Mankind's impossible task: unhappiness

“Fyodorov used to say that the dead had to be resurrected,mankind should set impossible tasks for itself, and after its rebirth, mankind would exit earth as if from a waiting room, and leisurely take over the cosmos.” – From Victor Shklovsky’s Energy of Delusion

LI has not read Nikolai Fyodorov’s Common Task of Mankind, in which he envisions our collective human energies devoted to resurrecting the dead and such. However, I would not laugh too hard at the project of resurrecting dead as the impossible task that humanity has set for itself, since it is my contention that humanity has set itself an equally impossible task, with equally unthought of but horrendous consequences – the spread of happiness to all peoples at all times. To each his obsessions; mine, of course, is to find out how the norm of happiness came to be the heuristic upon which we all agree, the ultimate reference for the political.

David Leonardt’s column Wednesday took up some papers that dispute the Easterlin paradox. According to research by Richard Easterlin, over time, as societies grow richer (as, for instance, Japanese society), polls indicate that populations don’t necessarily grow happier. The shorthand for this is that more money doesn’t bring more happiness. This has a gladsome sound to the Lefty ear, for more money is connected with more monopoly capitalism, and who wants monopoly capitalism? But Easterlin’s conclusion and data base have been attacked by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institute:

“In the paper, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers argue that money indeed tends to bring happiness, even if it doesn’t guarantee it. They point out that in the 34 years since Mr. Easterlin published his paper, an explosion of public opinion surveys has allowed for a better look at the question. “The central message,” Ms. Stevenson said, “is that income does matter.”
To see what they mean, take a look at the map that accompanies this column. It’s based on Gallup polls done around the world, and it clearly shows that life satisfaction is highest in the richest countries. The residents of these countries seem to understand that they have it pretty good, whether or not they own an iPod Touch.
If anything, Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers say, absolute income seems to matter more than relative income. In the United States, about 90 percent of people in households making at least $250,000 a year called themselves “very happy” in a recent Gallup Poll. In households with income below $30,000, only 42 percent of people gave that answer. But the international polling data suggests that the under-$30,000 crowd might not be happier if they lived in a poorer country.”

At this point, the traditional move is to criticize the quality of the happiness of those very happy rich people. For instance, take this householder who wrote in to a Q and A at the Washington Post today about threats to his income:

“Arlington, Va.: Who is in this working class? I make $150,000 a year and my wife makes $100,000 a year. I work 50 hours a week and my wife works 45 hours a week. We have investments we have made, but we do not live off these investments. We are both first in our families to be college-educated and have worked hard to get where we are at 32 and 31. Why are we not considered working-class?
In addition, Obama and Clinton want to increase the Social Security, income and investment taxes. Where in the Constitution does it say that people like my wife and I have to support people who did not plan wisely (housing bailout, retirement and health care). I don't mind paying my fair share, but my family is not living off inheritance, and has worked hard to get where we are. Why are we not being viewed as working-class for having some self-made success? Will this class warfare work? It blew up on the Democrats in '00 and '04.”

I imagine one could say, we have to discourage that man and his wife from putting in 95 hours a week at 32 and 31 to make their 250 thou per year. One could say that this is a recipe for unhappiness. But I don’t think so. I think this is a recipe for a disastrous, total happiness. I think that that much money combined with that much work might well make happiness the cancer that eats up all other emotions, leaving the man and his wife liable only to the panic that someone might take away some of their pile. I think that year after year, the drunkenness of happiness will so fill their souls that the addiction will be too great to ever break.

Mankind’s common task, which, say, Malthus, in 1800 would have every right to look at as a crazy and impossible dream, is now a social reality. Within our society of artifice and technology, the structures of happiness rise, triumphant, on every hand. And the people that are born and bred into this structure even have many virtues. They are more peaceful. They are prey to fits of anger, but generally sober in their habits. They have lost any sense of public spirit, but, within the narrow confines of their private sphere, they are generous when they can be.

So what is there to bitch about? Well, I dream of a new impossible common task, in which finally emotion is separated from the moral norm – in which the range of emotions that the human beast can produce find a more ample and unashamed representation in the material relations that bind together our society. In which, in other words, ennui, melancholy, anger, dread, and the vast block of nameless, mixed moods that surround reflection are not viewed as opening acts for the happiness we all strive for – since we do not all strive for happiness. Since that striving makes little sense. Since it is founded on a very imprecise sense of what happiness is (a judgment about life? a passing mood?). Finally, I do not think there is any evidence whatsoever that we naturally strive for happiness except in certain circumstances, just as we strive for this or that feeling. It is one among many, not a thing to justify a social order or a life.

To talk about the dead is a waste of time.
I can’t think of a better subject


Anonymous said…
LI, I am struck by your reference to the couple's "panic" that they might lose their pile. If memory serves, you have alluded to panic previously as well in your Happiness Triumphant posts, but I don't remember your elaborating on it. I wonder if that would not be worth trying, as there well might be a link between Happiness Truimphant and the politics of panic, political panic?

Please pardon if this is a question from way in left field and put rather bluntly without elaboration.

Though come to think of it, you might just have been questioning a politics of panic in your posts about President Backbone?

roger said…
No, I think that panic is ... well, let me back up. I am sold on Norman Mailer's take on this. Okay, I know I'm nuts. But Norman Mailer laid out the dialectic of vulnerability in post war America like nobody else. And I did a post on that a long time ago, Amie. Let's see if I can find the damn thing... Oh woe oh woe I can never find any past posts - google is no fucking good for searching my site. Although people reliably find nakced girles fucke mother or shit like that on this site if my stat register is any clue, to my amazement. Anyway, Mailer pointed out that the nuclear war world, which posited the absolute vulnerability of the earth, so to speak, provoked the effort to provide absolute invulnerability, and thus put in motion this zigzag in the American zeitgeist ( I couldn't resist the z-s). Oh, I put it better than that some time ago. I'll find the post later.
But anyway, yeah, if happiness is the norm and becomes the absolute emotion, any emotion threatening it or its condition is going to provoke panic. And we will be so governed.
roger said…
Hey, I found it in the mailer post I did when he died. Here's the relevant bit:

"In the essay [the White Negro], Mailer outlined his Manichean view of the possibilities in the present day world situation. Given the looming possibility of mass death, one had two choices. One could exist in the face of that risk as an existential bravo, embracing the input of the senses and impulses and even one’s most hideous fantasies as they lead you to actions which may annihilate any control you could exert over your life. This was the path of the ‘existentialist.’ Or one could strangle the muddled vital impulse by opting for ever greater levels of security, and a society that exiled the primitive, the raw, and the ambiguous. The outlaw or the conformist – these were the options.

The complexity in this essay can easily be hidden by the wild and romantic investment Mailer makes in the ‘primitive’ black male – who he sees as the ultimate sexual player, marked for violence in an America in which the sounds of lynching parties still rumble in the basement of the collective psyche. This ‘negro’ of Mailer’s is an odd creature, touched by the prevailing racist codes of the fifties, yet still as recognizable as the semi-serious heroes in today’s gangsta rap. In the sixties, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver would defend Mailer against charges of racism by James Baldwin, seeing Mailer’s mythic street fighter as the prefiguration of black power. Equality of opportunity, for Cleaver, as for Mailer, meant equality of threat. Still the importance of this essay in Mailer’s work is not so much for its racial mythology as for the fact that here he finally he forged the connection between our historically unique vulnerability, materialized in the bomb, and the root of that condition in our search for invulnerability. Out of our fear arose the promise that technology would give us a final solution – power, goodness and absolute invulnerability. The latter project led not only to the atom bomb, but to the technological colonization of every outcropping of nature in our lives: of sex, with birth control; of food, with the sacrifice of taste to the mass production of fruits, vegetables and meats; of our living spaces, with the clutter of homogenous franchises, the rise of faceless business architecture, and the increasing loss of regional particularity; and of course, in art itself, with the merger of aesthetic standards and mass marketing. In later essays in the sixties, Mailer overlays this technophobia with a final, cosmological touch – the nature that technology tries to crush is related to the beleagured status of Mailer’s existential God, conceivably outgunned by his loveliest creation, Lucifer. While many took this to be Mailer playing with language, all indications are that Mailer wasn’t fooling. In the best intentions, Mailer saw the signature marks of the devil; in the worst criminals, he saw the workings of divinity. There is nothing Mailer hates more than the liberal idea, expressed by Hannah Arendt, of the banality of evil. Mailer has never backed away from his belief in both God and the Devil – and finds the embarrassed liberal attempt to eliminate the latter as delusive as the conservative’s notion that he represents the intentions of the former."
Anonymous said…
LI, a question about "Equality of opportunity, for Cleaver, as for Mailer, meant equality of threat." I cannot but help think of - oh among other "inconsequential" threats - of Judges 19!

Anonymous said…
LI, sorry for my prior stupid comment. Equality of opportunity and equality of threat has me thinking to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. I hope you won't mind my quoting some lines from the end. They are staggeringly lovely.

I am coming my queen! - Eros! - wait for me! On meadows sown with daffodils, hand in hand we will go. Our passionate approach will make the shades stare. They will leave everything to follow us. Dido and her lover Aeneas will envy our cortege.

Cleopatra (giving her breast to an asp):
Peace! Peace! Don't you see my baby at my breast, who sucking puts the nurse to sleep? Sweet as balm, gentle as air, as charming....O Antony! Wait I am going to take you too. (She puts another asp to her.)

Anonymous said…
LI, I'm a bit dismayed that nobody has corrected or hauled me over the coals for misquoting Shakespeare. The above quotes are obviously not straight from WS, but rather channeled through Hélène Cixous.Why such sacrilege?
HC wants to underscore that it is not Caesar or Death and their minions that triumph. Rome, Caesar, war, fear, death, intrigues, the spectacle of happiness, all that is left far behind. Antony and Cleopatra pass through the mirror. They live on. Forever beyond the reach of emperors and death.

Such is the third life.

I might be being very off-topic here, but there is something to the third life that our current happiness triumphant cult will never be able to master or kill. Or so I bet.

roger said…
Oh, I'd bet the same thing. So is this a play of Cixous's? An adaptation that was staged?
Anonymous said…
The WS-HC quotes are from La Jeune Née.
LI, your posts on happiness have had me wondering about how sexual difference(s) are installed in the Happiness Triumphant economy and scene, and how that relates to (in)vunerabilities. Which is why I was struck by your comment about Eldridge and Mailer and the equality of opportunity and threat.
And of course there is that "problem" of pleasure and jouissance - why is it a problem!?

It is a sad gauntlet indeed between Happiness Triumphant on one side, and the "critical" and "radical" crowd with their Lack-Luster fetishes on the other side. O yeah, everything MUST RETURN to this CENTRAL LACK, this ...oh hell, fuck that!

So I was thinking about such today while trudging about NYC and came back and read your post on Bayle. There is that rare gift of writing where it surprises one even when one thinks one has a handle on it and knows what it is all about. Thanks, LI!