To each generation, its monsters. With his novella The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka explained more about early-twentieth-century angst than any historian specializing in Europe could have accomplished. Unlike in the realm of Marvel comic books, becoming a humanoid insect is among the most disturbing things that could visit us in a nightmare.
Who wants to awake “one morning from uneasy dreams” to find oneself “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”? The book reads as alienation personified. The reader today senses that poor Gregor becomes a gigantic insect because he already IS an insect. Gregor’s disaffection feels contemporary: nobody notices him, and certainly, nobody will feel guilty for taking advantage of him. He’s a poor little surrogate, existing to be overworked, dismissed. Sensitive beings aren’t made for modern life —the book seems to imply.
The same monstrous transubstantiation from human flesh into the most monstrous type of animal we know, an augmented insect, occurs in The Fly, a 1986 sci-fi horror film by signature director David Cronenberg. Its commercial success tells more about the obsessions and fears of the golden era of yuppy hedonism amid economic austerity and the AIDS epidemic than any factual story. What if your genetic code ends up blended with that of a fly? Here, take my money.
Unlike Kafka’s allegorical novel, The Fly‘s story arch succeeds in making the transformation credible by adding a scientific framework to its tense moments, whereas in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa already awakens transformed into “monstrous vermin” with no idea of how such an implausible thing could have happened to him. It reads like the painful, nightmarish allegory of what a sudden illness can do to an individual —and a family.
But we soon sense that, as a dull, unambitious traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa has not lived better than the impossible, gigantic vermin, unable to pretend anymore that his life makes any sense. The Fly‘s outcome is also disturbing: Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) not only fails in accomplishing his Promethean dream of teleportation but also becomes an insectoid with the chance of deciding what to do with his new existence before he loses his human free will. Hardcore stuff.
No apps to fight alienation
The effects of the rise of individualism and religious agnosticism were pervasive amongst the most lucid artists and philosophers of the early twentieth century. Their work asked what can be more paralyzing than a feeling of damnation and helplessness despite an inner urge for self-actualization? How can life make sense if there was apparently no divine masterplan, and injustice could reach industrial-scale, Dantesque proportions?
No wonder, today’s climatic and geopolitical turmoils inspire similar stories and obsessions. Today, like in the seventies, niche cultures and fringe movements fill the philosophical, social, and political void left by intellectual authorities and political institutions. Amid the confusion experienced by those who feel left behind, nihilism and fanatic millenarianism become popular again, taking over the room left by the recession of old humanism and religions with new cults and beliefs, to aspirations such as technological Nirvana or reaching eternal life.
Contemporary writers such as Michel Houellebecq or Bret Easton Ellis have tried to express the pulsions and excesses of a society on the brink of burnout that downloads yoga apps and nootropics to try to keep up, whereas a few philosophers (such as German-Korean Byung-Chul Han) have explored to which extent late-capitalism societies are creating mental, physical, and spiritual imbalances due to a forced adaptation of humans to machines and algorithms, and not the opposite.
These authors are a tiny sample of a broader critique of the contemporary cult of excess, manifested in psychological and physical disorders. The self-help race towards over-achievement and hyper-attention is self-inflicted violence, argues Byung-Chul Han. Conversely, exploitation doesn’t come from others anymore but mainly from one’s own insatisfaction:
“Today, everyone is an auto-exploiting laborer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.”
What the algorithm says we should aspire to
If Gregor Samsa’s had transformed into a “monstruous vermin,” Albert Camus (author of The Stranger, another masterpiece on modern alienation) had expressed the risk of living a life with no real meaning with an absurdist metaphor, that of the myth of Sisyphus, punished by the gods to forever rolling a boulder up a hill. Now, Gregor Samsa’s and Sisyphus’ contemporary peers seem to wake up as hamsters condemned to forever running inside a wheel, with little understanding of what meaning can it all have to the hamster itself (arguably narcotized by food, material good, and media stimuli).
In an article for Rolling Stone in the summer of 2017, Jason Diamond rememorated the tragic story of one of America’s best-known domestic terrorists, Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In the article, Diamond argues that some of the warnings against the technological excesses of modernity stated by Kaczynski in his 1995 35K-words manifesto are becoming more of a lucid critique of our times than the rant of a rogue madman:
“All of this reiterates the point that Kaczynski is no hero whatsoever. The person who wrote “Industrial Society and Its Future,” is a fanatic. And as is sometimes the case, fanatics can take things to the tragic extreme. Yet there is something to be taken away from his words if you read closely; it’s that we give up a piece of ourselves whenever we adjust to conform to society’s standards. That, and we’re too plugged in. We’re letting technology take over our lives, willingly. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t take a madman dressed up like a prophet to tell us; it’s all too evident.”
Early sociologists in Europe and the United States studied how modern bureaucratic societies struggled to transform old coercions and ways of socialization into new ways of reassuring control over the population. Thorstein Veblen defined how the rising middle classes filled the loss of prestige of old institutions and bonds with a new type of consumption detached from utility and aimed at showing social status.
From iron cages to smartphones
Paradoxically, as individualism became a belief on its own that needed to materialize through consumption choices, bureaucracies increased their efficiency in keeping citizens within a predefined social order, calculated to improve control and efficiency through subtle ways, thanks to manufactured “aspirations” powerfully broadcasted through cinema, mass media, pop culture and, eventually, the rise of cybernetics. Early on in this process, German sociologist Max Weber noticed the increased rationalization and constraints inflicted upon the so-called “free,” “individualistic” societies and described it as an “iron cage.”
The optimism and economic boom that followed the end of World War II needed to overcome what Albert Camus saw as the definitive loss of innocence of the so-called “enlightened” societies, which had been capable of manufacturing horror and self-destruction to Promethean levels: after the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nothing could be the same anymore, and even the planet itself was subject to potential annihilation. Only humanism and the aspiration to an international society based on self-restraint could create the right mindset for the challenges that mankind was to assume:
“In a world subjected to all forms of heartrending violence beyond any control, indifferent to justice and the simple happiness of humankind, undoubtedly no one—except with unapologetic idealism—would think of being astounded that science has consecrated itself to organized murder.”
“In the face of the terrifying prospects opening up to humanity, we see more clearly how peace is the only fight worth fighting. It is no longer a prayer but an order which should rise up from the people to governments, the order to definitively choose between hell and reason.”
Post-war intellectuals would define the challenges of modern individuals in their own search for meaning and freedom, and some of the most compelling accounts of this new effort to reinvigorate weakened humanist values came from Central European intellectuals who had been prosecuted by totalitarianism, some of whom had fled or survived the Holocaust: Viktor Frankl questioned himself about “meaning” after experiencing Nazi death camps, Erich Fromm tried to define “freedom” in a secular world, while Hannah Arendt or Karl Popper, among others, tried to define the main traits of open democracies so they could be more resilient against populist and totalitarian temptations during moments of political and economic hardship.
Self-actualization doesn’t equal to downloading new digital content
Material reconstruction in Europe and pervasive middle-class prosperity in North America weren’t enough to build a new humanism that could counter the risk of nuclear war as the Cold War took hold. Like Camus, other intellectuals, from Albert Einstein to Bertrand Russell, saw the need for a truly international “government” capable of dealing with tensions and coordinating common endeavors, such as protecting human rights and nature. Despite partial successes (cooperation in space exploration, Antarctica treaties, the European Union, measures to revert the damage to Earth’s ozone layer, etc.), the so-called “internationalism” has fallen short of avoiding wars, mass injustice, or action to counter the effects upon the environment of industrial and post-industrial societies.
Another Central European thinker, Sigmund Freud, developed influential theories to understand impulsivity, trauma, and human irrationality in individuals. With all its limitations and pseudoscientific claims, psychoanalysis prepared the ground for scientific thought to acknowledge that the “predictable rationality” claimed by positivism couldn’t define human beings (with their complexities and contradictions).
The trauma of war opened the door to a revolution in psychology. As a response to the need to understand what may influence humans’ perception of well-being and accomplishment. To avoid the void of nihilism that had paralyzed so many early-twentieth-century intellectuals, post-war psychotherapists Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow abandoned frameworks associated with negativity, misanthropy, and helplessness (like Schopenhauer’s depiction of humans as instinctive creatures with primitive pulsions to survive and reproduce, and not much else).
Influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Adler and Maslow were crucial in the surge of positive psychology, which switched the focus from Freud’s irrational impulses to the scientific study of what may propel human flourishing and “self-actualization.” In parallel, pop culture saw the development of the self-help industry, endless pseudoscientific literature with reductionistic and often misleading formulas to “succeed” or “become rich quickly.”
Instructing people to love their servitude
European philosophers had predicted that, after World War II, interdisciplinary studies and cybernetics would become central in the new frontiers of thought; geographically, some of the pioneers of such fields would leave Europe and settle in Princeton, Chicago, or around Stanford and the new military intelligence complex in the US West Coast, in what would become Silicon Valley.
There’s one person that can fill the void between the old humanist mindset and the new frontiers of thought explored through interdisciplinary experimentation and even the use of mind-altering substances, English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, educated in English literature at Balliol College, Oxford, and pioneer in psychedelics, cybernetics, and human “improvement” (mental and physical, but also in longevity).
Huxley seems to share the curse of another influential early-twentieth-century writer, George Orwell, in being mainly known for the impact of one single dystopian book. Huxley’s Brave New World, has ended up better depicting contemporary society than Orwell’s counterpart, the equally celebrated — if not more so — 1984.
Kafka, Orwell, and Huxley wrote about modern alienation and how bureaucracies will ensure that most of the population conform to their predictable existences. In his letter to Orwell, Aldous Huxley explained why modern control would not come from the Thought Police, but from content saturation:
“Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.
“(…) the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”
Huxley’s lucidity didn’t stop in Brave New World‘s depiction of a hierarchical, genetically engineered society in which the upper castes control the overall population through what Michel Foucault would call “biopolitics,” and Byung-Chul Han calls “psychopolitics”: a constant consumption of entertainment and dependability on a soothing, happiness-producing drug called Soma.
We may relate Soma addiction with the contemporary dependability on the reward cycle engineered by online content and memetics, but happiness-producing drugs and New Age insights such as the blend of high tech with ancestral rituals from Native American groups of the US Southwest may not be the most significant of Huxley’s appreciation of what was to come with postmodernity and cybernetics.
Unlike the pioneers of counterculture, from the Beat Generation to the Merry Pranksters’ circle in San Francisco, Aldous Huxley could write with authority on humanism, literature, Eastern religion and philosophy, the Western canon, Catholic and Protestant theology, or the common denominators of Abrahamic monotheism. The Perennial Philosophy is probably his most ambitious work, a meticulous patchwork of quotes from ancient Eastern texts to a depth in Christian thought that would have enticed Ivan Illich or Joseph Ratzinger.
Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on existentialism (or Erich Fromm’s description of individuals wanting to escape from the burden of freedom), Aldous Huxley understood how the void left by the crisis of organized religion created unbearable tensions in those who were not ready to command their own lives without any credible supernatural guide.
Is it “pursuit of happiness” or mere “soma”?
Years after Huxley’s insights into clinical depression and postmodern behavioral maladies, positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman would develop the hypothesis of “learned helplessness,” or the belief of our inability to control the outcome of situations affecting us.
Here’s an excerpt from Point Counter Point, published in 1928, four years before Brave New World:
“Till quite recently, I must confess, I took learning and philosophy and science–all the activities that are magniloquently lumped under the title of ‘The Search for Truth’–very seriously. I regarded the Search for Truth as the highest of human tasks and the Searchers as the noblest of men. But in the last year or so I have begun to see that this famous Search for Truth is just an amusement, a distraction like any other, a rather refined and elaborate substitute for genuine living; and that Truth-Searchers become just as silly, infantile and corrupt in their way as the boozers, the pure aesthetes, the business men, the Good-Timers in theirs.
“I also perceived that the pursuit of Truth is just a polite name for the intellectual’s favourite pastime of substituting simple and therefore false abstractions for the living complexities of reality. But seeking Truth is much easier than learning the art of integral living (in which, of course, Truth-Seeking will take its due and proportionate place along with the other amusements, like skittles and mountain-climbing). Which explains, though it doesn’t justify, my continued and excessive indulgence in the vices of informative reading and abstract generalization.
“Shall I ever have the strength of mind to break myself of these indolent habits of intellectualism and devote my energies to the more serious and difficult task of living integrally? And even if I did try to break these habits, shouldn’t I find that heredity was at the bottom of them and that I was congenitally incapable of living wholly and harmoniously?”