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Editor's Choice

The "Me" Syndrome

Rob Horning

Marginal Utility -- The 'Me' Syndrome -- The glamorization of the rich inner life is the primary achievement of the culture industry, since what it sells is the kind of ripe fantasy that only one with a rich inner life would prefer to actual living.

1.
A few months ago, I had been feeling sick with symptoms that were unfamiliar to me. The most troubling symptom had been a morbid self-fascination. It was like biofeedback gone haywire. I was constantly monitoring myself to the exclusion of all external stimuli so that the sheer act of communication felt like an unbelievable nuisance -- do you mind? I'm trying to hear the blood coursing through the veins in my ears. Wait -- was that a palpitation? Ultimately I became so preoccupied with myself that I had to go to the doctor. The doctor could find nothing wrong with me; she told me to take some ibuprofen and try to relax.

This started me thinking that self-awareness itself could be the very definition of illness, the core symptom that underlies all experiences of being sick. Whatever your ailment, you are thrown back upon yourself in a way you aren't in health. You are forced to think of yourself and your body first before you can choose any course of action or have any social exchanges. If that's true, then the degree to which our society encourages self-awareness, self-monitoring (c.f. Weber's argument in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) is the degree to which ours is a sick society.

There may be no greater freedom than the freedom from thinking constantly about yourself, which is basically the definition of insecurity. Our culture, however, is an insecurity-generating machine, with the consumer economy rooted in selling commodities designed to assuage the insecurity carefully engineered not only by omnipresent ads, but by the very discourses that structure the way we conceive of ourselves (the law, medicine, education, etc.). Sickness is an awareness of a lack. Or at least we've come to see it that way, because so much of our life experience revolves around perceiving our lacks and trying to rectify them. We are missing some right, some piece of clothing, some feeling of self-possession. Every moment of self-awareness seems like a moment of owning ourselves, but it's really a furtive admission that we don't have self-possession. Our desperate self-inventories merely catalog the ways in which we are dependent on the structures around us to feel an illusion of completion, of security. We all yearn for life stories that are at least somewhat conventional, to provide protection from the very real fact that we could randomly contract some fatal disease on any given day and die. No conventional story our culture tells plays out that way.

When I went to the doctor, I was trying to shift the burden of my self-awareness onto her, make her become aware of me instead of it being my sole responsibility. In her office, while narrating my symptoms, I tried to sell her on my illness, choosing piquant details to make my condition more convincing, more compelling. I felt like I was telling a story and telling it wrong, and badly (I felt like an MFA student all over again). I had an urge to embellish it with more colorful symptoms, with more exciting syndromes. I didn't want to disappoint her. In some ways I was confessing, in other ways I was offering a defense for myself.

Once we decide to participate in the medical-discourse game by going to a doctor, it becomes important that all the symptoms we decide to mention fit the etiology of some disease. The details of self we share must conform to the story of some sickness, otherwise we will not experience the closure we're looking for, we won't be liberated from the panic that is the random ebb and flow that really is our life by having a formulaic plot to conform to.

Hyper-self-awareness becomes a real problem then. As I dredged up more and more symptoms, they became more and more difficult to fit into the narrative. Did I want to scrutinize myself into a special case, transcending the formula that I yearned for? Mine was a familiar contradiction of modern life: I wanted a predictable, conforming life to save me from the terrors of uncertainty, the chance that I might be somewhere unpredictably awful tomorrow. Yet at the same time, I wanted to be more important individually than any formulaic story that could be told about me. Our species wants to believe it is capable of anything, even of having a uniquely personal illness the likes of which no one has ever before seen. Hence, hypochondria as a social norm, and the secret fantasy of having a syndrome named after you.

So I was in the doctor's office, explaining the Me Syndrome, the special complex of symptoms I've been singled out with. But I was acutely aware that the "me" I was describing in laying out my symptoms was not the "me" I live with day-in-and-day-out in my consciousness. Nor was it even the me that had been so health-paranoid. How could this inane chit-chat do anything to resolve my health concerns? Shouldn't they be sticking me into the CAT scan machine? Drawing blood or something? I heard myself talking in this utterly phony voice, a voice I use when I'm talking to bank tellers or barbers. I sounded like I was on TV.

Suddenly I understood reality TV a little better. What people are doing in trying to get on TV or by making films of themselves or by vicariously projecting themselves into reality shows is nothing different than what I was doing in the doctor's office: they are trying to share the burden of their self-regard by becoming aware of how much others are regarding them. There's something fundamentally healing in having someone else listen to you talk about yourself. In a commercial society, the recognized and socially sanctioned way of procuring this attention is to package yourself as a commodity, to transform yourself into entertainment.

After my doctor's visit, having had the doctor's benediction, I was finally free to think about something else other than my symptoms. Nothing had changed, but yet everything was different. All she needed to do was not seem especially alarmed by what I was telling her, and I was suddenly free to move on. It's amazing what that moment of attention can do.

2.
So it would seem that the feat of narrating oneself, of constantly recasting one's own experiences as a coherent story, is both a necessity and a burden, and the pursuit of having that story perpetually validated will dictate our social lives. Is there no way out? In "Against Narrative", in the 15 October 2004 Times Literary Supplement, Galen Strawson suggests an alternative, arguing against the notion that one must narrate a life story to oneself in order to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. By rejecting self-narrativity, one can eschew the kind of self-fashioning that consumerism relies upon and exploits.

The problem with crafting a personal life story is that it allows marketers to insinuate their stories for one that might have emerged organically. Marketing provides us with the counter stories and excuses, the rationalizations and consoling fictions to help us rewrite our personal history, conform it to social expectations while evading the responsibility to be honest with others. Living without narrative seems akin to the radical prescription for a life in the margins, in the interstices of an indefeasible hegemony. When the "systems of oppression" can't pin you down as an individual, they can't define you and oppress you, the way, say, ads do when they call you out and grab your attention, like Williamson describes in Decoding Advertisements. It's like this: you're not an asshole until you turn around when someone yells "Hey asshole!" Then you confirm that social view of you, and internalize it. But to ignore all of society's calls would be to lead a fairly lonely life.

Modern commodities have little in the way of pure utility: few are truly necessary. Instead, as anthropologists Baron Isherwood and Mary Douglas argue in The World of Goods, they constitute a kind of material language that serves to facilitate our making a narrative of who we are. We define ourselves by the story of what we own, the goods remind us of the story. Under capitalism, this discourse of goods becomes the master discourse, the only authorized way to express and thereby discover truths about one's inner life.

If Strawson is right, we can dispense with that story, and perhaps, too, the goods. The problem is that Strawson also advocates living only in the present moment: "in the midst of the beauty of being". We should not stop to think about who we are or what limits we might have decided to set for ourselves through an overarching autobiography in progress. Having no limits sounds nice, a total existential freedom that is our birthright. But this life without limits, this wallowing in solipsistic hedonism is likely to be even more materialistic as well as profoundly antisocial, since another of the purposes of a personal life story is to make oneself legible, accessible, and thereby reliable to others.

These are prerequisites for any kind of relationship. Refusing to narrate oneself is to refute the very logic of cause and effect: you refuse to connect incidents in your past to where you are now. Not only would this leave you prone to repeat the same fruitless choices the way addicts do, but it's a profoundly anti-social refusal to recognize and assess what effect you've had on others. And the social dimension of life is ultimately where the rewards of being emerge. Of course, this story will be sentimentalized in accordance with current cliches and genre tropes, of course, this story will be largely fictional as it relates to the actual past. But it might be absolutely necessary in order make someone available to another in a way that permits more than purely sensual interaction, to make people something more to each other than strange ships passing in the night.

It's another iteration of the contradiction I experienced in the doctor's office, where I wanted to be unique but be rationalized via a comforting explanation. We want the 'no boundaries' imposed by our identity, but we don't want to be completely alienated. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville offers the classic articulation of this dilemma: "In democratic republics … the body is left free and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says, "You shall think as I do or you shall die;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people…. Your fellow creatures will shun you as an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn." The cost of non-conformity, the price of the Me Syndrome, is the living death of social alienation.

3.
Reality TV, in its endless dramatization of the casuistry of mitigating circumstances — such as how certain lies becomes necessary to move on to the next round of Survivor, or certain humiliations are unfortunately avoidable in the pursuit of plastic-surgery perfection — may strive to erode all faith in moral certainties to the point where obvious evil can come to seem justified and excused on its own terms without need for forgiveness. Hence, as Lee Siegal argued about The Sopranos in an "The Attraction of Repulsion" from the December 13, 2004 New Republic, on television all Americans appear to be "beings driven by appetite and enticed by America's promise of absolute gratification on just about every front," and that "the endless contemporary revelations of inner life and private life … neutralize our attempts to make sense of right and wrong."

As it continually rehearses how to plumb interior depths to rationalize behavior; TV becomes a training course in how to rationalize inappropriate behavior. What commercial TV does, it's raison d'etre, is provide viewers with arguments that justify purchases of unnecessary goods. It's meant to slowly eradicate the resistance that might come from common sense, or abstract logic, or conservative traditions. Psychological interiority is a means to that end.

Typically we presume our depth preexists the ads, and the programs cater to it, dignify it, enshrine it as the storehouse of our essence. The space of our rich inner life constitutes our real self, we think, and the larger that space is, the better. But it may be that that inner-life space is carved out by the very pitches that presume its existence, that the rich inner life is in fact a retreat from life (which consists primarily in social engagement, not withdrawal) and a collapse to a far more vulnerable state where the lack of social connection makes one prone to all sorts of insecurities about oneself and one's place. The glamorization of the rich inner life is the primary achievement of the culture industry, since what it sells is the kind of ripe fantasy that only one with a rich inner life would prefer to actual living. The rich inner life is the space where passive entertainment happens. It compensates for a stifled life; liberating the interior life, encouraging the imagination to be more free -- these aren't increases in freedom but the signs of one's being deprived of it, of having one's real scope limited. The "deeper" we are, the stronger are our chains.

As with the story we tell our doctors to try to get better, we believe this interiority is necessary to understanding ourselves and our deeper motives. But we don't understand ourselves only when we are isolated from social involvement, as we are to an increasing degree. Interiority makes that alienation worse while it masquerades as its cure. Siegel points out how The Sopranos dramatizes that inwardness is no protection from the vagaries of "real life". Emotional rationalization suddenly appears "absurd" when contrasted with the more powerful explanatory logics of exploitation and greed. This highlights the function of interiority: to mask exploitation and encourage individuals (newly minted by capitalism's enormous emphasis on the atomized consciousness) to assume personal responsibility for how they have been shaped by systemic forces much larger than they. When we all assume total personal responsibility for our unique life stories, this nicely protects our economic system, which dictated the story's most crucial details from scrutiny and protest while ensuring for that system the more insecure, pliable and compliant populace it requires to function.

So in the absence of social life we develop an inner life, which seems feeble, barren even as the advertising and entertainment cultures insist that it is always integral, boundless, the core of our being, the purpose of our consciousness. To stock this inner life, our new responsibility, we participate with new fervidness in consumerism, as this provides us the tools with which to articulate that inner life in the way recognized as authentic, to write a history of our interiority, to ground that interiority in material things. The richness of our inner lives is an illusion, an effect rather than a cause of the way commodities are perceived. It is, in fact, the commodities that have the rich inner life, which they transfer to us. We buy goods thinking we are expressing an inner life through them, but really we are trying to stock the fictitious, nebulous inner life with the qualities we see in these goods.

Unlike our actual real lives, which are limited by mortality, our inner lives are entirely unlimited, can grow and grow perpetually deeper and richer, which suits the capitalist economy, whose sole purpose is to grow larger for the mere sake of it. The ceaseless labor of building that inner self, of forging an identity, is the best possible compensation for the lack of meaningful work in the society at large. Who cares if you spend your day processing medical bills or unloading trucks or answering someone else' phone? The real work you're doing in life is getting to know the real you, buying the products that will help you discover what you can really do. As long as you're afflicted with Me Syndrome, the doldrums of modern life won't ever trouble you too much.

* * *
For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.


Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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