The death of Ideals
Published in The Critic.
TikTokers are going “goblin mode”. Burnt out by the pandemic and the pressures of modern life, millennials and Gen Z have taken to shamelessly “slobbing out and giving up”, malnourishing themselves with junk food and mangling their sleep cycles by staying up scrolling until 3am. Described elsewhere as a “full-on rejection of self-betterment”, goblin mode is the antithesis of being “that-girl” who embodies productivity, wellness and aesthetic perfection. It is an unapologetic unleashing of the creature within, and a complete lack of aesthetic.
As well as sharing somewhat worrying traits with clinical depression, goblin mode reveals a deeper ideology lurking in the minds of younger millennials and Gen Z: the rejection of idealism in all its forms. By trading in the gym-going, smoothie-blending, to-do list-ticking aspirations of the “that-girl” for laziness and indulgence, they are rebelling against a coveted image of wellness. Like Nietzsche, who called to dismantle normative constructs of what it means to be healthy, it is as if they are rebelling against the ideal of health altogether.
To go goblin mode is to take a stand against standards; a trend which has taken over not only social media, but current social justice efforts. In the name of progress, all cultural claims to perfection are increasingly coming under attack. Take the body positivity movement on Instagram (and now virtually every advertising campaign); what began as an acceptance of different forms of beauty soon became a rebellion against the ideal of beauty altogether.
The subversion of this ideal is driven by accusations that the standards imposed by the fashion and cosmetics industries are Eurocentric or patriarchal; doing away with those standards is therefore a political act of anti-racism or feminism. In a similar way, goblin mode can be seen as a revolt against the standards of productivity and self-betterment set by capitalism or “toxic wellness culture”.
In current social justice movements, this reasoning now extends to every kind of ideal: all standardised criteria for excellence, in upholding some fixed understanding of what excellence is, come to be seen as little more than marginalising forces exerted by capitalism, white supremacy or the patriarchy. Through this lens, tinted by the cultural criticism of Foucault, ideals are simply unfair standards that have been set by malicious actors and do not exist in relation to any kind of objective truth.
But this is not simply a political gesture; at the root of it, it is a metaphysical gesture. Though it may seem like just another expression of Left-wing anti-hierarchical sentiment, the rejection of ideals is inextricably linked to a philosophy which has dominated Western culture since the Enlightenment: the repudiation of Platonic ideals. It could even be said that the entire history of modern philosophy — from Descartes to Kant and Nietzsche to Foucault — has been a series of reactions against ideals; and liberalism, itself a product of this philosophy, shares with it the same enemy: Plato.
In his theory of Forms, Plato argued that beyond the material world there exists an eternal realm of immaterial Forms, including the transcendent properties of being: Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Even though these ideals are metaphysically beyond human societies, Plato believed that it was essential for them to guide human societies. His entire political philosophy revolves around the need to aspire towards ideals, and so to uphold universal standards of beauty, bodily health, and all-round excellence or arete.
Platonic philosophy promotes these ideals not because they serve corrupt institutional structures, capitalism, the patriarchy or a particular race, but because they correspond to eternal truth: truth beyond this world. In this sense, Platonism shares a basic metaphysics with traditional religions, which are also premised on notions of truth beyond this world and encourage human self-betterment through qualities that correspond to it.
But from the seventeenth century onwards, the consensus that there was such a thing as truth beyond this world began to wane. The very category of truth was extracted from the realm of the eternal and brought down to the level of the human: it became based either on the senses themselves (as in the empiricism of Hobbes, Locke and Hume) or on the reasonings of the mind (as in the rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz).
This was the first wave of the West’s revolt against ideals. Despite forging new “grand narratives” and quasi-ideals such as universal reason, it was fundamentally an assault on Platonic metaphysics. Liberalism, itself a product of the Enlightenment, is equally anti-Platonic. Now a thing of this world, truth falls into the hands of the individual; and without a belief in an eternal realm beyond the individual, there can be no ideals.
Within a couple of centuries, Liberalism came to fear ideals. After all, their very existence evinces some standard that is superior to the human individual and his or her personal preferences, causing he or she — knowing of nothing but a world in which their own agency is taken as the prime source of meaning – to be offended by them. For the liberal, the very principle of the eternal appears totalitarian; that it should have any control over their life is practically fascistic.
Or so argues Karl Popper. The chief ideologue of modern Liberalism, Popper defamed Plato precisely because he saw his philosophy in this way. In his tome The Open Society and Its Enemies he asserted that Platonism, in looking to govern society with an uncompromising set of absolutes, was a forerunner of modern fascism. Convinced that truth was a thing of this world, Popper was incapable of seeing ideals as anything other than social constructs. Modern progressives, with their political anti-idealism, are following in his footsteps.
But we perhaps ought to avoid conflating all kinds of ideals, as Popper does in failing to distinguish between the ideals of Plato and the absolute claims of other theories like Marxism. This distinction is needed: after all, many of the ideals coveted by the modern world may well be social constructs and worth rebelling against. We may even find some sympathy with Gen-Zs in this sense; the society that they inhabit has long sealed off the realm of forms, leaving only the artificial ideals of the world in its place.
Take the Enlightenment itself, for example. Modern philosophy forged a set of quasi-ideals, such as Descartes’ universal reason. Then, with the dawn of industrial capitalism came another — more pernicious — set of false ideals. The Platonic concepts of beauty and goodness became warped by hyper-sexualisation and indulgence in bodily appetites; the meaning of personal excellence shifted from the Greek arete — moderation and alignment with nature — to consumerist greed and the exploitation of nature.
Then came postmodernism. It was the goal of the postmodernists to subvert the “grand narratives” of both the Enlightenment and capitalism. But instead of reverting to a premodern way of thinking — by allowing the eternal back in or returning to ancient certainties — the post-modernists only took the anti-Platonism of modernity even further, with Foucault himself affirming that truth was, and always has been, a thing of this world. The postmodernists didn’t just reject the false ideals of the modern world, but the very concept of ideals altogether; even those as seemingly primordial as bodily health.
It is only very recently that this postmodern hatred towards every kind of ideal has gone fully mainstream — mainstream enough to take over TikTok. Just ten years ago, teenagers still revered ideals. They looked up to the red-lipped sexiness of pin-up girl pop stars like Katy Perry, a standard of beauty that was artificial — injected with plastic and capitalist hyper-sexualisation — but nonetheless an ideal.
But teenagers today are doing away with all ideals. They like their celebrities upholding hardly any standards at all — celebrities like Billie Eilish who sport baggy clothes, tired eyes and an almost aggressively anti-sexual demeanour. A truly post-modern celebrity, Billie Eilish goes against the “grand narratives” of the pop music industry. Even if she is right to do so, what her fame represents is clear: the latest form of anti-Platonism, fit for the 21st century.
Even the way that Gen Zs present themselves has become an act of anti-idealism. Whereas the millennial women of Instagram — the millennial women associated with the “that-girl” trope — would strike the perfect pose and use filters to enhance their natural beauty, Gen-Zs use their phone cameras to distort the natural ideal of the human face, obscuring their features with emojis, cartoon glitter, surreal lighting and other distorting CGI masks.
Goblin mode — and the nihilism that it represents — is the final destination of this anti-idealism, and last nail in the coffin for the world upheld by Platonism. It marks the abandonment of human life as a quest for meaning and the ideals that allow ordinary people to live healthy, happy and productive lives. And in this culture, yet to find a real alternative to materialism, there may be no way back. If truth is just a thing of this world, and all standards just social constructs, then why not sink to the lowest depths and share it on TikTok?