Saturday, September 23, 2017

IKEA Humans

Samuel Biagetti in Jacobin, pondering the rootless modern liberal:
Jennifer and Jason are members of the upper middle class, living off their smarts and social connections rather than manual work. They live in the Sun Belt, in some newly gentrifying neighborhood of Queens, or in its equivalent in Montreal or Melbourne. They have college degrees and, even more importantly, college friends, which help to pull them up the slippery slope of middle-class employment. They are part of a scrambled white-collar workforce, drawn from all parts of the country and abroad, a lumpenbourgeoisie squeezing itself into selected wards of a few expensive cities. They follow trends in food, and music, and long-form television. Their politics are probably (but not definitely) liberal.
In the tradition of 19th-century social commentary, Biagetti considers Jennifer and Jason through the lens of their furniture, which is of course from IKEA:
Still, there is a good chance that Jennifer and Jason actually like their IKEA dressers, and prefer them to the old oak chest that their grandparents tried to foist on them. Indeed, the extraordinary popularity of IKEA testifies not only to its convenience but to its ability to appeal to the middle-class self-image. Jennifer and Jason are drawn to IKEA because it reflects who they are: they too are modern, movable, and interchangeable, their wants satisfiable in any neighborhood with a food co-op and a coffee shop. More fundamentally, Jennifer and Jason are untraceable, a “composite material” made from numberless scraps and pieces. They have a long catalog of home towns, and their accents are NPR neutral. They can probably rattle off the various nationalities in their family trees — Dutch, Norwegian, Greek, and Jewish, maybe some Venezuelan or Honduran for a little color. From these backgrounds they retain no more than a humorous word or phrase, a recipe, or an Ellis Island anecdote, if that. They grew up amidst a scramble of white-collar professionals and went to college with a scramble of white-collar professionals’ kids. Their values are defined mainly by mass media, their tastes adorably quirky but never straying too far from their peers’, and like the IKEA furniture that they buy in boxes, they too cut themselves into manageable, packaged pieces and market themselves online. They are probably “spiritual but not religious.” They have no pattern or model of life that bears any relation to the past before the internet. For all intents and purposes, they sprang up de novo in the modern city.
Some people would be tempted to call J and J “cosmopolitan,” but, says Biagetti, that doesn't really fit, because they actually live in a closed world and avoid interacting with people different from themselves:
Therefore, to be precise, the class of people of whom I am speaking are “cosmopolitan” neither in the idealized nor in the demonized sense of the word. They neither bridge deep social differences in search of the best in human experience, nor debase themselves with exotic foreign pleasures. Rather, they have no concept of foreignness at all, because they have no native traditions against which to compare. Indeed, the very idea of a life shaped by inherited custom is alien to our young couple. When Jennifer and Jason try to choose a restaurant for dinner, one of them invariably complains, “I don’t want Italian, because I had Italian last night.” It does not occur to them that in Italy, most people have Italian every night. For Jennifer and Jason, cuisines, musical styles, meditative practices, and other long-developed customs are not threads in a comprehensive or enduring way of life, but accessories like cheap sunglasses, to be casually picked up and discarded from day to day. Unmoored, undefined, and unaware of any other way of being, Jennifer and Jason are no one. They are the living equivalents of the particle board that makes up the IKEA dressers and IKEA nightstands next to their IKEA beds. In short, they are IKEA humans.

Of course, many readers might object that I am being too hard on Jennifer and Jason: what is wrong with casting off the burdens of hidebound traditions and living in the present? Some will point out the tolerant attitudes of young college-educated Westerners, who are less racist and homophobic than their forebears. This is commendable, but an incomplete foundation on which to build an ethical life. If one is not attached to a way of life structured by inherited values and customs, then one is unlikely to be attached to anything at all. Jennifer and Jason illustrate this: life choices follow arbitrary taste, friends come and go, ties with family are thin, and superficial interactions (largely online) with peers fill the gap.
Biagetti's point seems to be partly political, that is, he thinks people like J and J voted for Clinton because their liberalism is something shallow and verbal, not anchored to any knowledge of lives unlike their own. Not promising material for Revolution.

But I think he genuinely worries that without an inherited culture in which to sink our roots, we are doomed to wither.

I suspect that is at base a self-portrait; from what I have learned Biagetti seems to be a product of the Maryland suburbs and various elite universities who keenly feels the lack of a tradition and an inherited identity. Some people are like that. Others would find even the 21st-century version of rootedness (meatloaf every Saturday, say) both horrifyingly dull and completely pointless. I was pointed to Biagett's article from a long discussion in which various posters said a lot of stuff about what "people" need and what makes "people" feel fulfilled, without any acknowledgment of how greatly people vary along this axis and just about every other.

Personally I find the assertion that without inherited identity we are "no one" to be false and rather irritating. I've never had any trouble feeling quite certain who I am, despite my weakly rooted existence and taste for exotic food. It has never been established that people in traditional communities are happier than rootless moderns; their lives avoid certain issues that we wrestle with, but only by replacing them with an equally hard set of problems. They have ready-made identities and get rewarded with respect and status for doing the expected, traditional thing, but on the other hand they can't escape from ancient feuds or neighbors they hate, they may end up stuck doing work for which they are completely unsuited, and things are awfully dull. Quite a few of my contemporaries seem to believe this, or something like it:
The nice thing about traditional communities with well-defined norms is that they allow this strategy to work, mostly. There’s actually a script for you to follow, and if you follow it, you get rewarded and you fit in. You won’t blaze like a star or anything, and maybe there’ll be some strange inchoate yearnings deep in your soul that never get answered, but…if you can keep on the straight and narrow (whatever the local version of that may be), you’ll be more or less fine.
I disagree. In fact many people in traditional societies drink themselves into early graves, kill each other in brawls, or take any possible route of escape, whether that is joining the army or heading for the big city with nothing but the shirts on their backs. You may be nearly paralyzed with anxiety about who you are or what you ought to be doing, but at least the Hatfields aren't stealing your cattle and threatening to shoot up your wedding.

No sort of life is easy; every path is hard in its own way.


Unknown said...

Hear, hear. I would add that virtually any human life, including the most heroic, is shreddable by a writer minded to do so, in the way that Biagetti shreds poor Jennifer and Jason. Indeed a hopeless quest to make oneself unshreddable motivates much human striving. But Biagetti's--as you say, probably self-targeted--skills at shredding are so powerful that I don't think he's going to find an answer in tradition. Maybe he should try something like Zen Buddhism, or Prozac.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

Biagetti is obviously biased and wrong. What he calls "this class of people" is not a class at all. It's a mixture of very different people, even if they have a common economic situation. Many of them can be nationalists, comunitarians, adventurers, solitary, ermits, permanent voyagers, belong to aid ONGs, emigrants in the arctic or Morocco. So they don't fit in the class the author is talking about. So he has to use words like probably and take uncertain conclusions.

Susi said...

Things look easy from afar. Reality is that if you try to replicate those things you will find that there is some kind of difficulty or skill that you lack... Nothing is as easy as it looks. It always takes more time, more skill, and more materials than you think.
There is an ‘ecosystem’ to each culture, human, forest, garden, etc. Take it apart, remove some components, and you will fall into the pit called ‘unintended consequences’. Remove a top predator from a forest and you unleash problems throughout that ecosystem. Remove a blind man’s eyes for cosmetic purposes and you remove his circadian rhythms. I’ve know folks who went in for a small operation and died due to the ‘cascade’ effect, where just touching one thing unbalances their whole system.
This author, looking through his arrogant prism, is thinking that a simple change, reverting to ‘Tradition’ will change the world for the better. No, it won’t. You will disrupt a balanced system that has evolved for a reason. What that reason is, seems to me, to make these people’s lives worth living.