Friday, April 06, 2007

Hey! Tighten up!*

Although we disagree pointedly (I think) on the subject of Christianity, I always find Barbara Ehrenreich to be wonderfully stimulating reading. She is brilliant and passionate about people and human flourishing, particularly when it comes to the ways that contemporary society squeezes so many of what it considers 'little people': the working poor, the middle class, the jobless. I particularly loved her book 'Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Making it in America'.

So I was delighted to find an extract from her upcoming book in the Guardian's G2 section last Monday, entitled How We Learned to Stop Having Fun. The basic thesis of the essay is that there was a particular historical moment in which we moved away from communal festivity, and moved 'inward', with the rise of self-consciousness and (excessive) introspection, and this correlated to a dramatic rise in depression. She dates the beginning of this to roughly the beginning of the seventeenth century, and finds the proces continuing to the present. This correlated with a number of developments, including increased social mobility (so people became more aware of the image they were putting forth, and it was no longer the case that you simply appeared as who you were); a growing sense of the centrality of the individual (over against the community); intellectual developments within the Enlightenment which reinforced this individualism; and theological developments, particularly Calvinism and its British form, Puritanism.

It is interesting to note that the contemporary analogues to communal festivity in the West - specifically, Carnavale - still continue in Catholic areas (Italy, Spain, France, New Orleans, South America). And historically Anglicans - among whom were some more moderate Puritans - were known for keeping Christmas and other feasts which were associated with revelry with ties to earlier communal celebrations.

There is another aspect to this dynamic which is intriguing. I will introduce it with an excerpt from the essay:
So if we are looking for a common source of depression on the one hand, and the suppression of festivities on the other, it is not hard to find. Urbanisation and the rise of a competitive, market-based economy favoured a more anxious and isolated sort of person - potentially both prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures. Calvinism provided a transcendent rationale for this shift, intensifying the isolation and practically institutionalising depression as a stage in the quest for salvation. At the level of "deep, underlying psychological change", both depression and the destruction of festivities could be described as seemingly inevitable consequences of the broad process known as modernisation.

'Anxious and isolated' individuals are not only those people who the competitive market-based economy favours, they are also created by this economy and the world it gives rise to. These are exactly the sorts of people who are needed by consumerism: people who are isolated, with more-or-less vague gnawings of incompleteness and undefined appetite, to whom appeal can be made with some object or other which promises to fill the gap (but which, needless to say, fails to deliver). Purchase follows purchase, the individual's appetite remains unfulfilled (as it needs to be), and the system is satisfied. The system creates the individuals which it needs; in this case the individuals have the added bonus of thinking they are autonomous or 'self-made' (Kant, Marx, and, to some extent, Nietzsche reinforced this in the 19th century), and so cannot acknowledge that they are products of the system - and are, to that extent, unable to change the system.**

This all ends up being a parody of the Kingdom of God, about which I have said more elsewhere. The most salient aspect to mention here is that God does not merely satisfy desire, but creates more, and then satisfies that. With God desire is not frustrated, giving rise to more frustrated acquisition, which then leads to either more frustration or acquiescence - an ultimately nihilistic process - but rather fulfilled, and in the fulfilling given an even greater capacity and desire, which are then fulfilled and increased, and so on. Each is an ongoing process, rather than a finite series. But one is vicious and nihilistic, while the other gives rise to true human flourishing.

* With respect to Zippy the Pinhead.
** ironic, no?

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