The Pessimistic Modern Zeitgeist

An impression I can’t avoid is that the current zeitgeist is intensely pessimistic. I’m not referring here to a specific dominant ideology, an art movement or a philosophical position, but rather, to the zeitgeist, the defining spirit of our era. The idea I’m suggesting here is that a society’s cultural consensus has a certain tone, ours can be characterized by the pervasive sense of nihilism, pessimism and feelings of impending doom.

There are critics who will say that this is subjective. I can’t deliver you a graph or a set of p-values that prove modern society is more pessimistic than it used to be. It’s simply a conclusion I draw from the cultural developments around me. I understand that postmodern art is individualist, that it doesn’t seek to express a collective set of values, in the sense that a fresco in a cathedral or a painting commissioned by the Soviet Union might for example. Even so, it doesn’t detract from the observation that the current tone is pessimistic.

 

As an example, look at this description of an art exhibition I was recommended by an algorithm:

“A World Without Us imagines a world without humans. The way we, as a species, currently interact with nature and the environment means that time will perhaps arrive much sooner than we can conceive. In 2007, American journalist Alan Weisman published a work of non-fiction entitled The World Without Us in which he describes what would happen to the planet if humans were to suddenly disappear. He outlines which traces of human civilization would soon be lost, how cities and houses would tumble into disrepair, which materials and structures would survive longest as well as how the various non-human organisms would develop after humanity’s disappearance.”

This is the kind of art that’s now popular. There’s a lot we can say about art from fifty or a hundred years ago. What it didn’t do is imagine the kind of world we’d live in once all human beings die out due to environmental pollution. Something has changed in people’s mentality, the kind of art that is now appreciated seems to be extremely bleak. It doesn’t seek to offer hope or solutions, it doesn’t seek out consolation. It showcases hopelessness and death.

I’m not making a value judgement either. Art can be pessimistic and good. I’m making a simple observation, that the tone of art seems to have changed. If we look for example at the works of Banksy or Joan Cornellà, it doesn’t exactly leave us feeling hopeful, yet these are the type of artists who do well these days.

My suggestion would be to compare the current generation of artists and movements you’re familiar with to those from the past. The pervasive cynicism and pessimism seems to be a relatively recent development. It is as if the modern world we inhabit is so awful and incomprehensible that it can only be approached through absurdism.

It’s true that some art movements from the past have a bleak tone and individual artists do as well. Symbolism from around the fin de siècle had a somewhat pessimistic tone as well. Nobody could accuse Vilhelm Hammershoi of sugar-sweet pollyannaism.

However, I’d argue there are some differences. The symbolists expressed an emotion more than a worldview. In addition, the era simultaneously introduced art forms that were optimistic and enthusiastic about life, progress and the future. Art Nouveau was a colorful art movement that emerged around the same time as Symbolism and celebrated nature. Art Deco and the futurism that began with Marinitti were similarly optimistic art movements. The future is fast, exciting and enjoyable, so it seemed.

Today there isn’t really an equivalent. I’m struggling to think of art today that is both popular and optimistic. I’m sure there are some movements that are colorful and optimistic in the sense that Art Nouveau once was, but I’m not familiar with them, nor do I think the general public is aware of its existence to the degree we’re familiar with artists like Banksy and others.

Let me just offer some examples of the tendency I notice. I don’t make a secret out of the fact that I’m not a big enthusiast of this movement, but even those who disagree with me should agree that the Social Justice movement doesn’t come with the kind of hopeful rhetoric about the future enshrined by Afrofuturism or the rhetoric of Martin Luther King.

As an example of the morbid tone of the social justice movement, take a look at the statue activists put up in Baltimore after the removal of a statue of General Lee:

We’re looking at a pregnant, half-naked black woman with a child carried on her back and a fist raised into the air. To me it is suggestive of a form of atavism. The statue does not suggest the emancipation of black women or their integration into bourgeois society. There is no attempt made at beauty. The forms of the figurine are a caricature of a black woman, that would be interpreted as racist in any other context. There are no attempts at embellishment, the figure is as brutalist as it could be. A figure like this doesn’t reflect a movement of people who are happy, proud, confident and optimistic. Contrast this figure with the figure that was raised on Tiananmen square, to understand the point I’m making.

In culture, politics and philosophy we see a similar tendency. Stephen Pinker wrote Enlightenment Now, to advocate a contrarian thesis: The world is actually getting better. Life expectancies are rising, infant mortality is going down, fewer people live in extreme poverty, illiteracy is declining around the world. Child marriage, genital mutilation, slavery, all of these phenomena that disgust us are on the retreat. And yet, there is a broad consensus that the world is getting worse.

I’m not the first to make these observations. It seems as if the more sophisticated you are, the more bleak your worldview becomes. At the bottom of the totem pole are the low brow masses with “popular” taste, I would estimate these at four out of every five people you encounter. They watch superhero movies where the protagonist saves the day, read Harry Potter or Twilight and listen to Rihanna.

Climb a little bit up the totem pole and people watch Black Mirror, read Game of Thrones and listen to minimalist techno music. Somewhere at the top we encounter people who watch arthouse movies in which people are brutally raped, read literature in which everyone mentally suffers for unclear reasons and experimental music that consists of endless drones.

I don’t think it has always been this way. If we go back in time to other eras, the sophisticated people were more optimistic than the proles, but in our era it seems that existential worries are a status symbol. There’s a comedy series on Dutch TV about rich celebrities. In one episode someone says they’re worried and the other one asks “about what, climate change?” The reason the joke works is because global warming is now seen as symbolic of the disconnect between cultural elites and white trash.

Now contrast this morbid mentality about the future with the optimism of cultural elites in the past. Gays were going to be emancipated, you were going to have sex without having to fear pregnancy or disease, women and men were going to work in the workplace together, children of slaves and slavemasters would sit at the table of brotherhood together, we were going to colonize Mars and robots would start doing most of our annoying chores for us.

The common people on the other hand, the unsophisticated people with poor taste and little cultural capital, seemed very worried back then. Women are losing their virtue, the negroes are getting uppity, the government is being infiltrated by Russian communists, we’re living in the end times, Mary is appearing before little children to warn them how the world will be destroyed, etcetera.

Now look at what a sophisticated person today believes: Russian racists have infiltrated the government, democracy is impossible and direct democracy should be avoided because we live in a “post-truth society” where Russian trolls will manipulate white trash into believing all sorts of fake news, women are suffering a rape epidemic on campus and can’t safely mingle with men because men feel “entitled” to women due to the “rape culture” they grow up in, sexual emancipation merely means that men manipulate women into sex they don’t want to have, black people will require safe spaces where they can segregate themselves from white people as well as positive discrimination to become genuinely emancipated, global warming is going to destroy the planet, modern technology like social media makes us mentally ill, robots will make white trash men unemployed and thereby encourage them to destroy society, etcetera.

This is a simplification, a stereotype, but I stand by the point I wish to make: The tone of our rhetoric has shifted, particularly among cultural elites. Cultural elites saw themselves once as emancipators of the common people. They might make abstract and surreal art that we can’t understand or appreciate, but they were going to educate us and we would eventually stop clinging to our guns and our Bibles and join the brotherhood of sophisticated men.

Today cultural elites seem mostly frightened of us. “Populist” has become an insult among the political class. The regular people are white trash, who will sabotage everything cultural elites try to accomplish, by electing people like Donald Trump and by choosing to sabotage the European Union whenever we get to vote in a referendum. Education is still the panacea for our white-trash status, but it now seems like it requires a four year college degree before we stop walking on our knuckles, throwing feces and voting to leave the EU.

We don’t dream of progress anymore, we now fear it. The economic development of the third world frightens us, we now see visions emerge before us of orangutans fighting bulldozers and coal plants that make the world uninhabitable. We don’t think of robots as personnel that cleans our homes for us. Rosie the house-robot of the Jetsons creates a disconnect with us. Today we see the robot not as Rosie the house-slave, but as an automaton that can drive a car and thereby makes every man who doesn’t have a college degree unemployed. A reduction in employment now doesn’t mean that we can spend more time doing what we want to do, we now see technological unemployment as leading to opioid addiction.

When medical technology progresses we don’t become enthusiastic. We don’t envision grandpa going out to climb a steep mountain with his grandson. We envision Jeff Bezos and Vladimir Putin getting to live to be a 140 and accumulating more power while the rest of us die of diabetes. Progress and technology are not supposed to make you enthusiastic anymore, when it does make you enthusiastic you now reveal yourself to be a simpleton.

So why has the tone changed? There are a lot of different explanations possible, but perhaps we should start with the simplest: Perhaps the tone has changed because smart people can now recognize that the vision of a grand future we had in the past was naive. The American model where everyone lives in the suburbs in a huge house with a huge lawn and everyone has his own car seemed great to us in the 50’s, now we recognize the problems it causes.

We now think of technology as subject to limits to growth. The average unsophisticated prole might still dream of driving a fast car and living in a big house, but the sophisticated person now drives an electric vehicle and lives in a small modern apartment.

This is a huge cultural transition that seems to have taken place. People have started looking far more ambivalently at technology than they used to do. We can lift people out of poverty, but what does that mean, if they start driving cars and eating meat? We can fly around the world, but we feel embarassed by the fact that we do. If the tone has changed, it might be because we’ve simply lost our innocence. Perhaps we now simply understand the cost of what we once christened progress better, whereas we were once blinded by the sudden influx of wealth and luxury.

This would apply to the social effects of technology too. If there is no significant enthusiasm about self-driving cars, lab-grown meat and radical life-extension outside of Silicon Valley, it might be because we now recognize that modern technologies tend to have the effect of concentrating power into the hands of a few individuals or abstract organizations that are in practice unaccountable to the general population.

But in what sense is this different from the past? Did the emergence of robber barons like the Rockefellers or the Carnegies make genuinely intelligent people frightened by the prospect of railways or automobiles? We all remember the archetypal toothless hick who supposedly feared his cows would give less milk if the train starts passing by, but the elites of those days seem to show no such evidence of fearing progress itself.

For some reason we still think of progress-skepticism as contrarian, but if we really look around us it’s no longer contrarian among people who are up to date with modern ideas. The fact that big Western European cities now have entire days when cars are not allowed into the city reveals cars are fundamentally no longer seen as cool. Cars are the most visible symptom of technological progress in our environment, yet we choose to ban them from our streets.

There’s another factor for progress-skepticism that needs to be acknowledged: The fact that people are starting to comprehend that social progress is much more difficult than it originally seemed. There is a new image of marginalization. It’s not a young black woman. It’s an angry divorced white man, aged in his fifties, who voted for Trump after being fired from the local coal mine, who recently overdosed on fentanyl in the car he lives in. We might use euphemisms like the “end of white privilege” to delegitimize the suffering, but it’s increasingly becoming difficult to deny that for every winner there needs to be a loser.

Similarly, social progress skepticism becomes visible in other aspects. There’s a growing consensus that women don’t want the same things men do. Nobody really believes anymore that Google will one day have as many male as female code-monkeys. Nobody believes anymore that men and women use Tinder for the same reason. Nobody seems to believe anymore that women are happy as the main breadwinner in the house. It’s still a subject that’s sensitive and we’re not seeing an explicit rejection of feminism among people whose opinions genuinely influence the direction of society, but there’s a tacit acknowledgement for example that having more female than male college graduates is going to cause problems.

I don’t claim to know how this ends. There’s a popular narrative which suggests that modernity is self-destructive. Phd students don’t have a lot of children, Mormon fundamentalists and Somali asylum seekers do have a lot of children, so eventually Western civilization dies out as a consequence of its own self-hatred. That’s the kind of interpretation you tend to see among the critics of modernity. Eventually the Muslims in Germany become a majority and then young people start spending their days doing other stuff than writing essays for college about the need for gender-neutral bathrooms, or so the angry white male argues.

I think this is probably too simplistic, because it fails to consider a few things. The first of these is that everyone wants to be like us. The “Muslim feminist” with a headscarf might argue a lot and come up with fancy explanations for being a walking contradiction, but this is little more than a transitory stage, as even Muslims eventually end up struggling to believe in Islam when a society modernizes. In addition, we’ve lived for centuries in a society where religious people have more children than the rest of us. The first wave of feminism happened during the roaring twenties, these women were secular, highly educated and didn’t reproduce either. It’s a fancy idea that us “modern thinking” people simply die out, but it’s not how the world tends to work. It’s a lazy man’s analysis of the problem.

My expectation is that the Zeitgeist of our era is a transitory stage. The skepticism about progress today is part of an inevitable backlash against the naivety of previous eras. In some ways, it is comparable to the backlash against the enlightenment that was seen in the early 19th century. I expect that the antithesis we witness today will lead to a synthesis tomorrow. Recognizing the limits of human malleability doesn’t have to make us grow cynical about all attempts to improve human nature. It simply means that the task ahead of us is more complex than it originally seemed.

Similarly, I’m starting to think that it’s a mistake to think of climate change as leading to the end of the world. I’m quite convinced there will be a painful and difficult transitory period, but it’s an unjustified assumption for us to believe there is nothing significant that follows the cataclysm. To think in such a manner, serves as a comforting justification for nihilism.

There’s a psychological factor involved here. People are emotionally invested in averting climate change. Once it becomes clear that the rest of society doesn’t really care, the predictions of doom become more severe. At this point, the mentality among environmentalists we’re starting to see is one of “I told you so, you’re on your own now”. This might seem like an exaggeration, but how else am I supposed to think of groups like the Dark Mountain Project?

I think it’s valuable when it comes to creating culture, that we start looking at ways to produce culture that is realistic but hopeful and move beyond the pervasive sense of dread. We all know the relatively simplistic cultural narratives from the past where the future is exciting, robots do our work, people take vacations at the moon and cars fly through the city. This is Star Trek, the Jetsons, etcetera.

Then what followed this in the 90’s until today is a more pessimistic vision of the future, one of hopelessness and dread. Cyberpunk is a large part of this cultural movement. In Children of Men we see a world where people become incapable of reproduction, in Gattaca a world where our status is determined at birth when we lack genetic enhancement, in the Matrix we see a world where we are completely at the mercy of artificial intelligence. As argued by Adam Curtis, the epitome of this movement seems to be The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s tale is entirely the product of the doom-porn fantasies of a generation of progressive babyboomers who are incapable of imagining something exists after their own deaths.

I like dystopian cyberpunk, but it’s something that’s also becoming overdone. It’s now a cliche that the future is terrible. We need a Black Mirror episode where people figure out ways to have fun that we never thought of. At some point, when the only cultural narratives we sketch are those of imminent inescapable doom, our narrative becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It might be hard for us to believe, but the world continues after we are gone and people will have adventures and excitement under conditions that we now find ourselves apparently unable to envision.

2 Comments

  1. I feel like I have read everything there is to know about “Collapse”. It’s everywhere, and it’s boring now. And naive techno-utopianists, are as you say, idiots who don’t get the magnitude of the challenge. Nowadays, the most exciting people I meet are the optimists with a plan, i.e. those people who not only understand just how grave and difficult the situation ahead is, but who haven’t given up, who want to struggle and survive and thrive…to me these people are exciting because they seem to embody a kind of heroic quality the is missing from he current zeitgeist…. Chuck Palaniuk’s shtick was that young people had nothing to live for, no big war, no great depression etc. … climate change and environmental sustainability has given young people the greatest challenge, and like with any challenge, there will be defeatists that constantly tell us there’s no hope, but I am confident that the young of today will produce its own heroes in the same if not greater ratios than prior great generations, and these individuals will help lead us across the desert and on to the next chapter of human adventure and misadventure

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