I’m starting to notice something, about the way we behave in the 21st century. And it’s not OK.
Historically, people have interacted in all sorts of ways. Symbols of gods and kings and angels and fairies abound in human history, and often constituted the basis for social interaction. One sociologist, G. H. Mead, has a term for this: ‘symbolic interaction’. These symbols denoted ideas of significance, beyond the banality of daily existence. Traditional social symbols, to put it prosaically, helped bridge the gap between this world and the next.
Increasingly, however, the main mode of social interaction is based on highly empty symbols. When we talk, we refer to the main symbols of the culture; if these symbols are rotten, so is much of our social interaction. And in the world we live in, culture is constructed through mass media; a ‘culture industry’, as the Frankfurt School of critical theory noted. It’s often been noted that symbols nowadays often reflect the commodities companies are trying to sell. So the left-wing critique of mass culture is often economic in nature. On the right, mass culture is viewed as being removed from traditional structures of family and community. So the right-wing critique of mass culture is often social in nature. But what about the moral dimension of contemporary culture? Is there anything wrong with our dominant cultural symbols, as they stand, regardless of their economic origins or social characteristics.
Let’s take an example. Rather than consider a general political or corporate symbol in the abstract, I’d like to consider how symbols are used in conversation …
That’s funny. I was thinking at this point that I’d take 10 minutes to think of an example, but my mind is blank. And this is significant. Because symbols have just become more shallow, and less rooted in moral value, over time. They’ve vanished. Completely, and utterly vanished.
Now this is scary. And when I begun writing this piece, I was not aware quite how scary it would become. When we consider the symbols of politics and economics, there are definitive models for what to look for. There are clear symbols of states, and corporations, that distinguish one from another. And there are stories we tell ourselves about which states, and which corporations, are good, and which are bad. We can apply that to social life, but only loosely, through such general paradigms as ‘gender’ and ‘race’. Unlike states and corporations, which have real agency, or the capacity to act and influence the course of events, we cannot speak of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as abstract agencies, even in the most general terms, without entrapping ourselves in a contradiction. There is no representative of ‘men’ or ‘women’ separate from the institutionalised, and theoretically gender-neutral, bodies of states and corporations. If the only cultural symbols we have, besides the political-economic organisations of states and classes, are genders and races (whatever that means, beside the only race that unites us all: the human race), then our cultural symbols are truly empty.
But in daily social life, conversation doesn’t usually turn to identity politics, unless, of course, you’re involved in university life. But even there, at least in my experience, identity politics doesn’t matter much beyond second, or at most third, year of university. Master’s students and older do not worry about such things, as they have to face the real-world economic problems that face all citizens of contemporary society.
But that again turns us to the economic sphere. What are the symbols that we refer to in ordinary conversation? Perhaps this itself is begging the question: if we empty the social of its economic, political, and even ‘cultural’ baggage, what is left? We are left with moral and, relatedly, philosophical and religious, questions, but these do not seem to dominate conversation. Rather, what dominates conversation are trivia. Think YouTube videos, or the popular card game Cards Against Humanity, or even something as innocent as charades. Or, outside of corporate-produced media, think stereotypes of conversation: the weather, for instance, or food, or exercise, or some other mundane activity or fact of the world.
What unites this assortment of symbols (if that is even the right word)? They are robbed of moral content. They have no meaning. They are banal, and they are empty.
Conversation, as a result, ceases to be serious and becomes increasingly satirical. Occasionally, extreme moral seriousness is brought onto topics of which most of us know very little, such as American culture wars or international conflicts. But when it comes to our daily, banal lives, we consider things in just this way: the manner of banality. We use satire to make fun of our empty lives, but this critique does not lead anywhere. Past a certain point, satire ceases to point out problems and becomes a narcissistic laughing at our own cleverness in making satirical comments on our unserious lives. We have lost meaningful symbols of social interaction, since we have lost meaning in our lives. For whatever reason — economic, political, or ideological — we have ceased to live meaningful, dignified lives. Because if we did live meaningful lives, this would make for meaningful conversation.
I cannot remember the last time I had a meaningful conversation, that wasn’t rehearsed from a thousand conversations before. And a meaningful conversation repeated, like a book read too many times, becomes banal. But this banality is not simply banal. For as Hannah Arendt once argued, it is not the good who are banal, but those who are fallen from it: hence her famous phrase in Eichmann in Jerusalem, ‘the banality of evil’. Today, this banality has endured not in the context of total warfare but in the context of relative peace in the West. And we approach the return of war in this same way. We live in a new cult, and in this sense a new religion. But it is not one characterised by true seriousness, or serenity about morality and our capacity to live a meaningful existence. It is characterised by a self-satire that reveals its empty heart. It is a cult not of fake depth, but of true shallowness. And this is dangerous precisely because it seems harmless. The cults and dogmas of old pretended to a moral certainty they couldn’t possibly acquire. But today’s mass cult maintains a moral scepticism that ridicules those old religions and philosophies in favour of the unreligious and unphilosophical satire that permeates mass culture today. We are trapped in a cult of shallowness.
… Why so satirical?