I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

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This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

I’m interested in the sense of self most of us develop by the time we reach adulthood. A developed sense of self is an achievement that provides direction and meaning. It is also a challenge to maintain and a burden that occasions distress.

kierkegaardI’ve been particularly interested in 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s writings about the self. He writes in The Sickness Unto Death about despair, which he conceives of as an ongoing condition, one that occurs in one’s relation to oneself. We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as “the despair of defiance.”

How does it happen that someone fails to be a self? To be a self is to be continuously dependent on God, and most individuals don’t do this. What does it mean to desire to be a self that one cannot be? The self we are is never complete, never full of all that we desire and devoid of all we dread or despise. For Kierkegaard, everyone is in a condition of despair.

Kierkegaard describes various ways that humans can be in despair. He asserts that each human is a synthesis of opposing elements: the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal, and freedom and necessity. When the person is not relating properly to God, these elements get out of balance. Kierkegaard describes four such possibilities, found in two dualities: infinitude-finitude and possibility-necessity. These can be characterized as follows:

  • The despair of infinitude consists of over-involvement with the fantastical and loss of a sense of finiteness; as such, the person does not have the proper relationship of finite self to infinite God.
  • The despair of finitude involves loss of a sense of the infinite, so the person becomes “desperately narrow minded and mean-spirited.”
  • The despair of possibility involves an openness to possibility, but a neglect of necessity, so that more and more becomes possible, but nothing ever becomes actual. In pursuit of one’s own possibilities, there is no awareness that all possibilities are of God.
  • The despair of necessity involves loss of a sense of possibility, as in the fatalist or social conformist. The person fails to realize that, “With God, all things are possible.”

For a number of years I’ve been thinking of social trends as manifestations of one or another form of despair. Take for example the ways in which smart phones, social media, and the excess of information available to us have changed not only how we live each day but how we see ourselves. In his book Present Shock, Douglas Ruskoff talks about the phenomenon of time being compressed into the present. “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up… It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”

So the past and future are diminished in importance, and the present is gorged with the overflow of constantly changing real-time information. How do these changes in our experience of time change our quest to be ourselves, though? If past and future are diminished, so are our births and deaths. The present swells until it seems eternal, as does our sense of ourselves in time. That would be the despair of infinitude. Who we were last year or last week or yesterday ceases to matter. We can reinvent ourselves in the present moment, then do it again in the next moment, and the next, and on and on. That’s a form of the despair of possibility.

But of course we are unable to attend to each moment of the eternal present. We sleep, we get distracted, the real world draws us away from the virtual world. Even when we do attend, we can only register a fraction of the information available to us. The fear of missing out isn’t just a possiblity; it is a reality we live in every day. That seems to be the despair of finitude. The new selves that we reinvent always seems to be swallowed up by the old selves we thought we were leaving behind. That’s the despair of necessity.

I don’t mean to reduce this or any other social trend to merely the despair of the self. Our self-definitions matter tremendously, though, so I think it’s useful to examine the various components of our daily existence in terms of how they shape and are shaped by our self-definitions. I’ll be on the alert for other aspects of life to look at through the lens that Kierkegaard provides for understanding ourselves.

 

In Wall Street Journal article (which seems to have been trundled behind a pay wall) based on his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff writes about how technology is changing our sense of time:

Present Shock“Thanks to the Internet, we travel more on business not less, we work at all hours on demand, and spend our free time answering email or tending to our social networks. Staring into screens, we are less attuned to light of day and the physiological rhythms of our housemates and co-workers.”

The appeal of technology is that it serves to extend and magnify our efforts.  The steam engine and mechanical loom allowed a few men do the work of hundreds; the car and airplane moved us further and faster than our feet could; the phonograph and telephone threw voices far beyond what our vocal chords could achieve.  Each of these is a remaking, an expansion of the self.  As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, though, technologies that amplify the person also amputate the person.  The steam engine severs work done from muscular effort, the car disconnects travel from the movement of our feet, and the phonograph spews sound independent of the voice that originally produced it .  So, too, with computers and the internet, which cut our activities off from the cycle of day and night.   Using these technologies, we seek to abolish the limits imposed on us by circadian rhythms.  As Rushkoff puts it:

“But too many of us also aspire to be ‘on’ at any time and to treat the various portions of the day as mere artifacts of a more primitive culture–the way we look at seemingly archaic blue laws requiring stores to close at least one day a week. We want all access, all the time, to everything–and to match this intensity and availability ourselves: citizens of the virtual city that never sleeps.”

Unhappy are those to whom God grants all their wishes, though.  Rushkoff’s article emphasizes the inefficiencies in this way of doing things; I’m more concerned about the human cost.  The Centers for Disease Control have called  insufficient sleep a “public health epidemic.”  A quarter of US adults get insufficient sleep at least half of the time.  In a survey of adults in 12 states, 37.9% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month, and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving.  The 24/7 self is bleary-eyed and nearly stuporous.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw our selves as a synthesis of opposites.  We are, he says, a combination of finitude and infinitude.  When we emphasize one and deny the other, we are in a state of despair.  To deny that we can only do so much and to think we can ignore the daily sleep-wake cycle is to fall into the despair of infinitude, in which we imagine ourselves as being without limits. This is a dangerous illusion, though. Though our technology may be ever expanding, our abilities aren’t.  That being the case, let’s shut down computers/tablets/phones at night and get some sleep.