The hollowed-out self

by David Jessup

Those inclined to believe that our civilization is in the doldrums need only turn on the television to confirm their suspicions. The vapidity and vulgarity of what passes for entertainment is disheartening enough, but even relatively sophisticated products of popular culture can convey deeply pessimistic messages.

This undercurrent of pessimism is the subject of Escape into the Future: Cultural Pessimism and Its Religious Dimension in Contemporary American Popular Culture, co-authored by my undergraduate mentor, John Stroup of Rice University, and Glenn Shuck of Williams College. Both authors are professors of religious studies at their respective institutions. Published in 2007 by Baylor University Press, the book describes—with an undeniable sense of foreboding—cultural developments that seem only to have accelerated over the last few years.

In Escape into the Future, Stroup and Shuck delve into the popular culture of recent decades, reaching as far back as Marlon Brando’s 1953 film The Wild One and the 1960s Anglo-American television series The Prisoner. However, they focus on three major media phenomena prominent at the turn of the millennium: the 1999 movie Fight Club (based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk), the television series The X-Files (which ran from 1993 to 2002), and the Left Behind series of Christian apocalyptic novels (in which new titles appeared from 1995 to 2007) by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

The authors point out that there is a profound sense of futility evident in each of these highly successful yet apparently very different products of popular culture. In the case of Fight Club, the message, as they understand it, is one that might resonate with the most inward-looking Pietists: “domains other than the intimate, other than the private in contemporary life, are here depicted as fatally tainted, irredeemably lost so far as life and human authenticity go” (p. 109). Although the film depicts a kind of “purely personal awakening” from the numbness of modern life, the social movement that results from this (at first) personal experience is nothing less than a new totalitarianism.

Meanwhile, the world portrayed in the long-running series The X-Files is mired in deep conspiracies and massive cover-ups. As its nine seasons play out, viewers are introduced to an increasing number of sinister “realities” in this fictional world, but knowledge of these realities offers no protection from them. “One finds no escape from the reality of diminished human agency,” write Stroup and Shuck, adding: “This is a bleak and cynical worldview, indeed. Civic humanism—a set of values that rests on the belief in the existence and efficacy of morally significant and responsible individual selves capable of free decision-making—is cut to pieces” (43). Illusions may fool most of the powerless human beings in the world of The X-Files, but illusions can offer no relief to those who see through them.

Perhaps the authors’ most interesting observation concerns the way in which this pessimistic outlook is shared by the Left Behind novels, which have sold in the tens of millions. The novels describe events following the Rapture—the moment, according to dispensationalist theologians, when God will take Christians into Heaven, leaving those “left behind” to live through an era (or “dispensation”) of earthly suffering known as the Tribulation. Stroup and Shuck see dispensational theology itself as a “Protestant reorientation toward cultural pessimism” (52). “The sense,” they write, “is of a grim falling into line, of conforming to a divine script written before human history, a script that in prophetic revelation now threatens to crowd out all surprises, all divine spontaneity or human innovation” (65). While the Rapture promises escape for some, the characters in the Left Behind novels are little more than “marionettes” in a fatalistic context reminiscent of both Fight Club and The X-Files.

Intentionally or not, all three of these fictional works depict what the authors refer to as the “hollowed-out self,” which unfortunately is not an invention of popular culture, but a reality of modern life that popular culture simply reflects. In the face of constantly multiplying technologies and expanding bureaucracies, individuals experience a weakening sense of identity and autonomy. This is one cause of the profound cultural pessimism that Stroup and Shuck identify.

As the self is hollowed-out, it relinquishes “inner-direction” for “other-direction” in a process described in 1950 by sociologist David Riesman in his book The Lonely Crowd. Rather than relying on an inner gyroscope (as Riesman put it), other-directed people determine their actions by taking cues from their peers and from the media. Drawing on the work of Riesman and sociologist Stjepan Meštrovic´, Stroup and Shuck argue that “other-directed conformism” continues to widen and deepen. This has not gone unnoticed by the pessimists of popular culture: “Films such as Fight Club and The Matrix [both released in 1999] are made by people intensely aware of precisely this ongoing intensification of peer-oriented social control in a corporate cultural context and with it the foreclosing of alternative approaches to personal and public life” (100).

The authors find further corroborating despair in the work of Christian philosophers Thomas Molnar and Paul Virilio. For Molnar, the Christian West lost its way in the Enlightenment when the state ceased to serve as a “mediator” of transcendent authority, and “the empirical result (two hundred years on) amounts to an unending envious anarchy and moral chaos, a society in decline and disarray… with mounting crime and accelerating disunity” (293). For Virilio, the problem is technology and its application; technology destroys the barriers that have traditionally defined the human being. Stroup and Shuck quote from Virilio’s 1990 book Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles: “The suppression of national boundaries and the hyper-communicability of the world do not enlarge the space of freedom. They are, rather, the sign of its disappearance, its collapse, before the expansion of an all-too-tangible totalitarian power…” (203).

Escape into the Future makes the case that cultural pessimism is hardly irrational given the dehumanizing nature of so many aspects of the modern and postmodern world. In a society “stabilized,” in part, by coercive conformism and the stifling of dissent, the authors liken contemporary elites to the officers on the bridge of the RMS Titanic. It does not escape their notice that the blockbuster movie concerning that infamous ship appeared in 1997.

With regard to the millennial visions of gloom in Fight Club, The X-Files and the Left Behind novels, and with the Titanic analogy in mind, Stroup and Shuck write: “Horrific, and horrifically complete, are these successive visions, which again and again offer us the paradox of a social system both perfectly stabilized and insulated on the one hand, yet in fact immensely vulnerable on the other—but vulnerable in ways that offer only quite problematic possibilities of real escape” (119). Considering what has transpired in the realms of social media, mobile communication and surveillance in the years since the initial publication of Escape into the Future, it would seem that real escape is less likely every day.

In the opening of the lengthy bibliographic essay that concludes Escape into the Future, the authors acknowledge a Swedish Pietist influence on their perceptive study of cultural pessimism: “As for the mood of profound mistrust of modern institutions in its religious mode, the remote or deep ancestor of this book is Bo Giertz’s Swedish novel Stengrunden from long ago and far away (Småland in 1941)” (219).

Stengrunden concerns the challenges confronting generations of clergymen in a rural Swedish parish. Its author Bo Giertz (1905-98) was a Pietist pastor who would become Bishop of Gothenburg in 1949. Omitting its dark final chapter, Augustana Press published Clifford Ansgar Nelson’s translation of the novel in 1960 as The Hammer of God. The Swedish title, however, means “the stone foundation.” It is a reference to sinfulness, explained in the novel as “the rock foundation we know as the sinful corruption of our human nature, the sinful depravity that remains even after a man has separated himself from all his conscious sins.” One may feel hollow, but the reality is much worse. In the culture at large, but also within the church, Giertz felt that this fundamental aspect of human character had long been downplayed, its enormity underestimated. In that sense, he was a cultural pessimist. But Giertz did not put his hope in culture. His hope was in the rock of salvation.

David Jessup teaches Swedish at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

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