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Self-immolation and oversocialisation

Self-immolation and oversocialisation
On the mimetic rivalry beneath auto-cremation

“Lesser power does not let go, is not power at all. … Lesser power acts, and fails to accomplish.”
— Tao Te Ching §38.

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.”
— Jesus, Luke 17:33.

We live in the age of the suicide selfie. On the 25th of February 2024, a 25-year-old Air Force service member, a cyber defense operations specialist, decided to livestream his suicide outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Having succumbed to his impotence before a world he saw as composed of nightmares and nothing else, Aaron Bushnell dowsed himself in flammable liquid and, after pronouncing a string of clichéd leftist political slogans, set himself on fire, repeatedly yelling yet another cliché, “Free Palestine!” Here, suicide extends the logic of the selfie by being another kind of self-curation and identity control. Self-reification as self-annihilation.

As Bushnell’s obscene act of self-curation spread across the internet, like a perverse digital parody of Pentecost, the will to meme took charge. Right on cue, modern-day sophists, believing that the chief function of language is not illumination but power, weighed in with more clichés, declaring this act to represent some version of their tribal presuppositions. We should remember that the readiest group to declare its identity as a crowd isn’t the organised mass with well-formulated, well-reasoning views, but the frenzied mob, the mob in the throes of a crisis of meaning.

“No knowledge and limitless presumptuousness” is how Dostoevsky describes those who judge too quickly in his Brothers Karamazov (1880). Some called his act courageous. But I can’t see it as such. Courage involves a paradoxical willingness to die combined with a fierce desire to live. But there was no desire to live here. Even if bravery was needed to face such an agonising death, albeit one willingly chosen, the virtue of courage, which is something else entirely, was wholly absent. “The man who kills a man kills a man,” writes G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy (1908). However, as Chesterton continues, “The man who kills himself kills all men. As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.” Self-curation and world-obliteration aren’t so different. Before the petrified graven image of the self, the world bows and thus ceases to exist.

Consider this paragraph my disclaimer. Admittedly, I cannot claim here to offer a definitive or complete reading of this horrific event. It has shocked me as it did you. Much has been said about it already, probably too much. But I believe it’s important to make some attempt, taking this event at a more symbolic level, to get somewhat behind the memes and into the psychology of Bushnell’s self-curation. What follows is speculative, an exploration of what may have done behind the scenes via mimetic psychology. I intend my interpretation of Bushnell’s death to question the standard frame. I want, at the very least, to oppose facile readings of his auto-cremation as heroic. Appearances have been deceiving.

So let me start with this. It is vital to see through the modern myth of the buffered self. We should notice that such an understanding of selfhood is a lie that produces a false understanding of personal choice. One’s vision of the ethos is corrupted by it. In truth, we all live entangled in a knot of relations that cannot be so easily disentangled. Even Bushnell misinterpreted his impending demise as a symbol of individual protest; well, that’s how it seems from what he said before he killed himself. For him, this self-destructive act was a statement against a regime. He was boldly stepping outside of the game, he supposed, albeit in solidarity with others. “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” he said. And yet mimetic psychology, and the way this event has become embroiled in various mob commitments, would suggest quite a different way of viewing this.

Psychologically speaking, Bushnell’s act was less in opposition to the regime than an indication of his total submission to, and a total admission of weakness before, its many contradictions. Why did he feel so compelled to hurl his death into all our faces in this way? His self-immolation, a form of irrationalist performance art, resulted from taking literally what every warped ideology imposes spiritually. Suicide begins with the suicide of thought, as Chesterton observed so long ago, and this was no exception to that rule.

Bushnell’s suicide announced him as an example of what Ted Kaczynski calls oversocialisation. Socialisation is the process of getting people to internalise and live out the values of the society they inhabit. We must, all of us, be socialised. After all, anti-social behaviour spells a kind of doom, social suicide, for the person and those around him. Socialisation happens in all kinds of contexts, formal and informal. Norms and expectations have a slightly different shape in different societies, cultures, subcultures, and anticultures. Still, they do have a shape. And they shape what their adherents believe and how they act.

For most of us, by the time we’re grown up, socialisation is so much a part of habit and custom that we don’t tend to notice it until something happens that grates against it. We assume that some things are polite while other things are rude, for example. But it is typically only when we are accidentally rude or when others display a surprising lack of decorum that we feel the force of socialisation. And yes, as I’ve implied here, socialisation has a lot to do with morality.

This is what makes liberalism, the dominant ideology of our time, so odd. Its so-called moral force tends, like an algorithmic averaging process, towards neutralising the moral landscape and thus rendering socialisation unstable. The moral becomes amoral, even immoral, when liberalism’s coordinates are adhered to. Liberal values emphasise the negative freedom of the individual. The individual is free from so much, almost everything, as long as the progressive system remains unchallenged. But to take away history and tradition and those cultural taboos that have provided so much stability for people, as Nietzsche perceived, is to obliterate any chance of having a solid ego structure. The self is rendered fragile and nebulous, almost empty, by this tendency to isolate people from the wisdom of the ages. The porous individual is left with almost no personal resources to allow him to stand strong and tall, and so the temptation to adopt masochistic political strategies is heightened. What defeated, self-hating people want, much of the time, is to have their feelings about themselves and the world validated, even if that means keeping the truth out.

Ironically, the natural consequence of radical individualism is what Gustave Le Bon called “the age of crowds,” which in our digital era has morphed into the age of swarms. In other words, the natural consequence of individualism is maniacal moralism—a stricter than necessary adherence to the social order. This is usually not very deeply felt but is kept detached from moral feeling; it involves heady conformity more than hearty agreement. With no clear boundaries offered within which the subject can operate, the nomadic and decidedly unbuffered self must grip onto whatever it can that seems to provide a semblance of solidity. The illusion of the buffered self must be maintained. The natural consequence of individualism is, in short, oversocialisation. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Socialisation works through what René Girard calls mimetic desire. Girard contends that all desire is mediated through others. How we conduct ourselves and direct our attention and lives is hugely, if not entirely, informed by those who surround us, both in real and psychic space. The word mediation here suggests a lot of things. Mediated desire can vary widely in its expressions. The simplest of these, though, and probably the easiest way to spot mimeticism, is basic emulation. Desires are copied. This ability we have to copy the desires of others helps us to learn how to live in and belong in the world we have been thrown into. The core metaphysical and phenomenological fact behind this natural mimetic capacity is this: selfhood is essentially reciprocal. To be is to be acted upon, to be in relation. And to act is to expect, whether consciously or not, some kind of exchange. If you give of yourself, you expect others to do the same for you. If you live, you expect to live out of the lives of others. This even applies to the issue of self-immolation, although the motivations behind it remain tricky to discern. The first American to immolate herself was Alice Herz, an 82-year-old activist. “I wanted to burn myself like the monks in Vietnam,” she admitted to the Detroit firefighters who tried to help her in 1965 before she died.

Girard says that most of our mediated desires—our copied, borrowed, resonant, interwoven, reciprocal desires—are unconscious. When you’re at a restaurant as a friend orders a particular meal, for instance, you’re likely to find that meal suddenly more appealing without being entirely aware of how you’re echoing your friend’s desire. Girard even goes so far as to say that the objects we desire gain their value only through mimesis, just as they might lose their value for the same reason. In other words, the objects we desire are barely significant on their own. It is the mediation that matters. It is within the magnetic sway of mediation that meaning arises and gets a grip. Put differently, what we care about is heavily, if not quite entirely, shaped by socialisation. But note that our sense of coherence and meaning requires a moral order, as well as a sense of moral realities supporting cordiality. But this moral order has been eroded throughout modernity.

So what is oversocialisation? Before turning to Ted Kaczynski’s original conception of the idea, I want to talk about what happens when mimetic desires intensify. Intensifying mimesis has everything to do with transforming standard socialisation into an exaggerated form, even as it robs any reciprocal moral basis of its true power. In a normal, non-rivalrous mimetic relationship, in which there is no contest with the society within which desire is moulded, some wiggle-room remains for the self to negotiate its place in the world. This flexibility is allowed most commonly when society has clearly defined hierarchies and moral standards but is also found when dynamic hierarchies or complementarities exist. Within such a space, desire is mediated by the other but direct emulation is not necessarily the result. A harmonious interplay of various desires is perfectly fine, as long as the moral domain of socialisation is kept intact.

However, when the distance between an individual and his model of desire diminishes, which amounts to the diminishing of a hierarchy of desire as well as a rigidification of what was formerly a dynamic process, mimesis produces no harmony. Norms stiffen into rules.  Play ossifies and turns into bureaucracy. Games transform into wars. Non-essentials start to ricochet off each other like crazy. Rivalry rules and reciprocity transforms into a desire for vengeance. The most envious among us, those who feel their ontological deficiencies more acutely than others, are the most prone to seeing their mimetic capacities transformed into fuel for conflict.

Typically, people think of rivalries resulting from irreconcilable differences. Mimetic theory reveals, however, that beneath all apparent differences is the mimicry of the other. Rivals fight, like Israel and Palestine, over shared territory. They both desire the same thing; thus, their enmity. War is politics by other memes and politics is, although perhaps it doesn’t have to be, a great deal about the rivalry between friends and enemies. Nevertheless, mimetic theory makes us aware that friends and enemies are seldom as different as they think they are. As even Hitler recognised way back despite being one of the least perceptive human beings ever to have lived, the likelihood of friendship between Nazis and their Communist enemies was difficult to ignore; they were, after all, so similar in their postures towards the world.

Anyway, it is in this space of rivalrous desires that oversocialisation begins to hold sway. To see why, it helps to turn to Kaczynski’s original explanation of the idea. In his Unabomber Manifesto (1995), Kaczynski notes that people aren’t capable of adhering perfectly to any social code. Where it is socially unacceptable to hate, for instance, people are nevertheless prone to hating at one time or another, whether they admit it or not. Of course, in a typical society like a family, the violation of any norm can be dealt with in several ways; by discipline, for instance, or a process of reconciliation. More severe violations are met with more severe measures, depending on context. Thus, ordinary socialisation implies taboos and consequences but also steps towards seeking justice and making amends. One of the characteristics of healthy socialisation, as I’ve said, is its dynamism. It presumes a temporality to the moral realm, within which deficits can be handled wisely and fairly.

This is not the case with oversocialisation, which Kaczynski rightly suggests is more commonly found in a significant portion of people on the political left but which, I don’t doubt for a second, remains a trap anyone might fall into. The oversocialised person has internalised the norms of his immediate society in such a way that he cannot tolerate any deviation from them. Oversocialisation is almost interchangeable with the word fundamentalism. The dynamics of desire are, in both, overtaken by severe adherence. Such severe adherence works as a substitute for a strong sense of self. In the flattened world of electronic media, in this disembodied semiosphere, this fundamentalism takes on an almost absurdly simple shape. It is not uncommon for people to become reducible to their slogans. People might even express a willingness to die for their memes.

However, as Kaczynski suggests, the oversocialised individual is still human and so prone to error. What should this individual do when he simply cannot live up to the demands of the society he finds himself in, at least as he interprets those demands? He absolutely must stick to the rules, especially since the rivalrous environment dictates that his compliance is what distinguishes him from his enemy. But he also cannot stick to the rules because he is human. Moreover, he feels utterly inadequate and he is therefore startlingly aware of both of these irreconcilable dimensions of his social environment.

A wise strategy for the oversocialised person, I would say, is to seek understanding; to seek to be better acquainted with reality itself, with human nature, and with the constructed nature of so many social norms. The best way forward is to develop a wholesome, lived sense of virtue, combined with the graces of forgiveness and reconciliation. The oversocialised person is likely to have adopted rules from immediate peers suggesting that searching beyond his given frame is itself a terrible, even unforgivable violation. To seek understanding is already to break the rules. And, again, this is intolerable to the oversocialised person.

So, usually, he adopts another strategy, namely hypocrisy, which is supported by a great deal of self-deception and projection. He is good and true and others are total failures. He is the standard while others are pathetic losers. “Some people are so highly socialized,” writes Kaczynski, “that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them.” To avoid feelings of guilt, “they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin.” Kaczynski notes that the oversocialised person often tries to recover some semblance of autonomy by rebelling but this rebellion is a front. Typically, “the left takes an accepted moral principle”—one that almost everyone already agrees with—and “adopts it as his own.” Only, then he sets out to accuse “mainstream society of violating that principle.” Generally, people are opposed to genocide, for example, but the oversocialised person will be the first to accuse others of being genocidal; he will, in other words, be unaware of the fact that what makes his stance unusual is not that it differs from that of the status quo but that he has no clue how to perceive any given moral value in the context of the whole.

In the end, the force that carries the oversocialised person is not moral. He feels disconnected from the moral realm even while he carries with him a deep fear, one he cannot admit, that he can’t live up to the moral code of his tribe. The oversocialised person is, like the fundamentalist, a rabid adherent to his ideology not because he believes it but because he doesn’t. He doesn’t fully grasp the meaning of his slogans even as he parrots them because of their magical status. Possibly he even senses that they do not have any deeper meaning even if they function so well as incantations. Nevertheless, he goes on to repeatedly repeat them. He might even become the most rabid proselytiser. The rightness of his cause will be confirmed not by his faith, which is shaky at best, but by the faith of other proselytes.

This is still too simplistically put for my liking. Still, it suggests the importance of deconstructing the typical sense that people have that the ideologically possessed have anything resembling deep access to their own beliefs. Their devotion to their cause rests, above all, in their sense of worthlessness. They interpret themselves as essentially without power. As I say this, you’ll detect that I don’t agree with Kaczynski’s assumption that guilt is the only indication of oversocialisation, although I agree that guilt can play an impressive motivating role. It is perhaps better to understand oversocialisation as resting on a general sense of ontological lack, which Girard would call metaphysical desire.

Still, Kaczynski suggests that the impulse of the oversocialised person is to act in such a way that he can convince himself that he is being moral when in fact the foundation of his actions is something far more sinister. He is probably, like the fox in Aesop’s fable who despises the sweet grapes and calls them sour, acting out of resentment. He acts out of his deeply felt insecurity. His moralising is a mask and, when social pressure increases, such as in the face of a highly newsworthy war that he can do nothing about, the chances of mask slippage and total implosion are heightened. This renders the already vulnerable human being even more vulnerable. He feels he must therefore do something quickly before anyone notices that he isn’t the perfect exemplar he wants to be. He must curate the image of himself that’ll convince the world of his true nature. He must fix in the minds of others just what an amazing true believer he is. Again, selfhood is inseparable from reciprocity. Some echo or exchange is inevitable given our mimetic nature.

I realise in saying this that there are complexities I can’t address here, especially to Bushnell’s interpretation of his position within the system. Still, I think oversocialisation, reconstituted with the help of mimetic psychology, offers a plausible set of coordinates by which his actions might be understood, even if only incompletely. Oversocialisation is a social phenomenon that needs to be noted so that it can be addressed in constructive ways, both by individuals and the wider public. We know liberalism offers no help, for it is a major part of the cause. And we also know, sadly, where ignoring oversocialisation leads.

The fox, by which I mean the oversocialised person who cannot come to terms with his inadequacy, might prevent himself from admitting his errors by denying and repressing his failings, by shoving them into his unconscious while keeping his consciousness mind attuned to the social norms and expectations of the group. This strategy may even work for a time to convince him of his secure position within the tribe. He might blame anything or anyone else rather than accept that perhaps he is not the conformist he wants to be. Perhaps his very human shape does not fit the demands of immediate society. Perhaps his very human nature doesn’t fit the image of himself that he has in his mind.

However, what cannot be addressed and forgiven soon turns into a destructive force. When ideas possess people, those ideas become demons, as Dostoevsky so perceptively dramatises in his novel Demons (1872). And what demons do is disintegrate a person’s lived reality. Everything becomes undifferentiated, messy, irreconcilable. Rivalry and mimesis become confused. In all likelihood, the trouble is not that there is no space for the oversocialised person within the domain of the so-called enemy, even if the enemy has some part to play in this world of mimetic forces. The trouble is that there is no space for the oversocialised person, insofar as he is concerned, within his tribe. He becomes almost, perhaps even literally, psychotic. He loses touch with reality. He has his slogans but he has extremely limited access to genuine moral sensitivity.

All indications are that Aaron Bushnell did himself in because he found no way to come to terms with the contradictions in his own life. He was part of a weird little Christian subculture, then turned against that and joined a leftwing anarchist group, all while—so he admitted—he struggled to connect with others. His identity was in tatters, like the Gerasene demoniac possessed by legion demons. He tried to get a grip but could not perceive or conceive of the whole. He clutched at one set of fragments and then another. It’s no wonder, then, that he found no way to reconcile himself to the world.

What could his larger purpose have been? Who knows. But given that existence is reciprocal, one possibility is that he figured that annihilating himself would at least allow his clichés to live on. Sacrifice, in the history of humanity, has tended to function as a sort of social glue. Succumbing to his feelings of inferiority would at least not mean the death of his ideology. He saw himself as disposable, after all. And yet there is a more devilish possibility. Perhaps he expected people in his tribe to live up to the supposedly higher standard that he was providing for them. Perhaps his self-destruction might help to destroy the very society that so unfairly asked so much from him. Or perhaps he wanted his enemy to emulate him. Maybe he hoped, if only unconsciously, that his tribe would follow him into hell. This is not implausible since the seeds of self-destruction are everywhere in modern American leftism. Others are likely to do what he has done, although most will find other outlets for their masochistic tendencies. But this is why I want to talk about the nature of mimesis—to help others see that they don’t have to follow the mimetic lunacies of others. What they do have to do is come to terms with their feelings of ontological insufficiency. Even if you think some of what I have said here is unfair or wrong, I say it because I do not think any human being should be reduced to his most surface-level convictions, even when he seems to have wanted this. The suicide selfie is not the man.

In the end, I do not ultimately think that this was a successful protest against the regime. It was, if anything, a confirmation of what the regime demands. Disconnection from self. Obeisance to regime coordinates. In the end, the so-called protest won’t affect the status quo because it was an action offered in the very midst of a mimetic contest; that is, in the midst of a way of desiring that is utterly determined by rivalry and not by a deeper connection to reality. Arguably, because of this, it will almost certainly work in favour of the very regime it was meant to oppose.

Oversocialisation, as I see it, is analogous to what is known in nature as a circular mill of ants. Sometimes, ants get caught up in a circular mill. This is easier in an artificial environment than in natural terrain. The ants follow the scent trails of other ants but get stuck going around and around in a circle. Because they are simply following the ants in front of them, and because they don’t know any better, it sometimes happens that they just keep on going until they drop dead. This is suicide by tautology. It is suicide by mimesis. Oversocialisation, in one form or another, encourages a similar pattern by endlessly pushing desire into the territory of total mimesis and total rivalry. Oversocialisation embraces desire as the domain of undifferentiation—the domain in which true choice disappears and the sway of any dominant impulse perseveres. In the case of the ants and with many oversocialised people, the rivalry is with reality itself which can’t seem to find its way in. Reality alone can break the spell of oversocialisation, of fundamentalism, of mimetic rivalry. But to access this reality requires something ideologues typically can’t or won’t allow. It requires a radical act of letting go. It is only in self-denial, in laying down your identity, that life can be found.

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