Something in modern life continues to exist without political articulation. While we try to subsume it under the known categories of caste, class and gender, there is a pervasive excess that spills over and bleeds into everyday life. News dailies routinely carry stories of child sex abuse, road rage, rape, murderous attacks and suicides that are often reduced to individual psyche without an explanation in our collective existence. It could well be that the cause and effect of some of these phenomenon seem to have become too circular to offer an explanation. Some of them that are relatively more visible include boredom, alienation, anomie, stress, anger and loneliness.
Boredom has become so omnipresent that it stares us from the billboards of advertisers selling anything from chocolate to condoms. It is the sheer repetitiveness of the everyday life from your daily chores to work and art and literature that it seems time has come to a standstill. There is a shrinking of interests and manufacture of an unmistakable ‘one-dimensional man’ that makes most interactions a routine or a protocol that burdens you rather than offering a sense of refreshment or refinement. One way is to come to terms with the repetitiveness of the everyday, perhaps as Gandhi signified in his use of the Charkha which was not only to make us economically self-reliant but also socially self-sufficient. In order to be socially sustainable, we need to ask ourselves if we can escape the repetitive activities of the social order or in what ways we can refashion our social ecology in order not to feel repetitiveness as sheer boredom.
Closely linked is the deep sense of alienation in modern life that is sans a sense of organicity. Time seems to collapse into serialised moments each unto itself, refusing a sense of continuity and belongingness. Technology as visual and social media is intrusive and breaks down our relation to the collective into a mediated experience and into tit-bits of information that we routinely feed on, only to move on to the next.
While urban spaces inhabited with mediated interactions feel synthetic, there is no easy alternative in celebrating the local spaces and face-to-face interactions as being more authentic or more ethical, instead they suffocate. Be it villages, suburbs or small towns, life in the moffusil today seems burdened by imposed hierarchies of collective identities. The irreducible choice is between that of hierarchical collectives of the local and facelessness of the global. Anomie is yet another dimension of the excess of social/political life. Finding meaning has become all the more difficult.
Life has become one of a combination of uncertainty with predictability. The more we strive for certainty the more it seems to be become predictable. It has always been a hard choice to balance freedom and stability or security, as it is between comfortable life and a meaningful life. The collapse of shared concerns, especially after the neo-liberal reforms, has made meaning-generating activity and civic communication a casualty.
While the meaning of the spiritual kind has become untenable or may be unreachable, the meaning of the pragmatic kind has become too oppressive, banal and suffocating. Modern life cannot even be assessed in its elementary sense without referring to stress — an inexplicable experience without a point of beginning or ending. It is simply a part of the being. It has in fact become a way of relating to the world around us.
‘Time poverty’ has become a thickly collective phenomenon that cuts across class and the rural-urban divide. Individuals, and not merely the corporate, are working many times more than the eight-hour equilibrium between work, rest and leisure, yet anxiety and fear of fall have become inescapable in our work places and institutional life. In Japan, today the stress explodes itself in intensely dark ways where the ‘celibacy syndrome’ is becoming a norm, which they refer to as ‘Sekkusu Shinu Shokogum’. There is a visible ‘flight from human intimacy’. Work from a means of self-actualisation is becoming a mode of loss of the self.
It only gets further complicated with life outside of work imagined without social security measures such as pension and care of the old and aging. It is, therefore, not strange that while in India we dither from the retirement age being reduced, in France they were on streets when the State asked workers to prolong and extend the age of retirement to 65 years. ‘Burnout’, a term not many of us had heard when we joined jobs, is now common sense that we understand leads to ‘exhaustion, detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness’.
Anger is yet another phenomenon that is present all around us visible as road rage, growing crime and violence and in the way multitudes erupt so naturally and spontaneously from the Occupy Wall Street, to Arab Spring to protests against Rohith Vemula’s suicide.
Nobody organises these protests, they are leaderless and erupt against something that we ‘feel’ is deeply wrong with the way our ‘society’ or ‘system’ works. The anger needs a trigger and many a time has no specific target. There is often, in Freud’s words, ‘transference’ of this anger unto anybody that we may find to be weak and vulnerable.
It could be ‘Nirbhaya’, it could be an annoying small car driving next to an SUV or a shoot out over a parking spot in an affluent South Delhi colony. Finally there is a vice like grip of loneliness that is growing among the old and the young alike. We collectively inhabit an era of hyper-recognition. The more we are incapacitated of enjoying anonymity and solitary existence, the more we are vulnerable to the vagaries of loneliness. The spaciousness of anonymity that allows us to self-reflect is losing ground to the demands of finding a self in being recognised by the other.
Foucault once observed that as we fail to externalise our ‘natural impulses’ we are prone to internalise them in murderous ways. There seems to be an inescapable circularity. The more we demand recognition and love, the less of it we find. How do we move back to an ‘original position’ of finding ourselves without being interrupted and contaminated by the outer world? Accumulated loneliness only makes us collectively incapable of making the world a more secured home that we persistently aspire for. Homelessness and ‘nomads of the present’ that reside in the deeper recesses of individual lives mark our social spaces.
These phenomena put together add up incrementally to a social crisis that is failing to find a political language for itself. They are in excess of the way we seem to open the social spaces across social hierarchies, with, of course, an imprint of the hierarchies overlapping with more generic spread.
How do we retrieve the generalness of this crisis without slighting or clouding the known social hierarchies is an insurmountable challenge of our times?
The author is an Asst Prof at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org