9/15/2017

The Veneerings of 2017

Samuel Biagetti has an undergraduate degree from Brown; a PhD. in History from Columbia; is a "Museum Scholar" at the Museum of the City of New York; is currently a lecturer at Barnard College; has a podcast -- "Historiansplaining: A Historian Tells You Why Everything You Know Is Wrong;" and has read his Dickens carefully.  (That's a lot to know about someone I don't really know. Life in the 21st Century.)  Mr. Biagetti wrote an article I bumped into online.  His article starts out with the Veneerings -- the young affluent couple in Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend -- then creates a hypothetical couple as a 21st Century correlate to the Veneerings.

That class has not disappeared, but has grown and evolved into the white-collar professional and managerial elite that sets the general tone of political and intellectual life in the West.
Suppose for the moment that our young couple of today, roughly parallel to the Veneerings (we will call them, in accordance with the forced informality of modern workplaces, by their first names), Jennifer and Jason, are members of the upper middle class, living off their smarts and social connections rather than manual work.

[If you have time for long format text, you might try to read the whole enjoyable article.]

In the 152 years since Our Mutual Friend, the class has not only evolved away from a certain method of elaborate dining, but also from the furniture that named the shallow socialites in the novel.

Let us further entertain the idea that in our time as in Dickens’, life imitates furniture, and that we will learn something about our young couple if we consider where they house their underwear. If we picture Jennifer and Jason’s bedroom, it is not hard to guess what we would see there: a good deal of IKEA. 

A consideration of the deeper meaning of Particle Board follows. Then the Solid Gold Quote:

For Jennifer and Jason, cuisines, musical styles, meditative practices, and other long-developed customs are not threads in a comprehensive or enduring way of life, but accessories like cheap sunglasses, to be casually picked up and discarded from day to day. Unmoored, undefined, and unaware of any other way of being, Jennifer and Jason are no one. They are the living equivalents of the particle board that makes up the IKEA dressers and IKEA nightstands next to their IKEA beds. In short, they are IKEA humans.

IKEA Humans.  Wow.  Not just shallow veneer.  A relatively disoriented syncretism of post-post-modern lifestyle, fashion, art, music, everything covered with the thinnest possible suggestion of grain. It gets darker:

The truth is that one cannot escape being an IKEA human, any more than an IKEA dresser can change what it is. The question is only what one makes of the situation. . . .
The most venal and self-centered rise to the top; sociopaths are champions. The IKEA personality — cheeky, smug, and capricious, concealing a narcissistic quest for status —is the best adapted to the times.
Then comes the seminar question: "Can the trend reverse?"  This is at about halfway through the article. What follows is some liberal soul-searching and "historiansplaining" that develops unfortunately nothing more than an IKEA conclusion:

. . . A strong and enduring civilization requires citizens willing to state their core principles and to argue openly for their vision of the good society. That entails a frank and honest contest over how power and resources should be allocated in our world. Some, of course, will opt to pursue naked self-interest – in which case, let them be unmasked for all to see. The rest of us must aspire to be citizens before we can then claim to be fully human.

The end.  Hmm.  I wonder what that means?

I'm afraid that beneath it all, the second half of the article decodes as the lament of a sad liberal who realizes he is spiritually IKEA in spite of the fact that apparently he is co-owner of a high-end antiques retail establishment.  But at least there is a pro-free-speech pitch there in the "to state their core principles and to argue openly" part.  But the idea that self-interest is somehow the evil that will be unmasked gives away the hopelessly up-ended nature of the world view. I'm pretty sure the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution saw the ideal of self-governance as being worked out by fully-human individuals and for the benefit of individuals, not for the benefit of "society" much less a "vision of the good society."  I hope I am not being overly libertarian at the same time that I hope I am not being insufficiently subsidiarist when I say that Biagetti has it upside-down somehow.  The individual who is integrally human is the key to good in society.  (Grace makes it easier.)

But I liked the IKEA People image.









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