December 17, 2006

Time's Person of the Year Is Someone Who Doesn't Actually Matter

That would be you.

 

time person of year

 

The short version of the Time article is that we as individuals have formed a community on the internet (YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, etc), and this community is starting to "build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician... but person to person."

Ok, no.  Wrong, wrong, wrong all over the place.

The author of this piece is Lev Grossman.  Grossman is fairly famous book critic, one of the better ones.   He also wrote a novel that's a nod to Borges.  This isn't bad, it's just context.

The entire problem with Grossman's premise is exemplified by his first paragraph:

The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

Well, not exactly. Grossman's thesis is that we matter, we can shape our destinies; he puts that in contrast to Carlyle's premise that great men help shape destiny.  But that's not what Carlyle actually says.  Here's the actual quote:

In all epochs of the world's history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch;--the lightning, without which the fuel would never have burnt. The History of the world, I said already, was the biography of Great Men.

Carlyle doesn't say great men shape destiny; he says great men, and only great men, cause history. These great men should be given power to run society because only they can be trusted to do it.  Great men actually drive history, not shape it.

Democracy can't be trusted.  Paternalistic socialism, or at least a non-hereditary, anti-capitalist, aristocracy is all that can keep us from the dark of ochlocracy.  Individuals trump ideology-- which sounds like a good motto, except when individuals means Stalin and ideology means liberalism.  Oh, and the last book Hitler read was Carlyle's History of Friedrich of Prussia. 

So Grossman is not really paraphrasing Carlyle correctly.  This is important because Grossman is a book critic with a PhD from Harvard in comparative literature.  Either he simply did not know this about Carlyle, which I have to assume is impossible, or it didn't matter: he commandeered the quote, stripped it of the meaning Carlyle intended and used it the way he needed to use it.  And that exactly describes the problem:  truth and reality aren't important, what's important is you.

Because "You" as Person of the Year is actually quite portentuous.  It's is both representative and symptomatic of the problem of our times: narcissism.  Nowadays we are so alienated and matter so very little to larger society that the only thing that inflames any passion is to be reminded of this.   Consider Bush and Cheney.  Put aside politics for a moment, it is clear that their single-mindedness of purpose ignores each of us as individuals.  Give them the benefit of the doubt, that they are doing what they think is best.  But it's best for society, for America: what we hate is that it isn't for us, for you, for me.  That's what people hate about them, the seeming indifference to our individual worth, to our sense of importance.  Our votes don't count; everything is about religion; "Global War On Terror."  Where in all that is the individual?  We are tools to their "higher cause."  I know people say that they are angry at the cause; but I think it's really anger that we're being used for anything.

Being on YouTube, having a blog, having an iPod, being on MySpace-- all of these things are self-validating, they allow that illusion that is so important to narcissists: that we are the main characters in a movie.  Not that we're the best, or the good guys, but the main characters. That everyone around us is supporting cast; the funny friend, the crazy ex, the neurotic mother, the egotistical date, etc.  That makes reminders of our insignificance even more infuriating.

Take a look at the photos in the Time article: a DJ, a punk rocker, a guy in dredlocks, a kid dancing with headphones, a guy singing into a mic, a hot chick taking a photo of herself-- none of these people could ever be "Person of the Year."  They barely have identities outside of their image.  (And observe how so many are defined through music they listen to.)  They must be defined by something from without, like a tattoo.  But they deserve everything anyone else can have.  It's their right.

I'm not saying each of us as individuals is insignificant. We should, could, matter. But to protect ourselves from an existential implosion,  we decide to define ourselves through images and signs, rather than behaviors; lacking an identity founded in anything real makes us vulnerable to anger, resentment.  But no guilt, ever.  The narcissist never feels guilt.  He feels shame.

It can't last.  If society chooses to make narcissism the default, it's going to have to deal with society-wide narcissistic injuries-- when we suddenly realize that it isn't solely our movie and we're really not the main character.  And no one wants to see this stupid movie anyway.  This inevitably leads to violence: the school shooting, inexplicable knifing over Play Station 3, Andrea Yates, beating the wife because she wore the wrong shoes type of violence.  Oh, they weren't white high heeled pumps?  That bitch! She used to wear them for her old boyfriend.

I'm not sure anyone in psychiatry sees this-- they are too busy documenting Pharma excesses and Lamictal outcomes-- but it is the problem of our times.  The only ones who seem to notice are advertisers, marketers-- they see it.  They don't judge it, they simply profit from it. 

Grossman could morph Carlyle into what he wanted because Carlyle doesn't matter, what matters is what Grossman wanted, what Grossman needed.  Carlyle doesn't exist, or he only exists as we need to use him.  He becomes a tool, another supporting character.  Anyone actually read anything by Carlyle anymore?  Why bother?  We only need a few soundbites for our own use.  Grossman is a clearly a good writer and hardly the problem here. But picking "You" as Person of the Year only reinforces the collective delusion that our individual selves matter more than other person, or a collective good, an ideology, truth, or right and wrong.  It's relativism with a cherry twist.

It won't last.  It absolutely can't.

 

 







Comments

damn. great post. time is d... (Below threshold)

December 20, 2006 3:10 AM | Posted by Philip Dawdy: | Reply

damn. great post. time is dumb magazine anyway...read by lots of people.

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You make my post on Time's ... (Below threshold)

December 20, 2006 5:18 PM | Posted by Marissa Miller: | Reply

You make my post on Time's POTY look like poop. I didn't even pay attention to Carlyle, to be honest.

What threw me for a loop was what you pointed out in a later paragraph:

"Take a look at the photos in the Time article: a DJ, a punk rocker, a guy in dredlocks, a kid dancing with headphones, a guy singing into a mic, a hot chick taking a photo of herself-- none of these people could ever be "Person of the Year." They barely have identities outside of their image. (And observe how so many are defined through music they listen to.) They must be defined by something from without, like a tattoo."

I also saw this and it bothered me as well. The people featured as POTY aren't ordinary (well, except for miss random Facebook user). There's something distinct about each and all of them that makes them special. The ordinary person ISN'T that special. I'm no whistle-blogger on a politican. Despite the fact that I worked for Sen. Clinton, I've got no whistle to blow.

I also noticed that the selection of you overwhelmingly overlooks Baby Boomers - the biggest generation of our population. We have seniors and the great majority of them are not reflected in "YOU." But they read Time magazine.

This year's POTY was a huge blunder on Time's part. And like my husband told me this morning, they should just rename it "Newsmaker of the Year."

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I have no idea who Crlyle w... (Below threshold)

December 27, 2006 9:28 AM | Posted by petru: | Reply

I have no idea who Crlyle was, Grossman is, or you are, but I read Plutarch and I can tell you that this VIP-made history concept is a lot older... It's right there in Homer (the Greek dude), some 3000 years ago.
The idea is considered obsolete by historians for at least 200 years, but seems to come naturally to people with sub-par education.
So much for Web 2.0 beta.

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Wow. You've just restated ... (Below threshold)

December 28, 2006 1:30 PM | Posted by mgsloan: | Reply

Wow. You've just restated what I've been thinking for years. Except I couldn't have written it that well.

The main reason for thinking about this topic was MySpace and figuring out the source of my aversion to it - why it seems wierd as hell.

I actually did write a bit about it - I really need to make a website so I can place that somewhere (I have an aversion to the 'blogosphere' as well).

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Quite the intelligent rip o... (Below threshold)

January 1, 2007 11:57 PM | Posted by mercurial scribe: | Reply

Quite the intelligent rip on the article. Leaves me thinking...

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Couldn't agree more with yo... (Below threshold)

January 2, 2007 11:04 PM | Posted by Abby Normal: | Reply

Couldn't agree more with your observation of mass narcissism. An excellent book which discusses this very topic, written in 2002, by one of my favorite authors, Ken Wilber, "Boomeritis."

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What is the healthy alterna... (Below threshold)

January 5, 2007 5:38 AM | Posted by Michael Didj: | Reply

What is the healthy alternative to narcism? The problem, as I see it, with the DSM, is that it does not have anything but pathologies/personality flaws and that there has never been a human that can avoid being classified within this obviously slanted classification system. It seems to assume its own objectivity, denying the subjective reality we all live within. Is the DSM narcisistic, psychopathic or just pessimistic?

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Bit of a narcissistic post ... (Below threshold)

January 5, 2007 1:24 PM | Posted by Ewan McIntosh: | Reply

Bit of a narcissistic post in itself, is it not, given that you (and I) believe that our view is worth any more than those who don't blog?

I think self-publishing is really important for blowing the hierarchies and givens that, in the end, are not that great after all. I've written a few posts these last few days on this kind of thing:
http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2007/01/collective_dumb.html

and here:
http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2007/01/can_the_last_pe.html

People who write blogs or post to YouTube are very much real things and what they produce is real, even if it isn't made from atoms. What's the difference, except that it's now easier to get hold of what others are up to and believe?

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Interesting. But aren't w... (Below threshold)

January 8, 2007 5:57 AM | Posted by irene: | Reply

Interesting. But aren't we all the centre of our own reality anyways? George Bush hasn't affected my life in anyway. Or anyone else I read about in the paper. True, he's affected other people's lives, but not mine.

This isn't narcissism, it's fact. The only people who really shape my reality are those I come into contact with everyday. Teachers, friends, family. Even local politicians have more impact on my life than so called 'great men'.

I'd put my faith in what I can see and touch and feel in front of me over some newspaper anyday.

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It always seems clear how i... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2007 9:17 PM | Posted by Matt Ray: | Reply

It always seems clear how important and independent you are, until some small change intrudes. More often than not, our "control" of life is really our ability to adapt to habit. If any one today thinks he is truly great or in control, it is only because his life is abnormally dull and patterned.

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It always seems clear how i... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2007 9:18 PM | Posted by Matt Ray: | Reply

It always seems clear how important and independent you are, until some small change intrudes. More often than not, our "control" of life is really our ability to adapt to habit. If any one today thinks he is truly great or in control, it is only because his life is abnormally dull and patterned.

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Strange, I have always thou... (Below threshold)

February 1, 2007 12:53 AM | Posted by Clark B.: | Reply

Strange, I have always thought of myself as the main character in my movie and describing such a self-image as a symptom of narcissism took me by surprise. It makes sense, but how else can we perceive our own reality?

With 2006s POTY, Time Magazine spreads an element of Postmodernism to all (or, the rest) of the American public. Finally, everyone knows that their very own movie is the one playing, unfortunately, what they fail to realize is that their movie is comprised of cut samples and imitations from previous movies and used ideas. It reminds me of a meta-physical self-philosophy that is premised with a comprehensive literature review -- or the surrounding environment (most likely encompassed by the media). Now, people are defined by the media they are exposed to and the interaction between media and their immediate environment.

Additionally, with postmodernism, there is no natural law or natural order anymore. All claims are disputable: I’m sure you and your Harvard friend you mentioned could argue over what Carlyle meant with countless sound bites to backup your respective premises and that each of your paraphrases are colorful interpretations of what the you both perceive of Carlyle and his writing. The same way medical professionals might argue back and forth about the effects of certain drugs or the way I would imagine how an evolutionary scientist and a religious figure would have an intelligent discussion on the larger questions in life. Whether for monetary gain or to prevent a narcissistic injury the end results in absolute or clear denial of the other’s ideology.

The abundance of accessible information and unlimited self-expression (in the form of entertainment and communication) has changed the world, is changing individuals and will change leadership... (sounds like a cliché Time would say about the person of the year, right?) Well, the takeaway part is that the information, if it was an original piece of information in the first place now is taken only for what it is perceived or manipulated to mean (marketing anybody?). Although we’ve always know that reality is individual perception in the first place… but back in Carlyle’s time we would have relied on great men to shape reality for us. And, really, how great would those men have been if we would have had unlimited information on them back then?

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I disagree in part and agre... (Below threshold)

April 23, 2007 12:18 AM | Posted by Christian Rubio: | Reply

I disagree in part and agree in part. The Internet is human space, digitized. To deny that is to deny that we are what we say, how we say it, where we say it, and when we do that on purpose, to make ourselves heard, we are empowering ourselves. Call it mass narcissism, but I don't see millions of people making their own porn or faking their own deaths. The fact is that we simply are just expanding our social reach. The fact that marketers can take advantage of it means that it is of inherent value to people.

Emile Durkheim made observations a century (or more?) ago about urbanity making people feel more isolated and anonymous. So we are urban online? Okay. So what?

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I love the combination of p... (Below threshold)

January 26, 2008 12:43 PM | Posted by Karl : | Reply

I love the combination of psychiatric fact and philosophical diagnosis you have in your writing. Postmodern analysis of the narcissistic condition? I think I'm getting a chubby.

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If this is indicative of ou... (Below threshold)

June 22, 2008 11:28 PM | Posted by Way out of date: | Reply

If this is indicative of our culture, then aren't they right to make "Me" person of the year?

Maybe they have too positive of a spin on it for you, but I fail to see how your point and their essentially differ. You seem to both be saying that we live in a culture driven by the individual.
And we do.

And I doubt this post will convince you--because I don't have the right signature--I'm not someone who you think matters.

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The only true people of the... (Below threshold)

January 31, 2009 1:45 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The only true people of the year are those who don't WANT to be people of the year, but only help. Death of ego ftw.

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You actually make it seem s... (Below threshold)

March 30, 2013 8:27 AM | Posted by Roxanne: | Reply

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