Desperation witnessed on a Facebook wall and desperation on the railway lines, on our endless commutes – going nowhere

“Out of my way, it’s a busy day, and I’ve got things on my mind” Us And Them, Pink Floyd

The affect it has on us when online acquaintances make desperate cries for help, more or less saying that they are close to suicide, on their Facebook wall and the similar reaction we have when there is a suicide on the train tracks or someone is threatening to throw themselves off a motorway bridge (for example) has made me think of how the solitary way we collectively make our way around Facebook is just a virtual reflection of the way we make our way through the physical world in our ‘daily races’ under late capitalism.

Whilst in London in December, I was told by two different people of their witnessing/second hand witnessing of a suicide on the tube tracks or the aftermath of one (blood stains on the sides of the tunnel were visible from the windows of a tube train carriage). I would find witnessing such a thing unbelievably difficult to deal with (as I suspect they did); in the space of one week I experienced 2 delays to train journeys in the Yorkshire area due to there being ‘a fatality on the line/somebody being hit by a train’ (as said by the automated tannoy voice) and the mere news of this left me with such an empty and despairing feeling that I had to go for a drink to become a little more numb, to stop me thinking “there’s certainly an increase on these occurrences”. I find stories of suicides on train tracks more awful than suicides committed in bedrooms, alleyways or woodlands; there is something about them that states that they will happen again and again, and nothing will be done.

A couple of days ago I got a text from a Friend who lives in London, expressing discontent with commuter behaviour on the tube. He said “these rush hour commuters are like those in cars. Cars being the embodiment of Thatcherite individualism and selfishness” and that “everybody looks away if you look at them, so no eye contact with people”. The way we collectively use public transport (although much more beneficial to society than using a car) reflects the Thatcherite rhetoric of there is ‘no such thing as society’ just in the same way as the increasing usage of the car has done in the past 30 years. This friend was one of the 2 friends who told me about a suicide they witnessed on the tube. He sent that text one day after the M1 motorway was closed near to where I live, causing traffic congestion on the nearby road, due an individual threatening to throw themselves off one of the bridges over the motorway. Also, it was on the same day that I came across a Facebook post that expressed acute desperation.

The fulfillment of the ‘no such thing as society’ rhetoric means that we are atomised and forced into a selfish bubble-like existence even when we are out of our cars and our sleeping/eating cells (the physical bubbles); our jobs (that creep into every aspect of our lives via email/cell phone) make for perpetual financial strain, which puts strain on relationships, and becomes all consuming, and couple this with the effect that the sheer bulk of advertising we absorb (thus, the status anxiety it causes) has on us, living in a neoliberal (free market) economy; and we (to use a quote from Mark Fishers’ Capitalist Realism) “wall ourselves up against The Social” by putting our Ipod/Mp3 players on to soothe ourselves with musical sugary stimulus – we feel we need it to keep our mood levels up. But when capitalism’s so-called ‘accidents’ actually reinforce its legitimacy, as recession pushes the pitch-fork of financial anxiety further into our backsides (thus, forcing us to be even more selfish and competitive) what can we do but become more self-orientated, perpetuating the problem?

When trying to escape The Social all the time, a suicide, or the threat of a suicide, is both too bleak to contemplate and also a massive inconvenience to us (due to the delays it brings to our ‘daily races’). And the wish not to dwell on it, to just get on with focusing on our own journey through this world, engenders the inconvenience that the delays these incidents become, which engenders a selfishness in all of us, which in turn, engenders a society of more atomised people where, because this is a positive feedback loop of affect and causation, means increasing numbers of people will become alienated, depressed and will attempt/commit suicide.

I suppose the aforementioned greater bleakness of killing oneself in such a way relates to my own past experiences when I can remember feeling low enough to be contemplating committing this ultimate gesture (although not involving railway lines, personally): knowing nobody has the time to even give it a thought, and that your death will be brushed under the carpet, out of mind out of sight, like the train wheels would do to your body, because it’s also too inconvenient to dwell on, being in a society where we are informed to ‘forget’ about these external incidents, as we should try to get on with our own lives, making sure we don’t become the next person ready to throw ourselves under moving vehicles. This attitude, which we all ascribe to, or try to (because it is the most convenient attitude to have in a society where mental illness has been individualised, thus separated from its socio-political causation’s) is what ensures that it will keep happening again; it ensures the perpetuation of alienation; the perpetuation of this ‘no such thing as society’ where we all feel that we have no choice but to look out for number 1, with the cost being that we may one day be this person jumping in front of a train/threatening to jump from a motorway bridge.

“So” you think “Is this what happens? People just look the other way, put in their headphones, and occupy their mind with filling out that Job application, for a job they are unlikely to get because 100 other people have applied for that very post? And hope that they never reach such a lowly stage themselves?” You can hear us all muttering the lyrics from Us And Them by Pink Floyd again; “down and out, it can’t be helped that there’s a lot of it about”.

You get home. Try to forget the thoughts that the bleak tannoy announcements conjured up, and if you can’t you can always see if anyone wants to join you for a little bit of alcoholic anesthetizing in town. But you do that too much, and although it feels to be leading somewhere at the time, it’s the same every time. The thing is it feels like an arrival, or at least the finishing off of something, a conclusion to an otherwise empty day that feels incomplete and unfulfilled. You miss the drink for today, but still need to feel secure, heard; that you’re building something that will make you safe from ever being ‘down and out’; pathways towards arriving. The seemingly easiest way to contact people now is via the Internet, so that’s what you attempt.
But as soon as you log into the place where everybody goes (Facebook) you feel like you are going nowhere again; nobody seems to be hearing what you say; it feels like you’ve only just set off on a tiresome journey, after only just finishing one in the physical world; you just can’t land. So you shout louder, AND LOUDER! Listen to me!!, just me!! Oh dear.

And so the attitude we share as commuters is continued in both the reason why social networking sites have become so popular, and in the way we collectively use them. One will occasionally stumble across Facebook wall posts an individual has put up, saying how desperately unhappy and lonely he/she is, worded in a way that suggests that he/she is contemplating attempting suicide. Regardless of whether the suggestion of doing so is false, or is just a cry for help (which, should be seen as just that, and not attention seeking; people don’t make up depression, it is endemic in our society), how do we react to this? I’d argue in the same way as we react to the situation of a man threatening to throw himself from a bridge onto a road we desire to travel on/the same way as we’d react if a dead body was blocking our rail journey: although empathy is lacking in such a society, we still do all possess enough to feel some short burst of sadness for the person in question, but the feeling is overwhelmed by our anxieties about our own life. We are so self-orientated, so overly concerned about getting from our A to B (our intentions/goals/needs from facebook) that it becomes much more of an inconvenience. More than that, it reveals the uncomfortable truths about our fragility that we are constantly having to run from.

But can we ever arrive, in a sense, if this journey perpetually never ends, when social networking sites and cell phones extend this endless commute into our houses, the one place where we are supposed to have arrived at? We commute on the net like we commute in our endless physical races in the heat of the day; trying to push ourselves forward, but going nowhere, going nowhere
The fast lane, high speed rail, high speed broadband, but never actually arriving (“Perhaps we should resolve Britain’s railway network into a single orbital system, so that we can all remain in constant circulation. Then we’ll know we’re getting somewhere.” this cutting and humorous observation about the high speed rail plans by George Monbiot in Fast Train to Nowhere, May 17 2010, seems to touch upon the whole of the eternal commute.)

“You only actually arrive when you switch it off”, a friend said to me yesterday, regarding the effect of trying to find meaning through communication on Facebook. But he also acknowledged how hard it is to do so, because of how it persuades you that the opposite is true. Social networking sites are forced communication-as-self-promotion, forced Yuppiedom, passed off as choice, just as commuting longer and longer distances to work, which was forced onto us by social restructuring, and a deliberate shifting of capital, was passed off as an individuals freedom to work wherever he/she may choose; both do the opposite of what they promote; they create an environment of self-preservation at all costs and selfishness as necessity, as if we were still fighting for food in the wild. If this isn’t further evidence that systemic alterations engender how technology advances, and how it is used by people, then I don’t know what is.

Facebook is awful, but it is not an anomaly, or even a massive societal shift; it is a logical extension of the culture that has been created. Which is why, when you’re thinking clearly enough (and not excited by the prospect of lots of little red numbers appearing in the top left corner of your profile page) it is the saddest of thoughts that tonight the only way you will attempt to talk to people is through it, because nobody will be really listening to you, because they need to be listened to. self-promotion lapses into self-preservation every time. But some people, in the physical and virtual world, cannot survive this world-made-cold.

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

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