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Age Of The Superego
Report|Nov 8, 2018

Age Of The Superego

We’re Living In A Culture Where The Urge To Censor, Check And Control Ourselves Has Become A Burden On Society. It’s Making Us Miserable, And It Can’t Last. What Will Come Along To Replace it?
Guy Rundle

Bert Newton’s bald head bobbed and weaved among the tables at the Logies at The Star, a grin playing over his face. The shave job suits him. No longer required to play ‘Mr Best Friend’ for a succession of leading men, he is enjoying a showbiz afterlife as mischievous imp, licensed to thrill. He took to the stage, and we learnt what the grin was about. For one crowded minute, we had a burst of the old Logies:

“Graham used to love to mentor young talent… he mentored a lot of young people. You knew if you went to his dressing room and it was locked, he’d be inside doing some mentoring.”

Man, that was good. It was only an OK gag – I suspect it wouldn’t work with any old word; “mentoring” sounds enough like “munting” to give it a twinkle – but who cared? It was the lip-smacking glee with which he delivered it, saying what everyone has always known about Graham Kennedy, our Gra-Gra, and showbiz in general: that it’s a low-rent business, besieged by people no better than they need to be, and that any man in it who spent his life as a ‘confirmed bachelor’ was just skimming everything he could get off the top, male or female. That was what the Logies used to be like all the way through. Don’t believe me, have a look on YouTube, the old ones are up there. Washed out black and white, shot in the ballroom of some tacky Melbourne hotel, everyone pissed, and later, coked off their gills by show time, staggering up to the mike to accept their award, struggling to restrain their laughter at the knob-headed accolade in an industry running on fumes. Them’s were the days, and for one glorious minute, we had it back. 

We weren’t allowed to keep it, of course. By the next day, this mildest of jokes about the reality of showbiz was being skewered for its wanton disregard for the #MeToo movement, and Bert – a figure loved by Australians both basic and hip, genuinely and ironically – was booking into the Sebel Town House of shame and apology. I’ve got to admit, though I have spent the past couple of years adjusting to the new rules, this one really, really floored me. This was the sort of gag that’s just on the table, like a stale bread roll, at these things. Can’t we even have that?

We are in a fix culturally, aren’t we? For the past decade, and in earnest in the past five years, a cultural revolution has swept the Western world with a degree of force and mass that has proved irresistible. It’s more than #MeToo, it’s more than checking your privilege, it’s more than ‘cultural appropriation’: all reasonable enough complaints in certain circumstances. It is the rise of a whole new way of communicating and living together, one in which every single speech utterance or cultural act is monitored – or self-monitored – for its potentially morally incorrect content against an absolute standard of virtue.

We have had several rounds of this since the great political and cultural arising of the 1960s. The 60s and 70s saw the full explosion of the liberatory dimension of that revolution. Then it stalled. It was meant to create a radically free society, instead, we got hippie capitalism, Thatcher, Reagan, and a long, slow grinding down, so that – in terms of wages, conditions, everyday life – a lot of us are worse off than we were 50 years ago. The music, the sex and the freedom was meant to lead to something more: a world where the whole of life was libidinous and sexy and free-flowing, not the endless round of automated work, performance assessments, team meetings, student debt, crushing loans and the opportunity to watch the mega-mega-rich cavort in our off-hours.  

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The revolution didn’t happen. Radicals became lawyers who used the state – via things like anti-discrimination laws and public education campaigns – to change the world. In the 80s, campaigns against sexism and porn began and the first policing of speech from the left. The result was that the left-run state became the thing to rebel against.

A whole stream of culture – starting with the comedy of Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay – formed itself around being a resistance to what was perceived as a dominant movement. The ‘anti-political correctness’ crowd was onto something: there was a new class of people, who were tertiary educated, graduating largely out of Arts faculties, who were starting to have an increasing degree of cultural power. At the same time, deindustrialisation proceeded, destroying the unity and power of the working class and, its culture – dominant from Elvis and Brando, through to the 80s – began to be derided as sexist, racist and brutal. A class culture war was underway.

That was all put on hold one bright autumn morning in September 2001, when two planes slammed into New York’s World Trade Centre, and for the next five years what preoccupied was plain, old-fashioned geopolitics, much of it overlaid with an old-fashioned imperial racism. But this began to fall apart too, with the disaster of the Iraq war and then the financial collapse. By this time too something else was happening, a revolution in social life, with the practically simultaneous invention of the smartphone and social media. Neither the iPhone nor Facebook was conceived with the other in mind. But when they came together, our whole mode of social connection started to shift in momentous ways. 

That shift is still underway, but a thumbnail sketch of it would be this: until recently, most of us lived in cultures which were to some degree bound by circumstance. Your social and cultural life was dictated by what neighbourhood you grew up in, the school you went to, and your cultural background. All of this was surrounded by a fairly rigid mass culture: four channels of network TV, mainstream pop music and a handful of daily newspapers. We now exist far more in loose networks. We shape our own lives from available materials and as you transition into adolescence and then adulthood, you learn that you have to put it all together yourself – friends, values, tastes and priorities. The days when, to quote the Boss, “On my eighteenth birthday/I got a union card and a wedding suit” are long gone for most of us. Increasingly, we work in offices and shops rather than factories, study rather than work, and a lot of what we handle is knowledge and culture – even if ‘culture’ is spending an afternoon choosing the font and front cover for a crappy little internal company document. In every aspect of our lives we’re making value choices, taste choices, life choices, choices, choices, choices.

With this new world comes two new things. First, our psychology and our selfhood has changed. We’re less automatically connected to each other, so we have to be more self-maintaining. Rather than being glued together, our relationships are more a series of contracts and arrangements. The consequences of that: there’s less common understanding of the rules of engagement – in love, in work, in friendship – and more possibility of ‘values conflict’; also, when we have a wobble and falter, it can be serious. Contemporary life is a high-wire act, more thrilling than life used to be, but you can fall a long way before someone catches you – if they do.

We’re all coping with this, but many in the ‘knowledge class’ do pretty well out of it, getting to set the rules of how others live, and insisting on a fairly one-sided moral agenda.

Cosmopolitanism, globalisation, no borders and total equality are good. Localism, group loyalty, ‘parochialism’, and notions of a deep-seated ‘human nature’ are bad. Nearly all of us believe some, or most of the first bit – that  travel is good, other cultures have something to offer, men and women should be equal citizens, all of that – but many of us also believe the other stuff: that national loyalty is a reasonable emotion, that your sex-gender is not a tick-box choice, that shared cultures might be important to a sense of life’s richness, and that the equality of men and women as citizens should not be taken to mean that we are identical beings with different bits stuck on the front.

The result of this great shift is that we now live in a world where many of us spend a lot of time scrutinising ourselves – “Was that offensive?” “Should I say that?” – and we spend a lot of time calling each other out. “That’s racist and misogynistic!”, a Twitter spat starts, then: “No it’s misogynistic and racist! You’re a misogynist for putting misogynistic second!” “Oh, white-girl feminism strikes again, huh?”. And on it goes. 

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Above all of this is a social class determined to enforce the most ‘abstract’ version of this value system. In the mainstream media, The Age/SMH’s Daily Life section is a supreme example, largely consisting of a series of orders, barked out as op-ed pieces – speech codes in education, workplace relations directives and so on. The general spread of universal liberalism is not enough. This can be seen par excellence in the same-sex marriage plebiscite debate, where many on the “Yes” case were angered by the fact that the debate even needed to be had: as if the traditionalist view that a society should anchor itself in child-centred marriage was the equivalent of expressing an abhorrent desire. Thus, it wasn’t good enough that most people supported same-sex marriage and more still supported civil unions, and that about 90 percent of the population agreed that same-sex attraction was a legitimate desire. More than a vote was wanted. What was required was the adoption of a single idea about sexuality and gender identity. To have the lurking thought that heterosexuality and the natural family are pretty central to social life is, in this new world, as offensive as using the N-word. 

Another example of such enforcement was the recent Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into sexual harassment on university and college campuses. By now we all agree that sexual harassment is real, is not ok and should have procedures to be dealt with. The AHRC’s ‘hold my beer’ response was to include “staring at someone” – even a single long look – in the definition and conclude that 50 percent of female students suffered sexual harassment every year. The widespread acceptance of the existence and impacts of sexual harassment was taken as an opportunity to extend total power over social life. 

Do such people want a cop on every campus corner, checking eye movements? Of course not. That’s a Nineteen Eighty-Four right-wing fantasy of what oppression is. They want people to surveil themselves – to take the policeman inside, as the Czech dissident writer Josef Skvorecky said. We’re all doing that already: policing ourselves and policing each other out of relief that someone else is getting pinged for telling a blonde joke. Then we redouble our efforts to police ourselves so we can avoid the next pinging.

The result is both an ever-present external fear of being shamed – a factor in the epidemic of anxiety which appears to be upon us – but also an internal, psychological growth of the ‘superego’, the part of ourselves that tells our ego how to act morally, and scolds us for failing to do so. The ‘superego’ – the bit on top of the ego, as it were – is our parent standing over us, toilet training us; it’s the teacher, telling us what’s what. Eventually, we absorb those voices, and that’s how social order happens. The vast majority of us don’t kill, not because there’s a penalty attached, but because it’s wrong, and a voice in our head tells us so.

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Sigmund Freud, who developed the idea of the superego, pointed out that it was essential to a good human society, but came with a psychic cost. The energy we spend policing ourselves is drawn away from the energy we could put into spontaneous self-expression: doing, loving and creating. For Freud, this was a necessary sacrifice. For much of our lives, we go around feeling a little frustrated, irritated and constrained as the price of things not falling apart. 

But what happens when the balance between inside and outside constraints shifts inward, as it has in our atomised, networked, psychologically self-managed society? Then the burden becomes too great. Our psychic energy flows overwhelmingly to the superego, which weighs down on us. We lose our capacity for spontaneity, assertiveness, boldness and originality. The only people who really groove on it are the thought leaders of the knowledge-culture class. They get their pleasure and affirm their values from the enforcement of such moralities and exercising power over others. It’s a perfect sadomasochistic relationship, albeit far from consensual on the part of the latter.

This can’t last and it hasn’t. Throughout history, societies have fallen into these processes, in which its value enforcement system gets off the leash and attacks social life itself, a sort of cultural autoimmune disease. Seventeenth-century puritanism was one such outbreak. People started by arguing with each other over the meaning of the Bible and ended by hallucinating witches and talking cats. Many of our current epidemics, from anxiety to food allergies, can be traced back to the overgrowth of the superego. 

Cultures who get into this sort of spot are simply on the way to going crazy. As a last desperate move of ego survival, they lash out, often attaching to a figure who will do it on their behalf – the supreme example being Donald Trump, whose exuberance and financial independence (at least on paper) made him a readymade champion of such. But even that palls after a while. I would imagine that what is coming is a collective throwing over of the principles that make the ‘culture of the superego’ so dominant, as people – of all genders and colours – just decide they’ve had enough. At that point, a new ‘culture of exuberance’ will take over, and yes, it will probably go too far into racist, misogynist and bigoted territory. But that will be the product of the enthusiastic enforcement of the repressive culture we live in. Those who are doing the enforcing – the thought leaders, policy makers, commentators and the like – might want to think about what sort of pyre they are building for themselves with these ongoing campaigns on every remark, opinion or form of self-expression. If they don’t, well we’ll end up pretty mentored in the end.