Escapism breeds its own kind of anxiety.
What is history, what is the origin, about which we can say that we must understand them sometimes in one sense, sometimes in another? – Jacques Derrida
I enjoy holidays. Things slow down a bit, and I don’t feel too bad about relaxing or disengaging from the news cycle. In fact, this year I decided to mix things up by conducting an experiment on myself. Having fallen from the fold some years ago, I attempted to reconnect with the culture industry, to reinvest in its glitzy and untroubled picture of reality.
I was to spend my holiday in Canada, by most measures a kinder, gentler country than the United States, so I figured it would afford me the perfect opportunity. It was an experiment inspired by the persistently black mood that had been hounding me since the onset of the Great Recession over a year ago (though, I suppose one could argue that we’ve been in this lovely recession since the 1970s). I just wanted, as Jungian (!) marketing consultant Clotaire Rapaille puts it, to “check out” — you know, to watch absurd movies without feeling sickened by their stupidity, to go shopping without worrying about what tomorrow’s layoffs might bring, to read magazines that are more like catalogs, with their shiny array of products all promising eternal youth, beauty and joy. I wanted to see if I could once again luxuriate in a world where glamor and fulfillment were but one Visa-swipe away.
I really tried. The first few nights of my vacation from reality, I indulged in marathon “nature porn” viewing — something I supposed I’d find relaxing, as it had nothing to do with Wall Street or Washington D.C. But all stalking, stampeding, tearing and rending filled me with an all too familiar of horror as I came to realize that what I had been reading in the news these many past months and what I was watching were but variations on a single theme: “the law of eater and eaten,” as French Surrealist theorist Georges Bataille writes in his Theory of Religion.
Instead of concerning myself with dollar devaluation and capital flight, I was fretting over eyeshadow and butt-flattering jeans.
I sent Planet Earth back to Netflix and secured a few back issues of Glamour and Self for second attempt at anesthetizing my brain. As I perused pictures of sun-kissed hair and cherry-stained lips, a sense that things would be looking up in the new year came over me. Soon I felt the need to purchase a new lipstick, so I went online and ordered MAC’s Fresh Morroccan. I didn’t concern myself with unemployment figures, or with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy; I just fretted over whether Fresh Moroccan would indeed be the shade of red which would change my life. I had, I thought, gone home again, having harmoniously reintegrated myself into “the matrix.”
A few episodes of Teen Mom on MTV, however, started me thinking once again about the American underclass, and the brutal, remorseless economic determinism that attends getting knocked up before one even gets a drivers license. Such reveries came to an end, eventually. As I was crossing back into the United States, through a customs station which was very much like prison intake, complete with a steroidal jarhead border guard and a camera whose flash startled and dazed me (Good old Fortress America — the price of freedom, I guess), images sprang to mind from all those articles I read in The New York Times and elsewhere, images of commercial property lying vacant across the United States (and I guess the Arab Emirates now, too: Burj Dubai, it appears, is fated to go untenanted). My MAC-enhanced red lips suddenly lost their luster. I couldn’t wait to log on to a computer to check readers’ comments on Calculated Risk.
The American savings rate is at its highest since the Great Depression, and some star light-years from earth is about to go supernova and wipe us all out. Am I better off for having scurried back to my desktop to learn these things? It’s hard to say. My days cozily nestled in the culture industry, during which I intentionally surrendered to marketing’s savvy blandishments, were indeed relaxing at first, but they soon bred their own particular anxieties. Instead of concerning myself with dollar devaluation and capital flight, I was fretting over eyeshadow and butt-flattering jeans. The culture industry certainly has its function; an economy utterly dependent on the consumption of services and imported goods would stall without a steady influx of manufactured desire.
But those who are intellectually capable of doing so should resist the temptation to “check out,” because there’s a lot of double talk going on out there.
For instance, ABC News reports that the economy is well on its way to recovery as it stopped shedding jobs for the first time in two years, while Business Week reports that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) are currently debating the prospect of inflation, even as the economy is supposedly improving. For its part, CNN Money reports that unemployment claims are edging higher yet again: “The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance rose modestly last week, the government said Thursday.” But analysts were pleased as the number came in below their expectations. Good news, right? Not really, because then the story goes on to state that those declining numbers represent people who have just “fallen off the rolls,” so the employment situation is not improving one iota. December sales are up 32.8% compared to last year, but rent rates are falling off a cliff. And even the venerable New York Times has begun encouraging homeowners to walk away from their mortgages.
In 1945 thousands of pamphlets were dropped on the German people which assured them that, despite appearances to the contrary, they were indeed winning the war:
We must win the war, and we can win it! Each man and each woman, the entire German people, must call forth their utmost in work, courage, and discipline. Then our future and the future of our children will be assured, and the German people will be saved from a descent into Bolshevist chaos!
Of course, those citizens who took it upon themselves to listen to proscribed radio stations discovered that quite the opposite was true. Only part of Germany fell into “Bolshevist chaos,” while the rest changed in ways that only the most astute German citizens could have anticipated, courtesy of the Marshall Plan.
Though it’s tempting to indulge oneself in the twilight of mindless consumerism, to party like it’s (still) 1999, to do so, I’ve come to realize, is to engage in folly. Misinformation abounds, and the only way to navigate the treacherous waters of the current political situation is … well … to pay attention and to exercise discernment. For we’ve entered that stage where the electronic equivalent of propaganda pamphlets are falling from the sky like so many spent locusts. Perhaps it’s time, then, to bid adieu to a world that doesn’t seem like it’s coming back any time soon. One of those pesky historical shifts has occurred these past few years. What lies ahead is anyone’s guess.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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