Volume IV: The Economics of Modern Living

Narcissus so himself himself forsook
       And died to kiss his shadow in the brook

-William Shakespeare

1.

A summer’s worth of drinking only net me $5.40 in bottle deposits. I’d hoped for at least enough to buy a six pack of something decent. I guess it’s a couple of bottles of Pyramid. Or I could skip the beer altogether. Just the other day I told myself, “All this drinking and carrying on, it’s bestial, don’t you know? About time to give it up.”

I was, admittedly, a bit self-conscious rolling my shopping cart full of empties into Market of Choice. All these well-off women with their bags full of organic designer foods and their luxury SUVs in the parking lot…what do they know of struggle? Then again, they drink too. I see them filling their carts with bottles of Oregon Pinot and Riesling. It goes to show that “the good life” is just better booze in your glass, nicer threads on your back, a more powerful, better-handling automobile.

To drink, or not to drink, that is the question. I might as well drink. What else am I going to do?

2.

You often hear people talking about wanting to “live their lives” or “live a little”, etc. I find this sentiment puzzling. After all, there is no aspect of “life” which does not comprise the “living” of it.

The way it is phrased, however, is telling. “Live” here is used as an action verb, something that someone can do. Thus, when someone says “I want to live my life” it means that they want something to happen of their own accord. It’s taking the fight to the enemy. And the enemy, of course, is time.

Consider: the average person spends 1/3 of his or her time working and another 1/3 sleeping. Of the 1/3 that remains, it is safe to assume a good deal of it is spent on what can be called “maintenance” (appointments, taking exercise, grooming, shopping, and so on). All told, a person has perhaps 4 hours left in their day for his or her self. From this, several hours per week more are subtracted for “bullshit,” all of those small, unexpected, time-sucking annoyances (waiting in lines, commuting, paying bills, talking to customer service in India about your faulty laptop, etc.).

At the end of the day, you might have 2 or 3 hours per day for actual “living.” Our energy tapped by the demands of life, we more often than not spend this time “unwinding”, which is another way of saying “being entertained”. So it is that we live our days in anticipation of one day actually living.

3.

My buddy calls and invites me to the bar to watch the Oregon Ducks game. I resist initially. I don’t really give a damn about the Ducks or college football generally.

“Come on,” he says. “What else are you going to do?”

He picks me up and we head to a watering hole and grab a couple of seats at the bar. Eugene is ground zero for Ducks football. The bar is packed with gameday patrons wearing yellow and Green duck gear. One woman has a stuffed Oregon Duck on the bar in front of her which she ritualistically pets like a voodoo doll.

The game gets underway and cheers and jeers cut through the buzz of voices, clanking dishware, the announcer’s melodic baritone. It’s quite enjoyable to watch a game that I have no emotional investment in. Watching a team that you care about comes with the same emotional turmoil as a relationship. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are felt by adoring fans with the full force of human entanglement.

Why people care about sport so much is a question worth asking. Why, on any given Sunday (or Saturday or whenever), do tens of thousands of people—many of them adults—gather around television sets and playing fields and act a fool, screaming and cursing and painting their bodies and getting completely inebriated? Why do they feel that the outcome of a game played by strangers is consequential for themselves?

According to the leading research in evolutionary biology, two basic human drives account for the spectator sport phenomenon. The first is the drive for identification: We want our team to win so that we can be associated with winning (and conversely, we feel so bad when they lose because we feel as though we ourselves have lost). The second is the desire to belong to a group, something bigger than the self.

To summarize, we root, root, root for the home team as a way to live vicariously and self-transcend. But seeking the satisfaction of these deeply human desires through sports-watching amounts to a false positive. One cannot truly live by living through others, just as one cannot really transcend the self through deindividuation.

“But wait a minute,” you say. “I don’t give a damn about sport. It is rank and cretinous.”

Indeed it may be. But the false positives elicited by sport are similarly evoked by concerts, theatre, television dramas, politics, religion, nationalism, the Friday night scene downtown, et al. Like moths to a flame we gather around things that are imposing, impressive, larger-than-life. They blind and seduce us with their preternatural glow. We cannot turn away from the phantasmagoria of The Drama, The Spectacle.

Without The Spectacle, what is left to us? The daily grind. The trudge of changing seasons. Muted conversations in dusty corners. Unheralded victories. Falling leaves, passing clouds, ticking clocks. Silence. Solitude.

During halftime of the Ducks game scores from the day’s other matchups are shown. There’s an interview with Johnny Manziel—aka Johnny Football—of Texas A&M. He says something about “living life to the fullest.” Only assholes with names like “Johnny Football” talk about living life to the fullest. Most of us are just hanging on.

4.

One of the promises of technological innovation is greater productivity and hence, more free time. But quite the opposite holds true. Technology has boosted productivity, but largely because workers are now constantly on-call. The majority of Americans today put in more than the standard 40 hours. Rather than freeing us up to follow our heart’s desires, technology places ever-greater demands on our time.

The notion of the 4-day workweek, introduced in the 1950s, has not been realized. This fact makes the prospect of a technological utopia—in which machines do all the work and humans have nothing but free time—unlikely.

But let us assume that a future without work will come to pass. In this Elysium-for-all, people will have the time and resources to live out their dreams. There will be no need to take a job that you hate just to get by. Survival will be trumped by living. Everyone shall be the protagonist in some sort of choose-your-own-adventure book.

Most folks, I think it’s safe to say, would hold this vision to be a noble one for humanity. If humanity had a goal, that is.

But humanity has no goal. What we have are myriad individual goals. Collectively, these goals are known as “The Economy.”

The Economy, we’re told, is not doing well. But who can understand all of the graphics and statistics that support this claim? We are at the whim of “the experts”, whoever they are and whatever they do.

More recently, we’ve had to deal with a “government shutdown.” Then there’s the “debt ceiling” and the threat of “default,” to say nothing of gerrymandering, the health care law, campaign finance reform, and all of the rest of these issues that we know are important but don’t understand. We vote every couple of years, but nobody really believes their interests are being represented. Rich pricks and corporations are running the show while the rest of us are becoming the working poor, we intuit, but how the matrix of power, politics, and special interests fits together, exactly, is beyond the purvey of those outside the Beltway.

The Tower of Babel has been rebuilt, only it more closely resembles Kafka’s Castle. The average citizen is disempowered and isolated. Politicians never fail to refer to “the American people,” but what is it that binds us together? We are many nations, no longer under god, divisible, with liberty and justice for some. The American Dream is increasingly a nightmare. If Horatio Alger were alive today he’d be flipping burgers for minimum wage and moonlighting as a 7-Eleven clerk to support two diabetic children and a wife addicted to online shopping.

What should unite the American People is an effort to undermine looming environmental catastrophe, totalitarianism, and economic collapse. What does unite us is willful ignorance of impending disaster. A nation of lotus eaters, Americans are awash in what Chris Hedges call “electronic hallucinations.” “We stare into electronic screens,” Hedges writes, “just as Narcissus, besotted with his own reflection, stared into a pool of water until he wasted away and died.”

It is tempting to think that work holds us back from more noble pursuits, that with more free time we’d do more soul-searching and gain the perspective needed to evolve. But on the heels of a period of unemployment, during which I succeeded in mostly adding to my bottle collection and playing headache-inducing amounts of Diablo, I don’t think this is the case. Work, after all, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, is a form of entertainment. Nietzsche also said, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

In a world without work people would watch more TV. They’d eat more, drink more, go out more, play more video games, fuck more, and sleep more. That’s about it.

To gaze long into the abyss, or to not gaze long into the abyss, that is the question.

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Author: Brian Eckert

Wherever he lays his laptop, Brian J. Eckert calls home. Read more at www.brian-eckert.com.

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