Friday, April 01, 2016

Horrified Fascination

Here is a very common visual cliche that oddly doesn՚t seem to have an actual name (the title is best I could come up with):

There are hundreds of stock photos and movie stills in which someone simultanously covers their eyes and peeks through the fingers. What kind of sights can provke such a strange reaction, and what could be its function or meaning? Some prospects simultaneously draw one՚s attention and repel it, giving rise to an internal conflict. You shield yourself from the thing (but not in any truly effective way) and then undermine your own act. Who is supposed to be fooled by this looking-while-not-looking? If it was just a matter of modulating a disturbing incoming visual signal, surely the eyelids would do as good a job as the fingers?

It seems to be a clear outward form of an inner conflct, and inner conflicts are always interesting because they reveal something of the structure of the mind (a jumping off point for Freud, Tinbergen, Minsky, and Ainslie, to name only the most influential).

The conflict between fascination and horror comes up in my thinking a lot these days. I detect it in my attitude to onrushing catastrophes like climate change, or the Trump ascendency, or the aftermath of various natural or manmade calamities. And in my otherwise inexplicable fascination with neoreaction and other wingnutty emanations on the internet, which is sort of like a slow-motion trainwreck of the intellect. Or doom in general, which was a founding theme of this blog. My mind is drawn irresistably to such topics, then forced to draw back.

There՚s something almost shameful and twisted about it, although I can՚t quite say why. At least I՚m not alone in having this perverted attraction towards the repulsive. The entire US media apparatus seems to be in this kind of relationship with Trump, both horrified and addicted to the spectacle.

In my defense, I don՚t think the alternative of pretending these looming horrors don՚t exist is any better. It seems almost impossible to face them squarely, so this kind of half-assed playful attitude is probably the best I can do.


Patrick said...

Indeed, horrified fascination was one of Plato's original illustrations of inner conflicts between the parts of the soul:

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus along the outside of the North Wall when he saw some corpses lying at the executioners feet. He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight.” (The Republic, IV, 439-440)

mtraven said...

Thanks! Feel like I should have known that passage, but my education is spotty.

Joshua said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua said...

Yes, Plato's "Rings of Gyges" is getting at the same idea. Plato feels there are some things we secretly wish to do, and would do if there were no witnesses, but refrain from doing out of fear of being witnessed. The "peeking through hands" demonstrates a person who secretly wants to see something, but also recognizes that there would be strong social approbation for being seen as being fascinated. It also evinces the toddler's adorable belief that one can become invisible by covering ones own eyes.

The same pattern is apparently what drives gift-giving. The best gift to give is something the recipient really wants, but would feel ashamed or irresponsible to buy for herself. Indeed, the only rational reasob for gift-giving is to launder external moral approbation, all other gifts are irrational from an economic perspective.

Examples of the metapattern are pervasive, but I personally disagree with Plato about the universality. I personally never understood gift giving, and my behavior when invisible is very atypical. Instead, I think Gospel of Thomas 37 has it right: "When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then you will see the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid."

Joshua said...

Also note that a preoccupation with evading external judgment could indicate an unhealthy assessment of the value of one's own judgment. The whole "hands peeking", or "what would you do if you were invisible?" question assumes that social shame is legitimate. And why would anyone want to assume legitimacy of social shame unless he wanted to protect his power to control others through shame? This is not a credit but a debit.

The Thomas passage quoted above is just the converse of "judge not, lest ye be judged". Roughly "if you are fully exposed and not ashamed, then you are by definition not spreading shame, and that is the most laudatory".