a more passionate world
January 21, 2011, 2:12 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , , ,

On one of the sides in the great culture wars there is a strong and growing distrust of the city and its institutions.  And a rosy yearning for the – maybe slightly apocryphal – values of church, family, farm, field and personal struggle.

I recently had a rather bleak back and forth in a comments thread in an online newspaper – our own little culture battle.  The article was about how family can nurture civility – the context being the attempted assassination of a US Congresswoman.  My comment disputed the idea that the nuclear family can be a centrally placed and adequately supportive  institution in a large and complex modern state like ours.  Society has broad needs that can’t be met by the usually narrow self interest of the family unit.  I received a return blast of aggressive family values reactions:  to be expected in 21st century America.

One responder claimed that family is natural and all other institutions – the law, the state, the church, school – unnatural and man-made.  He said that all institutions derive from family and that to believe in other institutions is to be ‘academic’ which is bad, apparently.  He was aggressively challenged, mostly by one other writer, and they battled it out for two or three passes.

It was almost breathtaking to watch his retrenchment from an initial broad vision of the relationship between family and our society to a narrow rumination on whether or not a married man with kids had enough personal resources to merely survive.  Nuclear is too small, he decided and his fall back view was ‘groups as small as a dozen families.’  ‘Efficient hunting with found weapons requires several men,’ he advised.  In a few hundred words, the measure of a good life dropped from really living to scraping by.

The US Census just estimated the nation’s population at over 300 million people.  And more than half of them – it seems, my numbers – believe we should be organized by small bands of nuclear families.  One bold step short of anarchy.  The peaceable caveman kingdom.  You could try to run the place with hundreds of thousands of little mafias, I suppose.  Some may say it’s already being run that way.  It requires a violently ahistorical stance:  a rejection of restorations, renaissances, revolutions, reformations, enlightenments, diasporas and modernizations; the belief that these events changed, helped and maybe even humanized us.

The British author J. G. Ballard wrote about the dispersed modern environment; he sketched psychogeographic maps of our lives in the exurban landscape.  He describes violence beneath the happy veneer of suburban life and our yearning to get out of it – “The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.” (Kingdom Come)  He claimed the shopping mall was the endgame of the enlightenment – “the great dream of the Enlightenment, that reason and rational self-interest would one day triumph. [It] led directly to today’s consumerism.”  The family crowd, my responder among them, occupies this dystopian, banal Ballardian territory.

So, what prompts someone to distrust and even revile society to the extent that they see family as the only human institution?  And to reject history’s other institutions including the world’s great cities?  Ballard writes about this phenomenon too.  In his essay on the author’s novels, Johann Hari describes a Ballardian vision:  people living in blasted places– the suburbs presumably — actually work to destroy their environments further:

Ballard’s novels were among the first to glimpse a basic truth: man stripped of a stable ecosystem rapidly regresses to his most primitive state. Take away our next certain meal and our cool sky and we stop using our frontal lobes. The scientist and those around him revert to being, in effect, cavemen, their thinking muscles atrophying away. In several of Ballard’s later novels, human beings destroy their climate, and soon numbly lose the ability to even understand what they have done. (Johan Hari)

Yeats said the center wouldn’t hold and that mere anarchy would be released.  Ballard puts it this way:

“We’re like bored children. We’ve been on holiday for too long, and we’ve been given too many presents… People are re-primitivising themselves. The future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathies, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism.”

I only wrote the one post questioning the validity of the centrality of family in the comments thread; I read the vitriolic responses with relish but didn’t comment again.  It’s because in the culture wars we all come to recognize that at the extremes there are psychopathologies, and though at different stages of development, most are at least stiffened into intractability.  Shaw said, arrogantly and also truthfully, “The longer I live the more I see that I am never wrong about anything, and that all the pains I have so humbly taken to verify my notions have only wasted my time.”


Was J.G. Ballard a prophet of doom – or the future? Johan Hari, The Independent

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