Everything and Nothing

Posted: April 25, 2020 in Cinema, Cognition, Culture, Mental Health, Music, Politics, Torture, War
Tags: , , , , , ,

In the introduction to an article at TomDispatch about anticipated resumption of professional sports currently on hiatus like much of the rest of human activity (economic and otherwise), Tom Engelhardt recalls that to his childhood self, professional sports meant so much and yet so little (alternatively, everything and nothing). This charming aspect of the innocence of childhood continues into adulthood, whether as spectator or participant, as leisure and freedom from threat allow. The article goes on to offer conjecture regarding the effect of reopening professional sports on the fall presidential election. Ugh! Racehorse politics never go out of season. I reject such purely hypothetical analyses, which isn’t the same as not caring about the election. Maybe I’ll wade in after a Democratic nominee is chosen to say that third-party candidates may well have a much larger role to play this time round because we’re again being offered flatly unacceptable options within the two-party single-party system. Until then, phooey on campaign season!

Still, Engelhardt’s remark put me in mind of a blog post I considered fully nine years ago but never got around to writing, namely, how music functions as meaningless abstraction. Pick you passion, I suppose: sports, music (any genre), literature, painting, poetry, dance, cinema and TV, fashion, fitness, nature, house pets, house plants, etc. Inspiration and devotion come in lots of forms, few of which are essential (primary or ontological needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy) yet remain fundamental to who we are and what we want out of life. Accordingly, when one’s passion is stripped away, being left grasping and rootless is quite common. That’s not equivalent to losing a job or loved one (those losses are afflicting many people right now, too), but our shared experience these days with no bars, no restaurants, no sports, no concerts, no school, and no church all add up to no society. We’re atomized, unable to connect and socialize meaningfully, digital substitutes notwithstanding. If a spectator, maybe one goes in search of replacements, which is awfully cold comfort. If a participant, one’s identity is wrapped up in such endeavors; resulting loss of meaning and/or purpose can be devastating.

It would be easy to over-analyze and over-intellectualize what meaningless abstraction means. It’s a trap, so I’ll do my best not to over-indulge. Still, it’s worth observing that as passions are habituated and internalized, their mode of appreciation is transferred from the senses (or sensorium) to the mind or head (as observed here). Coarseness and ugliness are then easily digested, rationalized, and embraced instead of being repulsive as they should be. There’s the paradox: as we grow more “sophisticated” (scare quotes intentional), we also invert and become more base. How else to explain tolerance of increasingly brazen dysfunction, corruption, servitude (e.g., debt), and gaslighting? It also explains the attraction to entertainments such as combat sports (and thug sports such as football and hockey), violent films, professional wrestling (more theater than sport), and online trolling. An instinctual blood lust that accompanies being predators, if not expressed more directly in war, torture, crime, and self-destruction, is sublimated into entertainment. Maybe that’s an escape valve so pressures don’t build up any worse, but that possibility strikes me as rather weak considering just how much damage has already been done.

  1. “An instinctual blood lust that accompanies being predators, if not expressed more directly in war, torture, crime, and self-destruction, is sublimated into entertainment.” Ouch! Interesting point. Kind of like we are living the reverse of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”; that without traditional outlets of ritualized communal violence we wear our baser selves more openly instead of keeping them in a dark attic. That is one of the reasons behind the idea of Carnival, that a society needed a safety valve to release in a controlled anarchic holiday, pent-up-pressures.

    • Brutus says:

      I thought Carnival and Mardi Gras were more about releasing pent-up sexual energies. Maybe not in their origins, but in their current incarnations. Other holidays encourage binge drinking: Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and of course, Saturday. An annual one-day killing spree, no consequences, is depicted in a movie series called The Purge. It looks too much like modern society with its forever wars and gang violence to be enjoyable.

  2. Greg Knepp says:

    You’ve dug into the deeper human issues here – finally! I’m weary of tedious economic projections, political analyses and medical updates. You write of the various diversions that were, only a few short months ago, part and parcel of everyday life – activities at once banal and elaborately produced. When the shit hit the fan in march, I was in the middle of reading a tome written by a psychologist of the last century named Erich Neumann – a protegee of C. G. Jung. I must admit that this material is a tad above my head, but I’m hacking thru it nonetheless. In any event, the school of thought therein represented would seem to suggest that the activities to which you and Brian refer are little more than attempts to transport us to a primal state of pleasant oblivion where instincts rule and rationality takes a back seat – a return to the womb according to Neumann – that the emergence of the Ego (unspecified eons ago) and the Ego’s often contentious relationship with the Id are at the root of our on-going background anxiety…”being one’s self is a wearisome and painful experience”.

    Of course, rational thinking (Ego) became increasingly important as populations grew and technologies were devised in order to deal with novel complexities. Often working at cross purposes, the Id and the emergent Ego struggled (and still struggle) endlessly for control of the host creature. Societies as a whole, Id driven, carry the struggle on as warfare, enacted on a grand and bloody techno-scale as devised by – you guessed it – the Ego…A perfect storm if there ever was one!

    As you point out, the immediate problem is that, as intensely social creatures, we need familiar and reliable cultural and societal contexts in which to interact. Such contexts now lay shattered by an itsy-bitsy microbe…Now it’s no fun watching ‘Westworld’ anymore. That’s what really pisses me off. On the other had, I really did enjoy ‘War of the Worlds’ last week. I must say, though, I felt an odd bit of empathy for the Martians.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. You might not know that I launched this blog back in 2006 in part so that I could write about consciousness, still a fundamental mystery to most of us despite all that is known about it. I veered off toward industrial, economic, and ecological collapse not long after and now regard the blog as more of a doom blog. Still, the armchair social critic in me keeps returning to sociological concerns, especially as they relate to the fine arts and consciousness.

      The Freudian division into Id, Ego, and Superego is still an interesting model for discussing the psyche despite most psychologists have moved on to other models, including Jung. I still often refer to the style of consciousness most of us possess as “ego consciousness” precisely because we adopt a pose of objectivity and reason (part of the self/other dichotomy) that is a mere overlay on our true irrational, animal nature. We’re not really machines or computers, though Transhumanists especially wish we were.

      Some recognize that the fine arts and the mythopoetic (some strains of storytelling, such as legends and fables) are both aimed at retaining or recovering some part of our former animist style of consciousness, when the world was luminous with meaning and we were embedded in the world as opposed to being situated on it. Julian Jaynes wrote about this in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (which is rather poorly used as the basis of the show Westworld, or at least the episode titles).

      Much more recently, Iain McGilchrist wrote in The Master and His Emissary about brain lateralization and how the more logical, rational left brain (“the emissary”) managed to assert control over the holistic right brain (“the master”). Accordingly, we see the world through a relatively narrow perspective but fool ourselves that we appreciate all of it. Forest and trees. I blogged my way through the book a few years ago. If you click on the Consciousness or McGilchrist tags at the very bottom of the page, you’ll find a whole bunch of blog posts on the topic over a period of years.

      • Greg Knepp says:

        I was in my early twenties when I read Julian Jaynes’ weird masterpiece. It came out at about the same time as ‘The Naked Ape’ (Morris). Both were blockbusters among pop anthropologists. I’ve not been able to get the Jaynes book out of my head after all these years, and was pleasantly shocked when it was used as the foundation for ‘Westworld’. As far as Jungian psychology, anthropology and philosophy are concerned (for I believe the body of his work, as least as far as I’ve read, is a blend of these fields) my introduction took place in 1956 with the motion picture ‘Forbidden Planet’ – a true mythic epic, complete with an all-powerful Id monster and a prostrate Ego civilization forced to dwell underground in a vast and complex AI format. SPOILER ALERT – the captain of the flying saucer gets the girl. For a briefer but equally compelling portrait of the Id, I recommend ‘The Beast in Me’ by Johnny Cash. It’s on youtube…what isn’t?

        Oh, I’m still not certain I fully buy into Julian James’ theory. But it was a hell of a read!…thanks for getting back to me.

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