At my dentists they leave the radio on high volume. The receptionist claims it is because she loves BBC Radio 2’s blend of 60’s classics but I know better. I get anxious at the dentist, luckily there are lots of things to calm you down. Copies of fashion magazines and Men’s Health are spread across the waiting room. Many years ago they kept a copy of The Reader’s Digest, but that has now gone along with the toys for young children. What has replaced the toys and the Reader’s Digest is a fish, a goldfish to be specific. I watched it while waiting for my filling and the fish looked back at me. The goldfish and I didn’t connect on an emotional level, but we both knew that things weren’t as they seemed.
When I was a pretentious lefty I might have compared the goldfish to false conscious members of the ruled class. Swimming away, bobbing about, eating food and occasionally staring at its reflection. More recently though I’ve decided not to patronise the goldfish, but rather to identifying with it. The dentist’s goldfish is subject to forces beyond its control. It is reliant on power, drainage and dental systems completely beyond its comprehension. The only humans it hangs around with are anxious people, who are either in or about to be in great pain. It is easy to see why I and the goldfish have a lot in common.
Whether or not I and the goldfish are kindred spirits I do have a small advantage over it. I know the goldfish’s purpose in life: it is to calm me down and provide decoration to the dentist’s waiting room. Admittedly these ideas are beyond the fish’s conception. There would be no point trying to explain room layout or nervousness to a goldfish after all. So the obvious conclusion to draw from the situation of the goldfish is nihilism. If the goldfish’s purpose is beyond its conception then why would my life purpose be any different? Me and the goldfish already have a lot in common so why not meaninglessness? The difference between me and the goldfish is agency. While like the goldfish I have no power to conceive life outside my own fish bowl, I do have the power to organise it. Unlike the goldfish we can choose whether to pollute our environment. We can choose how we distribute the fish food.
The danger lies in conflating political decisions about how we organise the fish bowl with our personal struggle for deeper meaning. We risk suspending our conscience and abandoning our humanity in order to play an ideological role. I am his agent God will forgive me or I am just am servant of the dialectic of history. But danger lies not just in surrendering to ideologies about how we change the world, but also in surrendering to the conventional wisdom about how it is. In a world where ideas and political consensus’s are changing, pragmatism really is just another false god. Another word for accepting the limits of the neoliberal project. Dominant systems of ideas change, sometimes things aren’t as they seem. I know that BBC Radio 2 is on high volume in order to hide the sound of dental drilling.