IMG_20150218_111254968A teacher of mine in college used to say that the Old Testament prophets didn’t quite get supernatural revelation, but they read the future just like everyone else. But while other prophets would read the signs of the times in the stars, or in a peculiar palm-line, or in hallucinogenic-induced visions, the Hebrew prophets read the future from a close examination of Israel’s heart. Because the heart of a culture – often something few are aware of until decades later, if ever – determines its future, directs its role in the complex drama between humanity and God, traces the plight from which God must rescue them.

To be clear, no culture today seems nearly as bound up in close interrelation to Providence as Israel was, and for Christianity, odds are that none ever will be. But this business of reading the human heart continues, occasionally in such preternatural geniuses as J.G Hamann or Hannah Arendt, though now the task is more modest and more mundane. A group of people are paid billions of dollars to see, if not where we’re going, at least where we are – to mark out the desires and insecurities of a culture and stimulate and allay them, respectively. Those people are advertisers.

As some have noted, this Super Bowl season saw a turn towards the serious, reflecting perhaps the growing moral momentum of various (good) causes or, in the case of that depressing child accident ad, a terror (and concomitant fetishization) of culpability. This tracks well with an increasingly litigious and fault-finding legal culture, one where sledding is banned in public parks (scared of liability) and a Maryland couple is being investigated for neglect for allowing their children to walk home from school unattended in an era probably safer than the idealized 1950s. Which is to say, our nervousness about being caught up in sins of commission is next-to-nothing; omission as a parent, worker, or philanthropist terrifies us. Do more, do more, do more. That the Maryland couple couldn’t defend themselves by saying “we’re just parenting the way everyone did until very recently”, but instead had to label themselves “free-range parents”, speaks to a staggeringly myopic view of our time in history.

On another note, by far the weirdest national ad on sports TV in the past few months was the one with an anthropomorphic bladder dragging a woman around town, a 2014 commercial which keeps getting re-aired.[1] Interestingly enough, the person-on-a-leash trope isn’t entirely uncommon now. It’s a potent symbol for how we want to be the ones running our lives and choosing our course, but we’re all-too-frequently slaves to schedule, commitment, or the vagaries of our flesh.[2] With computers, a host of prescription meds, and especially smartphones, we’re less defined by our limitations than ever, though perhaps more fixated on them. What we can do is a receding horizon, receding along a mechanic similar to what behavioralists call loss aversion or anchoring. That is, something in life makes me more capable – for instance, getting a smartphone – and I feel efficient and competent for a time, but then become focused on the next limitation. Which is to say, we certainly don’t feel less bound by our limitations than we used to, but with products always promising to help us transcend them, we feel more and more like these limitations are fixable or transcendible.

Again, the pressure here seems to be towards doing more, always more. To quote Giorgio Agamben (a passage I found in Nimi Wariboko‘s Pentecostal Principle),

Separated from his impotentiality, deprived of the experience of what he cannot do, today’s man believes himself capable of everything, and so he repeats his jovial ‘no problem,’ and his irresponsible ‘I can do it,’ precisely when he should instead realize that he has been consigned in unheard of measure to forces and processes over which he has lost all control. He has become blind not to his capacities but to his incapacities, not to what he can do but to what he cannot, or can not, do.

And while bodily infirmities are certainly bad things (the tension between our ever-proliferating euphemisms for bodily problems and our obsession with mitigating them notwithstanding), I wonder what an ad for deeper infirmities would look like. Being dragged by one’s judgmentalism into a friendship-ruining reproof? Being tugged by the need to be proud of a kid into a ruinous parenting decision? It would be abstract, certainly, and terrifying.

If the multi-billion-dollar heart-reading industry helps diagnose where we are now, where might we be going?

One could guess that drug companies may start profiting less from people with specific conditions and more from everyday people. The off-prescription Adderall boom (for everything from finishing a tight work deadline to cleaning one’s house) already shows a movement in this direction, and lobbyists will probably find a way, eventually, to legally push everyday enhancers to otherwise healthy people. You also might expect a boom in the sleep industry (again, already happening), first towards non-prescription sleep aids becoming more common and, eventually, ways to decrease the amount of sleep one needs, as sleep is the ultimate everyday limitation on our capacities.

As these trends continue, doing too little will likely continue to be seen as something blameworthy: iflaw enforcers prosecute the Maryland couple for neglect, then doing too little will be enough of a crime for legal sanction, as when adultery was considered an egregious enough private-life violation for government prosecution. And we can expect a continued rise in presumed (and felt) guilt for doing too little, for wasting time. But just as Victorian-era sexual repression led to weird sublimations of the sex-instinct, you could expect extreme corrections to continue: sensory deprivation chambers, outlandishly expensive spas, and the like. As the law becomes more extreme, so does the trespass.

And, finally, failure will probably continue to be praised in web thinkpieces and management seminars, as the one place we are brought face-to-face with our impotentiality, that great impasse with which Agamben thinks we’ve lost touch. To be sure, this too can be fetishized as a stepping-stone to success, and when failure becomes a technique, as in management seminars, we really have lost touch. But I can’t help but think they’re onto something, even if they’re going about it the wrong way. True rest – and even true religion – can come from failure. I remember hearing Mary Karr,in a talk well-worth a listen (below), discussing a total bottoming-out in her life: coming to state in which there was simply nothing more for her to do, as everything she had done up until then had led her to a state of abject paralysis and despair. Though deeply averse to religion, she started praying, not as another self-help technique, but because all techniques had failed: and on those interminable days when ennui migrates from a haze around one’s life to an excruciating condition at the soul’s heart (even to the sundering of soul and spirit, KJV), those long afternoon hours have to pass somehow. It worked, sort of – she now only occasionally wants to kill everyone on the subway.

Which is another way of saying that despite the co-optation of failure by self-help and business (most timely/egregious example here), true bottoming-outs will stand out even more. Who knows, maybe our overcoming of more and more physical and professional limitations will bring those still-persistent spiritual failures into sharper relief.


[1] Weirdest local (and maybe of all of them) Super Bowl ad goes to the upper South / Mid-Atlantic region for a national-security rendition of plumbing, featuring an awful Obama impersonation. Were Hegel alive today, he would undoubtedly decide that the entire history of local advertisements had reached its final culmination.

[2] Note to Google, if you’re reading: after the thirty or so searches to find that ad (“personified bladder”), with a few corresponding variants of “person on leash” searches, please don’t use that data to personalize ads and links. Though it may be better than the repeated pitches for Christian singles dating sites.