Why so serious.

June 22, 2010

“I read an article of yours, fire and brimstone, in yesterday’s Yediot. Rico showed it to me, he said, Read this, Dad, and don’t get worked up, just try to grasp where we are living and where all this lunacy is leading us. That’s what he said, more or less. I think he’s even further to the left than you, this repressive state and so on. I’m not so moral a person as either of you, but I don’t like the present situation much either. Mostly I say nothing, from a deep-seated fear that in responding to this or that wrong even I may come out with things that are not exactly right. Anger sends out secondaries. Naturally I have every respect for the brave child who shouts that the emperor is naked when the crowd is cheering Long live the emperor. But the situation today is that the crowd is yelling that the emperor is naked and maybe for that reason the child ought to find something new to shout, or else he should say what he has to say without shouting. As it is, there is so much noise, even here, the whole country is full of screaming, incantations, amulets, trumpets, fifes and drums. Or else the opposite, biting sarcasm: everyone denouncing everyone else. Personally I’m of the opinion that any criticism of public affairs ought to contain shall we say up to twenty percent sarcasm, twenty percent pain, and sixty percent clinical seriousness, or otherwise everyone is mocking and jeering at each other, everyone starts making false noises and everything is filled with malice.”
-Amos Oz’s “The Narrator drops in for a glass of tea and Albert says to him.” in The Same Sea

This quote, in the midst of a story of loneliness and loss and an inability to be understood, made me think of the current theatrics, brainwave and unspoken rules of conduct on the internet. There is this idea of the post-ironic, that we have gone so far past ironic that we now do ironic things with earnest. This is not my generation exactly, I suppose I’m the tail end of generation X, but to be honest, the tail end of Gen-X has been slowly dragging its thagomizer in the dust and found itself amongst the post-ironic; the little sibling who invokes its older sibling’s childhood and claims it for its own due to having a particularly sanitary and thus boring childhood experience.

I can confess to being around the internet since my early teens, a deeply faithful attendee to a nerdy club that suddenly became too popular to discern if my membership card still held the same benefits. I had questions that I did not express: Am I speaking to like-minded people? Are we still all outcasts confessing our loneliness? Or has the real world crept in and assumed our cloaks and secret handshakes? In this sudden closeness of idiocultures, of a people in the cloak of anonymity and the ability to play both audience and performer, sarcasm overtook sensitivity.

Of course, there were reasons for this. Sarcasm is a defensive behavior, irony a defensive behavior. We make fun of ourselves to create a middle ground towards people we suspect might be uneasy with our presence(at least I hear this thought repeated often enough). Since everyone was so close, everyone was on guard and people were free to say things unsaid in polite company. Thus, the reactions lead to reactions, the “Anger sends out secondaries.” In defense to this, more sarcasm and following this, more sarcasm. I myself treated chatrooms like a bar where I just spat off bullshit and expected everyone to know that no harm was meant. Pretty soon, it was faux-paus to be sincere. Sincerity had come under attack.

And the post-ironic, and I did not coin that silly term, came into being as a response to this attack on sincerity. People assumed the harlequin with earnest before they even had experienced the past that had created the need to put on the joker’s mask, fully assuming that passive-aggressive “there is no responsibility on my part if you get upset by what I say” mantra before they had even offended someone and had to deal with the responding anger. To sum it up: the internet created the social space for Glenn Beck to exist. For a man playing the clown so earnest to be believed and loved in spite of seeming to mock those who he represents as a vocal leader. And you can no longer point out that the Emperor has no clothes, because the response is, “of course he doesn’t, what is wrong with that?”

So where does that leave us? Are we all crying wolf? What happens when the need for sincerity is forgotten? Because I believe we do require sincerity. Sincerity is a part of love, even a parent’s love is so sincere it assumes that whatever you are that it can love you. And if it doesn’t have this practice, then we look down upon the parent for not daring to love. Sincerity is a part of trust, of faith, of lending money and borrowing the car. You have to assume that someone must mean a little bit of what they say. And even trapping the issue in the internet world, can you take part in this group behavior, where the audience and its peanut gallery has joined the stage, and the performer, the sage and speaker no longer has a place of authority by not having the ability to cry out in sincerity when the wolf does appear? Instead, we all stand around and stare at each other on stage, waiting for the first person to make a mistake so we can point and laugh. And now the mistake is to be serious, to speak up. So, “Why so serious?” of The Joker for this generation really has become “Don’t be serious.”

Albert, the separated voice of the above quote, has this idea of balance to speaking your mind, because he feels somewhere the balance has been lost. His character is an accountant, so he separates each element into an amount, twenty percent here, sixty percent there. Mostly sincere, mostly serious, but cautious. This can be applied to a Jewish sense of how a Jew must converse(Oz is Jewish and Albert’s character an Israeli discussing perhaps the Zionist’s state actions), but it feels to me to apply so well to the internet’s mindset and how this practice of smug peanut gallery behavior has leaked out into the physical world.

And I agree, it worries me. It’s a lot of false noise and malice, done so to remove all responsibility.

***

Editorial Notes:

The thagomizer:

“The thagomizer, or tail spikes, is an arrangement of four to ten spikes on the tails of particular dinosaurs, of which Stegosaurus stenops is the most familiar. The tail arrangement is believed to have been a defensive weapon against predators.[1]”

First, its the spiky tail of a stegosaurus, a defensive mechanism of a slow lumbering creature thats bone structure is best for pivoting around, but not great for speed or agility. Essentially, it can turn around and wack its tail defensively. Much like gen x turns around and wacks the younger generation for copying its youth.

“The term “thagomizer” was coined by Gary Larson in a 1982 Far Side comic strip, in which a group of cavemen in a faux-modern lecture hall are taught by their caveman professor that the spikes were named “after the late Thag Simmons”.”

Thus, the name thagomizer is a serious scientific name derived from a comic strip joke. The joke becoming serious. This link to my point is probably obvious.

The Joker/Batman issue:

The Batman of my generation is probably the Tim Burton batman, which features Jack Nicholson playing the Joker. Here we have a serious actor playing a clown, and the clown dies in the film. In the current Batman, the Joker is played by young and serious actor Heath Ledger. In this Batman, the Joker often escapes and it is instead the serious actor who dies in the real world. In retrospect, “Why so serious?” grimly starts to become “Don’t be serious.”

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