The Strange Death of Grown-up Britain
Talking to a friend last week, he described personal experience of what had been on the tip of my tongue as we passed through the first week of ‘Firework Month (previously Bonfire Night). He talked of how he felt adults are becoming increasingly infantilised both in their attitudes and their leisure pursuits. Adults wanting toys, and wanting to talk about toys – in this instance.
The sentence that stuck in my head from our re-converging conversational subject was related to TV documentaries that deal with technology: “in the 1980’s we had Tomorrow’s World. Today, we have The Gadget Show.”Despite Tomorrow’s World being know for not always being a great documentary, it was very indicative of its time, and couldn’t conceivably exist in our current world, outside Silicon Valley-venture-capitalist-orientated lectures, and certainly not as prime-time television viewing. Tomorrow’s World eagerly anticipated possible futures we’d all be involved in, whilst its contemporary equivalents offer us nothing but novelties to play with, in place of a future. What happened?
As a population we have been disenfranchised almost entirely by the triumph of neoliberal economics. A slow all-encompassing triumph that, as Paul Verhaeghe shows in his book What About Me?, has (over the past 35 years) transformed the nature of society, but only by also transforming individuals, altering how they see themselves and their relationship with the world. It reduces us to a player in a “market-driven society”, making us compete against each other in a way that dissolves the very social safety nets/institutions that offered relief to inevitable ‘losers’ in an inherently rigged game.
Verhaeghe’s book really gets going when he begins to discuss how we live in an ‘Enron Society’:named after an infamous US corporation whose Rank and Yank model of a grand lauding for high performers and humiliating sackings for low performers, ended up leading to mass performance-fixing, bringing the corporation down, but not before totally doing away with any sort of adult agency, reducing workers to powerless infants.
This ‘new identity’ feels powerless to change anything beyond his/her own performance in such a structure: someone/something else is thus always to blame (scroungers, cheats, politicians, extremists, immigrants). And because of the lack of trust and sense of social responsibility of the neoliberalised worldly-outlook, the state ends up intervening with incredibly infantilising measures; “you can’t do that”, “you can’t have that here”(ironic how my local train stations have begun to use an actual child’s voice over the tannoy to issue out such incredibly patronising rules/regulations). Who’s want to think about the social? Better to entertain ourselves in our ‘private bunkers’.
No future, just high-tech toys. What future there is certainly isn’t public property. The future’s for the winners, and because there’s only a few of them, you should just take what you can, and enjoy what you can.
Whether neoliberal capital coincided with the triumph of digital technology, or whether the ‘postmodernising’ affect of digital life was actually realised by what theorist Fredric Jameson speculated postmodernism is anyway – the cultural logic of late capitalism – that fact remains they have equally extended into our external and internal landscape, as one seamless thing, making the idea of a another social reality unimaginable.
Being hooked up to what Will Self calls ‘the Man-Machine Matrix’, our long-view becomes a ‘damaged receptor’, as we descend into an eternal now. Together, yet alone (even increasingly relaint on the cold-calculative digital sphere for love) where a long-view and an adult agency may once have been, we find we have what Mark Fisher (Capitalist Realism) calls ‘reflexive impotence’, and are in a state of what he called ‘depressive ahedonia’, as in the inability to do anything but pursue pleasure.
Pleasure becomes the only thing we can pursue. In out hypermediated landscape, the promise of immediate pleasures is all around us; it is the only language being spoken to us, alongside its counterpart of terror and uncertainty via rolling news media, that makes us recoil from the outside world further, into a state that craves childlike security.
So it seems worthwhile adding that as well as new gadgets there is of course the obsession with vintage gadgets, which certainly correlate with the inability to picture a future, but are also symbolic of adults’ (at least the fortunate adults’) genuine childhoods, of general stability and protection from uncertainties – the state we wish to remain in as adults, now we experience a lack of agency in the face of this berserk and cruel outside the (hyper)media presents to us.
But as culture begins to mould around there being nothing but pleasure/’the good times’, it inevitably becomes an implicit order. If we aren’t enjoying ourselves then something must surely be wrong, with the place we are in/people we are with, or, more likely, we feel that something must be wrong with ourselves. The pursuit of pleasure becomes more prominent a feature of contemporary life than pleasure itself. In fact, what separates so-called binge-drinking culture, for example, from the age-old drinking habits of an island on the edge of Northern Europe, is this implicit rule that something is wrong if there aren’t ‘the good times’ all the time.
All this gets me onto why I felt incensed to write all this whilst fireworks that sound like rocks being thrown at the windows are going off evening after evening. I have often felt that the social reality we are amidst could quite easily be called “40 years hate-your-neighbour”, as one in overcome by inner rage over what feels like an horizon made of “inconsiderate people(!)”, as on mass they pursue their leisure fixes at all costs, not least in the suburbs and provincial town centres on a week.
The ‘Anti-Scrooge Brigade’ are soon on your case once you critique nationally instituted festive occasions, such as Bonfire Night or Christmas. But once the noise level of “somebody having a good time” becomes a form of harassment to others, as it permeates their ‘private bunkers – their only refuge from the hostile outside environment – you begin to wonder why we need to behave like this just to have fun. From hooliganist chanting and whooping noises, whilst walking from bar to bar, to letting off the loudest firework, enjoyment can no longer separated from the need to show the world that you are having enjoyment. The most energy is devote to making a statement, saying “fun is being had”.
If this social reality’s equivalent of Tomorrow’s World is the Gadget Show then the TV show that most perfectly ‘symptomises’ man-child’s “having fun at all costs”, it is the appropriately socially-offensive Top Gear, fronted by South Yorkshire’s 2nd worst export after William Hague; Jeremy Clarkson. But I believe that what people really hate so much about Jeremy Clarkson is that on a unconscious level they realise that getting rid of him (from the limelight) wouldn’t get rid of the “having my fun at all costs” individualism of which he is the figurehead.
But we hate it as much as we recreate it. What I gathered for Verhaeghe’s analysis of what neoliberalism has done to our identities is that it makes us into inherently contradictory forces; equally victims and perpetrators of the social reality. I, for one, am guilty of what Verhaeghe terms “depressive pleasure-seeking” an awareness of my long-view being a ‘damage receptor’ having no alteration to this state, as my civic, political responsibility crumbles bi-weekly into a need to be drunk. And, regarding festive occasions, as much as I loathe them, part of the reason for this is because I know that I will be (yet again) overcome by Fisher’s ‘depressive ahedonia’ during their periodical grip over culture. I await falling into pretty low places due a power surge of emotion telling me there’s something wrong because I’m not perpetually experience the ‘good times’. As I constantly keep reminding people, I am Entombed in Self-Centredness.
But before I designate a potential open goal for skim-reading-opinionist-OneUpManship, the most easy open goal is “how are you designating a society infantile when you still often have to rely on your parents to get by?” Yes, I haven’t managed to find a way of earning enough to be truly independent, and, no, you have completely missed the point of what I am referring to by infantilism. I mean infantilism in the sense of adults both resorting to a small, well-decorated bunker-world of boys toys and twee, which has hit a googoo gaga-level of hysteria in our post recession ‘keep calm carry on’ moment, and the culturally-imposed powerless position where all we are able to do is find pleasure.
My point isn’t that I know a solution – I wouldn’t include my own self-loathing admissions if I thought I did – it’s that I feel it crucial we all identify that there is a problem in the first place. We have an entire cultural response to anyone who shows unease at the demand to have fun, and this is what I mean by the Anti-Scrooge Brigade – it disguises the gulf between the commandment to have fun and genuine enjoyment.
It is when I find myself in Leeds city centre early Saturday evening (as an International city, by week, folds back into a provincial English town by weekend), or bombarded by relentless deafening fireworks, that it feels important not to let this all be seen as ‘folk having fun; let it be’, because it is a statement of fun, hiding the fact that genuine meaning to an adult existence has been thoroughly castrated. Regarding the conversation with my friend that this blog-post begun with, perhaps it is fitting to add that the consistent conclusion of our exhaustive debate, was that the only thing we felt we could do was to be critically expressive, through art, writing, and more thinking.