Stranger Caves

Stranger Things is an enjoyable Netflix series about a group of teens in Southern Indiana in the 80s discovering terrifying forces from another dimension. The funny thing is that the show itself, in a way, takes place in still another dimension from our own: the dimension of 80s sci-fi and horror movies and TV shows. I actually lived in Southern Indiana around the same time as the show takes place, my older brother is about exactly the age of the main characters in the show, and the kids’ lifestyle in the show isn’t all that far from how I grew up, basement D&D games and all. But I could still relate to the show much more for how it picked out familiar tropes from E.T. or Poltergeist or The Goonies or Lost Boys, and my wife, who grew up in Brooklyn and Queens a long way from Southern Indiana and its quarries and cul-de-sacs, could name the referenced movies much faster than me. The series was clearly made by men and women  who grew up watching these towering achievements of human culture, 80s kid movies that is, and wanted to make something just like the things they love.

Yeah, yeah, “Everything’s a Remix,” and nostalgia seems to be the cultural order of the day. But the point is that, just as for the characters in the show, the boundary between the real world and the alternative dimension appears to have frayed, so too our expectations about what is the reserve of experience from which culture should draw from has shifted. This is often presented as a distinction between illusion and actuality, the Matrix and the physical world it replaces and obscures, but another perspective is that the world of culture is the real world. This is how I read “The Allegory of the Cave,” the section of Plato’s Republic where Socrates compares us to woebegone inhabitants of a cave watching shadows flickering in firelight on the wall, caused by sensory impressions and our experience of the physical world, when beyond the cave is the world of Platonic Forms and eternal ideas and truth, reachable only through philosophy and introspection.

The funny thing is that these distinctions between reality and illusion end up being pretty important for how we evaluate everyday politics and ordinary life. To take just a few essays from the last couple weeks:

  • Andrew Sullivan bemoans the time he spent immersed in the Internet and contrasts it with the immanent reality he experiences at a meditation retreat.
  • James Poulos asks why we care so much about the politics of athletes and pop culture figures, arguing that we only feel able to engage with politics through these vehicles, as we are increasingly disempowered ourselves.
  • Ross Douthat takes liberals to task for pushing their ideology apologetically into previously less-political cultural venues like late-night comedy.
  • The anonymous author of “The Flight 93 Election” presents us with the necessity for Kierkegaardian leap of faith, via Trump, to restore the possibilities of the American Republic– the plane is crashing anyways, why don’t we try to rush the cockpit?

Liberals who sneer at this concern over pop culture argue that in the “real world,” things are actually very good:crime is far below its 90s peak, unemployment is relatively low, net immigration has slowed if it was even a problem to begin with, household incomes are very high and the stock market at a peak, whatcha got to complain about? Conservatives lost the culture war, and lingering concern is revanchism and racism.

But even more than an anti-immigration or nationalist (or racist) candidate, Trump has always been an anti-media candidate, and his surprising success shows just how much restive resistance there is to the increasingly stifling political homogeneity and ideological intensity of American cultural life.

Often, defenders of the status quo point to rising economic indicators and dismiss everything else as just racism or just illusion. But lots of “cultural” concerns are plenty real, even if they aren’t exactly about economics: even if incomes are stable, families are not; even if crime isn’t all that high, drug overdoses and cirrhosis and suicides are quite high indeed. And the dominant ideology has a lot of trouble matching its expectations to the things we can reliably measure or even admitting how its favored methods really work.

 

It is easy to point at one statistic or another and paint a picture of social collapse, and point at another and say that things are getting ever better. But we won’t resolve any of these issues by insisting that what is cultural, or what happens on TV or on the Internet, is an illusion. We go back and forth between dimensions without realizing it. Many of us would benefit from pulling back from pop culture and the Internet and the daily to-and-fro of politics, taking a breather. Living in just one dimension is often a bad idea, particularly a dimension that makes you feel like everything is being eaten by monsters. But that doesn’t mean that monsters don’t exist.

 

4 thoughts on “Stranger Caves

  1. True, but a lot of conservative intellectuals seem personally committed to the idea that things are getting worse, whether that corresponds to reality of not. There are endless socioeconomic measures, and there will virtually always be a particular subset that is getting worse at any point in time. If you’re allowed to change the objective function whenever you want, you can always say the country (or the world) is getting worse. However, if you define a coherent objective function a priori, then I think it’s much harder to argue things keep getting worse.

    An example: unemployment is low, deaths by drug overdose are up, teenage pregnancy is down. A fair number of conservatives would say something like “Oh sure, unemployment is low, but that’s not all we care about, is it? Things are clearly getting worse: take overdose deaths for instance!”. If unemployment were low and deaths by drug overdose were down, but teenage pregancy were up, the same people would say “Oh sure, unemployment is low, but that’s not all we care about, is it? Things are clearly getting worse: take teenage pregnancy for instance!”. If however both deaths by overdose and teenage pregnancy were down, but unemployment were up, those people would shout “Well, you can say whatever you like, but people are out of jobs!”.

    This is of course not to say it’s not worth pointing out real problems that make people suffer — of course it is. It’s also not to say social objetive functions cannot change over time — to a medieval person, our world today could seem horrendous, so full of atheists and all (though we’re but a small fraction of the world excluding China). Of course culture and values change. But an important part of being intellectually honest is keeping track of what you value and not choosing what to “believe”.

    PS: I wrote about conservative intellectuals because they’re more relevant in the context of this post, but of course the right has no monopoly on intellectual dishonesty.

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    1. Yes, it’s a very, very good point. Politics has become so central to how we view “the way things are” that we have trouble even keeping track of what we value, and of whether things are going well for those outcomes. That said, it is possible that we learn that we were undervaluing something because we didn’t realize it could disappear (for example, if people in a city suddenly realize they don’t feel safe sitting on their stoops any more, or if students at a college no longer express ideas as freely as they used to.) Inevitably, you’ll change not just your objective function but realize facts about your objective function that you previously overlooked.

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      1. It’s like the guy riding around on his scooter because he has diabetes: sure, he’s not dead. Medicine and technology and money are keeping him alive and functioning. The scooter and the diabetes drugs add to GDP more than walking on the sidewalk and eating an orange. He benefits from Obamacare. But his quality of life is very low, far worse than his parents. Morbidity but not mortality. Both the left and right will point at the mortality statistics and say that life is getting better. Not really.

        It’s funny how all the libertarian arguments from ten years ago (quality of life is not being measured in the economic stats! What about the extra 8 cores in your CPU? workers are playing video games instead of taking all those great jobs!) because now they are in the position of defending the status quo. To put this economy in perspective, I made $10 hour at a call center in Boston in 2000. That same job today is probably $12. The left and the right are both OK with that because they don’t know anybody working in a call center.

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