Wednesday, February 06, 2013

What Is Important Is to Live

Jessa Crispin interviewing Ann Cvetkovich:

JC: When people write about situational depression, they tend to mean if you're in a bad job or a bad relationship or unemployed, and yet you go further to, what is this system that we're all living in that is causing an epidemic of depression and anxiety. And speaking of the despair of capitalism, I was last month forced to undergo an audit by two different agencies to prove my worth to the German government, so they could decide whether or not to renew my visa. And as a writer, having to prove my worth through a dollar (sorry -- Euro) figure was utterly sick-making. What is the artist or writer to do to stave off depression in an age when a) you are expected to bring your whole self to the medium you work in, becoming a publicity-generating, socially accessible machine, and b) there is so much emphasis in our capitalist society on income? Both seem antithetical to the role of the artist.

AC: Well, you’ve just put your finger on one of the key arguments of my book, and it sounds like your own case history would be a good way to exemplify that argument! Indeed, there are so many aspects of ordinary life under capitalism, including both work life and personal life, that are depression inducing. This is not just true for artists, but for everyone trying to eke out not just a living wage but to do so via work that is creative and life-affirming. Capitalism sucks the life blood out of people in a range of class positions -- high-flying professionals who are stressed out and over-worked, working class people who do society’s shit work, and, yes, the artists who are trying to figure out how to either live on less or turn their creative work into a revenue stream.

Stuart Smithers:

I realize that it’s unrealistic to think that sanghas will start Marxist study groups to actually try to understand capitalism, understand the misery and suffering that systemically result from capital, or to use his ideas on issues of identity, attachment, subjectivity, consciousness, materialism, alienation, and happiness to inspire alternative modes of living in the world. For those who are interested, the Dalai Lama’s half-Marxism seems like a good place to start, and if somebody finds his stance confusing or misguided, that seems like a good reason to take another look at Marx. But the charm of capital remains so great that I doubt Buddhists will be any less seduced by it than other groups.

...Buddhism and America should enter the movement of the real and be engaged with the struggle to end suffering, and man’s inhumanity to man. The movement of the real is emotionally tough, because its first move is to reveal error. But it also appears in the emerging sangha, an invisisble movement of unification that appears in the action of the collective. The action of the collective is to be collected, to come together and deal with whatever arises from this being together. In the decline of capital, the saving power of the collective might appear in new and unexpected forms. Buddhist insurgency might look like a shift to a new leaderless sangha, or a new type of leader and teacher who discovers and understands the vast unrecognized potential of the collective movement of the real. 

Reading both of these pieces actually reminded me of something I read by Stephen Kinzer a few years ago:

The other theme I heard time and again here is that political change takes time. Perhaps because they have such a long history - 10 times longer than the history of the United States - many Iranians seem ready to wait patiently for change rather than risk plunging their country into upheaval by demanding it immediately.

"Nobody can prevent us from having democracy in our country," a merchant in the Shiraz bazaar told me. "It is our wish and our right. But it will take time. You cannot change a very strong government in a few months."

A middle-aged man in Isfahan who sympathized with the post-election protests said he was glad they have ended. "They were not going to achieve anything, and continuing them would just mean more people hurt or killed or put in jail," he reasoned. "What is the point of that?"

...In Iran, as in other countries with long histories, many people believe that not all problems have quick solutions, and that some have no solution at all. "In our history we have had many periods that were sad, and other periods that were happy," a woman at an internet cafe in Isfahan told me. "You cannot rush things. What is important is to live."

I'm aware that most Westerners who fancy themselves to be politically sophisticated and aware would condemn such attitudes as quietist. But when I read excerpts like the ones above, I can't help but laugh a little at the presumption, the firm conviction that, well, of course there must be an alternative economic system in which man's inhumanity to man will be eradicated, or, less ambitiously, one where writers and other struggling artists will at least be guaranteed a comfortable existence in which to pursue their vision without being defined by their income! And if there isn't one already, surely we can will one into existence! Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but I just wonder how much of that idealism is the product of our brief historical memory.


  1. Help! I'm being repressed!
    I've a friend who amused me by answering such complaints (Why isn't our economic system optimized for me?) with, "Where do I go to fuss?"

  2. Brian M3:55 PM

    Good points, Scribbler.

    While bemoaning our fates as cogs in the capitalist machine

    ...perhaps that is still better than being a serf in a feudal society? Or a temple slave? Or, maybe 90% of us just need to get with it and die so the survivors can return to the NIRVANA of pre-literate hunter-gatherer culture?

    As for Marxism...I think the only thing worse than being ruled by selfish, greedy capitalists might be rule by ruthless, purist left wing intellectuals. Especially as such intellectuals as a class devolve into ruthless bureaucrats. :)

  3. Come on, fellows, we all know there's no such thing as a depressed, struggling artist in Sweden or Canada. FACT.

    The recently-deceased Russell Means wrote in his autobiography about how, when he was in prison, he was urged to study Marxism as a solution to the oppression of American Indians. He concluded that Marxists were just as obsessed with productivity and endless busy-ness as any capitalist. That's kind of how I feel when I read people who are all fired up to overthrow the system and usher in utopia -- they've got the same can-do spirit, the same boundless optimism, the same "I want it all yesterday" frantic energy that they think they're rebelling against.

  4. "The action of the collective is to be collected..."
    I'm good, thanks.
    I've long wondered why people complain about the way things are as if it's someone's fault. If you want money, get a fucking degree in law or business or whatever and wear a fucking suit to work. If you can do it some other way then do so. You don't want to? Guess what; no one does. That's just what's on the table. I, too, deplore the systems that almost let Vonnegut and Van Gogh go unnoticed. People just did not recognize their value right away. Is someone really going to suggest that that was the fault of capitalism?

  5. To take the first excerpt: what annoys me is the way they take a personal complaint (I can't make a living doing what I love, and I hate the work that pays the bills!) and try to camouflage it as an objective indictment of capitalism. I mean, the kind of people who feel that "creative, life-affirming work" is a bare minimum requirement for a fulfilling life have to be aware that they are expressing a, well, highly privileged viewpoint. I assume they're okay with a system in which some people are fortunate enough to go to expensive colleges and become writers, while other people drop out of high school and collect garbage or repair sewer lines. It strikes me as a bit disingenuous.

  6. I think the thing that takes it over the top for me is the entitlement combined with the complete disconnect from reality. Because what's wrong with this world is that you have to prove your utility as an artist? Yeah. THAT's what's wrong with it.

    We can all feel a bit entitled to happiness and fulfillment, but that should stop short of actually saying out loud and in public that the society we live in is fundamentally flawed because it gives YOU sadfeels

  7. Brian M7:07 PM

    Yes...maybe, in the end, the problem is YOU. Not society. :)

    I mean, I have plenty of existential blah-ness at this point in my life, but I don't think THE REVOLUTION would have prevented most of my issues.