By Stephen Marche
When we're all dead, when people are looking back at our time from a distance of 100 years, they're going to say that we lived in the age of dark matter. That's the fancy name physicists have given to the nearly 95 percent of stuff in the universe that they simply don't understand. It's also a good description of credit-default swaps and the other intricate financial instruments that caused the economic crash — "financial weapons of mass destruction," as Warren Buffett called them, explaining away risk by means of algorithms that no one, not even Warren Buffett, could understand. And how else to explain the niche following of a critically maligned show like Fringe, which isn't just about freaky paranormal stuff, flesh-eating poisons, babies born as old men, engineered parasites, and so on. No: All these fears are tied together into "the Pattern," a mysterious dark power evident everywhere but present nowhere. We're not entering a Great Depression so much as a Great Incomprehension: We just have no idea what's happening and no clue how bad things are going to get. Therefore we fear. Our spiritual condition of the moment, in our intellectual confusion, our down-spiraling economy, our various wars against we don't know who, is a fearful lack of understanding: Something is out there. We know it must be logical, but that's all we know.
Just look at our current slate of horror films. Scary movies serve the same function in the 20th and 21st centuries that fairy tales served the children of an earlier age — to make our broadest and vaguest terrors into something concrete and therefore confrontable. In the 1950s, radioactive mutation and the threat of nuclear annihilation became Godzilla, The Blob, the gigantic ants of "Them!" The McCarthy hearings gave rise to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the mindless consumerism of the 1970s to the zombies outside the mall in Dawn of the Dead. The 1990s saw Natasha Henstridge in Species become the cipher for brand-new anxieties about genetic manipulation. Horror movies purge us of the fears we inhale every day off the front pages of the newspapers. That's their job. So it should come as no surprise that this year's frights stem from knowing without understanding. And boxes. Stay with me here: In the new Nicolas Cage thriller, Knowing, the hero uncovers a time capsule, a container, in which he finds predictions of all the world's catastrophes. He knows but he doesn't understand: That's his and our terror. In The Box, out later this year from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, a married couple receives a plain wooden machine that provides them with $1 million every time they push a button, with the stipulation that every time they use it, someone they don't know, somewhere in the world, will die. These plain boxes, which in simpler times could've simply been sources of mystery or intrigue, become instruments of terror, but it's better our heroes confront fantasy boxes than the boxes that real people actually have to deal with, on the New York subway, on the beaches in Tel Aviv, hidden under a seat in a train station in Mumbai, which are much more terrifying: a nihilism that roars, a ferocious and empty hatred of the fullness of the world, unknowable but also unignorable.
Not unlike the terrorists themselves. In June 2008, the Newseum in Washington opened "G-Men and Journalists," an exhibit of FBI artifacts that includes the Unabomber's cabin. Ted Kaczynski's hideout was a modest affair, a 10-by-12-foot plywood cabin in Montana where he lived as a hunter-gatherer without running water or electricity. He objected strenuously to the exhibit. A legal brief that Kaczynski wrote himself and presented to the court claimed that the display violated the "victims' objection to publicity connected with the Unabom case." Kaczynski did not, however, object to Robert Kusmirowski's sculpture "Unicabine," which the New Museum in New York was showing at the same time, even though it was an exact replica of his cabin. The difference between the artifact and the artwork? You couldn't see inside Kusmirowski's sculpture; the cabin was entirely enclosed. He had made the Unabomber's house a box. Brilliant. Because that's what Kaczynski and the other terrorists are and would prefer to remain — dark matter, impenetrable and incomprehensible.
The funny thing is that we're supposed to be living in the golden age of information, when anyone can find any name, any date, any historical detail, any formula, with a click of the mouse. But unlike Socrates, who claimed to be the wisest man in Athens because he was the only one who knew what he didn't know, we choose to be freaked out by what we don't know. Doris Salcedo's "Shibboleth," a 548-foot gash created in the concrete floor of the Tate Modern in London last winter, was a huge hit with both audiences and critics because it reflected so precisely the feeling we're all having: a chasm opening up below us. Part of the attraction of the work was that the artist refused to say how it had been done. It ran through the building like a river of unknowing, and viewers let themselves be swept away in its currents.