Living in “The Age of Dissociation”
We are past the point of anxiety, and our defenses are maxed out. Is sanity the last resort?
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
W. H. AUDEN, The Age of Anxiety
Now is the Age of Dissociation
In the 1950s, during the Cold War, people were scared. Yes, they went about their daily business as we do today, but they hid under their desks for protection from nuclear fallout. The sense of fear, from people with whom I’ve spoken, was palpable, real and immediate. That was the age of anxiety, and I believe we are moving past anxiety to the age of dissociation.
What is the Age of Dissociation?
Dissociation, in the face of extreme, overwhelming threat, is a broad term for when all other defenses become overwhelmed, leaving one only the protection afforded by completely tuning out reality in order to preserve a sense of coherence. When this happens, we are living in a partial reality, seemingly consistent but full of distortions and inconsistencies we somehow can overlook. Anything which violates this construction of reality creates subliminal anxiety which causes us to steer away without realizing what we are doing. Information about reality is simply excluded from awareness, because fully empathizing with those feelings and thoughts within oneself would result in insanity, in madness, in chaos, in total breakdown. Empathy and compassion are here, but not very visible or dominant.
Some lizards, when threatened by a predator, jettison their tails. They auto-amputate a part of their bodies as a distraction and appeasement to keep the predator from attacking and killing the rest of the body. This is a concrete metaphor for dissociation.
I’ve argued elsewhere that rather than exclusively look to diagnose or understand Donald Trump, it is imperative that we look to ourselves. Trump is a mirror for at least the American psyche — if not the world given America’s dominant role. Rather than evacuate our own badness (or goodness if you are a Trump supporter) into an external container, such as Mr. Trump, as a psychoanalyst and social critic, I believe it is imperative that we view Mr. Trump and his team as a mirror. We see good versions of ourselves, bad versions of ourselves, and aspects of ourselves we dare not contemplate — what the great American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan referred to as “good-me”, “bad-me” and (tellingly) “not-me” versions of ourselves, in referring to the individual. To me, this formulation applies to groups as well, and ultimately on a collectively level.
Our collective “not-me” has become dominant, and is the most dangerous threat we face, though in general, we are not squaring off with this existential threat. Rather, we are collectively dissociating because the raw truth is too much for us to take in — again, on a collective level, as there are individuals and movements sounding the alarm which we are collectively not yet heeding.
Because I see dissociation as the defining characteristic of our culture, a direction we’ve been heading in for the last few decades since the end of the 1960s, I am naming that we are living in the Age of Dissociation. The 1960s represented the greatest collective movement for love to save the world, the greatest collective effort for love to prevail — for association to prevail. That experiment failed spectacularly in its day, at least in terms of bringing forth a world based on basic similarity and connection among all members of the human family. Perhaps it was premature, a wishful fantasy, whose day has not yet come? That experiment was a reaction to the fear of the 1950s and early 60s, a fear we could imagine, especially in the more immediate aftermath of WWII, the Holocaust, and the psychically overwhelming actual use of nuclear weapons to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Viewed from a collective perspective, these events were an attack by humanity on itself, a suicidal gesture of previously unseen proportions.
What are we seeing?
The last U.S. election cycle was a shock to the global system, in addition to the U.S. political system. Building up to that singularity, a great many people in the U.S. were experiencing a greater and greater sense of disenfranchisement as progressive gains and familiar political machinations appeared to have an unshakable grip on our society. That undercurrent was suddenly unleashed on a mass level with Trump’s victory, leading to jubilation, despair and terror, and uncertainty. Before the election, it seemed almost impossible that Trump would prevail, but after he won, and in that liminal time between the election and the inauguration, the unimaginable suddenly has become real. People hoped that his pre-election campaigning and track record would yield to sanity within the stabilizing role of President of the United States, but alas it was not to be.
Since that time, we have become desensitized by one thing after another. Each week, several times per week, something happens which until recently was literally unthinkable and impossible. Is it possible to create a list? Just recently — a series of contradictory messages about the firing of James Comey, former FBI director, the escalation of tensions with North Korea, the investigation of connections with Russia, regular skirmishes at the borders of nations (e.g. Chinese jets buzzing US fighters, Russian subs venturing up the US coast), diplomatic overtures to despotic rulers, revelations that the president is eschewing standard procedures such as getting intelligence updates, diplomatic breeches, using the “mother of all bombs” for the first time and bragging about how he told his Chinese counterpart over a great piece of chocolate cake, rolling waves of firing people in higher levels of government without proper replacements, the roll back of environmental protections, the plummet in America’s stock with the rest of the world, the risk of populist autocrats taking office around the globe, and the usual disturbing storm of impulsive-seeming tweets of self-praise and attack. Not to mention the dominance of conservative forces seeking to roll back healthcare changes and institute tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, unmoved by the harm doing so would cause to countless millions or any sense of social justice or equity. People question whether we are still a democracy, though I maintain faith that our system will rise to this challenge, and hopefully learn and change positively for the experience. But it’s a game of chicken, and the price we pay may be very steep before we see any gains.
Meantime, approval ratings plummet while Trump supporters remain in a kind of an anti-bubble, symmetrical with the pre-election bubble of believing that Trump and Pence couldn’t possibly win. There was no way to imagine a world where that reality would exist, but here we are, having been discontinuously psychologically teleported from one place to the other — a sudden disappearance from one place and dizzying reappearance in another world. So many people I’ve spoken with feel as if they are living in a TV show about an alternate reality, a modern-day Man in the High Castle come to life, or a reality show similar to The Apprentice. Fiction and reality have become indistinguishable for the moment, like a dream in which everything appears as a cartoon.
I’m sure I’m leaving out plenty of things as I’m getting disoriented and disorganized naming these things, just trying to keep them in mind.The assault on our basic sensibilities has reached a fever pitch where trying to pay attention stops being a viable option and cutting off parts of ourselves in order to merely make it through the day is the only option when the alternatives are panic and despair, in the absence of any forthcoming rational course of action and collective sense of powerlessness.
We can only wait for our system of checks and balances to kick in, so events like the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the Russian connection, or the increasingly, questionably realistic, calls for impeachment or resignation, are themselves both a relief as well as of uncertain reality. We have become, for the most part, passive — not just spectators but passengers in a runaway train. It feels at times if the old rules and security which came from having a predictable, if very imperfect, system have evaporated permanently. We have been expelled into a new and troubling reality, but we continue to live in the old one, going about business as usual. We don’t collectively know where we are anymore — we are in the Age of Dissociation, a place of lost thoughts and numbed emotions alternating with paranoid, possibly accurate, theorizing and intense anxiety, panic and despair.
Sanity is our last resort.