A sneering , scoffing cynicism is the sign of a culture in decline.
The opposite of superstitious gullibility and saccharine Victorian emotiveness, is not as the modern generation seems insist, a snarky, nihilistic despair.
Even the existentialists like Camus and Sartre were not arguing for a sort of ideological belief in isolation and horror. They were not prescribing an ‘ought’ so much as describing and ‘is’.
In a world that is industrialised and where family and community and religion are no longer the engines of stability and security, an existentialist confrontation with meaning is inevitable and to be desired. The great contribution of the existentialists was that they fearlessly looked into the dark soul of the modern man.
You can see too, that this kind of society made some form of socialism or communism a seductive alternative to the grinding impersonalism of the machine age.
For centuries, a sense of tribal unity and familial rhythm maintained the psychological integrity of individuals in the context of political society, whether it was nation state of local villages. From the Homeric age onwards, small and localised intimate relationships were the tonic to mass war or the environmental uncertainty of life.
As our culture became industrialised, these things were no longer enough, and some of the bulwark against despair, such as religion, were shown to be epistemologically and morally insufficient to capture the anxieties of a modern life.
Such is the narrative of modernity that we have all read and all would recognise in some version or another. What has changed in recent years, however, is that the world went from industrial to digital, without giving philosophers or poets or social thinkers much time to alter their world-views in correspondence.
The result, is that the ancien regime is still perceived to be the old, white haired bourgeois factory owner; and the rebel-with-an-answer is still seen as the renegade revolutionary. Neither of these poles in the paradigm are of any use, because the paradigm has altered beyond recognition.
The industrialised model of commerce, doesn’t apply to modern business. That much we can recognise, and we see the massive shift for what it is. What has failed to change is the counter-culture. The counter-culture is trapped in fighting an enemy that no longer exists.
Trying shovel the digital world and all its failings and advantages into the same ideological ditch as the industrial world, treating labour concerns and social fragmentation in the same way we would treat slavery, industrial poverty and factory mechanisation, has resulted in a massive dislocation of the counter-culture.
As most of the poets, comedians and artists treat Trump and all that he represents as confirmations of their soggy-Marxist assumptions, a new world is being ushered in that threatens to alter human nature and relegate the individual to a mythic relic.
This is a world of big data, artificial intelligence and no privacy. It is a world of light-speed gratification and instant distraction. It is not New Lanark. It is not even Orwell’s 1984. We have no precedent to understand this new world, and yet the old counter-culture tropes of existentialist novellas and civil rights newsreels are all people seem to have to make sense of their feelings of oppression and anxiety.
The most glaring sign of the counter-culture’s inability to meet the challenges of this new emerging world, can be found in the tone of voice, the scoffing bickering anachronisms of your typical leftist debate.
Your averagely educated and ‘wised-up’ type will either still cling to outdated Marxist tropes, or will give you some lecture on the meaninglessness of life, and hopelessness of the human soul. Both of these are really just symptoms of the same problem – an inability to evolve new ideas and a new counter-cultural arsenal to meet the challenges of the age.
Ironically, the only way anyone has ever created a new paradigm, has been to reach back into the past. It is through the preservation of culture, that culture evolves. Today, such an assertion is regarded as a kind of blasphemy, as if to say anything positive about the past is to argue for the divine right of kings or a return to the British Empire.
Behind this fear of the past, lies a fear of ideas. The great collapse of the old world has left a vacuum in what Woody Guthrie called the human ‘hope machine’. The current despair is not that of Sartre characters in the 1930s, shuffling through the alleyways of Montmartre is a daze of horror at their own isolation. Rather, it is the despair of the endless distracted, the endlessly bombarded and saturated mind, whose self is submerged in the feedback loop of consumer driven algorithms. To adopt the ironic pose of the Camus character in the long jacket, smoking and shouting in the wilderness, is to do nothing more than signal to our monopolistic, corporate rulers, an aspect of a our buying patterns for them to target in the next email.
What we need then, is not a scepticism about meaning and ideas, but a reaffirmation of the culture. A return to first principles. However, we cannot do this, as long as the counter-culture is trapped in Marxist/Existentialist tropes.
Everybody these days operates under the conceit that they are an ‘independent thinker’. The modern cynic creates a dogma around his uncertainty. He uses doubt and scepticism as a kind of ideology, a default and easy way of approaching the world. When presented with a complex idea, or some challenging ideal – say Islam – he lazily and self-congratulatingly collapses into nihilism.
What the cynic wants and needs, is not an honest engagement with ideas, so much as a quick way of convincing himself not to bother. Far better to dismiss the challenge as unsolvable and irrelevant, than to discover that there is something new and potentially devastating in his midst.
The modern cynic gets away with this by giving the impression that his ignorance and disdain for ideas is worldly, putting the sheen of irony and detachment onto a stance about life that is really quite small-minded and stupid.
Like Dylan’s Mr Jones, the modern cynic scoffs thinking he is being satirical, is sarcastic where he thinks he’s being ironic and resorts to despair when he should take refuge in a conscientious uncertainty.
The very notion that one would want to engage in ideas, to take on an ever moving challenge of developing fresh responses to one’s environment, is an affront to the bougie, suburban luxury of our generation. However, instead of admitting to this middle class taste for ignorance, the better to adopt the pose of not needing to engage, to give off like you have been and there and come out the other end, and that your inability to develop ideas is really some form of hip, switched-on nirvana of the absurd.
Along with a disdain for ideas, comes a disgust at the notion of ‘meaning’. The idea that one’s life would involve duty and sacrifice towards a higher ideal, that one’s citizenship is part of a larger more sacred story than one’s minute concerns, is met with palpable rage among the modern generation.
If you are bold enough to live by a set of ideals, to affirm a positive or even traditional purpose to your life, this is immediately met with scoffing accusations of egotism. The cod-Freudianism of pop culture seeps into any discussion of common psychology, and those who prefer nihilism to duty, will traduce any sense of of a personal quest to evidence of a narcissistic complex.
The idea of a hero is seen as anachronistic and outdated. Ironically, however, it is this need to dismantle personal narratives that is the real narcissism. Those who seek to live out a sense of their own heroism are far more likely to sacrifice their own concerns for the wider good. The nihilist however, has no reason to make sacrifices at all; it’s all pointless and absurd, so why bother?
It has been shown however, that, far more than a trendy healthy diet or ‘lifestyle’, what is more likely to give longevity and satisfaction in life, is in fact a sense of purpose, being part of a grander project. To live life as if one’s own existence mattered is crucial to the development of healthy, happy and moral beings.
To assume the posture of post-modernist cockiness, is to at once affirm chaos and despair, while at the same time living by a very strict and immovable fundamentalism.
This is neither tasteful, nor is it in any way useful in leaving a legacy for future generations as they face the battle against a loss of individuality and privacy, a loss of conscience in favour of social algorithms.