That Which is Not Named: Red Scare
In late May, Real Life ran an essay by Meghan Gilligan on the curious absence of smartphones in film. It went on to discuss “how future innovation is being canceled” in favor of idealized images and modes of film storytelling from the past. In service of that point, Gilligan brought up Simon Reynolds’ 2010 book Retromania, and Mark Fisher’s writings on hauntology.
The appearance of that Real Life article came at an uncanny time for me, as I was just finishing a version of this letter which was also about hauntology. I had crafted a nice little argument about how hauntology operates via recursion. But then I became haunted by something else. Why had Gilligan and I elected to discuss hauntology now? The word, a portmanteau of haunt and ontology, was coined back in 1993. Few have written about it, and its heyday has long since passed.
I can only answer for myself. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on hauntology lately because I've been reading a lot of Mark Fisher. And I’ve been reading Fisher lately because I heard him discussed by Simon Reynolds on an episode of the podcast Red Scare.
I would assume this was just a coincidence if not for something else Gilligan mentioned in her Real Life piece. The example she gave of a contemporary film that portrays phones well was Wobble Palace. I also know of Wobble Palace—but only from Red Scare. There are ostensibly other examples she could have given, but she named that film only, and even named an actress in it (Dasha Nekrasova) who happens to be a co-host of Red Scare. There is nothing unusual about two writers being familiar with the same contemporary references. But in this case, naming things directly related to Red Scare while not naming Red Scare directly is something I keep noticing.
For as often as the podcast is discussed, particularly on Twitter, it is rarely mentioned by name. When people talk about it, they omit letters by spelling it “r*d sc*re.” It is absent in places its presence would be expected, such as “Friends of the Pod,” an editors’ letter about podcasts in the latest issue of n+1. That piece brings up everyone from Marc Maron to Dead Pundits Society and nearly every conceivable descriptor specific to Red Scare (vocal fry, “nihilist shitposters, politically incoherent but reliably mean about other people’s outfits,” Korean skincare, live shows where you’re surrounded by a thousand fanboys, “the realm of subreddits and burner Twitter accounts”—all for $5 on Patreon), yet does not mention Red Scare by name. I’ve come to see Red Scare itself as something of a specter, a presence defined by its own absence.
It’s ironic, as the name “Red Scare” itself connotes the hysteria, especially in the U.S., surrounding the fear of communism, that “specter haunting Europe.” Now, what we have is a hysteria, especially in the U.S., surrounding the fear of coming off across as a Republican, a racist, a bigot, a secretly alt-right “cryptofascist,” or simply not woke enough. The acerbic hosts of Red Scare podcast deliberately mock this hysteria. Their show is positioned squarely within the left, in allegiance, and in critique. But in our era of “you’re either with us or against us,” their mockery is regularly misread as an allegiance to its opposite. When someone noteworthy stans for Red Scare, as Glenn Greenwald did recently, they are met with sincere derision. People who follow Red Scare themselves get unfollowed. To admit you listen to the show has been described as “coming out.” At one of their live shows recently, I was smoking out front and met a fellow fan. When I asked him what he thought about Red Scare, he simply said, “They’re my dirty little secret.”
How should reality depict reality? That Real Life piece was about how films should portray phones, which are a daily part of reality yet are curiously absent from the screen. But there are so many things which are a daily part of our reality yet are curiously absent from reality. Nuance is one. I have it, you have it, yet where is it? Whenever it is spoken, it is not heard. Nonstandard opinions. I have them, you have them, yet where are they? When they are heard, they’re lumped into pre-existing binary categories. Everything is either good or evil, left or right, woke or bigoted. Nothing goes uncategorized; the inquisition spares no one. It is McCarthyism by another name, but conducted as a leisure-time activity by a well-meaning public.
In an agora this polarized, where nuance is absent and its absence is weaponized, the only thing you can do is shut the fuck up. Keep your opinions to yourself. Omit the things you want to talk about. You might even be asked to, if your opinions are particularly unfashionable. But you also have reason to shut up for your own sake. Anything you say is a hill you might die on. I think Anna Khachiyan, a co-host of Red Scare, is worthy of being named by name as one of the most eloquent and vital voices we have, if not only for the fact that she doesn’t shut the fuck up. But to say so is somehow akin to a public admission of guilt. In this climate, I can say whatever I want and I can refuse to self-censor. I also know that when I do, socially at least, I will find myself standing on a hill with a target painted on my chest.
Hope A. Olson’s book, The Power to Name, summarizes that “[t]hose in a position to name hold the power to construct others’ perceptions and realities.” By contrast, when we don’t name something we are speaking about, we abdicate that power. To deliberately omit—whether by a “socially responsible” left Straussian impulse, or a desire for self-preservation—is to hand over the making of meaning to someone else. As most of us are keen to be decent and are duty-bound to uphold the binary of good and evil, insisting on nuance in this politically charged climate is increasingly hard to do. But what use is social responsibility if we fail to take responsibility for how social life is conducted? It is my personal opinion—and an unpopular one—that public social life and civil discourse are under attack by most of us, as seen in our crass impulse to polarize, our refusal to understand “the other side,” our mistrust of internal critique, and a fatalism that believes it’s too late to turn things around. This is what haunts me. I have to name these things by name if I am to try to do anything about them. I feel it is my responsibility to say these things, even as I look around and find myself alone on a hill.