Essays on power and change in western democracies: Gen Z curing Baby Boomers’ addiction to ponderous rationality

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2020 at 9:56 am

AMERICA goes to the polls on 3 November. The popular vote (aggregate of all votes) is trumped by an Electoral College system. Small states are kept warm to the federation by being gifted proportionally more Electoral votes than larger counterparts. Enviably, independent states act as countries within a country. By contrast, post-war statism continues to choke political grassroots in the United Kingdom.

For Trump’s achievement (aside from not going to war, a feat in itself) is stoking engagement amongst young voters; and he’s achieved it at the scorched earth level of the disenfranchised American underclass, in addition to Baby Boomers’ standard allegiance. The latter having shaped US and British politics since the early 90s. The Tories did not Brexit because it is theirs or Labour’s passion. Remember Heath’s passion and Wilson’s ambivalence towards the European project. And it was as much a hot debate then.

Millennials and Gen Z will represent 40% of the US electorate this autumn. A shift happening everywhere in the West. Issue-based young voters’ influence is gradually eclipsing party-based Boomers’. Educated millennial women with degrees will have a view on one Boris Johnson. Some of the underlying positive US economic metrics will nudge US voters towards Trump. Even so he is still looking at losing by five points in the popular vote, and 70 votes in the Electoral. If Johnson arrests the UK economy by 2024, he will still have a difficult job engaging the emergent political class.

Below the surface younger voters have another layer of changing experience that leads them towards change. Their structure of rationality no longer takes its cue from an unquestioned authorised canon of scaffolded knowledge, one largely formed in the early 20th century. Boomers, known for their chopped logics, binary and reductionist views, and so-called ‘common sense pragmatism’, are faced with Gen Z’s preference for the individual’s lived experience as the arbiter of truth.

Which brand of Camelot will Americans choose?: John F Kennedy held an interesting place in the minds of Western Europeans, symbolising Western democratic principles that had rescued Europe and set it on a path out of demagogic imperialism; offering a clean, white-goods model-society, a life-style. But the myth of American innocence finds its full stop in this coming election. A known known in Biden versus the colour and carnivalesque of Trump. Biden’s cool-charisma, a restoration of a US Camelot, a measure of the JFK myth making; versus a Trump presidency where there is a measure of real politik, the ‘eat what you kill’ Wild West that doesn’t lack its own integrity. Gore Vidal revises Kennedy: “I never believed in Jack’s charisma… one of our worst presidents…; but Jack had great charm. So [had] Obama. He’s better educated than Jack. And he’s been a working senator. Jack never went to the office – he wanted the presidency and his father bought it for him.” (Quote from Melvyn Bragg interview – Times Newspapers Ltd, May 2008).

As Trump’s carnival float leaves town what if we take a closer look at the sociological landscape beneath the hoopla. I argue we rarely shine a light into the dark corners of the shifting Western mind and socio-linguistic structures which give rise to voter intentions and consumer behaviour.

Christopher Hitchins said that the noise you keep hearing in the background is the ‘falling scenery of the British Empire’. This backdrop was held up by our addiction to the scaffolding of bold reason. The sort of reasoning where all logical statements ultimately interlock into a neat irrefutable phalanx. And we Boomers have spent our time trying to stick the scenery back rather than push it over. Thatcher gave it a meritocratic shove of course. Her not being ‘a suburban housewife of little import’ but a major actor on the stage.

To consider how the dominant prism of Western rationality is revolving let us turn to the ordinary younger man and woman at the bus stop as a way of seeing how new generations will think over time. Where the Boomers are a Gutenberg generation, educated with the ‘authorised canon’ of knowledge, Gen Z are bi-directional learners, educated by ‘chasing the deer through the woods’ of a socially mediated encounter with knowledge. Where I sweated Shakespeare and logarithms by rote new generations are ‘educationally present’ in a number of different universes of meaning at the same time, with the classroom being just one. Their minds juggling multiple space and time encounters. Where I walked continuously through left-to-right time-and-space younger generations skip endlessly around chopped reality.

Boomers’ privileging of scaffolded rationality as arbiter of ‘good knowledge and action’ now looks rather ponderous. Where my education implanted a rationality constructed floor by floor towards a completed curriculum, framed by the view that logic intersected with other logics, to form a coherent overarching whole; we now find such notions harder and harder to promote. The father of modernity Friedrich Hegel put forth that there is an upward and forward movement of progress based on a regular interchange of ideas (dialectics). Based on the assumption that there is something inherently rational in the effort to map the structure of the universe as a form of cartographical exploration, enabling a steady advance of human society. Diametrically opposed to such an imperialist rationality was Hegel’s arch-enemy Søren Kierkegaard. Hegel’s universality of reason is challenged by Kierkegaard’s view of good human action being born out of the absurdity of lived experience (dialogics), in all its particularity. One that is closer to younger generations’ privileging of the individual’s worldview. A worldview that is cosmologically more discrete than Boomers’ desire to construct a shared canon of experience.

So, imagine for a moment you are at the bus stop, listening in to contemporary language in all its individuality if not absurdness and consider this from both a Hegelian (dialectical) and Kierkegaardian (dialogical) perspective:

“I love you!” says the man.

“I love you too!” says his lady friend, both sheltering from the drizzle.

What makes their love-making more profound is the desperation in his voice. What he meant was: “I really do love you; don’t you believe me?” and what she meant was: “Don’t worry I know you do.”

What we like about the phrase ‘I love you’, is the level of risk in saying it out loud. Speaking out loud here is a leap in the dark; a form of irrationality based on its inherent absurdity (we never know what love is ourselves, let alone expect someone else to know, so here in this vignette it represents my attempt to pose ‘a moment’ of typical absurdity). It is different from ‘love ya’ pop lyrics which dissipate into the ether. Bus stop man and woman are genuine interlocutors who are present in the same moment and have raised the stakes of their existence by attempting to say something quite transformational. Søren Kierkegaard would regard them as ‘knights of action’ not as ‘knights of resignation’.

That is to say neither are living off the memory of past love but are in the act of creating it. Here Kierkegaard attacks Friedrich Hegel’s notion of knowledge as a universal experience. To live by shared understanding of the universe, even shared ethics, is a form of resignation from the potential creation of the new. In a dialectical society (shared canon of knowledge) we become selves based on what we know universally (knights of resignation) rather than ‘leap into the unknown’ (knights of action).

Kierkegaard borrows the epic imagery of Abraham lifting his knife to plunge into his son Isaac. Christopher Hitchens said if God asked him to do that to his children he would say to God: ‘F*** you!’ Hitchens was a romantic idealist whose affection for rationality and knowledge as the basis of the good life was unbounded. Kierkegaard’s understanding of action was rooted in the fact that knowledge is frail and rarely forms the basis of action. Even Hegel states: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.’ Meaning seasons of life are rarely understood until a pool of knowledge grows sufficient to explain in rational terms; and knowledge’s coherence is too late to be genuinely useful. As opposed to living sensually, and thus avoiding the ponderous notion of rationalising experience post hoc.

Rationality on one level then is the ‘knight of resignation’ and the potential enemy of action. As we are forced to wait for the critical mass of reason to gather a force of argument sufficient to garner societal approval. It lives on its past provenance that then awaits the appearance of further philosophical critique to form the basis of solid knowledge (arguments we recognise). Hitchens dismisses Abraham’s act as barbarism. But for Kierkegaard Abraham knew his action of lifting the knife would be followed by another ‘inspired action’, one that resolves the situation. Importantly, Abraham did not need Isaac for his own meaning and worth in the world. He was not resigned to give away his life in order to preserve his son. Shockingly unethical. And that is Kierkegaard’s point. Timely action requires independence of spirit. One free from argumentation, explanation and endless life-sucking analysis.

Nietzsche’s cynicism that ‘we do not love our children but love what they can do for us’ points to our struggle to exist without the props of other people. Kierkegaard invites the good life as one lived without fear of loss. For Kierkegaard Abraham lifting the knife precipitated an alternative pathway. But in the act of irrationality and absurdity the world was changed. Waiting for the owl of Minerva to gather knowledge from sufficient data would be too late for a world needing change now. Hence Kierkegaard took aim at Hegel for slowing the world down to a grim rational dialectical process of constipated slow change. One that Gen Z equally finds ponderous. The Hegelian self is a ‘knight of resignation’ waiting for information, rational arguments, known knowns to form, before s/he takes a step forward. And voila: the modern Western democratic world where injustice waits for the law to catch up with it.

This brings us to John Major. I am reliably informed he was more impressive in person than he was televisually. Gravitas travels through airwaves and either dissipates or concentrates. Bus stop man’s tremor was partly his cluelessness as to how his self travelled through the night-time drama. The action was a risk of unknown quantity. Because what they could not do was put their text of experience into a con-text. The passer-by on this occasion had more con-text and brings it to bear on their moment of consummation. Paul Ricœur infers that hearsay then becomes an even more potent form of learning than formal knowledge. As our hearsaying does not disrupt the event itself.

And therein lies the problem of modern progress. The more technologically urban creatures we evolve into the less potential for us to exchange agreed experience. We have tried to resolve this through modern knowledge. But this has only compounded the struggle of ‘meaning what we say’. The extent to which knowledge is a genuine reflection on experience is a growing question. Often modern knowledge is a treatise on largely one form of knowledge: the denotative. To denote is to label. This is the equivalent of a clay pigeon shoot. Up flies the clay of experience and we instinctively take aim, unloading both barrels.

Periodically we hit the clay of experience and congratulate each other on labelling successfully an agreed experience. Even if the clay was only grazed. It is still in our view ‘true knowledge’. We have all agreed that a chair is a chair. Putting aside semiotics and Plato for one moment. We apprehend a new experience and our first action is to share it and then label it, and then agree its value. This happens in such short order we ignore what has taken place. In seconds we have gone from an unknown to a known. But in truth, as Sartre would agree, we have gone from stumbling apprehension of the unknown, to it being a foregone conclusion called: modern knowledge.

What has taken place is profound if not momentous. As genuine power sits in the space between apprehension of ‘the new’ and how this datum is converted into what we innocently term modern knowledge. Who decides on this process? Which committee double checks for authenticity? In truth the accident of experience collides with the accident of social agreement on ‘what is knowledge’.

This brings us back to John Major, and TV. TV has shaped knowledge and the modern landscape quite like nothing else. The eye of the beholder was ripped from its ‘point of view’. It meant we no longer communally stood on the same spot to review a shared way of seeing. We all began to encounter the same image from a profoundly mobile perspective. Here our bus stop anxiety can be understood. Our two interlocutors look generationally from the same pool of perspective. But their different paths of formation are strikingly separate.

Enter the postmodern fraternity to cheer the last point. I am ushering them away for now. They have had a good go at arguing for complete fragmentation but our physiological selves offer boundaries which they struggle to dispute without excessive solipsism. Our consciousness still operates in tandem with our embodied selves, and these selves share a physical milieu, which is persistently static enough to say we inhabit the same wider landscape. Our movement within that landscape still retains a physical boundary for the potential of experience to be shared. There is enough in our milieu to make life interesting and varied. And there is an ethical reason for accepting our milieu as saturated with enough repeatable encounters for us to learn about them and re-apply them when we encounter a similar situation. I am therefore not arguing for post-structural (loss of real world beyond our senses) landscapes where all experience is divorced from other’s experiences (postmodern fragmentation).

If there was infinite variation then knowledge will fall away completely as we would be stumbling blind through endless new encounters. Hence art. We introduce art because it disrupts the hard patterns of urban modern life which has become overly repetitive. As John Self says in Martin Amis’s Money: “Taking a leak is boring, isn’t it, after the first few thousand times? Whew, isn’t that a drag?” In other words modern experience, under a rationally ordered urban existence, has become too repetitive. Not because of modern architecture alone, but minds bent towards an overly reasoned order of society. This overly familiar landscape diminishes our ability to locate ourselves. Recovery is always found through new contexts but also through exchange of experience. And art restores this foundational counterbalance to hyper-rationality.

And art has to be re-inserted between apprehension and knowledge. That space between encounter and its social agreement. This is the space good education operates. But do not suppose for one moment that this space is open. The space is crammed with media, of all kinds. For media means middle. We might say all major domains have their central operational HQ in the middle space. The lecturer at the front of the class is in the middle. The news anchor too. They portray knowledge as a known known. Our role again is to recognise there is an antibiotic treatment known as: connotation.

To connote is not to denote. It is to allude to the potential of experience. Hence power is operating most keenly in the ability to insert the possibility that there are infinite ways to interpret a new apprehension. Modern anxiety is rooted in the horror of the scale of life’s contingency. Kierkegaard would say anxiety is the awareness of our requirement to make choices. A clear indicator we are alive. To enable a community to see that all of history is open and available for redescription is a remarkable achievement. John Self, in his descent, adds: “Television is cretinizing me – I can feel it.”  Politics, in truth, is inserting the necessary doubt about the forms of knowledge that TV, education, party-politics, or other power bases say are not up for negotiation.

As when knowledge is boxed for consumption, through labelling, we recognise rationality has been at work. That rationality has a source and we can trace it back to either money or vested interest. Whether it is the authoring of an ancient text or yesterday’s tabloid, nothing at all comes without a political interest. This is decidedly uncomfortable, as something within us demands a pure experience, as we want to exclude any possibility that a rich encounter comes without prior manipulation. Nothing wrong with gasping at the waterfall and celebrating its wonder; but inviting a community to only stand in wonder, and imposing an interpretation is too near to an imperialist rationality.

So we shoot at the clay but often only clip the edge of experience. But if we take a community and shoot collectively we might hit more. Nothing gains the attention of central government than a collective community clay shoot. Post-war rules-based leadership tried to argue that communities needed their encounters with the world moderated through supra-national institutions. And this is partly true. Poor leadership says we will hold communities in infancy well into their adult lives. Listen carefully to narratives from popular media and marketing. A fundamental Adult to Child relationship. Someone recently stated a woman of 16 frequently has more capacity to assume responsibility than a man does in his 50s. Is this partly due to the male socialisation and institutionalisation? The willingness for male identity to be drawn from occupation not collaboration? Increasing capacity for relational fairness comes early in feminine socialisation. Vulnerability towards others invites others towards us. I encounter constantly the exhausted Alpha Male in touching distance with their vulnerability in their 50s. Only to let it slip away.

What is noticeable about Alpha in his ‘prime’ is that power is predicated upon conquest. Feminine socialisation may on occasions feel it needs to dominate to achieve similar heights, but I wonder what if we combine the two leading traits into a whole. Modern egalitarian societies have flattened usefully, but only on the surface. What Alphas should explore is their presence in the middle space without pointing at objects and naming them. To occupy the space between apprehension and knowledge long-term is to create meaningful spaces ready for communal interchange. This is very difficult when hyper-individualism remains so dominant.

The French Revolution of course attempted to deal with many of these concerns of ‘the middle space’; between religious hegemony (mythos) and nascent reason (logos). “Messianism, [is] the mania of incarnations so carefully inculcated by Christian education…” So says Michelet’s introduction to the fifth volume of his History of the Revolution, dated 1869. As Conor Cruise O’Brien points out he is referring not to Christ but to Robespierre and Napoleon III. Power rests heavily in the middle space and often with one or two individuals. Removing these individuals just leaves the space for others to occupy. Revolution is an attempt to adjust the middle spaces between hierarchies. The hierarchies do not go away but rather they reform, and can reform more oppressively as history tells us. But the principle is reforming of the middle space offers a wider encounter.

With Western economies struggling from limited social mobility the emphasis turns to education as the key mediator. Not for the access that merit alone attains but the potential of personal formation. The awareness of con-text for our bus sheltered couple is something of a destination. The angst of ‘love’ can be added to with inflections. If Tristram Shandy is right and ‘love is a situation’ then the word love connotes an infinite variation of meaning. If you do not immediately agree then what does ‘love’ denote? Point to the object that the sign signifies. Hence Shandy takes every deviation possible, with ‘love’ only ever as analogous to events.

At the bus stop we are now aware of the gap between the sensibility of love as a series of possibilities; all of which were momentarily boiled down to ‘I love you!’. If the passer-by was of the literal variety they might say: ‘ahh, how sweet’. Before wending their way into the night. If the passer-by notes the tone and texture of the ‘I love you’ they are likely to perceive the danger our male interlocutor was in. His love appealed, hoped, faded, fell; all between the utterance of the ‘I’ and enunciation of the ‘v’ in ‘love’. Power existed in the ability for Lover A to arrest themselves at the moment of vocalisation and reckon with Lover B’s potential disappointment for becoming the object of unequitable hope. No human can satisfy another’s hopefulness, nor should they.

Gen Z’s concern for the meaning of love and experience to be extricated from rationality and into the type of digression Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy allows is commendable. That is to return to more dialogical connoting of life as crucial to the joy of being, versus Boomers’ rationalising of encounter into a known known; as articulated in the dialectics of modern knowledge (to know categorically). Here then are the layers beneath the political allegiances on the surface.

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