An American Oedipus

Imagine Oedipus after having plucked his eyes out from their sockets. He is now blind, lacking the important ability of sight, a tragic end to the story. But not in America. In the American Dream there is no room for tragedy, every end has to be the culmination of one’s ambition.


So how would the story of American Oedipus end? After years of aimlessly walking, climbing, and swimming, Oedipus happens to mistakenly enter Medusa’s lair, whose gaze he naturally survives owing to his blindness. News of this feat quickly spreads, a god tells him of a treasure hidden in the lair, which Oedipus manages to retrieve and thereafter live the life of a rich man owing to his special condition and his perseverance.


While the logic of the American Dream typically displaces tragedy with the climactic promise of fame and fortune, there is nevertheless something inherently tragic in it: destiny’s submission to contingency. Skill is not an attribute grounded in some virtue, but a factor determined by the contingency of the market’s demand.


Nothing is more indicative of this than the champions we see in weird sports whose name we might not even know, yet for which a very specific set of physical attributes and dexterities make one champion-material. Yet the trick of the American Dream is, of course, that while retaining the form, it substitutes the premise of contingency with eventuality, as in, “just wait and work hard and the reward will come to you”. We all know that is not entirely factual, but knowing is hardly enough.


In the bigger picture, moulding all individuals into a uniform capacity would make the most effective workforce, but only for as long as there is no disruption that shifts the demand for other skills. Given that contingency is an inevitable reality, the more a society is able to adapt quickly to it, the more competitive it can be.


Hence, the best balance is found in a bell-curve of skills, with the most ordinarily-needed being the most numerous, and the remaining decreasing relative to their radical nature. But then, why would anyone remain at the fringe of the curve, cultivating unappreciated and underrated skills instead of simply finding a ‘real job’? For no reason other than that of having a dream, a vocation, belief in its relevance, dedication… call it whatever you want.


Simply put, the dreamers are meant to keep clawing their way up rather than give up, in order to ensure a greater variety of ‘genes’ that can provide innovation whenever change strikes. The lucky ‘genes’ are then glorified and presented to us as inspiration, a proof that we can get there if we work hard or – more cynically – if we live long enough that human selection contingently signifies ‘skills’ that one can provide.


Ready, set, go! May the best man win… I’ll tell you the rules at the end

The American dream can therefore be said to have a retroactive effect upon those who actually do make it. It fosters the idea that “I worked hard and made it, so the others can do the same”.


This retroactive application of success is witnessed when the current young generation faces much less opportunities than the one preceding it, thus creating an inability for the older generation to grasp the challenges faced by a new generation trying to ‘make it’ in an economy that is stagnating. The dynamic sprouting of new industries easily gives the impression that there are more opportunities nowadays. If more means wider and more diverse, than that’s true. If, on the other hand, it means that there are many new employers begging young people to work for them, then it couldn’t be further from the truth.


One factor that contributes to this illusion is the wave of opportunities that globalisation provides to the young individual. It provides the freedom to move and work in many other countries, thus being spoilt for choice with an a la carte menu of degrees and jobs. This notion is particularly strong in the EU, that has expanded in the past decades, thus also expanding the right of free movement to many European citizens.


The first and most obvious counterargument to this notion is the simple fact that whatever is now available to you, has also automatically become available to all the other citizens; so while the menu is longer, so is the line of people making the orders. Yet the biggest concern arises when this big menu starts to shrink, making the whole market one big arena of desperate migratory young adults willing to work for ‘experience’ instead of salary. In other words, the employer is doing you a favour by giving you the stamp on your CV that can one day get you a salary. And when one out of twenty employers is so kind to offer you such position, you are no longer free to travel and work abroad, you rather have not much choice left.


Hence, the freedom to move, for many, suddenly became the unfreedom to stay put. After this reflection, freedom’s association with the “movement of goods, capital and persons” receives further qualification: rather than a freedom of universal mobility, it is particularly restricted to the pursuit of capital. For better or worse, once the market needs change, so will your rights (as this pandemic made very clear). The framing of our fundamental rights, rests on a more fundamental ideological necessity of economic demand.


Therefore, as needs change, so do the rules of success. However, contingency must nonetheless be covered by a mythology of perseverance and destiny, surrounding the cult of prosperous figures, the untragic heroes.


You are NOT a Wizard, Harry!

The matter of diminishing opportunities is not necessarily a universal one. Some sectors, particularly the hard sciences and technology, are in fact booming, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and employers do sometimes find themselves competing and begging for skilled workers.


Then, the logical question that one has to ask the millennial is “why have you not chosen to pursue such disciplines, instead of the softer, vaguer and perhaps less needed disciplines?” Good question. The general answer that the millennial dreamers are tempted to answer is naturally from a rather defensive position: “because these disciplines study the treasures of humanity”, “because I have a soul that appreciates abstract and artistic beauty”, “because these disciplines have an intrinsic value that capitalism cannot recognise”, and so on.


These answers seek to defend the value of their chosen disciplines, thus justifying their vocation and the need for government funding to compensate for the free market’s commodifying degradation. Yet seldom do we get intimate answers as to why ‘I’ chose ‘this’ discipline, beyond mere appeal to predestination such as “ever since I was a child, I was always fascinated by French paintings”. It seems that there is something less upright that precedes this noble façade.


The market is typically the target blamed for the disregard for soft disciplines. Yet this is half the story, for such proponents of ‘making the humanities great again’ fail to see that they are also products – ideological subjects – of the same system. What I mean by this is that Millennials must first and foremost glance at the desires that “from childhood” always propelled them to dream about becoming singers, travelling the world translating languages, or saving the whales in the Japanese coasts.


For sure, such images are much easier to sell to the young minds fantasizing about saving the world from catastrophes, being an idol, becoming Pokémon masters, and having any other Ideal Ego with a grandiose destiny. The noble dreams of Millennials are themselves commodifications, the fruit of the market.


In other words, among this generation, we see a segment composed of dreamers whose desires are anchored to the disciplines traditionally enjoyed by the aristocracy and sons of the bourgeoisie, that is, people who did not need to worry about their material needs. In a proper middle-class fashion, the American dream has sold what Slavoj Žižek calls the sublime object, the unarticulated and unattainable objective of desire, that one can pursue (of course while also getting paid for it).


For the few successful cases that we make sure to make a model out of, this turns out to be true. But for most, among a generation that will not be richer than the one before, and which does not have the material possibilities that in the 90s were hoped to exist, this dream is either unattainable, or quashed to the dimension of mediocrity. In more direct terms, this segment is a result of an ideological experiment resulting in subjects condemned to a depressive unfulfillment of themselves and disillusionment– disillusionment not due to having false hopes, but rather due to failing to make them materialise.


So there is also a stark comparison between Boomers and Millennials. The Boomer culture pushed its subjects to mediocrity, to save up and buy government bonds. They were sold the romantic idea of a happy suburban family that eventually turned out to be less splendid. They could touch the sublime object to see it implode.


On the other hand, the Millennials are pushed to dreams of success, to spend more than they actually have, to dream big. The Millennial dreamers have still not yet been given the chance to undergo the maturation of realising that once their dream is reached, it turns sour. They still have not learned to be disappointed (except at their own failures).


The Millennial dreamers are wizards whose Hogwarts letter never arrived. Cinderellas whose fairy godmother got stuck in traffic. Their hopes persist. But they are simply left hanging to dry. Just in case.


There’s a Camera! Smile!

At this point it is important to avoid the simplistic explanation of the Hollywood effect: individuals are not blank slates ready to be passively shaped by the ideas that the media shoots at them. While it is true that the images of grandeur we see in Hollywood do shepherd our desires, the reel is not the foundation of the ideology – we are.


The ideological system is not built around the successful few, but on the rituals of all the participants, us; on all the tiny moments in which we try to project an image of ourselves through the gaze of the American hero, an image which we know is not (yet) true but believe that it will have been so. We are the system itself, each time we pursue commodities for their symbolic value and status, embellish our job titles on Linked-In, pretend to be ‘passionate’ about a boring job in an interview and each time we actively hide our failures from the Other’s gaze – that is, each time we relish in the fantasy.


We do sometimes catch glimpses of the awareness that we are participating in ideology each time we measure ourselves by the standards of the model citizen. And yet, we cannot escape it, for identity can only be measured by the yardstick of ideology. It is not that Hollywood or Instagram impose unrealistic expectations upon us, it is rather that we actively pursue these demands from one place or another, an other who knows our identity on our behalf.


We experience an inescapable feeling of incompleteness, and so we demand that someone tells us how to fill that gap.


The reason why the ideological subjects remain committed to the dream is because of the belief that they were always meant to fulfil it. In this case, Louis Althusser provides an insightful explanation: rather than always, they are always-already subjects of this ideology. Simply put, they are not trying to fulfil their own dream, as part of some form of mystical essence that defines their personhood, but rather, they are pursuing a dream that was necessarily ready for them before they were even born. They cannot define themselves outside of it.


Quite aware of the contingency of success, we fake it till we make it. We emulate success because we know that it matters only that the ideology around us recognizes it -recognizes us. We want to trick the Other into tricking us to the belief that we are successful. But if we are all faking it, what value remains in actually making it?

Just one: not being alone.

That is the definition of success: being accepted by the others, by the big Other. Passing the rite of passage to join the club.


As the American dream teaches you, remain firm and committed to your dream to overcome the mountain, and you will be rewarded; defect from it and you will face only a mountain of inescapable depression, a sad confrontation with the fact that you have no dream of your own. You are helpless and alone.


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *