We spend our days endlessly repeating simple tasks, and even outside of work we refuse to grapple with higher order ideas and concepts. Politics has been reduced to squabbling over petty resentments, a kind of spectator sport. Even our art has given up on the profound, simply packaging up nostalgia and spectacle to be sold back to us. We cannot call ourselves grown men if we act like infants.
The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations … has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
-Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
We are virtually all engaged in utterly menial wage labour. Our work has been stripped of autonomy and self-expression by technical management processes and the relentless drive for profit. As the father of capitalism grasped, this isn’t good for the human spirit or intellect. Simple, repetitive processes ensure that any worker can be cheaply replaced but also inhibit our capacity for independent thought. We blindly accept a hierarchical structure and obey orders unquestioningly. Even when given a sliver of autonomy, we become accustomed to following dogma and procedure instead of deducing our own conclusions.
It is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the infancy which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use–or rather abuse–of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting infancy.
-Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?
The processes we follow during the workday cannot merely be confined to those eight (or in modernity, closer to ten) hours a day. The stultified intellect follows us home to our private lives as well. After exerting our mental energy in the struggle against alienation at work, we have little left for our meager leisure time. We plop ourselves on the couch and turn on our collective televisions.
Even our leisure time is not our own. It has been colonised by the marketers, who tell us how to think. Flashing in technicolour upon my browser is advertising, prescribing cures for the human condition. The burgher of Kant’s time had to pay specialists to avoid thinking for himself, but now I get advice beamed to me for free. What progress!
It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.
-Immanuel Kant, What Is Enlightenment?
The dominant media form of our time is not the drama, not the comedy, but instead the advertisement. The profit making potential of advertising has allowed it to capture all other forms of media as well. Films are no longer stand-alone pieces of art, but serve simply as flickering billboards. The Marvel films are the consummate example of the form, selling not only their comic books, but action figures, video games, television shows and of course the other films in their expanded universe, all laced together with heaping mounds of nostalgia. All this money to be made from these giant ads, and yet audiences lap them up.
Nerd culture is the product of a late capitalist conspiracy, designed to infantalise the consumer as a means of non-aggressive control.
Science fiction and fantasy were once niche genres, consigned to pulp and B-movies. They attracted a particular kind of fan, one whose consumption of that product became part of their own identity. These nerds didn’t only see a movie, they bought the action figures, lunch boxes and collectible cards. Catering to these kinds of consumers was a quick ticket to profits for media companies. And so the media landscape slowly shifted, providing more inert self-insert characters, reboots and spectacle, less challenge and nuance. Lost in nostalgia for the simplicity of their youth, the workers became nerds, the nerds became infants.
Self-identifying video gamers are the most recent version of this phenomenon. Another group whose identity has been cultivated around the consumption of a once-niche product and who still hold delusions of persecution. One to whom the mere hint of meaning or artistic merit can be endlessly reheated and resold. A group to whom nostalgic remakes can be sold on a scale of years, not decades. Even more than scifi film nerds, the gamer audience cheerleads for their products and decries any attempt at critical discussion.
If we instead reach for a book, you can bet that it is one from the dominant Young Adult Fiction category. When we read, we turn to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – stories with simple hero’s journey narratives, self-insert characters and spectacle. Rather than challenging ourselves, our infantilised brains reach for simple, easily digestable entertainment. The nostalgia for a childhood before the alienation of wage labour drives us back to adult colouring books and ballpits.
Our public discourse resembles a child’s playspace as well. Rather than critical thought and policy discussion, politics has been reduced to mere representation and resentment. Conservatives can only conceive of politics as a neverending culture war, lost in a nostalgia for the certainty of an imagined halcyon past. Their animating spirits are a resentment against women’s autonomy and a wish to return to the more racist days of their youth. Nostalgia and dogma are so deeply embedded that policy is unimportant.
I recall getting a good cheer from the students of the St Johns residential college when I promised to replace the SRC’s Che Guevara posters with a portrait of the Queen. There was an even bigger one for promising to install a portrait of the Pope!
-Tony Abbott, Battlelines
Policy is far from the minds of those on the liberal left as well. Having conceded to the capitalist orthodoxy on economics, liberals seem only capable of thinking in terms of representation. Identity is as much a central placard of liberals as of Star Wars fans. No deeper thought about society’s problems is necessary, it’ll all work out if more of the corporate executives are women. Mere presence is sufficient, not action. When progressives are no longer considering how society should progress, it becomes clear how far the rot has spread.
The reduction of politics to resentment and representation has presented a problem for theoretically high-brow media outlets. With no higher arguments from conservatives than ‘women should get out of Star Wars and back in the kitchen‘, nor from liberals than ‘there should be more queer people of colour in the Avengers‘, these outlets have struggled to fill their pages with robust discussion. Luckily, thanks to the infantilising nature of work and culture, they don’t need to. Our capability for independent thought has been so diminished that a passing familiarity with history or the ability to couch sexism in biblical stories is enough to earn glowing reportage.
The pressures from alienating labour and spectacular media combine and reinforce each other to drive us into an infantile state. It is comfortable, easy and entertaining to be a child. The pressures of capitalist society conspire to keep us there as wide-eyed consumers. Whether as consumers or subjects, most people throughout recorded history have had their capacity for independent thought curtailed. But there have still been renowned scientists, philosophers and writers. It is possible to rise above our yokes and fulfill our nature. We are human. We aren’t lobsters struggling for scraps on the seabed. We can be great.
Our limitations are soft and societal, rather than the hard ecclesiastical ones our counterparts faced in the past. So get off Facebook, pick up a book and read it. Really read it – reflect upon it, challenge it, confront it. Do something self-actualising, even if nobody pays you or even gives a damn. ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding‘, was Kant’s motto for the Enlightenment. Your own understanding – not anybody else’s. It isn’t easy – we’ve been trained to avoid it. But you’re part of the species which broke free from evolution’s chains, sent a man to the moon and split the atom. You got this.