Something Happened By Us: A Demonology

A theory of why we’re all going nuts online
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On January 6, 2021, Samuel Camargo posted a video on Instagram showing him struggling to break through a police barrier to get into the U.S. Capitol building. The next day he wrote on Facebook: “I’m sorry to all the people I’ve disappointed as this is not who I am nor what I stand for.”

A month after the riot, Jacob Chansley, the man widely known as the QAnon Shaman, wrote a letter from his jail cell in Virginia asking Americans to “be patient with me and other peaceful people who, like me, are having a very difficult time piecing together all that happened to us, around us, and by us.”

“This is not who I am,” “all that happened … by us” — it is commonplace to hear such statements as mere evasions of responsibility, and often they are. But what if they reflect genuine puzzlement, genuine difficulty understanding one’s behavior or even seeing it as one’s own, a genuine feeling of being driven, compelled, by something other than one’s own will?

In 1841, the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay published a book that would eventually assume the title Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

Thirty years later, Fyodor Dostoevsky would publish a novel about a town that seems to lose its mind: We see murder, arson, suicide, and pedophilia, much of it driven by self-proclaimed revolutionaries who know neither what they are protesting nor what they endorse. He called the novel Demons, and prefaced it with a story from the Gospel of Luke of how Jesus exorcised a man possessed by many demons:

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.

Just as it is commonplace to say that people who declare “That’s not who I am” are evading responsibility, it is also commonplace to say that what Luke called “demonic possession” we now more correctly call “madness.” But what if Mackay’s account of madness is deficient and Dostoevsky has the firmer grip on what happens to us in such circumstances?

A friend once wrote to me about a mutual acquaintance, “He’s deeply driven, but it’s not entirely clear to me that he is in charge of the forces that drive him — at times they seem a bit, in the proper sense, demonic, not demons exactly but extra-personal agential forces that grip him and compel him to act in ways he later not so much regrets as doesn’t recognize as ‘his actions.’”

Andrew Solomon’s book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression draws its title from Psalm 91:

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

One participant in the Capitol riot, an 81-year-old Army veteran named Gary Wickersham, explained to the judge who sentenced him that he participated in the riot because “you get bored” just sitting at home. The poet Anne Carson once wrote, “I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime.” Anything? And so the demon draws near.

The “QAnon Shaman” in front of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021
Douglas Christian / Alamy

About those “extra-personal agential forces” my friend spoke of — much hinges on the essential ambiguity of the word “agent.” In much contemporary philosophy, an agent is one who operates with volitional independence: To have “agency,” then, is to act for yourself. But in general usage, an agent is one who works on behalf of another: a secret agent for a government, a literary agent for an author. An agent in this sense is dependent rather than independent. The man who is “compelled” by outside forces may be said to lack agency, but also to have become an unwilling agent of those powers.

But what are those powers? In which of the two senses of agency are they agents?

In a 1976 lecture, Michel Foucault said that it is a mistake to study power by looking at what we think of as the center — a national capital, say — or at those who stand at the top of the pyramid. Rather, “we should make an ascending analysis of power, or in other words begin with its infinitesimal mechanisms” — the tiny ways that power manifests itself in everyday relations — “which have their own history, their own trajectory, their own techniques and tactics, and then look at how these mechanisms of power, which have their solidity and, in a sense, their own technology, have been and are invested, colonized, used, inflected, transformed, displaced, extended, and so on by increasingly general mechanisms and forms of overall domination.” Power replicates at something like a cellular level rather than being exercised by leaders. 

We find no human actors in this analysis of power — rather, power is infinitely disseminated, never subject to precise location or any other form of specific identification. We should not think of its human agents (in the second, dependent sense of the term) as responsible for it in any meaningful way. We perhaps should not even think of them as human, though they may occasionally resemble humans. The demonic is a networked realm, with or without demons as such — that is, demons conceived simplistically, as beings like us only invisible and purely wicked. Whatever the demonic is, it is not, I am sure, inhabited by such creatures of the popular imagination.

The agents who act on behalf of the demonic realm appear often in Thomas Pynchon’s novels. They look human but may not be. Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice reflects on those “rigid, unsmiling” men at the periphery of every festivity, and muses that

If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen. Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

The same dark crews appear in Vineland: “the unrelenting forces that leaned ever after the partners into Time’s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators…, stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate.” Forces unbending because not acting according to volition but rather compulsion — perhaps not “acting” at all in any strict sense: emanations or instantiations of the Principalities and Powers.

“Principalities” and “powers” — so the Apostle Paul calls them: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” He names two of them as Sin and Death; Pynchon names two others, Greed (or Money) and Fear. Pynchon and Foucault are perhaps the best recent expositors of Paul’s vision, whether they know it or not.

In Dostoevsky’s Demons, a man named Kirillov develops a theory: In a godless world, one can become God by killing oneself. “I am killing myself in order to show my independence and my new terrible freedom,” he tells Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, a revolutionary who thinks that Kirillov’s suicide can be made useful to the revolution. When Verkhovensky starts pressuring Kirillov to demonstrate his freedom in this way, Kirillov gets annoyed and tells him that he might wait another six months. To which Verkhovensky replies: “I never understood anything about your theory, but I do know that you didn’t devise it for us, and so, you will act on it even without us. I also know that you haven’t consumed the idea but that you have been consumed by the idea, and so you won’t be able to relinquish it.” Interestingly, Kirillov finds this a very shrewd statement.

What Verkhovensky doesn’t realize is that he too has been consumed by an idea. Everyone in the book has. They are subject to the Principalities, the Cosmic Rulers, who have, as it were, infected the town, who have created their agents.

In a 2019 essay, Zadie Smith describes the machinery that now consumes us, in service of the Cosmic Rulers:

We sometimes seem oblivious to the idea that we spend our days feeding ourselves into a great engine of knowing, one that believes it knows every single thing about us: our tastes, our opinions, our beliefs, what we’ll buy, who we’ll love, where we’ll go. The unseen actors who harvest this knowledge not only hope to know us perfectly but also to modify us, to their own ends. And this essay, too, will no doubt enter that same digital maw, and be transformed from ideas to data points, and responded to, perhaps, with a series of pat phrases, first spotted by the machine, then turned viral, and now returned to us as if it were our own language.

Several accounts of the spread of ideas jostle against one another in our moment: Richard Dawkins’s notion of “memes” — ideas spreading by replication — competes with notions of “virality” and of “social contagion.” There is information theory and disease theory. I prefer demon theory.

One of the sonnets of W. H. Auden’s sequence “In Time of War,” a poem written in 1936, begins by describing the aftermath of the expulsion of supernatural forces from some unnamed land:

And the age ended, and the last deliverer died

In bed, grown idle and unhappy….

It ends thus:

The vanquished powers were glad

To be invisible and free: without remorse

Struck down the sons who strayed into their course,

And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.

Social media are the best agents yet developed for the Cosmic Rulers: Social media sleep not, nor do they grow weary. The algorithms grind away like the mill that, according to the old story, sits at the bottom of the ocean and forever grinds out salt; the machine-learning machines keep learning, keep sifting, keep dividing and linking. “The unseen actors who harvest this knowledge not only hope to know us perfectly but also to modify us, to their own ends.”

But be not deceived. Pynchon again: In Gravity’s Rainbow a “corporate Nazi crowd,” makers and transporters of armaments, hold a séance to summon the spirit of Walther Rathenau, one-time foreign minister in the Weimar government, assassinated in 1922. The spirit of Rathenau tells them what they need to know:

These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters.

“You must look into the technology of these matters” because “secular history is a diversionary tactic.” (Pynchon’s novel was published three years before Foucault’s lecture quoted earlier.) The algorithms and learning machines serve the cosmic powers. You must follow the signs, if you would understand.

Jesus Heals a Demoniac by Gustave Doré

Writing in these pages in the essay “Bot Anxiety” (Summer 2021), Kent Anhari discusses Will Arbery’s 2019 play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which “offers an explicitly demonological presentation of media-saturation”:

Each of the play’s young conservatives is possessed: veteran and Catholic convert Justin is possessed by his complicity in violence, Simone Weil–like Emily by the world-embracing sympathy engendered by her own chronic illness, developmentally-arrested Kevin by something like sexual pathology, and far-right media influencer Teresa by her inner pitchbot. While the other forms of possession on display are more spectacular, finding at times somewhat Exorcist-like modes of expression, Teresa’s is perhaps the most profound. Her friends all have inner lives, albeit vexed and fraught. Teresa, by all appearances, has none. She’s been hollowed out. This is horror as harrowing as anything supernatural, courtesy of our decade’s own peculiar demons.

In Arbery’s play, Kevin says, “I think there’s a demon in me…. I just say things to people, things just come out of my mouth.” The play’s arguments are punctuated by piercing shrieks, and Justin, at whose house the characters have gathered, apologetically tells them that the shrieks are caused by a problem with the generator that provides electricity to the house. Near the end of the play, though, he admits that there’s nothing wrong with his generator.

In a Vox interview, Arbery said that in his play “there’s a lot of debate, and so you want to be able to know who wins the debate.” But, he continued, “I’m much more interested in what debate does to a person’s body, how it changes the air.” A scream elicits a responding scream; it just does — but in different people for different reasons. And some have become too hollowed out to scream.

“Something must have happened to me sometime,” says Bob Slocum, the protagonist and narrator of Joseph Heller’s novel Something Happened (1974). And later: “Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur.” Kurt Vonnegut called the novel “splendidly put together and hypnotic to read,” but also named it “one of the unhappiest books ever written,” “so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment.” Which seems just; but what to say about a man (Jacob Chansley, the QAnon Shaman) who speaks not only of what happened to him and around him but also by him? Of what is such a man “robbed”? Of self-understanding, apparently; of a recognizable connection between himself and his actions. About such a condition secular psychology may well be a diversionary tactic.

Christians who talk about demonic activity tend to make a distinction between possession and oppression. Those possessed by demons — or, to use the language I here prefer, those who have been absorbed into the demonic realm — lack volition. They feature in a behaviorist puppet show. The more fortunate, though perhaps also the more miserable, are the merely oppressed: The demonic acts on them from without, they feel its force but are capable of resisting it; or perhaps only of desiring to resist it. “For what I am doing, I do not understand,” writes Paul to the church at Rome; “for what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” Faced with an intractable dividedness, a spiritual gridlock, he can only cry out — this is one of the screams that a scream can elicit — “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Now, as it happens, I am myself a Christian, but I do not write here to issue an altar call, an invitation to be saved by Jesus. Rather, I merely wish you, dear reader, to consider the possibility that when a tweet provokes you to wrath, or an Instagram post makes you envious, or some online article sends you to another and yet another in an endless chain of what St. Augustine called curiositas — his favorite example is the gravitational pull on all passers-by of a dead body on the side of the road — you are dealing with powers greater than yours. Your small self and your puny will are overwhelmed by the Cosmic Rulers, the Principalities and Powers. They oppress or possess you, and they can neither be deflected nor, by the mere exercise of will, overcome. Any freedom from what torments us begins with a proper demonology. Later we may proceed to exorcism.

Alan Jacobs, “Something Happened By Us: A Demonology,” The New Atlantis, Number 68, Spring 2022, pp. 80–89.
Header image: iStock

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