This post’s title, of course, has its origins with Tyler Cowen . . .
It seems as if we are living in a tale of two cities. It is the best and worst of times. One the one hand, the economy is great, and unemployment is way down. Public intelllectuals like Steven Pinker proclaim that, however bad things may be in certain segments of life, all the most important indicators show remarkable growth and progress, such as a sharp decline in infant mortality. Momentary trends may not always look favorable, but the arc of the last 300 years shows a continual rise in progress thanks to science and the application of reason. The complaining and angst so prevalent in the media, then, resembles that of a spoiled child. If we could all just calm down and count our blessings . . .
But others like Jordan Peterson, John Vervacke, and Jonathan Pageau state that western civilization exists by a thin thread in the midst of a deep meaning crisis–a crisis that perhaps hits men harder than women. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have risen dramatically over the last 20 years. I think Vervacke would tell Pinker that he sees only a fragmented surface. I suppose Pinker and others like him would say such people are fundamentally deluded.
Chronologically we have mirror images from both camps. Pinker and his crowd write that starting around AD 1700, the Enlightenment took hold and over the next few centuries the world became a dramatically better place. But for those on the other side, the Enlightenment disastrously contributed to all the problems we have now in relation to meaning and knowing our place in the world (though others would go further back still, into the Renaissance).
Most would say one or the other is true, and you have to choose. Below I propose a theory that will attempt a “both-and” explanation–a highly speculative one–that will attempt to explain how the economy can grow and life can improve in various measurable ways and we can still struggle with meaning. In fact, the two may have a symbiotic relationship.
The perception of a current meaning crisis has led to the dramatic recent rise of the psychologist as guru, i.e., Jordan Peterson. John Vervacke has less fame, and popularizes less than Peterson (I do not use the term ‘popularizes’ derogatorily). His analysis goes deeper, and his co-authored book Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis gives a slightly sideways but effective analysis of modern culture. Vervacke et. al do not blame the right or the left, campus ideology, or Trumpism, for the decay. “Decay” is indeed the right word, for zombies are decomposed beings of some undefinable kind. Our modern disease has infected most all of us to some degree.
Each era has its monsters that help define its zeitgeist. As the Enlightenment settled across western Europe, and scientific materialism began to entrench itself as the dominant ideology, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which explores the limits of man’s powers over nature. The monster in the book of course, is not the “Monster” but Dr. Frankenstein, it’s creator. A few decades later we have Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the Victorian era, the aristocracy still exists, but exists in a weird place in society given the nascent rise of democratic ideals. Everyone perhaps feels in their bones that the aristocracy no longer serve a real purpose, isolated as they are within a culture that no longer needs them. One notes that, in contrast with pre-modern Europe, in the modern age the monster is a twisted human, though perhaps still a kind of tragically grand monster. That is, at least there exists some kind of high aspiration for a Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula.
Vervacke argues that the zombie is the monster for the 21st century, and the graph below shows the dramatic increase of the word in the popular culture just recently, just as the Cold War ended.
Zombies have the following characteristics:
- They move in packs, but have no connection to one another
- They have no particular intent–they exercise no conscious will towards evil.
- They live only to consume, and their hunger to consume cannot be satiated or even lessened.
- Constantly on the move, they have no home base or concept of home.
In other words, they form the perfect monster for the democratic age.
The zombie personifies our crisis of meaning. The internet, globalization, etc. means we can indeed consume as we like virtually for free, but though we like to sing along, we “know not what it means.”* The market also thrives on fluidity and movement. It is best for everybody to give everybody else money, for example, rather than everybody put it under their mattress, even if that consumption has no real overall purpose or goal in mind.
So too the market of information thrives on abundance and transfer. But like zombies, we both crave and lack Mind, and so have no way to integrate our experience into a meaningful whole. Vervacke writes regarding this,
This is because the information we obtain from the world has never been more unreliable. Abundance is one dimension of the problem; one need look no further than news media to appreciate the sheer volume of (often irreconcilable) narratives.
Humans are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is . . . by locating ourselves within larger narratives and meta narratives that we hear and tell . . . When such narratives collapse, we are lost in the dislocation, fragmentation, and disorientation of homelessness.
So far so good, but what of the other side of the coin, i.e., a strong economy, less violence worldwide, and so on? Vervacke gives us the link. If truly we are the “walking dead,” then lacking mind and the means to integrate our experience, we would naturally seek expansive consumption as a means of coping. This consumption is a byproduct of all of the intense focus on the material aspects of creation fostered in western culture during the time period Pinker cites. It indeed brought great blessings of a certain kind, but it could possibly be nearing the end of its string.
Of course all humanity throughout all time has sought some sort of solution for a lack of understanding of the self. But our typical response is indeed to consume. We are depressed, we might go shopping. We are anxious, we “stress-eat.” We are out of sorts, we might consume information by browsing Facebook or news feeds. Such actions can distract us for a time, but also creates an unsustainable cycle. It is this drive to consume that makes solving certain environmental problems so difficult for all of us, whether Green or not so Green. The “peace” of the modern world championed by Steven Pinker has in some ways brought this out of us.
In contrast [to times of war], in times of relative peace, internal issues become more focal and so the opportunity for a relative loss of social integration is greater, hence the increase in the suicide rate.
This antipathy to peace can lead to increased participation in what the authors call the “pseudo-religion” of politics. Politics gives us much that religion provides.
As politics is, by necessity of governance naturally integrative of other systems, it was a proximal replacement for [meaning]. . . . systematic complexity made [politics] a convincing imitator of that normatively as the influence of religion diminished. The 20th century, therefore, bore witness to the rise of the most potent political pseudo-religion we have known in the modern world.
We risk ending the “peace” we have then, by feeding upon our own body politic, unable to stop our consumption of so called “outrage porn.” specialized in by Twitter and news media of all kinds. We can see this process of disintegration at work since the time of the vampire as monster. First, modernism deconstructed the church, and told us that it could no longer function as a means of communal coherence. “Religion should be private.” We then expected the state could serve that purpose, and so we developed various rituals around the symbols of the idea of nationhood. By the mid-20th century, we saw the folly of that project, but no fear–we can rally around our freedom to consume. So we built malls, accurately described by James K. Smith as spaces constructed for liturgical communal consumption.** But this no longer holds either. Now, like zombies, we roam the internet to consume, with no defined space to bind us.
In the old tales, the hero slays the dragon, but Vervacke points out that our zombie stories offer little hope. The plague always seems to grow, and those that survive will be continuously on the run. Rebuilding something new in these scenarios becomes extremely difficult. Patrick Deneen, for example, has a persuasive critique of the whole modern enterprise in Why Liberalism Failed. He blames progressives and conservatives nearly equally but offers no alternative political reality to which we can aspire. Slightly more hopeful is Rod Dreher, whose The Benedict Option, while giving no grand solution, at least points us towards embodied liturgical relationships with others as a good beginning.
With a quick search I found one place in our culture where a cure for zombies is possible: Minecraft. I find it charming that such a thing exists within this relatively benign (I dislike video games) world building enterprise, and that even many teens still play this game. It is interesting to see how they use traditional archetypes for this cure. Among other things needed to cure local villagers from being a zombie is dragon’s breath. In other words, the monster may be the only hope for the monster. Jonathan Pageau has often talked about how once a culture reaches the outer limits of the fringe, it takes just a small tap for everything to come right round again. The clown, or the fool, or perhaps even the monster is needed to make things right. It may be that if we are indeed in such a dark place, dawn is not far behind.
*Those my age, or fans of the music of early 90’s music, will recognize the Nirvana reference. In retrospect grunge music might be seen as a harbinger of the meaning crisis. How is it that right after winning the Cold War, when we should have celebrated and entered something of a golden age, we plunged ourselves into music that fundamentally celebrated alienation?
**We need not absolutely throw the baby out with the bathwater. National symbols and national identity can do us good. Market exchanges often benefit both parties. The problem is putting a weight on such things that they cannot bear. The only way they can bear the load of culture for long is to give them a kind of steroid. Of course one recalls the specter of the early 20th century regarding the problems of nationality. I also remember post-9/11 how we were all encouraged to keep spending so the terrorists would not win. It can work for a while, but the body gives out eventually.