In the magnificent opening essay of his 1912 masterpiece “The Tragic Sense of Life,” Miguel de Unamuno follows Spinoza to hold that the essence of any being that can be reasonably called such is the will to continue being ourselves. For all that we change – from moment to moment, from year to year, decade to decade – that is the one thing about us that holds steady. And should this vanish, so do we.
He is walking a path well trodden by Buddhism (which he knew of second hand, at the very least, through Schopenhauer), but where Buddhism views this as the cause of life’s suffering, Unamuno exalts in it. Revels in it. Uses our will to be as the trumpet note in a stirring call to life. The only reason life is worth living, he suggests, is because we want to be ourselves.
Yet as I recently wrote, the social media manifesto for our new era moves us in the other direction: who we are is no longer a matter for exploration or development – no longer an active process – but a passive one. Our social media will tell us who we are, allowing us to “outsource the production of one’s own subjectivity” to our friends and the algorithms that organize our networks.
It’s not entirely an act of self-abnegation, but it does contradict Unamuno and Schopenhauer in the sense that there will no longer be a “will” to self-existence: no longer a struggle, no longer an effort. Simply a process that we not only do not “have” to engage in, but that deliberately engaging in will ruin. It only works if we give up.
Now I read (hat tip to Dubravka Ugresi’s book “Karaoke Culture,” ) that Oxford Professor of Literature Alan Kirby actually observed as much back in 2008, when he suggested that the era we now live in is “Pseudo-modern.”
“Here,” he writes in his essay The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond:
“the typical emotional state, radically superseding the hyper-consciousness of irony, is the trance – the state of being swallowed up by your activity. In places of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism. You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘involved,’ engulfed, deciding. You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free; you are the text; the text is superseded.”
Western culture, it seems, is entering the second half of a parabolic phase. The modern world emerged in the struggle for the individual to become a wholly autonomous self. Now, fully emancipated through post-modernism, we are finding new ways to lose the self … and the struggle for self … that we worked so hard to free. We no longer submit to God, nation, or clan (that was the rising leg of the parabola) but we are finding new things to submit to, new ways to offer ourselves up and be who we’re told. All we ask is that we not have to work at it.
Unable to bear existential freedom, we seeing what happens in a culture where people crave what Unamuno would have seen as a kind of death – one that denies its there is any tragedy to it.
This is going to be … interesting.