For a while now, you might have noticed that the meaning of the word “normal” is being reversed. Do a twitter search for the phrase “good and normal” or “having a normal one” and you'll quickly be drawn into a litany of oddnesses: Mussolini's granddaughter fighting with Jim Carrey; a psychic predicting the personality of the new Royal Baby; a milkman threatening to burn down his customer's house. “Normal” is now the default mode of people who think they're part of some establishment “resistance” to President Trump; of ageing right-wing columnists penning inexplicable tirades against Ariana Grande. Every boomer meme displays a deep Normality.
“I guess Mussolini’s granddaughter is having a normal one” is a thing you can tweet today and it would be true— Adam Serwer🍝 (@AdamSerwer) March 31, 2019
Resistance twitter having a normal one pic.twitter.com/sST0qlCgcu— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) April 18, 2019
“Normal” is weird now: although it names a specific sort of weirdness, not the weirdness of the self-consciously “weird,” who don’t want to be like the normies. “Normal” is an oblivious weirdness, the weirdness which assumes it is being blankly, dully reasonable.
Of course, this new usage continues to exist alongside the way the word “normal” is, well, normally used: one major reason why you have to search a phrase like “good and normal” in order to get a reliable sense of how the word's meaning is shifting is that the established usage continues to dominate.
In my household, we've taken to calling the new usage “the millennial normal.” This is in part because reversing the meaning of “normal” is something mostly associated with the internet and young people. But there's also another, deeper reason. In many ways, the reversal of meaning involved in the millennial normal reflects the changes the world in general has undergone since millennials came of age around 10 years ago.
On one level, this sort of shift in meaning is just something language does: “silly” used to mean worthy or blessed; “egregious” used to mean distinguished or eminent. Within living memory, the slang use of “wicked” or “sick” has inverted their normal usage. And it's easy to see why this should be: logically, everything implies its own opposite — in any word or phrase, the opposite meaning is always heard as an echo, its possibility invoked by what was actually said. That someone is jumping means they could be not jumping; that someone in the comments isn't mad implies they could in fact be getting increasingly red and nude.
As Freud quips in his essay on “Negation,” when a patient says: “You ask who this person in the dream can be. It's not my mother,” the psychoanalyst hears: “So it is his mother.” The content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness — but only on the condition that it is negated. Freud continues: “There is no stronger evidence that we have been successful in our effort to uncover the unconscious than when the patient reacts to it with the words ‘I didn't think that,’ or ‘I didn't (ever) think of that.’”
Meaning can also emerge in laughter as seen, for instance, in the giving of nicknames. It is easy to see how the contemporary meaning of the word “silly” might have emerged from the foolish pomposity of the worthy; the satire distilled from what it was mocking, until all we ended up left with was the mockery. When we employ the millennial normal, this is what we are doing: satirically conjuring up an image of normality that the “normal” person, now weird, is failing to inhabit.
If the millennial normal helps to describe our litany of daily derangements — thus, “the problems,” broadly speaking — then a different recent shift helps indicate the felt impossibility of any solutions. Look at the change that the word “simply” undergoes in the construction “If I were... I would simply.” In an “If I were... I would simply” tweet, a difficult situation is described, and an all-too-obvious solution given:
if i were a marginalized person, i would simply extract myself from all the circumstances causing me difficulty https://t.co/K0k4HEASL2— matt lubchansky (@Lubchansky) May 15, 2019
if I were the writers of Game of Thrones, I would simply write a conclusion that satisfied all of my audience's manifold hopes and projections— Moloch-André Fleury (@alex_navarro) May 13, 2019
If I were a baby I would simply sleep through the night.— Ben Jenkins (@bencjenkins) April 23, 2019
If I were me, I would simply not be such an idiot— donni saphire (@donni) April 17, 2019
The word “simply” is used not to indicate the simplicity of the proposed solution, but rather its difficulty, or even impossibility. Obviously, marginalized people cannot extract themselves from the material circumstances they face; obviously, I can never stop being my big dumb self. Granted, sometimes these solutions might seem obvious from the outside — just as for any sports fan, it is almost always obvious what their team's manager ought to do. But there’s a reason why most sports fans are not managers. We can't really grasp the complex array of material and institutional constraints, motivations, and other limitations that individual agents face except from within.
But perhaps we have lost any good sense of what our agency might actually be able to achieve. We know that things are bad, we know that things need to change. We know that legislatures in some U.S. states are passing laws apparently determined to criminalize anyone able to get pregnant but not carry their baby to term; we know that mass murder is being committed on our borders; we know that if we continue to organize the economy the way that we are currently doing, it will become impossible to maintain human life on earth. But what do we actually do about any of this?
The key distinguishing feature of contemporary political agency is the way in which action has become conflated with awareness: the constant flood of “awareness” days, weeks, months aimed at solving “mental health” and other issues fools us into thinking that we're doing something about our problems simply by talking about them — presumably by analogy with the fact that if you talk loudly enough about how bad the food and service is in a restaurant, eventually the manager will overhear. One particularly oblivious example of “awareness” was provided to us a few weeks ago by British Prime Minister Theresa May, the aides of whom for some reason decided that lighting the outside of Downing Street green was a good way of helping people tackle their depression.
In his essay Two Ages: A Literary Review, his most important contribution to political philosophy, Kierkegaard distinguishes between “the age of revolution,” a “passionate” age in which sudden upheavals — whether good or bad — were possible, and “the present age,” a “sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence.” In an age of revolution, enough might happen that we can say it “goes astray” — but we “must say of the present age that it is going badly.”
“In contrast to the age of revolution, which took action, the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity. An insurrection in this day and age is utterly unimaginable; such a manifestation of power would seem ridiculous to the calculating sensibleness of the age,” Kierkegaard writes. “However, a political virtuoso might be able to perform an amazing tour de force of quite another kind. He would issue invitations to a general meeting for the purpose of deciding on a revolution, wording the invitation so cautiously that even the censor would have to let it pass. On the evening of the meeting, he would so skilfully create the illusion that they had made a revolution that everyone would go home quietly, having passed a very pleasant evening.”
Thus Kierkegaard appears to anticipate our present mania for “awareness,” where simply mentioning a problem becomes a substitute for doing anything about it; where nothing happens but we are subject to a constant rush of “announcements” about the possibility of things maybe happening — “instant publicity.”
This might sound strange, because we are also constantly told that we live in uncertain, almost unprecedented times — the age of President Trump, the rise of populism and the alt-right, of Brexit and “fake news.” But all these things are, if anything, only symptomatic of the deep malaise our politics is currently experiencing, on both a national and a global level: the Trump White House is only an aberration in terms of the president's record and presentation style, the real problem with Trump is that he has governed exactly as a mainstream Republican would be expected to; the 2016 Brexit referendum result came as a surprise, but the process itself has been a years-long exercise in the UK failing to talk about anything that actually matters.
Certainly something seems to have been eroded in recent times. It used to be possible to look at the political and media establishment and think that what they represented was a sort of respectable “normality”: that they had ended up doing what they did, wielding the power that they had, by acting how people were “supposed” to — and, if you were so inclined, you could act how people were “supposed” to as well, and so hope to end up like them.
But there has been a profound shift in this, associated in particular with the internet and social media. Our most eminent and respected leaders have revealed themselves to be, for the most part, cartoonishly thin-skinned, constantly penning op-eds about how they're being silenced by all the mean, unelected posters online. Or else, like former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a man who when I was a small child was considered so dangerous by the British state that his voice was literally not allowed to be broadcast on the news, they have revealed themselves to be incorrigible meme lords — Adams achieved cult status on twitter by constantly posting about his teddy bears and rubber ducks.
We've seen writers of beloved sitcoms turn over the years into vicious transphobic ideologues; we've seen ground-breaking biologists have public meltdowns at airports over confiscated honey; we've seen retired sports stars forced to announce that the “adult babies takeover” of their account is off following a backlash. Every professional comedian currently in work is daily proved to be vastly less funny than a bunch of high school students with handles like “anime_marx69.” There is no longer any “straight” society with which to contrast the weirdos: it is now quite possible to launch a political career off of teaching your dog to do a Nazi salute, or gaining a platform on YouTube under the name of an ancient Mesopotamian king.
With the loss of the normal, we have lost something of our place in the world. We no longer quite know what it would be to act in (or with, or against) the world. We feel helpless — and so we retreat into magical thinking. Weirdness thus accompanies malaise. “If I were faced with each day being increasingly good and normal, I would simply post about it,” we seem to be saying.
But losing the normal need not be a bad thing. Normality was pretty rubbish, all things considered. “The tradition of the oppressed,” as Walter Benjamin notes in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Normality, for too many people, has meant poverty, starvation, oppression, and war. What we really need is a sense of how our agency might coherently relate to non-normality. Only then we can we transcend the deep malaise that the present flurry of oddness has accompanied. Only then can we hope to carve it into something good.