Readers have been asking me for a conclusion to my post On Sadness, and to be fair I did promise a part two. I am, I admit, guilty of doing the same thing that I often critique academics of: diagnosing a problem without providing any possible solution. I have provided analysis and criticism, but precious little in the way of productive answers.
As my colleague Sean Callaghan has recently argued, this is the political cul-de-sac that the contemporary academy has fallen into, even amongst it seemingly most active and noteworthy members (i.e. the Zizeks and Rancieres of the world). Can cultural criticism be anything more than a diagnosis of our fallen social order? Can it offer productive solutions which could actually be realizable in concrete human actions, on both the individual and collective levels?
The problem I diagnosed in part one of this series is a profound one: we currently face a multitude of sources of anxiety in our society, including the loss of our loved ones to illness, the grueling pressure to find gainful employment, and the difficulty of finding lasting partnership in our personal lives. But on top of those localizable sources of anxiety, there is a deeper sadness that permeates our lives: a more amorphous sense of great potential being totally squandered, the bleakness of a future that seems impossible to be anything different than what we have now.
This is the bone-deep existential crisis within which we live. It’s presence can be tracked in any number of ways, in inverse fashion via the wish-fulfillment that Hollywood Entertainment provides (yes, marriage can work! Yes, you will find your true love! Yes, the terrorists will be extinguished and moral order will prevail!), to its more sophisticated diagnosis in the literary documents and cultural criticism of our age.
Yet you don’t have to examine a plethora of movies or academic books to sense the loss of meaning that plagues us. All you have to do is take a sober look at your own individual life. There is no doubt any number of moments we can all point to where we have felt the immense weight of this emptiness inside ourselves. The sense that, no matter how hard you work, you can never quite create the social change you want to see; the sense that, when the history books will be written, you will have done nothing of any value to be remembered; the sneaking suspicion buried deep in our hearts that we haven’t gotten much of anything figured out yet…not about ourselves or about the ways in which the world around us actually functions.
It’s that emptiness that lies in the pit of your stomach, which rears up at times, taking all the wind out of you, ensuring that all of your labor and all of your social relations are always at risk of seeming utterly meaningless. You lived on this earth for a while, you made some money for yourself, and then you were gone, the world marching relentlessly forward. Maybe you have a plaque in a park named after you, or kids who will stand by your gravestone and remember you fondly. At best, you gave the world some fine literature or beautiful films, but even those are certainly not your own once they are released to the world: at that point they belong to the audience, not the artist.
So, in the end, what are we actually left with to claim as fundamentally meaningful in our lives?
Some may claim that what I am diagnosing here is an individual sense of depressive anxiety. Certainly, we as bourgeois subjects have all battled depression in one way or another. Yet as generally shared a cultural condition as this cannot be reduced to individual trauma alone, nor can it be easily summed up by recourse to a scientist discourse on brain chemistry. For there are social causes for this deep melancholy which we must negotiate, rooted in the nature of the society in which we live, which themselves condition the individual psychodramas we have all lived through (our parents divorce, our bad breakups, our unlucky attempts at pursuing our dreams, etc.).
Moving Beyond Sadness
My colleague Sean Callaghan has diagnosed the crisis in meaning we are currently living through in the following terms:
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, what did we get from our best and brightest economists? Reformism reformism reformism. “We just need to fix capitalism,” they told us, “We just need a kinder capitalism, an eco-capitalism, techno-capitalism, a return to well-regulated capitalism.” If anyone didn’t believe that old nugget that capitalism had no outside, the reaction to the 2008 financial crisis proved it without a doubt.
Because the truth was no one had any idea what to do. Even now, no one has a clue, because we’ve lost our ability to think radical political, social, and economic alternatives. Global capitalism robbed us of our ability to think the future by giving us desire itself. We were free to buy, free to love, free to desire, and in all that freedom, we forgot the most important freedom of all. The freedom that is the future.
So the question becomes, how do we break through our present melancholy in order to gain the future once again?
For we have all the freedom in the world except the one freedom that truly matters: to actually change the social and economic coordinates which dominate our lives, keeping us trapped in bourgeois patterns of living in which happiness is indexed by the listless standards of the nice house, the well-mannered kids, and the trips to the cottage on the weekends, as if their could be no more fulfilling a task in life than to consume our way to happiness.
Sure, we can find meaning in “having fun”- would partying our brains out in night clubs amount to fulfillment? Or maybe we tell ourselves “well, I make money so I can travel, see the world.” Would traveling around the globe to see great cities and museums provide us the sustenance that we seek? Would a life of resplendent consumption- of fashionable clothes, of pleasurable poems and novels, of art galleries and movies and great food, truly give us the lasting happiness that we deserve?
I don’t think so. Even the great epicurean inside me has deep doubts that we will be able to consume our way out of the existential nightmare we are now living through. I know a lot of very rich, very mobile people who could talk to you for hours about the beauty of Parisian neighborhoods or the intricacies of Cormac McCarthy novels and who, for all that consumptive prowess, still feel absolutely empty when the curtains come down on whatever bourgeois drama they happened to be apart of that day.
Towards a New Historical Project
No, to truly escape this bourgeois nightmare, to finally grasp a sense of genuine meaning in our lives, we have to radically change the relationship we have to the futures that will outstrip us far after we are gone.
We cannot simply condemn the suffering we see around us and go back to our private lives of books and movies, of romantic love and family life, of the obsessive grasping for our own personal advancement. We need to feel engaged in something beyond our selves. And that sense of engagement needs to be productive. Productive not just in financial or emotional terms, within the confines of our own individual trajectories…productive, rather, in the sense that that you are apart of a larger collective project to build something vastly bigger, vastly more Historical, vastly more important than yourself, a project that will outlive you for generations after you are gone.
The bourgeois individual- wracked as he/she is by all their insecurities, their regrets and their sadness- is meaningless. On one level, we will never “get over ourselves”…we will always be trapped in that individual longing for completion, happiness, connection etc. that is the great drama of bourgeois life.
But when the individual lets go of, for a moment, their own petty bid for happiness, itself historically meaningless in the long run, and links themselves up to a larger movement for Historical change, when they give themselves entirely to something greater than themselves, confident that their sacrifice is being accepted for not only a worthy cause but also an effective strategy…then melancholy itself becomes moot. For all that matters is the cause, the telos, the Great End which your own life will become but the most modest expression of.
Most people in highly developed bourgeois societies wouldn’t even be able to tell you what a possible Historical end goal for human society is, none the less whether or not they want to actively fight for it. They can’t even imagine a different future than the one already provided to them by their parents- the corporate job, the nice house in Rosedale or West Van, the kids and the family get togethers and all the other trappings of a life they have already known.
But ask them what the meaning of all that is and they won’t be able to get beyond the words “well, family and friends are the most important thing to me.” Which is a response that, as I have argued extensively, does not effectively combat the social suffering we see around us nor release us from the deeper sense of emptiness within which we ourselves suffer.
So we need to, as a first step, embrace a collective project within which the individual self can be buried once and for all, a Historical movement which will ultimately ensure that our lives will not have been in vain.
Yet what would such a project be?
The nation-state was revealed to be a divisive myth long ago. Likewise, the ethnically-bounded community is a concept too haunted by exclusionary sectarianism to be acceptable in this moment of multi-cultural understanding. The notion of God is, as Nietzsche told us long ago, a fantasy that is our collective past, not our current reality.
Yet what about the great collective project of economic growth through the global marketplace? Even apologists for free-market capitalism will admit that our current social order cannot possibly be a truly collective project. For a system which thrives on individual competition and the unequal distribution of wealth as the emotional axis which motivates labor can’t possibly be anything but deeply fracturing in social terms. Every man a speculator, as the old Wall Street saying goes.
The truth is, we are not in an age when it is particularly easy to imagine a collective project that would be worth our time and energy. The Historical movements that have been most powerful in the last century- nationalism, fascism, state socialism- have yielded violent, fracturing social results that have only compounded our distrust of collective movements all together.
So what then will this collective project be, if not a repetition of the tired old isms of the last century?
The reason we started this modest website was to work towards articulating what this new project will be in the 21st century. In the coming months, I will introduce what I think should be the philosophical and emotional cornerstones of this new politics. Sean Callaghan has already begun to do so in his Utopia Lego series, and there is more work to be done in this regard.
Acting Out the Unnameable
I don’t have a name for this new collective politics yet. As a temporary bridge to the moment when we can bring it into being, we need to content ourselves with a democratic politics of social justice and non-suffering for all people.
And yet if we really want to overcome our sadness, if we want to once and for all address the existential nightmare in which we find ourselves in, we will have to embrace something far more radically Collective and Historical once again, despite the failures of the 20th century which haunt our every move.
We need to re-engage with something greater than ourselves…a force, an idea, a motivating desire which in its brilliant clarity will push generations of young people in the centuries to come to sacrifice and struggle on its behalf.
Only when that project becomes clear and resonant will we be able to move beyond our own pathetic, embarrassing sense of sorrow.
Is there a greater, more urgent project than to build this new politics for our new age?
This, my friends, is the struggle. It is only in that struggle that we will find the deep Historical meaning that we seek. Anything short of that will see us trapped once again in the petty registers of bourgeois life, contenting ourselves with having made money, bought houses, raised kids, and reproduced the same divisive, violent society that we were born into.
I think we can do better, because a life of individualist groping (while the world burns all around us) hardly seems to me to be a truly meaningful existence. Our lack of collective investment is the greatest absence which we must fill, lest our future be nothing more than the violent, crisis-infused present we already know so very well.
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.