In January I wrote an article that connected the increased use of Spotify and Netflix with the lack of direction millennials are famous for having. Yet, it´s not only billion dollar companies and streaming services that are to blame. Jacques Derrida is known worldwide, within both philosophy and literary theory, for his notion of Différance: there is no meaning without contrast, and since language consistently fails to be the unbiased, unchangeable, solid block of binaries we wish it to be, our life-long search for real truth will sadly never find its conclusion. The Frenchman was preoccupied with only words because, as he put it himself, “there is nothing outside the text.”
Therefore, it’s not only the millions and millions of pages, filled with both poetry and prose that display the existential crisis every single one of our mother tongues is in, but life itself as well. Without contrast there is no meaning, without meaning no point, and without a point, no direction. Of course the disappearance of binaries concerning race, gender, sexuality and such is not a bad thing. However, in other areas of our society a little bit of old-fashioned dueling might not have been as bad as we thought it to be. Our values, our truths, have become too set in stone. And although some might argue that in a world where populism is once again on the rise, subjects like immigration make close neighbors into harshly fighting enemies, and Brexit is not only separating the UK from the EU, but creating division among its own people as well, one might still argue that our planet is more homogenous than ever. In short, the contrasts our society used to thrive on in the past have, both through progress and the inescapable moving along of time, been lost, leaving millennials to find new goals and meaning without them.
First of all: money. From the 16th century onwards western civilization has been capitalist. We moved on from the medieval feudal system and all the misery that it had brought, and slowly began to see setting up your own shop as more important than answering to some lady, lord or king. This sudden burst of coin and commerce quickly resulted in Europe being a centre of conflict. Rivalry in trade, art, politics, science, exploration and thought divided countries, churches and people. For the first time, it was coming up with something new and original, rather than continuing to do what your father did, that would generally be rewarded. Protestants fought Catholics, the dome of Florence had to be more beautiful than the dome of Venice, and the English sonnet more coherent than the Italian, or Petrarchan one. Contrast thrived, and therefore, so did people. Apart from that, the New World had just been discovered, setting centuries of exploration in motion, not only discovering the mountains, plants and animals Europe didn´t have, but also the differences between the people living there, between us and “the other.” As time went on, the world slowly connected. The Americas, South-East Asia and Africa all got used to seeing Spanish, Portuguese, English or Dutch ships entering their harbors frequently, and the unfamiliarities and differences that used to be described as simply barbaric became subjects of curiosity and research. Our globe had turned into a place of trade, but was still very divided culturally. If one didn’t know who exactly they were, they at least knew who they were not.
Not only did contrast thrive within the outer reaches of our atmosphere, but above and beyond it as well. Religion, whichever one that might have been, played a way larger role across the planet than it does now. Not only did difference emerge out of the clashes between holy texts and gods across distinct cultures, but also from within religions themselves. Heaven and Hell were much more significant threats at the time than they are today. The motivation to be good and to work hard did not only come from inner human decency, and some genetically present passions, but from the constant fear of hell, and the hope for heaven as well. A constant notion of both good and bad was touched upon repeatedly, giving strict meaning and point to life. Yet, while time flew by, and people like Galileo started to question the flatness of our planet, Darwin found out that species had not been created within seven days but millions of years instead, and Nietzsche got so far that he dared to say that Got is tott, universal truth no longer came from the preacher everyone met once a week, but from carefully calculated science books. We got truth, but now started to lack direction.
Over the course of the late 19th and entire 20th century both capitalism and the rational disenchantment of our world continued to prevail. With distances time-wise becoming relatively shorter, because of technological advances, distinctions disappeared one after another. Industrialization made lots of products accessible to everyone; the radio, the television, airplanes, sea containers and telephones made humanity more of a whole than ever before. Capitalist (American) culture defeated the Nazi’s, and afterwards came out on top at the end of the Cold War. Nations that used to be colonies, had – in inexplicably terrible ways – adjusted to Western systems, making buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, paired with an ice-cold coke, as accessible in Mumbai, India as in Kentucky itself. Feminist marches, civil rights movements, gay parades disable binary after binary, and, as I wrote in January, even the old and the young are meeting in the middle. Globalization has brought us closer together, and made humanity more of a whole, rather than a separated species. Several of the binaries that used to be at the foundation of our society have disappeared. And in those cases, Jacques Derrida’s Différance will no longer have two counterparts to base its existence on. What’s white if there’s no black? What’s indigenous if everything is American? And what is heaven without hell? Has modernism finally reached a point of no return, or are we slowly moving towards a problem-free blank slate, ready to take the next step in our existence? In this world of freedom, with its meanings not always as decipherable as they used to be, seeking clear direction can be quite the task. What to do when there is no God to tell you? Why put energy into one´s culture if there isn’t another one to detest, envy or compete with? Millennials will have to simply figure it out; direction will no longer come from what not to do, but from what we want to do. And although the struggle might be tough, the result could be unreal.