An Engine of Meaninglessness in a Nihilistic Age

Fight apathy or don'tThe philosophy professor Rick Roderick was part stand-up comedian and part intellectual. His Teaching Company lectures were proof of his sense of humour and his ability to present complicated philosophical arguments in a way that was simple and entertaining. The title of one of his great lecture series was “The Self Under Siege”. In the lectures, he spoke about the ways in which modernity had annihilated humanity in favour of a disenchanted rationalized world. He spoke of Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre, Heidegger, Marcuse and Habermas, among other thinkers. You can find the lectures online with a bit of googling, if you so wish.

His Marcuse lecture was one of my favourites. He talked about the way mass media banalizes questions that have previously been fundamental for humanity. Banalization is most often achieved through repetition and is a form of social control. For example, the media bombards us with pictures of Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner and tells us it is very important that we all talk about his sex change operation. Aside from the fact that someone has had such an operation, the main message seems to be that we all now have to talk about it and repeat his story ad infinitum. A few clever people stop to ask the question: Why? What if I don’t care about Bruce Jenner and his sex change operation? Do I really have to join in the discussion if I simply do not care? In fact, that’s the only way of avoiding the banal discussion: not to care. Not to care about Bruce Jenner or, by extension, transsexuals in general.

Mass media does this with almost everything. Boko Haram, Isis, 9/11, Sars and Ebola, war and famine. I have watched the Middle East explode in flames over and over again since I was a small child. The best way to escape the bombardment is to become nonchalant about it. The media helps all of us do so by manufacturing apathy. It repeats and repeats its message with the ironic tag, “It is important we all are aware of X and discuss it”, but what it really does is to repeat its trauma-inducing message until it becomes meaningless and untraumatic. This is not unlike what happens when you repeat a word over and over again out loud. Try it and you will find the word quickly loses its meaning and becomes noise. The viewer is not to blame and neither is the media, really. It is a perverse symbiotic relationship that is a veritable engine of meaninglessness. We are taught not to care and we love it.

What, then, is the upshot? For Roderick it was a generation of nihilists:

Some of the symptoms that we see around us that our own lives are breaking down in the life of our society is a generalized cynicism and scepticism about everything. I don’t know how to characterize this situation. I find no parallel to it in human history. The scepticism and cynicism about everything is so general. And I think it’s partly due to this thing I’ve called banalization. And it’s partly due to the refusal and the fear of dealing with complexity. Much easier to be a cynic than to deal with complexity. Better to say everything is bullshit than to look into enough things to know where you are.

As a college professor he had seen this first hand:

To me it’s historically unmatched. I’ve never read or heard of a period like this. And I’ve read about many historical periods. But not one in which you can talk to young people the way you can at the college level today and find out that they believe nothing, want nothing, hope nothing, expect nothing, dream nothing, desire nothing. Push them far enough and they’ll say “Yeah, I’ve gotta get a job, I spent a lot of money at Duke”. That’s not what I’m talking about here. They hope nothing, expect nothing, dream nothing, desire nothing. And it is a fair question to ask whether a society that produces this reaction in its young is worthy of existence at all.

Roderick reminded his audience that his students were mostly upper middle class and upper class privileged youths. These were the kids who were doing fine and better than fine at the time. Few people would say things have gotten better since the early 90s when Roderick gave his lectures. In light of this unbearable ennui that plagues the young, it is not difficult to understand why a young person would want to leave everything and move far away from the West. Our culture has created an information cycle that churns meaning into noise. Everything it devours turns into an amorphous mass that has no relevance to our lives. As our world becomes ever more saturated with media and our lives virtual, our culture becomes ever more meaningless. It gives us nothing and hence we desire nothing.

What, then, is to be done? Who knows? Any solution or scenario I can think of sounds ridiculously naïve. The reason for this is probably that I can hear the machine churning away in the background and can imagine my words disappearing into the barren sands of our common nihilistic age even before I have written them down. After a bit of study, the best I can do at the moment is identify the reason for my quietism. At least that’s a start. Thanks, professor Roderick!

2 Responses to “An Engine of Meaninglessness in a Nihilistic Age”

  1. 1 Aaron Fricke April 16, 2016 at 01:26

    “What is to be done?” Excellent question.

    May I suggest a simple answer: refuse cooperation with banalization. Don’t be a a mere cynic or a skeptic. Reject the apathy you are conditioned to embrace. They are founded on lies. We can, in fact, change our minds, leave meaningful lives, develop new and salutary ideas, and make a difference. It is so obvious that this is true. History is replete with examples of massive change, widespread rejection of bad ideas, and vice versa. Cynicism is a kind of self-aggrandizing delusion; thwy think they’re so smart, as if they saying something profound, like “you can’t change people,” or “that’s just idealism and utopian fantasy” or “who’s going to care about that?” or “that’s just your opinion, everyone has an opinion” or, my favorite, “that’s too complicated, no one is going buy that or read that or understand that.”

    These are lies. It is stupid to say such things. It is stupid to believe such things.

    We can change our minds. We can think better, live better, be more free and well and just.

    Don’t believe the lie that the agents of banalization (often, ourselves) must repeat and repeat to get us to accept.

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