January 23, 2017

The Power of Nightmares

Giancarlo Sandoval responds to my post on strategic stupidity with an analysis partly inspired by the work of recently passed British Marxist thinker Mark Fisher. One of Sandoval's most interesting observations is precisely this:

What makes a strategy valuable is a series of steps that go into the speculatively, revising moves and possibly predicting the opponent(s) moves so as to put up a shield or attack on your own. Speculation is fiction, but fiction can make itself real. ...The Desire for Meaning is a three-step program where the agent (1) locates potential for meaning making, (2) tries to grasp it and create it and (3) fails. On a minimal, micro-scale the kind of poetics desirable for meaning-making can be created and deployed, but on a strategic scale the three-step-program creates Nightmare Fuel.

The concept of "nightmare fuel" here (which Giancarlo draws from TV Tropes) is very interesting and worthy of some further elaboration. This is the TV Tropes definition:

[Nightmare Fuel] is the stuff so horrifying that it can give people the creeps for years. This scares the pants off of just about anyone to the author/creator's delight. This makes you shrink in the back of your chair (or maybe even hide behind the sofa), look over your shoulder, and remind yourself that what's going on is (usually) only fictional. For many horror films, achieving this effect is the whole point (and many in-universe examples arise because Kids Shouldn't Watch Horror Films). For some reason, many of us like to be scared on purpose. There may be a euphoria generated by surviving something that seems scary, or maybe we know that fiction can't hurt us (not physically, anyway) and the idea of choosing to be scared without the danger is fun. Some think it's cathartic or therapeutic in some way to explore our fears from a position of relative safety. In any case, this is normal for the genre. Others are fascinated by the very things that most people avoid.

I find this sort of idea fascinating because of its potential for capturing so many different emotions:

  1. The desire to be scared (scared on purpose).
  2. The pursuit of danger that seems tempting enough to warrant satisfaction over making through it yet too tame or illusory to actually hurt us.
  3. The purpose of fear as therapy, catharsis, or an object of puerile fascination.

This gets at several interesting aspects of regressive fantasy: the need to be frightened over something that we paradoxically believe cannot harm us, and the sources of this need in various unmet cognitive-affective processes that are acted out using the fantasy as an stage. I might also add that horror movies – like many apocalyptic media – are also sometimes about casting judgments of social worth. Godzilla "punishes" civilizations for its technological folly. Early zombie movies are depictions of the decay of late capitalism. It is a cliche to note that horror movies often involve implicit or explicit puritanical sexual judgments (the promiscuous cheerleader is the first one to be offed by the mad man in the mask, etc). Sandoval goes on to note the following:

Playing the strategist without meaning is a pre-condition, as meaning can be created, diffused, sprawled or eliminated. Hence the agent parts ways with any notion that this world is endowed with meanings and tries to manipulate it, in its neutral usage: to use it.

Sandoval, looking at the ideological conflict between online subcultures as an example, suggests that some subcultures are better prepared to tie together micro-narratives by creating and manipulating meaning in a more or less chaotic and flexible fashion. Whereas, if I understand him correctly, their opponents remain trapped by debilitating "nightmare fuel" and chant (as did Daddy Yankee in an annoying song from high school): "Dame mas gasolina!" ad nausem. Fascinating observations. It accounts very well for the interesting asymmetry between two different modes of fantasy and narrative in a way that I hadn't thought of before, if that is what Sandoval is getting at.

Tags: concept