The Reaction Economy

From the LROB:

* Talent shows such as The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing revolve around the facial reactions of celebrity judges; figures such as Simon Cowell are specialists in the manipulation of an eyebrow or the spontaneous look of surprise. Seasoned characters such as Piers Morgan are cynically aware that what will keep them in the spotlight is the force, distinctiveness and watchability of their knee-jerk responses, which are essentially designed to ignite reaction chains.

We have no term for this type of celebrity or authority, one who successfully maintains an influential public position through a capacity and willingness to react in spectacular ways. The public reactor is in part a descendant of the Greek chorus, which would share the stage with the actors in a play, responding to events as they unfolded. An exaggerated capacity to react has been a significant factor in the fortunes of many unlikely political leaders in recent years. Donald Trump’s affective state is one of seeming constantly on the edge of losing his temper. He appears braced for an angry encounter at any moment, something that has added a sense of danger and excitement to his political career. Boris Johnson, by contrast, always appears to be on the verge of bursting out laughing.

* Those with a pronounced and visible capacity to be publicly enraged or publicly amused (it is Nigel Farage’s distinction to appear forever angry and amused at the same time) have been central to politics in the last decade, and to the ‘populist’ upheavals that have afflicted liberal democracies. The continually enraged or amused political leader appears to serve as a representative, or emotional prosthesis, for those whose hostility to contemporary politics otherwise has no outlet. Rage and laughter have also acquired important political and critical functions in this digital public sphere, where they animate the denunciation of political and economic systems in a context where the formal or ‘mainstream’ mechanisms of evaluation and judgment have come to seem rotten.

* Where the conservative seeks to temper the ambitions of the progressive and to highlight contingent sources of social solidarity (such as religious community or cultural identity), the reactionary seeks a more wholesale reckoning with modernity, angrily stripping away its delusions and falsehoods. For the true reactionary, the establishment (as cherished by conservatives) is too weak, too complacent, to resist the threat of progressives and revolutionaries. A more aggressive right-wing agenda is needed, which would reverse not only the gains of the left, but the long decline of the establishment that opened the door to the left in the first place. For the reactionary, the ordinary conservative has been asleep at the wheel.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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