Archive for December, 2020

I’ve reached another crossroads. Chalk it up to pandemic exhaustion at being mostly cooped up for the better part of a year. Of course, this state is on top of other sources of exhaustion (politics, doom, the news grind cycle) that drained my enthusiasm for things I used to do before meaningful (to me) endeavors were all cancelled and everyone was forced to search for meaning staring at surfaces (e.g., the walls, pages, and screens — especially screens for most Americans, I daresay). So as the year and decade draw to a close, I anticipate a spate of lists and summaries as we move into 2021 with the hope it won’t be worse than 2020 — a faint hope, I might add, since nothing has been resolved except perhaps (!) which listless septuagenarian gets to sit in the Oval Office. The jury is still out whether vaccines will have the intended effect.

Aside: The calendar is not a timer or odometer. So although we change the calendar to 2021, the new year is the first year of the new decade (third decade of the 21st century, obviously). We struggled with this issue at the end of the previous century/millennium when 2000 became 2001, not more popularly when 1999 became 2000. This discrepancy is because calendars begin counting each month, year, etc. with 1, not 0. So the first ten counting numbers are 1–10, not 0–9, and all decades run from xx01 to xx10. However, timers and odometers begin counting at 0 and show elapsed intervals, so the first ten minutes or miles run from the start (at 0) to the end of 9, at which point the odometer in particular rolls to 10 and begins a new sequence. I realize I’m being a pointy-headed snoot about this, but it’s a relatively easy concept to understand. Innumeracy evident among the public is a microcosm for all the other easy concepts so badly misunderstood.

I’ve admitted to feelings of exhaustion and defeat numerous times, and indeed, hope eludes me whilst a narrow group of things still produce enjoyment. But my blogroll is no longer one of those things. I recently wrote the following to an acquaintance of mine:

Now that collapse narratives have matured, over two decades old for some (about 14 years for me), I notice that existential threats are still too remote and contingent for most to do more than signal some vague level of awareness and/or concern before returning to normal life. A few who sank into it deeply recognized that nothing positive comes out of it and have retreated from public life, or at least ongoing tracking and reporting. Several of the sites I used to frequent for news and perspective have dried up, and my finding is that adding more awfulness to the pile doesn’t enhance my understandings anymore, so I’ve also largely stopped gathering information. I still cite collapse frequently at my doom blog, but I have other things to write about.

I’m one of those who sank into the collapse narrative rather deeply and blogged about it consistently. By now, the sole available positive outcome has manifested: the recognition (and with it, resignation) that nothing will or can be done to avert disaster. So I’m dumping the doom and inactive blogs from my blogroll. I’ll continue to blog about and bear witness to the gathering storm: the cascade failure of industrial civilization. It’s proven to be a more protracted process than expected (at least by me), but no promises that it will stall until the end of the century at the conclusion of 2100 for sea level to rise and flora and fauna to expire. Human habitat will continue to diminish decade by decade, and at some point, so will human population — already shown to be rather precariously perched on an illusory safety and security we take as business as usual. I’ll keep a couple of the respectable truth-telling blogs just to have something to which to link. I have no links to add at this point.

David Sirota, author of Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (2011), came to my attention (how else?) through a podcast. He riffed pretty entertainingly on his book, now roughly one decade old, like a rock ‘n’ roller stuck (re)playing his or her greatest hits into dotage. However, his thesis was strong and appealing enough that I picked up a copy (read: borrowed from the library) to investigate despite the datedness of the book (and my tardiness). It promised to be an easy read.

Sirota’s basic thesis is that memes and meme complexes (a/k/a memeplexes, though Sirota never uses the term meme) developed in the 80s and deployed through a combination of information and entertainment media (thus, infotainment) form the narrative background we take for granted in the early part of the 20th century. Children fed a steady diet of clichés, catchphrases, one-liners, archetypes, and story plots have now grown to adulthood and are scarcely able to peer behind the curtain to question the legitimacy or subtext of the narrative shapes and distortions imbibed during childhood like mother’s milk. The table of contents lists four parts (boldface section titles are Sirota’s; descriptive text is mine):

  • Liking Ike, Hating Woodstock. How the 50s and 60s decades were (the first?) assigned reductive demographic signifiers, handily ignoring the true diversity of experience during those decades. More specifically, the boom-boom 50s (economics, births) were recalled nostalgically in 80s TV and films while the 60s were recast as being all about those dirty, hairy hippies and their music, drugs, and sexual licentiousness, all of which had to be invalidated somehow to regain lost wholesomeness. The one-man promotional vehicle for this pleasing self-deception was Michael J. Fox, whose screen personae (TV and film) during the 80s (glorifying the 50s but openly shitting on the 60s) were instrumental in reforming attitudes about our mixed history.
  • The Jump Man Chronicles. How the Great Man Theory of History was developed through glorification of heroes, rogues, mavericks, and iconoclasts who came into their own during the 80s. That one-man vehicle was Michael Jordan, whose talents and personal magnetism were so outsized that everyone aspired to be “like Mike,” which is to say, a superhero elevated beyond mere mortal rules and thus immortalized. The effect was duplicated many times over in popular culture, with various entertainment icons and political operatives subverting thoughtful consideration of real-world problems in favor of jingoistic portrayals.
  • Why We (Continue to) Fight. How the U.S. military was rehabilitated after losing the Vietnam War, gifting us with today’s hypermilitarism and permanent wars. Two principal tropes were deployed to shape public opinion: the Legend of the Spat upon Veteran and the Hands Tied Behind Their Backs Myth. Each was trotted out reliably whenever we needed to misremember our past as fictionalized in the 80s.
  • The Huxtable Effect. How “America’s dad” helped accommodate race relations to white anxiety, primarily to sell a TV show. In contrast with various “ghetto TV” shows of the 70s that depicted urban working poor (various ethnicities), The Cosby Show presented an upscale black family who transcended race by simply ignoring the issue — a privilege of wealth and celebrity. The Obama campaign and subsequent administration copied this approach, pretending American society had become postracial despite his never truly being able to escape the modifier black because the default (no modifier needed) in America is always white. This is the most fraught part of the book, demonstrating that despite whatever instructions we get from entertainment media and pundits, we remain stuck in an unresolved, unhealed, inescapable trap.

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Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.

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Unlike turtles, humans do not have protective shells into which we can withdraw when danger presents. Nor can we lift off, fly away, and elude danger the way birds do. These days, we’re sorely beset by an invisible pandemic spread by exposure to carriers (read: other people) and so asked or forced to submit to being locked down and socially distanced. Thus, we are withdrawn into the protective shell of the home in cycles of varying intensity and obeisance to maintain health and safety. Yet life goes on, and with it, numerous physical requirements (ignoring psychological needs) that can’t be met virtually demand we venture out into the public sphere to gather resources, risking exposure to the scourge. Accordingly, the conduct of business has adapted to enable folks to remain in the protective shells of their vehicles, taking delivery through the car window and rarely if ever entering a brick-and-mortar establishment except in defiance or at the option of acceptable risk. In effect, we’re being driven into our cars ever more, and the vehicle is readily understood as a proxy for its inhabitant(s). Take note of pictures of people in bread lines during the Great Depression having been replaced by pictures of cars lined up for miles during the pandemic to get packaged meals from charitable organizations.

Reflecting on this aspect of modern life, I realized that it’s not exactly novel. The widespread adoption of the individual vehicle in the 1940s and 50s, as distinguished from mass transit, and the construction of the interstate highway system promised (and delivered) flexibility and freedom of tremendous appeal. While the shift into cars (along with air travel) doomed now moribund passenger rail (except intracity in the few American cities with effective rail systems), it enabled the buildout of suburbs and exurbs now recognized as urban sprawl. And like all those packages now clogging delivery systems as we shift even more heavily during the holiday season to online shopping, a loss of efficiency was inevitable. All those individual cars and boxes create congestion that cry out for solutions.

Among the solutions (really a nonsolution) were the first drive-through banks of the 1970s. Is doing one’s banking without leaving the vehicle’s protective shell really an efficiency? Or is it merely an early acknowledgement and enabling of antisocial individualism? Pneumatic tubes that permitted drive-through banking did not speed up transactions appreciably, but the novel mechanism undoubtedly reinforced the psychological attachment Americans felt with their cars. That growing attachment was already apparent in the 1950s, with two bits of Americana from that decade still resonating: the drive-in theater and the drive-in restaurant. The drive-in theater was a low-fidelity efficiency and alternative to the grand movie houses built in the 1920s and 30s seating a few thousand people in one cavernous space. (A different sort of efficiency enabling choice later transformed most cinema establishments into multiplexes able to show 8–10 titles instead of one, handily diminishing audiences of thousands to hundreds or even tens and robbing the group experience of much of its inherent power. Now that premium streaming content is delivered to screens at home and we are disallowed assembly into large audiences, we have instead become something far more inert — viewers — with fully anticipatable degradation of the entertainment experience notwithstanding the handsome technologies found within the comforts of the home.) I’ve heard that drive-ins are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in 2020, with Walmart parking lots converted into showplaces, at least temporarily, to resemble (poorly) group experience and social cohesion connection. The drive-in restaurant of the 1950s, with their iconic carhops (sometimes on roller skates), is a further example of enabling car culture to proliferate. Never mind that eating in the car is actually kinda sad and maybe a little disgusting as odors and refuse collect in that confined space. One might suspect that drive-ins were directed toward teenyboppers and cruisers of the 1950s exploring newfound freedom, mobility, and the illusion of privacy in their cars, parked in neat rows at drive-ins (and Lookout Points for smooch sessions) all across the country. However, my childhood memory was that it was also a family affair.

Inevitably, fast food restaurants followed the banks in the 1970s and quickly established drive-through lanes, reinforcing the degradation of the food experience into mere feeding (often on one’s lonesome) rather than dining in community. Curiously, the pandemic has made every restaurant still operating, even the upscale ones, a drive-through and forced those with and without dedicated drive-through lanes to bring back the anachronistic carhop to serve the congestion. A trip to a local burger joint in Chicago last week revealed 40+ cars in queue and a dozen or so carhops on the exterior directing traffic and making deliveries through the car window (briefly penetrating the protective shell) so that no one would have to enter the building and expose oneself to virus carriers. I’ve yet to see a 2020 carhop wearing roller skates (now roller blades) or a poodle skirt.

Such arrangements are probably effective at minimizing pandemic risk and have become one of several new normals (discussion of political dysfunction deferred). Who can say how long they will persist? Still, it’s strange to observe the psychology of our response, even if only superficially and preliminarily. Car culture has been a curious phenomenon since at least the middle of the 20th century. New dynamics reinforcing our commitment to cars are surprising, perhaps, but a little unsurprising, too, considering how we made ourselves so dependent on them as the foundation of personal transportation infrastructure. As a doomer, I had rather expected that Peak Oil occurring around 2006 or so would spell the gradual (or sudden) end of happy motoring as prices at the pump, refusal to elevate standard fuel efficiency above 50 mph, and climbing average cost of new vehicles placed individual options beyond the reach of average folks. However, I’ve been genuinely surprised by fuel costs sinking to new lows (below the cost of production, even bizarrely inverting to the point that producers paid buyers to take inventory) and continued attempts to engineer (only partially) around the limitations of Peak Oil, if not indeed Peak Energy. I continue to believe these are mirages, like the record-setting bull market of 2020 occurring in the midst of simultaneous economic, social, and health crises.

Black Friday has over the past decades become the default kickoff of annual consumer madness associated with the holiday season and its gift-giving tradition. Due to the pandemic, this year has been considerably muted in comparison to other years — at least in terms of crowds. Shopping has apparently moved online fairly aggressively, which is an entirely understandable result of everyone being locked down and socially distanced. (Lack of disposable income ought to be a factor, too, but American consumers have shown remarkable willingness to take on substantial debt when able in support of mere lifestyle.) Nevertheless, my inbox has been deluged over the past week with incessant Black Friday and Cyber Monday advertising. Predictably, retailers continue feeding the frenzy.

Uncharacteristically, perhaps, this state of affairs is not the source of outrage on my part. I recognize that we live in a consumerist, capitalist society that will persist in buying and selling activities even in the face of increasing hardship. I’m also cynical enough to expect retailers (and the manufacturers they support, even if those manufacturers are Chinese) to stoke consumer desire through advertising, promotions, and discount sales. It’s simply what they do. Why stop now? Thus far, I’ve seen no rationalizations or other arguments excusing how it’s a little ghoulish to be profiting while so many are clearly suffering and facing individual and household fiscal cliffs. Instead, we rather blandly accept that the public needs to be served no less by mass market retailers than by, say, grocery and utility services. Failure by the private sector to maintain functioning supply lines (including nonessentials, I suppose) during a crisis would look too much like the appalling mismanagement of the same crisis by local, state, and federal governments. Is it ironic that centralized bureaucracies reveal themselves as incompetent at the very same time they consolidate power? Or more cynically, isn’t it outrageous that they barely even try anymore to address the true needs of the public?

One of the questions I’ve posed unrhetorically is this: when will it finally become undeniably clear that instead of being geared to growth we should instead be managing contraction? I don’t know the precise timing, but the issue will be forced on us sooner or later as a result of radically diminishing return (compared to a century ago, say) on investment (ROI) in the energy sector. In short, we will be pulled back down to earth from the perilous heights we scaled as resources needed to keep industrial civilization creaking along become ever more difficult to obtain. (Maybe we’ll have to start using the term unobtainium from the Avatar movies.) Physical resources are impossible to counterfeit at scale, unlike the bogus enormous increase in the fiat money supply via debt creation. If/when hyperinflation makes us all multimillionaires because everything is grossly overvalued, the absurd paradox of being cash rich yet resource poor ought to wake up some folks.