Such, such were the…

Svend Brinkmann – The Joy of Missing Out (Polity)

I was on Twitter watching Charlie Brooker casually accept his status as a prophet because the current UK Big Brother contestants don’t know what’s going on outside: a mass pandemic; a scenario very much like his Dead Set.

He isn’t a mystic. What’s really happening is that when the context shifts, the lens through which you see everything is swapped.

I turned around, literally a second after reading the tweet, and there was this book. A yellow smiley helium balloon on the cover, rising away from our grasp.

It wasn’t a premonition, it has just become very ‘now’.

Brinkmann’s diagnosis seemed to be officially enshrined in art by Damien Hirst back in 1991: ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’.

Brinkmann wants us to drop this and stay in one groove. Find a single thing and do it. His vision for the future just became real, but without the ‘Joy’.

Only the Big Brother housemates are gleefully missing out.

Brinkmann argues that we need to live better. Make not doing things become as important as doing them. This is classic existentialist territory and he appropriately draws on Kierkegaard. The ‘good thing’ must be one, it cannot be split.

There are clear lines forward to Sartre and ‘bad faith’, but there’s a whiff of Christian fervour in the quest for purity of motive in this book. The Kierkegaard works on paper, but in real life? The moment you get a job, a completely necessary thing to have to survive for most, you are in a state of split. Millions of people in offices testify to being pumped by what they do, in order to get what they really want.

The infinite potential of freedom is not freedom, it is just potential. As soon as you move from the seemingly limitless possibilities in the abstract and start to employ or ‘spend’ your freedom in a concrete world – exercising that still historically novel thing, ‘choice’ – you immediately become less free.

But the argument here is actually more specific: The drive to do everything in a world of inequality is what gets at Brinkmann – he lives in Denmark where inequality is not high – but he sees how the global and globalised world has become a horror story of polar societies.

What we are seeing now is the inverse of The Joy of Missing Out. What happens when ‘missing out’ becomes a highly necessary dictat in the unequal society Brinkmann lightly describes? The UK government promise mortgage holidays for owners and nothing for renters. The tenured are paid work or play, the casualised thrown to the wolves. Of course, that’s just business as usual in Britain, only now in a warped, zombie movie mirror image.

Brinkmann nervously insists the politics are more robust in this book than in previous volumes of his. But the real kernel is still absent. Not doing something as a choice of free will versus not doing something because you cannot do anything due to economic circumstances more rigid than a caste system.

Not doing something as a choice of free will that can be described at upper middle class dinner parties, in order to take a distinctive lead over the other diners. Not doing something you want to do because you have to clean their house after their party, which has just become not doing anything, because of coronavirus. And in Britain there are several layers of not doing anything because of coronavirus, depending on your allotment in the economic caste.

Brinkmann is arguing for moderation. But this is often described as a personal choice, not a structural fix. If everyone ‘missed out’ the economy would risk collapse. Now we see how. It’s just that some people can miss out and still get paid, the others, well they can fuck off and die.

Spinoza preached moderation in all things, as he moderately worked away, grinding lenses. The glass powder reduced his lungs from moderately useful organs to fatal ones.

Coronavirus has been described as looking like glass powder under x-ray.

The Joy of Missing Out now has inverted wedding cake layers of hell Dante could never have imagined.

On the one hand the subject of this book is a hot topic. And it is well-communicated and engaging. On the other hand, it is perhaps unluckily timed.

– Steve Hanson

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