New Strange Things—and Some Very Same, Part 2

Note: I know this was supposed to follow promptly after Part 1, but a ton of other matters have kept me from posting again—matters that, at the time, seemed to have precious little to do with the theme of “New Strange Things”, though I now think there is much newness and strangeness in what I have experienced. And lo, seven weeks slid by. But that will be fodder for another discussion.

To recap, Part 1 proposed that the strangeness of our times is no fluke: that we are experiencing the beginning stages of a re-emergence of unconscious forces and characteristics of humanity, many very ancient, that have been largely suppressed since the end of that last global psychotic episode known as the Second World War. Thanks to a never before seen cornucopia of material abundance, diversionary entertainments, and the overwhelming and expanding influence and prestige of scientific thinking—which above all else seeks the mechanization, codification, and hence disenchantment of all aspects of reality—the postwar period brought an extraordinary political stability, if also a subterranean growth of what Nietzsche called “ressentiment”.

Yet the aspects of reality that science once confidently proclaimed would be settled in short order have proven resilient in their unruliness, reappearing in whack-a-mole fashion after each attempt at rationalist dismantlement, and the dreams that lurk in the human soul, from which even Science itself once emerged, are probably the most unruly of all. Only now, as the idea of Progress perceptibly falters and the huge global systems of both trade and unexamined belief that implicitly depend on it grow uncertain about their next steps, seem to stutter and repeat strategies that have long since demonstrated their folly—witness the blithe re-financialization of the economy since 2008, or the recent return to a policy of military interventions in the Middle East—do we sense these unconscious dreams and forces, these “Old Gods”, again rousing and seeking outlets and mischief.

The process of this emergence is vast and complex, and can only be adumbrated here. But one key is that as Malthusian aspects of overpopulation, decreasing quality of natural resources, and diminishing returns on technology and complexity become more difficult to ignore in many spheres of life, they expose the crisis of our civilization’s underlying myth, what Spengler called the “Faustian world-feeling” of limitless space, of “ever onwards and upwards” Abetted by the dogma of scientific mechanism, this myth has long helped shield us from the darker and less rational side of ourselves and our fellow man, in part by selectively blinding us to all that is non-rational, in part by distracting us from it with seemingly endless novelties and amusements, and in part by bribing away .

Now we see this awakening, out the dying body of the old myth as it were, of something new and strange and we do not yet know where it will lead. As befits our centuries-long sojourn in the intellectual realm of mechanism, the terms and tools we have to describe what is happening, such as psychoanalysis or neuroscience, are themselves materialistic in character, and so are not quite up to the task. We have lost our outlets for these other forces, their proper language; in our haste to embrace rationality and modernity, and in the hopes of dismantling the ability of any forces outside rationality and modernity to harm us, we have cut adrift all ways of intermediating between these “Old Gods” and the daily life of the individual and the conscious self.

All of this is still quite a jumble, as I have been trying to take in an enormous amount of raw impressions and speculations and put it in some kind of readable form, but at least it is a beginning of sorts. Anyhow…

*  *  *

An interesting clue to the deeper illness spreading across the collective psyche can be spotted in some of President Obama’s own comments at a meeting with Angela Merkel very shortly after the election result that astonishingly elevated Trump. Standing alongside the German chancellor, the president struggled to put his usual tranquilizingly optimistic gloss on the prospects of the incoming administration; what came out instead was (for him) an uncommonly stark admonishment.

“Do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life”, he warned. “There is a tendency because we have lived in an era that has been largely stable and peaceful, at least in advanced countries, where living standards have generally gone up… there is a tendency to assume that that is always the case. And it’s not.”

It takes a moment of reflection to realize, particularly given the President’s characteristically detached, indeed hyper-rationalistic way of framing even the most glaring and visceral truths, how extraordinary this admission really was, and how deep must be the doubt that provoked it. For here, we have the leader of the USA—supposed modern-progressive vanguard of all nations, the ideals of the Enlightenment inscribed in its very founding documents, the self-styled epitome of scientific, technological, economic and social advancement, the guarantor of world stability and the prime mover behind neoliberalism—admitting to the world that the narrative of human progress which had animated us for so very long was, after all, far from an absolute rule of history.

It was of a piece with the tacit negativity at the core of Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!”—i.e., that America is a declining power—yet in Obama’s case, the pessimism now extended not just to American decline but to the entire world order. In this moment, the notion of progress among nations, of human perfectibility, whether in terms of living standards or foreign relations, was suddenly transmuted from the indestructible jewel on which all futurity would assuredly converge, to something contingent, clouded, perhaps even burdensome.

This negativity, however, taps into something more pervasive than even a single country’s sense of its own sliding fortunes—not least because so many other countries seem to be experiencing such a slide themselves. The growth-fired engines of the world have stalled; the machinery of Progress, if not its outward auspices of self-promotion, has hesitated.

Indeed, it has been pointed out by a number of observers that Trump’s language implies a profound change of perspective towards “zero-sum” thinking—the world is made of “winners” and “losers”, and everything is about making sure you’re the former, not the latter. This is significant enough; so far only Erik Lindberg, however, draws a subtle connection between the rise of such thinking and our present global circumstances:

“…liberals and conservatives have thus shared the belief that our common good resides in an expanding and growing world of material improvements, a broadening of horizons, increasing mobility, choice, possibility. They have shared the keywords of limitless and infinite, arguing only over differences in how to map our progress and chart our course “forward” towards this ever-receding horizon of limitless possibility.

“This has come to an end with Donald Trump’s new metaphorics of economics. To the question, “What is wrong with the economy?” Trump answers: we have made bad deals.”

“[but] something much larger is afoot, and is embedded in this new way of answering our inescapable political question.  For implied in his focus on the deal and the bargaining-table are a number of unique assumptions. Chief among these, I think, is that the total amount of goods and services available are, at some level, fixed.

“Trump doesn’t say this outright, but his words carry weight only if this is true.  His is a new mercantilism, a return to values that have been on the ropes for the past five-hundred years.  The deal-maker truly thrives in a world without the “win-wins” we have come to accept as a part of the normalized, but mythical, arc of a progressive history.”

Furthermore, notes Lindberg,

“Trump’s economic vision operates independently of growth and his appeal is fueled by its waning. In a fast-growing economy, Trump would be irrelevant and his focus on deal-making would appear trite and meaningless, a side-show to the primary business of expansion.”

This collapse in the expectations of progress—not just whether it is happening, but whether it is worthwhile—is the true foreshock to the coming eruption; economic inequality, sluggish growth and relentlessly growing debt all flow out of it.To put it simply, the world that our rational selves have been trained to think of as the world is exhausting itself, being unmasked as a mythology, a concoction of centuries of scientifically-styled searching for “definite forms and laws” in the realm of human nature and human affairs. Call it the revenge of the unconscious.

* * *

Yet it goes even deeper than this: for Progress has not just served as our source of purpose and as a continual fount of goods that, through the promise of growth, turns (or bribes) our attention away from the dissatisfactions of the present in favor of an ever-golden future. Rather Progress, as the prime manifestation of Western culture’s Faustian yearning for infinity and transcendence, has become what the American anthropologist Ernest Becker referred to as an immortality project. It has served, much in the manner that traditional religion used to, and still does in some places and cultures (to the chagrin of the modern acolytes of Faustian culture), as a way for human beings to dissolve the primordial terror of their mortality.

In his poem “Aubade”, an unvarnished rumination on this terror, Philip Larkin wrote,

“Most things may never happen: this one will,

And realisation of it rages out

In furnace-fear when we are caught without

People or drink […]”

Here is the cold existential ground of mortality, bereft of all transcendence, all belief, all hope: total and meaningless disappearance, the “total emptiness for ever”, as Larkin also puts it. This is the very state of mind that the immortality project of Progress has allowed so many moderns, who in their systematic disenchantment have become dangerously familiar with the existential, to escape—even if, ironically, it was the products of Progress that helped dismantle the religious immortality projects of old, and the materialistic roots of the faith quietly implied that such escape was nonsense. .

Instead of being at the mercy of a cold, indifferent, relentlessly causal and incomprehensibly vast universe in which all traces of the spiritual are mere wishful thinking, Becker believed the belief in God, or an afterlife, or salvation, had once sufficed to immerse the individual into a symbolic system of immortality and meaning that perpetuates and surpasses the self and so brings relief from this existential aridity of physical death. Similarly, this faith in all-conquering ascent and improvement, whether through technology or through social change, afforded modern “progressive” man a kind of ready-made means of symbolically transcending the perishing of her personal self.

Yet now, by the admission of two consecutive Presidents of the most technocratic and technologically powerful country in the world—hence arguably the very men most charged with sustaining the world’s confidence in Progress—that very project is flagging. When it collapses, we may well see the collective death-angst that had been dissolved therein to rise again, like a mischievous djinn, and to search frantically for a new resting-place.

*  *  *

Obama rode to power owing in great measure to his ability to channel the enthusiasm of huge movements and to electrify gigantic crowds. His ascent into the heart of American politics, beginning with his speech to the DNC in 2004 before he had even been elected to the U.S. Senate, revealed a man of prodigious, instinctive oratorical gifts, and his status as the first African-American president of a nation that had long been marred by slavery and discrimination seemed like an apotheosis of Enlightenment ideals. But what he achieved with those gifts and that unique status was not to be found in the words he said or in his later deeds, but in the resonance of his voice, the energy of his presence, the vague but magical halo of “hope” and “change” that he commanded and projected across so many minds. So to say, his appeal and success derived from unconscious powers no less remarkable and inscrutable than those responsible for Trump’s victory. Already, we see the Old Gods at work in these victories: a slide into ever more ##

But Obama was at heart a technocrat, a dry rationalist; though in campaigning he spoke in a language of archetypal heroism and overcoming that promised, from a place beyond words, to heal the sickness in the collective unconscious, in governing he turned out to be first and foremost an individualist, a man who grasped little beyond the tools of his own consciousness. He therefore could not provide catharsis for the great despair at the death of progress in the nation’s heartland; he seemed to ignore it, or even view it with a snooty professorial detachment. Like an overactive consciousness trained to view the intellect as the only real part of the self, he could only try to force it back down, to deny its reality. In the New Yorker’s recent piece on Obama’s reactions to the 2016 election outcome, David Remnick tellingly noted that “Even in the midst of what he can only see as a disastrous turn of history, Obama retained the uncanny capacity to view his quandaries as if he were drafting a research paper”. 

In the appearance of his vitality was concealed the deadly sameness of numbers, of mechanism. The Enlightenment, shopworn, repackaged as revolution, only later revealing its same paling colors.

Trump appealed instead to passions, tribalism and radicalism, and a kind of non-verbal aura of boisterousness and unapologetic aggression. He still does so for many, even as in recent weeks his defeats against the entrenched powers in Congress, the courts, and the “deep state” have obliged him to seek new means of getting the approval, foment, and attention he craves.

Yet even if he leaves aside for a time the racist dog-whistles, the open calls for violence and revenge, the overt attacks on the free press, the energies that have been called up by his campaign and his victory, however opportunistic it was, will not be put to rest so easily. These energies are now rabid on both sides, mixed with a sense of hopelessness whose ultimate cause few can name, and they are feeding on each other, creating startling clashes on the streets of the country whose ferocity and chaos increasingly resembles those often broadcast from the overcrowded, fundamentalism-laden, politically unstable states of the Middle East. Behavior and thought that we once smugly saw as a throwback confined to a few distant barbaric lands seems more and more to have awakened under our own noses—often in the name of order and justice, no less.

(to be continued…)

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