I’m somewhere up the Pacific northwest coast, Lewis and Clark territory, looking at old maps and reading sociology.
Zygmunt Bauman is the prophet of new forms of capital, work, and identity. In Liquid Modernities he defines the modern individual as trapped inside a web of uncaring, unplanning, antisocial networks much as the visitor to the trailer park is supposed to bring his own entertainment, appliances, home, and expectations, not to interact, not to stay, and certainly not to threaten authority. Advanced liberalism is experienced through a cycle of isolation, dread, and denial, where truly shared experiences are a form of self-deception.
For Bauman, each of the institutions supposed to liberate the individual to pursue greater realms of individual expression -- everything from education to critical theory; psychology and identity politics alike -- only confirm for the individual that there is nothing he/she can do to change the mind of the great social structures that have held her/him from his/her birth. S/he is locked inside the cell of his/her own self. Therapy only confirms that what s/he dreads is true: we really are that alone. In a brilliant exegesis of Jane Fonda and self-help/fitness culture more generally, Bauman writes:
Trying to straighten out other people’s crooked problems makes you dependent, and being dependent means giving hostages to fate – or, more precisely, the things you cannot master or people you cannot control; so mind your own business, and your own business only, with a clear conscience. There is little to be gained from doing the job for others, and it would divert your attention from the job no one can do but you. Such a message sounds sweet – as a much-needed reassurance, absolution and green light – to all those loners who are forced to follow, with or against their better judgment and not without pangs of conscience, Samuel Butler’s exhortation that ‘Pleasure after all is a safer guide than either right or duty.’In short, to be sure the impulse for caring and attending is natural and valued; but even altruism is probably just another form of self-delusion in the end, and given the private nature of all one's peers, it's better to shut up and hide in a closet if you're feeling lousy about either yourself or the world; everyone expects it of you anyway, and nothing you do is going to change anybody's mind.
I’ve been rolling on a particularly immobile depression for a couple of weeks straight now (sorry, no blogging when lame; major rule). So Bauman is hitting home pretty hard. And maybe it’s a sign of a (semi) healthy ability to laugh at oneself that I find myself taking a weirdly giddy delight in simultaneously cherishing Bauman’s nihilism and paradoxically Not Believing A Word Of It.
I find myself asking, What’s so modern about this particular form of alienation? My dissertation is on strangers not speaking to each other; I write about the eighteenth-century transformation from face-to-face gemeinschaft to the faceless society of familiar strangers in gesellschaft. I have every reason to embrace any theory that gives me fodder for explicitly defining the coming of the nation state, the vast bureaucracy, the culture of narcissism. I have a stack of eighteenth-century transformations that all lead to various forms of isolation and acceptance of vast, social networks aimed at telling the individual how to behave, and then convincing the individual of his/her own responsibility for the costs.
If anything, the information structures carrying home messages about the correct kind of behavior are modern: the consumer society, the self-help industry, the mass media, the nation state. Indeed we may have more and better ways than ever before for assessing our own behavior; we have statistics, crowds, gurus. We know not only how our neighbors and colleagues deal, but how anonymous millions deal; if we don’t know we can look up and find out exactly where we as individuals lie in the city-wide, national, and global age-brackets for our age, weight, and alcohol consumption. If I have the smallest desire to compare myself with any of them, I can just as easily find myself competing against all of them. And nothing would drive me back into the cave of my own conscience as surely and promptly as the threat of finding out that I am not doing so well and nothing can ever help me. This particular form of social death is surely new.
But I find myself asking what the individual looked like before. What the melancholy of the medieval monastic or renaissance scholar had that was so different from the isolated trailer-park melancholy of the twenty-first century academic who wants to pound her face into her desk because she can neither defeat fascism out of doors nor overcome her neediness for human contact at home.
What exactly is the epistemic status of this hyper-individualism? Is it a genetic inheritance of the hunter-gatherer instinct of individual animals banded together in tribes? Is it a theological relic of our long-term engagement as individuals in bodies with a society that bequeaths us our traditions, but which we can neither really know nor trust as a source of the ultimate Good (either for us or for others)?
So I end up back in Greece (of course) ruminating on epics and the hero’s epic journey. What made him so different? We don’t think that the hero is necessarily happy, but we all honor him. He doesn’t satisfy all of our values, but he embodies a majority of them in circumstances beyond the expectations and diversity of any historical experience.
Of course the hero comes up against foreign lands and institutions (witches, nomads, lotus-eaters) with their own values; they may attempt to manipulate him or destroy him; they usually try at least to win him over to their way of thought. The hero represents our values system, however, and we love him for somehow surviving. Not conquering: just surviving.
The modern hero is not so different from the hero of the ancient world. The hero of most Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler novels alike is one part values to nine parts survivor: survivor of twisted harlots in the suburbs or borg-like social consciences and runaway killer machines. All that’s new about modernity may be that we have more people telling us what to do, and less of a voice to talk back to them, and more of an opportunity to abdicate responsibility, than ever before.
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