So I was on a patio with some colleagues the other day, sipping a pint of something hoppy and enjoying the last shreds of light that would make it over the low-rises that line Young St. that day. We had met earlier in the day to discuss a paper that I’d recently written, and were now toasting the upcoming Easter long-weekend at a location suitably removed from the stress and troubles of our workplace.
By the beginning of the second pint, the conversation had turned to facing one’s limits as an academic (a topic fresh in my mind, having just faced a healthy round of critique from these very gentlemen). It was proposed there aren’t any more Aristotles, or Leibnizes about, not because a of a dearth of talent, but because all of the nice fresh philosophical territory had already been staked out and despoiled. It’s like, it was suggested, being an inventor – there can be no more Edisons, because Edison already took care of all of the easy stuff.
I’m sure there’s something to this, and therefore something to that old post-modern notion that ‘it’s all been said already’. The situation in the art world seems perfectly analogous – once you’ve had a performance piece where nothing happens, or a show that involves nothing but an empty gallery, what conventions are there left to challenge?
Think this way is something of a comfort – it soothes my anxiety about being a mediocre thinker, and assures me that it isn’t my fault that the world hasn’t lined up at my door. But I also can’t help but feel that it’s missing the point, some fundamental point about what it is to be a human being in the 21st century.
What if individuals just don’t matter that much anymore? We needed for there to be Picassos and Liebnizes, but their time is over. Now, we need to learn to collaborate on projects that are larger than ourselves. Go back to the invention analogy for a moment – we’re currently cranking out gadgets that would make Edison go googly eyed. But who invented the iPhone? Or the Large Hadron Collider? Those questions are practically meaningless.
It seems plausible to me that philosophy needs to regard itself as in a similar situation. Actually, let me make that a bit more personal; I need to regard myself as in that situation. My fame, as a philosopher, just doesn’t matter. Oh, it matters as far as getting a job is concerned and all that, but not in any ultimate sense. I’ll have to learn to live with the strange duality of promoting myself as a brand, while knowing that I’m a leaf in the wind.
That’s a tough one for someone who was raised at the height of the Self-Esteem Movement to swallow. I was told by everyone I looked up to that I was Special, that if I put my mind to it, I could achieve anything. I guess it never occurred to the people saying those things that if anything is possible for me, then anything less than absolute success was entirely my fault, and a failure to achieve my potential. If I’m not a Picasso, an Aristotle, a Liebniz, it’s because I didn’t ‘put my mind to it’, and somehow I’ve let down the fondest hopes of my grade 3 teacher.
The conclusion that I’ve come to is that I don’t particularly matter. I’m unique, but not special. If it wasn’t me doing the work I’m doing, it would be the 100s of other people doing similar things. What matters is the great stream of life that we’re all participating in. If I can contribute one normal human-sized quantity of effort to improving its flow, and do it in a way that maximizes my talents, there is nothing more to hope for. In the blink of an eye it will all be gone, and history will have forgotten me – and that’s as it should be.
I left the pub feeling sick – I have been sick for days, and shouldn’t have been drinking. But that nausea was clarifying somehow, grounding in the present moment. The body has a way of doing that sometimes, of grabbing hold of you and saying “you’re here now, there’s no escaping the present”. And here in the terrifying grip of the present I hope to remain, for a while.