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Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Delusion of Moments


Very often, moronic pop culture will capture and distil big and complex ideas into affirmation posters. One such distillation has to do with the idea that life is made of moments. On one level, this just isn't true. A second's thought about what we mean by 'moment', as in, an incident or brief period of time which stands out from the rest of the tedious grind of living, will tell us that the proposition is impossible. But on another level, when once we recalibrate for the chicken brained incoherence of casual speech, there is a resonance of real truth. Life, as we live (or re-live) it in our minds, is pretty well exclusively made up of a more or less carefully selected highlights reel.

Now the self-congratulatory bum-patting machine of self help fraudsters wants us to believe that this is a good thing which should be embraced and harnessed. At least, I think they do, as in the language of hazy tropes which is their default for communication, they tend to put statements like, 'Life is Made of Moments' against a backdrop of a forest or happy children or puppies or whatever. But like so much of the palliative garbage these people peddle, what they are asking people to celebrate and embrace is a major, and arguably toxic, cognitive glitch.

We currently live in the most heavily mythologised age in all of human history. Sure, there's always been stories of heroes and gods, but the record of self expression which comes down to us through the ages shows us that this last hundred years or so has seen a massive expansion and democratisation of those stories. We have absorbed and co-opted these myths into the very fabric of our consciousness. Any time any person decides to undertake a fitness regime, for example, it's a very good bet that somewhere in their mind, a training montage will be playing. Whenever people try to explain themselves, the universal tendency is to treat their past as various stages in a Bildungsroman - a coming of age story. We look for the defining, climactic moments in our lives, and understand our current state in terms of a narrative which is not actually of our own making. And psychotherapists and self help gurus actively encourage this. "Look for the moment in your life when you decided you didn't deserve success," they'll say, and we'll scan back through our poorly maintained and sorted highlights reel to find, not necessarily a moment that was important, but one which fits the model we're being asked and expected to conform to. So we'll dredge up the memory of some teacher who told us we couldn't write very well, or some ten year old girl who mocked us for having funny hair or teeth or ears. And around this dubious framework we will construct a myth of the persecuted hero, or something equally ludicrous.

It's not uniform, of course. Fight Club is an excellent example of evidence that somewhere out there exists an awareness of this toxicity and a will to fight it. But Fight Club, for the very reasons it's appealing, is easy to dismiss. Because the delivery of this idea is also couched in exaggerated, mythic terms, and woven into an admittedly subversive, but still immediately recognisable Bildungsroman of growth, redemption, and acceptance.

I'm not saying that we should attempt to exterminate the natural and often laudable human tendency to narrativise everything - if we did, I'd be out of a job, for a start. And I'm also not enough of a Marxist to see deep evil in the energetic, free market way mass media has evolved to create a nexus of mutually performative supply and demand in the way it exploits our psychological foibles to give us what we want, and tell us what we want, in equal parts. I'm pretty sure all most purveyors of media want is our money and attention, and I don't really see a problem with that.

But where I do see a massive problem is where this mythologisation of everything - this blatant reduction of the entirety of human experience into signal moments and individuals - is applied to understanding of a complex and pluralist society, which understanding is so often translated into action. The process whereby we convert and reduce an issue or a history into a simple story of villains and heroes, a battle between the forces of good and evil, is brilliant for socialisation and the formation of tribes, but is woefully inadequate for the goal of responsible parsing of necessary action. It's no coincidence at all that the justification for movements like the KKK or The Tea Party rests on a foundation of blatant myth-making. This tendency to reduce life to a series of shining moments, while ignoring or deleting all the dull, sublunary, connective tissue which makes up the vast majority of real experience, is an open ticket to absolutism, hatred, and immense harm.

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