Cover image for A Feeling of Wrongness: Pessimistic Rhetoric on the Fringes of Popular Culture By Joseph Packer and Ethan Stoneman

A Feeling of Wrongness

Pessimistic Rhetoric on the Fringes of Popular Culture

Joseph Packer and Ethan Stoneman


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ISBN: 978-0-271-08235-6

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232 pages
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A Feeling of Wrongness

Pessimistic Rhetoric on the Fringes of Popular Culture

Joseph Packer and Ethan Stoneman

“This work explores our contemporary fascination with pessimism with such a strange relish and joy that one can’t help but feel relief that the end of human exceptionalism means the opening of weird new narratives and worlds (rather than the dire existential crisis we expected). Rigorous and cynical while being jubilant, the book is a marvelous injection of vitalistic wrongness to a sometimes tedious field.”


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In A Feeling of Wrongness, Joseph Packer and Ethan Stoneman confront the rhetorical challenge inherent in the concept of pessimism by analyzing how it is represented in an eclectic range of texts on the fringes of popular culture, from adult animated cartoons to speculative fiction.

Packer and Stoneman explore how narratives such as True Detective, Rick and Morty, Final Fantasy VII, Lovecraftian weird fiction, and the pop ideology of transhumanism are better suited to communicate pessimistic affect to their fans than most carefully argued philosophical treatises and polemics. They show how these popular nondiscursive texts successfully circumvent the typical defenses against pessimism identified by Peter Wessel Zapffe as distraction, isolation, anchoring, and sublimation. They twist genres, upend common tropes, and disturb conventional narrative structures in a way that catches their audience off guard, resulting in belief without cognition, a more rhetorically effective form of pessimism than philosophical pessimism.

While philosophers and polemicists argue for pessimism in accord with the inherently optimistic structures of expressive thought or rhetoric, Packer and Stoneman show how popular texts are able to communicate their pessimism in ways that are paradoxically freed from the restrictive tools of optimism. A Feeling of Wrongness thus presents uncharted rhetorical possibilities for narrative, making visible the rhetorical efficacy of alternate ways and means of persuasion.

“This work explores our contemporary fascination with pessimism with such a strange relish and joy that one can’t help but feel relief that the end of human exceptionalism means the opening of weird new narratives and worlds (rather than the dire existential crisis we expected). Rigorous and cynical while being jubilant, the book is a marvelous injection of vitalistic wrongness to a sometimes tedious field.”
“A new and important perspective on pessimistic appeals. This book’s value lies in its connection of the old theme of pessimism to today’s dominant forms of culture and entertainment. This is a fruitful new approach and will interest people in rhetorical studies, philosophy, film studies, and other disciplines.”
“This book is an important and original contribution to the philosophy of rhetoric and persuasion. It is a provocative intervention into understanding how pessimism, perhaps best understood through feeling, maintains its rhetorical power.”

Joseph Packer is Associate Professor of Communication and Dramatic Arts at Central Michigan University. He is the author of Alien Life and Human Purpose: A Rhetorical Examination Through History.

Ethan Stoneman is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Address at Hillsdale College.

From “Few Defenders” An Introduction

Rustin Cohle: Look, I’d consider myself a realist, all right? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.

Martin Hart: Uh, okay, what’s ’at mean?

Rustin Cohle: Means I’m bad at parties.

—True Detective (2014)1

The rhetoric of pessimism is, to say the least, off-putting. The Romanian aphorist E. M. Cioran, for instance, informs readers that, contrary to their best (even modest) wishes, the world is a place where “pleasures vanish . . . while the memory of pain is poignant.” An unpleasant idea, to be sure, though perhaps even more disconcerting is cult horror writer Thomas Ligotti’s bald pronouncement that life is “malignantly useless,” a pure negation. Life may very well be mournfully wretched, but it would be foolish, Ligotti reasons, to attribute any value to that suffering. After all, argues the arch-pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, life is no more than a “constant dying,” a perpetual misery machine, entirely lacking in any meaning or purpose—that is, apart from its own blind, stupid self-consumption. And yet for all that doom and gloom, stylistically, such typical histrionics border on the laughably repellent, providing those who find pessimism otherwise irksome a convenient excuse to write it off as the self-indulgent ramblings of middle-aged, bourgeois cranks. Pessimists would be so lucky, however, if popular objections to pessimism were primarily driven by aesthetic preferences. But one suspects that resistance to pessimistic sentiment runs deeper than concerns for style and expression, that it stems principally from a disagreement over fundamental beliefs, values, and attitudes. For as a philosophical orientation, pessimism runs counter to majority dispositions that regard life and living as, in some way, meaningful and purposive, as justifying—even if against all odds—hope in a brighter future, in a better, or at the very least livable, tomorrow. Hence, for the pessimist seeking to win converts, merely “toning down the language” and pursuing a rhetorical strategy of careful argumentation and sober analysis would most likely meet with very little persuasive success. It would thus appear that pessimism faces, at the outset, a rhetorical challenge that is prima facie insuperable: in proselytizing to the unconverted, pessimism rejects the data—things assumed as facts—that form the basis of common-sense reasoning and valuation.

All the same, even if pessimists found an audience willing to entertain their ideas, they would still face another significant hurdle, namely, that the denial of existential significance is at some odds with the affirmative function of rhetoric to preserve a world of meaning, one in which material reality is not blindly cruel and indifferent but welcoming, reassuring, and kind. Indeed, as Michael Hyde argues, this activity points up to what could be described as rhetoric’s urfunction, that is, to “transform space and time into ‘dwelling places’” and in such a way that “we might feel more at home with others and our surroundings.” This transformation of life’s basic, a priori conditions—from stark reality to hospitable, humanizing habitat—is thus not only at odds with the pessimistic depiction of the world but also anathema to the pessimists’ goal of a lucidity in the face of social, cultural, even metaphysical illusions of optimism. Honed over thousands of years, the very structure of information transfer and persuasion simply does not lend itself to pessimistic messages. Indeed, beginning with the Older Sophists of the fifth century, rhetoric has tended to embrace an optimistic perspective, especially with regard to questions concerning the meaning-making capacity of language and the prospect of human agency via symbolic action. That tendency, however, is only incidental to the systematic study and intentional practice of effective symbolic expression. (Such an inclination says more about how the tool is applied—and the appliers—than about the tool itself.) Less incidental is the notion that rhetoric, conceived of as “a kind of subtly articulated machine,” is itself unavoidably oriented toward the accomplishment of some end, that it is inescapably goal-oriented and therefore optimistic. Common rhetorical strategies, for instance—what Aristotle termed topoi —presuppose the possibility, if not likelihood, of discursively mediated resolution. What’s more, such structural features also presuppose an underlying subjective dimension. According to the early twentieth-century pessimist Carlo Michelstaedter, rhetoric also designates an innate capacity of mind, one that, by imposing certain limitations on human consciousness, reflects, intensifies, and anticipates any number of anti-pessimistic and pro-optimistic biases. Either way, the bias for optimism is as evident as it is unshakable: rhetoric is a practicable, sense-making machine with which to impose order on a fundamentally disordered nature, to forge relationships between consciousness and a world of experience calling for meaning.

Quite apart from these structural tendencies, the rhetorical injunction to draw on audiences’ cognitive and affective prejudices would still pose a rather obvious problem for pessimism. Over and above rhetoric’s built-in propensity for meaning making, audiences still carry with them a variety of ingrained, nonideological defense mechanisms, many of which make traditional rhetorical appeals exceedingly inadequate for the rhetor-pessimist. Not to put too fine a point on it, most modern people are simply, and profoundly, hostile to pessimistic sentiment. Rhetoric therefore runs aground when the reality it discloses is not the reality that most people recognize as “really real,” that is, when the unconcealed reality is undiluted by beliefs in things such as linear progress, stability of meaning, and the intelligibility of the material world.

Contributing to this line of critique, the late Norwegian deep ecologist Peter Wessel Zapffe argues that such structures of thought function as reflexive anti-pessimistic strategies, which, when appropriately stimulated, serve to obstruct the rhetorical efficacy of pessimistic argumentation. Specifically, he identifies four distinct, albeit related, constraints that hinder the rhetorical efficacy of pessimistic argumentation: distraction, isolation, anchoring, and sublimation. In confronting pessimistic arguments, audiences tend to deploy any or all of these four overlapping strategies as a nonconscious means of inoculating themselves against pessimism’s basic anti-message of pure negation. Although Zapffe does not make use of rhetorical terminology, per se, the strategies name a group of rhetorical liabilities that negatively constrain people’s receptivity to pessimistic ideas and arguments: most people actively avoid pessimistic ideas (isolation), spending their time engaging in frivolities such as watching reality TV or sitcoms (distractions); others rationalize life’s suffering, relying on deeply ingrained structures of meaning and purposiveness (anchoring); still others welcome pain as an important part of life (sublimation). Essentially, each of these resistant strategies goes a long way in explaining why traditional models of rhetoric and argumentation tend not to win many new converts to pessimism: propositional arguments are easy prey for conflicting nonconscious practices and patterns of perceptual experience, especially when the former threaten to expose the latter to uncertainty and contingency. As a result, advocacy for pessimism, if it is to meet with rhetorical success, must address itself to negotiating these strategies, and this entails avoiding argument structures that are inherently anti-pessimistic.

With that observation in mind, this book turns to a variety of less straightforwardly argumentative modes of pessimistic expression—and relatively neglected types of texts—so as to examine some of pessimism’s uncharted rhetorical possibilities and thereby make visible for the cultural critic the rhetorical efficacy of certain alternate ways and means of persuasion. The broader goal, then, is to provide an interpretive heuristic or critical-rhetorical hermeneutic for the identification and critique of nontraditional persuasive strategies, especially, but not exclusively, as they appertain to philosophical pessimism. To that end, the present work engages a wide range of popular culture texts on the premise that nonphilosophically discursive modes of expression are better suited to the production of pessimistic affect—of belief without cognition—than carefully argued treatises and polemics. Unlike the latter, the nondiscursive text carries with it the potentiality of circumventing the counterforces of pessimistic persuasion identified by Zapffe. So too, the specification of “popular” means that the relevant field of cultural production is not only inclusive but also (and more importantly) distinguished by different layers of meaning and sociocultural content, a quality that more easily allows for the exploitation of strategic ambiguity, experiments in expressive form, and the bringing forth of an array of feelings, emotions, and desires. Ranging from genre fiction to fifth-generation video games, our case studies of pop culture artifacts advance pessimistic ideas—and are therefore pessimistic—but they do so while twisting genres, upending common tropes, and disturbing conventional narrative structures. That is to say, they offer “readers” enjoyment, while throwing them off guard and frustrating conventional meaning-mapping, counterpessimistic strategies. In a sense, then, they perform a purer practice of pessimism and construct an ethos more in line with pessimistic thought than the “professionals.” For while the philosophers and the polemicists argue for pessimism in accord with optimistic structures of expressive thought, the texts we highlight communicate their pessimism in ways that are more properly pessimistic and rhetorically effective. Thus freed from the restrictive tools of optimism, pessimism is enabled to address itself, more adequately, to the task of dismantling the façade of the master’s house and to reveal a dwelling place that no one would desire to inhabit.

Pessimism in Nuce

Although the title of “pessimist” has many definitions, most of which encompass broad swaths of individuals, Ligotti claims that to be a pessimist is to subscribe to a specific and inflexible belief about life. A pessimist, he argues, is someone who believes that “life is something that should not be, which means that what they believe should be is the absence of life, nothing, nonbeing, the emptiness of the uncreated.” Similarly, he describes an optimist as “[anyone] who speaks up for life as something that irrefutably should be—that we would not be better off unborn, extinct, or forever lazing in nonexistence—is an optimist.” For Ligotti, people are “either pessimists or optimists.” This disjunction, however, is at odds with the philosopher Joshua Foa Dienstag, who rejects any litmus test for pessimism and instead classifies in terms of “Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘family resemblance.’” Dienstag’s list of pessimists includes many who question the possibility of progress or take a negative view toward humanity but ultimately stop short of arguing that life should not exist or that nonexistence is preferable to existence. This includes such intellectual luminaries as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Miguel de Unamuno, José Ortega y Gasset, Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, Theodor W. Adorno, and Michel Foucault, to name but a few. Ligotti, however, is reluctant to sign off on the pessimistic bona fides of this assortment as a whole, referring to many of its members as “‘heroic’ pessimists, or rather heroic ‘pessimists,’” shifting his scare quotes to challenge both their heroism and pessimism. For Ligotti, a good pessimist is hard to find—not least of all because genuine pessimism demands a level of self-effacement that runs counter to the egoism that often accompanies intellectual creativity and the need to prove one’s scholastic worth.

While pessimism has always been a view held only by a minority, one finds pessimists who meet Ligotti’s strict definition of the term scattered throughout the Western intellectual tradition. Writing in Athens in the fifth century, for instance, Sophocles has the chorus of Oedipus at Colonus sing in the third stasimon of the misery that comes to a long life:

The best is never

To have been born

Or, once alive, die young

And return to oblivion.

Much later, in mid-nineteenth-century Germany, pessimism even gained a small foothold in the academy—and, then, only briefly—through the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer, whose reputation is that of a misanthropic old crank, not only passes the “Ligotti test” but also represents the gold standard of pessimism. On Schopenhauer’s view, individuated human life is nothing but an epiphenomenal series of oscillations between pain and boredom: “Man [sic ] is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.” Although this grim idealism was later eclipsed by Nietzsche’s Dionysiac pessimism of strength, which used Schopenhauer’s philosophy as a point of departure, Schopenhauerian pessimism continues to haunt the tradition of philosophical inquiry, at least in the West.

(Excerpt ends here.)