I lead a double life, of a kind maybe more common that I generally allow for. One life is mostly virtual, and is radical in its preoccupations with change, collapse, new stories and emergent alternative ways of thinking and doing. The other is a mostly normal, wholly unremarkable daily existence in a stable, affluent corner of a stable, affluent western nation, where every day clean water comes out of the tap, the shelves of the organic supermarket are full, parents push prams or lead well-fed toddlers along the pavement, workers commute to jobs and hipsters click away at Macbooks in the company of latte macchiatos.
Since emerging from childhood, I’ve always lived some variant of this double life. My cultural tastes, intellectual interests and wildest dreams have always tended to the further extremes of progressive and avant-garde; my life choices have always been markedly conventional, safely located some way back from cutting edges. And you can rest assured that over the years I have regularly beaten myself up to a black and blue pulp over what I’ve judged to be the glaring inconsistencies and spectacular bad faith of such a life.
I’m writing this on the threshold of some major life changes, which are oriented with at least the intention of bringing my values and dreams more into line with the texture of my everyday life – though without much of a plan, or the expectation that reality will pan out as I might care to anticipate. Perhaps as part of an imperceptible process of arriving at this point, I’ve been giving a vast amount of circuitous, inconclusive, and quite possibly useless thought to that bedrock of constant normality that underpins my own life, and which I encounter with a shock of misrecognition each time I quit the Chinese-box interlocked spaces of my apartment, broadband connection and mindset.
Misrecognition, to the extent that ordinary life is a blind spot, a terra incognita, a sticking place in much of the radical thinking in which I steep my attention. By ordinary life, I sort of mean that of the big, middling social tranche of the so-named ‘silent majority’: the people whose worlds are only ever sketched en masse and are so steady as to be unremarkable, fitting neither the archetypal narratives of progressiveness – personal transformations in social consciousness through will or suffering – nor the poster-child needs of ultra-conservatism. Those men and women that you pass every day, whose stories are not on your radar, who go to work and keep paying the rent / mortgage and sending their children to school and university, are not made redundant and do not write to their political representatives.
This ordinary life sits uneasily nowadays, cast as both victim and perpetrator of interlocking global predicaments of almost beyond-thinkable complexity. At the quick, leading edge perceptions of economic collapse, global warming, peak oil and large-scale environmental degradation contend (and I agree) that the life that passes for ordinary in affluent industrialised nations is wrong, and needs – or will be forced – to change. Yet, implacably, for the moment at least, in a great many places, because it is normal that life goes on. The lack of mainstream political will and vision to lead on the changes needed is well-rehearsed, and is matched by a deep vein of distaste for paternalistic state interventions aimed – with mixed success – at persuading or nudging citizens towards behaviour changes. Yes, there is also a groundswell of ground-up progressive ideas and initiatives, such as Transition Towns, that are significantly expanding their reach and influence; but for understandable reasons their self-reporting focuses predominantly on positive successes and self-reinforcement, and has little to say about the people and communities not at all touched by or involved with them.
Apart from the unknown quantity of silence, the faltering of silent majority as a placeholder for the ordinary lives of ordinary people is that – like sheeple, sleepers, mindless consumers, zombies, and the other labels which righteously point up the wrongness of ordinary life – it’s a big picture idea that breaks up once you start looking closely. On a personal scale the labels evanesce, leaving other human beings much like yourself who, as the film director Jean Renoir put it, also have their reasons. Consider also the basic facts of diversity and sharp discontinuity in the social, economic and environmental circumstances that undergird human lives and behaviours. To meet those discontinuities I could choose to travel from my stable and affluent home district in Berlin to Athens, to Detroit, to Multan, to Tuvalu; or I could move to a different district of this city, or all I honestly have to do is cross the street. Right across, in the interstices of this jagged graph, normal life goes on.
Keith Farnish dwells in some detail on the incompatible existential scales of human life. In the big picture of life evolving on Earth, the human species is an expendable nuisance; down at the single pixel level of my life and personal freedoms, or your life and personal freedoms, our importance to ourselves is absolute. Normal life has always been understood as fragile and uncertain; now it’s fundamentally unsustainable on top of that; yet once you get next to or inside normal life it can also prove astonishingly persistent and resilient, a near miraculous blend of inertia and flexibility under duress. [Dave] Pollard’s Law states that we do what we must, then what’s easy, then what’s fun. Ordinarily, people gravitate within the boundaries, possibilities and expectations shared by their families, communities and peers, and while such conformism is ritually frowned upon, it is also its own form of practical resilience. Meanwhile, ‘broken’, crisis-riddled systems somehow keep chugging on and delivering the goods (universities) or they become more porous to ingenious workarounds (black markets). And when things fall apart, some people will always manage to keep going, to get through another day, and another, and another; whatever it takes or costs.
This isn’t a romantic apologia for (my) ordinary life. To mangle Beckett, it can’t go on, but it goes on anyway. The trick, I don’t know, is to try and keep the picture in sight at all scales, whatever pain and dissonance to the sighting faculties this demands. To see the sudden and potential drastic changes, the upendings and unravelling; at the same time to see where normal remains unaffected, and life goes on. The long panoramic view of civilization collapsing; the day-to-day-to-day continuity of things where you find yourself being more or less the same – until they no longer are. To find out an impossibility: whether it is ever possible to stop short of closing the loop according to one’s own beliefs, so creating a blind spot: those textures and patterns of life that you don’t see, don’t speak or listen to, because they don’t fit the stories you believe in.
If this pitch has pointed one way, towards the terra incognita of progressive thinking; it also holds for other directions. Suggesting that ordinary life too needs to look beyond itself, and down; to see what are those groundswells lying perhaps directly beneath its feet.