I’ve been thinking about the role of authority for months now, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to think of it as a necessity to social organization. And, when framing it as a necessity, it changes the way in which I think about its role. Today, I read an article called “The Aesthetics of Destruction: Contemporary US Cinema and TV Culture” by Mathias Nilges, and it’s changing my perception of authority. In the article, Nilges argues that subjectivity changed during the 1980s and 90s when the global economy shifted from a “Fordist” model (one that valued standardized structures) to a “post-Fordist” model that is “deregulated, globalized, [and] decentralized” (27). The destabilization of the new global economy has required individuals to alter their perception of subjectivity from a docile, obedient, organized entity to a subjectivity marked by internal organization, productivity, efficiency, and self-containment: if the world outside is chaotic, unorganized, spontaneous, and decentralized, then people must count on themselves to maintain the sanity of their subjective experiences. This has resulted in an increase in control (e.g. there’s a cultural trend of “conspicuous production” emerging in the United States that enables consumers to understand how and where products come into existence), a decrease in trust due to the general influx of information that causes cognitive dissonance amongst individuals, and an overall sense of desperation and anxiety.
In the article, Nilges argues that the anxiety pervading our culture is expressing itself through destructive popular culture narratives (e.g. Birdbox) that break down our current social structure to the point in which it can be rebuilt again, and the way in which it’s rebuilt reflects an era before the 1960s, 70s, and 80s when life was less complicated, the rules were clearer, and people knew they could “make it” if they played along. The reason, he argues, that these narratives rebuild society as it was before the hippie countercultural movement is because that era is considered a simpler time that had a clear paternalistic authority to set the social, economic, and cultural standards. There were less questions: people weren’t asking “what-if” as often as they are today.
As a result of neoliberalism, people are yearning for traditional forms of unwavering authority to quell the anxiety of purposelessness, diversity, and personal responsibility, resulting in “nostalgia-for-the-past” and the rise of figures like Donald Trump. Additionally, we’ve seen an increase of groupthink and identity politics: forming strong social ties in a controlled environment is a way to make sense of the chaotic, elusive subjectivity of the present.
However, for the most part, the increase in access to communities across the globe hasn’t resulted in fulfillment and connectivity, but rather, uncertainty and distress. The reason why? I think there are two central reasons: 1.) people don’t know which identity to adopt as their own, so instead of choosing one, they forego every opportunity to join a community and drift purposelessly, yearning for an authority figure (god, friends, family, ads, apps) to tell them what to do and who to be. 2.) when someone does commit herself to a single identity, she feels the need to cling on to it by surrounding herself by other people who identify the same way, shielding herself from criticism and doubt (because there are critics waiting behind every corner to tell her that she’s wrong). There’s no right answer, and even when someone thinks they’ve found the right answer, there are literally thousands of people only a click away who are prepared to tell them that they haven’t actually found the right answer. The result? Insecurity, anxiety, distress, overwhelm, etc.
But most prominently, there’s a decrease in self-trust, creating a paradox that I think results in cognitive dissonance. One one hand, in a neoliberal culture, the “new deregulated forms of subjectivity” (28) require individuals to be the masters of their personal universes: they must regulate themselves; organize their environments; sift through all the unfiltered information that they encounter, sorting between what’s relevant and what’s not. The people who master these skills are the people who “succeed.” They’re the ones who are winning at the neoliberal game, but most people are not winning (and it’s certainly questionable whether the “winners” are actually winning considering that the only way to win is to turn oneself into a human machine). On the other hand, technology is being produced that assists people in organizing their lives and regulating the information they encounter, but the role of these tools is to replace self-knowledge and self-trust with algorithms. Technology is an escape from the overwhelming uncertainty of the present, but it is masking the problem rather than eliminating it, and this actually prevents people from practicing the skill that they need the most (self-trust), creating an increase in cognitive dissonance (“I don’t know what to do!”), which in turn causes people to seek out more programs, people, and technology that will ease their discomfort, perpetuating a self-sustaining cycle.
In which case, we’re spiraling downwards. I think from the context of this post, it’s reasonable to argue that people have never trusted themselves because, rather than the god of technology, they turned to a Christian God to guide them, or the monarchy, or the centralized ethos of their culture, so the new role of technology is hardly surprising: it’s just another tool that thinks for people, but I see our current era different from past eras because there’s no outside looking in. There’s only inside. There’s only “make sense of the inside or literally don’t participate in life” (become a recluse, die, etc.), whereas before, if someone didn’t agree with the inside, they could challenge it from the outside, still participating in critical dialogue. The inside was contained, organized, and consistent. Now, the inside is both the inside and the outside. Every perspective has already been absorbed by the poststructural center (that is not a center), meaning that if people don’t learn to trust themselves now, the spiral appears to be headed towards self-destruction.
Nilges, Mathias. “The Aesthetics of Destruction: Contemporary US Cinema and TV Culture.” Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture, and the “War on Terror”. Edited by Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula, and Karen Randell, Continuum, 2010, pp. 23-33.