Generation C(ynical)

With the first month of the new year coming to a close, I’m left sensing the same old aroma of destitute oozing from the pores of my generation.  For the longest time I could not trace, or deduce its origin, but its stench rose up with the passing of each year nonetheless.  It’s particularly evident in the restlessness we exhibit towards our relations with the rest of the world.  Our attention span is gradually eroding away, as we become unable to focus on one thing long enough to satisfactory digest any of it.  In turn, we try to substitute this defect by focusing on several things at once, but never registering enough of anything to feel fully content with ourselves, making us dependent on a continuous supply of novel information and content to keep us entertained (often confused erroneously with being happy).  We have by necessity become accustomed to multitasking everything, not as a result of a higher functionality, but out of a never ending search for higher stimuli.  We want to be part of something grand, and we are sure that ours is the era of unparalleled social transformation, but as we look around our search is left unfulfilled by the unimpressive characters that bumble before us to signal the beginning of the new epoch.

There is a banner that hangs above our heads, and it depressingly reads:  “No heroes here to be seen, no glory left for me.”  We desperately want relevance (just check out the wide array of YouTube videos; or even easier, look at the large number of blogs written by individuals eager to share their personality with an audience–including this one), but we have lost interest in the form this relevance can take.  We have given up on the notion of heroes who affirm life, what we desire now are a continuous supply of cynics.  We do not believe that, as a person, as a generation, as a species, glory can be achieved anymore in our social interactions, so we dare not try to even attempt it.  The revolutionary spirit has come to a screeching halt, and the occasional sparks of it seen across the world could very well be nothing more but the reflexive cry of an amnesia afflicted body.

Like our predecessors, we are eager to achieve, to innovate, to create, to socially progress, but we are constantly being told that our ambitions are misplaced; how we ought to look to the past for guidance rather than compose our own future.  Yes, we are being told that the generation that has brought about one of the largest gaps of global socioeconomic inequality in modern history, that has (and continues) to produce one economic blunder after another, whose self-appointed wisdom has left half the globe starved or reeling in anguish, is the generation we need to model ourselves after.  These are the individuals we are expected to emulate as a generation?  The “wise elders” we are to turn to for guidance?  We’d be better off seeking advise from recycled fortune cookies, then this group of chronic failures!  But they keep that banner solidly pinned over our heads, and condition us to believe that we are dependent on their leadership to endure the problems they have created.  And we go along with it, because tradition says we have to respect ancient wisdom, and we cannot violate traditions–can we?  Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell can.  Because I choose to stand under a very different banner, one I have willingly nailed over my own head, and ask no one else to adopt, unless they so choose.  My banner holds no cynicism about the future, in fact it welcomes the coming of new eras, new innovations, new ideas and ideals.  It reads:  “For progress to occur, traditions must die.”

The concept of ancient wisdom is imaginary.  Had humanity always been concerned with being governed by the values of the dead, we’d still be stuck with our ancestors’ superstitious explanations of where the sun disappears to after it sets every night.  We cannot afford to conserve values that hold no relevance to us; we must adapt to a changing scenery, or (literally) die trying.

“Intelligentsia is Dead! Hooray!”

Historically, the word intelligentsia refers to someone occupying a murky upper-class status on the basis of their intellectual contributions to culture and society.  These select few would (more often than not) share two major criteria amongst themselves:  1. They were rich.  2. On account of criteria 1, they didn’t have to work for a living, thus could spend all their time philosophizing about life and its hardships (unlike those philistine farmers who were too busy collecting crops for the village to sit back and reflect about what really matters to people).  Since the end of feudalism, and the laughably archaic status of aristocracies, intelligentsia can come to refer to just about anybody who writes a book that educated people hold in high regard, whether it contributes anything to our social consciousness or not.

Admittedly, the notion of what is, and is not, to be deemed intellectually worthy is quite subjective.  Speaking for myself, I would rather read the worst dime novel imaginable, than the most academically praised book on anything political.  Regardless, I have no issues with the diverse opinions people hold about good and bad writing or art.  What I’m getting at is how intelligentsia, as an applicable term, is  entirely nonsensical in any contemporary meaning.

Whether it was genuinely well intentioned, or the product of a corrupt system, the artists and writers that made up the intelligentsia of the past did produce works that creatively immortalized pieces of human history.  Gave a frame of reference to a past culture; something we can nostalgically look back and draw inspiration from to progress forward through moments of social gridlock (for example, the way the Renaissance was inspired by the intellectual contributions of ancient thinkers).  I can’t imagine such a thing happening with any of the works being produced by the public intellectuals of today.  That’s not to say that there are no good books being written in literature, or that modern art is devoid of aesthetic skill (though my septuagenarian neighbor would beg to differ).  But none of these are truly capable of sparking the imagination of the people as they once did, partly because we would have to be removed and forget about them first (which in today’s information age is impossible).

It is noteworthy that the title of the public intellectual has never been assigned on the bases of popular opinion, but on the basis of what other public intellectuals promote amongst each other as just too brilliant and sophisticated.  And everyone goes along with it, because its assumed that these people must know what their talking about (and nobody wants to risk looking unsophisticated and lowbrow).  This is just the nature of the animal; unlike the sciences, Arts and Humanities studies have no such thing as a decent peer-review process, largely because the peers themselves are removed from the broader social culture they reside in.

The intelligentsia of society used to be polymaths, whose expertise would roam across academic disciplines.  That is no longer a viable position to occupy.  Our knowledge and data is too broad to be encapsulated by any one mind; specialization is a necessity.  The era of the intelligentsia is dead and gone, and I for one welcome it as an important testament to our educational progress as a society.  We have accumulated so much data, raw knowledge, that it cannot be confined to the few.  Despite the pessimistic nature of these posts, some words do deserve to die.  When a word because too rigid to be properly applied in any meaningful way, the responsible thing to do is to retire it, and let it rest in peace.  Now, all we need to do is let the self-styled public intellectuals in on this fact.

The Measure of a Man

Leonardo da Vinci: Art, Family & Facts - HISTORY

One hundred years from today, I will be long dead.  This is a fact whose veracity exists completely independent of my attitude or concern towards it.  Before I am accused of youthful nihilism, let me make it clear that my guaranteed death sometime in the coming decades does not cause me much grief, or fear, or pessimism; after all, the way I see it, once I’m dead I will not have the capacity to even care one way or the other.  The only intent I have with mentioning my own mortality is to focus my young mind on the way in which individuals are remembered by succeeding generations.  Or, more fittingly, how they are not remembered.

In history, very few individuals are ever really remembered.  If one was to compare the names of individually known figures, to the names of the unknown masses, the former would not even tip the scale in ratio to the latter.  Which is why, I suppose, we have a tendency to often define eras and concepts in history by the measure of their most imposing personalities (i.e. Pre-Socratic philosophy, Napoleonic Era, Darwinian science, Keynesian economics).  In times where no single individual can quite reach the notoriety needed to be the zeitgeist’s neologism, the individuals who make up the era are left to be defined by the perception later generations have of them as a collective mass (i.e. the Dark Ages, where any individual accomplishment that may have been produced is overshadowed by the popularly understood inaction of the historical era as a whole).

This bit of information leaves me with little doubt that, as a content member of the unknown masses, the faults (and, of course, the strengths) that will come to define the age I happen to live in, will eventually be the standard by which future generations measure my merits and contributions as an individual (on account that my individuality is entirely tied in to the merits of the social structure I happen to have been born into).  This means that just as we today may pitifully look back at the anonymous peasant of the 11th Century–who thought the sun revolved around the earth and that witches were ruining his crops–long after I am dead, I will continue to exist in the consciousness of the yet-to-be-born public, as a pitiful, anonymous representation of all the bigotries and delusions that are too prevalent in my current society for me to even fully acknowledge; regardless of whether I personally subscribed to such sentiments or not.

Some might see this as a compelling reason for why one must speak out against perceived errors of one’s day, but I’m skeptical to how much of a deterrence this has against the prevailing generalizations of history.  Certainly speak out when you see fit, new media forums have made that easier now than ever, and the chance exists that your voice will stand out from the crowd.  But it should be kept in mind that back in the 11th Century, there must have been at least one peasant who did not hold to witchcraft as a plausible phenomenon, and perhaps didn’t even subscribe to a geocentric model, but her/his voice is still irrelevant to the greater historical narrative of her/his social era.  Because even when dissenting voices are acknowledged to have existed within the nameless public, they are usually treated by history as minor anomalies in the larger framework.

Maybe this should give us reason enough to collectively strive to do better as a society, so that the faults of our generation don’t become the eventual measure of us as individuals.  But such worries can seem almost too laughably idealistic to even the most astute observer (how on earth can we correct faults we don’t even notice we have, yet?).  Not to mention, this is only a concern to me because I’m still alive (and plan to stay so for some time to come).  If I was dead…well, I refer the reader to my statement on mortality at the beginning of this post.