E's Reviews > The Age Of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard To Be Happy

The Age Of Absurdity by Michael Foley
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's review
Mar 24, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: philosophy-criticism
Read from March 24 to 26, 2012

Any passionate writer taking on the "This is what's wrong with the world today" project is doomed to polarize his readers. Most can agree that every generation sees new trends, beliefs and technologies that are taken too far, but few can agree on the exact point at which "too far" occurs. Bearing that in mind, I was not surprised to find many of Foley's arguments to be absolutely spot-on, while others were too broad-sweeping.

Let's start with his mistakes. Steeped in his own social privilege, he dismissed many new developments that have improved the lives of thousands of people, just not necessarily white, straight, cis, able-bodied men like him. His emphasis on the pleasure-focused nature of sex today made many good points, but he dismissed all that is transgender and transsexual as mere fads complicating the beauty of what was once simple and natural. And his attempt to sound blasé with his use of the word "trannie" is obnoxious and cruel. Professors are famous for developing massive egos disabling them from considering any experience other than their own, but this can never be an excuse for outright xenophobia. (And shame on his publisher for letting it slide.)

Othertimes, Foley should have conceded that his arguments were sheer matters of taste. He argues well that silence is now endangered on account of the very real trend of music being played in every possible public facility - including bookstores - but he slips into a personal temper tantrum when he claims that it's the choice of rock and rap today that offends because the Baroque muzak of the olden days was innocuous. (If you want to get my 60 year-old father to leave any place, just play some Baroque.) And if I hear one more British author bemoan the fact that a young man of today will no longer name the King or Queen the most influential person but (gasp!) a pop star - y'know, someone who actually did something to earn their fame - I'm going to march in Trafalgar Square demanding the monarchy go if the UK wants to still be considered a democracy.

But I wanted to get these complaints out of the way, because Foley made many good ones that led me to see so much of the garbage that's accompanied the gifts of progress. For example:

*The openness with which we discuss sex has done wonderful things to reduce unwanted pregnancy and violence. It has also led to sex becoming overwhemingly commercial - sex toys, sex exhibitions, swinger clubs - and this makes it one more sector of life demanding we BUY! BUY! BUY! and SPEND! SPEND! SPEND! in order for it to happen. Foley points out the emphasis on the chemical high - whether produced by orgasm or infatuation - is the often mistaken for the definition of love, detracting from the value we should place on commitment.

*The ubiquity of personal cameras and the availability of the Internet to instantly exhibit every image have done wonderful things for art and long-distance relationships. But it is also blurring the lines between living life and performing. "In the modern world," he writes, "an event has not really happened if it has not been photographed or filmed."

*The workplace has become less prison-like, more supportive of diversions and the concept of team-building. But it has also become so informal - the required conduct so aggressively friendly - that we risk losing any distinction between our professions and our personal lives.

*The surging popularity of science fiction and fantasy worlds - whether in video games or in film - has done wonderful things for our collective imagination. But it also signifies a rise in escapism, the desire to avoid issues of everyday life and role-play in time periods as far removed from the present as possible. "But fantasy makes reality seem even more disappointing," he writes, citing Kirkegaard, "and intensifies the need to escape."

*Multi-tasking has done wonderful things to combat isolation, as seen in the parents who can now work from home. But it has accelerated from managing two activities to managing three; instead of merely talking on the phone while cooking, it's now acceptable to talk on the phone while cooking and checking the Internet for any news or Tweets or Facebook status updates.

*The human rights movements of the past 40 years have done wonderful things to begin the process of bringing justice to minorities who have been disenfranchised for centuries. But justice for minorities sometimes devolves into a sense of entitlement by those hoping minority status can be used as an excuse for anti-social behavior. (This is most commonly seen regarding psychiatric disorders, wherein many seek out diagnoses and medications for themselves or their children, but not Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or anything requiring - there's that word again - commitment.) This leads to an overemphasis on identity, with which one is born and can do nothing about, instead of character, which one must work to develop.

All of these new developments have applications in certain situations, but destroy many joys of life when they dominate all situations. Foley's book is a tribute to those joys and a grumpy kick to the giant shins of their killers.

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