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Jonathan Franzen: While We Are Busy Tweeting, Texting and Spending, the World is Drifting Towards Disaster

The problems of our modern world.

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But apocalypse isn't necessarily the physical end of the world. Indeed, the word more directly implies an element of final cosmic judgment. In Kraus's chronicling of crimes against truth and language in The Last Days of Mankind, he's referring not merely to physical destruction. In fact, the title of his play would be better rendered in English as The Last Days of Humanity: "dehumanised" doesn't mean "depopulated", and if the first world war spelled the end of humanity in Austria, it wasn't because there were no longer any people there. Kraus was appalled by the carnage, but he saw it as the result, not the cause, of a loss of humanity by people who were still living. Living but damned, cosmically damned.

But a judgment like this obviously depends on what you mean by "humanity". Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings. As I write this, it seems like half the advertisements on network television are featuring people bending over smartphones; there's a particularly noxious/great one in which all the twentysomethings at a wedding reception are doing nothing but taking smartphone photos and texting them to one another. To describe this dismal spectacle in apocalyptic terms, as a "dehumanisation" of a wedding, is to advance a particular moral conception of humanity; and if you follow Nietzsche and reject the moral judgment in favour of an aesthetic one, you're immediately confronted by Bourdieu's persuasive connection of asethetics with class and privilege; and, the next thing you know, you're translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful.

And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I'd been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows. It wasn't necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer. And so today, 53 years later, Kraus's signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can't help ringing true to me. Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because he was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to him, but in fact he was registering something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the author of four novels (Freedom, The Corrections, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City), two collections of essays (Farther Away, How to Be Alone), a personal history (The Discomfort Zone), and a translation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening.

 
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