3/1/2015—I am visiting our grandson and family and my thoughts turn to his future. (It is also my birthday) I see America and the West in general as running out of steam. Our basic commitments, such as democracy and the rule of law, no longer seem to inspire. As we experience one more threatened government shutdown, we must acknowledge that forces more powerful than our criticism of this or that political figure are in play. People in public life may not be at all different from how they were before. It may be the context that has changed. It may not be possible now to
perform properly in American public life.
If so, what does that mean for the life of my grandson?
As a symbol that something may be deeply wrong, take a look at pages 22 and 23 of the New York Times Book Review of February 22, 2015—two weeks ago. On page 22 is a review of Tom McCarthy's Satin Island; on page 23, a review of Jonathan Lethem's Lucky Alan short story collection.
The reviewer of McCarthy's book likens him to the French theorist Guy Debord, who coined the term "society of the spectacle." I can't tell that much from the review, but McCarthy writes about a world dominated by corporations and technology, from which authentic human relationships have more of less disappeared. This is the commodification of experience, of which Debord wrote. McCarthy doubles as a cultural critic of a decidedly ironic bent—his collaborator is Simon Critchley. It is questionable what these people offer beyond parody and loss.
Michael Greenburg's review of Lethem uses terms like absurdism to describe him. The best story, he writes, is the last one, Pending Vegan, in which a man with his family "feels under spiritual assault upon entering SeaWorld.
The point here is the lack of authenticity. This is not some personal failing. It is, instead, an absence of credibility. There is no larger story that makes sense of existence. Both these writers feel that.
The only beginnings of an alternative that I know of is the work of Martin Heidegger. Critchley's last book was about Heidegger. Maybe something will happen to change things and usher in a more hopeful future. But would you bet your life on that?