Wake Up Call #2: the Cult of Cosmic Ambivalence

"Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning." - Joseph Campbell

You can't do anything about it.

Like a simplistic, less cynical Alfred E. Neuman, the Cult of Cosmic Ambivalence returns to mainstream consciousness through the indifferent phoenix of its newest incarnation: the shrug emoji ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. As The Atlantic summarized last year, "With raised arms and a half-turned smile, it exudes the melancholia, the malaise, the acceptance, and (finally) the embrace of knowing that something’s wrong on the Internet and you can’t do anything about it." But is the Internet the only plane where our generation feels powerless?

I'd apply the shrug's countenance of acceptance, despair, and surrender beyond the 'net and offer it as a sensible response to existence itself, where we small individuals are confronted day in and day out by powerful forces "we can't do anything about." In a world where the simple act of selecting something to watch on Netflix can escalate to stressful contemplation over countless alternate realities — the Universe where you chose Friends is far removed from the one where you finally saw Breakfast at Tiffany's — the shrug's resigned indifference offers a new approach to choice: Why not both? Or neither? Let's just not worry about it.

Corporate Cosmicism

In the early 20th century, H.P. Lovecraft pit human protagonists against overwhelming forces and terrifying creatures of the cosmos, indifferent to mankind's very existence. Lovecraft's fiction reflected the anxieties of emerging consumer culture, where individual humans were reduced to confused, vulnerable pawns on a chessboard beyond their kin. But past the limited concepts of the individual lurked unbearable truths, suggesting that while we were becoming removed from each other's physical company, we were increasingly sharing psychic space with entities who could brush us into a dustbin of terror and insanity without so much as a shrug.

As corporations rose from workers' toil, their mission to produce capital degenerating into strange identity crises around branding incomprehensible to uni-person beings like us humans, the resemblance to Lovecraft's Great Old Ones and Outer Gods grew. These were unspeakable things that dwarfed our puny notions of self, family, and society, the scales at which we evolved to be comfortable. They wanted us to behave in specific ways, purchase in set patterns, and they could use sound, images, and collective pressure to influence our choices. Advertising, in fact, frequently celebrated the "power of choice" itself, while masking how these branded entities' power grew with every successive selection. What was the individual to do when she discovered that the struggles of her own existence, viewed from a larger scale, resembled a gnat attempting to swim its way out of rapids?


Like you know... whatever.

Fighting fire with fire, our generation adopted the Universe's indifference to us as our own, reflecting it back into the void with the primal scream, "Fuck it, dude!" While political empaths tuned in to the woes of the world, and saw the horrors of capitalism feeding off human misery, the naive #blessed set praised unseen cosmic forces as helpful— to the point of banality. The Universe served as their own personal Jesus, eager to carry them down the sand whenever they were too tired to walk to Jamba Juice on their own. But in-between those extremes of despair and delusion is a silent majority unable to side with either, waffling between both until a frustrated tipping points opens a startling way out: Ambivalence. 

Ambivalencenoun \am-ˈbi-və-lən(t)s\ simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.

In chaos magic, the post-modernist take on occult theory that emerged in the 1970s, contradictions are honored and dichotomies reduced to meaningless distinctions by the warm embrace of "Why not both?" In the squiggly lines and bemused grin of the shrug, I see a similar attitude of stress-free acceptance. Confronted by opposing forces, each eager to prove dominance over the other, the shrug signals a refusal to play the game, opting out in favor of general agreeableness. Go with the flow, be Zen, keep calm and carry on.

Surrender (but don't give yourself away)

Critics of this stance, especially from older generations, are quick to equate "ambivalence" to "apathy," but I denote a sharp distinction. Apathy is drained of energy. It's resignation in the face of imagined futility. Ambivalence, on the other hand, tends towards the Christian concept of "surrender" or even "grace;" acceptance when confronted with actual futility. Or as the Serenity Prayer, the credo of Alcoholics Anonymous, states:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference."

The shrug is the distilled icon of serenity, unperturbed by cosmic futility. In a world where identities are defined through options — paper or plastic; kale or bacon; Netflix or Hulu — the shrug signals a return to relaxed receptivity. Before the remote control thrust the obligation of choice into the hands of every consumer, entertainment wasn't selected through individual preference but rather achieved by surrendering to the current state of things as is. Watch a sunset. If a bear shows up, watch the bear. If the bear leaves, go back to watching the sunset. It's not in your control, so why feel the need to exert your will arbitrarily?

Rather than living as inert lumps with no influence over their own existence, members of the Cult of Cosmic Ambivalence see how all members of modern society are barraged by an overabundance of choices, suffering from too precise control over life's arbitrary details.

Instead of spending thirty minutes reading packages and weighing the implications of Cookie Dough Double Stuff Oreos against Gluten-free Red Velvet Oreo Minis, the individual surrenders to intuition and randomness, grabbing the first package that looks appealing. Instead of giving zero fucks to everything, the enlightened ambivalante doles out fucks wisely, saving them for critical junctures when options aren't equivalent and the scale of self, family, friends, and community make the effect of effort more pronounced. But when confronted by cosmic scale, cultural trends, and the fine-point politics of individual identity, cosmic ambivanauts opt out in favor of blissful resignation. What? Me worry?