Our Age of Anxiety

In the dark days of the winter break I came across a book: Arguing for our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, by Robert Jensen.

I have been looking for things to help me frame the importance of critical thinking for my English classes, to introduce the usefulness of theoretical lenses and the real-world application of perspective on addressing our most pressing challenges in our current society.  I had also been struggling with my own sense of hopelessness; a bizarre bridging: looking for materials that would support my students in feeling more engaged and effective in solving life’s problems while I myself was loitering at the abyss.

But teaching is often a bridge for me.  I recall introducing students to the poem “The Hollow Men” by T.S Eliot, and arriving at the understanding that Eliot was expressing a deep sense of hopelessness and bitterness for his time, I added that, whatever the feelings expressed might be, the poem had to be seen as hopeful simply because it was written.  We don’t bother to speak or write or create on topics that we hold no hope for.  It sucks for the artist - or teacher - because you carry that split within you.  I feel a bit like I am stitching two chunks of my being together; large fleshy bits that alternately ooze and flash but I can’t dispose of either.  So Eliot wrote his dark poem and I keep searching for material that will make sense of this world or offer some tools for reworking the nonsense that surrounds us.

And something came together in a moment as I read the introduction to Jensen’s book.  It is the arrogance of every age to believe they are the first to truly experience anything - and in this case, anxiety.  It seems an affliction at the level of epidemic in the school system; at least a quarter of my school’s population have been diagnosed with or considered for having Anxiety Disorder (as if there is some sort of ordered anxiety).  I had begun to think that our time was special, that no age had ever been so challenged or precarious; that we had reached a point of ultimate ignorance, selfishness and greed.  Things were bad, bad, bad and there had never been a moment as bad as this one - we were clearly goners.  But then Jensen reminds me of the teachings of history: we’ve been here before. Of course the time period in which the very term “Age of Anxiety” was coined, after WWI and into the nuclear age, had earned that definition.  The more I learn about that span of history the more appropriate the name becomes and, don’t think me callous, the less hopeless I feel about our time. Frankly, if they could live through the realization of the brutal depths of human beings’ capacity for death and destruction in both World Wars and the mystifying steps towards complete annihilation with the invention and application of the atomic bomb then maybe we have a chance of finding our way through our current anxieties.

Jensen’s lesson continues:

"While the number of prescriptions that doctors in the United States today write for anxiety disorders might suggest our own moment in history is particularly anxious, we should step back and think of all recoded human history as an anxious age. Ever since we humans created what we call "civilization" and started the project of living beyond the planet’s means and beyond our own capabilities, it has been inevitable that human societies would struggle with anxiety.  The further we overreach - creating complex societies too big to manage, drawing on the ecological capital of Earth - the more intense the collective anxiety.  Our problem is not just the many anxious individuals who have particular trouble coping, but ways of living that aren’t designed for the type of animals that we are, as we try to micro-manage a world that is too vast and complex for us to control.  Our collective anxiety is not an aberration but a predictable outcome of a simple truth:

For ten millennia, we have been a species out of context.

"…When we create social, political, and economic systems that require us to deal with more people and more complex relationships in hierarchies, we are living outside of our evolutionary context. When individual humans are taken out of familiar settings and plopped down in brand-new places, we get a bit anxious.  What is true for us as individuals is true at this larger level.  Life out of context is bound to be an anxious life." (Page 2-3)

Who Throws the First Punch?

Students and school violence.  Thanks, Zizek.

"At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict.  But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent.  We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.  A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance.

…subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence.  First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms […] this violence is not only at work in the obvious – and extensively studied – case of incitement and the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.”

Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.