“A fool hath no delight in understanding, but that his heart may discover itself.”
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass”
-“The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot-
The year of our Lord 2020 has been, as the analysts say, suboptimal. Lists of the manifold tragedies, unfortunate coincidences, and acute outrages that have blown across the landscape since January and laid bare what little topsoil we have as a society have proliferated online and in print, the narrative of the year taking on a life of its own.
Searching for humor in the midst of pandemic, mass unemployment, global warming, civil unrest, and natural disaster, some have compared the events of the year to a poorly written television show. Others glower and grip their weapons in the face of social disruption, insisting nothing is wrong with the tale we are telling except that the people in their gun scope sites say something is wrong.
Still, others cast their faces down and look to the sky through the shadows cast by their hat brims and eyebrows. Will the demiurge of their fathers appear in a moment of Deus ex machina, or will the Creator come again to wipe the earth clear of sinners — regretting again his having formed dust in his image — and reaping judgment long due for the evils that have long haunted Adam’s inheritance?
Implicit to the idea of the living narrative is the question of who the individual is — are they protagonist? Antagonist? NPC? — and what their relationship is to their neighbor and the wider world.
That question is difficult to answer for many, however, because individual identity has been slowly and then quickly eroding against the stream of post-capitalist technoplutocracy. Humanity has been offered increasing comfort, communication, and convenience, but rather than easing life it has had the abrupt effect of increasing feelings of alienation. The discomfiting reality is that many people’s most intimate connections are not through touch, sound, and physical tissue, but instead through online relationships.
Do not mistake me — I am not blaming communications technology. It has provided a lifeline for many otherwise isolated souls and, as living in the time of COVID has demonstrated, served to keep communities and families in a form of imperfect but real communion. It does not replicate the reality of interpersonal relationships, however, and the longing that such encounters create strains as much as reinforces the psychic tethers that connect people through their devices.
I also want to be clear that I do not believe the pandemic has caused the problem. It is systemic and existed long before people were debating wearing medical masks in public spaces. An economy in which health care is often paired with employment forces people to sever ties with those they know and follow vocational lines wherever their professional certifications are in demand. Low and stagnant wages across industries keep many hemmed into their positions, just well off enough to keep working but too cash-strapped to quit; and again, health care plays a role — leaving a job means leaving behind coverage.
That is the system under which many start to lose their tether in the narrative. Disconnected, disrupted, and often overworked, they cannot find community in the few hours they have free. Instead, they turn to information and entertainment, finding common identity with others of the same political persuasion, philosophical leanings, spending habits, or fandoms. “Highly identified fans whose fan identities were affirmed showed greater engagement in the fan task compared with threatened and weakly identified participants,” wrote S.L. Groene, and V.E. Hettinger wrote in the abstract to a 2016 paper published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture. “These findings indicate that media fandoms operate in a manner similar to other social groups, with members of average and above-average levels of group identification demonstrating sensitivity to group categorization and the psychological benefits and costs of engaging with their chosen media fandom.”
My goal here is not to litigate the legitimacy of fandom or online community; I believe people should take joy where they can find it. But when that pleasure is combined with toxic and exploitative post-capitalist media leadership, which includes but is not limited to television, social media, and targeted advertisements, the increasingly niche communities people form do not leave them formed as a person but a consumer. They may love the television show Grey’s Anatomy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Donald Trump, or even their religion, but their expression of that love, that fandom as such, is mediated through lifestyle posturing and asseverated through merchandising and digital content distribution. (I admit I bear plenty of guilt for this sin myself, especially in regard to spending hours digesting and sharing digital content related to certain fantasy epics; the same can be said of me for the collection of religious texts.)
Because people invest so much time, effort, and money — which equates to more time since a significant number of their hours are spent earning wages — in these fan identifications, they become an ingrained investment in their identity. Even if they doubt it, they have to deal with the sunk-cost fallacy. An attack on that niche identity, then, is an attack on how they have spent their lives. In the moment where we find ourselves now, because of the amplification of indoctrination from the purveyors of said identity, the closer one approaches political identity the fiercer the attack is perceived. It does not matter if it is a paper cut or a broadsword.
The narrative arc
Where the United States, in particular, has failed greatest in this regard is in never developing a common identity, which would have served to mediate much of the violence of rhetoric belabored upon us today. Hamilton and Jefferson may have debated what it means to be an American in the 18th century, but what the late 20th and early 21st centuries have shown is that the debate was never settled. The myth of the post-World War utopia only lasted as long as prosperity and babies boomed. Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement laid bare in black and white — and occasionally in bruise blue — that, in the words of a poet who died in 1967, for many, “America was never America for me.” It’s telling that the same months that were dubbed the “Summer of Love” saw multiple race riots in major American cities. Common identity even then leaned heavily on marketing; Norman Rockwell’s “Saturday Evening Post” paintings still enjoy some circulation while his depictions of lynching and segregation do not.
The clamor of 1967 is still echoing in 2020. Issues that stewed then are still unresolved. The truth is that 2020 is not a self-contained story; it is a chapter. Here is where the arc of the story is heading: the violence we have seen actually expressed and silently in the cruelty of isolation, is doing more than burning down buildings. It is forcing definition against faded identity, forcing people to look beyond the comfort of their discomfort and understand that even though many of them have been alone for a long time even before quarantine, people can effect change when they forego their identities of alienation.
This year is not a cure; it is a symptom. It has given us the chance, however, to understand that as the protagonists in our own narratives, we lead our stories best in common cause with others.