Random finds (2016, week 49) — On anger, optimism, and our contradictions
On Fridays, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking during the week.
In the long read Welcome to the age of anger, Pankaj Mishra explores the seismic events of 2016 that have revealed a world in chaos — and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain. A few excerpts…
“In the hopeful years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the universal triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured; free markets and human rights would spread around the world and lift billions from poverty and oppression. In many ways, this dream has come true: we live in a vast, homogenous global market, which is more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history.
And yet we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities. What used to be called ‘Muslim rage.’ and identified with mobs of brown-skinned men with bushy beards, is suddenly manifest globally, among saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar, as well as blond white nationalists in Germany. Violent hate crimes have blighted even the oldest of parliamentary democracies, with the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a British neo-Nazi during the venomous campaign for Brexit. Suddenly, as the liberal thinker Michael Ignatieff recently wrote: ‘Enlightenment humanism and rationalism’ can no longer adequately ‘explain the world we’re living in.’”
“Rich and poor alike voting for a serial liar and tax dodger have confirmed yet again that human desires operate independently of the logic of self-interest — and may even be destructive of it. Our political and intellectual elites midwifed the new ‘irrationalism’ through a studied indifference to the emotional dislocation and economic suffering induced by modern capitalism. Not surprisingly, they are now unable to explain its rise. Indeed, their universal assumption, hardened since 1989, that there are no alternatives to western-style democracy and capitalism — the famous ‘end of history’ — is precisely what has made us incapable of grasping the political phenomena shaking the world today.
It is clear now that the exaltation of individual will as something free of social and historical pressures, and as flexible as markets, concealed a breathtaking innocence about structural inequality and the psychic damage it causes. The contemporary obsession with individual choice and human agency disregarded even the basic discoveries of late-19th-century sociology: that in any mass society, life chances are unevenly distributed, there are permanent winners and losers, a minority dominates the majority, and the elites are prone to manipulate and deceive.”
“Today, however, the basic assumptions of cold war liberalism lie in ruins — after decades of intellectual exertion to construct flimsy oppositions between the rational west and the irrational east. The political big bang of our time does not merely threaten the vanity projects of an intellectual elite, but the health of democracy itself — the defining project of the modern world. Since the late 18th century, tradition and religion have been steadily discarded, in the hope that rational, self-interested individuals can form a liberal political community that defines its shared laws, ensuring dignity and equal rights for each citizen, irrespective of ethnicity, race, religion and gender. This basic premise of secular modernity, which earlier only seemed menaced by religious fundamentalists, is now endangered by elected demagogues in its very heartlands, Europe and the US.
Where do we go from here? We can of course continue to define the crisis of democracy through reassuring dualisms: liberalism v authoritarianism, Islam v modernity, and that sort of thing. It may be more fruitful to think of democracy as a profoundly fraught emotional and social condition — one which, aggravated by turbo-capitalism, has now become unstable. This might allow us to examine the workings of ressentiment across varied countries and classes, and to understand why ethno-nationalist supremacy has grown alongside economic stagnation in America and Britain, even as it flourishes alongside economic expansion in India and Turkey. Or, why Donald Trump, the flashy plutocrat tormented by his lowly status among Manhattan’s cultivated liberals, obsessively baits the New York Times and calls for a boycott of the Broadway show Hamilton.”
The ideals of modern democracy — the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment — have never been more popular. Yet, they have become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to realise in the grotesquely unequal societies created by our brand of globalised capitalism. And it’s this growing contradiction that makes today’s ressentiment particularly malign.
“With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.
Otherwise, in our sterile infatuation with rational motivations and outcomes, we risk resembling those helpless navigators who, De Tocqueville wrote, ‘stare obstinately at some ruins that can still be seen on the shore we have left, even as the current pulls us along and drags us backward toward the abyss.’”
The New York Review of Books published the talk, On Optimism and Despair, English novelist, essayist, and short story writer Zadie Smith gave in Berlin on November 10 on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.
“I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. On November 10 The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the 1950s, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others. Meanwhile some on the left have time travel fancies of their own, imagining that the same rigid ideological principles once applied to the matters of workers’ rights, welfare, and trade can be applied unchanged to a globalized world of fluid capital.”
“As my dear, soon-departing president well understood, in this world there is only incremental progress. Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.
Meanwhile the dream of time travel — for new presidents, literary journalists, and writers alike — is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done — or more to the point, what would have been done to me — in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.”
“… progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.” — Zadie Smith
“If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”
A bit more …
“Have you ever wondered how many contradictory thoughts you have in a day?,” David Berliner, a professor of anthropology at Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, asks in How our contradictions make us human and inspire creativity for Aeon.
“How many times your thoughts contradict your actions? How often your feelings oppose your principles and beliefs? Most of the time, we don’t see our own contradictions — it’s often easier to observe such inconsistencies in others. But you are as full of contradictions as I am. We humans are structurally made of contradictions, living peacefully, sometimes painfully, with our oxymoronic selves. Walt Whitman got it right when he wrote in ‘Song of Myself’ (1855).”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
“While most humans struggle to maintain a sense of psychological unity, contradictions produce destabilising breaches in the self. Whether conscious or unconscious, these fissures nourish creative inspiration, which can be interpreted as a way to resolve or sublimate internal oppositions. I believe this can be said of all domains of creation. Perhaps art, literature, science or philosophy wouldn’t be possible without intrapersonal contradictions and the desire to resolve them.”
“With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present,” says Jonathan Safran Foer in Technology is diminishing us. “My grandparents hoped I would have a better life than they did: free of war and hunger, comfortably situated in a place that felt like home. But what futures would I dismiss out of hand for my grandchildren? That their clothes will be fabricated every morning on 3D printers? That they will communicate without speaking or moving? Only someone with no imagination, and no grounding in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever. It’s possible that many reading these words will never die.”
“Let’s assume, though, that we all have a set number of days to indent the world with our beliefs, to find and create the beauty that only a finite existence allows for, to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers. We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or situation — being ‘anti-technology’ is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly ‘pro-technology’ — but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.
One day, nanomachines will detect weaknesses in our hearts long before any symptoms would bring us to a doctor. And other nanomachines will repair our hearts without our feeling any pain, losing any time or spending any money. But it will only feel like a miracle if we are still capable of feeling miracles — which is to say, if our hearts are worth saving.”
“From the footloose networker to the exiled migrant, home has been displaced by an idea that’s both elusive and contested,” Charles Leadbeater writes in Nobody is home. Leadbeater believes we need a new kind of shared home economics, of home-making and building. The route to power to change society starts at home.
“Across these issues — from technology to immigration, urbanisation and climate change — the idea of home is central. Fears that we are losing our place are rife. We live in a restless, rootless world that prompts nostalgia, a yearning for an impossible return to an imagined home. […] The clues to what people yearn for are hiding in plain sight in popular culture: television series such as Downton Abbey about a British aristocratic family trying to hang on to a home that supports an entire social order; or The Great British Bake Off, now franchised across the globe: what more homely activity is there than baking?”
From Australia to Austria, politicians are running scared of the populist Right whipping up a fear that your home is about to be lost.
“Tensions over the meaning of home will only intensify; if people feel thwarted in finding their place in the world, they can become angry, depressed, defeated and sad. Many of them will support measures to exert greater control over their homes, to build walls, erect gates and keep at bay unruly forces that threaten to take their homes from them. They will want to restore an orderly home, however imaginary. At the moment, politically, only the populist Right seems to fully understand the power of this idea, when what we need is a creative, shared response to remake our sense of home.”
In an article for The Atlantic, Frank Trentmann, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, explores how humans became ‘consumers.’
Until the 19th century, hardly anyone recognized the vital role everyday buyers play in the world economy. Yet today, “companies and marketers follow consumers as much as direct them. Grand critiques of consumerism as stupefying, dehumanizing, or alienating — still an essential part of the intellectual furniture of the 1960s — have had their wings clipped by a recognition of how products and fashions can provide identities, pleasure, and fodder for entirely new cultural styles. […] Rather than being passive, the consumer is now celebrated for actively adding value and meaning to media and products.”
“Today, climate change makes the future role of consumption increasingly uncertain. The 1990s gave birth to the idea of sustainable consumption, a commitment championed by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Price incentives and more-efficient technologies, it was hoped, would enable consumers to lighten the material footprint of their lifestyles. Since then, there have been many prophecies and headlines that predict ‘peak stuff’ and the end of consumerism. People in affluent societies, they say, have become bored with owning lots stuff. They prefer experiences instead or are happy sharing. Dematerialization will follow.
Such forecasts sound nice but they fail to stand up to the evidence. After all, a lot of consumption in the past was also driven by experiences, such as the delights of pleasure gardens, bazaars, and amusement parks. In the world economy today, services might be growing faster than goods, but that does not mean the number of containers is declining — far from it. And, of course, the service economy is not virtual, and requires material resources too. In France in 2014, people drove 32 billion miles to do their shopping — that involves a lot of rubber, tarmac, and gas. Digital computing and WiFi absorb a growing share of electricity. Sharing platforms like Airbnb have likely increased frequent travel and flights, not reduced them.
Moreover, people may say they feel overwhelmed or depressed by their possessions but in most cases this has not converted them to living more simply. Nor is this a peculiarly American or Anglo-Saxon problem. In 2011, the people of Stockholm bought three times more clothing and appliances than they did 20 years earlier.
How — indeed whether — consumers can adapt to a world of climate change remains the big question for the 21st century. In 1900, many reformers looked for answers to questions about social reform, social responsibility, and consumer representation. Climate change is its own monumental challenge, but there may be lessons that can be learned from that earlier history of the consumer. Consumers were identified as important players in tackling social blight and economic injustice. As buyers, they had some influence over what was produced, its quality as well as quantity. Organizing their interests added an important voice to the arena of public politics. These remain valuable insights: Consumers may not hold the answers for everything, but that does not mean they should be treated as merely individual shoppers in the market.”
In her article for the Guardian about the work of Turner prize winner Helen Marten, Hannah Ellis-Petersen writes:
“While her work may have the initial appearance of being a hyperactive collection of objects and forms, coming together in a cascade of chaos, everything is in fact precisely made and mapped out, sometimes three or four months in advance. Every object is then handmade — Marten works with ceramicists, metalworkers, carpenters and embroiderers to create the strange components that form her art. Her starting point, however, is nearly always books — a nod to her first love at school, English literature.”
According to Simon Wallis, the director of the Hepworth Wakefield, who judged both the Hepworth and Turner prizes, Helen Marten’s work is the emotional response to the age we are all living through, full of frustration and anger and disappointment. “You feel overwhelmed and yet you can be sucked in, seduced and be fascinated by those details — all at the same time.”
“Everyone in this room is operating in this world that is so fucking privileged. We’re afforded so much optimism and education and time to do these things, and this is not the global consensus.” — Helen Marten in her speech at the Tate for the Turner prize ceremony.