Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Beyond the rants: Culture, Seinfeld and the Ferguson Riots - A Society of Culturettes

No, I'm not going to write about the old TV show 'Seinfeld' (sorry, I never liked that show), but about something I once overheard from a table next to me at lunch. Two middle aged fans of the show were attempting to 'speak Seinfeld' with a third, younger, companion at their table, who they simply assumed was as familiar with their favorite TV show as they were, 'cause, you know, Seinfeld!

As the two were chuckling at the reference one just made, they suddenly noticed the blank look on their friend's face. So the one who'd told the story repeated himself, something about what Kramer had said in such 'n such scene being just like what someone in their office had done earlier that day, but this time he spoke more slllooowwwlyyy like there was a language issue at the root of their failure to communicate; and yet - still no response from their young friend.
"Didn't you ever see that?"
"See what?"
"That episode? Of SEINfeld?"
"Nah, never watched the show."
The two chucklers gasped in shock.
"What...? Seriously?" and in unison "You've never seen Seinfeld?!"
"Nope." came the entirely unconcerned reply, and "Pass the ketchup.", as he went about the more important task of spurting condiments on his burger and digging in.
Sadly, there are still, however many years after the show went off the air, scores of people who routinely 'speak Seinfeld', and do so in supreme confidence that they're enhancing their conversations with these allusions and references to critical episodes, scenes and gags from the show. No doubt for those who're as familiar with it as they are, they get the meaning, they get the joke, and they COMPLETELY know how it relates to the present moment, and I've no doubt their conversations are ever so much more than they otherwise would have been, because of their show references.

And yet there are other people, many more other people, more and more every day, who've never seen Seinfeld, who do not have and never have had any mental space reserved for the show; and even many who would do everything they could to leave the room if someone were to turn it on. And these Seinfeld-less people, a distressingly expanding portion of those that the Seinfeldians know, will so deeply frustrate them with their inability to have communicated to them, that certain laugh, that important Seinfeldian insight ("Soup Nazi!"), and they will have to endure the 'cut off in mid sentence' sensation of coming up against not just a lack of understanding, but the utter absence of there even being the possibility of communicating what the Seinfeldian had in their mind, to the Seinfeld-less person they were attempting to let in on the joke.

Appropriately enough, for a show famously about nothing, there's more to the Seinfeldian's discomfort here than meets the eye.

For when I overheard this scene I'd thought I understood how those two at the lunch table must have felt. I'd spent the 80's in a travelling Rock band on the West Coast, and we'd developed a lingo of meaningful references all our own; particular looks, expressions, words, phrases (for the few of you still out there, here ya go:... "Nice boots", "Pigeon Poaching", "Would you believe?!", "Oh Knawful", "San Deigo", "40", "Roller Skates", "Going north", "Too much air today", "U-Haul", "50 cycle hum", "Jartran" - you're welcome), which passed volumes between us, becoming our (only partly intentionally) secret code language. And as I still occasionally lapse into an expression here or there, being the only person able to 'get the joke', I thought I'd felt what those Seinfeldians were feeling; the realization that you can't help the person you're talking to, to 'get the joke'. And if you try to explain it... the humor escapes and only your odd meaninglessness remains to them.

But what I realized this weekend, while watching a livestream of the Ferguson riots and trying to help defend a friend who was being attacked online who was being accused of not being 'black enough' because he cared too much about truth and justice - WHAT?! - and then I realized, that the joke was on me. Those band memories were simply irrelevant personal memories, no different from anyone else's personal recollections of friends & days gone by. But what the Seinfeldians, and the 'not black enoughians' were (and are) experiencing, isn't about the experiences of youth or race, but a microcosm of something that is happening in the wider Western world all around us. There too we have the case of an understanding which is also being shared by fewer and fewer people every day, and the absence of communication which it presents there is infinitely more far reaching in its significance, because what is not being communicated by it is much more than just a laugh track, and much more to do with our being able to live a life worth living.

And what that is, is this:

  1. the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
    "20th century popular culture"
    synonyms: the arts, the humanities, intellectual achievement;

Well, not quite that exactly, since as the definition given in the first instance there references "20th century popular culture", which might be more fitting to the Seinfeldians culturette, and it seems remarkably lacking in the ability to convey an understanding of what Culture actually is.

Ok, here's another definition that gets somewhat closer:
"Culture: Integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that is both a result of and integral to the human capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. Culture thus consists of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies, and symbols. It has played a crucial role in human evolution, allowing human beings to adapt the environment to their own purposes rather than depend solely on natural selection to achieve adaptive success. "
There, that's better.

That seems rather... large, doesn't it? Although Culture is a fairly new word, its meaning stretches all the way back to why the Greeks referred to other peoples as barbarians. It wasn't just the the 'bah-bah-bah' sounds of their language, but the fact that their language conveyed little or nothing of what was understood to be important by the Greeks. What the barbarians spoke wasn't Greek to them, its words wouldn't carry the "Integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour" of their world and so was meaningless and worthless to them. Culture may be a new word, but its meaning is not only ancient, but all encompassing for a society. Until recently, anyway.

Now ask yourself: what do you suppose remains behind in a society when something that large has been removed from it? All the references and understandings, which, as 'Soup Nazi' is to Culture, are as a punch line is to the collected works of Shakespeare, Sophocles, etc. All of that, was simply cancelled and discarded as if by some remote Intellectual programming executives because its Nielsen ratings had dropped amongst themselves (which is pretty much what happened, but that's another story).

It's a shocking situation for a Culture's die-hard fans to absorb. And as a result, like Seinfeld, fewer and fewer people are 'speaking Western Culture' today, and the increasingly large number of people who do not have any mental space reserved for it in their minds or souls, whose numbers are growing every day, every year, do not 'get the joke', or anything else. We are fast becoming a society that isn't even as well off as those two Seinfeldians I overheard, for their companion, though not a fan, at least knew of what it was they were speaking of.

The people who don't 'speak Western Culture', don't even realize what it is that you're referencing, a Culture; instead they make the mistake of thinking that you're talking about a particular book or an author, rather than about a way of living life itself. A line of Aeschylus or Shakespeare or an observation of Thucydides or Locke, can be made with only a few words, but to those familiar with them, they could, and should, and once did, convey a depth of meaning that went far beyond the scope of trivia or amusing gags.

But to those unfamiliar with these? Nah, never heard of it. Pass the Ketchup.

Try it. Assuming any of this raises even a glimmer of understanding with you, try referencing a quote from Plato, a reference to Plutarch or even King Arthur's knights! These were once common references which communicated volumes of meaning and relevance, cultural references which once had the ability to truly save the day or alter the course of a life, references which served to situate their listeners within their lives, capable of inspiring acts of bravery or the righting of a life - but these are now more often than not, met with a blank stare, a "nah, never heard of it. Pass the Ketchup."

If I dare make reference to the 'rage of Achilles', I might be met, from those who should know it, professors, teachers, 'intellectuals' and the like, with not much more than a recognition of a noun which they remembered to have some dim reference to 'Western Civilization', and as such it will likely be met with some shade of contempt and I'll then be chided about 'checking my privilege'. But whose,  and far more likely, I'll be met with that devastatingly empty glance, one that with some prompting will be followed by a shrug which communicates that "Sorry, I don't speak Western Civilization", and the pain of it strikes deep into the soul.

But here's the question that you, who are currently enjoying the last fruits - perhaps the pits - of that culture, should be asking yourself: 'What is filling that empty space?' What, in its stead, is filling the gaps where there once was something that was "integral to the human capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations"? What has taken that place?

'Nothing' is not the answer. Some thing or things are filling that gap, they have a shape and form which looks a lot like what is happening in Ferguson MO right now.

We have a world today, possibly the first one ever, which has attempted to trade the substance of it's culture, the stories and events which gave, preserved and passed on its life, with data alone, with facts shorn of the context of those stories which they originally came from and gained their meaning through. Phrases & terms such as : 'Drinking the Hemlock', to 'crossing the rubicon', to 'Battle of Hastings ' and 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers', as a result of being taught, if at all, as options on a multiple choice test, they are at best associated with a name and a date that was once required of them to be memorized, but that is all. No meaning attaches to their reference, no understanding is triggered by it, no deeper recesses of their lives are touched, woken and animated by those factoids. Playwrights such as Sophocles are at best 'a text' which some students once had to scan through in order to pass a test, and for you to try and explain something to them such as a reference to Antigone, would be as fruitless as trying to explain the Seinfeldian's 'Soup Nazi!' joke - the soul of the reference cannot be grasped by explanation... in fact it is mostly because of such explanations that the soul of the story has been put beyond our grasp to begin with. Textbooks are filled with summaries and factoids, without story or with stories that have been gutted and left grey, lifeless, without meaning, and ensuring us only that we'll pass on a society without a common culture (The 'Diversity!' goal of Common Core).

In Western Culture's place we've been given gobs of mini-cultures, call them Culturettes, based around entertainments and activities such as Seinfeld, football, The Simpsons, MTV, etc., which do not enable, and often stop, conversation between the culturettes. Our society is crammed full of these culturettes and without a unifying culture to contain them and us, there is no form for our society to take but that of chaos, and rioting is one of its many outward features.

I've heard a number of people describe what's going on in Ferguson, the rioting, the looting and destruction of their neighborhood, as somehow being the behavior of animals. I haven't asked which animals because there's no need to - it is entirely, authentically, unequivocally, Human behavior.

What it is not, is behavior that is a part of, or compatible with, Western Culture. And as that is the one culture our educational system has been attempting not to teach for so many, many decades, that is behavior that you can expect to see lots more of. To behave like animals, would be a step up, they at least have a raw order to them - humans don't have that instinctual option, cultures define our behavior, and only the West has led to ideas of Justice and the Rule of Law. What you're seeing in Ferguson, is all the different culturettes the West has been replaced with.

'Purty, ain't it?

And make no mistake, nothing so disjointed and empty as the hash of culturettes our culture has been replaced with, can remain standing for long, not even on TV. There is such a thing as intellectual gravity, just as there is physical gravity and falling ratings, and without sufficient supports, the existing structures will collapse and drag you down, and just like your favorite cancelled TV show, no write in campaign will bring it back.

Oh, but let's revise the standards for our School's Textbooks! Let's add some more multiple choice references! More chapters of fun fact bullet points! That'll help! That'll fix it!

Soup Nazi!

'Where there is no vision, the people perish'
Like most biblical references, that poetic snippet is a fully loaded and prismatic fractal of meaning, and one sense that can be taken from it is that without a common vision, without a shared poetic understanding, a shared story, the people cease to be 'A People', they actively replace themselves with a disintegrated and disparate group of 'peoples', more at odds with each other than with those few barbarians who are still outside the gates, as well as the many more already within.

Like dead men, facts tell no tales.

Without the stories, poems and histories, whatever some standards committee might determine to be 'culturally relevant facts', which had been plucked from them, they cannot convey the meaning that once was accessed through them, a meaning and understanding that knitted its listeners together into A People, a We The People. We have a society today that finds itself almost entirely without a common culture for conveying its significant touchstones. And how well its meaning can be conveyed without those vehicles of story and myth, might be gathered by simply looking around you today. If you want to see what a society of 'No Culture' looks like, if you want to understand the meaning of 'Where there is no vision, the people perish'' is, walk up to a person or two and mention to them about someone being 'rich as Croesus (see below)', and witness the true poverty there to be had in the blank stare staring you in the face - yours and theirs.

Or better yet, look at the rioters in Ferguson MO, who are joining with others streaming in from around the country to burn their neighborhood to the ground in protest for... 'justice'. Having an actual Culture replaced by various culturettes of sports, TV & musical styles... looks a lot like that.

Perhaps even worse, is the fact that the little 'culturettes' that've been slipped to us in the greater culture's stead, the 'Seinfelds' or 'Friends', Rappers, Hip-Hoppers or John Wayne-Eastwood-Schwarzenegger-Rock movies... we soon find ourselves possessors of culturally counterfeit currency whose bills don't even remotely resemble those in use by the person you are trying to 'pay' them to. They don't even seem enough like 'real money' to even begin reaching for; and as with pulling monopoly money out of your pocket to pay for a Coke, the cashier won't even extend a hand for it, you'll only receive an annoyed, blank, stare.

But then again... how often do you even use cash anymore? Just swipe your debit card, or your Kardashians reference, and smile for the selfie!

Yep, Rich as Croesus.

* **************************************************************************************** *

The story of Croesus.
If you've been unfortunate enough to assume that the education you received at school was an actual Education, you may not have heard the story of Croesus. The person celebrated as having originated the concept of 'History', Herodotus, told the story of  the fabulously wealthy Croesus.

Croesus was not only fabulously wealthy, but a powerful ruler of a state as well, and supremely proud and confident that his wealth and fortune made him the happiest of men. As Herodotus told it, one day Solon, the iconic Greek wise man who'd given the Athenians their first constitution, came to dinner, and Croesus was eager to hear this famous wise man laud him for his own wealth and success and happiness. So after providing a luxurious feast, he said "Tell me now, O Solon, who do you think is the happiest of all men?" eagerly expecting him to say, "Croesus."

But Solon, having no use for flattery, answered: "Tellus of Athens, sire."

Croesus was less than pleased at this answer and he demanded to know why. Solon answered,
"First, because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours."
Croesus still wasn't pleased, but he thought that surely he'd at least rate second place in Solon's esteem, so he asked again, "Well, who do you think the next most admirable and happy person is.", but again he was to be disappointed.

"Cleobis and Bito," Solon answered, explaining that,
"they were of Argive race; their fortune was enough for their wants, and they were besides endowed with so much bodily strength that they had both gained prizes at the Games. Also this tale is told of them:- There was a great festival in honour of the goddess Juno at Argos, to which their mother must needs be taken in a car. Now the oxen did not come home from the field in time: so the youths, fearful of being too late, put the yoke on their own necks, and themselves drew the car in which their mother rode. Five and forty furlongs did they draw her, and stopped before the temple. This deed of theirs was witnessed by the whole assembly of worshippers, and then their life closed in the best possible way. Herein, too, God showed forth most evidently, how much better a thing for man death is than life. For the Argive men, who stood around the car, extolled the vast strength of the youths; and the Argive women extolled the mother who was blessed with such a pair of sons; and the mother herself, overjoyed at the deed and at the praises it had won, standing straight before the image, besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Bito, the sons who had so mightily honoured her, the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the two youths fell asleep in the temple. They never woke more, but so passed from the earth. The Argives, looking on them as among the best of men, caused statues of them to be made, which they gave to the shrine at Delphi."
Croesus was seething at this, "Is my happiness, then, so utterly set at nought by thee, that thou dost not even put me on a level with private men?"

And Solon answered,
"Oh! Croesus," replied the other, "thou askedst a question concerning the condition of man, of one who knows that the power above us is full of jealousy, and fond of troubling our lot. A long life gives one to witness much, and experience much oneself, that one would not choose. Seventy years I regard as the limit of the life of man. In these seventy years are contained, without reckoning intercalary months, twenty-five thousand and two hundred days. Add an intercalary month to every other year, that the seasons may come round at the right time, and there will be, besides the seventy years, thirty-five such months, making an addition of one thousand and fifty days. The whole number of the days contained in the seventy years will thus be twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty, whereof not one but will produce events unlike the rest. Hence man is wholly accident. For thyself, oh! Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs, unless it so hap that luck attend upon him, and so he continue in the enjoyment of all his good things to the end of life. For many of the wealthiest men have been unfavoured of fortune, and many whose means were moderate have had excellent luck. Men of the former class excel those of the latter but in two respects; these last excel the former in many. The wealthy man is better able to content his desires, and to bear up against a sudden buffet of calamity. The other has less ability to withstand these evils (from which, however, his good luck keeps him clear), but he enjoys all these following blessings: he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon. If, in addition to all this, he end his life well, he is of a truth the man of whom thou art in search, the man who may rightly be termed happy. Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate. Scarcely, indeed, can any man unite all these advantages: as there is no country which contains within it all that it needs, but each, while it possesses some things, lacks others, and the best country is that which contains the most; so no single human being is complete in every respect- something is always lacking. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of 'happy.' But in every matter it behoves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin."
As fate would have it, it wasn't long after that dinner with Solon that Croesus, having let his pride lead him into making one poor decision after another, decisions that inexorably led to his children being killed, his wealth lost, and his kingdom invaded.
Wants to be 'Rich as Croesus'. Already is.

And as his kingdom was defeated and overrun, the invading soldiers dragged Croesus from his throne and out into the town square, where they built a bonfire from the fine furnishings of his ruined palace, tied him onto it and set set it a blaze.

And as the flames kindled beneath him Croesus recalled Solon's words, "No one while he lives is happy." and Croesus cried out Solon's name three times in agony before the flames took him, the richest and most powerful of men, into death.

Without perspective, without the present wisdom of your culture's stories to instill in you the ability to distinguish between what is really of value, what a life worth living actually is, from those things that are merely useful and amusing... you will be lost and remain unfound. Without a vision, you will almost certainly remake yourself as the people who have perished.

Yes, you too can easily be 'Rich as Croesus'.


julie said...

And as a result, like Seinfeld, fewer and fewer people are 'speaking Western Culture' today, and the increasingly large number of people who do not have any mental space reserved for it in their minds or souls, whose numbers are growing every day, every year, do not 'get the joke', or anything else.

This is known as "bad luck."

(I assume you speak Heinlein...)

Van Harvey said...

:-) Yep, and although sometimes the dialect can be tough to follow, I still speak Heinlein fairly fluently.