In Praise of Crises of Meaning— A common complaint from both left and right is that liberal commercial society creates a crisis of meaning for its denizens. Without the external imposition of expectations and responsibilites, our lives lack a structure within which meaning may emerge. This is supposed to be a problem in need of a solution.
Our free society, together with our thriving market culture, creates a surfeit of choice. Yet in the absence of a readymade vision of life’s meaning and duties, we cannot know what we need to choose, or make a resolute stand against the onslaught of marketing that pulls us in contrary directions. Worse, without a readymade vision of life’s meaning, a vision of life’s meaning becomes yet another consumer product. But we cannot know which vision to choose without some sort of vision already in place. We are left with a gnawing anxiety, unsure of who we are, alienated from our own culture even as we participate in it. What good are thirty four models of toasters, or one hundred twelve flavors of gum, when this sense of disconnection and aimlessness dogs you relentlessly? You might have the exact Sumatran blend you desire. But that won’t make you happy.
That’s the argument, isn’t it? Well, it’s not a bad one. The anxiety of freedom is real. However, like a tortured, heartbreaking decision between Giselle Bundchen and Laetetia Casta, there are worse problems to have. The beautiful possibilities go overlooked.
There’s no denying that it’s hard making something of your life. And there’s no denying that there is comfort, even meaning, in tradition and in assigned roles. But there is no universal formula for meaning. And readymade visions may leave you cold, or oppressed. Our freedom and wealth is beautiful and good. And, yes, the possibilities of freedom and wealth are daunting. But therein lies much of the beauty and goodness. We are now at a point in history when our wealth and freedom make it possible to treat life as art. We are at liberty to recombine the found elements of our culture and shape our days into something not only novel, but beautiful and true.
Now, no one is forced to be an artist with her life. There are templates. Join the Marines. Become a Moonie. Save the spotted titmouse. If you need a scripted life, then by all means have one. However, if you need a script to tell you how to choose a script, that’s your problem, not freedom’s.
We are not too free. For the first time in history we are almost free enough. Because this is new (in the big picture), we have yet to fully internalize the loveliness of a custom-made life, and to recognize periodic crises of meaning as its necessary concommitant. No one ever said great things are easy. It is a great virtue of our civilization that so many of us have these crises so often, because it means we are not entirely preoccupied by immediate needs — by herding the sheep, throwing more dung on the fire, burying the children.
Last night I paid thirty minutes’ wages to see one scary looking bearded dude do awesome and dumbfounding things with a bass, a synth, a vocorder and drum machine. Who fucking knew? And that’s the point: Who fucking knows? Like the freedom to explore the vast space of musical possibility, the freedom to explore the vast space of human possibility is awe inspiring, not only for the beauty of exploration for its own sake, but for the treasures exploration can uncover.
So, yes, I am unsure of who I am, or what to make of myself. My life has no fixed meaning. I feel alone and a little afraid. And I like it that way.