From time to time, I’m taken by thinking about DeLillo’s thesis in “Mao II”. It was one of the most impressive and underrated books of the late 90’s, to me; more than his other recommended works (“Underworld” and “White Noise”), “Mao II” felt like it was of a very specific time. While today the idea that art, and the artist, as a vessel for social critique being subsumed and obviated by mass crowds mobilized by popular spleen is a bit quaint, in the 90’s it was terrifying.
At that time, U.S. society had been atomized and driven to ever higher degrees of introspective narcissism for at least 20 years. To write a piece that argued that time was, not only a creation of a specific organization of societal structures, but also not guaranteed to last forever, was an audacious act.
The central theme of Mao II, and the source of DeLillo’s anxiety, was the question “Who fills the role of social critic?”. In years past, it had been artists. Even in monarchical societies, an artist would be someone who existed outside of that societal superstructure, someone who could (with varying degrees of latitude) critique the structure. It wasn’t so much exalted or encouraged as it was tolerated; even then, of course, rulers knew that public spleen was necessary, or pressures would continue to rise and contradictions heighten.
The early days of DeLillo’s career were in the earliest stirrings of the protest movements in the 1960’s. The civil rights movement, student leftist organizations, the Vietnam protests. However, these were never truly mass protests. They were essentially narcissistic expressions of how to change the world as an increasingly isolated and atomized single individual. Then came the artist, who was the class of person most able to weaponize that fundamentally individualistic anger into something approaching a mass movement via the interpretation of art.
That is to say, ’Taxi Driver’ was a the output of a very small number of people, yet captured the malaise and ennui of an entire generation. That process, though, didn’t last through the late 90’s.
The Internet Broke Us
The thing that no one could've predicted, even the most hardened techno-anarchists, is the degree to which the modern internet has shifted the way that information is created, distributed, and consumed. DeLillo's greatest fear was something akin to Twitter, but on a local scale: people yelling at one another in an ad-hoc organization. The fact that this has progressed beyond the locality, state, and even country level, and is now global, proves DeLillo's thesis: the artist is no longer the greatest societal critic. The future, as it turned out, did belong to crowds, and they've done a fairly good job at managing it.
And there’s the rub: the artist occupies the same function as before, in contrast to DeLillo’s thesis in Mao II, it’s just that the nominating authority has shifted. No longer are patrons fundamentally aristocratic members of an elite cadre, but now shifting heterogenous globules of humanity. Crowds, as it turns out, need artists just as much as aristocrats.