Sociopathic subjects

I really enjoyed Why We Love Sociopaths, in part because of the additional perspective it gives on Awkwardness. The “fantasy sociopath” the book studies is introduced as the opposite of  awkwardness: where awkwardness is an anxiety in relation to social norms, sociopaths, at least in TV fantasy, never experience social norms as something that makes them anxious, only as tools they can use to manipulate others. But what unites awkwardness and sociopathy is that these anti-social experiences reveal something fundamental which underlies the possibility of sociality. That is to say, Adam’s project is a kind of dialectical redemption of the anti-social, in which anti-sociality, by revealing the conditions of our sociality denaturalize it and provide ways of thinking about an alternative sociality which we might choose. Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths thus I think have something in common with what Judith Halberstam calls “anti-social” queer theory; the connection is perhaps clearest in the anti-familial theme that surfaces periodically through Why We Love Sociopaths.

One thing that is suggested in the book but I think it would be interesting to think about more is the possibility that the liberal subject as such is sociopathic. Adam makes the more historically specific claim that the kind of subjects that are necessary for and produced by neoliberalism are sociopathic:

One can easily argue that the managers and administrators who control our lives are overpaid, but the callousness they routinely display really does represent a rare skill set. I know that I couldn’t cope with the guilt if I behaved like them – right? Yet perhaps I could. Perhaps the problem isn’t that we are being ruled by sociopathic monsters, but rather by people who are just as susceptible to social forces as the rest of us (8).

These social forces may be broader than neoliberalism, and the particular callousness of neoliberal administrators, and extend to the subject assumed by liberalism from the 17th century to the present. The fantasy sociopath is defined by a lack of social connections which gives them the autonomy to pursue their goals through an instrumentalization of social connections. This is the liberal subject, right? Independent, autonomous, instrumental. If that’s right, Adam’s project of redeeming the fantasy sociopath would involve a pretty wide reaching rethinking of subjectivity, and the liberal political theory which depends on it. I can think of a few theorists we might look to to develop this further: Derrida’s critique of sovereign ipseity, Nietzsche’s rejection of the idea of a “doer” behind the “deed,” or Agamben’s community united by no social bond beyond a purely generic “whatever” singularity; can we rethink any of these ideas in terms of sociopathy?

Another fun thing about the book is that you can pick your own favorite TV sociopath and see how they fit with Adam’s analysis. Two examples that I like are Tracy Barlow from Coronation Street and Alex Russo from Wizards of Waverley Place. Tracy Barlow is unusual among soap characters, I think, in that she committed a pre-meditated, cold-blooded, murder, but has been allowed to stay in the show as a more-or-less sympathetic character. She mostly fits into Adam’s template of the scheming sociopath, who attempts to screw people over purely out of a destructive joy. However, she is both more self aware and exhibits more pathos than the schemers Adam discusses, who are generally cartoonish (whether literally, like South Park‘s Cartman, or metaphorically, like the characters in Seinfeld). In the process of her scheming, Tracy frequently sabotages her happiness, particularly the possibility of a relationship with Steve, the father of her child. The interesting thing is that she doesn’t seem to care very much about these consequences: she is committed to her scheming such that she would rather be unhappy than stop scheming, which I think is a kind of Nietzschean pessimism of strength. In this she has a similar sociopathic commitment to the one Adam identifies in House (from the show of the same name), but in a less easily redeemable way. House’s anti-social commitment to the joy of discovery ends up making him a superhumanly effective doctor, an eminently social end, while Tracy is a more purely anti-social sociopath.

Alex Russo is also probably, in Adam’s categories, a schemer, but with a bit of a twist. For the characters he discusses, scheming is a response to the problem of boredom, “the need to find something, anything, to do!” This is not Alex’s problem; what makes her anti social is her desire not to do anything, her spectacularly extravagant laziness. Furthermore, as with Tracy Barlow and House, there is a kind of ethical commitment to this anti-sociality. Perhaps this is a kind of zero degree of scheming, a not merely accidentally petty or pointless scheming, but a scheming which is intentionally directed at pointlessness, at achieving nothing. This would be a sociopath as the Agambenian (originally, Kojèvian) character after whom my blog is named, the voyou désœuvré or lazy rascal. This would also provide a way of thinking of subjectivity in suspension, which depends not on a sovereign autonomy, but on a radically contingent passivity.

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3 Responses to “Sociopathic subjects”

  1. Richard Says:

    I really like your point about the liberal subject as such. Definitely worth thinking about more. Thanks.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I do think that this is the logical consequence of both works, that the liberal subject is “sociopathic” (including the sense that it’s a fantasy). Both books are part of a broader critique of individualism that I undertake on a theological and ontological level in Politics of Redemption. I’m not sure if the pop culture books can be mapped directly onto the “academic” work, but a similar hobby-horse is at play.


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