How the command to have perpetual good times causes its opposite
During the time I have kept this blog I have found myself annually writing a pretty messy and uncontrollably pessimistic piece around this time of the year, usually titled Crash-Landing of One’s Life at The End of The Year. This year [yes!] “to save me from [fucking] tears, I’ll try pre-emptive action, by getting to the source of the tributary that leads to Lake Breakdown. I have struggled around this time of year for as long as my post-millennial-mind can remember, yet what always makes it doubly hard, is that doesn’t feel like it is allowed the voice it usually carves slowly but surely out of the late-capitalist landscape. I know I’m not the only one, maybe even within the many, yet the banishment remains in place. As my mind labours throughout the day on this, blowing hot and cold, the words “Sharing the Pain” are repeatedly reiterated in my head, as a means of articulating what I mean in the face of accusations more or less inciting I take a pleasure in pessimism. I get to the point whilst I’m walking from place to place where I’m internally screaming “yes, sharing the pain is what is crucially missing” in our contemporary situation.
In a BBC Radio 4 documentary from 2013 commenting on the 25th birthday of the “wonder-drug” Prozac, Will Self argued that we shouldn’t be trying to be happy all the time that “[M]aybe the world is a difficult and abrasive place and hard place, and we’d be better off as a society if we acknowledged it in some way rather than papering over the cracks [and we] shared the pain”. The title of the documentary was [a] Prozac Economy, and maybe Prozac is emblematic of the implicit dictum of late capitalist society to be happy and living life to the full, 24/7. After spending 3 quarters of my 20’s on another brand of anti-depressant, I became convinced that what was often mistaken as/and resorted to by patients/customers as a solution to a genuine inability to function in life was actually the ‘papering over the cracks’ of all the things that were inconvenient to the command to be fully active, well-rounded, happy subjects in the ‘game of life’. What is being referred to here, isn’t even the massive cause for ‘pleasure-depletion’ caused by the expanding trail of ‘externalities’ (poverty, pollution, violence) sweated, and spat out by capitalist growth; what is being referred to is the banishment of the bad-to-mundane parts of life from the social lexicon. Good times and success have come to mean the same thing and an implicit command to be living life to the full glares at us from the workplace, street, and living room, making for an unending sensation that our lives are somewhat lacking.
“Life tends to come and go. That’s OK as long as you know”, I Won’t Share You, The Smiths
The Smiths/Morissey’s lyric on their final song of their final album from the late 1980’s almost seem to be wise words of warning for the increasingly USA-like consumerist landscape that the UK would increasingly exist as in the two decades following on, that life isn’t always full and memorably-great. Yet we now live in a social landscape drunk on expectation that life should constantly flow and never ebb.
But without going much further just yet, in comes the emotional-stomach-pumping that is Xmas/New Year; a annual occurrence that is more of an unwritten consensus for a time of mental illness more than anything. Tears, relationship breakdowns, taxi-rank travesties – a general unhinging of minds. It’s like being sucked into a black hole; you have to make plans well in advance to ensure your coordinates are on course to steer you way past its gravitational pull. Most of us fail to do this, and just have to hold on in the best psychological state we can until we come out the other end in early January. It disorientates, messes any routines we have that give us scope for making (some) sense of things; giving us no means of coming to terms with the burning sensation “why aren’t I having a good time? I’m supposed to be. What the hell do I do now?”.
Many of us (usually referring to some unfortunate other – but often meaning ourselves) talk about how Xmas/New Year can be a ‘lonely time’. But I don’t think it is actually that much to do with being alone at this ‘special time’, but more a loneliness induced by this omnipresent command to be ‘living it up’. We feel more left out, missing out, with a need to be having good times-max for 2 solid weeks – no wonder we feel so exhausted by the end of it. This pressure to be constantly sociable, in the thick of good times, coincides with the increasing atomisation of human beings, due to an increasingly presence of market forces coming between al human interaction, so much so that George Monbiot wrote a recent column calling this “the age of loneliness”; both our real and imagined loneliness have increased.
My interpretation of the usual defence of Christmas [specifically, regarding the UK], as an ancient tradition of good will in the deep dead of winter, is that the difference lay not really in loss of belief in the Christian story (or tradition), but in the shift from it being a time of bringing good will, and an easing of pain, to a time where the language describing pain and general not-good times is banished from the existence. A burgeoning feeling of unease, makes us feel more distant from the (seemingly) joyous crowds. But my suspicion is that most of that crowd are actually only connected by their hidden loneliness.
Perhaps this shift can be placed at a point within the 20th century when a newly emerging stage of capitalism (a more completely market-saturated, market-dominated and deterritorialised society) snatched the mores (the demands/actions for the liberation of pleasures, freedoms to enjoy life) from the cultural revolutions of the 1960’s that fought to overthrow a previous style of capitalist domination. The counter-cultural liberation of the human soul in the mid-to-late 20th century turned out to be like rocket fuel to what could be called an emerging hypercapitalism, that re-appropriated and ventriloquised it so well, that tracks like the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties becomes a slogan for this different style of domination.
Many theorists have worked hard to interpret this crucial shift, usually located in the 1970’s-80’s, but most notably Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze’s essay Postscript for Societies of Control, using Michel Foucault’s description of societies of Discipline and Punish (“operating in a time frame of a closed system”, based on containment and territorial in nature) to delineate the previous form of domination, talks of the beginnings of a new form of domination by “ultrarapid modes of free-floating control” where the “corporation has replaced [the older model] the factory, and the corporation is a spirit, gaseous”, it extends into all walks of life and “constantly presents the brashest forms of rivalry as an healthy form of emulation that opposes each individual against one another, and runs through each, dividing each within”. We are no longer citizens and workers, we are competitors and consumers; enforced individualism. (Digression slightly, but being as I am referring to many bands here, I will argue that the quintessential record for a discipline and punish society is Pink Floyd’s The Wall – released at that crucial point, 1979, when the transition was truly occurring, and that the quintessential record for control societies is Radiohead’s 1997 pre-cyberspatial-horror record OK Computer).
And, In a simplified way, it would seem that what the revolutionaries of the 1960’s were trying to overthrow was the discipline and punishment stage of capitalist domination, unfortunately oblivious to the more gaseous ‘control society’ stage of capital that was de-territorialising the sources of power, and re-appropriating the energies pitted against that older form, at the time. Unlike in a society based on discipline and punishment our pleasure drives aren’t something to be kept in check from a watchtower, but something left to the management of the individual, whilst advocated as a consumer rite of passage. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his essay The Riots – On Consumerism Coming Home To Roost, the 2011 UK rioters were ‘disqualified consumers’ who were (financially) unable to carry out their ingrained duty, and thus the rage of injustice was followed by the return of the repressed rite of passage to consume/enjoy – thus came the looting. Because control societies are always losing control, from the macro-economical right down to individual level.
What has all this got to do with Xmas/New year though? Well, all the factors that drive our contemporary reality, hit a huge power surge at this point every year; as Xmas/New Year now operates as some kind of social nervous breakdown, from which it rises back out in vain with redemptive plans for the new year. All the cities in the UK, by weekend, transform into landscapes of people desperate in pursuit of pleasure, in what is still seen as ‘leisure time’ – do they find their fun? Maybe eventually. Christmas however, is this on overdrive, when we truly do become lonely prisoners to the pleasure pursuit. ( The Black Friday escapades, that are condemned by those who foolishly think they are exempt from consumer subjectivity, are if anything a mirror image of the London Riots).
I don’t believe the pursuit of pleasure, and the unrealistic expectations we become condemned to place on such periods deliver their promise at all (In all honesty, the best nights out I have are ones that come out of nowhere, usually when you bump into a friend whilst out on a mundane town centre stroll). The failure to find pleasure on a singular weekend night out can be shrugged off far more easy, but the command to be fulfilled around Xmas/New Year can bring about series mental distress.
There is no way to go much further than this when the most crucial thing (on my part) is getting through the period with minimal damage as possible. It’s fair to say, I think we’re all swept along (or pulled under) in the tide of society at different degrees. At least I’m being honest in saying I’m far more seduced with the perfume of aspirational hyperbole than I’d ever wish on anyone else. It’s like a sealed pocket that releases its poison at certain points throughout the year.
I truly believe if ‘sharing the pain’ was a dominant paradigm, in the place of ‘everyone must enjoy themselves’, life would be truly more easy. It is impossible for a society to share the pain, and accepted the difficulties of life whilst there is a command to be a ‘player’. I also feel a society that acknowledged the difficulties of life would find it easier to adjust to adverse scenarios, rather than responding to it like the infantile consumers it currently moulds us into; to consume and suffer in silence.
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.