Mass Formation Psychosis (Across an Abyss of Meaning)
There’s that turn of phrase: “unless you’ve been living under a rock.” I tend to resent it because usually I am the person who’s been living under the rock. But at the same time, it feels somewhat appropriate here. Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, the term “mass formation psychosis” is something you’ve probably seen this last week.
Since Joe Rogan’s explosive interview with Dr. Richard Malone aired, the term mass formation psychosis started trending on Twitter, and is presently paralleling a social media platform shift from Twitter to Gettr (and from YouTube to Rumble). That platform shift is actually another reason to loathe “unless you’ve been living under a rock,” because it’s further evidence of our society’s growing ideological entrenchment and social fracturing.
Liberals and leftists (generally speaking) have Twitter and YouTube, along with the dominant narrative of the COVID pandemic. Conservatives and right-wingers (generally speaking) have Gettr and Rumble, along with the dissenting narratives around the pandemic which have been deplatformed from elsewhere. In the short run, that shift makes possible a freedom of information otherwise barred. It protects dissent. In the long run, that just makes dialogue between differing views that much more difficult. It mirrors the geographic shifting of the American population lately, which itself is seemingly correlated to how red states or blue states are responding to the pandemic.
As the gulf widens in American society–across issues as far-stretching as critical race theory, gender ideology and sex-based civil rights, to vaccine and mask mandates, health freedom and school choice–“unless you’ve been living under a rock” comes to mean something more like “unless you’ve been living in the other half of the country.” With each new week lately it feels less like the question is whether we ought to see a national divorce between the states, and more of why shouldn’t we?
“Mass formation psychosis” sits at the center of this moment in American history, and I think it’s important to observe it happening in multiple directions. For all of the electricity the term presently provides to those disenfranchised or dissenting from the pandemic narrative, those viewed as “entranced” in the psychosis look out and see their opposition in the exact same light, substituting Trump in particular for the boring technocrats and bureaucrats of Arendt and Desmet.
Who offers resolution? Escape? Disenchantment?
Desmet lays out four criteria in the process of mass formation psychosis. They are: social isolation, lack of meaning-making, high levels of free-floating anxiety, and high levels of aggression. While even Desmet seems to focus on the impact of pandemic measures (and this is the mass formation psychosis presently activating so many on social media), we’d be remiss to ignore how the same set of criteria could very easily be applied to Trump-era populists. In particular, I’m recalling the way NAFTA was brought back in by leftist political analysts as an explanation for why Trump crushed Clinton in the 2016 election cycle.
NAFTA was my childhood. That’s what killed my father’s industry and transformed our family from a long-line of textile workers to economic migrants taking whatever we could get. The social isolation we experienced took the form of being working class Southerners in a Northern city where seemingly every opportunity was taken, constantly, in petty manipulative ways to make us feel unwelcome, unwanted, and tragically uneducated by middle class liberals smug in an unshakeable, cynical elitism.
The lack of meaning-making was the impairment of connecting with others like us, of being cut off from family and familiar values, and the pressure to either bend to the reformation of the city or to compartmentalize into multiple selves capable of retaining a core essence despite needing to socialize in ways contrary to it. Even when we connected to a church community, the connection was nothing like it is in the South or in smaller, rural communities. I didn’t go to the same schools as other kids, our parents didn’t work together or really encounter each other in the vastness of city life, and church was really just something experienced on an hourly basis throughout the week, rather than a central part of one’s sense of place and belonging in a community.
The free-floating anxiety was the ever-present danger of the city, of random acts of violence, kidnappings, carjackings, suicides, shootings, bomb threats, knife fights, and so much else that was just completely alien to rural Southern communities where people know each other and potential problems are so much easier to anticipate. Increasingly I look back and see the political formations of my teenage years as something like this too–an anxious awareness of largely unspoken social justice hierarchies, the role of outrage in signaling placement in that hierarchy, and the adolescent need to fit in so socio-geographically entrapped by the parameters of 21st century liberal elitism.
The free-floating aggression followed for me in my teens and twenties, where I was quite simply just angry. I was angry at everything and nothing all at once. Angry at my parents (having internalized liberalism’s view of working class Southerners), angry at authority (that core part of myself still looking to place blame for our separation from the place I always considered home), angry at myself for both being by-birth outside of that liberal establishment and for being so uncomfortable, and so consumed by my frustration about it. My anger was self-destructive as much as it was socially destructive and politically nihilistic.
My anger was suggestible. There was no cause I couldn’t be brought into as a passionate warrior. This wasn’t about any lasting or well-formulated political ideology, but the raw ritual act of pouring my outrage back onto some acceptable target.
Whether or not Trump is the central cultic figure the media often portrays him as, there was–for at least a decade and a half of my life–this alluring siren song of anti-liberal activist culture on either the left or the right. And people like me, the children of NAFTA’s disenfranchised workers (alongside our parents), went either way into a hardened extremism, some of us, if only briefly, even bizarrely identifying with ideologies as morally bankrupt and historically disproven to provide relief as communism or fascism.
This radicalized political consciousness post-NAFTA is the psychosis I have seen before, woven into the urban and rural, liberal and conservative, elite and working class fractures of this society. (Talking to my grandmother about it, and digging more into our family’s history, I understand too how the same ideologies ensnared my ancestors a century ago in Eastern Europe). The nature of the beast is all the more apparent and cringe-worthy to recall looking out now at another crisis of the American and human psyche taking place before us (and in our families, among our friends, and religious communities and cities).
In the esoteric circles of the Abrahamic traditions, what I am dancing around here, and what Desmet is dancing around too, is understood and termed the Abyss. It is the void observed in Genesis 1:2, and famously commented on by Nietzche: “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
R. Isaac Luria, or, the ARIZaL, gave us the Kabbalistic mechanism of tzimtzum, or, contraction, to account for its placement in the metaphysics of Creation. Essentially, the Abyss resolves the metaphysics of how Creation can occur by the hands of omnipresent G-d; G-d must first contract or withdraw from a space in order to create within it. This space is our Abyss, our Maker’s work table, which still provides a metaphysical distance between our lives here in the materiality of Creation and our Creator, infinite and formless beyond even the capacity of our perception.
We might think of the relationship between the Abyss and our world as something like that of a model train set within a room. From the perspective of the model train or its passengers, the world before them is what is largely most present. Yet, the world beyond them, beyond familiarity and their scale, is also at times apparent. So too is knowledge of our position in Creation.
Tragedies, deep prayer and other mystical experiences, psychedelic experiences, life transformations, or, relevant especially to this post, awakening to mass formation psychosis can bring us into knowledge of this Abyss, knowledge of the absurdity in life, and of how petty and minuscule our model train lives are in comparison to the blinding glory and grandness of G-d.
But without guidance to integrate that knowledge, we can crumble. Without acknowledging the G-d beyond the Abyss, we do. The entire canon of the existentialists is about this very crisis. In the last handful of centuries, human hubris has shipwrecked us without a theology that can comfort or nurture us in knowledge of our own cosmic insignificance. Whatever religion you ascribe to, this is the first period in recorded human history where paradigms like atheism and rationalism are exerting such a large-scale influence on human interpretation of life and meaning, undermining how our minds have made sense of things for thousands of years prior.
Without G-d, without order, without the metaphysical inscription of meaning religion instills within us, it turns out we seem to go rather psychotic (or, perhaps more objectively speaking, it looks that way in comparison to how we’ve evolved). This mass formation psychosis is the desperate search for something to patch the metaphysical void revealing the Abyss to us. Communism, fascism, absurd belief in the Democratic Party or in Trump–these are all messianic movements without an actual messiah, ritual releases without mystical truth. They are the psychotic flailings of a society which has stolen from its children the answer its ancestors knew, and paved over the footpaths of the prophets and holy men who knew the way back when things were lost.
We have every reason to stir ourselves awake to the absolute irrational absurdity being enclosed around us in the world’s response to the COVID pandemic. And, this moment offers the challenge of insight for courageous men and women who dare to stare upon its roots even deeper.
Enrapture in mass formation psychosis is the symptom. The abject terror it insulates us from dealing with is our perception that the throne beyond the Abyss is empty and must be refilled with the illusions of our choosing. We must enclose ourselves behind smaller and smaller certain and tribal spaces because the vastness, the uncertainty crowning our Creator terrifies us. Without theology, without metaphysics, without spirituality, we have no sense of placement in the world beyond our metaphorical train set. When this moment passes, when the pandemic protocols are shrugged off and all but forgotten, remember that the widespread lack of meaning so many of us experienced proceeded the lockdowns (by a whole lifetime in some cases).
Psychosis is the curse of shrugging off eons of human religious understanding–what then is our purpose? What is the meaning of our existence?
Modernity offers no answers but mindless hedonism, dueling bureaucracies, numbing antidepressants, and of course, mass formation psychosis. It encloses us, not solely beneath mandates and masks and lockdowns, but within the metaphorical train set itself. A world which cannot tolerate questioning or dissent is a world which has already shuttered itself to the Mystery beyond its own limited sense.
Until that component is addressed–until some cosmic, not merely social or political, meaning is restored–the psychotic is our answer. The dis-ease is our sense of disconnection from G-d.