Know Thy Enemy.
A Cultural Criticism.
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
~ Blade Runner, a replicant expressing its deepest humanity.
So far in this newsletter, I’ve written about meaning and suffering and tried to express a kind of humanism. I think reality is composed of paradox, and the worst and most horrifying aspects of life often have another unseen to side to them. I think the meaning of human life is to embrace that paradox and draw light from darkness, possibility from limitation, universals from particulars. I believe that bearing witness to suffering, ours and that of the world, can be transformative. I’ve talked about my illness and the problem of alienation, how suffering can make you feel literally alien and nonhuman, and how it may be possible to use our suffering to understand the suffering of others and feel human again. I think suffering very often has some deeper meaning, and if it didn’t, it would be necessary to create that meaning.
I’ve written about my own darkness and the impetus to cope, how coping with suffering can itself resemble a kind of achievement, and an important part of coping with one’s suffering is coming to terms with the world around you. I think we live in a world that abhors vulnerability and disregards and devalues human suffering, seeing all of our worth in our external strengths and achievements, and I’d like to foster a culture that can look more closely at suffering to see its latent potential, placing as much or more importance on what we are up against as what we do and achieve. I think our sensitivity and capacity to feel is our greatest strength and our only defense against the infinite darkness. I believe the life of our world depends on our ability to care about the plight of total strangers. This, I believe.
“In a general sense perhaps all statements are also counter statements,” went the writer Albert Murray in his classic The Omni-Americans. “Even the simplest of pronouncements, whether of measurable fact or of point of view, are also assertions to contradict something that is assumed to be otherwise.” If humanism is the idea, a sacred regard for the human experience and other people, asserting as much will inevitably put you up against everything in the world that contradicts that, and there is much in the world that contradicts that: To search out what is human in everything is to discover all the things around us which are not. If I were to name the enemy, it would be this alienating culture of nihilism and narcissism that seems to pervade modern life, where other people aren’t quite real and nothing means anything beyond what we can get out of it, where appearances matter more than actualities, everything is a game or else some kind of marketing and it’s all about winning and power and pleasure, and where the human being is seen as nothing more than the sum of our parts or a means to an end, either a bundle of neurotic reactions or our capacity to produce and make and do.
“We have, as it seems to me, in this most mechanical and interlocking of civilizations, attempted to lop this creature down to the status of time-saving invention,” James Baldwin wrote of the human being over half a century ago in his prescient book of essays Notes of a Native Son. “He is, after all, not merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is—and how old-fashioned the words sound!—something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity—which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves—we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves.”
Over the years I’ve been observing the culture war, I’ve found the hypersensitivity of the Left and the insensitivity of the Right to be deeply unsatisfying in terms of understanding and grappling with the complex reality and meaning of human suffering in the modern world: So rare is the quality of sensitivity itself, gauging reality in accord with the senses without any pre-judgment. There isn’t much room in our culture, it seems, for the kind of invisible suffering that I go through and care about. Suffering in the abstract, political suffering, morally compelling or emotionally satisfying suffering, is given more weight than the suffering right in front of us, within and all around us, which must always be hidden under some larger social issue that is seen as more important than the underlying suffering that moves us to care about these things. What people call “wokeness,” the stated concern with historical suffering in terms of group identity, is really an attempt, however noble or ignoble, to provide an answer to the question beneath much of our politics and culture: How do we morally respond to the disparity of human suffering in our world?
Much of our cultural unrest and most everything the left and the right wage against, it seems, emerges out of the same spiritual and moral black hole at the center of modern life and culture — a vacuum of human sacredness and meaning and dignity amidst the cold impersonal vastness of complex techno-economic societies in the digital information age — and leaves us with the same general sense of unreality and un-belonging, like nothing is real or quite matters and whatever’s really happening is somehow separate from us. Many of us feel on some level that something is profoundly missing from our world, some unnamable though essential human quality, but everyone’s diagnosis of “the problem” just cancels out and leaves us fighting amongst ourselves. In the absence of any larger feeling or connection, we are thrown always back on the self or otherwise break down into various tribes of identity. I’m not one who believes the problem is “out there” so much as in here, right here, arising within and manifesting through the human being, and only there, within the heart and soul, can anything truly be resolved.
At the center of our world is an inescapable sense of alienation, from ourselves and each other and from life itself. What Marx applied in his theory of alienation about the disconnect between workers and the fruits of their labor could likewise be applied to many aspects of modern life in our disconnect from objective reality. The very thing that we are most deeply – our conscious attention – is at this very moment being siphoned and commodified and desacralized in the digital attention economy and cut down to smaller and smaller bits, to eventually be ground to nothing.
I think modern life is characterized by a very specific neurosis and self-consciousness that comes from our fixation with the image on our screens and the sense of cringe that emerges at the distance between the digital image and our actual lives. The online space, I’ve noticed, social media in particular, can produce the paradoxical feeling of being completely insignificant, drifting through a vast sea of other people, and at once like you are the center of everything and always being watched and judged by the all-seeing eye, from which emerges a certain anxiety and paranoia over who is seeing what and what people think of us and whether we can live up to the image we are projecting: It always, always comes back to the self. Our culture swirls into a vortex of contradictions: we are all so concerned with being seen that we become invisible to each other; we are all so reactive that we become a bit numb; we are so overstimulated that we become easily bored. As Logan Roy, the fictional business tycoon in the HBO series Succession, captures the state of culture, “Everything, everywhere is always moving, forever.” And if everything is liquid, amorphous and ever-changing, what’s left that is solid and hard and true?
Against our liquid culture of alienation, I like to imagine a world where nothing is more important or precious than the human being and our conscious experience of life — where attention and energy and care go to the things that actually matter: Namely, each other and our suffering. Ultimately we are shaped by what we care about and pay attention to, what we see, and cultural change, like psychological change, flows outward from the human being, from seeing.
That’s my attempt at cultural criticism, anyways. It might be a little abstract for some, and not entirely coherent, and it doesn’t leave you with a clear enemy besides “the culture” or “modern life,” but perhaps the need for an enemy is the enemy. I don’t understand why we always need some kind of politics or belief system or compelling moral narrative to simply care about other people and the state of our world. I wonder whether there could ever be a kind of religion formed around something as simple as the welfare of other people. I like to think of James Baldwin’s golden rule, to deal with every person we encounter, no matter how different from ourselves, as though they were here for the first and only time, because they are, to see and honor the reality of other people, and for no deeper reason than we would want them to do the same for us.
But in truth, I despair. I find myself overwhelmed by the weight of it all, not just my suffering and all the suffering but the utterly brutal indifference of the world. Most of the evil in the world, I’m convinced, comes not from nefarious intent but from a certain callousness. And you don’t fight callousness with more callousness but with its antithesis, with sensitivity and care and attention. The most revolutionary thing a person could do in today’s world, I think, is feel another person’ pain, to feel everything. I want to believe there’s something more, that all of our suffering wasn’t for not. But I’ve seen pits blacker than the blackest night. I’ve known a loneliness so deep that no love could ever penetrate. And if you look out closely on any given day, you can almost see the embers wafting on the horizon beneath a great red sun. If every moment of human pain echoes through eternity, so must every moment of joy. And if there’s any meaning to life, it’s meaning we make, the questions we deign to ask. Does any of it really matter, or will all those moments — the horrible and the beautiful — simply be washed away, like tears in the rain?