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  • Invasion of the Mind Snatchers:Ideas, Otherness, and the New Vectors of Infection
  • Dominic Pettman (bio)

can an idea be invasive? presuming that no idea can be 100 percent native to our blank brains upon birth, how might we sort invasive ideas with subversive or hostile intent from those designed to help us flourish, when both come to us from "beyond," smuggled inside language and cultural discourse? Such questions have often been posed, perhaps more implicitly than explicitly, in the history of Western moral philosophy ("What is the good?" "What is the truth?" And so on). These meditations then inform an ethical praxis at the crossroads of history: "What is to be done?"

Our concept of what an idea is is a very vague entity indeed. We still lack the scientific instruments to capture ideas in either a fixed wave or particle state. What seems like an autonomous idea from one angle is merely the expression of a much larger set of interrelated ideas from another. Something like "security" or "gender" is not so much an idea as the name we give to a vast cluster of (often incoherent) ideas. The idea of "fun" or "lunch" is likewise a network of notions, to the extent that if we isolate an idea for the sake of investigation, it is likely to die on the spot, like the bees that frustrate the entomologist who cannot examine the drone apart from the context of the hive. The instinct of someone who seeks to spot an idea "in the wild," as it were, is to move down the scale, from large to small, [End Page 109] beginning with the sum of human knowledge and moving down into epistemological orientations, languages, principles, discourses, concepts, philosophemes, disciplines, fields, subfields, hypotheses, hunches, epiphanies, intuitions, etc. Had we the tools up to this task, we might be left with a single luminous idea, glimmering in front of us like a gold nugget, unshucked from the discursive mudflow in which it is usually buried. But of course, this is the kind of fantasy that Nietzsche and Foucault spent many decades deriding, even as their targets rarely confessed to attempting such a thing explicitly.

Nevertheless, what we might call "the idea of the idea" is ever present in our debates and discussions pertaining to this ongoing human endeavor (now in search of a more appropriate name than civilization). Even if we cannot point to "it" in its naked form, we have a swarming multitude of examples of ideas, collectively deemed good or not. Of course, the idea of "invasion" is itself an idea, or at least a concept. The words we employ to discuss an object or subject already reflect a bias toward the phenomena they describe. A great movement of peoples, for instance, could be described as an exodus (suggesting rightful escape), Manifest Destiny (suggesting white supremacy), brain drain (suggesting economic privilege), or immigration (suggesting "necessary" global mobility if legal, or "undesirable" global mobility if not authorized by the right rubber stamp). Anything described as an invasion is clearly an unwanted form of intrusion. The idea here speaks of an unwanted presence or threat-of-being-present. The very word wears this fear or loathing on its sleeve. (Then again, one can be "invaded" by family—but I don't have space to unpack that apparent paradox here.)

Another powerful idea—one of the most primal and foundational—is that of the Other. We may even consider this the ur-idea of anthropological or political life. As the complement to the self or community, the Other remains the avatar or embodiment of alterity itself, along with the threat alterity poses (at least until the Other can be seduced, married, killed, banished, bought off, assimilated, kept at bay, or otherwise neutralized). The mobile boundary line separating [End Page 110] Us from Them has been with "us" for as long as "they" have been around to allow the magic spell of inclusion and belonging to be cast ("Abracommunity!").

So once again: can an idea be invasive? Or, alternatively, what might a noninvasive idea look like? Can such a thing exist? Do new ideas come in peace, hoping to live harmoniously...


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pp. 109-118
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