We try to cover our existential emptiness with possessions and distractions. But it doesn’t work | Ideas

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A technician works with robots at a smart factory in Zhejiang, China, in October 2020.
A technician works with robots at a smart factory in Zhejiang, China, in October 2020.VCG (VCG via Getty Images)

We are heading towards an increasingly alienated society, Erich Fromm already sensed. In his short essay The current human condition, published in 1955, warned that we are heading toward a society that is both brimming with technological prodigies and lacking in the wisdom to use them, a society in which people do not guide technology, but technology guides them. Fromm believed that “in the next fifty or a hundred years” (we are already fully in that interval) we could have a world in which people “increasingly become robots”, robotic people who, in turn, manufacture robots they act like people. Indeed, this is our time. Technology is no longer an instrument and today it takes the reins, more and more. On the one hand, it empowers us, it greatly multiplies our possibilities. On the other hand, it increases the existential emptiness that already began to appear in the times of Kafka, Joyce and Camus. Technology simultaneously increases our power and our alienation. A perfect recipe for disaster. Fromm predicts that “the processes that foster human alienation will continue” into the 21st century. The danger, he concludes, is that people, increasingly alienated, turn into a kind of robots. So what world are we going to? Towards a world, he writes, in which human beings will not dedicate their efforts “to the service of life” and the great values ​​(“love, truth, justice”), but rather “they will destroy their world and they will destroy themselves because they will be unable to bear the boredom of a meaningless life ”.

The only thing that seems to matter today is biological survival and technocratic efficiency. Efficiency and control are the (attractive) face and the (fatal) cross of the same technocratic logic that has been imposed and that is eclipsing the joy of living and the meaning of existence. In the same number of The American Scholar in which Fromm publishes his text, a dozen pages later there is another little essay, Freedom and the Control of Men (The freedom and control of men), by BF Skinner. For this scientist, father of behavioral psychology, the only relevant thing in human beings is what is strictly quantifiable and (in his own words) “manipulable”. In the last sentence of that text, Skinner defines the human adventure on Earth as “the long struggle of man to control nature and himself.” Quantification, manipulation, control: all this grows more and more in a technocratic world like today. In the world of facts, Skinner’s gaze has been imposing itself. But Fromm’s gaze continues to be deeper and more accurate: we are destroying the web of life and we are destroying ourselves because we cannot bear the boredom of a life without meaning.

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The boredom of a life without meaning manifests itself in European culture at least since the term nihilism takes its place. Nihilism, the most disturbing of the guests, as defined by Nietzsche, is the realization that there is nothing (nothing, in Latin) that can truly serve as a foundation or horizon: nothing in the background makes sense. The term nihilism appears for the first time in a Turgenev character, but its presence had already been felt in authors of previous generations (Jean Paul, Hölderlin, Leopardi). In fact, its most resounding expression appears much earlier, in the early seventeenth century, when Macbeth describes existence as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, which means nothing). On The Karamazov brothers, Dostoyevsky’s great philosophical novel, Ivan confirms that God has died and, therefore, man is free. But the death of God, without any other horizon to make up for his absence, leaves the world without direction and the human being without direction. “Everything is allowed,” Dostoyevsky writes: the new freedom does not limit the most selfish and criminal instincts. Nietzsche takes note early: “The danger of dangers: nothing makes sense.” The experience that nothing makes sense is at the core of the great works of Kafka, Joyce, Beckett and so many other witnesses of the twentieth century, stories that mean nothing beyond the realization of the absurd and the lack of meaning, and in which there is no longer even the fury.

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Today we find the same observation under the effervescent foam of electronic distractions. David Foster Wallace, described by The New York Times After his suicide in 2008 as “the best mind of his generation”, he tried to express the anguish and loss he felt in the depths of a wealthy world like his: “There is something especially sad about it, something that does not have much to do with it. with physical circumstances, or with the economy or with nothing that is talked about in the news. It’s more like an anguish at the level of the stomach. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of loss ”.

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In moments of silence or confinement, if we are not prey to distractions or fear, we may wonder what all this is, what we are doing here. These are not the fantasies of especially sensitive people. It has also been verified by top-level scientists. Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize in Medicine, affirmed that the human being is lost in a universe that is “deaf to its music” and “as indifferent to its hopes as to its suffering or its crimes”. Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in Physics, writes that the universe is “overwhelmingly hostile” and that the more we know about it, the more we find that it doesn’t make any sense.

The lack of meaning is not exclusive to the contemporary world. If the human being is lost, it has been for a long time. But for more than a century, since the outbreak of the First World War, this loss has been felt with greater intensity. And it is felt even more intensely after the Second World War.

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The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was interned in four Nazi concentration camps. There he found that only those who were deeply motivated were able to gather strength to survive, physically and psychologically, those atrocious conditions. Frankl understood that deep down, what motivates us the most is not the thirst for pleasure or power, but the search for the meaning of life itself, a horizon towards which it is worth walking in the adventure of existence. The meaning of life itself, unique and non-transferable, is not something we have to invent, but something that we discover at every moment and over the years.

Frankl pointed out that existential emptiness, the inability to find meaning in life, “is a widespread phenomenon in the twentieth century.” It produces an intimate frustration from which multiple forms of depression, anxiety and addiction emerge. From this lack of meaning also derives the greedy thirst for money and power, and the disorientation that permeates the world today. A philosopher versed in psychiatric issues, David Michael Levin, pointed out more than three decades ago: “The compulsion to produce and consume, characteristic of our life in an advanced technological economy, could be both an expression of nihilistic rage and a manic defense against our collective depression in a time of excruciating spiritual poverty and growing sense of despair. “

It is as if we had to cover the existential emptiness based on possessions and distractions, increasingly accelerated and more intense. With this we lose our roots, coherence and full presence in the here and now. And the world we used to call real is replaced by a world focused on entertainment.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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