habituation to horror

This is the midweek version of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

The past year has been an exercise in mass compartmentalization: how can you take what’s happening around you, flatten it, then divide it into small enough sections that you can endure it? If you can just get through the summer, you’ll be okay. If you can just get through the week, you’ll be okay. If you can just get through the day, the afternoon, the hour.

Most of us have found ourselves in September functioning “okay,” if by “okay” you mean barely holding everything together and likely to fall apart with even one slight shift in our daily schedule, in our health, in our family’s financials or general well-being. But a lot of us haven’t. Our composure has disintegrated. Our health has too, either because of COVID’s immediate or longterm effects, financial catastrophes, unemployment checks that haven’t arrived, or hovering eviction. Our nerves are shot. We’re clumsier. I keep accidentally cutting myself while slicing vegetables. We lose things. We sleep less. Our stress overflows onto our kids. All of us are unraveling, but it’s happening so incrementally that it’s easy to ignore just how vulnerable we’ve become.

Our “surge capacity” — the ability, as science journalist Tara Haelle put it, to handle crisis — was already gone. And then the hurricanes, and the fucking inland hurricanes, and the record-breaking heat, and the fires started. Two of my close friends have lost family homes — one in Washington State, the other in California — over the last three weeks. I wake up every morning wondering if I feel like shit because of the smoke, because I have COVID, or because I’m just exhausted. Something has to give.

Or does it? I spent last night compulsively tweeting and retweeting photos of the wreckage in Oregon, as fires made their way across the state and along the coastal range. It felt surreal, as it always does looking at what the natural world does in spite of our most ardent wishes, but it also felt like something was breaking off inside of me. I was too tired to fight the fear. But then I watched some TikToks and went to bed.

When I woke up, I opened Twitter to find Ed Yong’s latest piece sprinkled across my timeline. I am not the first to say that Yong’s work has felt like a life preserver in the sea of COVID content, and this piece, on America’s “pandemic spiral,” not only describes all the ways the United States has failed to address the pandemic, but also of how those failures might continue. He spoke with medical anthropologist Martha Lincoln, who describes the country’s situation this way:

“It’s like mass gaslighting. We were put in a situation where better solutions were closed off but a lot of people had that fact sneak up on them. In the absence of a robust federal response, we’re all left washing our hands and hoping for the best, which makes us more susceptible to magical thinking and individual-level fixes.” And if those fixes never come, “I think people are going to harden into a fatalistic sense that we have to accept whatever the risks are to continue with our everyday lives.”

In short: we acclimate. We decide this is just the way things are, and that the number of deaths — in our community, in our country, in our world — is acceptable, because if it were unacceptable, wouldn’t we be expected to act differently? Wouldn’t we ask our elected officials to behave differently? Wouldn’t we fight until it was acceptable again? But we’re too exhausted for that.

We look for short-term, tenable, often highly individual solutions. As Yong writes, “it’s more compelling to hope that drug-resistant bacteria can be beaten with viruses than to stem the overuse of antibiotics, to hack the climate than to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, or to invest in a doomed oceanic plastic-catcher than to reduce the production of waste.”

Many attribute these behaviors to our Americanness: to the cult of the individual, to our general resistance to systemic or longterm thinking. But solidarity has historically been an American trait; so, too, has collectivism, and community, and generalized commitment to the greater good. We often forget as much when we talk about just how American our behavior is, because we don’t want to acknowledge that we decide, every day, in ways large and small, conscious and unconscious, which traits will be “American” moving forward.

We do not have to become, as Yong fears, habituated to horror. But like Yong, I fear that we might. “Daily tragedy might become ambient noise,” he writes. “The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racismschool shootings and police brutalitymass incarceration and sexual harassmentwidespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.”

People keep comparing the photos of San Francisco against the backdrop of eerie orange to Blade Runner. We use words like “apocalyptic” and “Cormac McCarthy sky.” It’s a way of deflecting the fear, of making it speakable through comparison to a text that is solidly otherworldly. But the thing about dystopian narratives is that they are not distant from our world; they’re just what happens when our world, or at least our civilization, begins to bend towards its end.

I often think of an interview I read years ago (and can no longer find) with Alfonso Cuarón about the set design for Children of Men: he wanted a world that looked like we’d gone just about a decade past our current moment, and then everything just stopped. If you’ve watched Children of Men lately, the uncanniness is overwhelming: it’s such a vivid and realistic of rendering of our timeline slightly fastforwarded before its gradual unspooling.

Or I think of the plot of The New Wilderness, the Booker Prize nominated new book from Diane Cook. Slowly the trees begin to die. Slowly the air becomes toxic, especially to children. Slowly the city becomes overwhelmed. Dystopia doesn’t arrive with a bang, but in a gradual slide. We read and watch those narratives with terror. But that’s only because we’re on the outside, and can see what’s happening. Living in a dystopia just feels like living: you get through one day, and then you get through the next, and then the next. You embrace mild self-deception and self-delusion because you must. You move forward because what other choice do you have? If that sounds familiar, it should.

Some people remain in complete denial. But I think many are beginning to see and feel what feels like an irrevocable decline. As Hayes Brown wrote around this time last year, “the weight of knowing, this time really knowing, our future is taking its toll.” We can allow ourselves to not just bend to new forms of normal, but actually break. This isn’t about being better about sorting your recycling. This is about completely reconceptualizing the way we think about energy, and waste, and consumption. It will require a complete renovation of our value system. And it’s going to be hard and uncomfortable and different, but you know what else will be hard and uncomfortable and different? The end of the fucking world.

We don’t have to acclimate to dystopia. We don’t have to compartmentalize horror. We can recognize this moment, as George Packer recently put it in The Atlantic, as a “plastic” one: when “an ossified social order suddenly turns pliable, prolonged stasis gives way to motion, and people dare to hope.”

But our window for that refusal is closing. “Plastic hours are rare,” Packer writes. “They require the right alignment of public opinion, political power, and events—usually a crisis. They depend on social mobilization and leadership. They can come and go unnoticed or wasted. Nothing happens unless you move.”

We’re all so, so tired. But we have to take those last, precious stores of energy — and we have to move. Maybe that looks like organizing. Maybe that looks like voting, and making sure everyone you know is voting. Maybe it looks like opening yourself to wild reimaginations of how society could work. But it cannot look like this.

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