The Anxiety of the Threshold

2013 January 2
by Carl Watson

Janus oversees the the threshold of indecision

Profane experience = homogeneity of space, therefore: “No true orientation is now possible, for the fixed point no longer enjoys a unique ontological status; it appears and disappears in accordance with the needs of the day. Properly speaking, there is no longer any world, there are only fragments of a shattered universe, an amorphous mass consisting of an infinite number of more or less neutral places….” Mircea Eliade

It has been said—I forget by whom— that one of the problems of modern humanity is that he/she has no true threshold experience. Crossing the threshold is often thought to be the great experience of life. That moment when you step out, or into, into a new world, a new job, a new title, etc. One often undergoes a ritual passage that changes them, causes them to become a man, a woman, or a priest, a doctor, a shaman, or merely someone who has “been there,” been beyond the everyday, beyond the confinement of the normal, beyond the known. On the other side of that gate or door or date, we learn that the world is not what we maybe thought, but something much greater and much more important. The threshold experience is often seen as the taking on of responsibility, maybe responsibility for one’s own life, and the decisions one makes.

But what if no one is capable of making decisions: can there even be a threshold, or can there only be anxiety? The culture I believe is overcome with what I call the Anxiety of the Threshold: an inability to progress, a need for direction where there are no prescriptions, a need for guidance where there is too much information.

It is, after all, January, named after Janus, the two-faced God of the Threshold. (A Janitor cleans the mess at the threshold.) We have passed over into a new year, the actual date of the changing year being arbitrary and probably made to coincide in some way with the Winter Solstice. Many people get wasted so they can forget they actually crossed it. Thousands of gullible enthusiasts are now making threshold resolutions—they are going to lose weight, make more money, get the girl, get the boy, buy the big ticket item, whatever. And almost no one will follow though on these, which makes the threshold meaningless. Like Janis Joplin and others have said, “It’s all the same fucking day, man.”

Along with the temporal threshold, we have passed a fiscal threshold as well, a fiscal cliff was passed over. How did we cross it? We did so by rendering it meaningless like so many other politically fabricated thresholds. Papers were signed and laws were passed that mean nothing. Another non-event made to seem crucial, symbolic, apocalyptic even. (Remember the Mayan Doomsday?) Not unlike the priests of ancient times, today’s politicians up the ante for the purpose of heightening the importance of their jobs—yes, by manufacturing these crises and their accompanying thresholds they not only gain in false stature, but they create anxiety in the public while lining their pockets with public cash.

Should I go or stay? What do my friends say?

It is anxiety but it is a different type of anxiety I will discuss here. But it is related to that other threshold anxiety that we all bear witness to everyday. Have you ever noticed how no one these days seems to be able to get past a doorway or out the subway, or even step on a train for that matter without consulting their smart phone. “Am I doing the right thing?” they ask. “Am I missing something?” It has been observed that no millennial (another recent threshold) can cross a threshold without conferring with their mass brain. All decisions are mediated. All possibilities must be considered. These traffic jams that seem to form at exits and entranceways around the city, at the top of the subway steps, at the open doors of taxis, at the exits of office buildings—these may seem to be the result of the new culture of infinite choice. Or are they?

I have often made the point t hat much of this dithering is a result of the “Infantilization of the Culture,” that high capitalism has wrought. And a part of this enforced childhood can be traced to the intense propaganda against failure. You better not make a mistake in this hyper-competitive society. Wherefore one asks oneself, “Should I step boldly into the next second of my life, what if I choose unwisely?” Your mistakes stay with you in these socially mediated days. We are constantly confronted with what we did wrong, both immediately after we did it, and forever after we did it. This has something to do newly the aggressive presence of digital memory, which is now a public property—everyone knows what you did and what you thought at every moment. You (meaning everybody) are finally accountable. No wonder everyone is anxious all the time about what they do.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

To add aggravation to this accountability is the intensity of advertizing and the myth of infinite choice. The mind stalls before the vast possibilities. Indeed, it has been proven that the surplus of choices actually slows down the decision making process, sometimes to the point that people find themselves unable to even make a choice; they retract from choice into a static state, unable and unwilling to move ahead. Here advertizing plays both sides of the fence. Advertizing would like to help you. What is often advertized is precisely the fun and adventure of an exciting Threshold Experience. But advertizing almost immediately takes that excitement away from you. They promise adventure (a new you), but then they make sure you won’t actually have to have that adventure, because they will be there to help you “every step of the way. ” Yes, you don’t have to do anything, just be entertained.

Modern parents increasingly report and epidemic of “indecision” amongst their children. Why should we be surprised? Not only do the choices seem to have multiplied exponentially, but they continue to increase even as you attempt to make a choice. Media can present you with new possibilities within a nanosecond of your asking. Who could choose to do anything in such an environment? This has to have an effect on the mind, deep in the decision making lobes of the brain. And, in fact, it is being scientifically proven that human brains are being rewired.

There is a conflict then between our freedom of “choice,” and our desire for certainty, our ability to portray agency. But we live in an era of commercially driven serialization, so that nothing ever ends and everything re-begins—the same story plays over and over again. And so it goes and so it ever will be, and the threshold continues to dissolve the moment our foot approaches it. Or as I suggested, maybe it was never there to begin with. It was a false promise, a bait and switch.

Cerberus inspiring fear in among the citizens.

But here’s another theory. Perhaps it’s just the way-too-important quality of the Threshold Experience. It’s tough to handle for the infantilized mind grown weak on the milk of perpetual guidance. More than that, however, the threshold represents authority, hierarchy, and Homo Democritus needs to be able to belittle it, knock it down a notch. After all, there have been many gods of the threshold: Janus, Ganesha, Cerberus, Legba. In some cultures proper respect needs to be paid, even at the doorway to someone’s home. Some bow down and touch the earth, some make offerings, some mumble prayers or incantations. But those mumbled prayers are now spoken into palm sized screens, as the Smart Phone replaces yesterday’s Threshold God. Android: our new Oracle. Turn right or left. Let’s ask. Lay down and die, or get up and live? What does the collective suggest?

My last theory is this: Threshold Anxiety is merely the infiltration of chaos theory into the popular psyche. And this, to me, seems likely as I watch the cars on the highway wander chaotically from lane to lane. The drivers cannot decide what path they should take or where to get off; they slow to a near stop before exit ramps and intersections unsure of their decision, causing traffic jams behind them. Traffic jams, depending on how you look at them, might be said to be an emergent forms of organization (perhaps this is how life began, after all—in a traffic jam of elements). If this previous speculation is true, then, GPS (a requirement for today’s directionally addled brain), inasmuch as it facilitates the relief of traffic congestion, might actually be considered a force of disorder, erasing the overwrought distinction between profane and sacred space, i.e. where you are and where your spirit would be. In this erasure we approach the Plane of Consistency where all artifacts, all space, all delineations are of equal value. This of course, is chaos. This is the state of today’s mediated mind, today’s political mind, today’s shopping mind. Go ahead, they dare you to make a choice. Whatever you do, you lose.

Happy Passing. Congratulations on your achievement.

Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

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