At St. Mark’s bookshop the other night, after skimming through “the sex issue” of Time Out: New York, I picked up the “American Autumn” issue of Ad Busters. I was so moved by it, the beautiful images, the elegant words, and its overall extremist/fanatical take on the world. Then one piece more than any other stood out and shot through me so intensely: a visual essay in tribute to the great John Berger. Its headline – “THE BEST WAY TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD IS TO SEE IT NOT AS A METAPHORICAL PRISION, BUT A LITERAL ONE.” The copy was complemented by a vast, macro image of a city illustrating the way urban landscapes look from afar like concentration camps. On the next page, there was an image of a ‘human’ squashed miserably ‘like a sardine’ into an overpacked subway car.
What moved me so deeply was how relatable this way of seeing was to me, how it gave a visual language to my own worldview. I’ve felt this hopelessness for a long time now. In high school, I recall the oppression dawning on me. First, I felt imprisoned in my genetic code and the borders of my body. My genes (XY) controlled me like binary (01) controlled a computer. As far as my body, it was literally a biological cell. And naturally I took this sentiment even further, making it pervasive and concluding my home was a prison, my school was a prison, my state was a prison, this country was a prison, this stratosphere was a prison, and this entire universe was a prison. This feeling eventually solidified into a philosophy, an ethics with the premise that the “good life” was not about being happy but simply withstanding suffering with fortitude.
What confuses me about certain segments of the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET insurgence, particularly the 99% Tumblr page is the way they operate under the assumption they are entitled to a good life or even decent life. My confusion stems more from curiosity than criticism. How did this worldview of entitlement emerge? What history books did they read? What romantic movies brainwashed into thinking life would be OK? Who told them life was fair? Who said things were supposed to work out? And why did they believe them?
This vision of the world as a good place is so foreign to me. It never occurred to me that I might be happy or alright someday. I dropped out of high school at seventeen and started working. I’ve been toiling endlessly everyday since as a slave to this system. It sucks. But this is life. Misery, heartache, death — this is all I ever expected from the world.
I know this makes me out to sound a bit psychopathic, or sociopathic. But I like to think it stems a bit deeper than mental illness, I like to think it stems ironically from a sense of empathy and historical awareness. After the Holocaust, the philosopher and Jewish refuge of Nazi Germany, Theodor Adorno, famously declared: “THERE CAN BE NO POETRY AFTER AUSCHWITZ” (noten zur literature). You can take this quote a lot of different ways. But one of the more popularized interpretations is that after the catastrophe of World War II, humanity must operate in a constant state of mourning. That is, there can be no music, no poetry, no joy in the wake of the suffering of the past. I sympathize with this sentiment and this claim of entitlement to anything at all does in a historical context seem a bit crass to me.
Perhaps I’m jealous of so many people’s bright-eyed approach to life: this ability to dream of a better life, which I’ve sadly never been capable of. Or perhaps I’m furious at their naïve complacency. Whatever it is, I’m not judging. I’m just articulating my interpretation.
To end on a more positive note, this philosopher, Theodor Adorno, he belonged to the Frankfurt School, a group of thinkers and activists essentially made up of Marxists –– people who believed in utopia on earth. They clamored for this perfect world, but ultimately became disillusioned. Yet, they still continued to imagine or hold out for this world despite its impossibility. For even if it was impossible, they still had to dream the impossible. And with that, I’ll confess there is and always will be, a residue of hope in me, a belief that the deus ex machina is not just a stupid plot device in bad romantic movies, but the means of the ultimate redemption of history and humanity.
In sum, it’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).