As worship fades from intangible but admirable things, it tends to turn toward small, insignificant, hedonistic and banal things. As we steer from religion and statesmen and into the Information Age, we begin to think that things like, for example, food or celebrities are really important.
Here’s the thing.
Society must decohere.
It’s a phenomenon I can’t even begin to explain. Theories abound, but none are complete—that’s why they remain only theories instead of laws; laws in the way that Physics has laws. However, history is ridden with the bloodstains of this particular theory.
The corpses of nations litter it, dead hands curled in frustration as time marches overtop, uncaring where it puts its enormous footprints.
Poetics aside, though, what normally happens is that people tend to narrow their focus down after a little bit. When the Roman virtues fail, the Republic falls and the Empire rises. Democracy is left behind, individual self-determination takes a hit, but the whole mess keeps chugging for a bit because people still believe in the state. They believe in its ability to feed them, keep them employed, keep them in luxury and to keep handing them military victories and national pride.
As conditions randomize and become unstable (as all things must), as the empire overextends and begins to take losses, as its politicians and generals become obviously corrupt and venal, and as the central pillars of things for your average, everyday, C-grade human being to believe in starts to deplete, you wind up with veneration for things that it makes no sense to venerate.
Let’s start with the biggest one that’s probably popped up in your head. Rappers! Pop stars. Empty, obviously-commercial musical acts are our first sign that things are moving in the wrong direction, especially when they start to bring in massive profits for themselves. We can talk about the message from these people later, but for now let’s just look at the symbolism.
Thou shalt not worship false idols, says the Ten Commandments, and it would matter more if those huge rocks Moses carved (or had carved by God) with those Commandments also still commanded any respect among your great mass of average which is the current population of the West.
So now when you lose religion, and when you lose faith in the politician’s ability to effect actual change—which causes you to deride, or ignore politics—and when your military no longer has causes to fight for, and hasn’t won a meaningful battle in a long time or is being constantly defeated (as ISIL terrorist attacks rock the world over and over and over) you turn to bright, shining people on television. Or on your phones. On Twitter, or whatever.
They’re compelling. Complicated. Provide voyeuristic thrill with their infighting and inbreeding, and hell! It’s something to do right before or after work, or while you’re eating or stoned or drinking or whatever it happens to be.
The problem is that after a few years, this is sort of what you’re into, isn’t it? You get hooked, like a new television show or something else that plays to your vague interest and vanity, and stop building human capital.
What’s human capital? Total economic utility that you have. For example, I’m a writer, and I can cook, and I can do both well enough that people are willing to pay me for them. The cooking bit requires a lot of thinking about how to execute dishes, how not to ruin food, and so forth. The writing bit includes a lot of research and reading, both for content and for a better understanding of form and figure and grammar.
When watching celebrities trumps building human capital, you have yourself a problem where your society begins inescapably to become, on average and as a trend, much less useful. Socioeconomic death begins to creep through the ranks of the C-grade average of the Great Mass like the winds of plague, and when it affects people, it also affects their children (again, on average and as a trend), and those children are unlikely to become more useful than their parents were.
I see this beginning to happen in the West as early as the 1950s or 60s, with Elvis and the Beatles and all that other stuff—wherever the personality began to overshadow the art. And what happens? Well, just like you listen to, I dunno, Kanye West instead of listening to his music, you also begin to vote for what Barack Obama looks like instead of his actual policies. You begin to undergo a transition from substance to surface worship.
It’s a phenomenon I call “Veneration Shift.”
This also applies in a multitude of other ways.
People begin to drastically emphasise their cosmetics. A world where your appearance and your fashion sense begins to, ironically, become human capital and a major driver for the regional economy—where clothing stores begin to out-populate hardware stores, or computer stores.
Let’s take another example, one that might hit home a little hard—the Internet.
So, the Internet is a massive resource for everybody. We speculate that at some point, as it finishes assimilating us voluntarily, it will contain the entire sum total of the human experience as it currently exists. That is, every thought, every line of history, every idea ever written. When you think about it, all that stuff is reality, and actual physical existence is sort of a pale shadow of it.
What do you use it for, though?
You take pictures of food. Food that other people made, oftentimes. What could be more devoid of human capital, while at the same exact time not being harmful enough to raise any particular flags?
But see how it begins to take over the framework of the society. We no longer confine it to food. It begins to include pets. Pornography. Candid shots. Strange scenes from life. It becomes a voyeurism that we no longer even get from watching our celebrities anymore, because now you have a stake and it feels like you’re doing more.
Okay. I’ll lay off. I like social media too, but I tend to use it like a sword instead of a popularity contest, which is ironic because once again, those two metaphors sort of hearken back to the two facets of history; war and politics. Force and adulation; things we can’t get rid of in ourselves, so simply pervert (or, as I may make the argument, have perverted).
Really, one is just a way to achieve the other.
Okay so. What causes this veneration shift?
Simple. Propaganda and delegitimacy.
When you can’t get or talk about real information about what’s going on both in the world and in your own country, it becomes hard to stay interested. This is one more way in which censorship and even the slightest “control” over the content of the news eventually turns into a full-fledged social cancer.
So you turn your attention to other things, and eventually toward hedonism. Whether that takes days or generations, it seems to eventually happen no matter what obstacles are in the way. In Rome, it was gladiators. In China, it became singers and actors.
Our own culture, it’s all that and an apparently-new phenomenon known as “socialites.” Your Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians, though layabout losers having a lot of social clout wasn’t unknown in Rome either, with Claudius Pulcher and so forth.
As you do that, the government begins to unfetter itself from the chains of its population. It begins to be able to do all sorts of stuff once people stop paying attention to it, which has always caused me to wonder if there’s a purposeful way to accomplish veneration shift. Is that why transparency gradually fades away from government agencies as they complicated, and complicated, and occlude and obscure their activities?
So that in privacy, while everyone’s paying attention to Kim Kardashian, they can torture noncombatants, print money with the fed until the economy explodes, and do backdoor deals with repressive kings of Muslim nations?
Or does it just happen because the dominoes fall that way? It’s just that the CIA in the 50s needs to invade Cuba, so they complicate and obscure things until they can do it without anyone knowing. From there, each agency does something similar, until the whole government apparatus turns invisible. Then other institutions do something similar, like fog creeping across the face of a once-clearly-lit grassland, and eventually you get veneration shift.
I like the latter theory. It’s much less sinister, and reversible, and plays to my contention that the Great Mass is just a bunch of C-average students.