““Industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”
― Aldous Huxley
It’s the general habit of literary reviewers and commentators in general to hail Orwell’s 1984 as a great work of prophecy, in terms of how the modern world has come into being, with its impressive surveillance apparatus and an ever expanding scope for the state in the ordinary lives of people. Yet, perhaps it ought to be said that the piece which most poignantly unveiled the x-ray picture of the world we live in, in a way which both encompassed the reliance on a parental state and transcended it, going so far as to accurately predict the movement of social currents and individual attitudes, was rather Huxley’s Brave New World.
The most fascinating aspect of Huxley’s novel can be said to have been the imagining of a scenario where due to a material abundance of sorts, and a never-ending carousel of earthly delights and distractions, the person easily sleepwalks into a voluntary servitude, conditioned by pleasant habits soothing of both body and mind. Such a state undoubtedly resembles that of childhood in many ways, characterized as it is by things such as an avoidance of responsibility, a carefree mentality, and preoccupation with entertainment, and above all complacency nurtured through self-indulgence.
The important distinction between the two dystopian and prophetic works, can be said to be perhaps best encapsulated in what James Madison once said, that the “pathologies of liberty can be just as perilous as those of tyranny; and far more difficult to discern and remedy”. While Orwell’s picture of a boot stamping on our faces is immediately recognizably harmful, Huxley’s soma on the other hand, seems instinctively appealing and comforting.
Life imitating art
“The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us”
– William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3
It can be said, dear reader, that in various ways the vision dreamt up by Huxley has materialized in our society with eerie precision, and is in fact perpetuated continually by the structural engines of our prevailing economic order, and played out in the many cultural expressions which characterize contemporary life.
For one it has been observed even by the most unlikely of people, Simon Pegg earlier this year opined to the Radio Times and on a blog post of his, in reference to the industry which has catapulted him to fame that, “Nerd culture is the product of a late capitalist conspiracy, designed to infantilize the consumer as a means of non-aggressive control.” Furthermore he noted how this development, to immerse people into the realm of fantasy and entertainment to a great extent culminated in a tendency towards escapism, apathy and general lack of engagement with the spheres of life one would naturally encounter in the journey towards maturity, such as questions of politics, economics, war and peace, life and death, etc.
Pegg’s depiction of this phenomenon is that of adolescence as a state that is no longer transitional but a frame of mind to be sustained long past one’s teenage years, which also happens to be very profitable, makes an important connection to the economic factor, that of capitalism in late modernity.
Interestingly this is something which has been extensively documented elsewhere, political theorist Benjamin Barber, in his book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, argues that in an economy sustained by consumerism, it is essential that people be in a state of insatiable excitement for the next best thing, in a never-ending search for novelty, finding fulfillment in acquiring these. Such an economy works on the assumption that if needs are met, new ones have to be created, no matter how artificial or extravagant, and subsequently peddled on the market, to consumers who preferably have such an eroded sense of willpower, purpose, and decision-making that sales are inevitable.
Barber asserts that in terms of the targeted consumers, advertising is especially concentrated on children and teenagers, and aimed at blurring the lines between the young and the old. It encourages children to grow up quicker while inculcating adults with a childish disposition characterized by the search for facility, speed, ease of access, and cheap thrills- the ingredients for instant gratification which seek to eschew prudence, self-denial and long-term thinking. This trend is evident for example in popular entertainment as Pegg also notes, seen in the increasingly juvenile themes which characterize modern cinema, where the most successful productions in the past two decades have been adaptations of comic books, Disney movies, and so on. It can be easily be said that simultaneously in popular music for example, children are increasingly exposed to adult-themed material, with various entertainers whose videos and music appeal to vulgar and overly eroticized imagery which in an earlier era would be scandalously inappropriate to younger audiences but which now have become normalized.
The bombardment of mass advertising, branding, and so on in the service of consumerism, which Barber observes, proposes the adolescent as the ideal consumer model, being as he is, in an immature state of interior formation defined by impulsion, self-absorption, and lack of long-term thought patterns. This is almost an exact replication of the Brave New World garden-variety inhabitant. It is the perfect template with which to mold people of various ages, as Barber notes, in marketing circles it is well-known that while adults and their cultural expressions have traditionally been very varied, children everywhere are the same, hence he argues, the emergence of a globalized consumer culture, increasingly as the domain of the now expanded “ younger generation”, is encouraged because it also means companies can offer mass-produced services and goods with little need to accommodate to individual societies at great cost.
It is also worth noting, in terms of infantilization of entertainment, Huxley’s novel presents a scenario where high art has been abolished and Shakespeare has been prohibited, as the Chief controller explains, “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.” While it is the case that an environment of fast-paced production and consumption of novelties and technological gadgets and exuberant fads naturally renders appreciation for high art rather difficult, there are also the economic and structural factors for this neglect, “we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.” This last phrase is practically the guiding principle of the modern multinational corporation.
The engines of economic production in our society therefore, actively encourage the cheapening of our aesthetic sensibilities, churning out the mass-produced soft entertainment best fit for a globalized culture of perpetual adolescents, slavishly going from one fad to another without purpose or end in sight in an aimless search for the next thrill, the more bizarre the better.
In some cases, it can be said we do away with creation altogether, imagination being something too taxing of our already impoverished senses, being satisfied with a recycling of previous trends. This is exemplified perfectly in the hipster “retro’’ nostalgia phenomenon. In itself this is a curious psychological case of finding stability, or a certain sense of identity in relics from the past, like typewriters or LPs, in a world that exists seemingly timelessly for today’s people, who are no longer children but refuse at the same time to be adults.
Inhabiting timeless existence at an affordable price
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”
– St. Paul the Apostle
It can be said the apostle’s statement to leave childish things in childhood would have been immediately recognized as a truism in an earlier era, but undoubtedly today it is far from a trendy quip, indeed its strikingly passé. In terms of how social relationships and the communal understanding of maturity in our contemporary society have played out, a certain picture of youth leaps out from advertising slogans, to become the veritable idol to be worshiped in common social practice. This is a state of affairs where responsibility and maturity are seen as impossible ideals, while in contrast, frivolous pursuits and “living in the now’’ are seen as being of paramount importance.
The contemporary society appears beholden to an idea of youth as being a life project, associated with uncontroversially positive attributes of spontaneity, individual freedom, flexibility and lack of strong allegiance to any reference point which would require struggle or render the person susceptible to dogmatism, e.g country, family, religion, etc. While traditionally youth has been seen merely as the carrier of potential, an uncertain but nevertheless transitory period of time, it is now something accessible at any point as people appear to inhabit a timeless existence.
Jacopo Bernardini, from the University of Perugia in Italy, puts this well in an article of his, summarizing this as entailing “the traditional stages of the life cycle, to which the social sciences still refer, progressively postponed and altered. The age of childhood has been shortened; adolescence today begins long before puberty and for many seems to last forever; the boundaries of adulthood seem, by now, indefinable; and seniority, as a phase of life, is likely to become an individual concept”.
A glance at our milieu ought to provide us a clear picture of such a phenomenon unfolding inexorably. The atomized consumer extracted from a traditional communitarian life no longer has clear reference points of stages of life which characterized the passage of time, such as your rites of passage out of childhood (Bar Mitzvahs, Christian confirmations, etc), betrothals and marriages, moving out of one’s parents’ house, and so on. Indeed, marriage for example, in various Western societies is not only indefinitely postponed but at times entirely forsaken. There are perhaps multiple reasons for this, not all of them due to individual choices but once again, incentivized by structural factors, as GK Chesterton once noted, it has been capitalism which has destroyed the family structure, by imposing “a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes; that has destroyed the influence of the parent in favor of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and, above all, that has encouraged, for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers’’.
The Brave New World scenario, when it comes to the fostering of an adolescent frame as a societal norm is all the more evident when it comes to the family, and sexual matters. In Huxley’s dystopia after all we have all the elements characteristic of postmodernity in the West. Namely, a situation where in the breakdown of this institution as the basic cell of social relations forming the immediate community, the state has stepped up as a the great parental presence in people’s lives, ever more concerned with the intricate details of child-rearing, through education, and sustenance of individuals through an expanded welfare state.
Where these fail, we have then the market step in, once again fulfilling roles previously delegated to the community. Significantly, Huxley’s novel predicts a society where sex is completely divorced from procreation, where a contraceptive mentality is inculcated in people from an early age (compulsory sex education anyone?), and binding relationships are nonexistent in this matter, as the sexual act is primarily put up as being recreational- something concretely realized in the ideology of “free love’’ . As always, the perpetual adolescent impulse becomes normative, (“just have fun!”), hedonism and self-indulgence are the mores of the day.
While growing up used to involve such rites of passage, marrying and forming one’s own family, the average person today cannot afford one’s own house, is generally unable and unwilling to commit (with the average marriage age being in the 30s nowadays, and no fault divorce generally popular and acceptable), and faced with a plethora of incentives for throwaway fickle sexual encounters (Tinder comes to mind).
The prevalence of a blurring of ages, and a contrived timelessness, is also apparent in things we take for granted, such as people’s appearances and manner of dress. As Jacopo Bernardini observes, the “adult uniform’’ no longer exists, men past a certain age no longer dress in a manner distinct from their children, they can be seen brandishing jeans, comical t-shirts, youthful haircuts, dyed hair, sports shoes, etc. Similarly, women are in thrall of an industry catering to the sole purpose of restoring their lost youth, plastic surgery and beauty products have after all vastly expanded in recent years even after the recession- botox injections, rejuvenating creams, sexual enhancement drugs, etc have all become unquestionably mainstream and accessible. All of which represent a determined effort to avoid the natural passage of time and its effects on the human body, desperately clinging to a fetishized ideal of youth.
Bernardini sums up the zeitgeist in gloomy terms, saying that “the actor-consumer of this system tends to childishness without pleasure, to indolence without innocence, dresses without formality, has sex without reproducing, works without discipline, plays without spontaneity, buys without a purpose, lives without responsibility, wisdom or humility”.
Undoubtedly, this is a stark picture which we face, of an idolatry of youth that sacrifices all else at the altar of the ephemeral, the fetishized, and the extravagant. It is a dangerous form of regression that threatens all spheres of life, and can be said to be increasingly evident even in academia, where no longer being accustomed to the world as it is, people are now longing for a safe and tension-free environment. An environment that sacrifices legitimately necessary confrontation and debate, so that it can nurture students as the overly sensitive and easily upset overgrown children they have become.
This has been explored splendidly well in a recent article published on The Atlantic, aptly titled “The Coddling of the American Mind”. The authors delve deep into that peculiar trend in academia that seeks out any potential eventuality of offense (now a term abused of any meaningful use, and expanded to cover any and all possibility of disagreement), to tag it with a “trigger warning”. The logic being that given the lack of emotional and intellectual maturity and interior formation of the newer generations of students, professors and educators have to be wary of exposing them to the realities of the world, such as bigotry, racism, violence, and even disagreement, lest they break down in tears having found out that people can be evil, have different opinions, or that harsh things happen out there.
It is an attitude that also promotes the idea that particular individuals are inherent victims in need of rescue by a parental figure, who can’t possibly have any real responsibility over the course their lives will take. If anyone doubts me on this, and the sheer banality of the movement to label anything with a “trigger warning”, consider that the authors note, “The list of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
The mollycoddling of the fragile little things is also innovatively pervasive and insistent, as the authors sum it up: “The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.’’
It can be said that this is an inexhaustible topic, since the infantilization of society I refer to can be found in many diverse areas of life, whose exploration here would be impractical for the sake of brevity, yet it is something which we would do well to recognize. The challenge I suppose is to take upon oneself the task of maturing despite all the trends which surround us and compels us to become molly-coddled perpetual adolescents, the influences which begs us not to put away childish things. By no means an easy task, though we would do well to remind ourselves that pursuit of pleasure, of ease, and gratuitous entertainment is to be avoided if we wish to do just that, that is, to avoid being caught in the glitter of corporate slogans that aim to convince us of a timeless and carefree existence, at an affordable price.
In many ways, it can be said to be a necessary task if we wish to save Western civilization from spiraling into an abyss of triviality, escapism, and apathy.