the zeitgeist (a first attempt)

What is the “spirit of the age” or “zeitgeist”? (In German zeit means time and geist means ghost). I’m not sure I understand the concept to be completely honest, but the following is based on a longstanding note I’ve kept tracking “whats in the air”.

As I’ve written before, “we live in a ‘psychological age’ meaning everyone is preoccupied with mental health”. Reduction in the stigma around mental health problems is a good thing in itself, but who would deny some odd effects?

Words like trauma, anxiety and dissociation have escaped any bounds of agreed meaning and are used haphazardly. “Therapy” is prescribed for virtually any problem. The more “psychological” things get, the more the actual “terrain” of human life (class, politics, economics, geography) is neglected. Hopefully that last sentence isn’t true.

Diversity, empathy and inclusion are promoted. People themselves are “empaths”, diverse and included or not. If you want a “primary document” testifying to these feel-good notions in combination with the therapeutic trend noted above, watch an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “Instagram Live”.

We live in an age of “distraction”. Viral Tweets and TikToks make light of the extent to which people will avoid thinking “a single thought”. It’s incredible all the media we have at our disposal, is it for that reason?

Capitalism is without challenge worldwide so as striving individuals, humanity is united. Within this global regime there is personal freedom, especially if you’re lucky enough to be mobile. For the unlucky, a “cold face” of persecution and control is daily reality.

Meritocracy is the ideological justification. Accordingly, competition and status have infected everything. It is up to you to succeed, self-help “is now so ubiquitous as to constitute a kind of ambient noise. It is the unofficial language of Instagram”. Do you have a “growth mindset”? “You can change your life, but you can’t change anything else.”

Cultural revenge by losers is the natural reaction to the “clout chase”. “Deplorables”, Jokers and others considered disordered, dysfunctional, disagreeable or inefficient now have their own perverted appeal. Is the phenomenon of political populism, rather than representing a particular class interest or coherent social force, simply a matter of “losers” crying out?

Relatability and authenticity are prized superficially. Quite often this means that the mediocre are put forward, and they satisfy the losers. Losers are just another group to be marketed to after all. Shamelessness is a super power.

“Dystopia” (in Ancient Greek a bad, hard place) is a concept intuitive to everyone and too appealing to many. There is some evidence that things are better than ever, but if we take dystopia to be our accepted “destination”, the corollary is that people are all too ready to acquiesce to cultural narratives of decline. And a culture of pessimism is a very bad sign.

TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

Jennifer Silva on working-class young adulthood in the USA

Jennifer M. Silva is a Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The following quotes are from her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, a contemporary classic.

“She taught me love
She taught me patience
How she handles pain
That shit’s amazing
I’ve loved and I’ve lost
But that’s not what I see
‘Cause look what I’ve found

-Ariana Grande

“Over and over again, the men and women I interviewed told me that growing up means learning not to expect anything from anyone. They told stories of investing their time and energy in relationships and institutions, only to find that their efforts were one-sided. I demonstrate how experiences of betrayal, within both the labor market and the institutions that frame their coming of age experiences, teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril.

They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust. Many make a virtue out of necessity, equating self-reliance and atomic individualism with self-worth and dignity: if they had to survive on their own, then everyone else should too. In an era of short-term flexibility, constant flux. and hollow institutions, the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.”

“For the vast majority of the men and women I spoke with, coming of age has been reimagined as a psychic struggle to triumph over the demons of their pasts. These ‘demons’ take several different forms: pain or betrayal in past relationships; emotional, mental, or cognitive disorders (e.g., depression, dyslexia, or anxiety); or addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Hurtful and agonizing betrayals within the family lie at the root of these torments, grounding their adult identities in the quest to heal their wounded selves. Through telling their stories of confronting a difficult past, working-class women and men stake a claim to dignity and respect, based not on traditional markers of adulthood but on having undergone emotional trauma and emerged, triumphantly, as survivors.”

“…couples who want to create relationships that foster the growth of their deepest selves find that self-realization requires resources that they do not have, and they must decide whether commitment is worth sacrificing their own interests and desires. For women, fears of losing the self predominate: their sense of self feels too fragile to risk in a relationship. Because many young people fear disappointment, betrayal, and dissolution, they often choose to be alone.

In a world where you have only yourself—hard-won through privation and suffering—to depend on, relationships feel overwhelmingly risky. Caught between two impossible ideals of love, many find themselves unable to forge romantic relationships that are both satisfying and lasting. Respondents thus numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by embracing cultural ideals of self-reliance, individualism, and personal responsibility.”

“As the coming of age stories of working-class young people reveal, the strain of risk-bearing has split individuals, families, and communities apart, leaving them with only the deep and unyielding belief that personal responsibility is the key to meaning, security, and freedom. In an era defined by neoliberal ideology and policy, collective solutions to risk run counter to common sense. Young working-class men and women understand personal choice and self-control as the very basis for who they are, and blame themselves, rather than large-scale economic precariousness and risk privatization, for lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures.”

“Karen”: a Mass Projection in the Psychological Age

Yep, we’re living in the “psychological age,” and the psychological age serves up psychological figures like the “Karen.” What’s a Karen? A middle-aged, middle class white woman caught on camera making a scene of managing others behaviour, at worst being racist and calling the cops.

One strange feature of the psychological age: we’re entitled to make an amateur diagnosis of other people on the fly. Yes, Karen can be outright racist and harmful, but is more often simply entitled, passive aggressive, dysfunctional, sad and pointless. What’s going on in her head?

Resentment certainly plays a role in the Karen phenomenon. As “middle class white women” any given Karen has got to be part of established or “privileged” society and therefore a legitimate target for scorn at the level of pop perception. In the age of mental health acceptance, this is one group it’s OK to gawk at as they break down.

Is it true that “white women are in crisis” as the Twitter joke has it? One quarter of middle aged women in the United States are on antidepressants. You’d think that would be cause for greater concern, generally speaking. The endless advertisements for psychotropic medication on American TV often feature a Karen type who can’t quite manage anymore.

When you go door-to-door as I have for various job’s and talk briefly to many strangers, you start to notice household “subtypes.” One very distinct variant is the lonely middle-aged white woman gripped by nervous breakdown.

And there’s a political angle to the Karen. As everyone knows, a majority of white women voted for Trump in 2016 and there was talk in the aftermath of “holding white women accountable.” In 2020, Trump pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me?”

Combine resentment, peaked politics, psychological projection, public spectacle and some element of genuine harm and you have the Karen. The Karen is a negative identity (everything it’s cool not to be), a “meme” figure willed into existence in the psychological age. Karen seems to have legs, what new characters slouch forward?