I said last week that the big contemporary corporate or government employer is "not meant to produce free citizens. And it doesn't want them." Later I started thinking about how different our biggest corporations--Google and the like--are from their counterparts of thirty or forty or fifty years ago, and yet how similar. Once upon a time there was much worrying about the organization man and the man in the gray flannel suit who worked for a big company and always wore a suit and tie and lived in a suburb and was crushed into conformity. Then along came the '60s and everything began to change, and we were all set free to wear jeans at all times and express our unique and vibrant individuality.
But the essential nature of life in a big organization is the same. It's still just as necessary to fit in as it ever was; only the details have changed. The corporate style is more casual and smiley and whimsical now, and Google may try to establish a playful atmosphere for its employees. But under all that, at a deeper level, it may be even more conformist, and most especially at the biggest and most glamorous corporations, as the firings of Brendan Eich and James Damore illustrate. Their ideological deviations are comparable to being discovered to be a communist (Eich) or declaring yourself to be one (Damore) in the '50s.
I worked for a large corporation for most of the 1980s, and I don't think I would have gotten fired for any political or social opinion. "Human resources" (repulsive phrase) departments had not yet become dominated by left-wing political activists, as they seem to be in many corporations now. I suspect that they don't see what they do in that way, but are like many people of progressive views do not acknowledge any distinction between holding and working for those views and the pursuit of the good. Or, to put it less abstractly, basic human decency.
There's something a bit creepy about the playful surface. You, the employee, may be allowed to build your own desk out of "oversize Tinker Toys," but your utility is in the end the only thing that matters. And the more they put a smiley face on it, the more it makes me think of the Eloi and the Morlocks.
And where marketers in olden days may have tried to sell you something telling you that it will help you fit in, they now try to sell you something by telling you that it will mark you as a defiant individualist. But in the end they're still selling status. And it's still more in the corporate interest for people, whether employees or customers, to behave like a herd, and be treated like one.
By the way I haven't bought a pair of jeans since sometime in the late '70s. I remember standing in a long checkout line at the supermarket and noticing that every single person ahead of me was wearing jeans. I had worn them as a symbol of rebellion in the late '60s--I would like to say a gesture of individuality, but of course I was only conforming to a group whose opinion I valued above that of the mainstream. And I obviously still had some of the contrary spirit in me, because I decided at that moment that I was through with blue jeans. Not sure when the last pair wore out. In a hot and humid climate they're not even very comfortable most of the time.
Rob G sent me this quote from Augusto Del Noce's The Age of Secularization, which was written in the late '60s:
The so-called 'global' revolution becomes an absurd revolt against what exists. It becomes a form of ahistorical activism that cannot distinguish what is positive and what is negative in the existing reality. It faces the following fork in the road: it can either seek a way to escape reality, becoming practically indistinguishable from the beat and hippie movements, or it can enter into alliances with pre-existing forces in the system it fights against, possibly claiming the role of avant-garde and stimulus, but actually serving as a tool.
The beatnik and hippie movements were actually a mixed bag in that respect: the desire to escape reality was part of them, yes, but there was also a desire precisely to find and encounter reality. On the whole the former has proved more appealing and durable, though. Del Noce's last sentence is a pretty fair assessment of how things turned out.
I think when Del Noce says "revolt against what exists" he means simply the existing social order, but in conjunction with the reference to "a way to escape reality," it suggests to me something that seems increasingly common: a belief that we can simply redefine and reconfigure reality to our liking with very few absolute limits. Certain things may be impossible at the moment, such as "uploading" one's consciousness into a machine, but in time we'll figure it out. Never mind that that whole idea is based on an assumption that has no foundation other than that the people who hold it think it's obvious--I mean the idea that one's very self consists of data that can be stored in some physical medium.
The Obergefell decision strikes me as some kind of landmark in that reality-defying movement. Yes, it came as the logical outcome of a long development, but still, the event itself may stand as the marker of a decisive shift, because it makes the denial the law of the land. Until a few decades ago pretty well the entire human race in all times and places would have agreed that the words "husband" and "wife" (in whatever language) refer to specific real things, based on physical sex, and easily and usefully distinguished from each other in both language and practice. Everyone would have agreed that it is intrinsically impossible for a man to have a husband, or a woman to have a wife. But now that idea has been declared officially and legally false, and anyone who continues to believe it is held to be wicked and inhuman and at the very least to be excluded from the society of decent human beings.
It's like having the government declare, and most people accept, that there is no difference between a circle and a rectangle. Other denials and absurd assertions follow by necessity: that circles may have corners, for instance, and that a rectangle may have curves. Reality will have the last word, but I don't know how long it will be before that word is spoken.
It's been thirty years, at least, since I read Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, which I consider to be a great masterpiece. and though I haven't re-read it I see no reason to change that opinion. Around the time I read it I bought her other enormous novel of medieval Norway, The Master of Hestviken, but only just now have I finally taken it up. It's a tetralogy (Kristin is a trilogy), and I've now finished the first book, The Axe. On the basis of that I would say that it's going to be at least as good as Kristin. I will no doubt have a lot more to say as I go along, and will try to avoid giving away too much of the plot, on the assumption that most people haven't read it, but for the moment just this: I have never read a more affecting picture of a person utterly broken by remorse. I don't recall being quite as moved by anything in Kristin as I was by this.
I've also sampled that gum which has come back in style: two episodes of the new Twin Peaks. (The gum is a Twin Peaks reference, in case you're not familiar with the series.) So far my reaction is mixed. Considering that this is truly a sequel, and what happened at the end of the original series, I'm very much hooked already. I have one major reservation: changing standards, and the fact that the new series was not made for traditional network TV, free Lynch (and/or Frost) to include more violence and horror than in the original, and some of that has been hard to take. It's not just the presence of it, but that you feel like it could appear very suddenly at any moment. That isn't going to stop me from watching it, unless it gets very much worse, which I've been told it does not. And of course it's great to see some of the old characters twenty-five years on.