Passing Thoughts from the Margins of the Semester, Part One

This world makes small people.

Even the big people are really just small people inflated to globe spanning proportions. Enormous depressing wind socks gyrating violently. 

It starts with the screen, which sucks you into it and out of the world. So much time and energy and possibility offered up, a sacrifice given without remuneration. 

Earbud linked to screen, an embryonic loop, attention fed in, each of us growing our own weird technological parasite.

But it’s more than the tech, it’s a whole disposition, what the philosophically minded might call an ethos, of consumption and competition, an endless filling of a bottomless void. And it leaves us hungry and stuffed at the same time, unable to think or move for the terrible excess and deprivation that envelops us.

But it isn’t the corrupting of some pure essence, not an affront to divine purpose. It’s a malignant condition we adapt to, until it defines and becomes what we are: small, empty people. And there are ever more of us, ever more equal in our smallness.

We serve machines, the logic of accumulation, the attention economy, the chaos machine, unable (unwilling) to demand more dignity, more time to think, space to breathe, reason to stretch and challenge ourselves.

What else might we make of ourselves? Of this world? What voices do we follow in the dark?

The horror of Nietzsche’s vision is that he saw the multiplication of small people as an opportunity for a new and greater bigness, for those willing to give up the lie of equality. 

Dewey’s vision is kinder, but we worry the risk is greater. The promise we can all be big together feels untrustworthy, and the fear of disappointment, of dashed hopes is harder to bear than confessing to the weak or monstrous in ourselves.

But the acquiescence to smallness is at the same time the acceptance of dominance, of its inevitability.

Goldman sees this, hopes to slip out of this world into another, and I end the semester with her beautiful dream of a world without masters and servants. Yet for many, the dream feels like a dangerous fantasy when it severs the connections to people and institutions and tradition that make growth possible.

There is no shortcut to a more nourishing world. Largeness of being cannot be achieved through transcendence or revolution, the world will not end or be made new.

There are no easy answers to real questions.

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