Introduction: Panic: State of Mind or Mind of State?

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Panic, this issue's preferred affect, seems to be a plentiful and popular sentiment in our country. It's a close cousin of rage, and it takes hold when people are stressed from working longer hours for less money.

Jonathan Sterne and Zack Furness

Issue #64, September 2003


These days, we hear a lot about "affect" and politics. The rap goes something like this: the left has for too long concentrated on making rational arguments, while the right has appealed to emotion. Therefore, those of us on the left need to find ways to appeal to people's hearts as well as their minds if we hope to be more successful in the 21st century. This talk has been going on in academia since the 1980s — we've heard it many times in the claustrophobic halls of critical theory, and analyzed it within the setting of countless theory seminars. But it's not just an academic sentiment. For example, in the latest Left Business Observer, pseudopublic intellectual Slavoj Zizek opines that one of the reasons it's so hard to organize against wars is that people, well, they just don't want to hear about it.

Yet, it's not like popular culture or the mass media makes us feel warm, safe and cocoon-like. Far from it! Panic, this issue's preferred affect, seems to be a plentiful and popular sentiment in our country. It's a close cousin of rage, and it takes hold when people are stressed from working longer hours for less money, anxious about looming school loans, unable to visit a doctor without hassle, or frightened by watching too many hours of Fox news.

Panic is part of American political discourse as well: both mainstream parties think they can best persuade us by scaring us. The rightly-hated Patriot Act is predicated on Americans being so frightened for their safety that they might be willing to give up their most basic constitutional rights. The democrats, meanwhile, also hope to win elections in 2004 by scaring the electorate. Just listen to the crowd of presidential hopefuls sing in unison: we should freak out about the economy, and we should ask ourselves if we feel any safer after Bush has bombed the hell out of two countries. OK, they do have a point about the effectiveness of Bush's military agenda policy, and let's face it . . . the economy is in the tank. But panic isn't high on the list of emotions conducive to problem-solving, and we sometimes forget that really bad things can happen when everyone is freaked out.

Should we panic about Bush

This issue examines panic and politics from a few different perspectives. Ann Dutton and Kevin Carollo's essays connect the deeply personal experience of Panic with larger political questions. Dutton criticizes the casual attitude toward mental illness in American culture, while Carollo connects psychology and national aggression. James Palazzolo takes a different route by providing some suggestions for how one might effectively panic. Katy Gall and Vikram Kambampati examine the corrupt banking practices that lead to the horror of excessive mortgage debt for families, and they chronicle how ACORN has fought predatory lending practices. Mike Mosher examines warfare as a response to something other than panic — arguing that there may be a just cause for war, but the U.S. hasn't managed to find one lately. Zack Furness asks why the U.S. news media expected New Yorkers to panic during this summer's blackout. Jonathan Sterne concludes the issue with an analysis of how public relations practices help produce war panics.


Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh and is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team. Visit his home page at http://www.pitt.edu/~jsterne.

Zack Furness is a graduate student in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.

Credits: HitlerBush graphic copyright ©2003 TimmyTatts. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Sterne and Zack Furness. All rights reserved.

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