A specter is comforting America—the specter of self-care.
In April 2015, Amazon’s best-selling book in the United States was not the recipient of a Booker Prize or a Pulitzer Prize. It was not even a work of literature; it was an adult coloring book by Johanna Basford. In August 2015, the American Art Therapy Association publicly endorsed “the use of coloring books for pleasure and self-care.”
The same year, Michelle Joni Lapidos and Candice Kilpatrick started a preschool for adults in New York City, and a Nova Scotian business venture that sought to place customers in womb-like sensory-deprivation tanks reached 176 percent of its funding target on Indiegogo. At the same time, diatribes about the self-protection of university students blanketed the mainstream press.
In a 2015 piece published in the New York Times titled “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” journalist Judith Shulevitz described a safe space at Brown University that offered students “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” “The Coddling of the American Mind” appeared in The Atlantic just a few months later.
In November 2016, an international group of gamers hosted a Self-Care Jam—an event based on self-care games, apps, comics, and so on. Submissions included “Self-Love Hotel” (described as an auto-romantic dating simulator), “Dancing With Myself” (tagline: “Take yourself on a date!”), and a self-care Twitter bot. In March 2017, the Self-Care Jam made it into The New Yorker via “The Politics of Conspicuous Self-Care.” 2017 was also the year of the jade egg, placed inside one’s own vagina for the sake of “optimal self-love and well-being.” (The jade egg, made exclusively for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, is available for just $66.)
Faith in others; love for the unfamiliar; curiosity about the profound Otherness of science; art that cannot be reduced to one’s human-animal body, sensations or opinions… The mainstream in 2017 is so absurd, it is difficult to discuss serious topics like these without being labelled out-of-touch or a crank.
In 1994, the British critic John Gray envisaged a bleak future for liberal democracies that valorize self-care and consumer choice at the expense of classical, philosophical subjects. “In a world without art, science, friendship or love,” Gray wrote, “in a society without a rich and deep public culture, autonomous choice will be impoverished or nearly worthless, if indeed it is really a possibility.” A few years later, the Scandinavian filmmaker Lars von Trier parodied self-care and self-realization in the aptly titled Idioterne (The Idiots). Von Trier’s film depicted a small commune, separated from conventional society, founded on “spazzing.” In order to feel better and to discover their so-called true selves, the commune’s members acted as if they were intellectually disabled.
Something that is authentically one’s own (and no one else’s), something absolutely indecipherable to others, the private par excellence—this is the meaning of idiotic. Indeed, the word idiotic derives from idios, “own, private.” Von Trier’s spazzers do not shun idiocy; they uphold idiocy as a peculiar, progressive/regressive ideal. “In the Stone Age, all the idiots died. It doesn’t have to be like that nowadays,” explained the commune’s principal ideologue. “Being an idiot is a luxury, but it is also a step forward. Idiots are the people of the future.” Gray’s prediction is consonant with the spazzers’ proposal: the future of liberal democracy is likely more self-care, more idiocy.
Saint Augustine famously associated idiocy with ostentatious self-authorization. In his Confessions, Augustine referred critically to his younger self as “a prisoner, trying to simulate a crippled sort of freedom.” The specter comforting America is that of the juvenile Augustine—free to enjoy its own vacuity, empowered ironically by crippledom.
Reilly Smethurst is an Australian-born writer. He has a philosophy doctorate from the Queensland Conservatorium.