Postcards from a PhD
The premise of Dr. Adam Kotsko’s 2015 book, Creepiness, was one that intrigued me: that creepiness as a construct within contemporary culture has ‘caught-up’ with Freud’s definition of the unheimlich and therefore can be used as a means to analyse certain aspects of popular culture that make us uneasy. Part of my thesis will look at the construction of the uncanny within music and this seemed like a relevant and new angle on the subject.
The introduction makes a good case for the compatibility of ‘creepiness’ and Freudian theory, and towards the end of this section Kotsko lays out the structure of the rest of the book, with a chapter apiece on hysteria, obsession, psychosis and perversion, Freud’s diagnostic categories. Kotsko suggests that because of cultural similarities between turn of the century Vienna and 1950s America and the way echoes of the latter still permeate the cultural milieu of the present, Freud’s categories “fit extremely well into ‘mainstream’ (white straight male) popular culture”. Very interesting I thought… well, I am researching a genre of creepy pop music primarily produced by straight, white men…
Having got to the end of the book I am pleased to report that I don’t think all producers of hauntological music are hysterical, obsessive, psychotic perverts, which is a relief for everyone I’m sure. Unfortunately I am also considerably less convinced by Kotsko’s hypothesis than I had hoped to have been. I am left with a general feeling of insubstantiality of content – Creepiness has the bare bones of an interesting journal article, but a whole book seems to be really pushing it. It doesn’t even have a concluding chapter. Having read an electronic version I cannot categorically comment on how physically flimsy it is, but having managed to get from (virtual) cover to (virtual) cover over 5 consecutive lunch breaks I think I get the gist.
Kotsko is a scholar of Žižek and it shows. Žižek’s frame of reference is famously broad and without high/lowbrow distinction, covering everything from Proust to pubic hair. However, where Žižek uses cultural references to illustrate the relevance of critical theory, simplifying it in the process, Kotsko flips the dynamic and seems to (over)complicate popular culture by attempting to explain it via psychoanalytical thought. This is partly because of Kotsko’s insistence on going back to basics with Freud and Lacan, rarely incorporating contemporary interpretations of their work beyond the aforementioned Žižek, but also because he labours over his examples, going into plot detail (most of his source material comes from contemporary television) far beyond that necessary to make his point. The result of this is a perpetual sense of not quite being sure what the point is.
The examples too feel arbitrarily chosen and a little inaccessible to the reader outside North America. Some chapters rely far too heavily on programmes not widely syndicated outside of the US. This applies to chapter two particularly, with its elaborate deconstructions of Family Matters and Fullhouse, two ABC sitcoms so alien to the reader who grew up outside of 1980s America that for all I know they could be a product of Kotsko’s imagination. Even those examples drawn from the contemporary roster of big budget boxset TV such as House of Cards or The Sopranos often feel like they’ve been chosen because Kotsko wants to write about them not because they are the most apposite.
Creepiness suffers from an identity crisis. One can’t say it qualifies as pop-psychology because the content is so heavily weighted towards the pop that the psychology barely gets a look in. Yet the visual materials Kotsko draws on are too inconsistent to appeal to a particular genre fan base. It’s not a bad book as such, but is that most damning category of publications, the ‘easy read’. Occasionally interesting, occasionally funny, but ultimately forgettable, a book you chat about in the pub, not cite in a scholarly work. I do genuinely hope that someday someone will commission Kotsko to produce a episode by episode analysis of Mad Men, not only would it have a more clearly identifiable audience, but it is also evidently the book he really wanted to write.