I’ve been depressed lately.
OK, bit of an understatement there. It’s actually been pretty crippling. On some days I barely function.
I’m not going to bore you with the details, except for the one relevant bit: most of the reasons I’m depressed are not personal. My work’s going well and my marriage is a source of constant happiness. No, the reasons are largely external, and right now I only want to talk about one of them: the relentless negativity of the internet.
I don’t just mean the various reactionary trolls (liberal or conservative flavour doesn’t make much difference when it comes to segregationist misanthropic assholes) or other outright destructive behaviour. I mean the general negativity that seems to dominate the culture these days: the attitude that never engaging with anything, dismissing whatever you don’t immediately understand, constantly posing as a world-weary cynic whose only source of pleasure is nostalgia for particular brands, somehow constitutes being a healthy human being.
It’s almost like the internet wants things to be bad. People signal their belonging to “geek culture” by hating the right things, even if they’ve never seen or read or played them. It’s just what you do to show you belong, a hollow, ritualistic gesture. And then there’s signalling your moral superiority by hating things other people like. X is racist sexist transphobic heteronormative misogynoir filth! Y is SJW propaganda for cultural Marxists! How dare you like it! My group is above such things! It doesn’t matter whether it’s in any way factually true that Lana Wachowski secretly hates black people or Fury Road was written by feminist academics bent on destroying American classics that are actually Australian.
What matter is that you be seen hating the right thing.
And don’t get me wrong, talking about a work of art you hated can be fun, and so can listening to someone else take it apart. I enjoy Zero Punctuation. I am entertained by the Cinema Snob taking apart some crappy religious movie. But you know what? Most people aren’t as talented or as funny as the guys running those shows. And even under the best of circumstances, too much sarcasm can become mind-numbing, and if you focus too much on things you hate, you’ll start seeing things to hate everywhere. That happened to me with Battlestar Galactica, a TV show so profoundly misanthropic it actually made me start seeing misanthropy everywhere – even in shows that were truly great and didn’t deserve my scorn. I don’t want to be in that headspace.
Every now and then I end up seeing a terrible movie or reading a terrible book, and I come up with some snarky things to say about it. And I think… why? What am I contributing to the world with these remarks? Like I said, well-done criticism by funny people is something I approve of, but would you really be surprised that a Marxist ended up walking out of the sneak preview of Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie? What’s the point in telling you how much I disliked The Force Awakens? Am I doing anything other than contributing to the noise that’s threatening to drown out our humanity?
One of the most awful things about this fashionable negativity is the consensus that builds around certain works of art that have been labelled Bad. Some of my very favourite artistic productions (for example: the Matrix sequels, True Detective season 2) are not just disliked, but dismissed in a profoundly anti-intellectual way which doesn’t even try to engage with their complexities. What I find particularly worrying about these attitudes isn’t that someone disagrees with me, but the quasi-religious certainty and importance which is attached to these opinions. As I said above, hating specific works of art has become a signifier for belonging to specific groups, and actually knowing these works or trying to understand them on their own terms is irrelevant, while any disagreement is met with the kind of baffled disbelief rapidly mounting into anger that I associate with extremely conservative religious people finding out I don’t believe in God.
You have to keep in mind that many of today’s classics were dismissed in their own time. Blade Runner. The Great Gatsby. Moby-Dick. Pretty much the complete works of William Blake. You can make endless lists of works that were mocked as obviously awful and ridiculous that are now thought brilliant, groundbreaking, ahead of their time, and so on. And I wonder – is this attitude making it much harder for unjustly hated works to ever be recognized? If Blade Runner came out today, and the internet decided it was the biggest piece of shit ever made – “it ruined my love of Philip K. Dick books I pretend to have read!” – would the film still become a classic? If it became a byword for “bad adaptation” like the Matrix sequels have become bywords for “bad sequel”, referenced online not as a film but as a kind of code for tribal belonging, would anyone ever start engaging with it more deeply?
There’s obviously not a whole lot I can do to change these attitudes on my own, although they do depress me. But what I can do, and what I want to try doing far more from now on, is to focus on the good stuff. Instead of joining in with the chorus of negativity, or wasting my time trying to disprove the consensus on this or that work, I want to point out what I think is good. To talk about why I enjoy a certain movie or book or game. To direct your attention to good stuff you might have missed, to reasons for loving things, not hating them. (That’s why I wrote about Far Cry 2 and Austerity Ecology instead of terrible games I’ve played or ridiculous books I’ve read.)
And if I have nothing positive to say about someone else’s work, then I want to put more good things into the world myself. More stories, more ideas, more everything. I started updating the Lands of Dream site regularly. I finished the new version of The Sea Will Claim Everything (release date to be announced soon). I’m trying to find the strength to finish all my other projects. And we’re trying to move to a place that’s less soul-crushing than Frankfurt. I’m depressed, but focusing on that depression isn’t going to help. What helps – as the second season of True Detective illustrated – is doing our best to fight the good fight, even if we lose.
I don’t believe that changing ourselves changes the world. But I do believe that trying to change the world changes us. I do believe that our actions matter, as part of the greater story of humanity, and I want my contribution to that story, no matter how tiny, to be a positive one.
So here’s trying.