To Live Unmoored from Social Norms

There was an article in the Guardian today that brought to mind some thoughts I was playing with here back in 2014.

On the new Netflix show Ozark, financial adviser Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is forced to launder millions of dollars in a rural red state, under threat of death from a Mexican drug cartel. In Billions, which finished its second season in May, viewers are meant to envy and respect mega–hedge-funder “Axe” (Damian Lewis), despite his evident criminality. And then there is the wildly popular Empire, about a hip-hop dynasty ruled by the ridiculously wealthy and brutal Lyon family.

Welcome to the new aspirational television, about a 1% that lives with impunity. These series center on brilliant, albeit extremely violent entrepreneurs. Our antiheroes have technical specialties they managed to turn into criminal know-how: on Ozark, money management becomes money laundering, and on Breaking Bad, high-school chemistry instruction becomes meth production.

These anti-heroes are born of the modern struggle to remain in the middle or upper middle class. We watch these characters and receive, I argued in my previous article, the same sort of thrill delivered by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.  We all, at times, feel burdened and constrained by society’s rules. Victorian England was still more of an honor/shame society than a good person/bad person society. People (at least those of Oscar Wilde’s class) felt most constrained on a day to day basis by the need to keep up a respectable appearance and to behave in morally upstanding ways. Therefore sexual vice and hedonism had a strong, dangerous appeal. The story of Dorian combined the pleasurable fantasy of being freed from social constraints with the horror of what society might look like if those constraints did not exist.

I argued in my article that in “modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.”

Dorian’s audience feared what would happen if sensuality and sexuality were decoupled from a sense of responsibility for one another. Today we are regularly confronted with stark images of what happens when money is decoupled from any sense of responsibility for others.

In her Guardian article Alissa Quart concluded: “Just ask the immensely wealthy man who is now our president and appears to say and do exactly what he wants to, regardless of the consequences: today, the ultimate luxury isn’t wealth itself. It is the ability to live unmoored from social norms, like the gods.”

Our temptation to abandon the community to satisfy our own desires excites and terrifies us.  Thus in fiction those who would be gods are destroyed and our bond of common responsibility is restored. The jury is still out on whether this is what happens in real life.

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