When it comes to our relationships with ourselves, one of our most hazardous and insidious beliefs is that we must always be happy. A product of a culture that extols us at every waking moment to enjoy and sap as much pleasure from life as possible, we are reminded everywhere that happiness is the supreme goal in life. Disinterest in seeking out ever new and unique forms of happiness is seen as a sickness. Unhappiness is seen as a deformity, one which must be immediately rectified before anybody notices. Happiness is considered a-priori that normative state, and any deviation from this state is seen as an abnormality, if not a failure.
The dark underside of this belief is how it is offensive to be sad or, even worse, that we might want to be sad, to feel this other aspect of our humanity so often relegated to the shadowy margins of our psyche.
Unlike happiness, our culture meets sadness with a toxic mixture of repulsion and refusal. We want to make the sadness go away and lift the heart out of the pit of despair.
We have all been victims and likely (well-intentioned) perpetrators of denying sadness. We tell our bereaved friends that it is going to be okay, that things will get better soon, perhaps things are bad now, but they will not remain so forever, or that being sad gets us nowhere so we might as well be pragmatic and toss sadness aside. We engage in all forms of mental and emotional gymnastics to make the sadness disappear.
One of the unintended consequences of this behaviour is to widen the abyss between ourselves and our saddened counterpart. They are painfully aware of their own condition. The daughter of a dying mother knows the feeling of her internal organs twisting from anguish is not “good”, and that crying every day is interfering with her life. Of course she knows this. We might try to coax her out her misery, to dissolve it, and to lead her to a happier place, but for someone incapable of anything except sorrow and grieving, the call to be happy only affirms the distance between themselves and others. The result is not communion, but alienation.
It might seem intuitive to try and remove sadness, but there is another approach, no less intuitive, but perhaps more affectionate and considerate of the other. We could, instead of trying to remove sadness, feel it. We could extend a helping hand and empathetic ear to our friend and hear them out. What they need, even if they may not put it in these words or realise it themselves, is to accept that, in the piercingly simple words of Miranda Devine, ‘it is okay to not be okay’. We can sit with our friend and do something we might not be used to doing: listen.
If we can begin accepting that it is okay to not be okay, rather than rejecting our sadness as something deformed and separate from ourselves, we will be in a position to accept that it is an uncomfortable but necessary part of what it means to be human. It will, in turn, allow us to feel more fully, and lead more intense and emotionally fulfilling lives. What others require of us, is not instructions on how to be happy, or second-hand advice on dealing with pain or sorrow; ultimately, what the other needs is so painfully simple it is easily overlooked: a mind ready to listen, and maybe, two arms ready to hug. The beautiful thing is that this is something all of us can do.
Our society has a tendency to embrace simplistic narratives about the world and our place in it. ‘Good versus evil’ would be one such example. Whether it is a hero battling a villain, or a ‘nation under God’ battling terrorism, there is no such thing as a person (or nation) that is inherently good, and one that is inherently bad. This way of framing life says little about the world, but much about how we think about it.
Another simplification that dominates how we look at ourselves and each other is to categorise some as ‘winners’ and others as ‘losers’.
The logic at work here is that life can be reduced to a single, all-encompassing matrix where competitors in the race can be ranked from lowest to highest (with medals handed out accordingly).
But, of course, life is not like this. It is a multiplex of many different races, occurring over unique and distinct terrains, with any number of competitors. There are races for fame, prestige, power, status, and rank. And while these receive the most coverage, there are other races occurring all the time. There is a race for who can be the most understanding friend, a race for who can stay calmest under pressure, a race for who can be the most attentive and loving in the face of overwhelmingly harsh and difficult circumstances.
But, the coverage given to certain races – such as the race for power or wealth – creates the impression, soon turning into an opinion, transforming into a belief; that these are the only races worth winning. In the process, we judge ourselves according to athletes we have no hope of contending with. One would not place a child against an Olympic runner and expect them to succeed, nor would one invite a fish and a monkey to a tree climbing race expecting a fair competition. We are not suited to every race in life. Our advantages in one area will become disadvantages in another.
In our more self-critical moments, we begin to feel like fish that have entered a tree climbing competition against monkeys. We feel like we are ill-equipped and unable to compete. Dejected, we blame ourselves. If only our fins were fingers with the necessary climbing dexterity. But, it would be helpful to remember, that if the competition was a swim across the Bass Strait, we would be feeling very different.
We have people in our lives who we think are doing better than ourselves. They may already own houses, go on fabulous holidays every year, be in long term committed relationships, or never suffered the loss of a loved one. We look on at these people and think to ourselves that they are truly winning at life. But on closer inspection, this might not really be the case.
You might not own a house, and have grown up in poverty. But that has given you a appreciation of small pleasure that perhaps your wealthy friend does not have. Another friend may go on fabulous holidays every year, surround themselves with all sorts of pleasures, and spend their days in supreme entertainment. But, they might be less adept at being alone than you, someone who does not have the money to spend every waking moment busy with pleasure. Your friend may never have experienced the severely painful experience of losing a loved one or having a family member struck down with cancer. But you have developed a resilience borne out of suffering that your friend does not have. While another friend is having a party of life, you may have developed depression; but as a result, you may develop an appreciation of life that is profoundly deeper than someone who has never felt the crushing emotional toll of loss as you have. You lost one race, but you certainly won another.
Someone who wins at being a ruthless businessperson will likely lose in the race to be an attentive and understanding partner. Someone who wins the race for prestige and fame will be a loser in the race to be humble and empathetic in the face of someone else’s pain. We simply cannot be winners at everything, which means, likewise, we cannot be losers at everything either.
You are not a loser. It would be far more accurate (and fairer) to note that you may be a loser here, but that only makes you a winner there. If we can begin to realise that life is a multitude of races, and that we will lose some, but win some also, then perhaps we can redeem ourselves in our own eyes and realise that we are not totally losers at all but sometimes flawed and other times excellent humans who are good at some things, and not others.
What is it that we celebrate when one year descends below the horizon of time while the next is rising beyond it? In a sense, nothing. Nothing really changes at this point. Its signification appears to come from its convenience at the end of the calendar, rather than from some real (as opposed to artificial) event, like the winter solstice, or the first full moon of the Summer equinox.
Yet, there is something to be said, however briefly, about its very artificiality, a word we would be wise to remember, shares an etymology with artifice, and both of these with art; that is, with the creation of something new and symbolically powerful. The celebration of new years is an artifice of the human imagination, sure, but this does not empty if of meaning, but rather, opens a space where it can become meaningful.
What meaning do we grant it? New year is simultaneously requiem and celebration.
New years is a requiem for the year, for dashed hopes, squashed aspirations, and unmet goals; a chance for us to bury our past failures, regrets, and disappointments, and let them sail off with Charon, heading for oblivion. We wanted to lose 10kg, build that deck, and become a more attentive partner, but our aspirations were not met with equivalent strength of will. No matter, that was then, and this is now. Now is the time to restart and not let these things hold one back.
New years is likewise a celebration of dreaming. It is the dream of all dreams, a dream we so ardently want to make a reality. In the new year, we celebrate the possibility of things being different. This time, we really are going to lose that weight, commit to that renovation, or become the partner our significant other deserves.
Just as new year is a requiem for a dead past, it is likewise a resurrection of hope. The hope that was trampled, beaten down, and left for dead from the trials and tribulations of the previous year is brought back to life with a renewed optimism that maybe this time, we will succeed in the resolutions we have set ourselves.
New year’s is about recognising the person we have been in the current year and striving to be a better sort of person in the next. The new year is the metaphysical crossroad we traverse annually, where we look back at the person we were and then set our sights forth on the type of person we want to (and hopefully can) be. The new year is the juncture between a solid, fixed, and unchangeable past that refuses to budge, and a future still yet unwritten, undecided; pliant, and flexible enough for us to shape it. It is at new years we are faced with the inexorable tension between the questions ‘who am I’ this year and ‘who do I want to become’ in the next?
There are, as always, the naysayers, who seek to empty new year celebrations of signification. ‘Why wait’, they say, ‘until the end of the year? You can make changes now’. Strictly speaking, they are right. You don’t need to wait until the end of the year to try and become a better person. (Although, I don’t think anyone actually makes that claim). But they misunderstand why the new year is so valuable. The new year, strictly speaking, has no value. After all, it is just another arbitrary span of time. However, it has immense symbolic value. It punctures the calendar, delineating between one moment and the next. We are a symbol using species. The ring on the finger of an engaged woman and new year both are technicallywithout value, but they remain very symbolically valuable; both make real and visible to the world that something has occurred, that change has happened.
In the infinitesimally small magic moment separating this year and the next, we celebrate the possibility of a refresh; of cutting our losses and starting over in a way that allows us to make the past well and truly passed, and the future, well and truly upon us. The new year is a mourning for what we wanted to achieve but didn’t, a celebration of the chance to start anew, and a declaration that despite our failure to live up to our lofty aspirations, we are the architects of our destiny.
In ancient society, there was the master and the slave. Then we emerged into Feudal society with the lord and serf. Afterwards, the capitalist and the wage-labourer. There is a particular form of servitude in each stage, but we can identify who is master and who is slave. Now, it is different. The masters are gone. (CEO’s and boards of directors are employees, just as anyone else in the company, albeit better paid. Politicians are beholden to flows of global capital and cannot act outside its strictures). Only servitude and servility remain.
We have devoured our master. But, we did not kill our master (which is revolution), but have absorbed him while remaining a slave; more slavish than a slave, more servile than a serf; a serf that has so thoroughly absorbed the commandments of the master that a master is no longer needed.
Our service-based society is a serf-based society. We are perfectly emancipated, for there is master any longer; yet, perfectly servile, as we continue to obey (go to work, buy consumer goods). It is voluntary servitude. Freedom to will, but not the will to be free.
Nietzsche wrote of God’s strategy of putting his own son on the cross: in redeeming man’s debt by sacrificing His son, God, the great creditor, made a situation where that debt could never be redeemed by the debtor, since it had already been redeemed by the creditor. As a result, He created a situation of endless circulation of debt. Humanity’s curse is to feel guilt for being unable to pay back their debt. It is worth noting that in German, ‘debt’ and ‘guilt’ share the root word schuld, bearing relation to the English ‘should’.
The craftiness of God is likewise the craftiness of capital. Capital plunges the world into debt, and while working to redeem this debt, creates the situation where even further debt is created. The debt can never be cancelled or fully redeemed, so the vicious cycle continues.
“Beat it up, nigga” starts Cardi B. “Spit in my mouth… I want you to park that big Mack truck right in this little garage” artists Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion rap in their song WAP, or, Wet Ass Pussy.
We have come a long way in the last 100 years. During this period women fought for political representation, a fair wage, equal opportunity, control over their own bodies; and to live lives of dignity, freedom, and respect. They often put their very bodies on the line, facing physical and verbal abuse in the long struggle of female suffrage.
Our contemporary culture shows signs of a schizophrenic split. On the one hand, there is no shortage of news stories, academic articles, political speeches, corporate PR, and media talking heads willing to extoll and support the female struggle. People who say women are second class citizens are shunned mostly from our society. We recognise those types of views have no place. Yet, on the other hand, we are entirely comfortable propagating, spreading and encouraging the fascistic fantasies of people like Cardi B, whose denigrating and abusive lyricism is reminiscent of views about the female body from the 17th century. Excuses that it is different this time because it is a woman talking about women is the same logic that it was okay for a Jew to be beaten in the ghetto so long as it was a Jewish officer doing the beating.
“Pay my tuition just to kiss me on this wet-ass pussy. Now make it rain if you wanna see some wet-ass pussy” says Megan Thee Stallion. Cardi B continues, “He got some money, then that’s where I’m headed”, “I don’t wanna spit, I wanna gulp, I wanna gag, I wanna choke”. The imagery invoked is not just sexual, it is political. It affirms a picture of women as subordinate. Its sadomasochistic lyricism promotes an image of the submissive woman who allows herself to be controlled by a man; indicative of the very world women were once trying to change.
The lyrics are not even about bad taste. They point to a world where profit has been divorced from any sense of moral or ethical obligation. Everything becomes fair game for ridicule or mocking. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are just two artists among many who occupy the moral no-man’s land, an ethical dead zone where nothing matters but whether something will make money. In this frame of reference, there is not too much difference between Cardi B & Megan The Stallion, and corporate profiteers, hedge fund managers, CEO’s and bankers who pursue wealth severed from ethical obligations. Everything is open to be capitalised on, so long as it makes a quick buck.
References to women being sex dolls, using men for their money, and being ‘hoes’ goes beyond stupidity. It points to a culture that is increasingly racist, sexist, misogynistic, and historically illiterate. A song like this couldn’t have come out when women had just gotten the vote. It can only happen in a culture that has forgotten the past, where historical injustice and the plight of the oppressed are not connected to the present historical moment.
As Henry Giroux remarks, ‘celebrity culture is the underside of [a] new illiteracy’, ‘the soft edge of fascism with its unbridled celebration of wealth, narcissism and glamour’. The message is, ‘don’t think, just buy’. Nobody needs to tell us to turn a blind eye to injustice because we are not even looking. This is not the Orwellian nightmare but the Huxleyean wet-dream; you do not participate in the oppression because Big Brother is always watching, you participate almost by accident, in a state of mindless bliss as you continue feeding at the pig trough of celebrity culture.
Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion should read some feminist literature and discover, embedded in their language, the ideals and principles that subordinate women and render them as objects of the male gaze.
Or maybe we should all read some feminist literature and then ask ourselves what kind of world we are living in when music like this is praised and rewarded.
‘All action’, wrote Hannah Arendt in her meditations on what it meant to be human ‘presupposes a spectator’. Humanity is about seeing and being seen. This is not some idle commentary on the importance of Facebook friends or Instagram followers. It is a recognition that we are not fully alive until we are acknowledged by ourselves and our peers. Visibility is a precondition for feeling alive.
Writing, like other forms of creative expression, assumes the spectator. The painting is painted, the music composed and the words written in order to be enjoyed. Enjoyed by whom? Well, someone of course! The very act of creative expression assumes there will be someone there to receive and enjoy it.
The creative act is a revelation. ‘Revelation’ shares an etymological root with ‘reveal’, of removing the shroud/image/façade and seeing beneath. Revelation means literally ‘lifting the veil’. The creative act is a self-revelation where the artist bears themselves as they are on their canvas, music sheet or loose leaf. Art involves laying oneself bare in front of others.
This quality of psychological nakedness, of raw honesty, is fraught with ambiguity. Of course, the artist may be accepted and praised for what they have done. But they may also be rejected and tossed aside. This goes beyond mere pessimism or optimism but is a recognition of the fact that nothing is promised in advance but the artist perseveres, knowing a devotion to their truth matters more than its reception by spectators.
Crucial, for me, and perhaps for others, is recognising that in the creative act we open ourselves up to others. We allow others to peer into our soul and see what it is like. The book says as much about the world around as it does about the author who wrote it. The book says of its author ‘I am here. I lay before you something important. You may accept it or may reject it but you cannot help but recognise it. This is my offering to you. This is my truth’.
Depending on your position, your sight can be improved by moving closer or further away from the object of your attention. Coming closer to an object allows you to notice finer details yet come too close and everything turns into a blur. Yet, its opposite suffers from a commensurate defect. Moving away may allow your eyes to adjust and clearly see what was once a blur but, move too far away and distinctions melt and you fail to tell essential things apart.
Sometimes we are too close to something (our attachments, our fears, our relationships with others and ourselves) to be able to see clearly what is going on with them. But by moving back – not by severing attachments or pushing things away – but by observing your own thoughts, behaviours, and emotions; you may see something you couldn’t before.
I like to think of philosophy like a pair of glasses. Philosophy, like glasses, doesn’t show you anything new. All that happens is your vision is corrected. You once saw things one way and now you see them differently. And, like with glasses, you decide whether your vision is improved or not. But, not everyone needs glasses and not everyone needs philosophy. But there is no harm in trying to improve your vision.
Go to your local cinema or, if it is more to your liking, stay home and switch on Netflix. Peruse the list of movies on display. Tell me if you notice something….I’ll wait.
If you are anything like me, it was not before long that you realised most of the movies are sequels, prequels, remakes or retellings. Toy Story 3 is complemented by the 9th Avenger’s movie and the 5th retelling of the Spiderman story features alongside the book to movie version of Anna Karenina. None of these are original in any meaningful sense of the word.
Original content, of course, is still being produced. Jo-Jo Rabbit and Black Mirror play with narrative sequence and themes, while employing motifs that few others do. But like green acre farming in relation to industrial agriculture, these counter-movements do not function as instances against the system but function as release valves that operate within the very system they seek to stand outside. They become important and worthy insofar as they are not something else. Their value is pinned in relation to the standard fare of mass media.
The trajectory of film entertainment follows a centripetal, as opposed to centrifugal curve. Centrifugal force moves outwards from the centre. It is an expanding radius constantly exploring the new and undiscovered realms. It is a force of both creative movement and risk. Centripetal force moves inwards to the centre. It folds in on itself, excluding anything outside of the known and established. At its logical conclusion, it moves to singularity and entropy.
The mass-media cinematic experience is precisely an example of the entropic state. No energy. No creative drive to explore anything outside the bounds of the already discovered. The updated Star Wars movies epitomise the decay. The movies are written in the self-same style of the original. Young heroes fighting overwhelming odds, always succeeding. They have called upon the same actors that were in the original films decades ago. The same forced, tired lines of ‘may the force be with you’ are recited as a nod to the gravitating centre of deadening entropy. Everything about the franchise fails even at repetition. It is a copy & paste job. No creative risk taken.
The large movie companies, Warner Brothers, 21st Century Fox, DreamWorks, ceased being movie companies long ago. They are movie companies in the sense that Ford is a car company, Telstra is a telecommunications company, and Samsung is an electronics company; which is to say, they aren’t. These are all technocratic organisations built on the same model of abstraction and implementation. Executives regularly move from telecommunications to electronics to cinema. There is no difference anymore. Everything is treated with the same distant, abstract, apathetic attitude. We make cars the same way we make movies. According to formula. It is not about making cars anymore, and it is not about making movies either. It is about making a commodity that will sell and satisfy shareholders.
The major movie companies lack the risk-taking capacity to make something new. Imagine an office of executives discussing two movies they could go ahead with. On the one hand is the 4th version of the same movie. The first three were a bonanza, bringing in enormous returns. The 4th is likely to do the same. On the other hand is a script from an independent writer. It is fresh, exciting, provocative but untested. There is no way to know whether it will be a success or a failure. These executives are obliged to do everything they can to maximise shareholder value. Which decision do you think they will make? For every 12th Star Wars film and new book-to-movie release, the decision the executives make is painfully clear.
The logic of the system of capitalist production is entropic. We keep watching the same movies because these movies were profitable, but they were only profitable because they were the only movies, but they were the only movies because they were profitable. This circular logic spirals down to a single point of homogeneity. It mirrors the rest of culture. All songs follow a four-chord progression because songs with four-chord progressions sell. But songs with four-chord progressions sell because only songs with four-chord progressions are made. A winning formula is found and is constantly reproduced. It was never about making good films, and it was never about making good songs. It was about making good returns.
Everything in our life has been reduced to a zero-point of absolute sameness. Movies will provide us with the same plots and songs with the same themes. It is an infinitely redigested version of an original. No nourishment. This process will continue apace as long as creative risk-taking is seen as something to be avoided rather than as something to be welcomed.
The centripetal movement to the zero-point of entropy can be resolved in two ways. Jump out of the whirlpool or change its direction. The direction of the movement is determined by a system that has reduced culture to commodified kitsch, and sees value only insofar as something promises a profit. So, our solutions lie outside a system with this pathology, or in changing the pathology in the system to see value in things outside of their capacity to turn a profit, whether it be cinema, music, or even people.