#116: No Hugging, No Learning

Moby-Dick concludes as perfectly as any novel ever has: “…then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Despite whatever narrative order humans manage to impose on the world, Melville implies, entropy always dissolves it and returns everything to its chaotic natural state. The rock critic Lester Bangs hated how Moby-Dick ended, arguing that the point of a novel is to create and preserve the illusion that entropy doesn’t always win—that enduring progress is possible. I’ve been thinking about entropy a lot lately because it seems like a more powerful organizing principle for reality than the competing myth of progress, in which everything gradually improves, despite whatever civilizational speedbumps we encounter along the way. The end of history thesis, put forth by Francis Fukuyama in 1992, represents the likely peak of collective post-Enlightenment faith in progress, and by Obama’s second term it felt pretty indisputable: Cosmopolitan global democracy had permanently won and we’d live happily ever after in the denouement of the modernity narrative. The upheavals of 2016— Brexit and the US election—quickly upended that perceived stability, of course, and it already seems possible (to me, at least) that the story that culminated in the supposed end of history was merely a novel-length break from the sea rolling on as it previously had.

During the post-history ‘90s, certain cultural events were already preparing us for an entropic understanding of reality: The worldview that Seinfeld embodied was Moby-Dick scaled to half-hour increments, free of any meaningful progress or character development. Everyone makes the same mistakes in episode after episode and yet somehow grow more endearing in the process. Larry David’s mantra for the show and its characters was “no hugging, no learning.” At the end of every episode, the Seinfeld universe would reset, and next week we’d start over. In his book Design Interface, Giancarlo Barbacetto describes how, with the invention of the clock, “time became linear, homogenous, empty, irreversible, cumulative, oriented toward a goal,” replacing cyclical time in which “history is nothing but the reiteration of a single original event.” The atemporal quality of digital technology is, in many ways, returning us to a cyclical, nonlinear rhythm guided more by environmental conditions than a rigid adherence to clock time. Meanwhile, as the late Mark Fisher pointed out (before 2016), postmodern culture had become mired in an endless rewind of the 1990s.

Near what feels like the end of this current economic and cultural phase, enthusiasm about linear, cumulative progress seems to be giving way to a recognition of entropy and a reorientation toward how it structures our reality. Hence the growing interest in self care over the past few years, which also seems to have accelerated since 2016: If life is a steady march toward a better future, it makes sense to burn the candle at both ends to reach that destination more quickly; if not, we should make sure to get nine hours of sleep every night and exercise and meditate regularly. During the course of a day (or any unit of time), in this view, everything is decaying or pulling apart at the seams, and the best we can do is to minimize the damage and start over again tomorrow. If this seems defeatist or even nihilistic, though, we should remember this observation from Norbert Wiener (which I discussed in another recent newsletter): “There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.” Wiener’s statement can read as a description of inequality, which it is, in a way, but it’s also an affirmation of advanced cultural products like novels, institutions, or even cities—the havens from oceanic chaos that make us human, regardless of how ephemeral they are.