Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When confronted with injustice, there are still some who rise to the occasion and take to the streets. Gathering in what public spaces remain they come together, embrace one another in the furious emotions of the moment, shout their outrage to the heavens, and state repeatedly that this time must be the last. Yet, at night’s end when the crowd disperses (with or without police insistence), and the television crews go to turn the event into a five minute clip, a certain nagging thought lurks within many: they know they will be back to state “this time must be the last” before too long.
There is some kinship between activists and King Canute, who placed his throne on the shore and ordered the sea not to come in. Likewise activists place themselves at the point where injustice meets the shore and demand that the tides come no further. Yet the tide comes in, forcing us to step backwards as we repeat our command to the waters. But if you keep stepping back for too long you find that the waters are hitting your heels even as they rush towards your toes.
It is rather fascinating the extent to which people can become accustomed to living with injustice, which is quite the opposite of living within justice. But it is as Theodor Adorno observed (in Minima Moralia):
“Extreme injustice becomes a deceptive facsimile of justice,” (Adorno, 207)
While it is foolish to suggest that we are living in a uniquely unjust time (history is a litany of injustices) what marks out our era for special consideration is twofold: firstly, this is the time we live in and we can do not but live in our own time; secondly, the structures which once could be trusted for change, for delivering some measure of justice seem to have failed. To give a deliberately incomplete list: austerity, sequestration, threats to cut off food aid to those who need it most, crumbling infrastructure, exploding student debt, dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, rampant government spying (NSA), corporate corruption, the acquittal of killers, attacks on women’s rights, the complicity of both (both!) US political parties in the current state of affairs, and the list could easily go on. And it is a list that does not even try to acknowledge the injustices that are rampant worldwide.
One could almost forgive those who find themselves confronted by this state of affairs and choose apathy, or better yet (as few people genuinely choose apathy) choose the cheap distractions put forward to lull us into inaction. In television and the movies things work out for the best, and even when they don’t, we are given a pass to not get worked up, it is, after all, just entertainment. Spun round to the point of sickness by an onslaught of events the attempt to find meaning or ethical resonance in society is not simply daunting, it may be fruitless. And yet it is in such moments when the nihilism of pop-culture-morality seems most appealing, when the “deceptive facsimile” seems most convincing, that it is most important to not buy into it. It is at the point when we say “I am tired of going to these rallies” that we must go to the next one, even as we know that it will hardly be the last. These are unjust times but as Simone De Beauvoir wrote (in The Ethics of Ambiguity):
“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.” (De Beauvoir, 9)
Recent events have been a series of hammer blows to the façade of national mythologies. As news story after news story exposes the venality, cruelty, and mediocrity at the center of our power establishments (and as some of those stories reveal the same to be true of the forums disseminating this news) a discomforting reality has been unveiled. Yet the question remains: if the American myth is collapsing, what shall replace it? For some – generally those on the political right – this may take the form of a renewed fidelity to the myth, a redoubling of fealty and an angry denouncement that the problem is not the myth but those (pick your scapegoat) who are ruining it for them. While for many liberals (note: liberal is not the same as leftist) all that is desired is a slightly more open restructuring of the myth, one that allows for more people to partake, and a stance that seeks any hopeful reason to still put some faith in the very structures that are crumbling around them (after all, they would say, the Supreme Court did strike down the Defense of Marriage Act).
The comforts gained by living in an illusory realm are false comforts, distractions, bribes, panoptic cons, and buyouts that desperately seek to keep us alienated and confused about the “genuine conditions of our life.” Yet the appeal of these frail comforts is understandable as there is no comfort to be found in our reality. If we are trying to “draw our strength” and “reason for acting” from the “genuine conditions” than this is a Herculean task when the conditions are so foul. As the political establishment has shown its patent untrustworthiness, as business has gone back to basting itself in an orgy of enriched exploitative excess, and as the sources that were once trusted to keep the former two in check have been revealed as courtiers, we are witness to “genuine conditions” in which there is almost a paralysis of “what to do?”
After all, we keep rallying…but these events seem ever more like safety valves allowing for the blowing off of built up steam; moments where we gather to forcibly confront and shout our anger over the “genuine conditions” before we go home to watch television. What is further worrisome and troubling is the disconnect that is easily experienced: at a rally one may find oneself surrounded by the shouting voices of compatriots, yet even two blocks away the streets are filled with shoppers unaware that anything is awry. Indeed, for all of the shouting of recent years about the 99%, perhaps the math is wrong, perhaps contemporary activists truly are the 1%: the 1% willing to call out this system for the farce that it is. This space, this area between those in the streets to protest, and those in the streets to shop, is one of the most difficult “genuine conditions” to face. Illustrating in sharp relief, as it does, the massive gulf that has been carved into our society between groups. Which brings up the question of how to interact with those unwilling to see the injustices around them, or those who may actively revel in what may seem to you unjust?
Within a radical critique it may seem silly to invoke something as traditionally backwards as manners, and politeness, yet in a system that alienates us from one another and asks us to dehumanize one another there is something radical in according people respect. Certainly “politeness” can be used as a ruse for keeping people from speaking out, but what is meant here is simply a call to accord each other a measure more of respect. For it is lack of respect for others – and respect for the Other – that seems at root in many of today’s injustices. Furthermore disrespect seems encouraged by the tools of today’s technological culture industry: one need only glance at social networks in the wake of an injustice to witness an explosion of cruelty, racism, misogyny, and sniping at one another. Indeed, in moving the area where we encounter each other from one where we stand before one another to a space where we type messages and send them off to the Internet we eliminate the need to recognize each other’s humanity. After all, a Twitter handle is not a person it is a Twitter account and thus we act with ethical impunity. Ignoring the human with whom we interact, and ignoring even the measure of basic decency that we owe to one another. The Internet is the realm where you never need to see another human, just the flickering avatar of one.
Alienated from each other and ourselves, talk of equality becomes but idle syllables in the wind as it is merely the invocation of a word, especially in times where we hear the word “equality” with nearly as much regularity as we hear the word “freedom” though both seem to have become airbrushed ideologies for wearing on lapels. Yet, there is a radical core to the notion, one that Simone Weil referred to (in The Need for Roots) thusly, noting that equality:
“consists in a recognition, at once public, general, effective and genuinely expressed in institutions and customs, that the same amount of respect and consideration is due to every human being because this respect is due to the human being as such and is not a matter of degree. It follows that the inevitable differences among men ought never to imply an difference in the degree of respect.” (Weil, 16)
Injustice thrives in this breakdown of respect, and in this failure to recognize what we owe fellow humans in virtue of their being human. Of primary import in this is to recognize that our fellows really are human, not avatars or machines. At every turn society aims to break this down, it aims to reduce people to stereotypes or scapegoats, and it aims to create spaces in which humanity is hidden behind levels of computer code so thick that the being deserving respect is unseen beneath the wall of avatars that – not being human – are accorded no respect. And even as we are encouraged to dehumanize other people we are encouraged to humanize the corporations and systems of power that advance this injustice: thus we ascribe human qualities and respect to Facebook, Apple, Google, fashion companies, Whole Foods, Hybrid vehicles, the government, and so forth when these are actually objects and systems – even as individuals within are held up to further muddle our minds.
Or to put it another way, you can accord President Barack Obama respect as a human being, and still recognize that the US government is presiding over a travesty of injustice…and bear in mind every filibuster, ever judicial decision that enshrines death and inequality, every war: this is government at work. Likewise you can accord the CEO of a company respect as a human being, and still recognize that their company (and they) benefit from inequality, theft, and encouraging the population to remain apathetic and keep shopping (that’s called capitalism).
Of course, recognition of the respect that is due to each other as humans is in no way meant to discount or to disavow rage. The anger against injustice has been smoothed over and quieted for too long, yet in justified outbursts it is necessary to keep the sources of injustice in mind. While the smirking face of a man, acquitted of murder charges, may provoke fury at the sight of this grave injustice, the fact remains that the problem is less this man than the racist and misogynist system that produces, arms, unleashes, and than sets free such men. Respect for each others’ basic humanity requires no respect for inhumane systems that reduce us to objects, and it is from our quiet conforming with these unjust systems that we must break ourselves, systems in which we participate through our silence. As Adorno described it (in Minima Moralia):
“We shudder at the brutalization of life, but lacking any objectively binding morality we are forced at every step into actions and words, into calculations that are by human standards barbaric, and even by the dubious values of good society, tactless…the only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence, and for the rest to conduct oneself in private as modestly, unobtrusively, and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.” (Adorno, 30)
In this time of injustice perhaps the “genuine condition” is what Adorno alludes to as this foul soot filled air we breathe, and yet we cannot let it so blacken our lungs as to make it so that we think the unjust air we breathe is the only type of air that is possible. An unjust system only draws strength by dividing us from one another, and in encouraging us to see each other as unworthy of respect. Yet as these manifestations of injustice continue to reveal themselves what we must remind ourselves of at every juncture is that these are systematic failures and they require a response that targets the system. What these ongoing injustices reveal is that the adage “first as tragedy than as farce” is flawed, it is tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, at least for those who can see through the attempts to turn it all into a farce.
It is likely that before long crowds will gather in public spaces to decry the latest injustice and declare that they have had enough. But the “genuine condition” of our time is injustice, and it is only by recognizing that this injustice is endemic to the system in which we live, that we can draw the strength to challenge it. What we must not do is allow the systems that oppress us to misuse us, to turn our rage at the system against one another.
But maybe, instead of standing on the beach shouting at the tide, the time has come to start building levees, and structures that can actually resist the waves.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Citadel Press, 1976.
Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. Routledge, 2002