Modernity, complicity, and the unbearable bullshitness of being (I)

Something about the frozen, pained expression on Chandler Bing’s face whenever he sensed the joke was on him or that he’d made a massive boo-boo — just before he restored the playful vibe with a self-deflating quip — captures the off-centre mood I’ve been in for the past few weeks. It’s partly personal and partly societal. I feel like a minor moving part in a huge, accelerating machine that’s veering off-track and beginning to tilt, and while my inner gyroscope is trying to right things it’s clear there’s nothing to be done.

Chandler was notorious in the earlier series of Friends for the obscure nature of his job. It involved wearing a suit and tie and going to an office, and possibly had something to do with marketing. But beyond that no-one, including the character himself, was able to say what it was he actually did. It was, as the Financial Times pointed out (with a nod to David Graeber), a “bullshit job”. Perfect for a benign character in a popular sitcom who seemed to be quietly floundering. Also, the reality of working life for many of us.

I’ve done one or two such jobs in my time, and have a hard time remembering what I did at even the best of them. There was a tie (bullshit) and an office (ditto) for sure, and I spent a lot of time writing emails and showing up for meetings. (Bullshit. Bullshit.) There was a monthly salary (not bullshit) and a few fancy perks (ditto), and there was plenty of giving and receiving powerpoint presentations (bullshit to the power of ten). And always there was the corporate mission, framed in language that was the acme of bullshit and reinforced by mandatory jollies to attractive locations for “team meetings” (Schrödinger’s bullshit: simultaneously bullshit and not-bullshit).

Eventually, the mass of bullshittery overwhelmed me, internally as much as externally, and I had to get out before drowning in the stuff. Even though I’d lingered for years and was horribly invested at the time.

Anyway, the point is: this is a lot like how I’ve been feeling recently about “society”, about “modernity”, about whatever this thing is that I’m embedded in and helping to shore up.

To all appearances I’m just another human hamster minding his own business. Contentedly snuffling about in sawdust at the bottom of the cage and scooping up any treats that society feeds my way. But recently, part of the epistemological scaffold inside has given way, and it’s exposed my complicity in some ugly processes. Processes recorded in a mission statement, inscribed on a scroll concealed in a box kept on a shelf in a dark nook behind a richly embroidered curtain of bullshit.

The mission, the real mission, which is written between the lines, reads: “Seize the spoils, me Hearties!”, and the document instructs me to avert my eyes from the brutality that will be inflicted on others in the name of all that is good (freedom, virtue, “living your best life” etc.) by the norms of this society, as spoils are seized. Avert your eyes, say the Ts & Cs, from the systemic violence that will be deployed against other communities of people, against other beings of all description, and against our very own Mother, the Earth, whose living flesh we’re made of.

That mission — naked piracy in plain English — is of course immoral, but it’s also sacrosanct. So, if the mission means we’ve added more carbon to the atmosphere since 1992 than in the entire history of the species up till then, pretty much dooming the planet to some horrifying outcomes during the very period when arguably we could have averted such outcomes — well, this was simply an unavoidable by-product of the unstoppable march of progress. The mission took priority, obviously.

And by the way, say the terms and conditions: As a holder of piracy stock and recipient of piracy dividends, you’re in deep.

The mission means that if we (referring to the global north, including the privileged global north within each country worldwide) have ripped and shredded the fabric of life across vast swathes of the globe, eliminating fellow denizens of this planet and the species they belong to with abandon while freely polluting and poisoning the realms of those who remain, in an ideologically sanctioned pursuit of individual interest, well… look… . It wasn’t deliberate. It wasn’t our specific intention to ruin Mother Earth. And anyway, even if we have done some damage, it’s more than justified by the sweet comforts and technological marvels of modern life. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, right? Indeed, our ravenous reshaping of Creation is vindicated by the spread of civilization to (and “lifting out of poverty” of) the benighted and the brown, and by the projected benefits for innumerable humans in a future cyberverse. It has even, some would say, been blessed by our sky gods.

So in these crimes against the Earth, you too are complicit.

What this mission also means is that, by its own WEIRD logic, we have to keep pursuing our self-serving goals until we’ve gone too far, because restraint, including self-regulation, is anathema to our seize-the-spoils ideology. As a result, we will inevitably be swamped in the backwash from our own brutality. It means we’ll continue eating and beating our way out of house and home until, with chaos looming, civilization’s authoritarian impulses are re-expressed, encouraged by opportunists who want to assert the kinds of social order — patriarchal, with ruthless hierarchies of domination — that prevailed in an imagined golden age. It means that the bullshit never stops (“Sustainability!” “Green Growth!”) even as the climate tipping points come crowding in; even as we supply munitions and political cover (“surgical strikes”, “right to self-defence”) for the Dresden-scale slaughter of civilians in Yemen, and Aleppo, and now Gaza, where survivors cower under tarpaulins amid the rubble of precision-bombed residential apartment blocks.

So, crimes against humanity: You. Are. Complicit.

It’s possible to be unaware of or at least play along with the bulk of the bullshit and ignore that niggling sensation of personal complicity when the system seems to be running smoothly and in your favour. That’s typically how life rolls when you’re wealthy and can afford to be glib. Being unaware or playing along can also apply when the system seems to be crumbling around you. While you’re too distracted, by poverty and injustice for example, to be able to take in the bigger picture. But when, for whatever reason, you can’t sustain the faith and don’t want to just play along; when the story doesn’t hold up anymore and unease clouds your face; when you’re subsumed by the sheer volume of ambient bullshit and sense there’s nothing you can do about it — other than making a fool of yourself by calling it out — that’s when you feel a bit like the way Chandler Bing looks in those awkward, troubled moments. It’s when you’re hit by the full-spectrum cognitive dissonance that comes with confronting your involuntary complicity in the unspeakable. It’s the unbearable bullshitness of being, which has become your lot, as a walk-on in some sorry shit-show.

Chandler, bless him, knew that you simply have to make the best of things. Surrender to your own cluelessness and if possible raise a smile from others in the process. But that hapless look, with its hint of hurt and good intentions, never quite left his face. Like he’d adapted to but never fully made peace with the reality that being Chandler Bing involved owning a hefty dollop of bullshit from the universe.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of us are carrying something similar around with us these days.

So, what are we supposed to do about it, in this non-fictional world, if we’re unable or unwilling to simply quip our way out of this existential funk, in the face of horror and complicity?

How might we find respite from the pressure, grief and shame of actually being the bullshit, without turning to dangerous addictions, self-destructive extremes and so on?

In Part 2 I’ll have an answer to offer, something which might in a small way have worked for me.

2 Replies to “Modernity, complicity, and the unbearable bullshitness of being (I)”

  1. This is inspired, wrathful (in a good way) writing. Would quite like to put you up to a cage match of wits with one of the tech-savior-bros. Game?

  2. I’d prefer Queensbury rules but will trust your judgement. You do know I’m fairly slow-witted?

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