“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Monday, 21 March 2016

Scraps of a Manifesto

Think about this: For as long as you can remember, there's been a future.  Tomorrow never comes though - until the next day, when it does, and is replaced by itself.  So tomorrow comes all the time: the future never comes.  And it's the future that you really want.  The future is what's worth waiting for. The future isn't always a date known in advance: it's more of a promise.  Something that will definitely happen.  And when it does happen, that will be it.  You will have arrived.  Congratulations and welcome: now your life begins.  You were alive already, but that wasn't "real life" (TM).  This is.  Life begins at 40.  Or is it 50 now?  Is 60 the new 30?  Oh shit, you're dead.

The future is some kind of goal, though not usually a goal you set for yourself.  When you're a child, the goal is "growing up" and becoming an adult.  I never really wanted to be an adult.  Adults drive cars, have mortgages, take out insurance, choose wallpaper, have children, hairstyles, pensions and conservatories.  I never wanted any of these things, and I still haven't had most of them: never driven a car or chosen wallpaper, I rent rather than “own” - whatever that means - insurance is essentially just gambling (and I own nothing so valuable that I couldn't replace it if I had to anyway) and I don’t have any children. This isn’t to say I never will want any of these things; only that they've never been as attractive to me as they seem to be to others.  I'm sure there's nothing unique in feeling like this, but it's a lonely feeling nonetheless.



And loneliness is fine, really.  It isn't something that bothers me.  I'm much more bothered by this thought: "In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again”.  So said William James - back in 1890, anyway, but it's become received wisdom since.  Studies suggest the received wisdom is generally correct.  At the popular level, we're told there are only 16 basic personality types, too.  That's it.  7 billion people; 16 personalities.  (I'm an INTP, in case you were wondering).  It doesn't seem like there's much room for maneuver.  No wonder there's so much money to be made convincing us to "express your individuality" through buying stuff.  Because you're worth it.

Quote-worthy little upstart that he probably was, to Descartes is attributed the line, "If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things".  I haven't checked he actually said that (I've been drinking) but I'm sure he once said this:

To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares (and am happily disturbed by no passions) and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions. 
Superimpose that over a picture of a fucking waterfall, internet.  It comes from the opening remarks of Descartes' most famous work, his Meditations, from which we also inherit "I think, therefore I am", his most famous (and quotably quotable) quote of all, which of course, like "Beam me up Scotty", "Elementary, my dear Watson" or "Alas poor Yorrick, I knew him well", Captain Kirk, Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet and Monsieur Descartes never exactly said, but never mind about that now.  As I said, I've been drinking.  Point was, according to Descartes - or according to the idea of Descartes - until you can doubt everything, you cannot even begin to know anything.  Obvious to us now, 400 years later, but it's the foundation of the entire scientific method, and will forever live in history for that reason, as one of the most profound and important thoughts any human being has ever had.  Even if he never actually had it.  The idea is there, and that matters more than any person.

So what of persons?  Well for me, I am horrified by the thought of anything about me ever becoming "fixed", of growing up.  It's always been a comforting thought to me that I might be completely wrong about absolutely everything.  Obviously I don't think I'm wrong about anything - nobody does - I just like the thought that I might be.  I appreciate not everyone wants this.  They want the stability - the house and the kids and the car and the job and the stuff.  That's what we're supposed to want but I want the opposite.  The "ludic way of life".

I loved being a child.  All other things being equal, children generally do.  Depression in children is pathological, basically by definition; and even though it's now taken more seriously as a problem than at any time in the past, so common are its symptoms in adults that it's understood as much as a kind of occupational hazard than it is an illness.  Remember that feeling you had as a child, of time stretching on forever?  The summer afternoons that never ended?  Of grown ups being so alien - so tall, so clever, so powerful, so...busy - that the idea of becoming one yourself, one day, was as distant and impossible as September?  Of life being about fun?  I don't want to idealise it - I really don't, I'm just trying to be honest - but when was the last time you really felt like that?  How old we were you?

What went wrong?



The value we place on childhood in our culture is essentially economic, as opposed to what we might call intrinsic or spiritual.  Idealism doesn't have to be naive: I understand that both these ingredients are basic.  I just wonder to what extent we might be getting the proportions wrong.  "Growing up" is hard to quantify, but it's not so vague as to allow for any definition at all.  A "grown up" is not just an adult person, but a certain type of adult person, whose actual age is irrelevant.  Grown ups don't call themselves "grown ups", except when talking about other grown ups to people who haven't grown up yet.  Adults are what children turn into when they grow up, and work out how to make children of their own, who you can teach how to turn themselves into adults, and repeat.

Now that you're an adult, the next goal is getting a job.  Getting a job is very important, perhaps the most important thing you'll ever do.  Just like becoming an adult, you didn't choose the goal as such, but you do get to choose what kind of job you want.  This is nice, because there are a lot of different jobs, just like there are a lot of different adults.  Well, sixteen anyway.  And there are at least sixteen jobs, so choosing one shouldn't be a problem.

What did you want to be when you grew up?  I remember wanting to be an astronaut but I was quite a lazy, chubby kid with asthma and I liked eating crisps.  You don't get to be an astronaut if you like eating crisps. So I am not, and never have been, an astronaut.  It was my dream for a while (not for long in the end, apparently you can't be an astronaut if you've got asthma, either, and there are no crisps in space anyway).  It would have been a good job, but it wasn't to be.  So cutting out a couple of decades, I eventually settled for another job, in a field of work that will probably always exist (health and social care) with a company too busy or  too incompetent or too desperate to realise I was basically just winging it the whole time and didn't really have a clue what I was doing.  That lasted for ten years.  I started to wonder if anyone ever really has a clue what they're doing.  When you're a child, that's really what separates you from the grown ups - grown ups know what they're doing.  And then suddenly, you're the grown up, and you don't know what you're doing.  You'd like to believe you're special (that's what your teenage years were for) except of course you aren't, so you just keep your head down and get on with your work and hope that everybody else is too caught up in hiding that they don't know what they're doing either that they won't notice that you don't know what you're doing and oh god nobody knows what they're doing, and then you retire.  And then you expire.

You don't choose to die, just like you didn't choose to be born, but it happens anyway.  In a manner of speaking, and notwithstanding the chance of accident or misfortune, you get to choose how and when you die - if by "choose" you understand the cumulative effect of the various choices you make and their effect on your health, which even if optimal, are eventually nullified by the aging process itself.  In between being born and becoming dead, you do get some choices.  Do you build a career or start a family?  You can of course choose both.  When you have a career and children, the goal is helping them to grow up, to build careers and families of their own. To do this, you accumulate money (ideally, if your career is a successful one, at a faster and faster rate, in return for less and less of what can fairly be described as “work”).  When you’re too old and weak to accumulate any more money directly, you use the money you have left for yourself, to spend on the things you need to stay alive, through your own efforts, and should the need arise, to spend on the services provided by other, younger people helping you to stay alive. You start to wonder if maybe the whole thing is a scam.  "There must be more to life than this..."  But you don't think about it.  Or put another way, you never stop thinking about it.

So your life is divided into three stages: preparing to work, working, and suffering the consequences of work.  (We might call this the cultural imperative, to distinguish it from the biological imperative, which follows an analogous three-stage pattern - be a child, become an adult who makes more children, and live long enough to ensure that they live long enough to have children of their own.  The law of threes: the responsibility lasts three generations.  Stick around any longer than that, and you become either a curiosity or a nuisance).  Not all of work's effects on you are negative of course - and if you're lucky, perhaps your work has some positive, permanent effect on others - but at some point you have to stop doing it, either because you're too worn out to do it any more, or because a younger, more malleable version of you has arrived to replace you.  So you you retire, your economic and biological purpose served.

And then, as discussed, you die. To your friends and offspring, you might become another angel in heaven, or another star in the sky. They might say you live on in their memories, but they know this is only a metaphor.  Humans don't literally live in other humans' memories: they literally live in human bodies.  When your body dies, your heart stops beating and brain activity ceases. Your lose consciousness.  Your body cools and starts to decompose. After a few other bureaucratic formalities and some kind of ceremony, those you leave behind set what's left of you on fire, and you become ashes; or they bury you in the ground, and you become mush: and that, my friends, is that.  Maybe you survive all of this somehow, in some other form, somewhere else, but it's hard to tell.  Maybe you don't.  You do, however, and most assuredly, become dust (or mush).  In dust (or mush) we trust.

It's very, very easy to ignore this.  Perhaps all the pomposity of adulthood - driving licences, career development plans, cosmetic dentistry, taking your blood pressure medication, choosing wallpaper again and carpets again and a phone upgrade again and a foreign holiday again - all of it - is about doing very little else.  An attempt to impose permanence on the impermanent.  Building an edifice so ornate it obscures how plain the truth really is.