So thousands, perhaps millions of us go to Vegas, Mexico, Amsterdam, Southern Spain, Spring Break, football games, Rolling Stones concerts and countless other places to get our “hit” (a term originally referring to drug use) of liminality or communitas.
But the vast majority of us do it the easy way, on an electronic device. As we watch people getting out of control, we allow the fantasies to parade – safely, for as long or as briefly as we want – across our minds, even as many of us condemn those who seem to be acting them out in real life. This is “vicarious intensity,” one of the ways that we unconsciously invite Dionysus into our lives. Often, it’s the excitement we feel when someone else (usually the image of someone else) confronts the edge of danger.
The hope of encountering communitas explains why we prefer to watch major sports events among friends. “Fans” (Latin: fanaticus, mad, divinely inspired, originally pertaining to a temple) make up an emotionally engaged community holding the container for rituals of “com-petition”, a word that originally meant “petitioning the gods together”. Shared interest and experience forge our identity. We take this same longing for communal ecstasy into rock concerts and dance clubs. Often, sexually ambiguous (long-haired but clean-shaven) young men enact the ritual on stage and provide our minimum requirement of Dionysian experience.
Watching sports, however, we’re never really satisfied. We demand more vicarious intensity, and often only the expectation of violence can penetrate our emotional armoring. Hence the increased popularity of football, hockey, pro wrestling and auto racing, where helmeted Christs suffer for us all. And even if we watch alone at home, we know that we are part of a virtual community of fans. We belong.
There were times, however, when societies channeled their aggression into ritual, thus containing and minimizing much of it. In Chapter Six I give many examples of symbolic violence. But in America, war and sports, especially football, are so closely linked that they share many of the same metaphors. My essay “Military Madness” offers a long list of the military metaphors we use in our daily speech.
Team spirit has archetypal roots, of course: we all share a deep and ancient longing to relax the hold of the isolated ego and submerge our identity into clan or tribe. But when we have not been initiated into a fundamentally spiritual identity, team spirit becomes war fever. Jung wrote that people become “…sick of that banal life…they want sensation…when there is a war: they say, ‘Thank heaven, now something is going to happen – something bigger than ourselves!’”
Super Bowl: There were times when organic, ecstatic and somewhat unpredictable festivals took people out of their individual selves and truly connected them to each other. But by the late-nineteenth century, nationalism replaced religion as the dominant organizing force in society, and governments everywhere began to present spectacles for audiences to passively consume. Spectacles are scripted in nearly every detail. They connect people not to each other but to the state. Hence the genuine horror so many puritan viewers experienced when Janet Jackson had her infamous “equipment malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.
When not watching sports, the young watch the fictionalized experience of danger in Superhero action movies. But older people watch it in TV crime shows, which ironically feed their paranoia about people of color and the inner cities.
Years ago, observing this, critic Michael Wilmington coined the phrase that I’ve used to title this essay. Such viewing patterns are particularly appealing, he wrote, because, once the villains have been punished, they offer a comforting sense of “moral order restored after a holiday in chaos.” We like to visit Dionysus’ neighborhood, but we don’t want to live there.
As early as a hundred years ago, writes Michael Ventura, movies “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for dancing) had very quickly become passive consumers of culture. He argues that he Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”
Sociologist Christina Kotchemidova writes that media foster an experience of emotion that is controlled, predictable, and undemanding without impinging on our rational lifestyles. Thus, “We can engage in mass-mediated emotions to the full while retaining control over our emotion experience and avoiding the risks of personal communication.”
But one of the prices we pay for constantly watching images of other people experiencing liminality is our willingness to dissolve another boundary, between religion and nationalism. Vicarious, voyeuristic intensity meets electronic spectacle in our recent wars. We see without being seen, writes Marita Sturken:
This tension of immediacy, sadism, and a slight tinge of complicity was thus integral to the pleasures of spectatorship. We saw, we were ‘there,’ yet the technology kept us…at a safe distance.”
Suddenly submerged in a great communal cause, we anticipate holy vengeance and hope that a sacred King will allay our anxieties and bring us all together. Every time the politicians and the media drive the nation toward the next war, our most well-known religious figures can be counted upon to sacralize it. And, as the young and poor experience the actual danger, we – especially our intellectuals – enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance. After the 9/11 attacks, the formerly liberal writer Christopher Hitchens, utterly insensitive to his own privilege, articulated the thrill that he and other “Neocons” — almost none of whom had actually served in the military – experienced:
…another sensation was contending for mastery…to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy…if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.
Continue to Part Four of this Essay here.