INTERESTING TIMES: FORMLESSNESS

 

 

 

 

 

INTERESTING TIMES

FORMLESSNESS

When the fifteen-year-old son of a friend in Budapest visited New York some years ago, he didn’t like New York very much. When I asked him why, he said that “things are too loose here.” Well, things are getting even looser.

Predictions of the future are usually wrong, among other things because they assume that things will go on as is, only more so, and things change unpredictably. Sometimes future predictions are really not so much predictions as recognitions of what already is. Sometimes they are plain wrong because life is not that simple. Here are some of the latest.

Some say that nation states will become unimportant, small, bureaucratic organizations or disappear entirely. Their place will be taken by large multinational corporations, which already do so. Huge monopolies. These multi-trillionaire companies will do what states used to do, such as space exploration, transportation systems, as done now by Elon Musk. A process of colossal privatization. The Murdoch media empire is another example.

Rule will be by the heads of these corporations, who already select those presidential candidates in the US who pledge to support their interests. That will be the end of democracy and the development of oligarchy. Oligarchy already exists in some places like Russia. Oligarchy is on the way in the US.

Educational institutions will change, too. Gone will be the liberal arts Harvards and Stanfords. Their place will be taken by corporations like Google, which will have their own specialized schools for their own purposes and hire their own graduates. All education will be pragmatically oriented.

I heard these predictions on TV the other day, in the discussion of recent books. My first reaction was that this is what Donald Trump really wants—he doesn’t want to be the democratically elected president of the US nation state; he wants to amass enough of a private fortune to become one of the leading oligarchs of the world. Trump towers everywhere. A dictator of his own, vast company.

This vision of a new world puts money in the center of the world and nationality low down on the scale. The world has been organized by nation-states perhaps starting in the sixteenth century and expanding into what we now know, only since the nineteenth century. It has been the goal of every nationality and ethnicity to have their own “nation state,” informally or formally defined. Some are still trying. It has given form to all of our discussion of geography, history, people, art, identity, even individuals. It has also led to many wars over the centuries, to determine the extent and power of states. These wars defined “nation” and “state” all the more. The nation-state was the form of our discourse and existence.

The idea of competing multinational corporations led by the CEOs of shareholders only loosely affiliated with centralized states is mindboggling. Never mind how it will work on the ground—how can we envision it intellectually and emotionally? As far as one can imagine it today, it would be a world of formlessness and perhaps chaos.

If education in future is in the hands of oligarchic corporations with their own funds, goals and employment, it will be another decentralized and formless—perhaps even balkanized—existence. Our universities, private or state-sponsored, are now basically uniform in approach and curriculum and follow centuries-old tradition. They are supposedly unrelated to individual political interests.

This vision seems to come from the US, whose population is already polyethnic and not as homogeneous as the populations of older nation-states. Sometimes desperate efforts have been made to keep its ruling racial profile white and its language English. (There has been or is discrimination against the Irish, Italians, Jews, Afro-Americans, Asians and Latinos.) As a nation-state it is already somewhat a melting pot. Currently, the US is particularly worried about the influx of Latinos from Central and South America. But the more homogeneous Europe is now in the grip of major ethnic change—millions of African and Middle Eastern peoples have migrated there and wish to migrate in the future. Racially and linguistically, they don’t fit in the old European categories and may seem to “dilute” what “nationality” means there. Both the US and Europe are worried about the influx of “brown” peoples changing the biological profile.

The recent efforts to keep foreign immigrants out are attempts to keep the old nation-state forms intact racially and ethnically. This challenges the processes of formlessness that economics and politics already promote. Keeping out such population movements seems like a losing battle, given all the current trends. Certainly races are slowly but inexorably blending, erasing some of the distinctness of biological forms. Almost ten years ago Time magazine put an attractive portrait on its cover of a woman who blended white, Asian and Afro-American features and skin color. The point was that eventually this is what we will look like.

Formlessness has affected gender. Under the influence of feminism, arising from the West but making inroads elsewhere, the traditional male and female stereotypes are being challenged. Male and female biologies are sometimes literally being altered artificially or at least in behavior. The acceptance of homosexuality of feminized men and masculinized women means that sexual orientation is no longer structured by traditional values. Recently a new word has been added to categorize sexuality, which is “pansexual.” That is, totally undefined except by the individual.

In this new world of “formlessness,” the emphasis is almost entirely on the individual rather than on entities like gender, religion, tribe and/or locality, class, perhaps even family. The individual is an atom attaching itself to this or that fluctuating form and creating in itself its own “state of being.” (It will be interesting to see what happens to languages, the last significant refuge of distinct forms.)

What are these pieces that I am writing? The basic form is an essay, but grafted on it are parts that are memoir, autobiography, history, and whatnot. The new basic form today is the “blog” on the internet. As its ungainly name implies, it is a formless form disseminated throughout the world indiscriminately. Learning, thinking, teaching, entertainment, curiosity, whatever, all is in it helter-skelter, formlessly combined. Is formlessness just a new “form” that as yet we cannot define?

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