What do Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Stringer Bell, Dexter, and Nucky Thompson all have in common (besides being central characters of hit shows)?*
Adam Kotsko, author of Awkwardness, has a wonderful little essay up at The New Inquiry. It’s almost enough to renew one’s faith in the cultural studies paradigm so cruelly satirized in Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
For every average Joe saying to himself, “I wish I was like Tony Soprano,” then, there’s a member of the ruling class saying to himself, “You know, I am kind of like Tony Soprano—it’s not always pretty, but I do what needs to be done.” What both fail to recognize is that Tony Soprano’s actions are no more admirable or necessary than the decision to exclude some poor schlub from the in-group on the playground. More fundamentally, both fail to recognize that what is going on is a social phenomenon, a dynamic that exceeds and largely determines the actions of the individuals involved—not a matter of some people simply being more callous or amoral (though some people certainly are) or being more clear-eyed and realistic (as few of us really are in any serious way).
The fantasy of the sociopath, then, represents an attempt to escape from the inescapably social nature of human experience. The sociopath is an individual who transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool. The two elements of the fantasy sociopath may not make for a psychologically plausible human being, but they are related in a rigorously consistent way.
Indulging in the fantasy of the sociopath is thus the precise opposite of the strategy of indulging in the primordial social experience of awkwardness. Both approaches, however, respond to the same underlying reality, which is a social order that is breaking down, making impossible demands while failing to deliver on its promises.
*H/t Jason Read