the lesson of auschwitz is not to act like we’re in it all the time

The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (Christopher Lasch) is a lot like The Inability to Mourn. Both books are psychoanalytic criticisms of modern society. The Inability to Mourn is about Germany and came out in 1967. The Minimal Self is about the US, and it’s from 1984. It’s a successor to The Culture of Narcissism.

In 1960s Germany, the unspeakable thing in the background was in the recent past, and consumerism was being introduced from the US. The Minimal Self is from the US itself, after the Holocaust had been analyzed to the point of trivialization, and what’s hanging over society are, basically, the things that are screwing us now, in the future: war, energy depletion, environmental degradation. Carter told America to put on a sweater, and we elected a movie star to cheer us up. We didn’t really address any of the problems. Interestingly, the book is full of references to the Whole Earth Catalog, and so is The Archdruid Report. One of the most insightful blogs I read is by an autistic druid. It’s true. I think firsthand exposure to religion helps you see it operating in “secular” contexts. It’s not like myths ceased to be important, somehow. The Archdruid (John Michael Greer) does interesting things, like comparing “technology will save us” to a magical incantation:

The notion that a nuclear weapon is the answer to BP’s undersea gusher is conclusive evidence, if any more were needed, that reasonable thought has gone right out the window. Admittedly it’s only fair to say that this happened with nuclear weapons a long time ago. To a frightening extent, the US nuclear arsenal has become a phallic talisman of national omnipotence that serves mostly to help Americans distract themselves from the waning of the real foundations of their country’s former hegemony. If that arsenal ever ceases to be militarily useful – and it’s probably a safe bet that China, to name only one likely candidate, has scores of laboratories working right now on technologies to make that happen, paid by the billions a year we spend to import salad shooters and cheap electronics – our national nervous breakdown may be one for the record books.

Still, there’s a sense in which it’s unfair to critique the proponents of nuking BP’s oil well merely because their plan won’t work and could very easily make an already catastrophic situation even worse. These are difficulties in putting the plan into practice, and it’s not supposed to be put into practice. It serves, rather, as an incantation, a way to banish the appalling awareness that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else except the fairly small number people actually struggling to deal with the well, can do anything about it.

Incantations of this sort make up a remarkably large fraction of the talk about peak oil and the future of industrial society these days. Get into an online conversation on the subject, for example, and you can be all but certain that at least one of the people involved will pipe up with a plan to solve it. It doesn’t matter at all that, much more than nine times out of ten, the person proposing the plan is doing nothing to make it happen, and neither is anybody else. The plan is not meant to happen. It’s meant to dispell the profoundly troubling sense that the future is spinning out of control and there’s not actually all that much that we can do about it.

Magical thinking, explained by a druid:

One of the most distinguished 20th century theoreticians and practitioners of magic, Dion Fortune, defined magic as “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.” (If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for making broomsticks fly, you’re beginning to catch on.) The basic tools of the mage are will and imagination; the raw materials he or she works with are symbolism and ritual – “poetry in the realm of acts,” as Fortune’s near-contemporary Ross Nichols defined that last term. The point of magic, as Fortune’s definition suggests, is changing states and contents of consciousness; it can have effects on the material world as well, but that normally involves influencing beings that bridge the gap between mind and matter – you and me, for example.

Now this does not mean that magic is useless in the face of the predicament of the industrial world. The problem is that the changes in consciousness that would actually do some good are changes that next to nobody in the industrial world is willing to make: for example, a shift in priorities that deliberately embraces poverty, accepting a rich personal, intellectual, and social life as a substitute for, or even an improvement on, the material extravagance that the industrial nations currently offer their more favored inmates. That change in consciousness is certainly accessible to each and every one of us; human beings just like us have been making it for many thousands of years; but it requires a rare willingness to step outside of the approved habits and ideas of modern industrial cultures. Striking a rebellious pose and claiming originality is very fashionable these days; actually rejecting the conventional wisdom of our time, and thinking thoughts that conflict with those of one’s contemporaries, is less common now than it was in the supposedly conformist Fifties.

I’ve come to suspect that one of the principal reasons for that, and more generally for the remarkable way in which today’s industrial societies are continuing to sleepwalk toward the abyss, is precisely the habit of incantation discussed earlier in this post. The internet is the natural home of incantation; discussions on email lists and online forums, bereft of the subtleties of normal human communication, often turn into a duel of incantations that the loudest and most intransigent voice generally wins.

Getting back to why we do these things, The Inability to Mourn, The Minimal Self emphasizes the average person’s increasing lack of independence:

Industrialism by its very nature tends to discourage home production and to make people dependent on the market, but a vast effort of reeducation, starting in the 1920s, had to be undertaken before Americans accepted consumption as a way of life. As Emma Rothschild has shown in her study of the automobile industry, Alfred Sloan’s innovations in marketing–the annual model change, constant upgrading of the product, efforts to associate it with social status, the deliberate inculcation of a boundless appetite for change–constituted the necessary counterpart of Henry Ford’s innovations in production. Modern industry came to rest on the twin pillars of Fordism and Sloanism. Both tended to discourage enterprise and independent thinking and to make the individual distrust his own judgment, even in matters of taste. His own untutored preferences, it appeared, might lag behind curent fashion; they too needed to be periodically upgraded.

It’s been close to 100 years of this, to the point that these things are bedrock assumptions of our culture. At work, it drives me crazy the way tech people feel the need to produce ever-more-complicated and buggier versions of the same thing. They’re proud of it, even.

In The Inability to Mourn, it’s emphasized that powerlessness and submission to authority produce frustration that gets taken out on others. In the German culture the book is describing, people identify with authority and submit to it willingly. Americans enjoy a different relationship to their government, largely because they oppose its policies:

Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand or control has given rise to a widespread feeling of powerlessness and victimization. The proliferation of protest groups…actually arises out of a feeling that other people are controlling our lives. The dominant imagery associated with political protest in the sixties, seventies, and eighties is not the imagery of “personhood,” not even the therapeutic imagery of self-actualization, but the imagery of victimization and paranoia, of being manipulated, invaded, colonized, and inhabited by alien forcesThey see themselves as victims not only of bureaucracy, big government, and unpredictable technologies but also, in many cases, of high-level plots and conspiracies involving organized crime, intelligence agencies, and politicians at the upper reaches of government. Side by side with the official myth of a beleaguered government threatened by riots, demonstrations, and unmotivated, irrational assassinations of public figures, a popular mythology has taken shape that sees government as a conspiracy against the people themselves.

How right they were! James Howard Kunstler updates us on the present day:

America takes pause on a big holiday weekend requiring little in the way of real devotions beyond the barbeque deck with two profoundly stupid movie entertainments that epitomize our estrangement from the troubles of the present day.

First there’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which depicts the collapse of civilization as a monster car rally. They managed to get it exactly wrong. The present is the monster car show. Houston. Los Angeles. New Jersey, Beijing, Mumbai, etc. In the future, there will be no cars, gasoline-powered, electric, driverless, or otherwise. Mad Max: Fury Road is actually a perverse exercise in nostalgia, as if we’re going to miss being a nation of savages in the driver’s seat, acting out an endless and pointless competition for our little place on the highway.

The other holiday blockbuster is Disney’s Tomorrowland, another exercise in nostalgia for the present, where the idealized human life is a matrix of phone apps, robots, and holograms. Of course, anybody who had been to Disneyland back in the day remembers the old Tomorrowland installation, which eventually had to be dismantled because its vision of the future had become such a joke — starting with the idea that the human project’s most pressing task was space travel. Now, at this late date, the monster Disney corporation — a truly evil empire — sees that more money can be winkled out of the sore-beset public by persuading them that techno-utopia is at hand, if only we click our heels hard enough.

Another theme running through both films is the idea that girls can be what boys used to be, that it’s “their turn” to be masters-of-the-universe, that men are past their sell-by date and only exist to defile and humiliate females. That this message is really only a mendacious effort to rake in more money by enlarging the teen “audience share” for the reigning wishful fantasy du jour is surely lost on the culture commentators, who are so busy these days celebrating the triumph and wonder of transgender life.

The reviewers are weighing these two movies on the popular pessimism / optimism scale. These are the only choices for the masses: whether to be a “doomer” or a “wisher.” Both positions are cartoon world-views that don’t provide much guidance for continuing the project of civilization, in case anyone is actually interested in that. It’s either rampaging id or the illusion of supernatural control, take your pick. I find both stances revolting.

Regression indeed.  The thing about taking positions on the fringes is that you’re on the fringes with all the other fringe people, and you probably need to cooperate if there is to be a future.  My allies in this fight are libertarian, racist greedy stock market contrarians, old prejudiced white men like Kunstler, druids, people who like yoga.  Like, just because Clive Bundy would lynch me personally doesn’t mean “free trade agreements” are a good idea.  Teamsters and turtles together!

Lasch is making the argument that we talked the Holocaust to death (he points out that it wasn’t always called “the Holocaust”), and we drew stupid conclusions from it. Concentration camp imagery forever changed how we think about victimization, since it’s the extreme case of everything. This is all related back to modern psychotherapy and anti-essentialism (!):

Everyday life begins to take on some of the more undesirable and ominous characteristics of behavior in extreme situations: restrictions of perspective to the immediate demands of survival; ironic self-observation; protean selfhood; emotional anesthesia.

Whereas the hard-core survivalist plans for disaster, many of us conduct our daily lives as if it had already occurred. We conduct ourselves as if we lived in “impossible circumstances,” in an “apparently irresistable environment,” in the “extreme and immutable environment” of the prison or the concentration camp.

Success manuals are not alone in urging people to lower their sights and to confine their attention to the immediate moment. The human potential movement, the medical and psychiatric literature on coping, the growing literature on death and dying all recommend the same strategy for dealing with the “predictable crises of adult life.” A focus on the present serves not only as a requirement of successful “functioning” but as a defense against loss. The first lesson survivors have to master is letting go…The survivor cannot afford to linger very long in the past, lest he envy the dead. He keeps his eyes fixed on the road just ahead of him. He shores up fragments against his ruin. His life consists of isolated acts and events. It has no story, no pattern, no structure as an unfolding narrative. The decline of the narrative mode both in fiction and in historical writing…reflects the fragmentation of the self. Both time and space have shrunk to the immediate present, the immediate environment of the office, factory, or household.

Survivors have to learn the trick of observing themselves as if the events of their lives were happening to someone else…The sense that it isn’t happening to me helps to protect me against pain and also to control expressions of outrage or rebellion that would only provoke my captors into further tortures.

Role-playing, another strategy repeatedly recommended by survival manuals, serves not only to project an appropriate image of energy and confidence but to protect the self against unseen enemies, to keep feelings in check, and to control threatening situations…The attack on sexual stereotypes, like so many other features of the contemporary cultural revolution, contains unsuspected ambiguities. On the one hand, it points to a broader definition of the self. It rightly insists on the undeveloped capacity for tenderness in men and for enterprise and self-reliance in women. On the other hand, it shrinks the self by conceiving of it purely as the product of cultural conditioning. Carried to its logical conclusion, it dismisses selfhood as an illusion. It reduces personal identity to the sexual and social roles imposed on people by conventions that can be subverted, presumably, by the simple act of assuming a new identity or “lifestyle.”

A stable identity stands among other things as a reminder of the limits of one’s adaptability. Limits imply vulnerability, whereas the survivalist seeks to become invulnerable, to protect himself against pain and loss. Emotional disengagement serves as still another survival mechanism. An ever-present undercurrent in recent success manuals…is the insistent warning that closeness kills.

When extended to extreme situations, they give the impression that even a program of deliberate and systematic dehumanization can be countered by effective techniques of self-management…Statements of this kind undercut the occasional reminder that survival strategies effective in a concentration camp may not be altogether appropriate to the “regulation of distress” in everyday life. They leave the impression that everyday life has taken on many of the qualities of a struggle for survival, in which the best hope for men and women under siege is “to focus on those segments of reality that can be managed,” to achieve a state of “psychic insensibility and resignation with retard to unavoidable conditions,” to supress “self-evaluation, judgment, and self-reflective powers,” and thus to effect a “robotization” or “automatization of functions dedicated solely to the task of survival.

Recent “survivor research” takes the narrowest possible view of the significance of the Holocaust. It is far more singlemindedly absorbed in the problem of survival than the firsthand accounts left by the survivors themselves. Common sense would lead us to expect the opposite…In fact, the siege mentality is much stronger in those who know Auschwitz only at second hand than in those who lived through it. It is the survivors who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment–the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and to live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow-victims–they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. It is the survivors who try to “give meaning to survival,” while those who come after them and live under conditions seemingly more secure see meaning only in survival itself. A heightened interest in the “Holocaust” coincides with a diminished capacity to imagine a moral order transcending it, which alone can give meaning to the terrible suffering this image is intended to commemorate. When Auschwitz became a social myth, a metaphor for modern life, people lost sight of the only lesson it could possibly offer: that it offers, in itself, no lessons.