Christine Holgate and Ellen DeGeneres
Christine Holgate and Ellen DeGeneres (Images: AAP, The Ellen DeGeneres Show)

Acceleration is the transformation of velocity. The acceleration of acceleration is known as “jerk”. The next step was once known as “jounce”, now “snap”. Where are we in the process by which the culture is consuming itself? Somewhere between jerk and jounce, I suspect.

Here’s a few examples from the past week.

Christine Holgate is interviewed on ABC Breakfast on Monday. The former Australia Post CEO was heralded by her supporters as someone who strove to defend the post as a public institution. She has now taken a plum job at Australia Post’s commercial rival.

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As AusPost head she went through a bruising political process that is nevertheless one of the conditions of a well-remunerated public position. Both jobs presume a certain day-to-day robustness to be effective at them. The ABC interview zeroes-in on the notion of stress, pain and trauma Holgate had put front and centre in the fallout from her ousting.

Elsewhere, Ellen DeGeneres announces her high-ranking talk show will end next year. DeGeneres became besieged in 2020 following high-profile reports of bullying and toxic culture at the show. It’s hard to tell from those reports whether the actions were bullying, or the high-pressure abrasiveness that characterises daily TV production, or what combination of both. DeGeneres, who has spruiked the motto “be kind” as a corporate brand, describes the attacks as orchestrated, a product of “misogyny”.

A quirky story floats around the globe concerning the Italian translation of the 2020 film Promising Young Woman, which, like most foreign-language films coming into Italy, is dubbed. The actor chosen to dub one character — a transwoman whom most viewers will read as a (cis) woman — is dubbed by a man. The decision is obviously stupid and cack-handed. Italy’s leading trans actor describes it for the media as “an act of violence” which amounts to bullying of the actor being dubbed.

Rick Morton, a moving and powerful writer and a great forensic journalist, releases My Year Of Living Vulnerably, in which his acute description of a painfully lonely and disconnected twenties is intertwined with an advocacy of an encompassing notion of “trauma” as a very general cause of many psychic disorders.

Morton’s argument is strong on a neurological explanation of such — PTSD, as past events essentially embedding themselves in the brain. The latter slant of the book causes it to be praised by Black Dog Institute head Ian Hickie. The institute is one of Australia’s big depression, er, big dogs, and a powerful advocate for psychiatric-neurological explanations of behaviour.

Two more people you know announce they have been diagnosed with ADHD, are now taking medication and feel “right” for the first time in ages — by now a weekly event. You recall a column in The Guardian by a hard core left theoryhead who knew the score about theories of sociopsychic alienation from Adorno to Zygmunt Bauman — and who wrote a column celebrating his ADHD diagnosis like he had come to Jesus, and all that stuff had gone out the window.

The US is moving closer to authorising MDMA (a party drug which forms part of ecstasy) for therapeutic psychiatric use after positive studies show its affects in dealing with depression and trauma. The drug, chemically related to SSRIs but a supercharged version, was once assessed as neurotoxin even by the rave community that used them heavily. They are now marked as safe as big pharma looms. The prospect of a super-bullet against depression is greeted by many with a barely contained excitement.

One could obviously add dozens of examples to these, even from the past few weeks. There would be as much point deconstructing them all one by one as defusing a minefield.

What is worth considering is how these different features of the current culture are becoming not merely dominant, but the common assumption of what it is to be a person, and how these are beginning to reinforce each other.

The different examples give the way in which this is happening. The Christine Holgate episode shows how the media is giving it velocity. Holgate was involved in a public political process, in which she got into some — purely discursive — argy-bargy. The attention to her psychic state undermines any notion that we should focus on the public process and assume a personal robustness in relation to it.

Public life thus steadily decays into claim and counterclaim of personal damage. What may be legal strategies become shaping narratives of damaged personhood, handed down intergenerationally. Selfhood becomes damagehood. It accelerates when, a la Ellen, damage accusations are replied to with counter-damage, attached to specific identities.

Acceleration is accelerated when the claims of damage are joined together as a force multiplier. The Italian actor’s combination of “violence” and “bullying” together, to describe someone hiring the wrong person, are a typical example of turning the whole field of human interaction into a clash of wrongs and victimhoods. The “violence-inflation” uses the power of real violence to supercharge a claim of identity-based damage (a move pioneered by domestic violence campaigners, who now seem to realise what a disastrous move it was — everything from a family annihilation to social faux pas are assessed as “violence”).

With violence everywhere, omnipresent in purely linguistic interactions, the jounce effect is the generalisation of notions of trauma and PTSD. The latter was developed to characterise the severe symptoms of soldiers and civilians surviving the new horrors of mechanised and automated war.

But if life is a war of positions, then PTSD — rather than “neurosis” or “negative frameworks”, etc — becomes the increasingly universal explanation for life’s disappointments and (often grievous) insufficiencies.

As the Freudian and existentialist approaches to life of the ’60s era fade, the relatively brief reign of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other “framework” theories fade too. As do SSRIs, relatively mild serotonergics much of whose effect may be placebo, the physicalised “gift” given by the healer to the sufferer, carrying concretised magical powers of connection, attachment and renewed meaning.

The enthusiasm for ADHD is at least in part because it allows you to TAKE AMPHETAMINES and their euphorising effect redirects you to a world of purpose. Its acceleration out of the melancholy arising from a culture of crushing globality, insistent moralising, meaning leached from life by the technologisation of social interaction and the marketisation of everything. (As Jounce was renamed “snap”, American scientists have named the next two levels of acceleration “crackle” and “pop”, which… ergggghhh).

Critical theorists leap to brain chemicals because the authorised left mash up of Marx, Adorno, Foucault, etc, is not too deep but too shallow — uttely inadequate to explain the crises we are passing through.

Now, with MDMA back on the horizon, global PTSD can be treated by a neurotransmitter supercharger with some real grunt to it. The slightly equalising effect of SSRIs — one which allows individual personality to persist while putting a temporary (often useful and necessary) floor underneath it — will yield to the far more generalising effect of MDMA, a lesser version of the deliberate effect sought in recreational use, in which everyone says stupid lovey things to each other and stares at the pretty lights.

No answers here, as I say. The first task is simply to try and identify what’s going on, and consolidation appears to be the mode we are in at the moment. That raises the question of what type of cultural moment it is. There are strong features of the Chinese Cultural Revolution about it, which was both a genuine mass movement and utterly unsustainable for any length of time.

But the other is, bizarrely, the long-lasting culture of radical protestants — Anabaptists, Mennonites, extreme Dutch Calvinists, Amish and the like. Such people are capable of great joy and ecstasies, but their culture — a combination of relentless moral self-examination, mutual judgment with a notion of “election” which positions one throughout life as perched on the edge of the pit of hell — produces in them an everyday melancholy which becomes the baseline of cultural action. Non-election is their “cancellation”.

Their plight seems analogous with ours, especially what appears to be (though perhaps exaggerated in cross-generational view) the widespread default unhappiness of much of a rising generation — a few levels beyond that suffered by Generation X. I wonder if we are in for a few more jerks and jounces yet.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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