declining the unearned luxury of despair

Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber:

Our era is drenched in narrative. From the beguiling flame spiral of neoliberalism’s end of ‘grand narratives’, to Trump’s three and four word (lock her up / maga) ultra-short stories of destruction, to our helpless fascination with the far right’s ability to govern by unverified sound-bite, to the fact that every shitty little marketer on the Internet now calls themselves a ‘storyteller’; story has eaten the world.

Our preferred form of storytelling is so obsessed with endings that we’re convinced we’re ring-side at the biggest, baddest, worst ending ever – that of the centuries of Reason and their faithful but unfortunately carbon-emitting Engines of Progress. We love endings, revere protagonists, and not so secretly long for their mutual culmination in a fiery end of glorious and gorgeously terminal self-actualisation. Our whole mode of future-imagining is a death cult. We literally cannot imagine the world after us.

So, in the medium-term, I’m working on a book-shaped thing about how we use story to actively imagine and build better futures than the nihilistic inevitabilism currently on offer (especially from Big Tech.) It’s currently got a LOT in the mix – from how my abusive convent boarding school revealed the intimate relation between privacy and power, to how the English state’s origin stories that justify state coercion and soften the peasants up for perpetual violence (Leviathan, Lord of the Flies) are historically and culturally contingent cries for help. All that stuff shows how the stories we mindlessly reach for to understand how the world works operate as gate-keepers of possibility and crushers of hope.

The first commenter makes a fair point, albeit in a somewhat uncharitable way, by asking “when was it ever not so?”—I’ve argued before that narrative is the operating system of human culture, perhaps even the ur-technology, and as such it’s perhaps less that “story has eaten the world” and more that “story has been optimised and weaponised (by capital and its death-cult priesthood)”; I signed up a while ago to new journal-paper alerts for a bunch of communication science (read as “marketing voodoo”) journals, just to remind myself of the stakes and what we’re up against. (Also to provide some amount of fuel for the fire: as John Lydon put it, “anger is an energy”). But that observation doesn’t negate Farrell’s point—and I find it interesting that we have the boarding school experience in common as the crucible in which the hypocrisy and gaslighting of power was revealed to us early on.

Farrell goes on to outline her forthcoming book-shaped-project a bit more, and the threads will seem familiar to anyone who’s been reading along here for a while: critical utopianism avant la lettre, basically. It’s nice to know someone else is running on a parallel track… though I’m disappointed that Farrell doesn’t seem to have any other regular outlet for her writings beyond CT, as I’d like to follow along. Maybe she just prefers to develop her ideas in private.

I’ve not been very public myself of late, to be fair. I’ve been pretty quiet here after the outpourings of the summer, which is as much due to the sudden busyness of actual full-time office-hours employment as anything else—though there’s some of my customary season-shift malaise in the mix, also. The autumn equinox always sees this child of the summer go through something of a physical and emotional slump, and while I’m not that much further north than I was before, the seasons seem to turn very fast here in southern Sweden… and the shift in available daylight has been underscored by a shift to dull overcast weather, which compounds the vibes. I’m finding concentration something of a fight, and by using my climbing time as a measure of my physical condition, I’m clearly not running at 100%: it’s like I’ve dropped two or three grades in the space of a week (though a straw poll of other climbers at the same place suggests that part of the problem may be some extremely sandbaggy post-summer route-setting).

I’m a bit all over the shop emotionally as well, though that too seems a reasonable response to the circumstances: I’m reading as little current-events news out of the Anglosphere as I can get away with, but the bleakness and slo-mo-car-crash vibes out of the UK and US is strong enough that it only takes a few drops to bring me down and stoke up the survivor guilt. (I also think that the panicked and reactive tenor of the discourse—a message very much shaped by its medium—is only advantaging the death-cult, but making that point feels increasingly like remonstrating with a junkie who believes that they’ll never OD.) But the way out is through, individually as well as collectively—so I’m doing my best to put the anger and the angst to good use, and use it as fuel for the work.

Which is probably why Farrell’s post resonated with me so much. Here’s her closing shot:

The very least I personally can do as someone who knows a lot about tech and also, increasingly, something about storytelling, is offer ways to resist these bullshit framings and signal the way to spaces and possibilities that people better than me can build.

That’s my life’s work. I’m forty-eight and it’s just in the last year or two taken shape. All endings are beginnings and this is a moment when I feel we each need to figure out what we do in service of those who’ll come after us into this messed up world. I don’t think despair is an option; I think it’s an unearned luxury. But for some of us at this moment the life’s work may be simply to survive, to endure, and that has to be ok, too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Actually it’s more of a relay race. Actually it’s not a race at all.

I recognise that sense of having found the thing that I need to do—not, to be clear, the sense that I can “save the world”, but the sense that I now know where and how I might push to contribute to the possibility of making a change. I remember something Deb Chachra said to me a while back, about how we people now in our forties should really be preparing to pass our power and authority on to the next generation coming up, but instead we’re stuck with trying to prise that power out of the death-grip of the Boomers… and I recognise Farrell’s identification of despair as an unearned luxury, perhaps because I’m crushingly aware of how I squandered my privileges as an adolescent.

So it’s time to pay it back, or rather pay it forward. It’s very possible that my efforts will amount to little, or even less—and of course the opportunity to make that effort is itself a privilege comprising unearned luck as much as (if not far more than) applied hustle. The only rational utility of privilege is to expend in it trying to make a world where privilege counts for less than it did when you started: just as the critical utopia takes the difficult and contingent path between the Scylla of dystopia and the Charybdis of solutionism, I have to find a path between Farrell’s unearned despair and sense of futility on the one hand, and switching off and fiddling while the world burns on the other. That I even have the bandwidth to do anything more than hang on for dear life is an indication that to do more is, in effect, my duty.

Perhaps that’s just another manifestation of my narcissism, I don’t know. But as an old roommate used to say, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning and not want to punch the face you see in the mirror.

Selah—onwards.

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