Monday, March 09, 2009

Let's all leave the theater excerpt from...
The Man Without Qualities, Part 2: Pseudoreality Prevails
by Robert Musil

Ulrich presented them with his scheme for living the history of ideas instead of the history of the world. The difference, he said to begin with, would have less to do with what was happening than with the interpretation one gave it, with the purpose it was meant to serve, with the systems of which the individual events were a part. The prevailing system was that of reality, and it was just like a bad play. It’s not for nothing that we speak of a “theater of world events”—the same roles, complications, and plots keep turning up in life. People make love because there is love to be made, and they do it in the prevailing mode; people are proud as the Noble Savage, or as a Spaniard, a virgin, or a lion; in ninety out of a hundred cases even murder is committed only because it is perceived as tragic or grandiose. Apart from the truly notable exceptions, the successful political molders of the world in particular have a lot in common with the hacks who write for the commercial theater; the lively scenes they create bore us by their lack of ideas and novelty, but by the same token they lull us into the sleepy state of lowered resistance in which we acquiesce in everything put before us. Seen in this light, history arises out of routine ideas, out of indifference to ideas, so that reality comes primarily of nothing being done for ideas. This might be briefly summed up, he claimed, by saying that we care too little about what is happening and too much about to whom, when, and where it is happening, so that it is not the essence of what happens that matters to us but only the plot; not the opening up of some new experience of life but only the pattern of what we already know, corresponding precisely to the difference between good plays and merely successful plays.


...with contemporary commentary...

What can be said that hasn't been said already? Turn on the TV, and you see a show--whether you're watching a sitcom or the news, even when the news is simply a direct feed to political happenings: a show. And as a show, the plot becomes paramount. This is old and forgotten news by now, but it really irritated me when, following Obama's town hall forum a few weeks ago when one woman requested help from homelessness and a man requested a job, the President AND the public mobilized to address these concerns. Nothing more than a transient show, a play-along to the plot, of course. We're unexpectedly confronted on national TV with a homeless woman, a woman pleading for help from homelessness, and we respond as if she's the only example of the problem, as if we had never heard of homelessness before and we find it so appalling that we must wipe the blight from the Earth at one fell swoop. Or, more accurately, we feel the need to try to fool ourselves into believing that we've actually helped, that the problem has gone away. Are we really that easily fooled or delusional? If we aren't, why do we even go through the charade? Could we not live with ourselves if that woman wasn't given a place to live, yet feel good about ourselves since she is, even though so many more like her (or with stories far more compelling than hers) are out there? I'm sure I'm not the only one who's tired of the theater. Perhaps if the stage weren't our impetus for action, we might actually achieve some real gains. The curtain closes, the lights go out, and the problem disappears--or so we're anxious to believe.

This reminds me of a related point--related in my mind, at least. Such a theater production more deeply entrenches a problem rooted in any number of things before this. Put most basically, as Maynard James Keenan sings on Tool's first album, Opiate:
Consequences dictate our course of action
And it doesn't matter what's right;
It's only wrong if you get caught.
What's wrong with this? So long as the rules are written well enough to elicit the "proper" consequences to any given action, we should be okay. But what if the rules and their respective consequences are insufficient? The lyrics continue:
If consequences dictate my course of action,
I should play God and just shoot you myself.
Obviously this is an extreme. The point is that what's right no longer matters in this scenario; it's only the relative cost or benefit of an action, irrespective of its rightness. We're guided not by the rightness or wrongness of an idea, but by the common perception of any given act, because perception to a great extent dictates consequences--and I use the word "act" deliberately here, as in many respects the acts become theater. It's all perception, not substance. But I'm repeating myself.

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