Book Review: Creepiness by Adam Kotsko
Adam Kotsko has written a fascinating book that demonstrates what pop visual culture can tell us about our world. Consistently, even magnetically, readable at the sentence level and theoretically rigorous at the conceptual, Creepiness is a different breed of work than most academic humanists produce. Whereas much theory is creepy in the way it shoves an inscrutable discourse upon readers, Kotsko’s work actually deigns to be lucid. Slim, good-humored, and accessible, the study is attuned to sociocultural phenomena that might not initially seem like fertile ground for investigation, but which turn out to reveal intriguing trends in American life.
But first the bad news: we’re all creeps. Working with Freud’s concept of the unheimlich, Kotsko theorizes “creepiness” as a more capacious translation than the traditional “uncanny,” arguing that the cultural products we produce and consume reveal an endless tension between the idiosyncratic sexual impulses we all have and the social norms civilization articulates to manage these drives. A culture demands normal, productive members; the trouble is, nobody is normal, because there is no such thing. As Kotsko has it, we must confront “the inherent creepiness of sexuality [his italics], with its tendency to transgress and evade all reasonable boundaries.” “We are susceptible to being creeped out,” he remarks, “because we are always in danger of being creeped out by ourselves, or more precisely, by those parts of ourselves that seem to exceed and elude us.”
Creepiness coheres in two overlapping ways. First, there is its basic subject matter: late-capitalist American film and television. Kotsko focuses on the current supposed “golden” age of prestige television, grounding his analysis in what he calls “the ongoing collapse of white straight male culture.” Think Mad Men, The Sopranos, Louie, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, all the other high and low texts focused on white men’s frustrations. (More broadly, the book also brings in Adult Swim’s stoner cartoons, contemporary fast-food ad campaigns, the BBC’s Peep Show, and Wes Anderson’s obsessively detailed films, among other texts.) However, the book is not just a compendium of things Kotsko happens to like. Thanks to that neo-Freudian lens and the emphasis on the decay of pop-patriarchy, it is also theoretically consistent, and so creeps like Don Draper, Walter White, and Burger King’s appalling plastic-faced mascot “The King” are joined by more than just contemporaneity, slick aesthetics, or the author’s tastes. Borrowing from Freud, Kotsko claims that there are four subspecies of creepiness, which all share certain characteristics and structure pop texts in multivalent ways: perversion, psychosis, hysteria, and obsession. To be honest, though, a reader doesn’t really need to keep track of these categories in order to follow the argument.
At the end of Creepiness, Kotsko shifts from diagnosis to prognosis. Drawing on Lacan’s theory that hysteria is a form of ceaseless questioning of the world, he contends that hysteria, pace its negative connotations, can serve as social critique—“a way of creeping out the social order itself” (his italics)—and a path to “a more livable approach to life,” one that allots more space to nonwhite and female experience, and which embraces the universality of so-called abnormal desires. Kotsko frames it like this: “Under the pressure of hysterical questioning, then, the social order reveals its perverse face—the fact that it runs on transgression, that it gets off on creepy violations,” often violations committed by frustrated white men.
The effect of Kotsko’s book—and this underscores its quality—is that you end up listing shows he should have considered but probably didn’t have time or space for. I would offer Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Dinosaurs, that terrifying mid-90s costume comedy. This book could start a whole series on creepiness: Was Iago, with his illegible lust for destruction, the original creep? Did Nixon shunt erotic desires into political drives? What about other literary creeps, like unctuous Lebedev in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot or Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury? Can creepiness rise to poetry, as in Lord Rochester’s phallic verse? Is Woody Allen creepier in his films or in real life? Why are Egon Schiele’s portraits so creepy? Can female comics like Amy Schumer tap a well of female creepiness? Kotsko has opened new ground here. Every decent library should own a copy so that other scholars—talk about creeps!—can build on his explorations.
Ryan Boyd (@ryanaboyd) lives in Los Angeles. You can read more of his stuff at www.thegeneralreader.com.