Context Collapse and the Death of the Freak
(Before getting to the post, some housekeeping. I’ve rebooted my podcast. If you don’t see episode 63 of The Filter in your feed, try forcing a refresh since it’s been so long. If you are a paid subscriber here and requested a copy of the Lyca teaser-trailer, it should be mailed out to you next week. I haven’t forgotten! As far as this post goes, I won’t do much teasing of it, but I promise you an analysis of our cultural moment unlike anything you see from the left, the right, or even from libertarians. This won’t be headed where expect it to. I don’t what to give too much away, but there will be talk of talented tubs of lard, Siamese twins, men on leashes, soaking, sabo the street artist, and how the mullet symbolizes a properly functioning society. Final note: If you prefer to listen to this article, you’ll find the audio below, or in your podcast feed for The Filter. Final note 2: I’ve now posted a short addendum to this article.)
Growing up we had a book on our shelves about Barnum’s freak show, featuring the bearded lady, the stick figure man, and of course the Siamese twins. If you had asked me, at 12-years-old, what percentage of humans are born that way, I wouldn’t have even understood the question. What percentage? In my world there were only The Siamese Twins, and they lived in a section of glossy black and white photos stitched into the middle of that book, including the startling pic that showed their bare skin stretched over conjoined torsos.
If you approach a 12-year-old today, say an average girl raised on a media diet of Instagram and cable TV and billboard ads and Discord, and ask her what percentage of people are trans, my guess is she would say 20%. Or maybe even 40%. Her world is a world so populated by deviants (more about that word later), that their freakishness seems everyday, mundane even. To her photos of men wearing lipstick aren’t normalized, they’re normal. Her bearded lady is that guy with a billion likes on Tik Tok, the one shown on posters outside of Sephora advertising his personal brand of cosmetics.
As an adult, my favorite freak to gawk at, from time to time, is The Pandrogyne. If you’ve never heard the story of industrial music pioneer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and his dominatrix partner Lady Jaye, I highly recommend the Love and Radio podcast episode about them. They were a lovestruck couple of talented degenerates who slowly hacked their bodies to resemble each other. They went from cutting up magnetic tape to turn machine sounds into music for the band Throbbing Gristle, to cutting up their bodies to become look-alikes. As The Pandrogyne, they intentionally dissolved together every aspect of their bodies and spirits and experiences into one merged creature. They had no secrets from each other, no private lives. Their beings were conjoined as closely as Chang and Eng’s.
It’s not hypocrisy, it’s privacy
All sustained civilizations have both norms and release valves. Pick the stuffiest society you can think of from history and look closely. You’ll see that every one of their stultifyingly rigid norms had loopholes. Consider for example Victorian England, where “marital relations” were strictly for procreation, not recreation. In order to avoid sin, married men used prostitutes, and quite often, which seems like an escape clause, because it is. To the modern eye this reads as hypocrisy, or rationalization, but it’s really just compartmentalization and the absence of context collapse, a state of affairs increasingly hard for us to identify with.
Civilization depends on the existence of private lives, with some information hidden even from our closest partners. Thought history, many a husband has screwed this up by engaging in some culturally tolerated vice that his wife almost certainly knows about but chooses to ignore, and turning that vice into an elephant in the room that’s stomping its feet loudly, all out of a misplaced desire to share everything.
Does this secrecy impact one’s level of marital intimacy? Perhaps. But it’s a mistake to think that intimate relationships have to be intimate along all axes of information. Ask a guy who witnessed intense wartime combat if he’s told his wife about his darkest moments on the battlefield. Does he think he should tell her about the time he snuck up behind a sniper who killed one of his comrades, slit that sniper’s throat, and watched him bleed out with a combination of joy and revulsion? That story might be better saved up for a conversation with strangers at the VFW over drinks.
That is, unless you can pull off a Pandrogyne, and truly merge with your partner.
Context makes the freak
The choice to live life as a freak takes courage, or a high level of desperation, or mental illness. To be a freak, truly a freak, is to be gawked at. It’s to have others fascinated by you, but also to have them regard you with disgust or pity or active repulsion, like rubberneckers who’ve slowed down to look at a crash scene: There before the grace of god go I.
That leather-clad guy in a big-city pride parade being led around on a leash may seem like a freak to you, but there are a dozen others on leashes right next to him, and being leashed is mild compared to the other degrading fetishes you’ll see on public display in that same parade. The lead “dog-walker” may or may not be mentally ill, but he’s certainly not being courageous. He’s a colonist marching through long-since captured territory, a conquistador leading his troops through the town square in full regalia, long after the indigenous population has been brought to heel. His way of life is celebrated, no stigmatized. He is in a very safe space.
For society to persist, we don’t actually need, or want, our freaks to de-stigmatize their ways of life. This is true both for certain immutable, inherited characteristics, and for those that are the result of choices. What we need is a combination of release valves for gawking, and civility for everyday interaction. Any decent parent will teach their kids not to stare at someone in a wheelchair. But also, I see no problem with paying to view a woman with a horn growing out of her forehead. The nowadays deprecated Barnum and Bailey freak shows let people stare with fascination and horror at a 400 pound man, without normalizing obesity or making it polite to spit on fat people in public. It presented them in the context of rubbernecking.
It’s naive to think that we can eliminate basic human urges, like the desire to stare at a guy with flipper limbs. By seeking to remove all contexts in which we are allowed to gawk at freaks, what we’ve done instead is create pressures to normalize certain kinds of deviance. To be clear as possible, I’m using “deviance” here to mean anything way outside the norm, which could be good, bad, or just highly unusual, though in some cases we are talking about directly harmful extremes, like morbid obesity. My point is that our desire to gawk didn’t end with the death of the traveling freak show. We may have closed that particular loophole for acceptable staring, but our desires to look have found an outlet in a media landscape that normalizes, through incessant exposure, anything and everything that fascinates us.
When Howard Stern first had on transexual porn star Buck Angel (see my discussion of this in a post about Rush Limbaugh), Buck’s appearance, and his on-air use of a sex toy, were genuinely shocking. Just sixteen years later, I wouldn’t be shocked if Buck was hired by Disney to voice their latest kid’s film about a gender-fluid third grader who is guided by an older “queen” on zer journey to self discovery and, ultimately, acceptance. And if this seems like a nightmare vision of cultural rot, that’s because you’re a hateful bigot.
Cultural extremes, of course, generate counter forces. This isn’t “horseshoe theory” or a swinging pendulum. Instead of those shitty metaphors, I prefer this couplet by The Clash: “He who fucks nuns, will later join the church.” Or maybe this line from Victoria Williams that you may know from the Pearl Jam remake: “That which you fear the most, could meet you halfway”. My own derivative version goes like this: “That which you fear the most, will meet you half-way”.
I have no doubt that the left-wing push to normalize freakishness, and deviant behavior — even with minors — will inevitably bring about the rise of a dictator. The progressive left is incapable of controlling itself, and so it will be controlled, either by a Pinochet on the right, a Stalin on the left, or a Pol Pot who leans into the madness of murder harder than Sheryl Sandberg leaned into her 15 minutes of fame as girl boss final boss.
Again, it’s not a pendulum, it’s solid-state physics. Or economics. It may be best to think of chaos as debt, and that debt has to be paid off with order, lest it explode like a glitter bomb. But also, strangely, order is debt too, and has to be paid off in chaos, lest it compresses into a diamond, lovely to look at but useful only when shattered into dust and glued to a saw blade. (Personal aside: I still own a dozen micro diamonds passed down to me by my mother, stored in a folded piece of glassine paper. What exactly does one do with that?)
Long lasting frameworks for living, among them enduring religious traditions, have found ways to pay off both debts. The Amish live highly circumscribed lives, but at their kid’s moment of maximum craving for chaos in their late teens, Amish parents (mostly) open the doors to experience disordered secular life during a period of Rumspringa. And who knows what hidden things go on among Amish adults to balance out the boredom of barn life? People need tastes of chaos to tolerate order, and of course vice versa.
Freaking out over art
Human beings are contextual creatures. My thesis is that we need the freak, but also we need the freak to be recognized as such. And contained. A thriving civilization has room for The Pandrogyne, but also makes sure its kids keep a respectful distance from them, and if they get to see such creatures at all that’s best done under rare and transgressive circumstances. Sneaking in to an R-rated movie at 13 is awesome. Your kid’s fourth grade teacher putting on Debbie Does Dallas to demonstrate proper deep throat techniques? Not so much. And thankfully now verboten here in Florida.
Wandering around a music festival a few years ago I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said in big letters, I EAT ASS. Ok, nice to know I guess, and good luck to him on finding some ass to eat. In the context of the festival, though, it didn’t seem particularly transgressive, or problematic. I’m in favor of places to let your freak flag fly, and this seemed like as good a place as any. Beyond that, what I’m arguing is that we need those places. But, also, they need to be walled-off from everyday experience and norms. I don’t want to see that guy walking down my home street in that same t-shirt.
I’m arguing for the importance of context, and from what I can tell this argument cuts against the perspectives of both our main political factions right now. The left, as should be obvious, wants all debauchery all the time, with certain beliefs regarded as so abhorrent that anyone who expresses them should be immediately and permanently cancelled, even if those beliefs came up in the context of a stand-up routine. The left’s embrace of the end of context has worked well for them politically, and will continue to work until that dictator I mentioned shows up, or until conservatives get so serious about winning the culture war that even librarians in Portland wouldn’t dare put on drag queen story hours.
I part with conservatives in a couple ways when evaluating our current cultural moment. For one, the right mostly fails to recognize just how profoundly low the dam holding back mass degeneracy has gotten. Conservatives think our culture can be saved. But they need to recognize that it’s not our culture and it can’t be saved, only replaced. I see movements like “Gays Against Groomers” as doomed projects (despite having a cool acronym that no one mentions). The current LGBT.ETC borg can’t be reformed, either from within or without. Better to entice off a splinter group. If you really see the need for a reactionary gay movement like GAG, I’d suggest embracing the borg’s chaotic energy and rebranding with a neologism like “Trad-fags”. Champion appropriately channeled deviance. Invite back in context. Create strong alternative cultures. Invent a genre of gay homesteading lit where big city groomers are always the black hats, and they always face justice in the end.
Overall, the state of the arts on the right is abysmal. The conservative movement has one semi-known street artist (sabo, see image above), one amazing troll doing performance art (Alex Stein), and lots of 4-chan edge-lord meme makers. Beyond that, the bench is very thin. That’s because mainstream conservatism is a captured and cowardly movement willing to sacrifice its own crusaders in a quixotic quest for approval from the progressive-dominated media and institutions. It’s incompatible with artistic personas. Also, freaks like Milo Yannopolis freak conservatives out. Which is fine, but I can’t stress this enough when taking to suit-wearing young Republicans I see at events like Natcon: either you find a way to work with the freaks and deviants and trolls among your ranks, or your own beliefs will be shifted right out of the Overton window and into the “as bad as the Nazi’s” category. Strategically, it’s much better to go the other way, and co-opt crazies on the left. And yes, this is possible, maybe I’ll write about that at some point.
The other, very much related, mistake made by the right is to show disdain for the inherently deviant world of transcendent art itself. The Daily Wire’s most hated artist, Marina Abramović of “Spirit Cooking” fame, also happens to be the woman responsible for the greatest work of performance art of all time, Rhythm 0. To quote radical-left website Wikipedia, that performance, “involved Abramović standing still while the audience was invited to do to her whatever they wished, using one of 72 objects she had placed on a table. These included a rose, feather, perfume, honey, bread, grapes, wine, scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar, a gun, and a bullet.”
Like The Pandrogyne, Marina Abramović was willing to put full skin in the game. You can respect that about her, and appreciate the creative energy she embodies, without inviting her into your home to carve bloody pentagrams into your freshly sacrificed goat.
And speaking of artistic freaks, don’t hate Lizzo! Appreciate her as our most talented tub of lard since Chris Farley. But, also, view her as no more of role model than the life coach Farley played on SNL, the one who lives in a van down by the river. And whatever you do, don’t hand over your national artifacts for her to use.
In every civilization that’s endured long enough to leave a significant historical record, we see ways of integrating freaks and deviants without assimilation. They were part of the culture, but also kept at arm-length with all interactions done in a context that protected the broader society agains their normalization. From the Roman idea of Homo Sacer, to countless versions of the “red light” district, to freak show caravans that came by once a year, societies had deviants without embracing deviance.
Even beyond that, great civilizations have been built on a foundation that demands public virtue while accepting private vice. What made America great is excess, but also getting up the next morning to go to work. At our best, we are a mullet society: business in the front, party in the back. To extend this haircut analogy, because I like abusing analogies, too much vice and you become a hairspray metal band that can’t tour because their drummers keep OD-ing. Too buttoned up and you end up like the tightly buzzed, hard-boiled drill sergeant who drives Private Pyle over the edge in Full Metal Jacket. Neither of those is a viable model. What you really want is a woman who fixes her long hair into a tight bun before work, then lets it down at night after she comes home and you close the door behind her.
Context is what allows for our mullet society to flourish. Or, at least, it did.
We are witnessing the death of the freak, and I wonder if that was inevitable, baked in to broader trends. Can you have social media that encourages the display of extreme bodies and behaviors, without arriving at place where people un-ironicly say things like “trans women built this country”? Or without people who cheer when the Smithsonian loans Lizzo that historically important flute to play while twerking? Can you have, in the words of Bo Burnham, “a little bit if everything, all of the time,” without the complete collapse of context, the merging of private and public, of fetish and uniform, of work and play. Can you have context collapse without your culture itself assimilating the freak by becoming freakish?
Is there still hope for holding the line on context? If so, it might be found among the religious communities our current society considers freakish, like the Amish or the Mormons. I’ve heard that lusty Mormon college kids engage in a chastity workaround called “soaking”, often with the help of a female roommate to bounce the bed. I’m quite sure their parents wouldn’t approve, and I’m sure that makes it all the more exciting.
The conservative way to view taboo behavior is as a signifier of decadence, as in societal decay. But it’s not coeds secretly soaking in dorm rooms that does us in, it’s the fact that I know about this practice at all, even though I never went to BYU. It’s also the fact that, without a doubt, some woke administrator at BYU would like all incoming freshman to be instructed on how to soak responsibly, using condoms and consent forms. The problem is that taboo behaviors like soaking become institutionalized.
My least favorite knee-jerk from the right is their tendency to post clown emojis in response to the latest craziness from the left. Or, even worse, that goddamn gif of Mr. Rogers putting on a clown mask. You know the one. Yes, we get it, it’s clown world! Motherfucker all you are doing is advertising the fact that you’ve let the inmates run the asylum. If we now live in a circus tent, you’ve become weirder than the painted lady or the three legged man, you’re just less interesting. In clown world, clowns are normal. That blue-haired teacher bragging about how she taught forth graders cat pronouns isn’t a freak, you’re just a powerless and uncultured barbarian who should be exiled from the big top.
Unflattening the world
I read Thomas Friedman’s dreadfully influential book The World is Flat when it came out in hardcover. I must admit I largely agreed with his vision and reasoning, even if the text gave off a nasty scent of neo-con. Among Friedman’s arguments was the idea that in the long run, everyone benefits from trade with China: the Chinese get the economic uplift of capitalism, and we Americans get to use our comparative advantage to produce skill-intensive goods instead of cheap plastic crap. Even back in those early days of globalization, though, I should have understood that we were opening the door for that which we feared the most to meet us half-way. Which it most certainly did in 2020, when we imported scary videos of people dropping like flies, and these videos frightened us so much that we imported a version of the CCP’s god-awful lockdowns in a failed attempt to control the Wu-flu (which they also sent us, after engineering it in an American-funded lab, and really, could there be a more perfect metaphor for WEF-style globalism?). Our context had become their context. We are meeting them half-way down the road to ruin. Today, millions of Americans will spend time scrolling through Tik Tok videos of dancing nurses and drag queens, groomer teachers and impossibly skinny guys with Marfan syndrome, plus whatever else that app’s CCP-approved algorithm wants to show us. Tik Tok might even be how I first learned about “soaking”.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that America will decouple economically from China. But even if we do, I’m afraid that context is dead, at least for now, until it can be re-established in some new form. We no longer have walls between vice and virtue, normal and freakish, momentary gawking and endless thumbing through snuff pics. Every private fetish is now on public display, somewhere, which is to say everywhere, so why not wear your puppy-play mask to work?
Context is dead, and I have no idea how we rebuilt it, but we absolutely must.
Update: Read my short addendum to this article.
(Postscript: If you like this post, or my others, please tell people about them! I’m absolute shit at self-promotion. I realize that my substack is never going to compete with Taibbi’s in terms of readership, but I think it has a chance to be a kind of Pixies in terms of the influence it has on this type of analysis, but only if at least a few more people know about it. Thank you.)