I am not sure when I first heard the phrase "broke their brain" but I know that I have heard it multiple times. I have heard it used to explain the obsession with cancel culture on the part of the pundit class. That once they were subject to criticism and mockery online it effectively broke their brain, making it impossible for them to distinguish between criticism and actual threats to free speech. I have also heard it used to refer to the 2020 election and its aftermath.The idea underlying the phrase, at least as I understand it, as that something can happen that is so difficult for particular individuals to process or make sense of, that it effectively hinders their ability to make sense of everything after. It marks a traumatic before and after in which nothing ever makes sense again.
I am not sure when the term first came into existence. Urban dictionary ties it to the Trump presidency and Covid, but others would point to the fact that Trump himself is a product of another event that broke many Americans and that is the Obama Presidency. From there it is possible to go further back to 9/11 and so on. As a theory it can at best be described as a descriptive theory. It describes without necessarily explaining what is happening. As Althusser argued descriptive theories can function as both the condition of theorizing and the limit to theorizing: condition in that they start to name something that can then be conceptualized, limit in that sometimes the description is taken as a theory in itself. Althusser said that about Marx's edifice of base and superstructure which poses a problem, that of determination, effectivity, and causality of the different social relations and practices, from production to ideology, but is often taken as a solution to the very problem it poses: the base determines the superstructure--end of story. A similar thing happens with broken brains which, as the very term suggests, presents the entire phenomena is if it is matter of individual psychology. A claim that is itself contradicted by the way that the term is used to describe not an individual crisis, but a social one--broken brains usually refers to a mass phenomena even if the language it uses is individualistic.
How is it possible to move from this description to some understanding of what such a term is trying to explain? It seems to me that the events that break brains refer as much to the symbolic significance of such events as their reality. Brains break when something disrupts our sense of how things ought to be, and what should happen, or not happen. All the events listed above disrupted some ruling myth, or what Yves Citton calls mythocracy, of the world, from the invulnerability of America from foreign attacks to the sense of invulnerability to criticism that seems to be part of being part of the pundit class. What breaks a brain is not so much a real event, a terrorist attack, who wins or loses an election, but the role that real event plays in ones sense and meaning of the world.
Beyond the events listed above I think one event that broke some people was the Covid pandemic. I had that thought when reading this piece in the Washington Post about local politics in Michigan. As the article states the mask mandates, shutdowns of schools, and churches, seemed to bring into reality the kind of government control that people had only talked about as a paranoid possibility. I remember reading someone, I can't remember who, writing in the New York Times that the summer of 2020 with Covid shutdowns and the global Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd were a particular nightmare for conservatives. I am not sure who said that (and honestly who can tell the pundits apart sometimes), but I think that I can make sense of that nightmare by citing another pithy phrase, and descriptive theory, which is that “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”
In this particular case the in-group in question are precisely those people, primarily middle class, comfortable, and white, who are used to being able to do what they want without constraint, or being bound. The binds imposed by closures, mask mandates, and other precautions seemed like a massive affront to a kind of license that many take for granted. Case in point, the uptick in abuse and hostility shown to servers at restaurants and bars, who, for a brief and awkward moment, had to go from performing the emotional labor of a friendly smile to enforcing safety rules. Being told what to do by a waiter was more than some people could stand. The out group in question was, to put it bluntly, black and brown people, who were out in the streets protesting. That these protests, disruptions, were happening at the same time that "normal life" was being disrupted seem to make the fears of many conservatives a reality.
Of course this was awhile ago, but the one thing that the summer of 2020 illustrates is that what is often presented as "broken" is actually functioning, just according to a different set of rules, more symbolic and affective than immediately rational. Broken brain as a criticism, like hypocrisy as a criticism, runs up against the limitation that it presupposes a consistency that only exists in the mind of the critic. As broken as it seems some people truly seem to think that a columnist being criticized online is the same, or at least comparable to the state outlaw particular subjects of study. What appears to be broken is a functioning symbolic and affective order that unevenly attributes priority to the feelings and existence of some over others. As Kimberlé Crenshaw put it succinctly in an interview in the Guardian, laws predicated on the belief that lessons about slavery are harmful to white students, amount to the statement that "white kids’ feelings are more important than black kids’ reality.” This seems like something that would only stem from a broken brain, but it might be more worthwhile to ask the question, what is such a brain is functioning on or for.
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