1000 Days of Theory: td050
Date Published: 2/7/2007
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Fear and Loathing in the Bay State

Dion Dennis


Over the last six years, at midnight, six times per week, the dadaist fifteen-minute cartoon series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force chronicles the absurdist adventures of its three anthropomorphized leads: Frylock (a goateed McDonaldesque sleeve of French fries), Master Shake (a self-absorbed generic milk shake outfitted with a bent pink straw) and Meatwad (a smallish, speckled, and decidedly unappetizing specimen). Aqua Teen is popular with the 18-34 year old demographic.

With an Aqua Teen Hunger Force film due for release in early '07, Cartoon Network's corporate parent, Turner Broadcasting, hired New York-based marketing firm, Interference Inc., to produce a viral marketing campaign in eleven U.S. cities. In late 2006, Interference Inc. hired two young Boston-area artists, Belorussian immigrant Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens to place 38 LED signs (of one of two villains of the show, either Ignignokt or Err, defiantly gesturing with the middle finger) in the Boston area. By January 29th, all of these quasi "lite brites" (the ensemble consisted of printed circuit boards and other easily accessible electronic components, with LEDs and a pack of D-Cell batteries to power these 2.5 sq ft. signs) had been installed around high-traffic sites in the metroplex.

During the January 31, 2007 rush hour, a transit employee spotted one of these signs on a supporting beam of I-93, near downtown Boston. Mistaking the "Mooninite" for an explosive device, the Boston Police Department closed the northbound lanes of I-93. By the early afternoon, other "Mooninite" sightings led to two major bridge closures, and boat traffic on the Charles River was banned. It wasn't until the late afternoon that the public knew that these were part of a benign viral marketing campaign. Turner issued a press release, and soon after, Berdovsky and Stevens were arrested.

So this is what it has come to: Two young artists (their demeanor an echo of 1960s creative expressiveness), paid a pittance to playfully market a surrealist cartoon movie starring several talking base-level consumer commodities, have been labeled semiotic terrorists and criminals by official reality. What does this political panic reflex, played out in the gerontocratic and the politically correct Commonwealth of Massachusetts, tell us? [1] What are the object lessons that can be drawn from this emotive, mediated and bureaucratic externalization of early 21st Century nightmares and demons? According to the criminal statute applied, these crude LED "Mooninites" that literally flipped Boston "the Bird" were legally defined as "infernal machines." [2] Among the eleven cities targeted by this particular guerilla marketing campaign, only in Boston were these innocuous "lite brites" perceived to be objects of terror. Only in Boston did official reality shut down major parts of the city, deploy the Bomb Squad, and make ritualistic arrests and arraignments. Therefore, the question can, and should, be asked: What does this say about the current conscience collectif in the land of the Puritans, Kerouac, and Kennedy? What is going on in this stubborn bastion of a once optimistic state-centered liberalism, as it reacts to signs that oddly refract images of a Vietnam-era collective self? Official and local media reactions constitute a classic case of what psychologists call "hostile attributional syndrome." In this syndrome, subjects inappropriately react to neutral stimuli as if such stimuli were signals of real hostility. Appropriately decoded, these reactions have significant diagnostic value. As a public event, the response of official organs displays complex patterns of displacement and condensation, as befits such a symbolic event and product. Below are some (hopefully) heuristic disentanglements of a couple of these very complex threads.

Puritan Remix

First, we can see the historical and hysterical echoes of the 17th Century Salem witch trials. The two artists, the long-haired, bearded Belorussian immigrant Berdovsky and his sidekick, Stevens, stand publicly accused of producing, as defined by Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 266, Section 102, an "infernal machine." (Etymologically, the term "infernal" refers to Hell and the identities and products of the demons of said residence). So, like Arthur Miller's John Proctor, they will undoubtedly be asked to "make a deal" with official reality, to acknowledge their "infernal" (demonic) specific intent (as defined by the statute) and, in doing so, externalize the demons of the populace as they reaffirm the dominant symbolic order. [3] Contemporary ritual exorcisms will be performed in court, press conferences and press releases, and remixed and expanded by local and 24 hour news media, as they are archived for subsequent use.

Like the Puritans, such forms of punishment have a public and semiotic function, through a display of overt signs of stigma and discredited identity. Rituals of moral condemnation and public shunning no longer take the form of the stocks and the wearing of a Scarlet "A." Rituals of exclusion and continuous surveillance replace public shaming and shunning. They take multiple forms, these days: Electronic monitoring, voter disenfranchisement for felons, the presence of names on "no fly" lists, the posting of discrediting billboards outside of homes as court-ordered punishment, and, in the case of the most notorious, real-time GPS tracking, available to a hyper-vigilant public via Google maps, and so on. And, there is always the potential for ubiquitous and sensationalized media attention, given the insatiable appetite for stories of deviance.

The absurd (and unfounded) criminalization of Berdovsky and Stevens is part of an über moral tale with a discernible target: General deterrence, as rationale and goal. Here, it takes the form of overtly sending a signal about policing the speech and conduct of the Millennial Generation; speech and conduct that is a palpable behavioral and expressive remix of the deterritorializing élan of the 1960s. Injecting a self-policing function deeper into the psyche of the children and grandchildren of the Boomers is one use for this LED scare. "We prohibit unauthorized echoes of what we did. You play and you express yourself at your own risk." Certainly this is one of the covert messages of the Zeitgeist police, newly installed State's Attorney General, Martha Coakley, as exemplified by her actions (arrest warrants) and her February 2, 2007 press release. [4]

Coakley's means and ends are not so very different than the goal of 17th and 18th Century Puritans: They, too, intended to deeply inject a self-policing function into the congregation. Then, the push was to restrict the psyches and social expression of women, as well as of those men less committed to a patriarchal fundamentalist order.

Social, technical, demographic and cultural transformations over three centuries have repositioned the Puritan impulse. The rush to an ersatz criminalization of two young artists all-too-accurately exemplifies Richard Ericson's recent (and plaintive) summary of the pathologies of early 21st Century life:

[There's] an alarming trend across Western countries of treating every imaginable source of harm as a crime... This urge to criminalize is rooted in neo-liberal political cultures that are obsessed with uncertainty... Catastrophic imaginations are fueled, precautionary logics become pervasive, and extreme security measures are invoked in frantic efforts to preempt imagined sources of harm. [5]

Apparently, key points of the local social imaginary include criminalizing the placement of child-like and benign "lite brites" in locations proximate to Massachusetts Bay. While Ericson's insights constitute a critical element for understanding the root causes of this particular event, one other element, I believe, is required to make fuller sense as to why such media-fed, institutionally expressed hysteria occurred in Boston and not in other locations across the U.S.

The Generational Warfare Strategies of a Greying Populace

This remix of Puritanism and the neo-liberal imaginary (obsessed with what Ericson dubs "the myth of certainty and security") is a necessary but not sufficient set of conditions for declaring this peculiar "state of emergency." [6] The remaining variable is demographic. It pits an aging, declining and reactive population (the third or fourth generation descendants of Irish, Italian, German, and English immigrants) straining to secure the slipping remnants of a mid-20th Century state-centered set of expected benefits, against a more vigorous and adaptable creative subculture within the Millennial Generation. Not surprisingly, there's been a steady outflow of educated Millennials from the Bay State to points South and West, where a younger, educated demographic is welcomed and treated with greater public courtesy. [7] The Bay State response to a benign set of LED graphics, when compared to how these crudely drawn Mooninites were viewed in other venues across the U.S., makes the point unusually clear. [8]

The fear and loathing doled out to Berdovsky and Stevens is a vivid displacement and condensation of the fears of a vocal and local demographic convergence. There's an entire archeology of cultural ghosts. These "John Proctors" of the moment, Berdovsky and Stevens, serve as a projection screen. [9] As icons, the many ghosts of the collective past merge with a palpable fear of the present and the future. So clearly discernible, behind all the self-congratulatory "politically correct" rhetoric that so freely and routinely floats across the Bay State, is a deep distrust, a distrust that damages spontaneous practices of freedom, practices that are so necessary for growth.


[1] "Suspicious objects found throughout Boston after morning bomb scare," in the January 31, 2007 online edition of the Boston Globe's website, John R. Ellement, Mac Daniel, and Andrew Ryan, byline. http://www.boston.com/news/globe/city_region/breaking_news/2007/01

[2] See "The General Laws of Massachusetts," Crimes Against Property, Chapter 266, Section Section 102A1/2, Subsection B, that legally defines such "infernal machines" as a constitutive element of the crime. http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/266-102a.5.htm

[3] Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1998.

[4] See Mark Frauenfelder's repost at BoingBoing.net: "State of Massachusetts insists on calling ATHF ads 'hoax devices'," February 2, 2007. http://www.boingboing.net/2007/02/02/state_of_massachuset.html

[5] Richard V. Ericson. Crime in an Insecure World. Malden, MA. Polity Press. 2007. The excerpt is from the Introduction on p. 1.

[6] Ericson, p, 219.

[7] "Most Who Left State Don't Plan to Return," in the May 14, 2006 online edition of the Boston Globe's website, Michael Levinson, byline. http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2006/05

[8] See these "suspicious objects" on BoingBoing.net: "Boston Channel photoshops Mooninite LED signs," Mark Frauenfelder's post, on January 31, 2007. http://www.boingboing.net/2007/01/31/boston_channel_photo.html

[9] To see a video of Berdovsky and Stephens, discussing hairstyles at their initial news conference, see the Alternet Media site: "Pranksters Give finger to the Media:" http://alternet.org/blogs/peek/47507/


Dion Dennis is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Bridgewater State College (MA). He teaches courses on emerging technology, new forms of property and equally new forms of social control; neo-liberalism and 21st Century policing and corrections; and justice, media and crime. Dennis' essays have regularly appeared in CTHEORY. His essays and reviews have also appeared in Postmodern Culture, The Education Policy Analysis Archives, the Academic Exchange Quarterly, Rhizomes, Culture and Agriculture, Fast Capitalism, and First Monday, as well as in new and reprinted form in several print anthologies.

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