Amygdala Tapping Metaphysics

Over at The Atlantic, Andrew Bacevich has penned an incisive piece on the American military-industrial complex and the metaphysic required to sustain it.  As is true of the metaphysics that sustain most “world religions,” this one is grounded in fear:

This national-security state derived its raison d’être from — and vigorously promoted a belief in — the existence of looming national peril. On one point, most politicians, uniformed military leaders, and so-called defense intellectuals agreed: the dangers facing the United States were omnipresent and unprecedented. In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills, a professor of sociology at Columbia, dubbed this perspective “military metaphysics.”

This metaphysic insidiously piggybacks on neurological structures that are evolutionarily ancient.  The amygdala or its equivalent is found in all vertebrate lineages and is over 500 million years old.  With proper sensory inputs, the amygdala generates avoidance behaviors and in humans, fear responses.

In a world filled with predators, fear is unequivocally adaptive.  Too much fear, however, quickly becomes maladaptive and debilitating.  In humans, too much fear — a state of constant alarm or irrational assessment of risk — is known as phobia.

The trick, for anyone interested in sustaining a certain kind of political or religious order, is to generate just enough fear — on a constant basis — to keep everyone in line.  If the fear can be internalized then all the better.  As a process, it brings to mind the twinned notions of habit and hegemony from Of Revelation and Revolution, the 1991 classic by Jean and John Comaroff:

This kind of nonagentive power proliferates outside the realm of institutional politics. What is more, it may not be experienced as power at all, since its effects are rarely wrought by overt compulsion. They are internalized, in their negative guise, as constraints; in their neutral guise, as conventions; and, in their positive guise, as values.

[T]he making of hegemony involves the assertion of control over various modes of symbolic production. That control, however, must be sustained over time and in such a way that it becomes, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

For it is only by repetition that signs and practices cease to be perceived or remarked; that they are so habituated, so deeply inscribed in everyday routine, that they may no longer be seen as forms of control — or seen at all.

Therein lies not only the genius but also the longevity of such metaphysics.  Fear becomes so internalized and habitual it is scarcely noticed, yet is so deeply insinuated in society and mind it generates a kind of discipline that masquerades as virtue.  It is deliciously dialectical that the love of something, whether it be gods or countries, must be rooted in and regulated by fear.

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