The Age Of Our Discontent
Day #10 of daily blogging!
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
- William Shakespeare, Richard III
I came across the following tweet a couple of days ago. It's sparked some ideas in my head that I've been chewing over for quite some time now.
I encourage you to check out the above tweet in full!. Here you have some respected thinkers from our times, all arriving at the same (or at least similar) conclusions about this today's zeitgeist.
Here's a (crude) summary: the men behind these passages argue that we are drawing too heavily on the past to define our future. Some would even say that there's no distinct future from the past, resulting in an endless present. Here are some choice quotes that pin down what I'm summarizing here:
Adam Curtis: "...we live a managerial age, which doesn't want to look to the future. It just wants to manage the present."
Curtis again: "And I sort of wonder whether we are at the same stage now - our own years of stagnation, with an elite desperately trying to shore up a technocratic, economic system with an increasing number of contradictions, while no one else can imagine an alternative."
Peter Thiel: "Repetition" names the condition of our culture, endlessly remaking remakes of remakes.
Mark Fisher: "It is the contention of this book that 21st Century culture is marked by the same anachronism and inertia which afflicted Sapphire And Steel in their final adventure. But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of 'newness', of perpetual movement.
These perspectives from the tweet's selected essays are rather stunning, given the difference in ideologies (social, cultural, primarily political) between these three men. The extremes would be Thiel being a libertarian while Fisher, a leftist.
Yet they arrive at similar conclusions.
Are they right?
I say they are.
How? The best way I can argue this is from the lens of politics and entertainment.
Politics: No one cares for the establishment
I never thought that in 2020, we would be asking ourselves if Donald Trump would be reelected, let alone be the 45th President of the United States. I also never thought that his potential main competitor would be a "democratic socialist" named Bernie Sanders.
(How did we get here? It's a great question, but unfortunately, I won't delve into this blog post.)
What we should be focused on is how these two complete opposites (given the range of the "acceptable" positions in the American political spectrum) both represent an extreme distaste with the status quo. Sure, their rhetoric may differ, but the message is the same: today's politics are not just not even working (a generous view), they are entirely inadequate in solving the problems of our time.
What are those problems? They are better described as paradoxes, as that's how they manifest:
In an age of record-low unemployment, wages have not kept up with productivity for the last four decades.
In the midst of a booming stock market, a plurality of Americans would be financially ruined due to an unexpected $400 emergency. (Never mind the fact that 84% of stocks are owned by 10% of Americans!)
It's not merely that people are unhappy. It's that they are throwing themselves to the greatest extremes (Sanders, Trump) within our political system to signal their anger and frustration with the status quo.
The status quo has no adequate response to such disappointment and discontent with our times.
But what about today's entertainment, specifically movies? Does it speak to our times, and maybe offer a way forward?
Entertainment: Enough With The Superhero Movies!
I feel like the past fifteen years of cinema have been an endless repeat of superhero movies. Marvel's The Avengers series is the best representation of what I'm critiquing. It's a bland formula of over-arching bad guys with otherworldly powers threatening the fate of human civilization.
Cue The Avengers, a smorgasbord of superheroes from different comic books within the Marvel Universe to save the day from these bad guys.
Good guys beat bad guys. Everyone applauds and comes back roughly 3-4 years later to see the next edition.
Rinse and repeat (with several hundred million or a billion in ticket sales in between).
These were some of the most popular movies over the past fifteen years. Hollywood couldn't seem to come up with a competing series that had the same impact, and why would they? The Avengers series was a cash cow! (If it's not broke, don't fix it, right?)
But these movies don't offer any critique or even a necessary explanation of our current cultural situation. They're produced and distributed because they make a profit, not because they can make us think differently.
If anything, the fact that we keep going back to superhero movies shows that at least in this area of the creative arena, we've run out of ideas.
(Do we need another Batman movie starring Robert Pattinson?)
Movies have stagnated, which reflects the more considerable cultural discontent with our times. We keep going back to the same type of media because it's safe and familiar. These movies don't ask us any hard questions about who are individually or collectively, and where we are going as a society.
Art, regardless of its form, is supposed to offer insight into the moods and movement of our times and offer the opportunity to envision and proposing something different if we want.
The fact that superhero movies endlessly come out of Hollywood is a reflection of my discontent with art, and my higher claim of the dissatisfaction latent within American society.
(That being said, one of the most important movies to come out during the 2010s was The Incredibles 2. If you watched it carefully, it's an exquisite critique of superhero culture!)
If you've made it this far, you may come off with the impression that I'm deeply pessimistic about the future.
Quite the opposite! If what I'm arguing is true, specifically that there's a latent form of discontent about the status quo within society, then that means there's equally a growing hunger for new perspectives and experiences to shake things up.
Stated simply, if one can create compelling art about our cultural lethargy, or offer a better politics about how to move our country forward, people will be drawn to such an artist or politician.
That's exactly what I intend to do with my blogging and vlogging with respect to art (I'm not interested in politics anymore). I want to talk about and create new things that will do two things: one, address the underlying discontent in our society, and two, propose a way of addressing it so we can move forward collectively.
I don't know exactly how I'm going to do it, but I will.
Have hope! Shakespeare's famous line is commonly stated to indicate sadness and despair, but the rest of that famous verse shows that things do get better!
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments, Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Our times may be frozen in place with discontent, but good thing that summer is right around the corner to thaw it out.