The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

The Inner Life of a Sinking Ship

Greg Jackson

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

“Feminism lost. Now what?” So read one of about twenty-five headlines that greeted me on my New York Times phone app when I awoke on December 30, 2016. “Your Friday Briefing,” the header ran: “Here’s what you need to know to start your day.”

“Putin Says He Won’t Expel U.S. Diplomats”; “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Hacking”; “Is This a Nest of Spies? The U.S. Says It Is”; “Spies vs. spies: A Cold War regularity that never quite cooled”; “How Russia Found Its Cyberwarriors”; “An investigation by The Times found the U.S. was slow to confront Russia”; “Trump Says Americans Should ‘Get on With Our Lives’”

After spiraling around the day’s central preoccupation, the focus shifted to violent conflict in the Middle East and the threat of terrorism at home (“Syrian Cease-Fire Frays But Doesn’t Break in First Hours”; “New Year Celebrations: Times Square’s 16-Ton Guardians of New Year’s Eve”). But as I scrolled down, something happened. A new current flowed into the darkness:

“Snatching Health Care Away From Millions”; “Smarting Living: Tips for Daily Life: An Emotional Balance Sheet to Help with Financial Choices”; “How to Combat Family Jet Lag”; “In the New Year, More Cuddling”; “Home Renovations for the Golden Years”; “In a Brutal Year in Venezuela, Even Crime Fighters Are Killers”; “Join Our Board: Companies Hotly Pursue New Wave of Women in Tech”; “A Majority Agreed She Was Raped by a Stanford Football Player. That Wasn’t Enough”; “85-Year-Old Marathoner Is So Fast That Even Scientists Marvel”

The litany said something profound. But what? It had to do with horror and anxiety, that was clear. War in Syria, election hacking, global chaos, killers, and rapists. The “16-Ton Guardians” were garbage trucks positioned to keep terrorists from driving into Times Square. Feminism was lost; now health care too.

But my sense of some tectonic uneasiness in the culture had frankly more to do with the feel-good stories and self-help features threaded through this morass of terror. How was “family jet leg”—whatever that was—a reasonable concern to which to turn one’s attention after reading about armed conflict and rape? Would creating “an emotional balance sheet” really help with financial choices? Letting my vision blur, I could almost believe that self-soothing was the right approach to any misery. The emotional balance sheet became, then, a metacommentary on the headlines themselves: eighty-five-year-old marathoner in the happy column, never-ending Syrian conflict in the sad; more women in tech (happy) posed against murderous Venezuelan crime fighters (sad/ambiguous).

Surely, no one has actually drawn up the insane balance sheet the article proposes or enacted a newspaper’s cuddling regime. The meaning of such articles lives on an emotional plane and has nothing to do with practical concerns. But the utter disjuncture between what we are told to fear and what we are led to believe we can change is significant, and our abjection before the horrors of the world is connected to those horrors and their persistence.

To see why, we must understand the idea of the social imaginary. In the academic literature this describes the set of assumptions that allow us to imagine the society to which we belong. It encompasses the body of underlying, inchoate notions that we broadly share and that we use to construct images and theories about the social whole. What constitute meaningful questions for one another? What can we reasonably believe? What should we expect when we go outside, turn on the news, or otherwise engage in social life? The social imaginary supplies the framework for answering these questions. Like an invisible matrix, it mediates our mind’s movement through them.

Given the power of the social imaginary to shape action and belief, we might consider more deeply where ours comes from and how it changes. Clearly, our news outlets’ decisions about what topics and opinions to cover play an outsize role. It does not seem controversial, in fact, to suggest that by the time we are adults the primary influence on our social imaginary is the media we consume. The stories we encounter create a composite idea of the world out there and our possible role in it, and headlines like those above tell a familiar story: Yours is a frightening, violent, dysfunctional world, but unfortunately there is nothing you can do about it. You can read about it and you can learn to fear it, but you can’t change it. Home improvement, consumer choice, and cooking are instead the mainsprings and extent of your autonomy. If you like summer cocktails, you will love these recipes.

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Greg Jackson is the author of Prodigals, a collection of short stories. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among other places.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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