Year in Review: Notions Eleven

From the Kardashian wedding to the Fukushima disaster, did that really just happen?

Illustration by Fred Harper.

“You will surely make noise when I take you deep,” texted Representative Anthony Weiner, the great BlackBerry lover, to his virtual inamorata, Lisa Weiss, the famous dissident, aviatrix and Vegas blackjack dealer.

“Yes I will,” she texted back. “I will be sore for days.”

This past year took the world deep, and the world made noise, but unlike Ms. Weiss, it had, in its soreness, no luxury of bed rest. We started with Middle Eastern uprisings and a Japanese nuclear meltdown, either of which might have filled a whole decade in some simpler era but in ours soon became back-page news. And yet, for all its careering, history could seem to stand ominously still. Writing in Vanity Fair at year’s end, Kurt Andersen rightly described the moment as creatively stagnant, perhaps exhausted, a late imperial Gaga-ing of high empire forms.

But as algorithms make consciousness a built environment, perception itself becomes in some way designed, in which sense 2011 wasn’t totally stuck in the past—it offered a new sensation-of-being: Drudge’s report on Trump’s quest for Obama’s birth certificate sends you clicking Facebook pictures of a lost love’s fat children as prelude to a brief viewing of the Muammar el-Qaddafi snuff film, Tim Tebow chatting-up Yahweh on the 50-yard line or, attention span permitting, Fukushima’s “heroes” streaming across your iPhone in frog masks and body suits, their solemn death-trudge naturally interrupted by a billing reminder from Verizon Wireless.

“It’s nice to have moments that are real,” said Ashton Kutcher to the young girl, sharing a little postcoital wisdom.

The real and the unreal, the historic, the mundane—this year they all rushed together, passing through the absurd en route to the grotesque.

Europe’s debt crisis festered until, by November, Poland—Poland—was begging Germany for salvation. The uncertainty frustrated America’s recovery; we saw the true unemployment rate at 17 percent, reports of gun-hoarding and ammunition shortages, and a national debt that in November passed the $15 trillion mark—a number that defies fathoming by minds made for counting mastodon.

In simpler times you might dose up on Prozac and just ride the shit out, but even that escape was lost. Writing in The New York Review of Books this summer, Harvard Medical School’s Marcia Angell described how the life-tenderizing antidepressants required by more and more Americans to endure their lifestyle paradise—including an estimated 500,000 toddlers on antipsychotics—didn’t beat their placebos once studies were controlled for side-effects. The vast majority of contributors to the DSM, psychiatry’s gospel, were receiving money from pharmaceutical companies, making it at best a brochure, and at worst proof that the age of fraud had compromised even our own self-understanding.

We buried two business legends, Steve Jobs and Jon Corzine. Jobs died gaunt and hollow-eyed, uttering the final words “Oh wow, Oh wow, Oh wow,” suggesting that the magic he brought into this world saw him out of it. Corzine expired somewhat less gracefully: under his leadership MF Global used $700 million in clients’ money to cover its own losses, an act of shameless, vile theft. The former Goldman CEO then went before the once-mighty U.S. Senate, which he’d joined years before as a short-lived retirement gig. “Senator, unfortunately I do not know where the money is,” said the Wall Street lion-turned-hyena, searching for impunity within stupidity.

The God-death extended into celebrity: 2010 offered the prescription-killing of Michael Jackson, tabloid pictures of Gary Coleman’s morbid intubation—the end-stage of a demystification of celebrity that started in the 1990s, and in 2011 seemed to tire even of itself, offering Charlie Sheen as a toothless maniac, and Lindsay Lohan, once compared to Marilyn Monroe, sneaking cigarette breaks from her court-ordered real-death experience changing the blood- and fluid-stained cadaver sheets at the L.A. County morgue.

We made new idols, hastily, brutally: Rebecca Black became a new, demented form of celebrity when, in the space of a few days, her unwitting tribute to the nihilistic-mundane, Friday, registered 60 million hits on YouTube. There was no ideal here, no message, no skill, just the freak-appeal of a meme sputtering out of control along with everything else. Later in the year, Penn State, which has one of America’s most storied college football programs, was revealed as a self-aware child sex ring focusing on the unprivileged and disempowered.

People sought escape in near and distant pasts.

The Tea Party longed for the moral purity of Eisenhower’s America, when gays responsibly took electroshock therapy, the military vaporized Pacific atolls as light recreation, and little black girls showed respect for German shepherds. Pot-bellied in nylon powdered wigs, they blamed Barack Hussein Obama—the obvious product of a Kenyan-Indonesian-Hawaiian-Ivy League conspiracy to do exactly what was never clear—for everyone’s troubles, demanding a return to a “pure” capitalism that had never existed, and which, as the they pushed America toward default, felt increasingly like Hobbes’s state of nature.

Occupy Wall Street evoked 1960s protest culture while failing to learn its lessons—that the police always win because they have the guns, and that the Flower Children became the Manson Family.

Year in Review: Notions Eleven