Where are we going again? One of Inge Morath's rediscovered 1955 Parisian ball photos. (Thanks to -T.) Image Source: Time via The Inge Morath Foundation / Magnum Photos.
Although I've criticized the Baby Boomers' iconoclastic destruction of social values and institutions (here and here), it's time to give them some due in that regard. Their influence has been compounded by the parallel effect of the Tech Revolution, which has rendered past perspectives and morals obsolete. However, the ensuing Millennial aporia - a confusion or lack of values - may not be entirely bad. One thing the Boomers initially successfully attacked, not without some justification, was the external labeling imposed by social behaviour and cultural expectations that stifled people and held them back. The only problem is they replaced the old labels with new ones and they also questioned people's capacity to devise alternatives.
We are at the turning point. People without external reference points or viable directions coming to them from society can have trouble orienting themselves. What is expected from society when the outside prompts and social signposts are gone? What can one do, when everything, especially on the Internet, is a tabula rasa? What do the faithful do when organized religions seem to have lost capacity for building communities with motives grounded in genuine spirituality? What do the politically-minded do when political faiths furnish nothing but empty 18th and 19th century slogans unsuited to current conditions? Will they really take refuge in self-righteous blindnesses, vicious polarities, and internecine mutual accusations between Left and Right? The decline of externally imposed orders and cultural traditions is fracturing personal egos like so many billion eggshells.
On this blog, I've written posts (here, here and here) that indicate that economic troubles intensify aporia. People experience heart-breaking levels of stress as they face the upheavals of the global economy. The middle classes are dying or evolving. Going bankrupt, losing everything, losing a house (or never having the chance to own one), losing faith in the system, losing faith in the American dream (if you're American) - or being absorbed into a grand global culture (no matter where you're from) - all of this is deeply unnerving.
In social, spiritual and material vacuums, conflicts grow. Yesterday, I posted pieces on the intenstification of weapons research and the implementation of psychological testing on military personnel, which is being conducted with a view toward civilian applications. Ignoring the signs on the horizons won't help. Those reports made me think of a passage in Daniel Deronda: "There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind, which have lain aloof in newspapers and other neglected reading, enter like an earthquake into their own lives--where the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the tread of an invading army or the dire clash of civil war, and gray fathers know nothing to seek for but the corpses of their blooming sons, and girls forgot all vanity to make lint and bandages which may serve for the shattered limbs of their betrothed husbands." One day, the chaos that grew in the obscure distance is on your doorstep.
The obliteration of externally imposed values leaves one real option. As we turn the bend toward the unimaginable and accelerating future, and the institutions that once defined authority and stability in our societies remain only as gin palace exteriors, there is a time lag that allows for individual and collective introspection. There is a need to find new values internally.
It's funny that the Boomers would then undermine the spiritual quest for inner strength. They are so often assumed to be narcissistic; yet one associated Boomer stereotype was that they were consequently interested in exploring the soul, the ego, the psyche, the spirit and the mind by any means necessary to get to higher truths. Having rebelled against external social values and expectations, they initially turned in the 1960s and 1970s to finding answers in the Self, mainly by following several eastern philosophies and religions.
But in retrospect, Boomers then oddly led some of the biggest attacks on the integrity of the Self. By the 1980s and 1990s, they started to see the Self as a further part of the problem, not part of the solution. In this period, their intellectual wing shared a Postmodern consensus that the Self could be completely deconstructed, leaving a hopeless vacuum of absurd meaninglessness. The idea came out of the fields of linguistics, philosophy and semiotics (the study of signs): we cannot trust our inner impulses and thoughts, because they too are shaped by external labeling processes that are filled with automatic power games and hierarchies. (For one of my posts on semioticians, go here.) They argued that there can be no society without language, and language is filled with authoritarian subtexts because it imposes socially-derived, flawed, incomplete, and tyrannical meanings on everything. Meanwhile, in pop culture Boomers - and Gen Xers, who unquestioningly followed in their footsteps - lionized characters defined by social and personal alienation: the criminal, the marginalized, the murderous, the insane. With the altruistic aim of granting voices to the voiceless, they filled their ever-more-flawed heroes with internal self-doubt.
Right at the moment when we must rely on subjective judgment to build new collective values, the universal message coming out of the last forty years of high and low culture is that we can no longer trust each other or ourselves. Nonetheless, the Boomers' attack on social values, from without and within, is nearly done. It's been a rough ride. But in a way, they accomplished what was necessary. They opened a vacuum, and there is an opportunity now to build new directions and values. That doesn't have to be all bad. Renewed introspection - a quest for inner strength - may free us from the world's grim and loveless realities.
NOTES FOR READERS OF MY POSTS.
If you're not reading this post on Histories of Things to Come, the content has been scraped and republished without the original author's permission. Please let me know by following this link and leaving me a comment. Thank you.