Last week I reviewed the book Why We Love Sociopaths: a guide to late capitalist television and I enjoyed it so much I asked the author, Adam Kotsko for an interview. To my delight he agreed.
SB: Your book elegantly frames why we’re attracted to TV shows involving sociopathic behavior. Do you have a theory about when television shifted from more balanced dramas to a world where many of the popular shows involve sociopathy? The Sopranos is often referenced as the show that changed television and (re)introduced moral ambiguity to popular television drama: do you agree?
AK: The Sopranos was definitely a turning point, but I think the ground was actually prepared by reality television. By their very nature, those shows are about scheming and backstabbing — and as interesting and daring as Sopranos is in a lot of ways, it’s fundamentally about just that type of “office politics”-style conflict (although “voting someone off the island” obviously takes a very different form). In terms of a cultural turning point, though, it’s harder to pinpoint. American culture has always been very individualistic, utilitarian, or — to put it bluntly — greedy, but popular culture has most often tended to try to provide some kind of moral veneer or cushion. In many cases that was hypocritical sentimentality, but I’m not sure that the more recent trend toward openly embracing selfishness is to be preferred simply because it’s “more honest” or something.
If I were held at gunpoint and forced to choose a cultural moment that opened up this possibility, though, I’d say it was the end of the Cold War. Suddenly America no longer had a transcendent mission, and it no longer had to pretend that capitalism was some kind of moral force for good against the unmitigated evil of communism. And I think it’s really telling that once another transcendent mission presented itself — in the form of our farcical overreaction to terrorism — the moral sense was totally and radically absent. We perceived ourselves as entitled to openly violate all norms of law and human rights for the sake of facing this “existential threat.” It was as though the nation as a whole was echoing the archetypal reality show contestant who declares, “I’m not here to make friends!”
SB. What motivated you to write this book? There are many popular criticisms of television as both a medium and for its content, but your approach was both novel, approachable and specific. Did you have a personal stake in trying to call attention to this trend?
AK: I did Awkwardness as a kind of experiment with a more popular form of writing. I did Sociopaths because I wanted to go further in that direction — my explicit academic trappings are much more subdued in the second book — and simply because I felt as though I had hit on an interesting cultural trend that no one else was really talking about as such. On a more personal level, I basically didn’t want to let my idea go to waste — and more broadly, I was attracted to the idea that I could “redeem” my time spent watching all these shows by putting that to work in my writing.
SB: Clearly you watched many of these shows. Were, or are you, a fan of any of them? Do you see dangers in enjoying shows centered on individuals with major psychological issues? (or, more broadly, do you believe television has a desensitizing impact on American culture (e.g. Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death)?)
It’s probably clear from the book that I’m a big fan of the Wire, which I perhaps spent more time on than is warranted by its popularity. I still watch Mad Men avidly, and I’ve picked up on other shows in the sociopath style — Boardwalk Empire, Justified, etc. I’ve winnowed my TV watching over the years, compared to my more omnivorous habits during graduate school, and so I probably would not have devoted as much time to something like Dexter or stuck with House as long as I did if I were starting them now.
On the issue of how these shows are affecting people, I’m less concerned about that than I am about the culture and institutions that shape them into the kind of person that identifies with the sociopathic social climber. There’s always going to be a certain fascination in the outlaw figure, but the systematic glorification of the sociopath betrays a deeply sick society in my opinion.
Whatever effect TV shows are having on people, I think that the way their workplaces and schools function has a much bigger impact — and both of those institutions are structured increasingly as an ongoing competition where loyalty or morality seems like a liability. If people who live every day in that kind of environment need to let off some steam by identifying with Tony Soprano for a couple hours, I don’t begrudge them.
If you watch television you should go read Why We Love Sociopaths: a guide to late capitalist television