Neither Imitate nor Hate

Can we engage with culture and maintain a healthy mental environment?

Wireframe, 2002 – Collectif_Fact –

As culture jammers, how can we live in a world that is poisonous to our souls, harmful to our minds and at odds with our ideals? Common sense tells us that we have two options: either imitate or hate the world. But if we remain stuck within this binary opposition, we will lose ourselves. If we imitate the world we sacrifice our core beliefs. If we hate the world we succumb to being reactionary and lose the passion that grounds our affirmation. What then can we do? This is the question that Seneca, the great Stoic philosopher, posed nearly two millennia ago. And his answer speaks to today’s struggle of being culture jammers in a consumerist society.

Roman mass culture was as ruinous to Seneca’s ideals as consumer society is to ours. In a well-known letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca writes that exposure to crowds and the entertainment they consume ought to be avoided because within the crowd we lose our inner resolve for living a good life. “To consort with the crowd is harmful,” Seneca writes in Letter VII of Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, “[because] there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” To prove his point, Seneca tells of his experience watching a midday gladiator show after which he returned home feeling “more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous and even more cruel and inhuman” than before.

In our era, Seneca’s observation will often be rejected on the presumption that his critique of mass culture is based on an aristocratic and antidemocratic philosophy. Proponents of this position will argue that Seneca’s dislike of crowds is due only to a prejudice toward common people and that his position is therefore not worthy of consideration. But this argument misses the deep philosophical insight that Seneca proposes: that there is a correlation between the culture that surrounds us and our inner life. If Seneca is correct then the culture jammer has legitimate reason to be concerned about exposure to mind-fucking advertising, violent and pornographic television and deceptive news because these cultural forms are destructive to ourselves. In other words, Seneca’s stoic philosophy provides another way to ground mental environmentalism.

But to culture jammers, it will come as no surprise that the culture we live in has an impact on our mental environment. That is, after all, the starting position for the mental environment movement. The pressing concern is how to resist the dominant culture in such a way that our ideals remain intact and our will to fight stays strong. And it is on this question that Seneca is most articulate. For Seneca, we must be on our guard at all times. He writes: “much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptible; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it!” But Seneca refuses to accept the common sense answer that we ought to either imitate or loathe the world.

Instead, Seneca proposes that we develop a parallel culture in which we commune among ourselves to strengthen our opposition to the dominant culture. Seneca’s counsel is simple: “Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better person of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve.” While this advice seems simple, it is actually the most difficult to accept because it foregoes the principles of mass participation and mass culture that underlie the majority of contemporary politics.

Seneca challenges us to imagine a positive cultural movement that focuses first on building small communities of resistance that are impervious to the influences of mass culture. Seneca encourages us to be like the wise man, who when asked “what was the object of all this study applied to an art that would reach but very few” replied, “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He is writing a book about the future of activism. or micah (at)