Thursday, August 04, 2016

Samuel D James at First Things has the dignified variation on the old Pussified Nation motiff.

by Samuel D. James
8 . 2 . 16

Where have America’s young men gone? According to Erik Hurst, an economist from the University of Chicago, they haven’t gone anywhere—they’re just plugged in. In a recent interview, Hurst says that his research indicates that young men with less than a four-year degree (according to virtually all data, that’s an increasing number) are spending their days unemployed and unmarried, but not un-amused. “The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one-for-one with leisure time,” Hurst reports. “Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of twelve, and sometimes upwards of thirty hours per week.”

Hurst goes on: “These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they [are] quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, [such as that] they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games.” In other words, the time these young men spend on Xbox and Playstation does not offer them relief from the stress of joblessness and existential inertia. On the contrary, for them it’s part of Living the Dream.

Having a history of being unimpressed with the level at which James engages stuff, I'm not surprised this is largely where he landed.  More of the same stuff about how guys don't grow up.  Samuel D. James had a few posts a few years back about things to do with Driscoll.  If Mark Driscoll weren't preparing to launch the next church this upcoming Sunday, and if he weren't shown to be so eager to use his children as meatshields in cyberspace, it would seem James might have had a point about there being no point to keeping track of what a Mark Driscoll says or does.  And that would be a salient point ... if Mark Driscoll had stepped aside from ministry for half a decade to submit to the spiritual leadership of someone in the capacity of a tithing rank-and-file member rather than as a blogger/preacher/guest speaker/vlogger constantly keeping himself in the spotlight. 

Back when I was in the non-profit sector an older fellow told me that the bubble of 08 was bad, that things were so rough for people in the wake of that financial crash the last time he remembered so many people being hard up was when he was a kid growing up during the Great Depression.  For evangelicals with a slightly right tilt it's going to be tough to keep selling this idea that the young dudes just need to man up, bro, because what do we expect high school dropouts and people whose horizons are largely restricted to what's called the unskilled labor market to actually do?  There was a guy or two in the Seattle area fifteen years ago who actually came up with ideas of what young guys could do.  One of them even got a bit of a local cult following.  What people left and right don't seem to want to accept is the possibility that cult-formation is the name of the game, anything that motivates people but particularly potentially disaffected young males to join a team is pretty much going to be some kind of cult by definition.  But that's not the level at which James engages the range of issues of underachieving younger men.

The reason Driscoll is pertinent is not just that Samuel D. James brought Driscoll up back in 2014, it's because for anyone who read Pussified Nation, what James wrote this month is the dignified safe-for-primetime variation of what Driscoll was up to fifteen and sixteen years ago.  As we've discussed at some length, Pussified Nation cannot be accurately understood as a stand-alone thing--you have to look at it in social and historical terms in a way that views it as agitation propaganda that was followed up by the integration propaganda of Dead Men.  Unfortunately, virtually nobody who's deigned to write about Mars Hill history has tried that approach and the prevailing narrative is so fixated on defining Mars Hill in right-wing terms people probably won't believe that one of the former elders of MH was happy to endorse Obama in a certain context and that there was a small but vocal and articulate politically progressive element at Mars Hill.  I've stayed friends with a few of them over the years so it's not like I don't know who some of those people have been.  But the press has written the story, so to speak.  Anyway ...

Taking up the lament at a more abstract level, Carl Trueman, proposed that the implication is clear the problems must be deeper than just video games and porn:
As James implies, the problem is much deeper than video game- and porn-addicted young men. These addictions are simply symptoms, albeit very obvious ones, of the moral and cultural bankruptcy of our present age. Thus, unless we address the deeper issues—the elephant in the room—we will get nowhere. And herein lies the problem. To borrow a question from the art critic Sven Birkerts, what do you do when the elephant in the room is the room itself? Neither video games nor porn nor idleness are the problem. The problem is that entertainment is not simply a part of our world. It is arguably the dominant essence of our world.

To use philosophical jargon, entertainment is now ontology. We live in Xanadu, within the confines of a stately pleasure-dome of our own making. We have an economy that is significantly dependent upon the production and consumption of entertainment, a society where men who play children’s playground games are lionized and paid more than the President, and a world where technology is not simply a tool but one of the structuring principles of our very existence and our ways of life, right down to the most mundane details. ...

Thus, to say that the church needs to break with entertainment and offer meaning is true. But how we do this is very far from obvious. Indeed, it is even hard to conceptualize what the possibility of such a break might look like in practice, for this is no cosmetic change which is being proposed. Churches cannot accomplish it by, say, simply abolishing praise bands and reinstating Renaissance polyphony and classical liturgy. These might themselves be the entertainment of the high-brow aesthete. Nor can preachers simply ditch the jokes and focus stern-faced upon the cross. It is, after all, possible to enjoy good oratory for the mere fact that it is good oratory, regardless of content.

Further, if entertainment is the very essence of our social existence today, then we are in a sense not faced with addressing meaninglessness. It is just not that simple. I suspect the lost boys do see their lives as having meaning—the meaning of the moment, the meaning of a solitary orgasm, the meaning given by myriad solipsistic fantasies. The church is not combating meaninglessness so much as offering an alternative meaning in a competitive marketplace. And the idioms of plausibility in that marketplace are themselves part of the problem.

I think I disagree.  You don't embrace the simulated surrogates if you have the stuff in real life, do you?  When Ellul wrote his book about propaganda half a century ago he proposed that there was ultimately no material solution for the plight of the working class but that there was, in fact, a psychological solution, an opiate in the form of propaganda that could convey to the individual that his/her life actually had meaning and significance and that he/she was not just some interchangeable drone/cog in a massive machine.  If there's a conundrum to art for the sake of art as a kind of pseudo-religious dogma it's that in a market system the art is still a commodity and, more to the point, all art will be a reflection of the ambitions and anxieties of an empire. 

Formerly local pastor Mark Driscoll said that video games were stupid vicarious victories in things that didn't matter, or something like that.  Let he who has never inferred leadership lessons from the play of baseball cast the first stone.  But this still gets us back to the thing about how the simulations may tell us something about what these people don't have in their non-game lives.  The vicarious victory wouldn't be sought if it didn't have some kind of appeal as a simulation of something that many a man and a woman knows isn't available to them in flesh and blood life.  Don't have a plane and want to learn how to fly?  Flight simulators have gotten pretty decent in the last thirty years. 

If you can't find yourself having a meaningful life in the real world this society is pretty good at providing simulations.  It's got higher prestige and social clout to have that escapism have a veneer of credibility in the form of being higher level arts or maybe having an academic component to it, but art for the sake of art, no matter how Matthew Arnold you try to get about it, is still consumption of product, isn't it?  The "solution" some have tried out is to sacralize the arts to the level where you convince yourself that you're not being just a consumer by immersing yourself in it.

If anything I would propose that lost boys are more likely to recognize how ultimately disposable and interchangeable they are in contemporary society and that's precisely a reason to embrace a simulated alternative.  You can make plenty of complaints about the guys who spend 15-30 hours a week playing video games but if you have seen anybody play video games for 10 hours a week the proposal that they get meaning from that, that seems iffy.  Let a guy somehow land a girlfriend (or boyfriend) and the 10 to 16 hours of gaming can precipitously drop in a few cases. 

Let's try putting this another way, Samuel James and Carl Trueman may think that the simulacrum is good enough for today's under-achieving young men and that's why they don't aspire to more.  What if that's backwards?  What if the reason those lost boys settle for that is they've done a risk-assessment of the odds of getting anything like the things they could gain in video games in the real world; discovered how low the odds really were; and settled for the simulation? 

For a time Mark Driscoll succeeded where a lot of evangelicals have failed and will continue to fail because, for a short time, he didn't operate on the assumption that if you just shame the lads enough they'll buck up and perform.  No, he came up with something else in Dead Men, which is to formulate the idea that we can't do this without you, yes, you specifically, and we want you to be part of something people will be talking about decades from now.  The whole shaming men into performing came, too, but there were spurs of motivating people positively toward a vision of a shared legacy.  That's what Team Driscoll's trying to recapture now to go by the promotional videos cranked out.

There's all kinds of things that could be said against Mark Driscoll hoping that lighning will strike twice but it's not unfair to propose that Driscoll actually got how to motivate young men to seek more productive lives in ways that may yet elude Samuel D James or even Carl Trueman (who, often, writes stuff I like).

James and Trueman have witten more stately dignified variations of something that reads a lot like Pussified Nation.  It's nice they managed to get their concerns acros without a series of slurs, to be sure, but they seem to come up with a complaint that the bootstraps are good enough for lifting if you just grab them.


chris e said...

The two quoted articles seem to me to fall into the category of fractally wrong on a number of levels.

First Samuel Jones - he never explains why gaming is necessarily more escapist than any of the other forms of entertainment he briefly mentions at the start of his jeremiad ("In most cases, gaming is not especially different from other amusements, such as watching Netflix or logging on to social media" .. except that he goes on to treat it like it is completely different). He never deals with the issues you raise about the economic feasibility of the alternatives he proposes (to do so would involve some collision with the political ideals of FT readers) and the crisis of social reproduction posed by the gig economy.

Again with Trueman; time spent pursuing an activity does not necessarily denote addiction, secondly the problem is the addiction not so much the activity. Courtesy of geography and cheap airfares, compulsive travel is more likely to figure in the UK, but clearly as that is outwards facing that's 'all okay' - to the point where we have a whole set of Christianized alternatives. One could write a jeremiad about the ideals of a society that comes up with as a form of generating "connect[ion] with local cultures and business ecosystems' but would end up sounding a lot more cranky in the process. Whilst he identifies entertainment as a whole as a problem, it's the specific form it takes that comes in for particular opprobrium - clearly the issue would be less stark if we went to watch the football with our 'bros' on Saturday and spent the week watching 'Leave it to Beaver'.

chris e said...

.. and actually, to go fully faux-Puritan for a minute, why shouldn't anything that doesn't lead directly to service of God or service of the family and is enjoyable purely on its own terms be proscribed along similar lines?

The distinction that it might occur to the faux-Puritan to make - that one is part of the natural order and the other isn't seems rather weak. After all, how natural is reading, really. Go back a few centuries and there are plenty of social critics of the time railing against the unhealthiness of reading, that fiction can dull the mind and make it dissatisfied with reality, that filling oneself with knowledge can unbalancing of the humours and - eventually - losing ones wits.

Yes sure games can be repetitive, as can any other form of art or entertainment, and it seems rather callous to blame someone who is un- or under-employed for staying in most of the time when they live in a post industrial landscape where nature is usually far away and all third places have been privatised.

Cal P said...

I've played a lot of videogames, of every shape, size, and variety. So the following is from a former "Gamer" but also as someone who still enjoys his video games.

I'm not sure that simulation is always worse than the real thing, at least in many's minds. This itself is a "kind" of illusion that drives some of the criticisms. Get a job, a girl friend, a car, a 'real' hobby etc etc., sometimes these things aren't rejected because of lack thereof. Yes, the kind of job, girl friend etc etc. that might be worthwhile are perhaps rare. But I think the movie Don Jon understands something fundamental in the midst of all this, namely that the fantasy is always better than the real thing. Of course this is only part of the truth. Jon gets dimes and yet goes right on back to porn, because the real never lives up to the fantasy. Yeah, you could go get a great job doing something meaningful, but even if you found that, it doesn't quite add up to being a hero on a quest that saves the world.

I actually think Truman understands this, in part. But shaming is not the tactic. In Don Jon, what "saves" Jon is when he has his desire transfigured by the 'other' and he approaches reality in the right way. This is all in terms of sex, but the lesson ought to be taken more broadly. He is retaught how to see things.

The problem isn't entertainment, per se, but it's because we live with our belly as god. It's a disordered state of being, where entertainment is defined according to our disorder, rather than its proper form. We have to learn how to eat our food properly. Not only does this discipline our belly into its right place, but it also opens the flood-gates of joy. Jesus doesn't tell us to forego bread, but to seek true bread and hunger no more.

And of course, the problem also involves personal interaction. The internet represents, in ways, a kind of Hobbesian jungle. And yes, some kids live in video game worlds, isolated, like some kids live in books, and an imbalanced life cuts you off from Human community. But video games also have online communities, whether its an interest group or if you're playing an online game. I've learned a lot about people from online games, both good and evil. I don't think I'd be the man I am today without online video games. Not that I'm a great role model, but I certainly have matured because of things I went through online (betrayal, mockery, cruelty, irrational anger, teamwork, compromise, justice, sociability etc.).


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e, your comment reminds me that one of the funnier meta-level jokes in Jane Austen's novels is how this or that character disapproves of young ladies reading silly novels full of terrible content, framed of course, as dialogue in a novel skewering things like the gothic novel. If anyone couldn't tell the first sentence of Pride & Prejudice was a fantastically dry bit of sarcasm they were reading the wrong way.

Of course Austen never married so it would seem that many a ... thick complementarian today might tell someone in a Jane Austen's social position today that she shouldn't reject her God-given design to marry. Why write novels skewering venerable social and class conventions if you could marry off?

The other thing that came to mind is that something that seems endlessly repetitive and formulaic to the willingly uninitiated person can be explosively varied to someone actually familiar with the idiom. When I was a teenager first getting into Delta blues all the songs seemed to sound more or less the same. I didn't know yet what forms of variety to listen for and certainly didn't know just how inventive the old blues masters were at working inventively within the constraints of open G or open D tuning. In a similar way Haydn's piano sonatas, piano trios, and string quartets will probably all sound more or less the same to someone who listens to twenty of them and doesn't know what to listen for.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Cal, even the good job can start to feel like a dead end after a few years. We crave stability and yet find it stultifying, too; we crave variety and yet find it disorienting.

There's a kind of wisdom that really can be gained vicariously, that we don't have to directly get through the trial-and-error approach. I think a key function of the biblical wisdom literature is to impart as much wisdom as possible through observation and vicarious processes so that young people don't have to "learn by doing" when the stakes are life-wrecking.