What’s Missing

Posted: May 9, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Consumerism, Culture

Pessimists, misanthropes, fatalists, and doomers (I’m all types) often find themselves defending the position that maybe we don’t live at the very best, super-duper, tippy-top time in history, that although technology in particular has admittedly delivered some amazing innovations and improved our material conditions considerably even over our fairly recent past, we nonetheless lack spirituality and meaning — unless of course one’s spirituality and meaning are mistakenly found in technology. The technological sublime is so deceptively glamorous and ubiquitous that it obscures the idea that maybe another time and place made for a more ethical, moral, and noble life. (Experience varied widely, obviously.) In addition, personal freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies are difficult to argue against, though that’s more characteristic of those at the very top of the socioeconomic heap than those of us below who know to keeps things buttoned up lest we discomfit our betters. Perhaps the most broadly enjoyed modern development is increased lifespan borne out of improved healthcare. And quite recently, the grossly expanded communications age (the information age is nested inside) reputedly makes learning and keeping in touch far easier than ever before. I won’t dispel any of these. However, I have two complaints against modernity as evidenced by a body of posts extending back through the life of this blog: life lacks many salutary aspects delivered passively by bygone social structures and technology smuggles in a host of problems with its bounty.

Among the failed attributes are (1) lack of a cohesive narrative for what life ought to mean beyond grubbing for money, chasing fame and social cachet, and overpopulating the planet with progeny (many of whom suffer neglect while parents are away grubbing for money), (2) lack of true community and social conditions necessary to be properly situated within a wholesome context, (3) spiritual and emotional vacuity, (4) destructive social presences and bullying, especially online (as exemplified by the Bully-in-Chief) and by civil authorities, (5) unrelenting, disorienting technological and social change, including slang and memes that are impossible to track fully without being in the thrall of celebrities, pundits, and media in general, (6) little prospect of things improving near term, and (7) the still-dawning realization that, like the existential angst from the so-called Atomic Age and its threat of complete nuclear annihilation, we possess tools sufficient to destroy ourselves many times over (including rotting ourselves out from the inside in a fevered race to the cultural bottom) and have unwittingly fired the slo-mo suicide gun. We’re only just waiting for the bullet to strike its target. Since the gun is industrial civilization, the target is all of us. Dead men walking, or perhaps more accurately, the zombie shuffle.

A significant minority has replied to this set of miserable circumstances by voting into office our our current president, 45. According to one astute commentator, 45 was never understood as a solution but rather a murder weapon used by the disenfranchised to kill the host, namely, our sick society run by plutocrats maniacally hellbent on destroying everyone outside their immediate concern, which is just about everybody.

James Howard Kunstler, a far better writer than I am, speaks to some of these issues (I borrow from and cite him liberally), observing in a recent blog at Clusterfuck Nation the unacknowledged, unaddressed, and under-reported U.S. opioid epidemic. Here is a good portion of the relevant text, quoted at some length because his themes bear reinforcement:

… life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens. I mean unspeakably literally. If you want evidence of our inability to construct a coherent story about what’s happening in this country, there it is.

I live in a corner of Flyover Red America where you can easily read these conditions on the landscape — the vacant Main Streets, especially after dark, the houses uncared for and decrepitating year by year, the derelict farms with barns falling down, harvesters rusting in the rain, and pastures overgrown with sumacs, the parasitical national chain stores like tumors at the edge of every town.

You can read it in the bodies of the people in the new town square, i.e. the supermarket: people prematurely old, fattened and sickened by bad food made to look and taste irresistible to con those sunk in despair, a deadly consolation for lives otherwise filled by empty hours, trash television, addictive computer games, and their own family melodramas concocted to give some narrative meaning to lives otherwise bereft of event or effort.

These are people who have suffered their economic and social roles in life to be stolen from them. They do not work at things that matter. They have no prospects for a better life — and, anyway, the sheer notion of that has been reduced to absurd fantasies of Kardashian luxury, i.e. maximum comfort with no purpose other than to enable self-dramatization. And nothing dramatizes a desperate life like a drug habit. It concentrates the mind, as Samuel Johnson once remarked, like waiting to be hanged.

For added despair, the YouTube video (pt. 1 of 2, still overlong) below features film actor Johnny Depp being interviewed by theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss (huh? why? I’m not convinced this is a worthy offering by the ASU Origins Project, though it probably drew a larger crowd than a discussion about cosmology). Depp is no intellectual and struggles to be articulate (he frankly sounds drugged when not affecting a character safely from with his repertoire), and Krauss is an irritatingly gobsmacked fanboi fawning ridiculously at the celebrity onstage with him (less charitably: starfucking Johnny Depp). Krauss enjoys that celebrity at close quarters, since viewers are informed that the two are buds, like twin stars caught in each other’s orbit and basking in the shared limelight. Despite those criticisms, they manage to get at one of the underlying plagues of modernity: the madness haunting sensitive, creative, and artistic types who know they can never and will never fit in, who recognize society slipping into barbarity (again, presuming we left it behind for at least a short time), and end up seeking refuge in make-believe of one type or anther just to remain functional and retain a loose grip on sanity. Never mind Krauss’s incongruous, girlish giggling and the audience breaking into applause at the very mention of any title from Depp’s filmography. The shocking accuracy of the Depp’s self-diagnosis is startling enough that it must be deflected with humor and hero worship.

How much of the population shares these diversionary enthusiasms (drugs and celebrity infatuation) is anyone’s guess, but I surmise that they are quite commonplace in a culture where it’s difficult to identify anything better to do with one’s life.

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