Transcending Cultural Sickness: On Mark Edmundson’s “The Age of Guilt”

Transcending Cultural Sickness: On Mark Edmundson’s “The Age of Guilt”

IN HIS new book The Age of Guilt: The Super-Ego in the Online World , University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson offers a stern assessment of modern internet culture in the West. In his 21st-century reading of Freud, the online world has become “sick,” a place where the anxious superego has “broken loose” and turned into “reactionary spasms against authority.” A critic once called Edmundson a “Charlottesville gadfly,” and it is tempting to imagine a cranky tenured professor shaking his head at the fecklessness of today's youth. But there's more than the traditional skepticism of the young going on here, for internet technology has wrought some disquieting changes. “I see the ravages of the super-ego almost daily,” he writes. “My students are bright, talented, and kind, but oppressed by the standards that have been instilled deep within them.” His examples of grade inflation and souped-up student achievement are especially familiar to professors who have witnessed their universities transform from places of education to places of business. In the 1990s, Edmundson argued that students were becoming the university's “clientele,” the teachers its “providers.” The result was a student generation “unfired by ideals”—a student generation, in other words, that approached college exclusively as a path to a lucrative career. Now, 30 years later, this mindset, Edmundson suggests, is a full-blown “sickness.” The popular cultural currency today is not apathy but judgment , and as such, the online world is increasingly toxic, for it “does not engage in or seek understanding.” Thus, the internet generally offers not “thoughtful, nuanced interpretations of experience” but a space for the superego, which Edmundson personifies as “a tyrant king,” to reign supreme: The king is crude to the point of vulgarity, judgmental in the extreme, and bitterly punitive. He likes to sound reasonable, though he's anything but. He wants you, and if possible everyone else, to do what he says all the time. The king is unable to enjoy himself except through acts of meanness and even cruelty. He has no capacity for humane joy or fun. He's incapable of a good time. Edmundson deems […]

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