By Mark McConaghy
In his magisterial work The Political Unconscious, noted cultural theorist Frederic Jameson asked us to consider why we seem to be so unhappy despite, paradoxically, having so much industrial and technological mastery over the world. As Jameson eloquently put it:
We must ponder the anomaly that it is only in the most completely humanised environment, the one the most fully and obviously the end product of human labour, production, and transformation, that life becomes meaningless, and that existential despair first appears as such in direct proportion to the elimination of nature, the non- or anti-human, to the increasing rollback of everything that threatens human life and the prospect of a well-night limitless control over the external universe.
I would concur with Jameson that we today are faced with a profound contradiction: just at the moment when we’ve built a society in which we are told that our reason of being is to find our true selves- indeed that the point of life is to be happy-happiness seems utterly impossible. If we have in this age of instant digital information and globalized networks of communication concurred time, space, nature, and brute material scarcity, we have not yet concurred our propensity for melancholy.
You don’t have to search far in the annals of global literature to find the first enunciations of existential despair emerge, as Jameson notes, in a correlated relation with the rise of the capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois notion of selfhood that it produced. In a previous age artists and philosophers shuddered over the terror of God’s judgement. Now, when we know that there is no God after death, our artists and philosophers shudder over the happiness of the individual as he/she struggles with the competitive pressures of employment, the rigors of romantic relations, and the complexities of family life. From low-brow popular culture such as Sex and the City to sophisticated literary texts like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or Junot Diaz’s This is How Your Lose Her, our art is essentially about the failure of human beings to find happiness in their time.
This is a historical rather than a natural product, for art doesn’t necessarily need to be about that theme. In Imperial China, for example, literary texts foregrounded themes inherent within a Confucian philosophical problematic that had vastly different understandings of self, society, and history encoded within it. Likewise, as I said, in Euro-American history a deeply Christian world generated the problematic for art in its own age.
And yet in this age of ours- the bourgeois capitalist one- we are faced with the inability to be happy just when we seem to have reached the material and technological moment when it is actually possible to do so. What is the cause of this paradox?
There are no doubt “localized sources” of unhappiness in our lives, which can be pinpointed back to a particular cause and addressed in more or less concrete terms. These can range from being drilled into the ground by a particularly bad boss at work to never quite living up to the expectations set by your parents to just being unsuccessful in love.
Of course, much of our anxiety emerges from the commodified relations that have permeated every inch of our society. Want to buy a house in a nice city? Want to cherish the joy of raising kids? Want to go see the rest of the world and actualize that inner-love of travel you have? All of that costs money, which creates tremendous pressure on us to find high paying jobs. This generally means working for large corporate firms who operate for their own private interests rather than the public good (rarely are these ever in line with one another). To work for a large corporation is to devote the labor power invested in our bodies to a cause that is not our own and that, in many ways, is not our society’s either. It thus entails a sacrificing of our own sense of ethical responsibility to improve our society in favor of improving the profit-margins of a discrete corporate entity. We in effect exchange a commitment to the social good for the material security that working for a powerful private interest can provide.
As such, there are no doubt a plethora of localized sources of concern in our lives, from “selling out” our ideals in search of corporate-backed lifestyles to our inability to find manageable personal relationships to our inability to please our overbearing parents…the list of such anxiety-causing problems is long indeed and will be different (but really the same) for all people.
And yet I want to argue that on top of, or perhaps I should say imbedded within, all these localized sources of unhappiness is another, far more fundamental sense of melancholy that shapes our lives. This is a general, abiding sense of sadness that seeps into our thoughts, our desires, indeed down into our very souls.
How would we define this general sense of melancholy? Let me put it this way: in this day and age one gets the sense that even if we get the great job we love, the amazing partner who is supportive and beautiful, the wonderful life of engagement and social recognition…even if we make it to the top of the brutally competitive mountain that is modern life, it still in the end doesn’t amount to very much. This is that creeping sense that no matter how much we strive, no matter how hard we work, no matter how successful we ultimately become, we are simply incapable of doing anything with Historical value: even worldly success is ultimately fleeting and evasive.
Life then comes to seem like some kind of cruel joke: we put you in this rat-race and tell you that you can succeed only if you claw and scrap and work harder than everyone else. And yet even if you get to first place you realize, standing in the champion’s circle, that all of it was kind of pointless after all- indeed that you don’t feel any happier than those who dropped out of the race in the beginning.
This sense of disappointment amidst success produces a profound sadness of the most modern sort. It is most acutely felt when you enter into our great halls of culture: walk into a museum full of the great art of the past, or a bookstore full of the works of so many wonderful authors, or go to a major research library and just look through stack after stack of published writing.
What will you see in those spaces? Think of how hard it was for each one of those authors to publish those books, the utter brilliance of narrative or argumentation that went into them, the sweat and the pain and the effort it took to bring them into the world. And the works just sit there on those shelves, lifeless, unused, untouched. Great writing only has meaning if it has readers to engage with it, and there is such a supremely rich sadness to see all those books go unused year after year, the lives invested in them unrecognized by a culture that does not have the capacity to think historically any more.
This same sense of obsolescence could be applied to any of the cultural documents that come down to us from the past. The great films of the last century, the great paintings that defined the zeitgeist of their age…so important in their own time and yet so useless, overlooked, ridiculously out of place in this time.
Yet do not think for a second that new, shiny things are somehow able to avoid this sense of meaninglessness because of their novelty. Quite the opposite in fact- contemporary culture is permeated by the sadness of almost instant obsolescence. Just look at the internet to prove that point- how many youtube videos have less than one thousand hits? How many blog posts are read by absolutely no one (likely, including this one)? The internet is a landscape of neglected writings and unwatched videos, ignored expressions of self cast out into the digital ether.
Even popular articles and mega-hit songs run their course and are quickly forgotten. What was the #3 pop song from five years ago? Doubtless it had millions of hits that year; today we can’t even remember it.
And it is not just in the realm of the arts that meaninglessness defines all things. Who was the richest man in Canada in 1922? Doubtless a powerful titan of industry in his day. But today? Absolutely forgotten. And I’m sure his body was as cold and lifeless as that of the poorest member of the proletariat upon the hour of his death. Material wealth allows you to live a more secure, globally oriented, sensuously pleasurable life then most- who doesn’t like to eat fine food or drink great wine and own the sky in brilliant penthouse apartments? But wealth does not guarantee you meaning in the historical long run. For you too will die like the workers and the land you exploited to gain your ever so bountiful existence.
If lasting meaning is not to be found in the arts or in amassing material wealth, maybe it will be found in politics? Certainly, you will tell me, a man like Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, to be remembered by history forever, has escaped the trap of meaninglessness that we all fall into? Obama will always be able to look back at his life and say: “I used my time on this earth as well as I possibly could, I changed my society for the better, I built an empire out of myself, History bent itself to my will!”
Once again, History gets the laugh last here. I don’t doubt Obama has made an important impact on our culture and will be an important political figure for us to reckon with in our textbooks and history classes for many a decade moving forward. And yet upon leaving office, what will he be able to say that he actually accomplished in 8 years? Aside from a relatively modest adjustment to the way health care is administered in America, one that still does not guarantee universal health care for all, Obama’s accomplishments are of a largely symbolic nature. Indeed, in many important realms of political life he has been an utter failure. For one, he has exacerbated the Bush-era police state, infringing upon his people’s civil liberties with egregious acts of domestic espionage. Nor has he fundamentally changed America’s belligerent and economically wasteful Empire in the rest of the world.
So let’s not be quick to claim that the great men and women of History have found the deep sense of meaning that all of us so desperately seek.
The general meaninglessness you can find in the fields of art, economics, and politics could be tracked in other fields as well. One doesn’t want to bore the reader with a laundry list. The point is this: aside from the localized sources of unhappiness that define so much of our quotidian lives (the job, the broken marriage, the divorced family), we are wracked by this horrifying truth: we are powerless to change History. Not much we do will ever be remembered, and there is nothing that comes after this (no Heaven or Utopia) that will make our current impotence seem like some cursory dream before true happiness is finally discovered.
Whatever field you go into, even the grandest of them all, the impact you are able to carve into this History of ours, the social structures all around us, is relatively minute. When you die you and everything you knew, everything you loved, everything you believed and invested in will soon be forgotten by others.
How can we go on in the face of this terrifying truth? We cannot just wish it away with pious statements about “connecting with people” or “finding your true self.” You cannot eat, pray, and love your way out of the ontological nightmare that defines modern life.
If in the deep Historical past people found meaning in merely surviving, in merely getting themselves spiritually fit for the heaven waiting beyond, we who have conquered the beast of scarcity and spiritual delusion awake to find ourselves paralyzed: we can do anything, see anything, fly anywhere, eat anything, love anything, be anything…and yet, because of that, we can be and feel not much at all. When everything seems possible, absolutely nothing truly is.
So how do we fight against the sadness that seems utterly encoded into our current historical moment and into our individual lives, as if blessed onto us as part of the DNA we carry inside our bodies?
It is not an easy question to answer. I would suggest that our filmmakers, writers, philosophers, and teachers have been trying to answer it in different ways for the better part of the last 200 years.
I will admit at the start that I don’t have a magic-bullet solution. All I can proffer are provisional ideas, scraps of experience, some concrete perspective that can help see us through.
In part two of this series I will suggest how we can fight against the terrifying darkness that lies just underneath the surface of the lustrous and accomplished lives we lead. I hope our readers will follow me on this journey and contribute their own perspective to it.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.