The Radicalism of Authentic Selfishness: Call It Art

Our instructed vagrancy, which has hardly time to linger by the hedgerows but runs away early…. can hardly get a dim notion of what an old-fashioned man like Tulliver felt for this spot, where all his memories centered and where the life seemed like a familiar smooth-handled tool that the fingers clutch with loving ease.

– George Eliot, The Mill On the Floss

What’s frightening – and what hopefully is the last straw and will make us wake up as a civilisation as to how flawed this theory [that somehow, magically, each corporation acting in its selfish interest is going to produce the best result] is in the first place – is to see that now… Our attention can be mined. We are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we’re spending our time living our life in a rich way.”

– Justin Rosenstein, former engineer for Google, quoted in Why Is the World Going to Hell, by Jonathan Cook (Counterpunch)

Are you ready for this thing called love?

– John Hyatt

The pandemic has been a boon for technology, tele-connection now regarded as having huge social benefit, and, as anyone can see, “humans are biohazards, and machines are not.” It seems as if technology is being given a “pass” due to its having functioned as a “life-saver” during the pandemic – except by critics like Kirkpatrick Sale, Jonathan Cook and others whose radical neo-luddite voices in the wilderness are so needed.

Generation by generation, people are increasingly allied with the communications media, unconsciously accepting its compensation for all we have lost in terms of the necessary social and environmental conditions for human beings, which many no longer remember, having been brought up to be ceaselessly mobile and materially upward-directed. Those who do remember have learned to compromise. These necessary conditions include shared commitments to attempt to live in a way that values (includes) everyone to the degree that we do not allow“others” to fall, as though undeserving, outside our full regard. For this loss of social commitment to love, social media, though not its cause, can in no way compensate. Relationships with screens has become just another form of the belief in “better and better,” evidence of faith in progress, that tossed out the Tom Tullivers and their outdated preference for the stable, familiar locality, and intergenerational community, the comfort of custom and consistency over time, notions for fostering sustainability that even in Eliot’s 19th century when they were well on the way out, were seen as too restrictive.

We live in the aftermath of community, and thus can be easily sold a bill of goods that mimic some of what community provides, goods that bring injustices to light before masses of people, but equally work against human scale, face-to-face conditions serving the good for all. This is why I ask, even in this pandemic instance when social media has been our friend, a most impertinent question. Regarding that most sacrosanct aspect of virtual connectivity – contact with distant friends and family members – had we not been able to Zoom with our relatives on the opposite coast, or even sheltering-in-place in the next town, what would have happened to us instead? Maybe we would thrash around for a bit, get angry, feel sorry for ourselves, maybe even sink into deep depression. These are not fatal conditions. Not to sound harsh, but these relatives and friends already live too far away to be part of our face-to-face ( real) lives. However, feeling the real pain of social deprivation to a degree we’re not used to perhaps we could begin to question choices made previously that make the solace and comfort of community – as well as its friction – ever more unattainable. In fact, we’ve traded the “closeness” and “familiarity” – that come with a serious price tag of individuation (adulthood) if they are to be more than clannish red-neckism – for our place in the never-never land of neoliberal reality, that holds us unnaturally but willingly, captives in childhood.

The Plague of Victimhood

Our embattled social fabric, such as it is, is not woven from the immaterial bonds of interdependence and the daily interchange of mutual aid. It is made instead for convenience and expedience. A fluid and atomized society depends upon the easy unconscious bonding of childhood. This sort of bonding, never meant to be replicated in adulthood, is a recipe, instead, for making adult victims. The plague of the victim mentality with its attachment to an unchallenged infantile egocentricity is clearly exemplified in Trump. Less obviously but no less dangerously, it equally is apparent in the liberal obsession with defending victims of oppression which frees the liberal from having ever to acknowledge her own personal refusal of an initiated adult consciousness that would demand a very different fight!

In such a context, having and maintaining a social life is often a matter of keeping friends in place, reassuring each other you care, not the daily obligation to be conscious that makes interdependence possible. Raised to think like victims rather than like discerning adults, we’re dominated by the fear, though we rarely admit it, of losing the apparently fragile interest in us that friends and family have. This makes no-risk communication via social media irresistible, in the alluring way of fast food, TV and Hollywood junk entertainment, MSNBC news and NPR that never unsettle liberal minds, or Sunday sermons that reassure us of our goodness. We can have a steady diet of interactions that leave our egos undisturbed, their deep attachment to status quo social arrangements left intact, no matter how much cruelty we bring down on ourselves and others.

With apologies for getting so “psychological,” I must mention the 1945 film classic Mildred Pierce, which Orin and I watched recently for on YouTube as we continue the pandemic pastime of pursuing classic noir movies. This film, I discovered, contains a vivid example of the psychology of victimhood. Joan Crawford’s eponymous character, though full of can-do pluck and resourcefulness such that she can start a restaurant chain out of her skills in the kitchen, throws it all away in playing victim not to a man, but to her daughter, Veda, possibly the most unlikeable, nasty, completely without redeeming qualities of any daughter ever portrayed! In order not to lose Veda’s affection – for which we’re given no evidence whatever – Mildred spends more and more money and, in the end, even tries to take the rap for Veda who, in a fit of piqued rage, has murdered Mildred’s husband. Perhaps the film maker just intended to show a dark and somewhat hopeless picture of human nature, but that intention seems dishonest to me.

A feminist take on Mildred would have challenged her ego perspective, trained to be subordinate, according to which she must never behave selfishly as if she possessed a right to express and to benefit from her unique talents. However, if she went only that far, insisting on her right to be as “selfish” as any man, she would be just another status quo successful libertarian buttressing bourgeois capitalist reality, a Martha Stewart or a Hillary. Moreover, by insisting solely on her right, she would never challenge her own deep compulsive need for her daughter’s approval (which in turn had much to do with the monster her daughter was). A further option for Mildred exists, which no storyteller in the Hollywood tradition would come up with. That was, to understand her expression of her talent as surrendering “selfishly” but authentically to her joy and her bliss, this surrender being not about her right but her duty – to her soul, her wholeness, her higher power, the Great Mother, however she conceives the larger, more inclusive Being. This “authentic selfishness” grants the power to stand up to guilt, and would have allowed her to let go of her addiction to her daughter’s contempt. The authentic (humble) selfishness of devotion to one’s creative work is the radical, revolutionary option, the way out of the plague of egoic victimhood to which otherwise our entire society has no immunity.

Though I can’t say I liked the movie, it depicted perfectly and painfully the dilemma of the dogged, against-all-sense insistence on the frame of victimhood – on “inauthentic selflessness” – for our personal and collective stories in liberal society. In fact, this dilemma prevents there being any story except the One Story of progress and technological betterment under capitalist dominion. Mildred’s failure to attain the spiritual transformation of “authentic” selfishness cost a man’s life and her daughter’s life as well, preventable tragedies, but not preventable within Capitalism’s system of value. For society, the insistence on victimhood is not just “failure to consider the consequences of one’s actions.” Much meaner and deadlier, it is a refusal of the human duty to have one’s intrinsic joy.

Art-making, the Antibody to Victimhood

I venture to propose this: Had we during the period of sheltering-in-place (those of us not on the front line serving in essential roles) used that unwanted surplus time and space, instead of filling it with as much distracting screen entertainment and tele-connectivity as possible, to be conscious of what we were feeling, to be honestly depressed, to know our painful social deprivation – what might have happened? Might we not then, feeling our genuine, legitimate and unbearable feelings, have turned, in our unasked-for solitude, besides to the “solace” of alcohol, food, and other substances (I’m being honest here!), to our mostly unused creativity? Might we not, in that crisis, have picked up some kind of an “art” that we’d long thought of pursuing but never had time for – and practiced it? Might we not thus have strengthened our powers of self-entertainment, of the imaginative, for-free means of transcendence we’ve largely abandoned in favor of the virtual kind? Could this be the “rich way” – referred to by former Google engineer Justin Rosenstein – we might spend our lives instead of staring at screens? After all, our imaginations, in their depths, are geared to respond to pain, loss, aging, all the darker elements of life and to making something beautiful out of them. It’s what they were made for. Call it art.

The discovery of the thing more subjectively gratifying, by which I mean the creative work – and life – that expresses one’s individuality (i.e., Mildred’s cake-baking wizardry), frees one, as a kind of outsider-other to see the way conventional friendships uphold liberal bourgeois reality. Whether or not she intends it, the artist-as-outsider challenges relationships on the modern, bourgeois (pragmatic, convenient, victimized, definitely fear-driven) model. This challenge may be especially crucial for women, who – certainly up to my time – were expected to nurture relationships above all other concerns, certainly above selfish ones. When one has discovered one’s art and the truth of one’s devotional nature, one has the capacity to let go of friendships and even of family that are given us conditionally, on neoliberal, “selfless” terms. Letting go of the pseudo- friendships and the temporized (but tangled and guilt-driven) family relationships of bourgeois society is not a failure to love, as poor Mildred would have seen it; it is losing the fear of losing them. Only then, is it possible to be open to the interdependent loving that frees others to be themselves.

From such an outsider-other perspective, it’s possible to see social media with its 24-7 means of staying connected and “friended” inside the One Liberal Story, as counter-revolutionary. Social media augments what needs no augmentation, which is the dominant, neoliberal totality of separation and sameness with its unconscious cruelty (i.e., Mildred’s monster daughter was made, not born). It leaves the plague of victimhood intact. It does not challenge the corporate masters who seek, ever, to increase profits at the expense of everything else.

An unlikely pairing: pandemic and joy

If my talking about private pursuit of “bliss” as antidote to the deprivations of the pandemic, which for so many of us are social, seem a bit strange, I ask you: how else are we to strengthen social bonds in a time when we have learned to treat “relationships” as optional, or at least, replaceable, when we trust the machines that connect us with others more than the others themselves? Clearly there is something missing – a foundational basis for true adult mutuality, true social interdependence that we would consider authoritative. That we lack such a basis is due to failed imagination; only imagination can supply those subjective links between Tulliver and his mill on the Floss – or between each person and the real others in her life – that are for the individual, authoritative.

Human imagination, we well know, is not conscience; it has no necessary relationship to peace, justice, or the intrinsic sacredness of the earth. It can happily engage itself with the images supplied by screens and in advertising, or, more actively, with being employed by imagination miners such as Disney, or silicon valley corporate giants. It clings somewhat naturally to the frivolous, ignoring the sea of despair surrounding it, until genuinely and personally faced with crisis or catastrophe. So here we are, in the real crises of pandemic and social/political upheaval! Can we allow our imagination to be enlivened in this multidimensional catastrophe, to lose its frivolity and be instead the means to suffer, to create beauty and to insist on the utopian world animated by love?

Last Friday Orin and I attended our first live music event since March 14, at a venue in a country village south of Utica called the Barn. Our talented friends Matt and Annie were the featured musicians, performing from their eclectic songbook. At one point they sang John Hyatt’s brilliant tune, Are you ready for this thing called love? I thought about the painful divisiveness and chaos America is in, the full alarmingness of love, and I felt powerfully the urge to speak. To Matt and Annie, and to the small socially distanced audience I said, “This song is so relevant to now. In America, we just aren’t ready for love.”

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: