Review of "Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television"

Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television is the most pleasurable works of contemporary cultural criticism that I’ve read in long time. Some of this pleasure is in knowing most of the television references that Kotsko uses, such as The Wire, Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and House, while the other is the fact that he foregoes the baroque terminology and labyrinthian logic found in other words of this type I’ve read. Rather than excessively quoting or citing seminal thinkers for justification of his thesis, he relies upon the strength of his argument alone. If this seems unusual to add in a book review, I’ll explain at the end.

Kotsko opens by defining and illustrating a particular character type found within group and social relations: sociopaths. He describes them as amoral, adept manipulators of social conventions that don’t, at least on the surface, fully identify with the social structure of which they are presumed to be a part. Whether or not we are to love, loathe or be ambivalent about sociopaths thus hinges on our understanding of society. Kostko states that a vast majority of humans interactions are scripted in the sense that that they are designed to smooth, ease or otherwise engender a sense of comfort and predictability to our daily patterns of living. Such unwritten rules of behavior structure of our social sphere and can be as simple as not cutting in line, asking a persons level of income and avoiding confrontation. The problem with these rules, however, is two fold. One, there is not unusually a prescribed means for correcting anti-normative social behavior and the social order doesn’t always fulfill the purported function of allaying anxiety and can instead act in a personally, socially and professionally repressive manner. By pointing out the failings of the overvalued social order, Kostko thus provides space for sociopaths to receive a more positive valuation. He then proposes, I believe rightly, that this is part of their appeal to television viewing audiences. Sociopaths may be classified as morally ambiguous or inferior due to their willingness to break conventions, but they are also attractive in their ability to effectively instrumentalize themselves to obtain their desires. It is sociopaths recognition that mores simply perpetuate a specific social order rather than productively provide shared goals and their ability to achieve their goals that makes them attractive to audiences, even if their desires are dubious or in the end don’t give them the satisfaction that they expected.

The flip side of this is ability to mobilize or discard at will social conventions for one’s purpose is found in the category of awkwardness. This has been further described in Kotsko’s book Awkwardness, which I have not read but plan on now that I’ve read this work. In the shorthand explanation Kotsko provides here, Awkwardness occurs in situations where the cultural norms of interactions are unclear, have broken down or don’t exist. Lacking “scripted” socials strategies to follow people feel anxious at the fact that they must exist even only for a few short moments according to their own rules.

Kostko then categorizes different examples of them into three classifications: Schemers, Climber and Enforcers. This tripartition functions more as a continuum from lower (schemer) to highest (enforcer), to allow for some of the sociopathic characters he categorizes as occasionally displaying the traits of others. For instance Gregory House is classified as an Enforcer in the text, however in the show he also is depicted as constantly playing pranks on his colleagues. The classifications themselves relate primarily to characters desires and their perception of barriers to them. Schemers are trying to obtain something they don’t have, climbers are trying to get more of something that they already have, while Enforcers have something and they are trying to keep it.

If this sounds overly simplistic and lacking depth, that’s because it is purposely so as it would defeat the purpose of this review to go into any kind of sustained restatement of Kostko’s analysis of the classifications of sociopathic series protagonists both as I am in accord with them and because of the books relatively short length to do so would give away too much and discourage you from reading something insightful and enjoyable yourself. Instead, I’ll note that the interspersed throughout andante especially towards the end are some devastatingly insightful criticisms, such as how: “our culture-wide fascination with these sociopaths is not sophisticated or rebellious or counter-cultural – rather it serves only to reinforce our collective Stockholm Syndrome” (77).

The conclusion of the text points to the profound social dissatisfaction felt in “late capitalist” society and then illustrates how the listed sociopaths manipulation of the system is insufficient for their goals. Violations of social law are often for the very sake of that law that was broken.For instance Dexter from Dexter, McNulty from The Wire and Jack from 24 all break the law for the sake of the law that is, according to it’s current incarnation, unable to fulfill the promises that it was formed to realize. Kostko’s call for an ever more radical sociopath that “combines the joy of the schemer and the single-mindedness of the enforcer with the creativity, persuasiveness and unsentimental outlook of the climber” is provocative but not simply for the point of being shocking (99). He points, I think correctly, to the manner in which familial and culturally instilled timidity allows for the continuation of a fundamentally anti-social order and the need for people to do more than further it for their own cynical betterment but change it at the root.