by Jack Self

May 01 2015

If once the world around us represented the sublime horror of reality, with all its attendant existential crises, we could always seek refuge in those few cubic inches between our ears. Whenever we found ourselves trapped, forced or disciplined—entwined in the consequences of some bureaucratic or corporate machinism—the private domains of the mind soothed the soul and made our helplessness tolerable.

The imagination left us free to construct our own sense of self, a liberated and righteous superhuman, a floating spirit overcoming the everyday—an everyday that was at once banal and terrifying. The autonomy of the imagination produced a proliferation of interior worlds, each a swirling construction of hopes and aspirations, a blossoming psychedelic synthesis of dreams intersected by fragments of the recognizable.      

But now those spaces have been inverted: we have internalized the great metaphysical questions (Who am I? What should I do with my life? What will happen to me at death?) thus precipitating a perpetual crisis of identity and purpose. Concurrently, we have sent out into the world a wildly implausible simulation of ourselves, cultivating fantasy selves through a myriad of heavily-edited social media profiles.

This unnatural orgasm of the self (and selfie), this obscene climax of narcissism and ego, finds its root in a Freudian negation: the fear of one thing surfacing as its opposite. Negation describes why arrogance can mask insecurity, and why total control of our bodies, diets and desires (in the form of ever more elaborate allergies, elitist superfoods and farcical workout regimes) masks the fear that we may no longer be in control of anything (politics, the environment, sexuality, death).

But in this case, the vain attempt to construct and reconstruct our own image, the insistence on the existence of the ego (I think, I like, I want!) masks the dissolution of the individual altogether. We are no longer free-thinking, autonomous beings. We are automatons. Bundles of preferences and subjectivities pre-prepared for corporate analysis. (“84% of single white males, aged 25-34 in East Coast metropolitan areas have college educations or higher…” “Did you enjoy the series Twin Peaks? You might like The Sopranos, Seinfeld, The Wire…”) We are poor collages of discrete data blocks, split souls (dividuals) ripe for cross-comparison and targeted niche products (presumably designed to drive us forward to the orgiastic utopianism of market saturation). This is why it is no longer a contradiction to be a Marxist Christian, a punk Neoliberal, a hippie banker. All identities exist independently (coincidentally), besides and not against each other.

This also explains the elitism of the hipster: we cannot bear to be reminded of our genericism, which is also the source of our own self-exploitation.

A popular evasive strategy to this condition is the pursuit of the hyperordinary. With monastic precision, the individual eliminates all their identifiable outlying opinions­­­­­­­—they conceal themselves in plain sight, at the very apex of the normative bell curve, through the perpetual liturgy of ultrabanality. However, invisibility should not be confused with resistance, and it is hardly surprising that hardcore normativism has begun to morph into the violent logic of remorseless rationality. As Žižek notes, capitalism only survives by periodically breaking its own rules. If we insist on radical consistency at precisely the moment a system cannot afford to be consistent, we put the entire system under pressure. An alternate history of 2007-08—in which failing industries and institutions simply admitted that Darwinian selection in the marketplace demanded their death and extinction—describes a social collapse, a cultural renaissance, a financial jubilee. Alas, we now cannot reject the inhumane questions the elite are asking of us (more work, personal responsibility and debt/less security, certainty and liberty). The only available tactic seems to be to answer these unclean demands absurdly and emphatically, with pantomime grins, each of us adopting the mock sincerity and feigned concern of 10 million Diane Sawyers.

Will this be enough to overturn the manifold and perverse injustices of late-neoliberalism? Probably not. For this, we need the Trojan Horse, a monospecific stealth weapon that destroys precisely that which loves it. For this, we must harness the dimension of time—wherever we face precarity we must counter it with stability. And wherever we are forced to shorten our horizons (the flexible, transient, freelance, pay-as-you-go, Airbnb generation) we must use long-term thinking (the five-year plan, the 10-year plan, the 50-year plan) as the site for subversive resistance.