Dostoyevsky’s novella “The Double” and several of his short stories examine a narcissistic and shame-based personality schema that is still in evidence, maybe even in increasing prominence, in the modern world as much as in the mid-1800’s. The rigid social structures and bureaucracies of Imperial Russia have been replaced by the strict impression management of social media, but the emotions remain the same. Shame is the emotion of social failure, and a relentless self-obsession that relies on examination of others fuels that core emotion. Shame is to be guarded against at all cost, people must succeed, especially in relation to others, while also concealing themselves from negative exposure.
The end of “The Double” exposes the narrator to his tremendous social failure, but it is also a failure related to his sense of enititlement. This type of emotional transaction, the transmission of outrage from the observer to the subject, where it’s transformed into shame, is the basic emotional currency of the Internet. Emotion is an easily received thrill. Just as the youngest generation is increasingly seeking “experiences” over material goods, so are we all seeking emotional highs and lows through media. The problem with this is that it undermines reason and sustained action. Interacting with other people this way is a precursor for nihilism, and phenomena like the popularity of Donald Trump can be directly tied to this social disease of sensation seeking.
Modernity’s movement of inclusiveness is reversing monstrous injustices. Old, white, male intellectuals and artists are rightly downgraded in importance and their authoritativeness disavowed in the face of modern writers and artists from marginalized communities. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is the destruction of history. A thread of thoughts and a conversation can be stretched from Homer to Cicero to Pope to Orwell but then slowly is thinned into nonexistence. What happens when we no longer value the ideals and conversations that have formed Western Culture? The values of justice, individualism, freedom of thought, and political thought have all sprung from the Western Canon. Numerous individuals and artists were enriched from their participation and examination of those works. It is ironic that a white, Western, male-dominated strain of thought that centered on the superiority of logic and on the equality of mankind has undermined the august position of the progenitors of those ideals.
A sad fact is that minorities in Western society fundamentally lack power. Many gains made by minorities in the realms of social justice and equality are, in fact, granted by the majority. In much the same way, works reacting to the dominance of the white patriarchy are derivative of that same system of thought. If artists truly want to break from current power structures, radical, original art must be produced AND disseminated from sources that are entirely minority. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” has generally been viewed as a pop-cultural piece rooted in minority experience, but it is promoted and released through corporate structures that are largely owned by white males.
If the Western Canon is to be disavowed, a new, radical minority-driven Canon should replace it with original thought and ideals, instead of being a reaction, there must be creation as well as destruction. If this does not occur then we will have abandoned the good of Western culture while disposing of the evil without actively replacing the missing virtues.
Some things that stand out immediately are the difference between the societies of Ancient Rome and the states of the modern world. So much of the life of Ancient Rome evolved around ritual, religion, and precedent. The fall of the Roman Republic and the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire are often seen as warnings from the past about the arrogance of great powers. But society and life was so different that I find this hard to swallow. The Roman Republic and its political and legal system do not much resemble any functioning (or dysfunctional) democracy that exists today. Individuals, families, and tribes, plus a rigid class system, defined the political workings of the Roman Republic. There were no political parties and every individual who was a member of the Senate was in it solely for themselves, therefore there was no party ideology to keep everybody in line, just individual stances. Law was administered by those who had the right of imperiumgranted to them by the Senate.
Some additional thoughts from reading the history:
The man granted imperiumwas followed by servants called lictorswho carried with them the fasces the axe inside a bundle of sticks representing Roman law and cohesiveness. There are fasces on the wall of the Senate chamber in the United States and, of course, the world fascism is derived from the fasces.
Warfare, as practiced by the Ancient Romans, was horrific in its brutality. ISIS has nothing on a Roman army. They would enslave entire populations, kill everyone they found in a resisting city, starve a population by destroying their crops or cutting off their access to water.
A funny thing that occurred to me while reading the book is that the character of Gary in the HBO show “Veep” is the modern equivalent of a nomenclator. A nomenclator was a Roman slave that walked behind a candidate for office in the Roman Republic and whispered the names of the individuals the candidate met so that he could personally greet each one of them.
This timely and interesting book by author John Seabrook provides an often searing look at the high-end of celebrity pop music. All of those number 1 hits you hear on the radio are manufactured by one of several giant music conglomerates, and our dear celebrity pop artists are mere afterthoughts chosen for their unseemly desire for fame meshed with their physical beauty. Though it focuses on the brilliance of the handful of producers who create the vast majority of pop hits the book is truly about the power of large corporations in modern America. The promise of the internet to free entrepreneurs from corporate structures and to cut out middle men has proven to be only half true. What we can now see is that very few break into wealth, popularity, or, more broadly, success without the aid of some large corporation or other institutions that have existed before the creation of the Internet.
The entire wealth generated by the music industry is dependent on the handful of pop hits created by a handful of producers. These producers hand off their songs to interchangeable artists who are then branded and promoted, and then their songs are promoted in a form of collusion between the giant music corporations and the handful of gigantic radio corporations. The hits themselves are an example of the engineering of consumer products to best please the reward pathways of the brain. As in fast food manufacture, where food is laced with just the right combination of salt, fat and sugar to stimulate an addictive release of dopamine, the producers have stumbled upon the right melodies and harmonies and release of tension to create a rewarding “bliss point.”
It is the same in almost every major industry: from music, pharmaceuticals, and food to television, video games and your favorite social media apps. The music is forced on us in one other way that is specific to enormous corporations: you are bludgeoned with it relentlessly until you begin to enjoy it because of the familiarity with it, another psychological quirk that has been leveraged….
The problem with all of this is the fact that the reason corporations are so successful at creating and managing consumer products while masking the naked capitalism involved is because they are the only institutions with the resources to create, market, and make profitable these products, which are sold in a fundamentally dishonest way. I don’t think anything can truly be done to change the situation but the facts leave me feeling that we live in a controlled and sanitized reality, that doesn’t actually match the world. Perhaps the great sin of scientific progress has been to make the world fundamentally inauthentic, and maybe we need to find an antidote for that for our psychological well-being.