“He whispered something else: it is by headlong flight that things progress and signs proliferate” (ATP, 73).
Symbolizing the paroxysm of erotic fear, Pan is the quintessential figure of libidinal millenarianism. Messianic figures from Zoroaster to David Koresh are all indebted to the proleptic powers of Pan. If it is true that “Apollo wheedled the art of prophecy” from Pan, we can appreciate the complicated role played by Pan in apocalyptic discourses. (After the Orgy, 29)
Panic—social, cultural, political—appears to be on the agenda again, slipping subtly back into the driver seat after the relative quietness of 2018. It’s not that panic was ever far away; it rumbled deep below the surface, but its white-hot charge appeared dulled by the recoding of whatever had been unleashed in the cut that was 2016 into some sort of stable (yet fragile) status quo. That year’s cut was engendered by information-communication technology. It wasn’t on account of the acceleration of new consumer goods or some other novelty or lack thereof; what occurred in that year was the moment that everything flipped and the spiraling tendrils of internet—this promised utopia, fabled rhizome, ephemeral non-space of the multitude—penetrated the political and spread its corruption. Whether or not 4chan and deranged twitter cultists were the pivot that swung the election towards Trump or Russian agents subverted Western democracy through an insidious and imperceptible information war is immaterial; both options bear the mark of an age made unintelligible, and serve as the polarity that indexes the pure crisis that looms on the immediate horizon.
Everybody knows that their socio-political coordinates—and the wider cognitive maps these are embedded within—are being scrambled, and thus panic amplifies, even if the accelerant remains by and large consciously obscure. One needs to look no further that the language deployed in the ongoing Momo hysteria to see this self-blindness in action. “Microsoft is clamping down on the sick ‘Momo suicide challenge,’ which recently infiltrated the wildly popular online game “Minecraft”, reads a Fox News article from last year, while The Mirror reports that “Momo challenge is ‘hacking’ Peppa Pig, Fortnite…” In both of these cases, which serve as benchmarks for the revealing the absolute state of boomer dread, address the phenomenon itself as something self-spreading, “infiltrating” and “hacking” unsuspecting systems of its own accord. This stands in stark contrast to the typical conservative driver to identify all-too-human scapegoats for the activities of largely imperceptible, convergent system dynamics, and adds a surreal level of recursivity to the accurate realization that it is a “myth that is perpetuated into being some kind of reality”. The belief that this Thing is operating in this manner is making it operate in this manner. Cue the sheer hilarity of the ratcheting-up of paranoia in the face of the ‘Momo song’ (dutifully reported on by, once again, The Mirror): “The song is said to have first been circulated on the dark web, before making it out into the mainstream.”
The age-old fear of every aging generation is on full display in these words: the new is corrosive, the old values are in crisis, and the children are in danger (“First it took the children…. Now it’s coming for us”, cries one of the unfortunate souls of Hobbs End). At the same time, however, something else bleeds through, an alien signal lurking beneath the surface that affixes this particular manifestation of fear in context of the current world-shift. Lest we forget, non-living things moving as if they were imbued with life is the defining theological characteristic of the demonic, and it is for this very reason that Wiener was so inclined to pepper his writings on cybernetics—the science of systemic self-movement as much as that of control—on sorcerer’s apprentices, ‘demoniac sanctions’ and the Manichean games of gods and devils. From this point of view, the great paranoia of the Momo Challenge, just one of innumerable mutagens swirling about, is but an epiphenomenon of a deeper process, a virulent cultural strain caught in its attractor basin. Cybernetically-positive fluctuations and mutations tend rapidly towards maximum information density, and the decoded intensities and pathologies that are unleashed into orbital circulation appear as what they are: aberrant movements, multiplicitious but totally mobilized. Swarm and compression.
[The Economic Times offers an insight into the libidinal geopol that this compression drags to the surface in the most unfortunately reductive—yet telling—manner possible: “The key to such wildly delusional behavior lies, as does much else, in broad and radical shifts in Indian politics, communication technologies and self-perceptions. Many Indians have found themselves ushered by digital media into a frantic realm of hyperreality — one in which extreme feelings and continuously simulated experiences replace the obdurately dull facts of real life”.]
In 1986, Arthur Kroker wrote that
When mass disappears into energy, then the body too becomes the focus and secretion of all of the vibrations of the culture of panic noise. Indeed, the postmodern body is, at first, a hum, then a “good vibration,” and, finally, the afterimage of the hologram of panic noise. Invaded, lacerated, and punctured by vibrations (the quantum physics of noise), the body simultaneously implodes into its own senses, and then explodes as its central nervous system is splayed across the sensorium of the technoscape. No longer a material entity, the postmodern body becomes an infinitely permeable and spatialized field whose boundaries are freely pierced by subatomic particles in the microphysics of power. Once the veil of materiality/ subjectivity has been transgressed (and abandoned), then the body as something real vanishes into the spectre of hyperrealism. Now, it is the postmodern body as space, linked together by force fields and capable of being represented finally only as a fractal entity. The postmodern self, then, as a fractal subject – a minute temporal ordering midst the chaotic entropy of a contemporary culture which is winding down, but moving all the while at greater and greater speeds.
Similarly, the social as mass vanishes now into the fictive world of the media of hypercommunication. Caught only by all the violent signs of mobility and permeability, the social is already only the after-glow of the disappearance of the famous reality principle. This world may have lost its message and all the grand récits – power, money, sex, the unconscious – may also be abandoned, except as recycled signs in the frenzied world of the social catalysts, but what is finally fascinating is only the social as burnout. The world of Hobbes has come full circle when the (postmodern) self is endlessly reproduced as a vibrating set of particles, and when the social is seductive only on its negative side: the dark side of sumptuary excess and decline. (The Postmodern Scene, 155)
Kroker cuts to the burning, living heart of the matter—the entanglement of panic culture with the eclipsing of communication by hypercommunication, reality by hyperreality, and the basis of this shift in technological acceleration—but he dampens the fire by capturing it within a narrative of decline. In Kroker’s hands, headlong flight into the abyss is the defining trait of postmodern decadence, and recursion becomes just another idiot cycle spinning itself out in space. Entropy reigns supreme here, though it presents itself in a variety of the most seductive of masks.
Deleuze and Guattari strike out a different position. At the end of the ‘Geology of Morals’, right as Professor Challenger’s very body melts down as he “hurries slowly” towards the plane of consistency, they tell us that “panic is creation”, that the flight propelled by this state is the force that produces new things and madly proliferates signs. Suddenly it’s no longer a question of entropy and decadence—quite the reverse. This entails, by extension, something that is decidedly not postmodern. What now is but a panic rooted in dread, the germinal seed of the folklores of the future, may be the first inklings of a holy panic, not unlike a divine terror at a universe suddenly teeming—a ‘sumptuary excess’—with meaning (in contrast to the dreary horror of a world devoid of it).
Between now and then, however, one thing is clear: panic highlights the failure of any political and social attempt to harness contemporary technological-communicative systems for instrumental ends. In the wake of his eulogy for American civic life with Bowling Alone, a sizable number of commentators tried to assign Robert Putnam’s research to the dustbin by pointing to the intrinsically social dimensions of internet life. A 2011 NPR report, for example, cited study carried out the Pew Research Center which found
that 80 percent of Internet users participate in groups, as compared with 56 percent of non-Internet users.
Twitter users were the most social. 85 percent of them were involved in group activity offline, followed by 82 percent of social networking users. The results from the survey identify the use of social media and online activities as helpful in the process of disseminating information and engaging group members.
“The virtual world is no longer a separate world from our daily life and lots of Americans are involved in more kinds of groups,” said Rainie. Interacting on social networking sites is part of staying informed; the survey found that 65 percent of social network users read group updates and messages on these sites.
Eight years later, after the optimism of the Obama epoch has faded and the internet has been revealed as something that is driving cultural formations insane (not to mention the individuals inside those cultures), one can only ask: what sort of community is being called into existence by this?