Joy: Still got your seaman’s papers?
Lllewyn: Yeah. Why?
Joy: If the music’s not…
Llewyn: What, quit? Merchant marine again? Just…exist?
Joy: ‘Exist’? That’s what we do outside of show business? It’s not so bad, existing.
— from Inside Llewyn Davis
Lately I’ve been thinking about Zen Pencils.
Normally, I don’t give this site — featuring the competent but often spectacularly point-missing cartoons of Gavin Aung Than, who specializes in lifting ‘inspirational’ quotes from famous figures and threading them into some fatuous narrative of his own invention — a second look. But a recent series (I won’t link to it, for reasons that should be clear enough), in which he joins the ranks of those dreary souls who posit an eternal war between ‘artists’ and ‘haters’, got me examining my own problem with our culture’s elevation of ‘creativity’ — at least as it is perceived by the people who stand to make money off of it — and why I have such a negative reaction to ‘inspirational’ literature (scare quotes to be justified in time; bear with me).
Ever since the rise, starting in the late 1990s of the ‘creative’ class, not coincidentally alongside the ascendance of the Internet as a cultural and economic force, there has been an epidemic of aspirational thought amongst the self-perceived elite. It’s not entirely new to America, which has long been in love with the notion of the self-made man, of transcendence through capitalism, of the meritocratic elite; we rid ourselves of the European belief in a hereditary aristocracy, but could never quite escape the belief in some kind of natural-born haut monde that is entitled to success. It echoes through the ages, from the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger to the explosion of motivational camp in the 1980s, as embodied by “Successories”. But the message — that success is your birthright, and all you have to do is want it bad enough — didn’t become truly ingrained in the mythos of the creative class until the Web economy, with its instant billionaires, TED Talks, and curious combination of making vast corporate profits while maintaining the air of a subversive anti-corporate rebel, really took hold.
Now, everywhere we turn, from the lower echelons of Web entrepreneurs like Aung Than, who use it to cash in on their cartoons and pretend they are doing some vital service to mankind, to the upper atmosphere of privileged tech millionaires who urge us to “do what you love and the money will follow”, we are drowning in a flood of aspirational libertarianism. This is not the cruel, hard-edged objectivism of Ayn Rand that scorns charity and embraces social Darwinism; it is a feel-good philosophy of wealth as a byproduct of passion, always equipped with a quote from Einstein or Vonnegut or Deepak Chopra to ease our conscience about using capitalism as a method of spiritual enlightenment. It is a gospel of achievement, not of domination. It paints the lower orders not as moochers and leeches, forever begging their betters for a handout, but as non-creatives and under-achievers, whose greatest crime is not wanting it bad enough. But while it couches its message of attainment uber alles in (literal) terms of art, the message is essentially the same: you deserve success, and it is your talent that entitles you to it. And if you fail, it’s because you’re just not trying.
If there is a unique development in the most recent manifestation of the gospel of entitlement, it is who has become the villain. If Alger’s short stories were characterized by sneering and obvious villains of the old school who gained an advantage by taking shortcuts and behaving like heels, and Rand’s monsters were embodied as cynical collectivists wanting to tear down greatness to satisfy the envy of the lunk-headed masses, the new ways teach us that villains are people we used to think of as heroes: average, hard-working Joes and Janes. In a spectacular co-option of the socialist contempt for the bourgeois, but with the rich taking the place of the working class as the triumphalist heroes, these narratives truly fit the zeitgeist. Even as the middle class disappears as an actual economic category, the inspirational tales of the new creative class and its artistic dupes portray the honest and loyal white-collar worker as the new kulak, an enemy fit only to be destroyed. Ordinariness is the greatest heresy; existence is the gravest crime; providing for one’s family and future is the ultimate betrayal. The villain of the story is never a successful capitalist (who is, as always, sacrosanct) or a jealous laborer (who is, as always, invisible), but a man or a woman who fails to pursue his or her most special and wonderful dream, thus depriving the world of not only the salvation of art, but also the inevitable financial gain that always comes from following that star.
For me, the strangest thing about this mutation of the fairy tales of the upper classes is how close it comes to the gospel of Marxism — and even closer to something yet more close to my heart, the critique of everyday life by the likes of Debord, Vaneigem, and the rest of the Situationist International. Like the technocratic libertarians of the new creative class, they railed against boredom as a cardinal sin, despised the life-wasting rot of the office job and the daily grind, and encouraged an embrace of creativity, art, and wonder as a means of navigating the world of the ordinary. But while the Situationst critique was always and inextricably socialist in nature, the new creatives have flipped the script into a story about the inevitability and desirability of the preservation and accumulation of capital. The Situationists wanted to destroy the existing order so that every man and woman, no matter how ‘ordinary’, could live a life of creativity and discovery; they wanted to tear up the sidewalks and discover the beach underneath it. The new creatives want the beach all to themselves, as a reward for converting creativity and discovery into cash; the sidewalk, one assumes, is to be patrolled by non-creative goons whose job is to keep the equally non-creative masses at arms’ length.
The end result of all this is not the uplift and glorification of the common man; it is his eradication. So pervasive has this cult of creativity become that you hear it even from artists and writers, who, struggling on their own against a hostile world of indifference, disrespect, and theft, ought to know better. Instead, they embrace the myth wholeheartedly; if they are failures themselves, it is not because of a mass media that renders them a grain of sand on a vast digital beach, or a cynical ‘disruption’ of the creative market that turns people from artists and writers to ‘content providers’, reducing their passion to a commodity, their protection to a fantasy, and their compensation to a joke. Instead, they focus their anger on other artists, on critics and ‘haters’, and, especially, on non-creators, who are thought to be unworthy of their own thoughts and opinions because of their inability to write or draw or create. That this description also includes a good 99% of their audience, and thus their entire reason for existence, is something far too crass to mention.
This sort of message creep, this twisting of the ideal of artistic achievement as a blessing meant to shed light on the darkness of mere being into an entitlement for which one deserves personal reward, this idea that failure is not the child of a thousand fathers but a manifestation of weakness or lack of will on the part of those who foolishly don’t think they deserve success, has even spilled over into other areas of life. Despite ample evidence that it is the product of innumerable genetic conditions, environmental factors, and lifestyle conditions that can barely be fathomed, obesity is almost always framed as the consequence of a lack of discipline. Mental illness, too, is often chalked up to a lack of will, an unwillingness to ‘get over it’. Even physical health is coming under the rubric of the overachievers brigade: cancer, one of the most heinous and random afflictions that can lay a human being low, is often the target of slogan-yelling and aspirational bugaboo. “Stand up to cancer”, the bus ad reads, as if it’s a balrog, and we simply have to draw a line in the sand; “cancer stops with me,” screams the commercial, as if it were in our power to end it all along and we didn’t realize it until someone told us; “I stared down cancer, and it blinked”, says the man on the billboard, not so subtly implying that anyone who has had the bad taste to actually die of cancer just wasn’t trying hard enough. (This naturally makes an appearance in Zen Pencils, where a quote from Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture is illustrated in the usual dismayingly literal-minded way: “The brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.” One supposes it would be crass to suggest that Pausch failed to scale his own personal brick wall, in the form of a malignant neoplasm of the pancreas, in 2008 because he didn’t want to live badly enough.)
And here, of course, is where we find the tell. The problem isn’t the idea of aspiration itself, or of dedication and perseverance, or of inspirational quotes. The problem isn’t the belief that relentlessly pursuing one’s dreams can lead to success, though it should be approached with the recognition that it takes a lot of good fortune and the right opportunities, and the empathy to understand that those who never have those breaks should not be figures of contempt or object lessons in failure. The problem isn’t even the idea that people of unshakable will can change the world, though this should be tempered with the recognition of a moral context: the unshakable will of Gandhi to change the world had a very different endgame than the equally unshakable will of Hitler to change the world. The problem is that none of these are being presented honestly. They are, instead, being presented in the form of marketing, in the form of advertising. They are not personal messages of achievement and inspiration; they are commercials. They are meant only to sell you something, whether it’s trinkets for a particular charity, or treatment at a particular hospital, or the idea that you should give up on such quaint notions as job security and benefits in our bold new digital economy. Whatever they’re specifically selling, they are commercials, and commercials are never to be trusted, especially when the message delivered is one of contempt for the ordinary man, the average citizen, the person who could be you if you weren’t so unique and special.
“We are even oppressed at being men, men with a real, individual body and blood; we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and strive instead to be some sort of impossible generalized man,” Dostoevsky wrote in Notes from Underground. “Soon we shall contrive to be born, somehow, from an idea.” Even being a great man in our culture is a near impossibility; rising above mere ordinariness is so difficult it sometimes seems unattainable. Truly great human beings, those whose works or ideas somehow, madly, raise the level of their fellow man to something more elevated, those who leave humanity in a less degraded and animal condition than which they found it, can be counted one in a billion, and when was the last time someone praised Martin Luther King’s singing voice? Our artists, too, pour every thread of their soul into creating art that reminds us that we are capable of being something more than jealous apes; this leaves them drained of almost every other human characteristic, and when we insist that they must also be people of high moral character, it is we who look foolish, not they. It is hard enough just being alive, just living and trying to be a decent person without being overwhelmed by shame and guilt and the demands of the world; the last thing we need is someone who got a few extra pulls of the handle at the cosmic slot machine telling us we’re doing it all wrong. If there is something we should aspire to, it certainly cannot be a position from which we look upon ordinary people, people no less miraculous but perhaps just a little less lucky than ourselves, as a lesser form of life.