Everyone is “dissociating.” Over the past few years, it’s become an open-source cultural term, ripe for applying (or misapplying) to all kinds of circumstances where people feel the need to turn off and tune out. One woman I know is currently dissociating via a series of increasingly eccentric hobbies—bead necklaces, candle making, metal-detecting. She’s hardly alone. The go-to pose on Instagram right now is the “dissociative pout,” where you assume the blankest expression you can muster. The cultural critic Rayne Fisher-Quann, who coined the term, also gave a name to the larger aesthetic—“lobotomy-chic”—and trawling TikTok or Twitter you can find countless riffs on the idea, from fake Claire’s ads advertising “self-care” lobotomies to Doomer memes about the hopelessness of escaping late capitalism. Lack of affect is the new affect.
So what’s happening? The easy answer is: everything. A pandemic, school shootings, the climate crisis, looming recession, the collapse of democracies and the existing world order—the response that many have to all of this is to crawl inside a safer space, to find refuge from the chaos. The world is teeming with threats to our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being, and in order to feel safe and secure, we’ve had to get a bit more resourceful than usual. Enter dissociation, the response at the root of so much trauma.