“This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men.  He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled.  The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives.  Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared.  The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.”

This is the opening paragraph of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Elementary Particles (1998).  Let me pair it with a passage from John Berger’s Portraits, from a short piece he wrote about the Fayum portraits in 2000.

“The situation at the end of our century is different.  The future has been, for the moment, downsized, and the past is being made redundant.  Meanwhile the media surround people with an unprecedented number of images, many of which are faces.  The faces harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition, or, occasionally, pity combined with a sense of impotence.  Further, the images of all these faces are processed and selected in order to harangue as noisily as possible, so that one appeal out-pleads and eliminates the next appeal.  And people come to depend upon this impersonal noise as a proof of being alive.”

I just don’t see it.  Do I live in a bubble?  I read about the ravages Facebook is causing for adolescents, or the booming market in plastic surgery, or the frantic search for status and wealth among various social sub-groups.  And I don’t see it in the world I inhabit.  Kiernan and Siobhan’s friends and contemporaries certainly suffer the ills—and anxieties—of economic precariousness and over indebtedness.  But they aren’t unstable consumers, with lives dictated by social (or any other) media.

Yes, the future has been downsized and a sense of impotence about society’s general dysfunction and sheer nastiness reigns.  But the people I know feel very much alive; the scariness of a world out of control is more than enough to keep the nerve ends jangling.

And in their personal lives—their relations to family and friends and colleagues—they are not indifferent and cruel.  Even out in the public spaces of the city, the vibe is infinitely better than it was in the 1970s.  Conviviality is palpable—and can pretty much be counted on in most interactions with strangers.  It is the disjunct between this face-to-face decency and the nastiness of our politics and the on-line shit that is most striking to me.  For the most part, it seems to me people are remarkably resistant to the poison seeping through the system.

But maybe it’s the bubble I occupy, the world of the professional upper middle class.  A word with very few divorces, very little domestic abuse, very little drug and alcohol abuse.  Maybe under the polite veneer, chaos, anger, and horrors lurk.  It would speak of an unbelievable cover-up if such were the case.  I am hardly denying that the opioid epidemic or domestic violence or homophobia or racism exist.

I think what I am trying to say comes down to four claims, all of which I only advance tentatively because I am not by any means convinced I understand what is going on. Here are the claims

  1. Our economics and our politics have become more nasty, but there are strong counter-vailing forces.  Those forces widen the gap between public life (the structure of the imagined, non-face-to-face worlds of commerce and politics and the media) and the concrete face-to-face interactions of everyday life (including in the workplace to a large extent).  That the strain of this gap has not, thus far, led to serious disruptions is surprising to me.  By which, I guess I mean, that the disruptions have only been manifested on the personal level—in domestic violence or drug/alcohol abuse—not in much serious push-back against the inhumanity of corporations treating employees as replaceable parts and subjecting them to increasingly demeaning surveillance.
  2. The impact of the increased nastiness has been felt very unequally. No surprise there since the increased nastiness has been accompanied by huge upsurges in economic inequality.  Where people are doing quite well—as they are in Chapel Hill—the social ills of our time are not very manifest.  But those class differences do not explain the convivial vibe in America’s cities or the declining crime rates.  The “losers” in the next economic regime are, for the most part, still “nice” to others.  It is sort of like Charlie Kruzman’s work on the “missing’ Muslim terrorists; given the hordes of losers, it is striking how few of them adopt the kind of indifference or cruelty toward others that Houellebecq claims is general.
  3. So, one the one hand, I incline to an almost economic determinist viewpoint when it comes to domestic violence and drug/alcohol abuse, thus explaining why certain classes are more afflicted with these ills than others. (Of course, I am only talking general trends here. The economically fortunate can still be alcoholics, and domestic abusers.)  But when it comes to homophobia and racism, I am inclined to say that values other than the economic remain incredibly strong—and perhaps even stronger than—economically driven beliefs and behaviors.  This works both ways.  Residual decency, the considerate ways we interact with others, prove resistant to the prevailing economic modes of relationship.  The economic—for better and for worse—does not carry all before it.
  4. Similarly, let’s no overestimate the effectiveness of media. People have developed all kinds of ways to shut media messages off.  The overload of which Berger speaks is itself a disabling factor.  Everyone has to create a filter against such bombardment.  Confirmation bias suggests that we only hear the messages we are predisposed to hear—which is one way of saying that most messages don’t get through and that the power of messages to change our basic beliefs is severely limited.  Conversion is an astoundingly rare experience.

In sum, I just don’t see that generalizations about the despair of our times—and how they have changed basic behaviors tout court—are credible.  There is more variety out there than such pronouncements credit.  And, frankly, just much more good behavior than they are willing to admit.

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