Friday, November 2, 2012

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire.  Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind.  Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesiac intoxication.
America, Jean Baudrillard

The culture of modernity idolizes speed and convenience above all other values.  Whatever the thing may be, it must be quick and easy.  An effortless instantaneity is our raison d’├¬tre and the ultimate selling point for all commodities.  The corrosive effect that this has on our material as well as ideological existence is inestimable and pervasive.  These idols are worshipped and observed more faithfully than any of the Ten Commandments.  Indeed, personal salvation is merely a matter of proclaiming one’s faith in the “true God,” a form of intellectual and moral laziness that is disguised by the celerity with which one shouts “I am saved!”  There is no need to study a Bible; its meaning is given the moment you declare your faith.

Speed and convenience have completely altered food production, resulting in the degradation of our foodstuffs and the alienation of the mass of mankind from the brute realities of procuring it, which in turn creates a false innocence among those who consume without having to kill or labor in the fields.  Speed and convenience have altered our landscape, turning it into a network of roads and highways and malls and parking lots.  Sex is increasingly virtual, instantly available with a mere click of the mouse (no wonder there is a societal preoccupation with premature ejaculation).  The life of the mind is jacked on Speed.  Knowledge is a package deal.  Universities now streamline education as if degrees were a product assembled on a factory floor and ideas were added features.  Degrees are offered online purely for the sake of easy accreditation.  These Siamese twins have shaped whole professions, which now must incessantly prove their value on the basis of swift results and easy access.  This is most apparent in the sphere of photography, which since the advent of digital has become ever more a slave to the editorial requirement that the imagery be instantly obtainable and reproducible, thus minimizing the value, and even the possibility, of painstaking, thoughtful image making.  The Arts have likewise been compelled to kowtow before these idols.  Writing is becoming ever more telegraphic with the new media, and the time needed to read or write a novel – that “time as depth” mentioned by Baudrillard – has been expunged from the imperious Schedule that rules our workaday lives.

These Imps have invaded the sphere of political discourse and wrought great damage there, with the result that Democracy is almost pure specularity. The sound bite takes precedence over the reasoned argument.  Emotional jibes supercede sound logic.  Repetition of slogans and simplistic “message” prevails over critical analysis and the formation of ideas.  What could be quicker and easier than the Spin?  Government is a simulacrum tricked out with a neat set of “Like” buttons and Comment fields whereby citizens can indulge the illusion that a genuine discourse exists, even though it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing.

Speed and Convenience conjure enchanting illusions to dupe the citizenry.  Wars are now fought with this model in mind – drone warfare is just one instance of an attempt to facilitate aggression in ways that putatively do not inconvenience those who wage it.  Human beings need not be engaged at all except via the computer console.  We are sold on the notion that it is more efficient, more convenient, swifter and cleaner.  But the hype conceals the lie at the heart of the agenda.  Convenience does not cut war short; it prolongs it and covers up its true costs in order that the profiteers may more easily profit from it.  We are now engaged in wars that last longer than any of the major conflicts of the 20th century, and we are locked into a syndrome of perpetual warmaking.

These facets of a market society are not new; they are just more pervasive.  John Stuart Mill once wrote that the civilizing process is essentially effete; that is, it removes people from the brute realities of life and makes them more sensitive, more refined, more prone to a dainty aversion to what he called the “heroic.”  The terms of his argument and his Victorian High Seriousness will provoke chuckles today, but there is a thread woven therein which ties up with these features of modernity that I have distinguished.  He argues that

One of the effects of a high state of civilization upon character, is a relaxation of individual energy: or rather, the concentration of it within the narrow sphere of the individual’s money-getting pursuits. As civilization advances, every person becomes dependent, for more and more of what most nearly concerns him, not upon his own exertions, but upon the general arrangements of society. In a rude state, each man’s personal security, the protection of his family, his property, his liberty itself, depend greatly upon his bodily strength and his mental energy or cunning: in a civilized state, all this is secured to him by causes extrinsic to himself. The growing mildness of manners is a protection to him against much that he was before exposed to, while for the remainder he may rely with constantly increasing assurance upon the soldier, the policeman, and the judge, and (where the efficiency or purity of those instruments, as is usually the case, lags behind the general march of civilization) upon the advancing strength of public opinion.

The relaxation of individual energy is nothing more than what I have called Convenience – and the circumscription of individual energy to the sphere of money getting is a convenience, certainly, for the capitalist system.  Hence the market comes to dominate life.  Mill goes on to argue that the result of social evolution is a kind of displacement or repression of distasteful realities and an aversion to struggle:

One of the effects of civilization (not to say one of the ingredients in it) is, that the spectacle, and even the very idea, of pain, is kept more and more out of the sight of those classes who enjoy in their fulness the benefits of civilization. . . . To most people in easy circumstances, any pain, except that inflicted upon the body by accident or disease, and upon the mind by the inevitable sorrows of life, is rather a thing known of than actually experienced. This is much more emphatically true in the more refined classes, and as refinement advances; for it is in avoiding the presence not only of actual pain, but of whatever suggests offensive or disagreeable ideas, that a great part of refinement consists. . . . The consequence is that, compared with former times, there is in the more opulent classes of modern civilized communities much more of the amiable and humane, and much less of the heroic. The heroic essentially consists in being ready, for a worthy object, to do and to suffer, but especially to do, what is painful or disagreeable; and whoever does not early learn to be capable of this, will never be a great character. There has crept over the refined classes, over the whole class of gentlemen in England, a moral effeminacy, an inaptitude for every kind of struggle. . . . This torpidity and cowardice, as a general characteristic, is new in the world; but (modified by the different temperaments of different nations) it is a natural consequence of the progress of civilization, and will continue until met by a system of cultivation adapted to counteract it.

Essentially Mill is arguing that with civilization comes a kind of intellectual and moral laziness or torpor as a result of a dissociation from pain.  One cannot help but laugh at this uptight hetero Victorian’s fear of “moral effeminacy”; but Mill still has something to teach us, and not just because this line of argument led directly to Freud’s more famous Civilization and Its Discontents.  Mill could not have foreseen that the titanic struggles of the 20th century, against fascism, colonialism, racism and sexism would compel people to heroic endeavor and produce many heroes such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Frantz Fanon, Emma Goldman, bell hooks, and innumerable anonymous strivers for a better world.  Heroism doesn’t seem to be in shorter supply, despite the march of civilization (and perhaps we should discard this loaded term and talk simply of “development”); but the notion that torpor may have a pervasive cultural effect is not to be discounted, so long as we recognize that it works in a paradoxical manner.  Because while convenience and speed command our thinking and our energies, and the machinery of life takes on an ever greater presence so that the everything in the world is viewed as a machine, and everything, including ourselves, is a function of instrumentality, we become the proverbial cog, endlessly turning without getting anywhere.   

Very few people today raise and slaughter their own chickens or grow their own food.  Very few people today can build a house or sew their own clothes or build a go-cart or tree fort for the kids.  Who has time for all that?  Or so we tell ourselves.  We delegate these and other duties to other people – the experts, those with the necessary skills.  Or we just buy what we need.  Thus we deprive ourselves of a range of skills we might otherwise profit by and enjoy while exercising them.  But the real irony is that all this convenience and speed have not liberated us from toil.  They have merely made life less “painful.”  They have relieved us of the need to think and act for ourselves.  The modern worker puts in more hours at the office or factory, under mind-numbing conditions, than ever before in the history of humanity.  So called “primitives” are far more advanced than we are in the enjoyment of a life of ease.  The life of leisure which was the Roman ideal (otium) is beyond our reach.  Instead, we slave until we can afford a seat in Eternity’s Waiting Room, those retirement colonies where leisure consists of golf and planned “social activities” and the aged are rendered entirely irrelevant to society.  The middle class retiree is a voluntary inmate in a plush concentration camp.

Mill goes on in his essay to discuss literature, politics, the sciences and other fields of endeavor.  He argues for example that “The world reads too much and too quickly to read well.”  (He was thinking of those wordy Victorian novels and ponderous scientific treatises which everyone read in numerous periodicals; imagine what he would have thought of all the webpages we obsessively click through now!)  Abundance is not necessarily wealth, properly understood, and speed, as Baudrillard points out, is a skimming of the surface.  To conclude that convenience and speed are inherently bad things is obviously an oversimplification.  One can even argue that they help to make knowledge more easily accessible to a greater number of people.  That is certainly true.  The web is the greatest Alexandrian library of all time.  But when these twin virtues endlessly promoted by capitalism and technology come to supplant all other values, we may learn regretfully that being faster than a speeding bullet is not such an admirable super power after all.  Rather than the Man of Steel, we should look to the Nietzschean “├╝bermensch” or superman who, in the void once occupied by God and Progress, will implant new values that “shall be the meaning of the earth.”