—but your immune system’s overreaction.

Luckily we’re singularly adaptable animals. We can play, experiment, and teach each other what’s good for you and what gives you poison ivy. We can share our curiosity and discoveries—which you and i are doing right now. Yes, some anomalies are really hard to get used to, such as the kind of rogue asteroid that made the dinosaurs late for breakfast.  Closer to home are the surprises that you meet in your local immortality emporium, between Mr Clean and the can opener with the lifetime guarantee: a surprise that helps you wonder who we are.

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Resources used in this essay:

Michael Polanyi: The Tacit Dimension

Ernest Becker: Escape from Evil