December 12, 2002
Code Orange: Panic in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
-- Jeremy Biles
Over a year has passed since the disaster of September 11, 2001. During this time, America has been in a state of "heightened alert." Code Orange, even when not officially declared by the government, has become the order of the day. The panic that ensued in the wake of the attacks has thus endured; indeed, it has become "the key psychological mood" of our time (as Arthur Kroker puts it). No longer an exceptional state, panic is a defining feature of American life -- what we might call the panic quo.
In Greek mythology, the god Pan, from whom the term "panic" is derived, is usually a benevolent god of fertility. But if angered, he disrupts sleep, disperses nightmares, and induces a fearful frenzy and blind terror among those who have roused his fury.
It is particularly dangerous to disturb this god at noontime, when he himself is sleeping. That Pan closes his eyes at noon, when the sun is at its apex, is illuminating, for it is against the deep blue of noon that the sun's orange blaze is most likely to blind those who look upon it. To rouse this god at noon is to court the blindness that he induces; in other words, it is equivalent to staring at the sun, risking the waking nightmare of a frenzy at once blazing and obscuring.
Pan, like his cousin Dionysus, is an ambivalent god -- he is a lover of sleep who disturbs sleep, a placid flute-player whose sudden rage awakens madness in his victims. It is not incidental, then, that I compare Pan with the sun. The writer Georges Bataille elucidates the ambivalence of the sun: "The sun, from the human point of view (in other words, as it is confused with the notion of noon) is the most elevated conception. It is also the most abstract object, since it is impossible to look at it fixedly at that time of day." He goes on to claim that "in the same way that the [unscrutinized] sun is perfectly beautiful, the one that is scrutinized can be considered horribly ugly."
This is the sun's disastrous nature -- it is the astral body that gives us the light by which we conduct our waking lives, and also the disastrous body that threatens an explosive lucency that overwhelms sight. Panic also partakes of a dual nature. I would define panic as excessive wakefulness bereft of lucidity. Today, we are the recipients of repeated governmental exhortations to be alert, yet there is no specific object for our alertness. We are told to remain attentive, to be on the lookout -- for one knows not what. Attention, which has been called "the natural prayer of the soul," becomes panic when shriven of the intelligence that would grant it an object.
Substituting "panic" for "work of art" in Walter Benjamin's famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," I suggest that, "To an ever greater degree panic reproduced becomes panic designed for reproduction." To be sure, technologies of reproduction coupled with the tendency of the media to capitalize on disaster for sensationalist ends are, at least in part, to blame for the protracted panic in which we find ourselves. The onslaught of images of disaster, which are reproduced ad infinitum, do not elucidate but rather blind by their excessiveness. This reproduction gives rise to a panicked sensation of "incessant imminence" (Blanchot) -- the ominous, distressing, blind sense that something disastrous is on the horizon. And all this, at times, seems to be the strategy of the various media outlets, that is, to make an art of inducing panic.
Today, panic is indeed designed for reproduction, and the frenzy of images that, along with the lack of illuminating intelligence, induces and reproduces this panic makes it impossible to sight the very events for which we are to be on alert.
What vigilance must be today: the constant conversion of our wakeful panic into prayers uttered with eyes wide shut, as we prepare for an event that can only ever reach us as a shock.
Jeremy Biles is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Literature at the Divinity School and a current Marty Center Dissertation Fellow.