Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Dominic Pettman reviews Creepiness

Adam Kotsko. Creepiness. Alresford: Zero Books, 2015. 137 pp.

Review by Dominic Pettman

9 August 2018

A specter is haunting contemporary culture—the specter of creepiness. This according to Adam Kotsko in the third—and most suggestive—volume of his “trinity of social dysfunction,” which also includes Awkwardness (2010) and Why We Love Sociopaths (2012). In Creepiness, Kotsko isolates and analyses an affect which has become ubiquitous in everyday discussions of social life and cultural phenomena. Who, after all, has not been “creeped out” by a person, character, or situation in the past week? Kotsko begins his brief foray into this territory with the enigmatic and unsettling King character from late-aughts Burger King commercials: a mute, inhuman sovereign who appears unsummoned in people’s homes and lives without warning or obvious intent. This avatar of creepiness heads Kotsko’s parade of televisual and cinematic figures who make us feel uncomfortable, but who may be all the more compelling to watch because of that: Don Draper, Francis Underwood, the Fonz, Steve Urkel, Uncle Jesse, Jim Carrey’s cable guy, and Theodor from Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013), just to name a few.

Kotsko relies primarily on Freud as his conceptual guide to the paradoxical admixture of repulsion and attraction we feel in the face of creepiness. This mixture stems from what he calls “the inherent creepiness of sexuality” (p. 6)—which is to say, the inherent excess of desire that is forever leaking out the side of our thoughts, words, and actions. Rather than provide a clear sense or definition of creepiness, detailing the logic or mechanics of this excess, Kotsko prefers to leave our working understanding as omnipresent and nebulous as creepiness itself, as found in the popular imagination. At times, it seems to be synonymous with everything irreconcilable about being human, and all that threatens to break free of the leash of the superego. Moreover, creepiness is treated as an almost exclusively libidinal phenomenon; Kotsko does not open up the discussion toward other forms of this unsettling affect such as the uncanny valley (in which a nonhuman object appears to become human) or disorienting reversals of worldview (as when a trusted source is revealed to be anything but). In this brief treatise, creepiness is assumed and anatomized.

In his previous work, Kotsko makes the claim that awkwardness is an ontological given, a primary effect of our being thrown in to the existential disorientation of human commerce (a pop-Heideggerian premise). The social order then emerges in response to this primal cringe and arranges itself to minimize our discomfort in the face of everyday alterity. In Creepiness, however, the author is at pains to account for the uncanny structure of feeling which emerges when we grapple with our own drives and find them at odds with the smooth functioning of social life. “[T]here is a sense,” Kotsko writes, clearly riffing on a Žižekian dirge, “in which desire is fundamentally and irreducibly enigmatic” (p. 9). Which in turn creates a collective surplus of sleazy fuel.

Enter the “creepy uncle,” who Kotsko reads as both an emblem of inter-subjective distrust, and a disavowal of the creepiness that lurks in the bosom of the Oedipal family itself (p. 12). It is on this mildly abject presence that we can project the unease we feel with not only ourselves, but with the parental figures who represent trust and care (no matter the social statistics or reality). The trope of the creepy uncle is partly due to his liminal status as both a part of, but also not directly inside, the nuclear family. As this gendering makes clear (there are very few creepy aunts on our TV screens), creepiness has a special relationship to masculinity and its own sense of fragility and crisis halfway into the second decade of the third millennium. “With no possible justification for their own persistence,” Kotsko writes, “white straight men fall back on their last pathetic refuge: ‘I may be a pathetic creep, but at least I’m honest!’” (p. 19). (Kotsko, writing before the #MeToo movement helped expose the troubling behavior of Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby (among others) perhaps moves too quickly toward an intersectional perspective, declining to take this opportunity to explore what is creepy about masculinity “itself,” before he considers racialized inflections or class concerns.) In any case, looking back on the 1960s, when white men were only beginning to sense the threat to their cultural hegemony, we find husbands who now scan as the most creepy aspect of shows like Bewitched (1964–1972), I Dream of Jeannie (1965–1970), or even The Flintstones (1960–1966). Such slippages and genealogies are not explored further, unfortunately.     

Indeed, at one point, the author notes: “If I had attempted to do a study of creepiness as early as five years ago, when I began this series, it would not have worked—there simply were not enough good pop-cultural examples. Now, however, there are plenty” (p. 17). This is a rather mystifying claim, as so many of the author’s own examples come from 1980s and ’90s sitcoms. In any case, as with the other books in the trilogy, Kotsko is concerned with sketching a taxonomy within each key category; and on this occasion he breaks down creeps into the familiar Freudian types of perverts, neurotics, obsessives, and hysterics. One wonders, however, why this book sticks so faithfully with Freudian archetypes when affect theory—one of the most popular and generative interdisciplinary fields at present—has so many other conceptual tools and analytic lenses to work with. (The work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sarah Ahmed, Patricia Clough, Melissa Gregg, Sianne Ngai, Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, and Brian Massumi come immediately to mind, as do such key concepts as performativity, emotional labor, political economies of feeling, queer negativity, cruel optimism, closeted epistemology, aesthetic ambivalence, the haptic, the virtual, impersonal intimacy, and the like.) Kotsko is certainly not wrong that the Viennese witch-doctor can still help us think through the unheimlich in its many manifestations. But given the fact that he is also an accomplished translator of Agamben, and a neo-Renaissance man in terms of critical theory generally, it is not clear why he declines to bring his deep erudition to bear on this topic. After all, if our analysis is based on Freudian diagnostic categories, it too often becomes the equivalent of finding Easter eggs which we ourselves put there in the first place.

In any case, there are certainly sharp insights to be found here, especially concerning the dynamics and mechanics of character development through an affective filter. But some readers will be frustrated with an overly conversational approach that is presumably the legacy of Kotsko’s time as a well-known blogger and cultural commentator. No doubt this trilogy would make a good introduction to media analysis for undergraduates, who have not yet sutured their fan instincts with the broader cultural conclusions one can glean when paired with critical thinking. But it is too breezy for the academic arena (there are no footnotes, for instance). A great deal of definitional or conceptual work is glossed over or left offstage. Many references are made to “the social order,” for instance, but what is meant by this exactly? Such an all-enveloping phrase is no doubt a useful talisman for making a general claim, but too often it is simply stated as a given; static and looming. (And is further complicated by Kotsko’s claim in previous books that society is broken.)

How, for instance, is “the social order” mapped on to, say, the parochialism of American popular culture? Sociologists, I imagine, will be frustrated with a lack of social theory; historians with a lack of diachronic context; media theorists with a lack of formal analysis and sense of medium specificity—what is often referred to disparagingly as “Buffy Studies,” or what Friedrich Kittler dismissed as mere “gossip” (which is to say, anything at all to do with the representational content of cinema after 1895). And yet these shortcomings lend a kind of more-ish quality to Kotsko’s books, so that one turns the pages in the same way one might go on a Netflix binge—to see what happens next, and how he might retroactively account for the lacunae. At one point Kotsko asks, “What does Scandal want from us?” (p. 114). As I read this book I found myself wondering: what does Creepiness want from us?—other than to see the potentially socially redeeming qualities of Wes Anderson films. In the end, perhaps the author himself has already described his own methodology best, as “a kind of folk social analysis.”[1]

Indeed, what are we to make of pronouncements such as: “Creepiness points toward the ultimate breakdown of the social order at the same time as it accounts for its origin and its present hold on its members. Creepiness is thus the past, present, and future of human society: its eternal precondition, its eternal motor, and its eternal obstacle” (p. 121)? Especially when the book previously went to such pains to convince us that creepiness has really only become a spectacular symptom in the past few years?

And as with all inventories, those figures that are missing from the discussion haunt the reader as much, if not more, than those that made the cut. Why no mention of Quagmire? Or Dr. Smith? Or Dr. Phil? Or Michael Jackson? Or Bad Santa (2003)? Or Observe and Report (2009)? Or Jeff Goldblum? Or, going back a bit, why not The Nutty Professor (1963 and 1996). Or An American in Paris (1951)? Surely David Lynch deserves his own chapter? And what about Caveh Zahedi’s film, I Am a Sex Addict (2005); surely one of the creepiest films ever made? Or in terms of meme culture, what about the YouTube video that adds creepy music to the title sequence of Different Strokes? (It is both interesting and ironic that The Addams Family [1965–1966] are the least creepy family to ever appear on TV.)

Another problem emerges, with an affect as diffuse and abstract as creepiness. Confirmation of its textual or actual presence is at least partly subjective. Its influence and effects are contextual, intersectional, and subcultural. What creeps out your neighbor—the one with the Trump bumper sticker—may not be what makes you feel mentally queasy. Indeed, there is a strong political aspect to creepiness that is largely glossed over here. Structurally, Kotsko places himself at an Archimedean point to judge levels of creepiness, as when he pronounces the US version of House of Cards (2013–2018) to be “creepier” than the UK one (1990); or when he twice describes the 1970s as inherently creepy (pp. 13, 42). (Personally I find the 1980s far more unnerving, with their teased and shoulder-padded Reaganite neoliberal aesthetics.) One begins to wonder if this book is an extended projection of millennial distaste onto more permissive, less squeamish eras? Could it be that this book is itself a symptom of what I would call desiraphobia in an age of amplified aversion? Maybe the creepiest aspect of the present moment is its insistence on seeing creepiness everywhere.

As every user of social media knows, creepiness can be deployed strategically and twinned with overstating harm whenever discomfort descends, as Sarah Schulman has shown so brilliantly in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse.[2] I would have thus liked to see more self-reflexivity from Kotsko in terms of judgement and criteria, as well as of the normative or censorious force of this specific accusation, no matter how banal or trivial, in today’s overheated climate. (Kotsko strangely concludes with a cautious faith in the power of hysteria to challenge the social order in potentially progressive ways. I wonder if he would still support such a claim in Trump’s America.)

Certainly, the section dedicated to the increasing creepiness of Louis C. K.’s character in his own eponymous show reads like a virtuoso piece of fortune-telling in this post-Weinstein, #MeToo moment. And Kotsko has deliberately paid more attention to gender in this third volume, following earlier criticisms of his male-centric reading of awkwardness. Spring Breakers (2012) and Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012–2017) are offered as symptomatic representations of “‘uncastrated’” female creepiness; both contain highly sexualized depictions of female characters, albeit treated to different receptions by fans and the press (p. 59). The enduring popularity of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is also situated in this wish-fulfilment media landscape with a deft analytical hand. One wonders, however, what Kotsko might have said about Get Out (2017) or Atlanta (2016–), if these had been available at the time of writing, given the dramatic racial crevasse that has reopened in our popular discourse and imaginary and the ways black writers and performers are signaling the creepiness of WASP culture and their own gothic coping mechanisms.

Returning to the deus-ex-machina of hysteria, Kotsko concludes:

Sustained hysteria means acknowledging the fact that there will never be a perfect solution to the fundamentally unfixable problem of human creepiness. And once we let go of that fantasy of perfection and fullness, what previously seemed to be a tragic flaw appears instead as an opportunity and even an invitation: to live, to enjoy, to forge new connections, to find new ways of shaping our shared lives together. I have said that for the psychotic, all things are possible—until nothing is. We might say that for the hysteric, that most radical of creeps, not everything is possible—but anything might become so. [P. 124]

Humans, it seems, are stuck with their lot as the creepy uncle of the animal kingdom. And looking around at popular culture, it is difficult to disagree. But I wonder how this vision of a potentially liberating—or at least enabling—hysteria is different from plain old neurosis; the kind that “the social order” relies upon in order to provide the ideological lubrication for resigned, masochistic consent to the status quo? In other words, how does this qualified note of proleptic hope offer something other than simply becoming—to paraphrase Michel Foucault—docile, useful, and creepy?[3]

In any case, Kotsko has written a beguiling invitation to treat these vernacular affects with more attention, and with this he has made a valuable contribution not only to affect studies but to the study of culture and media more generally. Books published by Zero Books were never meant to be the definitive statement on a specific motif, and Creepiness is not only a recommended beach read but also a smart prompt for reflecting more critically on the popularity of eternally unpopular structures—and strictures—of feeling.


[1] Kotsko, Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television (New Alresford, 2012), p. 94.

[2] See Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Vancouver, 2016).

[3] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1995).