We are told we now live in the Information Age, which to the educated ear is merely a sly name for an Entropic Age. We also live in the Atomic Age, a strange appellation that never quite fit. This age nonetheless haunts. It is an age in which nuclear weapons reshape all international contention, though they are almost never used or lately even tested, an age in which major innovations in nuclear power that could make fossil fuels appear laughably scarce are unused for fear of liability, and an age in which particle beams and high-energy radiation undergird all our modern chemical and biological sciences. Society, however, is far most interested in the pictures and hardly knows anything of the cameras.
There appear to be few better examples of technological stagnation in the present age than the half-aborted promise of nuclear technology. That promise looms around us whenever we allow ourselves to think for a moment about how our world could end, or what could await us among the stars.
This name ‘Atomic Age’ also haunts us in terms of reflecting on the way our society has been atomized in undesired ways and failed to become atomized in desired ways.
The nuclear family has proven to be quite fissile, with the self-pity and entitlement of each new divorceé spinning through society like a swarm of neutrons to destabilize more marriages. Now single motherhood and bastardy are common, but far from being liberated atoms in their own right, we find that the offspring are divided against themselves with poor self-regulation and high rates of mental illness.
Evidently, like chemical atoms, individuals do not fit the abstract conception of the atom, either. They can be split against themselves, and they cannot be extracted cleanly from their environments. In physics, this was discovered through the phenomenon of radiation: emission of electrons when light shone on metals and the emission of alpha particles from the atomic nucleus. Society is not so simple, but modern society’s radioactivity is clear enough to any honest eye. So this metaphor of atomization is worth reconsidering.
The base of the metaphor is the concept of an atom, shared contentiously between philosophy and physics. In the philosophical version, all material would be made up of atoms. In the physical conception, atoms and the radiation fields surrounding them are inseparable partners. ‘Atoms’ are familiar, but ‘radiation’ may seem more threatening and more obscure, and it is therefore a perfect lever to pry apart this concept of atomization.
Radiations mediate interactions. The most common, obvious societal interactions that humans make are linguistic, so language is our first candidate for a radiation of social atomism. A human communicates a pattern, another absorbs it, both are changed. When we understand each other’s patterns and are changed most by them, the communication is said to resonate with us, like light is best absorbed by an atom when it resonates with the atom. The light emitted from an atom fits the resonances of the atom, and so it is with communication we initiate. We talk and discover each others’ vibes, in an earlier parlance of the Atomic Age.
One can tell that atoms are inextricably part of their environment by the fact that many of their resonances depend as much on their environment as on their own properties. The same is true of people–how often do you find a message that resonates with you only when with the right crowd? A joke that’s funny with the guys may be abhorrent with a daughter. “Sure,” the atomists say, “the part of you that responds to jokes and talk may look a great deal different depending on who you’re with, and your own ideas might change, too, but your core, your nucleus, remains unchanged.”
Dostoevsky is one of the great reactionary psychologists and is notable in this context for his deep feel for the influence of company on character. To see it starkly in one of his best works, read the words of Dmitri Karamazov after conversations with his brother Ivan and compare to his words after a conversation with brother Alyosha.
Dostoevsky is a keen witness to the falsehood of shallow individualism, and in particular, the way that people who try to define themselves as atomic individuals fall into nihilism. As Ivan’s example shows, even when one fiercely maintains separation from all other men’s moral influence, without God, one may simply fall to talking with oneself as the Devil–and split, with bitter effects on friends and family, who were not so inclined to keep themselves clear of influence.
Mankind also interacts without language, often more consequentially. There are few more final ways to end a disagreement than by killing or enslaving. Less intentional, less direct means than whips and bullets also affect others without words–overflowing trashcans, unkempt appearances, long-unwashed urine and feces in alleys–and these, too, belie our individual natures.
When a human creature is incapable of politeness and acts like a barbaric savage, wise and ancient men considered it fit only to be a trained animal, a slave. To these men, slaves were hardly individuals. Their character was considered a product of their masters’ training, their natures often said to be two-faced and divided, and their motivations always said to come from outside: whether they are ruled by their passions or their masters, a Greek like Aristotle would never say they rule themselves. The master is held responsible for shielding society from the radioactivity of their charges. Where polite, educated slaves were found, the reckoning was different, but this does not contradict the point. In Rome, Greek slaves could be moral educators, but they carried themselves as old Greek citizens might have.
Training and education are essential for individualism in the modernist, Anglo conception descended from the classical view. The individuality of a person is guaranteed by their self-control; this individuality is a matter of having a personal will guided by personal interests. Out of this and against this, grew the postmodern conception, in which individuality is less dependent on training and more inclusive, but appropriately lacks atomicity as well. The postmodern individual is divisible, schizophrenic, colonized. They are theorized to have the potential for responsibility, but also to fall short of actually achieving it. Pynchon’s V. is explicitly concerned with the self-modification and antihumanism of its titular mystery woman, and his characters in Gravity’s Rainbow explicitly concern themselves with the divisibility and mutability of the soul. Their mad tortures and capers are natural emissions of unstable minds, unable to remain the atoms their societies expected, seeking change.
Our current societal mess of souls desperately seeking identity and validation, while destabilizing the lives around them, explicitly contradicts the purported feasibility of atomic individualism. The shifting of fashion and cultural resonance indicate that however important individuals are for creativity, it is always humans in context who have that creativity. Neither of these failures of atomism is truly doubted by the Marxist left or the reactionary right, though both are still denied by libertarians and Anglo-centrists currently losing grip on the masses.
When one talks about Weimerica, then, one talks about a society that is almost past believing humans can live well as atoms, but is still resigned to atomized life, nonetheless. Our society is filled with the radiation spewed by hundreds of millions of unwise loudmouths, so that each child is pulled in thousands of directions before they can form stable relationships–and then, if they did manage a deep connection despite the odds, they are geographically dispersed to yet more radioactive universities, where they are asked to absorb the voices of generations of disaffected, unstable, unwise, but clever thinkers of the historical left.
It is almost impossible that something dangerous will not resonate in such a radiation bath, and as in chemistry those chance resonances will break bonds, whether the bond of a boy to his childhood church or scout group, the bond between high school sweethearts, or the bond between parents and child–assuming the parents have not already been seduced to see the child as a burden and break that bond themselves. And, since there is so much literal and ideological space to move through in modern society, entropic drift will ensure that bonds, once broken, rarely re-form as strongly. It is easy to stop calling, and it is easy to check Facebook without saying hello.
With every bond a person breaks inadvisedly, they become more likely to release more radiation. Whether it is callous words to a wife or child, the cat lady’s unmistakable ammoniac smell, insane lists of protest demands, mass molestation, or disastrous war, the desperate and misguided breed more displeasure, distrust, and alienation. Broken work relationships become pretext for dismantling men’s friendships; abused children provide pretexts for dismantling families; bitter loneliness becomes antisocial cruelty.
New bonds form, but rarely as strongly. Divorceés divorce again. Friendships become increasingly hard to form from scratch. Those who do not prioritize family when young do not get to relive their children’s first years. And without these bonds, mental health suffers; the individual splits apart. If all goes well, they decline quietly, but too often they make bizarre, harmful choices, or choose not to live at all.
In the end, our atomization is not separate from its radioactivity. The two are coupled faces of a single process. You are all alone, but, having been alone so long, who would want to be with you? If you claim to drink male tears, if you think all women are whores without agency, if you are wrapped up in demanding rights and concessions and justice, what do you have to offer others but your own wild radiation? What can you promise but to strain their other relationships?
The single best solution for this life in a sea of dangerous talk and action is passivism: maintain few, robust bonds at the deepest levels and react with circumspection to everything else. Never stoop to activism, never seek notoriety directly, never open mouth or ambitions to the masses.
Build quiet, stable, private community, even in the midst of the public conflagration.
Nonetheless, reactionary values make the public uneasy and reactionary social technologies are banned where it has been possible. The unease is unfounded; far from being the sources of radiation in society, passivists are simply ones who resist it well and therefore need fear it less. However, like in the panic of the Black Death, immunity suggests guilt. Reflecting or transmitting the radiation impinging on us since we do not absorb it, we are mistaken for sources of radiation by those it next passes on to.
Most unforgivably, we reflect men’s self-hatred back to them. We remember the Gods of the Copybook Headings. We make men feel their effect on the world and how those effects return to them. For the unfree, battered around by the emissions of thousands of others, with no strong, stabilizing bonds left, this is a reminder of their unfreedom and, most being unimaginative moderns, they imagine unfreedom as confinement. They cannot properly understand the unfreedom of chaotic but unreflective license: they have spurned this inheritance from the ancients.
So these utopians keep imagining that life is a confinement, wishing that someday, if we were open enough with each other, if the radiation pressure were built high enough, we atoms could burst our prison open and finally escape our own offal.
But of course it will not happen. There is no prison. The atomization of society is merely the combustion of society; people are not even potentially true atoms. We must order our lives and quiet this activist chain reaction lunacy that tempts us all from time to time. We are simply as we are: imperfectly atomic, occasionally radioactive, occasionally benign, and always living in the light of past actions.