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Little Privatized Suns

Anyone too scared to say Thanatos might wind up with Theranos

Espen Gleditsch, Thanatos. From the exhibition “On the Whispering Wind, QB Gallery 2023. Photo credit: Tor Simen Ulstein.

Joan Didion would have known what to say about Richard Stockton Rush III. I’m almost surprised she never wrote about him. He was a pure effusion of California plutocracy, someone in whom amour-propre had been sublimed over generations, each forebear transforming a bit more of the dross of ordinariness into something insipid yet undeniably compelling, until finally the solar alembic of the San Francisco Bay brought forth this man with incredible hair and a brain one imagines as something like the rock-crystal egg in Risky Business—an object that owes its clarity to structurally complacent molecules. But even that wouldn’t explain how anyone could seem so impervious to the knowledge that the only reason for all this Apollonian splendor—all the acreage and all the homes, all the physical and existential handsomeness of Rushes of all genders, all the marvelously compounding compounds of generational wealth—was that the family had reaped the rewards of a hypernova of primitive accumulation, in much the same way that a tsunami can be said to have reaped the rewards of an earthquake at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Most likely it never occurred to any of the Richard Stockton Rushes that the ancestral fortune could have been amassed with no more pluck, shrewdness, or fortitude than may be attributed to a gigaton of displaced seawater. “I wanted to be Captain Kirk, and in our lifetime the final frontier is the ocean,” Rush offered, by way of explaining what drove him to found OceanGate and to pilot the Titan, the submersible that imploded on June 18 in the North Atlantic with him and four other people on board. The remark suggests that he saw frontiers as the true family business but hadn’t thought about whether the motto to boldly go where no man has gone before is really applicable to manifest destiny.

Melinda Cooper thinks family capitalism is a useful term for comprehending our circumstances. The historian Steve Fraser proposes dynastic capitalism, which has a stronger sense of occasion. Either phrase seems like it could appease the nomenclatural martinets among us, the ones who think neo-feudalism is almost as vulgar a term as fascism, and that vulgar rubrics must be avoided as we strive to come to grips with such classy phenomena as private submarines that vaporize on their way to James Cameron’s favorite place, state officials obsessing about high school athletes’ menstrual cycles, children getting chemical burns while working the graveyard shift in slaughterhouses, and Sam Bankman-Fried paying somebody 700 million dollars to introduce him to Orlando Bloom. But I digress. With respect to family or dynastic capitalism, there is an incredible moment in The Inventor, the HBO documentary about Elizabeth Holmes, when one of her investors—the famous venture capitalist, the one in the cowboy hat, if that narrows it down, whose name is escaping me—defends his choice to give her millions of dollars by noting that one of her grandfathers ran a hospital and the other ran a bank (or something to that effect), “so you see, she came by it quite naturally!” Another of the VCs in the documentary is wearing a tie covered in Bitcoin logos, and says he invested in Theranos, Holmes’s company, because Holmes was friends with his daughter, and that if his gut cosigned, he’d be willing to invest in “a guy and a dog, or two girls and a cat,” though presumably only if at least one member of the team could claim friendship with his child or his labradoodle. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the hemophilia of dynastic capitalism. The dynasty is perhaps best understood expansively, as encompassing friends, and relatives’ friends, and loyal retainers with up to four legs, but nevertheless insular and exclusive, rarely open to true upstarts. Entrepreneurship in this system is a euphemism for a set of favors dispensed from above, from a consortium of patrons that might or might not include the innovator’s literal daddy.

Several years ago I read about a scientific study indicating that one out of three people have no internal monologue, no inner homunculus to offer a constant stream of unsolicited opinions and irritating queries. My guess is that a disproportionate number of dynastic scions enjoy this enviable yet hazardous self-congruence. There is no still small voice to muse, “Hmm, does Theranos sound kind of sinister” or “Does OceanGate sound like a Daytona Beach water park that opened in 1995?” Both Holmes and Rush evinced blasé contempt for regulatory agencies and accrediting organizations, because they stifle innovation, are run by bureaucrats, etc. And if a bureaucrat hadn’t shut Holmes down, Theranos would still be operating little slices of purgatory in Walgreens stores across the land. Holmes called them “wellness centers,” which is a weird name for a place where a person with syphilis has a thirty-five percent chance of getting a false negative on their syphilis test. Rush had a similar rhetorical bent. He said there were sensors all over the Titan to provide real-time monitoring of “hull health,” as if the hull were living tissue and the submersible perhaps a gigantic kernel of corn, which for all I know is the vibe his marketing team was going for—organic and plant-based, if a bit high-carb. More to the point, calling the sensors hull-health monitors is like calling a fire alarm a building-health monitor, except in this analogy if the fire alarm goes off, it means the building and everyone in it will cease to exist in two milliseconds.

The Greek god of death was called Pluto. Because gold and jewels, like the dead, are telluric, hidden beneath the earth’s crust, his name became associated with wealth. Hence plutocracy. He had originally been known as Hades, which became the name of his domain. Hence Hadopelagic Zone, the term for the deepest layer of the ocean, just below the Abyssopelagic Zone. (Imagine being lower than the Abyssopelagic Zone.) No one is sure exactly why there was also a second, minor death god, Thanatos. He could have been an outsider deity who saw an opportunity to disrupt Big Death, or he could’ve been a nepo baby—an aspect of Pluto/Hades that split off, became a separate god, and just sort of didn’t correct people who perceived him as independent and self-made. Thanatos eventually was adopted by Sigmund Freud to label the death drive, the will toward self-annihilation.

I do think Holmes is a useful comparanda for Rush, but of course, she’s not the only one. Maybe she’s on my mind simply because of that recent profile that offered real-time monitoring of the health of her ability to gull journalists. Or maybe it’s because Theranos, the word, is a kind of twisted emblem for an entire ethos. Even if she never voiced it to herself, Holmes knew what the real namesake of her company was. I’m not the first person to comment on the similarities between the two words. The differences are typical of what is called taboo deformation—little changes to phonemes that permit a dangerous word to be safely said aloud. Persephone’s name was perilous to utter because she was queen of the underworld, so people used variations like Persephassa. Anyone too scared to say Thanatos might wind up with Theranos.

I’m sorry to speak ill of the dead and the recently incarcerated, but I just don’t have the energy for taboo deformations of my sentiments. I’m tired of the sensation of gradually sinking through an abyssopelagic murk where light is a memory kindled by queasy blips of bioluminescence. Lanternfish have bio-lamps attached to their heads by slim appendages; the orbs hang directly in front of their open mouths, attracting prey. But at least lanternfish aren’t pompous megalomaniacs who arrogate the right to steer us all into darkness and then expect to be thanked for letting us exist in the sickening phosphor of their tiny little privatized suns. That’s more than can be said for our era’s plutocratic class, as apotheosized by an unhinged emerald-mine heir who looks like he’s had a marginally successful face transplant—a chilling visage, once mystifying to me in its peculiar lifelessness, finally explicable as the mask of a psychopomp who’s here to usher all of us to the chthonic depths whence came his wealth and ego. On the scale of self-awareness, Stockton Rush was a veritable Socrates compared to the space captain who is currently the world’s richest man. As for the scale of the damage wreaked by each entrepreneur’s risky business—I am not going to engage in that calculus. It is hard to take much satisfaction in the knowledge that chaos agents are vulnerable to the chaos they create. I don’t think I could rejoice in mortal comeuppance even if the most richly deserving person were on the receiving end, and even if the circumstances were less horrific than what befell those aboard the Titan, and even if it really were comeuppance instead of the mere illusion of it. If there is going to be justice it will have to be in life, since death by definition just evens out the scales. Theranos is coming for us all.


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