Anne Tagonist (tagonist) wrote,
Anne Tagonist
tagonist

History is the Present in the Age of Broken Hearts

I'm rewatching the X-Files. On VHS tapes, which means that instead of a complete season, have a set of selected episodes "chosen by fans" most of which have to do with the larger story arc- government collaboration with aliens to create a hybrid species (or, later, humans immune to the black oil) that can survive colonization. The house only has the first three seasons, which while foundational, don't get particularly far into the mythology. There are more meaningful silences- or, since the series was always stagey, Meaningful Silences with scare caps- than explanations, more ominous coincidence than closure.

I'm also reading Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers which I know seems like the kind of non-sequitur, but bear with me. Sci-fi ages faster than war stories, and a decade-old series is usually enjoyable as much for the technological and predictive absurdities as for the plots. Plus, look at their hair! Look at the funny cars! When did you last check your email on an 80-column amber-screen monitor? Both the series and the novel occupy similarly dated, but similarly familiar locations in my historical imagination, and can be enjoyed as a commentary on the American view of American history.

More importantly, they represent the up-slope and down-slope of the Great American Master Narrative of the 20th century. Gone To Soldiers is the story of several Americans, French Jews, and refugees, during the prodrome of WWII and continuing into and through the war. Some become soldiers or partisans, others work in merchant marine or other war industries, but a significant cluster are involved in the formation of the OSS and the development of the modern government-technology interconnection later dubbed the military industrial complex. Soldiers captures well the story of the forties (and later the fifties) as an exciting time in which American engineering and science could, with government direction, recreate the world for better.

This narrative seems to have been appealing after the depression and war for two reasons. First, ridiculously, for the utopia it promised, but secondly, because it gave smart kids a master narrative- an idea that there was a larger project, in with which they could throw their lot, which would give their lives meaning and their future a taste of the security their parents had never seen. Technocracy, which I use to include not just electricity too cheap to meter and crops from fencerow to fencerow, but also the foreign aid idea (that experts could fix the rest of the world too) and the end-of-history triumphalism about democratic political systems, mirrored the twentieth century's other master narrative, communism, which also gave individuals a way to contextualize the aches and pains of the day to day as part of a multi-generational project for a better world.

By 1994 and the X-files, though, while the gantries and pylons of the technocratic narrative still loom at the corners of Americans' peripheral vision, the gossamer edifice of a better world no longer hangs compelling between them. We believe the government could coordinate massive resources, keep incredible secrets, and develops world-changing technologies- we just don't like them very much. The X-files and similar late-twentieth-century science fiction succeeded because they told, over and over again, the darkest version of the Manhattan Project. What remained of the master narrative was hostile, paranoid, and unrelentingly pessimistic.

Its worth remembering that Gone To Soldiers was written in 1987, seven years before the X-Files went on the air. They don't actually record two ends of a historical arc, they record how people at one moment in time saw two ends of a historical arc, both of which must be percieved simultaneously to understand the sense of betrayal. The X-Files mythos doesn't grab us unless we also believe in the naive optimism of Gone To Soldiers, and the cautious exuberance of the characters of Soldiers isn't poignant unless we also recognize Mulder screaming at his father for collaborating with former-nazi scientists. My point is, the technocratic arc isn't actually the narrative of the middle of the century as much as historiography of the collapse of the technocratic arc is the narrative of the turn of the century.

---

In another non-sequitur-like jump, I'm going to move to a new story for a moment. The guy who shot up the Pentagon had something in common with the guy who flew an airplane into the IRS building in Austin. Does anybody know what it is? [pause for response] No, it wasn't politics- both were failed high-tech small business owners. The pentagon shooter, John Patrick Bedell, was CEO of a biotech startup. The IRS crasher, Joseph Stack, had founded and lost a software company. In this, they have most in common with Amy Bishop or Malik Nadal Hassan- both of whom were also batshit crazy, by the way, and set off scads of alarm bells throughout their careers, and there's an interesting essay on the difference between the public interpretation of Hassan (radicalized muslim; investigate his mosque!) and Bishop (crazy lady; investigate her husband)- in that all were highly educated and groomed for successful professional careers, and went violently over the edge at the point where those careers became untenable. All saw themselves acting against a coordinated, secretive and insidious enemy that had stifled them: Bedell felt the military was covering up all manner of conspiratorial bad behavior against Americans, Stack felt the IRS was undermining America and the American idea, Bishop felt her tenure committee was working against her, Hassan felt he was being asked to participate in a religious war against his own religion. Stack and Bishop had first acted against their own families. Hassan, Bedell and Stack had all tried to argue their points in public and felt that only apocalyptic violence would make anyone listen. All had been significantly alienated for a period prior to their explosions. All were wildly self-destructive.

Ran Prieur, who I will continue to quote and correspond with even as the message board he founded lists (without him) into free-floating paranoia and casual anti-semitism, suggested this is the age of broken hearts. The trajectory from hard work to education to success is illusory, and a certain kind of person raised to believe in it is becoming the violent casualty. Those of us who were raised in a fundamentally stable world, have been asked since childhood to prepare for when we grow up, have carried around in our heads the stories of our own futures. We cannot live easily without them. For every paranoid person who shoots up their former factory line or office, there are a hundred news stories correlating a certain size uptick in the foreclosure rate with an increase in family violence. The fact is that people who are hungry will not burn down their own house in frustration, but people who have lost the narrative thread of their lives will- despair is more violent than starvation, and stories are more dear than bread.

In a sense, the eschatological mood in public discourse and politics, which is deemed partisanship but is perhaps more complex than that, is the same phenomenon write large. Unemployment, foreclosure, and a waning prominence in international politics are facts, but the stories we tell ourselves about them are neither disprovable nor fixed. Right now, the most common story seems to go like this: in our collective imagination, we the nation believed, in the forties and fifties, that our engineers and science and democracy would make the world a better place, but our best efforts were betrayed by the intrigues of shadowy cabals. In our collective imagination, we have been robbed of our future, and there is no clear future story of America. Beyond this point we will embrace anything- the rapture, the fraudulent election of a socialist muslim nazi to throw us into UN camps, an unusual number of zeros in an odd, local and otherwise poorly-understood Central American calendrical system- to return to our lives a narrative context of insight, struggle, and future triumph. There are variations, differences in the apportioning of blame, arguments about the permanence of the present economy, but pessimism seems uniformly predominant. In a sense, a national abruption is the master narrative into which foreclosed, fired, or frustrated individuals can contextualize their personal misfortunes.

We've seen what this sort of abruption can do to a paranoid individual. We've seen (yes, we have) what it can do to a nation in certain circumstances. Stack, Bedell, Bishop and Hassan all had selected a single enemy; the US has not yet decided which shadowy cabal should bear the blame for its troubles. We are losing our inhibitions around vengeance- today the US captured the first American charged with death-penalty treason since the Rosenbergs- and around class-aggregate punitive restraints, but we have shown no signs of either impending civil war (despite the Huffpost comment crowd) or military conflict with China (the other side.)

But, we do seem to like our dystopian sci-fi.

A
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  • The Tightwad's Small Truck

    I adore Amy Daczyczyn's The Tightwad Gazette. Don't you? Looking back after more than a decade, there are a number of observations I could make…

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    Hey all! For those of you interested in reading my much-more-specific blog, I registered an actual domain name for it and you can find what I put…

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