The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Essays

The Inner Life of a Sinking Ship

Greg Jackson

Detail from an illustration by Ikon Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

You can do anything…and nothing.

“Feminism Lost. Now What?” So read one of about twenty-five headlines that greeted me on my New York Times phone app when I awoke on December 30, 2016. “Your Friday Briefing,” the header ran: “Here’s what you need to know to start your day.” 

“Putin Says He Won’t Expel U.S. Diplomats”; “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Hacking”; “Is This a Nest of Spies? The U.S. Says It Is”; “Spies vs. spies: A Cold War regularity that never quite cooled”; “How Russia Found Its Cyberwarriors”; “An investigation by The Times found the U.S. was slow to confront Russia”; “Trump Says Americans Should ‘Get on With Our Lives’”

After spiraling around the day’s central preoccupation, the focus shifted to violent conflict in the Middle East and the threat of terrorism at home (“Syrian Cease-Fire Frays But Doesn’t Break in First Hours”; “New Year Celebrations: Times Square’s 16-Ton Guardians of New Year’s Eve”). But as I scrolled down, something happened. A new current flowed into the darkness:

“Snatching Health Care Away From Millions”; “Smarting Living: Tips for Daily Life: An Emotional Balance Sheet to Help with Financial Choices”; “How to Combat Family Jet Lag”; “In the New Year, More Cuddling”; “Home Renovations for the Golden Years”; “In a Brutal Year in Venezuela, Even Crime Fighters Are Killers”; “Join Our Board: Companies Hotly Pursue New Wave of Women in Tech”; “A Majority Agreed She Was Raped by a Stanford Football Player. That Wasn’t Enough”; “85-Year-Old Marathoner Is So Fast That Even Scientists Marvel”

The litany said something profound. But what? It had to do with horror and anxiety, that was clear. War in Syria, election hacking, global chaos, killers, and rapists. The “16-Ton Guardians” were garbage trucks positioned to keep terrorists from driving into Times Square. Feminism was lost; now health care too.

But my sense of some tectonic uneasiness in the culture had frankly more to do with the feel-good stories and self-help features threaded through this morass of terror. How was “family jet leg”—whatever that was—a reasonable concern to which to turn one’s attention after reading about armed conflict and rape? Would creating “an emotional balance sheet” really help with financial choices? Letting my vision blur, I could almost believe that self-soothing was the right approach to any misery. The emotional balance sheet became, then, a metacommentary on the headlines themselves: eighty-five-year-old marathoner in the happy column, never-ending Syrian conflict in the sad; more women in tech (happy) posed against murderous Venezuelan crime fighters (sad/ambiguous).

Surely, no one has actually drawn up the insane balance sheet the article proposes or enacted a newspaper’s cuddling regime. The meaning of such articles lives on an emotional plane and has nothing to do with practical concerns. But the utter disjuncture between what we are told to fear and what we are led to believe we can change is significant, and our abjection before the horrors of the world is connected to those horrors and their persistence.

To see why, we must understand the idea of the social imaginary. In the academic literature this describes the set of assumptions that allow us to imagine the society to which we belong. It encompasses the body of underlying, inchoate notions that we broadly share and that we use to construct images and theories about the social whole. What constitute meaningful questions for one another? What can we reasonably believe? What should we expect when we go outside, turn on the news, or otherwise engage in social life? The social imaginary supplies the framework for answering these questions. Like an invisible matrix, it mediates our mind’s movement through them.

Given the power of the social imaginary to shape action and belief, we might consider more deeply where ours comes from and how it changes. Clearly, our news outlets’ decisions about what topics and opinions to cover play an outsize role. It does not seem controversial, in fact, to suggest that by the time we are adults the primary influence on our social imaginary is the media we consume. The stories we encounter create a composite idea of the world out there and our possible role in it, and headlines like those above tell a familiar story: Yours is a frightening, violent, dysfunctional world, but unfortunately there is nothing you can do about it. You can read about it and you can learn to fear it, but you can’t change it. Home improvement, consumer choice, and cooking are instead the mainsprings and extent of your autonomy. If you like summer cocktails, you will love these recipes.

Discovering—and Abandoning—Agency

Something quite a bit worse than the terminal silliness and trivialization of our culture is going on. Since at least Thucydides’ handwringing in the fifth century BC, people have fretted over the fatal debasement of culture. Each generation cries wolf, only for the next generation to come along and mourn the loss of yesterday’s serious wolves. Clearly, it hasn’t all been downhill.

My interest is not in arguing that things have gotten worse but in looking at how, through imagination and language, we discover and abandon agency. I am concerned with the quality of our choices as choices, and I am interested in excavating from our behaviors and artifacts an archaeology of our emotional life in the hope that naming these feelings can help us begin to reclaim our choices as our own.

One story we like to tell these days, for example, is that the radical and postmodern movements that undermined traditional authority brought down reality and truth along with it. We lost Walter Cronkite, and the price we paid for abandoning a mainstream establishment was the devolution of truth into ideology and reality into a shibboleth of identity.

But what we talk about less often is that we did not get rid of authority and paternalism at all. We only pushed them out of sight and underground, into the realm of algorithms and user agreements, opaque corporate policy and the subtle tyranny of our unconsidered nature. When I check my e-mail eighty times a day, for instance, I am not choosing to do this in any meaningful sense of the word choose.

Something always decides. Trading out the nightly newscaster, the teacher, the spiritual leader, and the public intellectual frees us of the emblems and embodiments of an elite establishment, but it does not free us from the suffocating strictures of all that has been decided for us in advance. Drowning authority and paternalism in the impersonality of computer code or the limbic system does not liberate us. In our desire to be free of anyone telling us what to do, we merely become slaves to our unconscious habits and hungers.

The irony is that the other face of paternalism is guidance, and when it comes to paternalism of this sort—advice, self-help, pro tips, life hacks, mentorship—we cannot seem to get enough. Feeling that some promised happiness continues to elude us, we turn to self-styled experts to discover the behaviors and mistakes that are holding us back.

In April, I counted twenty-two self-help titles among Amazon’s Top 100 books, a few of which appear below:

#6: The Confidence Code for Girls: Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self
#14: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
#16: Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be
#22: You Are a Badass
#50: Unfu*k Yourself
#93: Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!
#94: The Life-Changing Magic of  Tidying Up
#96: The Gifts of Imperfection

What do these books tell us about our longings and anxieties? Like the Times headlines, the titles promote a worldview, translatable into a few basic messages: You are already great, you’re just getting in your way. Just a few simple things will change everything. Success in love and work is easy, you just haven’t been told the tricks other people know.

The theology of self-help fixates on the word just. It promises that small changes will have big results. The genre implies that your true life is waiting for you behind the superficial inefficiencies and errors of your current life. If we invert the messages of self-help, however, we find that these are just as plausible: You are difficult. Hard work is the only possible answer and probably not enough. Success is arbitrary: People who deserve it won’t get it, people who don’t deserve it will, and there are no applicable lessons.

But such hard realism and tough love are their own dubious snake oil, administered like naloxone to the self-help junkie chasing optimism’s diminishing high. No one wants to hear the truth: that hard work is the answer because satisfaction and meaning reside in the work itself; that you cannot solve the problem and improve your life because the problem is your life and the solution is the ongoing process of living it.

There is no greater testament to self-help’s failure than the genre’s enduring success. If the books and articles that fall under this rubric were dispatching the problems they claim to, there would be no insatiable appetite for new tips and hacks, new shortcuts and rules. The savvy of Oprah’s investment in Weight Watchers a few years ago looked to some observers like a sure sign that the system didn’t work. The subtle wink behind Joanna Coles’s remark, on leaving Cosmopolitan, perhaps said it best: “I just didn’t have another sex position in me.”

The Trick and the Shortcut

The hidden truth of self-help is that we buy these books not to help us but to give us the momentary feeling that we can be helped. The payoff is emotional, not practical—a fleeting taste of what it once felt like to believe that things could change.

In a strange way, then, the true subject of self-help is helplessness, and the deep message of a genre about change is the impossibility of change. Self-help encourages nothing so much as the purchase and consumption of self-help. In this it resembles the news, which suggests that the only viable response to the outrage and concern the news provokes is to consume more news. You cannot address the problem directly, but you can turn to CNN or MSNBC or FOX or NPR to deepen your feelings.

Scoffing at the sort of self-help one encounters in the supermarket checkout line may satisfy one’s pretensions, but the truth is that the same style of overhyped, disingenuous advice exists for every class identity and intellectual persuasion. Consider the ill-defined genre of books and lectures that promise to turn conventional wisdom on its head, early harbingers of which include Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, and Thomas Freidman’s writings on globalization.

Since the late ’90s this genre has metastasized to infect our culture at large, everything from big-idea books by Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari to TED Talks to podcasts about the hidden mechanisms that govern our lives. The unifying idea of the genre is that a subtle new framing, the correction of some misconception, will lead to startling clarity. Like self-help, it trades on the imperishable allure of the shortcut and the trick. And like self-help, it has its own implicit metamessage, best summed up in title templates like What Subject X (Unexpectedly!) Teaches Us about Subject Y or The Hidden Role/Power/Influence of Z. “We always thought A,” it says, “but it turns out things are a little more like B.”

The genre is a kind of intellectual self-help, meant to address the anxiety of living in a complex, incoherent, highly specialized world. Things are simpler than you think, it tells you. To read the book is to stand untroubled in the maelstrom eye of chaos. The genre is disingenuous not because its content means to mislead you, but because the terms of its contract are implicitly deceiving.

To see why, we must observe that the most extraordinary thing about these books is the way that they suggest the very irrelevance of the discipline and scholarship from which they emerge. Were you to have read a different book on business psychology or the emergence of civilization, say, you would have wasted your time, since the standard thinking had it all wrong prior to this book. Thankfully, you can disregard the mountains of academic scholarship and dissent that actually make up the discipline and constitute expertise. If you can regurgitate a few key findings, you are essentially an expert.

Something peculiar happens, however, if you ever decide that having read a book or two on finance or evolutionary biology makes you competent to engage seriously on the subject. Faced with another opinionated layperson—or worse, someone with actual knowledge of the field—you find that your paperback apprenticeship has mostly left you with stray nuggets of argument and opinion, topline conclusions for which you cannot recall the evidence and a dogmatic certainty that something or other is true with no way to refute serious objections.

The trick and the shortcut leave no vestige of the struggle that produced them: Their point is to leave the effort out. Instead, they deliver you to a patch of free-floating trivia while giving no sense of the iceberg body that lies beneath. Such superficial insights dislodge easily, until snatches of data and argument come back in vague images and impressions like the residue of a dream. When you live inside a world of shortcuts, it turns out nothing is very solidly built.

But encountering your ignorance after having become convinced of your competency does bring out a particular frustration, one close to panic or anxiety: a sense of the fundamental elusiveness of any knowledge and a desire for ever simpler frameworks of thought. The demand that reality conform to your explanatory system becomes ever fiercer, since razing one element of a totalizing system brings down the entire thing. Anger at other points of view becomes less a symptom of conviction or tribalism than a dread of experiencing the depths of your ignorance and the full extent of your helplessness.

We’re All Celebrities Now

I was listening to an interview with the journalist Sarah Kendzior on The Brian Lehrer Show several months back when a woman called in—a fan of Kendzior’s—to ask what she, the caller, as one anonymous person could do to make a political difference. The call got emotional. “I am a dedicated follower of you on Twitter,” the woman told Kendzior.

I always make sure to read your columns. I saw the appearance you made at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival that was broadcast on C-SPAN. And I see that a lot of the advice you’ve been giving is to give a call-out to the media to pay more attention to what Trump is doing and to be more aware. But I don’t have a column, or a TV show, or a radio show. I’m just one person. I am—[breaks down]—I’m terrified. And I’d like to know what you could suggest that me as one person might be doing.11x“America Is Purple like a Bruise” (podcast), The Brian Lehrer Show [interview with Sarah Kendzior], WNYC, April 24, 2018,

The call was agonizing. I felt what the woman felt, and I felt the discomfort of the radio host and his guest, because they understood what the woman was saying but they were not in her shoes. They did have radio shows and columns, and on some level all that someone with a radio show or column (or TV show or podcast) can advise is to keep listening, keep reading, stay tuned, and share with friends. They can’t say you should have a radio show or column since the only way radio shows and columns work is by having thousands more listeners and readers than hosts and writers.

A commentator can of course recommend that the listener get civically involved: Call and write officials, join protests, attend city council and town hall meetings. But the ratio of reward to effort in such activities is very low, whereas it is very high for the commentator. Our feverish consumption of news has meanwhile not prepared us to be political actors of any stripe, but only commenters ourselves.

So it is that the Internet, especially platforms like Facebook and Twitter, soothes and deepens our desire for soapbox celebrity. We become News Feed analysts and commentators, affecting a posture of expertise that, on close inspection, is only a conversancy with the arguments and prejudices of the day. Since we are nodes of information, the measure of our significance is how many other nodes we connect to.

It is because of this, I think, that we have grown increasingly interested in the mechanics of celebrity rather than the excellence of the products—books, songs, performances—that confer success and fame. If the love of a band’s music once meant a curiosity about the people who made it, today our love of celebrity means a curiosity about the process of becoming famous. We buy books or listen to songs not to lose ourselves in another’s vision, but to experience another’s success vicariously as our own.

Hence the ascendancy of memoir and personal narrative; hence celebrity and fame as signal topics in contemporary music; hence the insinuation of reality-TV logic into every last corner of life. Reality TV promises nothing less than the democratization of celebrity and hates nothing so much as refined talent. Since it offers an irresistible trade—by doing away with excellence, you get to imagine yourself as the celebrated individual—we should expect more reality-TV politicians in the future, not fewer.

For having achieved celebrity (and power and wealth), it seems, successful individuals now want nothing so much as to work off the dumb luck of their status through a side career in politics or public policy. When Mark Zuckerberg decides to put $100 million into revamping the Newark school system, or when Chris Hughes decides to become the leading champion of universal basic income, we see, in effect, the woman who called Sarah Kendzior on The Brian Lehrer Show if she had tens of millions of dollars to throw at the problem of her political insignificance.

The distance between the scale of the problems we apprehend and the scope of our capacity to respond to them is daunting. If we are a nobody, we hope to write an op-ed; if we have written an op-ed, we hope to write a book; if we are a tech billionaire, we stage the live-action role-play of a Malcolm Gladwell book on some unsuspecting community at great personal expense. The common element in every sexy policy fix that captures Silicon Valley’s imagination is the logic of the shortcut and the trick: Simple fixes will change everything. The dilettante’s sovereign intellect will rise above and purge the terrific mess that the weltering, antlike humans have made of things.

At issue at the time of this writing is a farm bill passing through Congress, which, were one to dig into the ramifications of its spending priorities for a small universe of stakeholders, might give a more accurate sense of politics’ true complexity. Alas, tech entrepreneurs and their silver-bullet fixes find no glory in the trench politics of hammering out, say, a better farm bill. The enduring complexity and messiness of human problems serves only to remind us of our smallness and the intractability of reality, and only amplifies the hunger for blanket solutions and quicker fixes, disclosing, in time, our preference for force over negotiation.

The Cheapest Form of Hope

We see ourselves reflected, obliquely, in the products we buy and the articles we click on. The areas of life where we seek expert advice reveal our belief in what we can control: our body, our health, our relationships, our home. The areas where we reject expert advice most vigorously, like politics, betray our sense of radical disempowerment.

It is a commonplace today to point out the irony that repudiating expertise in politics tends only to disempower a polity further by ceding political power to con men and charlatans. This is the bankrupt model of the “trick” in different clothes, since the sole person who benefits from the trick—which promises to turn your life around, make you rich, make you happy, reduce your workweek tenfold—is the person selling it. But if the lifestyle guru or charlatan politician is not selling betterment at all but only the cheapest form of hope, the transaction makes more sense.

Unfortunately, the guidance that might actually help us at this point bears the fatal stamp of paternalism, which we associate with childhood, when parents and teachers help us begin to separate what we need from what we want. Childhood is such a painful apprenticeship to this discipline that by the time we grow up we resent it greatly. We particularly resent anyone who claims to know what is best for us, and we show a deep susceptibility—when it comes to advertisers, politicians, and other pitchmen—to anyone who tells us that what we want and what we need are the same thing.

This lie binds us most tightly because it binds us from the inside. The essential role that education (like other types of paternalistic guidance) plays in informing the quality and robustness of our choices is not something we often talk about. A choice is only a choice, after all, if we are aware that we are making it and have some understanding of its consequences. Without this awareness, the idea that we have been given a choice is only a flattering pretense to get us to buy something. The true divide is not between paternalism and personal freedom, but between subjection to what we can see and subjection to what we can’t.

If this sounds like the complaint of a killjoy, that’s because it is—or rather, because the idea and resonance of a term like killjoy are the creations of an antipaternalistic consumer culture that wants you to believe there is no difference between a choice made in your gut and a choice made in your head or heart. Even the degree to which such a complaint teeters on the edge of cliché is a cultivated defense against it: Our hunger for the new—for news—rejects any familiar or tired idea. Conventional wisdom is anathema to the culture of disruption.

Wisdom in general, in all its plodding stodginess, is on the way out in favor of smartness. The amateur’s data-driven model gets top billing over the deep familiarity of the old hand. No one wants to hear the minority report of wisdom’s “negative” imagination, which believes in the messiness of human systems and operates intuitively in the counterfactual mood. No one wants to hear that the quality of an outcome is proportional to time and effort spent.

Even for people brought up to believe in the correlation between work and reward, this bias for difficulty is not often harnessed toward meaningful ends but shunted into more self-punishing consumerism: faddish exercise classes and special diets; ecotourism; better products for posture, comfort, or health; less toxic goods for you and your children. You should be working on your life, the self-improvement books and articles tell us, not living it.

It does not take Herbert Marcuse to remark how thin an idea of choice and self-realization this all represents. Sales of skin-care products shot up in recent years, as if in direct response to the anxiety and powerlessness our politics provoke: Here is something you can, with money, control. But more subtle than the vacuity of what our lives seem to have become is how these ways of speaking to ourselves as a culture conspire to change our idea of what a life is. We no longer buy products to enhance our lives. Our lives are the product.

Alas, politics is a team sport and does not key off consumer and lifestyle decisions. This does not stop us from engaging with politics almost exclusively as consumers and online commentators, since this reflects all we have been taught about the ambit of our influence and control. Our dual sense that we are smart and ignorant, that change is necessary and impossible, that politics is at the forefront of our lives and hopelessly distant, reflects the signal lesson of our culture: that you can do anything and nothing. Our politics grow off the stunted stalk of imagination that takes root in this soil.

But just as better consumer choices will not remedy consumerism, just as tougher self-help will not wean us from self-help, and just as consuming more distressing news will not reduce the amount of distressing news, politics will not fix itself. The common belief that better technology will fix the problems of technology is a solution styled on the model of the “trick,” and the trick not only failed to cure our symptoms, it gave us the cold. What maladies arise from culture will change only when culture does: when we learn to value things differently and to perceive them differently through the new language that allows us to identify and talk about other possibilities in ourselves.

Such cultural renewal is not ordained. On the contrary, it is probably a long shot absent some calamitous upheaval to remind us of all we share, how much we rely on one another, and why the long, painful, unsexy process of developing wisdom matters. In the meantime perhaps we occasionally shudder with a momentary intuition that what we are obsessing over and arguing about—this narrow strip in the vast territory of human possibility—is only a cage we have made our home. It is a feeling like being trapped on a sinking ship while being told how free you are to explore and realize yourself, how many choices you have. You can do a lot of things on a sinking ship—skin care, for instance.

The iceberg looms. The deck chairs beckon for rearranging.