On Why We Love Sociopaths

Adam Kotsko, famous blogger and academic guy, has recently published his second book for Zer0 Books, titled Why We Love SociopathsThe book is a longform essay on the concept of the sociopath and analyzes why most popular contemporary television is filled with sociopathic protagonists. That’s my boilerplate.

The book is good, and by good, I mean damn good. Kotsko walked me through a funhouse of American media representations since the 1990s. Like any funhouse experience, it was terrifying, and yet I was still glad that I paid my entrance fee (which was $0, but you know how that goes.) Kotsko is interested in the relationship between our media fantasies and the way we live our lives. What desires are we projecting onto the television screen? By “us,” I mean your middle-class, liberal television viewers, as Kotsko often reminds us, and the television that gets analyzed is reflective of that demographic: House, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Seinfeld, and the holy grail of entertainment, The Wire, are all presented and picked apart in front of your fascinated face.

The 80-odd pages between introduction and conclusion analyze those shows through a spectrum of socipathy that Kotsko presents us with. There are schemers, low level sociopaths who are followed by their more powerful siblings, the climbers.  Higher than they are the enforcers. Without getting into the specifics of what these different groups are, which Kotsko does a great job at, I can simply say that schemers play in culture, climbers abuse culture, and enforcers wrangle it. I’m not sure what I really mean by those odd little divisions, but I hope that they resonate with you as much as I think they should–they are measurements of degree of interruptability.

The fascinating part about the book, in broad strokes, is the conclusion in which Kotsko comes down on this hard fact: sociopaths aren’t somehow doing something that “normal” people aren’t. The sociopath fantasy is a fictional creation that actually seeks to maintain the status quo rather than alter it. In a weird way, Kotsko is coming to the same conclusion that Heidegger did about Nietzsche; the power fantasies and desires to see those people who “do what must be done” have ended up in an absolute figure who appears to be outside the system she is critical of, though that isn’t the case when put under Kotsko’s scrutiny.

The book is full of hard truths like that. One that particularly shook me up, especially considering my own work with the Marvel Comics character The Punisher, was this passage in the latter half of Sociopaths:

This fantasy of suspending the normal rules in order to do what needs to be done is an attractive one—and, in contemporary society, an increasingly prevalent one. As more and more organizations, in government and business alike, seem to be self-perpetuating bureaucracies with little connection to their original goals, the fantasy of a brave leader coming in, shaking things up, and setting things right is compelling. It’s even more convincing when that brave leader shows he’s for real by being self-sacrificing: working long hours, taking low pay, even neglecting his family out of his passionate devotion to the cause. This leader, so the fantasy goes, is so devoted to the goals of the organization that he’s willing to break all the organization’s own rules in service of it, so driven by moral conviction that he neglects his  most fundamental moral obligations. Such behavior will win you a place at the right hand of the Lord—or, failing that, a flattering profile in the New York Times Sunday magazine.  (68-9)

The implication is that the figure who exists to do what must be done is only necessary because we believe her to be. What is the real reward? Why do we want to see figures who are hyper-conflated by bureaucracies or gangs or the federal government?

In a way, the fascination with the sociopath, the person who navigates and lives life better than we do, is really a masochism. We see these figures and they constantly remind us of our meekness, our not-House-ness. And we love it. We love it so much that these characters are being put in every popular show–the figure who doesn’t care, the character we can laugh with and secretly want to replace with ourselves.

The conclusion of the book is a call for a new kind of sociopathy, a radical one that really does reject a relationship to dominant culture and lets its adherents follow a new path. As Kotsko says, this is the kind of sociopath the Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates were.

And that scares me. It scares me because I find all three of those figures equally terrifying.

In any case, buy the book. It is worth your time and money. Kotsko is witty throughout the whole thing, and it is worth price of admission alone just to read Kotsko tearing into 24 for a few pages.

(You might also want to check out my review of Awkwardness, Kotsko’s previous book for Zer0 Books.)

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One Response to On Why We Love Sociopaths

  1. MonocleBot says:

    Seems less masochism than the voyeuristic desire to see a character live the uncompromised ideal of constant progression, conveniently without chance of regression or the usual emotional debris of daily life. From the position of someone who hasn’t read the book, this sociopathy seems more like a symptom of the desire for continuous change, how an unrealistic person must be created to live such an unrealistic life. Which isn’t horrifying at all, just a little sad as it becomes a bit more obvious how much time we spend thinking about how we wish were weren’t thinking at all, just doing (plus such melancholy denial lacks the romanticism of maverick-as-maintainer).

    And yeah, Zero Books is great. I came to them from Evan Calder Williams (who has also done some thinking on comics http://socialismandorbarbarism.blogspot.com/2010/09/fecund-revenge-green-geist-screws-us.html ), and have been damned impressed by most of what I’ve been able to get my hands on.

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