The Great Beauty

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.

This quote, attributed to Virginia Woolf, keeps popping into my head since I watched The Great Beauty a couple of evenings ago. It stands in direct contrast to one of the central scenes in the film, where the protagonist Jep demolishes the hypocrisies of a friend by noting that:

We also know our untruths and for this, unlike you, we end up talking about nonsense, about trivial matters, because we don’t want to revel in our pettiness.

This may sound like an appealing self-awareness, a deflating of self-importance. In the course of the film, however, Jep comes to realise that in attempting to pre-empt and avoid his own untruths, he has ended up avoiding life. The Great Beauty is not something which comes along but rather the experience itself:

This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore…let this novel begin.

It has been a recurring trope of the film that Jep once wrote a serious novel and has since written interviews. People ask him several times why he doesn’t write again. He is shown revelling at the centre of extravagant, hedonistic parties, surrounded by people who chase the lustre of ostentatious ‘creativity’. We see an unsuccessful actor who suddenly announces she is now a writer, then mid-thought decides that she might direct a film. Jep’s friend spends much of the film chasing a dream of staging his own play, though it seems to be a dream heavily inspired by his pursuit of aforementioned ‘actor’. In the course of his writing Jep encounters a couple of dreadful artists: a self-indulgent performance artist who speaks about herself in the third-person and who waffles about ‘vibrations’, and a young girl who dramatically hurls pots of paint at a canvas. It is all nothing and Jep is no-one, a cipher at the heart of the sound and fury. As we see in the final lines of the quote above, Jep comes to realise this and endeavours to confront life in all its complex beauty and horror, figuratively signalled by his decision to write a novel again.

In the middle of nothing it’s easy to be anything. Everyone in Jep’s life performs for one another, avoiding sincerity and seeking validation for their self-image. Jep’s own journey is set in motion by the death of an old girlfriend, his first love. Having avoided his own past for so long, he finds that the roots of who he has become offer redemption. This is paralleled by his friend who, realising that his play is dreadful and his audience are politely indulging him, dramatically decides to return to his home village after decades away. “Rome has really disappointed me”, he offers as explanation.

It will be obvious to many by now that while Rome is an integral part of the film I saw many parallels with London within it. Only last week I found myself telling an old acquaintance whom I’d bumped into in Glasgow that it was so easy to get lost in London and not even realise it. So easy to surround yourself with people who unthinkingly reflect your self-image back at you and demand that you do the same, allowing you to believe that you are what you want to be. I think this is part of why going back home for Christmas is so difficult for many here – it threatens to puncture the illusion, confronts us with a very real history of ourselves in contrast to the ‘self-made’ people we have become.  We must look at ourselves with some attempt at honesty and humility, not so that we can revel in triviality to avoid the discomforts of sincerity but rather so we can look life squarely in the face and begin to understand what lies beyond its appealing, deceptive surfaces. Only then can we grow, only then can we truly immerse ourselves in what life has to offer.

Heck, it even brings to mind the final words of the 11th Doctor:

We all change. When you think about, it we’re all different people all through our lives and that’s OK. That’s good. Gotta keep it moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.

‘Dreams of a Life’

Yesterday I finally got around to watching ‘Dreams of a Life’ (still on 4OD as of writing), a docu-drama about a 38-year old woman who was found dead in her London bedsit in 2006. It grimly transpired that the woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, had died almost three years previously and that her body had lain undisturbed since. Remarkably little information on Joyce seems to remain and so the film relies almost entirely on interviews with people who once knew her. Perhaps inevitably, then, the Joyce portrayed ultimately seems less a fully-rounded human being than a romanticised cipher – for the interviewee’s nostalgia, their lost hopes and dreams and their guilt. This in itself is fascinating but, of course, it’s impossible to watch the tragic tale without Joyce becoming a representation of something larger and more general – our own lives, specifically our relationships, and how we conduct them.

This has been on my mind quite a bit in the past year or so. This post in particular summarises some of my thoughts (and concerns) about the current nature and meaning of ‘friendship’, particularly in a post-social media age. An age which was only really just taking off when Joyce died. I suppose the instant assumption would be that Facebook etc would have made it more difficult for her to fall through the cracks but, when you consider how we use it  and how many people we don’t even necessarily like whom we ‘keep in touch with’ via it, this notion quickly dissipates. Indeed, as I’ve written previously, the unexamined use of social media could be said to actively decrease our engagement with others and our understanding of what ‘friendship’ is. It seems to exacerbate the worst impulses within us – the narcissism, the insecurity, the desire to be seen as ‘better’ – and encourages a deadening self-absorption wherein other people become instruments subservient to our own ego. Thus friendships “…are not borne out of any compelling relationship between two people, any curiosity concerning another person’s inner life. Instead, they are extensions of the self – shallow, convenient arrangements wherein we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us.” The more embedded social media becomes in all of our lives the truer this seems to me – it requires real, maintained effort to forge a friendship of any depth and it’s not always comfortable. It’s always rewarding but in the widest sense of the word rather than the ‘this provides quick, pleasant gratification’ one, because in any valuable relationship with someone else you will find yourself challenged and your negative traits will sometimes be forcefully brought to your attention. More than ever, however, there is the urge to recoil from this and instead focus on that idea of ‘friendship’ as one which serves our egos. This all takes place in the lightning fast world of clicks and ‘likes’ and, as such, the ease with which we can get rid of (‘hide’ or delete) those people who challenge our ‘good feeling’ is brutal. People like Joyce, who by several accounts seemed damaged and lived a disjointed life, would surely have been ill-served by this, proving too frustrating and demanding and offering little back in terms of rewarding our narcissism?

Related to this, the film brought to mind a blog I read only last week. The Marginal Utility blog describes itself as “a blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology” and it frequently addresses the meaning and use of social media. It’s provocative and often brilliant. This particular entry, called ‘Domination’, looks at the debilitating effect of Facebook not just on our relationships but on our very being:

What Facebook makes inescapable, Losse notes, is the transformation of all captured information into cultural capital, into currency in a status game. “Instead of making a technology of understanding,” Losse writes, “we seemed to sometimes to be making a technology of the opposite: pure, dehumanizing objectification. We were optimizing ways to judge and use and dispose of people, without having to consider their feelings, or that they had feelings at all.” Feelings are for the social hackers; for Facebook’s user base, feelings don’t count — they’ve been recast as likes and been dispensed with.

Basically, Losse restates the idea that social media mainly prompts not “openness” but  judgment, poseurdom, defensiveness, and resentment. It serves to guarantee that information is used to articulate hierarchies rather than dismantle them. The best we can hope for is the coexistence online of multiple hierarchies, some of which we might be able to dominate.

It reflects many of my thoughts of the past year (much more articulately) but goes even further, positing that social media is not only encouraging narcissism and self-absorption but replacing authentic personality:

Losse points out how Facebook’s News Feed and like buttons led to a company culture in which personality traits and experiences needed a “proof of concept” through appropriate metrics before being embraced as cool. As social media has become more omnipresent, trying out identity without “proof of concept” has become more risky. It begins to make sense to commit to no particular identity in advance and live from within a sort of beta-testing self to see what sort of self the network tells you that you should embrace. Since News Feed relies on algorithms to narrativize our life experiences in terms of what has proved popular with our “friends,” why not let it tell our life story rather than trying to devise one in advance, before the fact?

What Facebook use may be doing is acclimating users to this post hoc self. Users seize as their identity only what they are told is acceptable after the fact — an algorithmically recommended personality. In other words, social media redefines spontaneity as orthodoxy much like it redefines serendipity as automatically generated recommendations. Spontaneity becomes surprise at what algorithms and tracking tell us we should own as the basis of our identity. Oh! That’s who I am!

Here the idea that people want to have their self-identity reflected back at them becomes more circular and complex as they are actually basing their idea of ‘themselves’ on this feedback loop. As a separate New Inquiry blog argued last week, this lack of space (of urge, of desire?) to actually develop yourself as a person in private leads to the instrumentalisation of that which is viewed as acceptable – popular culture:

Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value{…}There is a problem, though. The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The internet writ large is desperately invested in the idea that liking, say, The Wire, says something of depth and importance about the liker, and certainly that the preference for this show to CSI tells everything.

This is clearly an incredibly bleak view of our relationship with social media and, ultimately, with each other. It’s certainly not without its problems (and the blogs are worth reading at length as they touch on some of them) but it has a pull of recognition. The endless sharing of Youtube videos and adoption of the idioms of certain television shows become inextricably linked with a facile sense of self which is refracted through social media, culture and, yes, through other people. Just as it is impossible to watch ‘Dreams of a Life’ without reflecting on your own life and relationships, then, there is the concomitant urge (duty?) to consider social media, the area where so much of these relationships play out. It’s all too easy to watch the film and shake our heads at the sad denouement of Joyce as a void to be filled in by others (and used in blogs such as this); it’s far more difficult to examine ourselves and consider the ways in which we use people around us in the same way.

Getting Along: Good Feeling vs Bad Feeling

I first came across ‘the politics of Good Feeling’ last year in a discussion around Peter Tatchell’s work. I was pointed towards this piece which, in turn, led me to the original paper by Sara Ahmed.  In short, the papers explored the concept that “happiness has come to be synonymous with the glue that holds the social together” As Sara Ahmed puts it:

Groups cohere around a shared orientation towards some things as being good, treating some things and not others as the cause of delight. When we feel pleasure from objects that are agreed to cause happiness, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. We become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good.

When people are alienated from this shared delight, they experience ‘Bad Feeling’.  Given its necessarily minority status, this can be a bewildering sensation. Individuals experiencing Bad Feeling frequently experience self-doubt and confusion – why do they feel differently? What is wrong with them? The Bad Feeling is attributed to a personal defect. For those who move on from this to sharing their Bad Feeling with others, this is even more pronounced. Stacy Douglas explains:

In this process,“bad feelings” are pathologized as barriers to the achievement of happiness. Happiness, then, is not just a status to be achieved,but is also contingent on a temporal promise that is interrupted or dislodged by “bad feelings.” Ahmed goes on to examine how within this conception, “bad feelings” are attributed to the bodies that disrupt the “good feelings.” 

In short, people blame the dissenting voice for disrupting their happiness. Ahmed uses examples of radical Feminists and black civil rights campaigners who are seen as ‘killjoys’.  A very simple and mundane example which we could all relate to is the purchase of a new item of clothing. We feel a little rush of excitement and can’t wait to wear it, yet if someone comes along and points out that our new clothing was made by children working in sweatshop conditions we see them as passing on their Bad Feeling to us. We don’t consider the issue at hand; we don’t get angry at the manufacturers for their exploitative practices; we don’t question an economic system which actively encourages these practices. Instead we direct our displeasure at whomever dared to bring the practices to our attention. So, in the case of Peter Tatchell, those who saw in his politics strong evidence of Islamophobia and Orientalism were seen as ‘negative’ creators of Bad Feeling and personally attacked. Their criticisms were quickly ignored and the retraction of their article was seen as their own fault. They shouldn’t have disrupted the Good Feeling in the first place.

The politics of Good Feeling can be seen all around us. Last Friday’s Critical Mass event saw 182 cyclists arrested for ‘public order’ offences which effectively amounted to cycling in the wrong place. A very powerful and illuminating account can be found here. Despite the profound implications for civil liberties and democratic freedoms, a common response has been to blame the cyclists, even to the point of deliberately distorting the accounts of what happened. They are purveyors of Bad Feeling attempting to disrupt the Good Feeling engendered by the Olympics and, as such, deserve everything they get. As a result, their treatment at the hands of the police, the fact only 4 of them have actually been charged with anything and the draconian bail conditions excluding people not charged with any crime from entire areas of London have received little attention.

Sadly, blaming protestors for their own ill-treatment is very common today. It was with some irony that I noted the presence of suffragettes in the Opening Ceremony, as today these brave protestors, who utilised property damage in their campaigns, would almost certainly be attacked for their Bad Feeling by many of those who viewed the event.

It is clear that the politics of Good Feeling has a lot to say about the Olympics. Indeed, you can hardly conceive of an event which better characterises a “shared orientation towards some things as being good”. This perception is so strong that the attacks on those who dissent as bringers of Bad Feeling are constant and frequently aggressive. Olympic critics are attached as ‘pathetic’, ‘Scrooges’, ‘whingers’, ‘cynics’ and so on. There is no willingness to engage with any issues raised – after all, why risk contaminating your Good Feeling?

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not always or merely a case of critics speaking truths and being ignored. During the Olympic Ceremony a combination of copious amounts of alcohol, unease at the bizarrely oppressive atmosphere in London and dismay at the shrieking jingoism on display led me to fill my Facebook with anti-Olympic rants. The next day I was embarrassed. This would, of course, engage with absolutely no-one and, if expecting others to recognise the problematic politics of the Olympics it’s only fair that I am able to recognise the positives. Nonetheless, the politics of Good Feeling vs Bad Feeling has something to say even about my drunken rant. Clearly there were a lot of political strands in and around the Ceremony, both explicit and implicit. Yet despite being deeply ideological statements, anyone telling people to ‘get behind’ the Olympics, to celebrate the monarchy, to be proud of modern Britain, would experience no interrogation of their words. They do not interrupt the Good Feeling. Conversely, pointing out the contradictions in, to use the example above, the celebration of the suffragettes against the treatment of protest in modern Britain, is seen as bringing Bad Feeling and unwelcome.

We can see an example of how insidious this narrative becomes in the recent Cosmo piece of ‘Things You Shouldn’t Do On Twitter’. One of them is Anything Political, justified on the basis that people have differing opinions and it’s easier to ‘not go there’. Don’t be the person who brings Bad Feeling, better to keep quiet. We can see this spread throughout  our society, not least in the ironic detachment which increasingly becomes the standard mode of interaction. Since the great man passed away yesterday, I’ll refer to one of Gore Vidal’s quotes about Americans:

We’re the most captive nation of slaves that ever came along. The moral timidity of the average American is quite noticeable. Everybody’s afraid to be thought in any way different from everyone else.

That last sentence sums up the politics of Good Feeling very well. The urge to belong, to be liked, is enormous and increasingly the easiest way to do this is to avoid at all costs disrupting dominant ideas of that “shared orientation towards some things as being good”. Certainly we may have faux-disagreements over whether we think a current pop song is any good but when it comes to the big things, things like politics – avoid.

We can see the power of this when combined with something like the Overton Window. Disagreements within this narrow spectrum of ideas are seen as acceptable, as civilised discourse. Anyone outwith this spectrum is seen as radical and, inevitably, as a holder of Bad Feeling. We can see a glaring example of this in the issue of tuition fees. Introduced only 14 years ago, those who oppose them entirely and support free Higher Education are seen as, at best, hopelessly naive and, at worse, ‘Trots’. The window has moved and the ‘acceptable’ debate is now between fees and a Graduate Tax.

We are psychologically attracted to people similar to us – it’s in our nature. Yet this pathologising of Bad Feeling means we are increasingly terrified of not being similar, leading to our communication becoming increasingly superficial and disengaged. This fear of difference, this portrayal of ‘radical’ views as character flaws, means we are cut off from opportunities to learn, to grow. It has never been easy for us to control how we are perceived, given the increased use of text and image-based communication, and how we most want to be perceived is as part of the Good Feeling. So-called ‘positive’ statements which do not conceive of a world beyond the surface of things have implications – they have power.  We would all, myself included, be better if we actively and sincerely engaged with views which interfered with our Good Feeling rather than closing ranks, hectoring, ranting and dismissing them as bringing Bad Feeling.

An interesting, eloquent piece which delves deeper into some themes I touched on in my blog yesterday. You can hear already the inevitable, tedious cries of ‘snobbery!’ which greet any claim that we are capable of great things; greater, certainly, than ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and Perez Hilton. Such pap has become synonymous with ‘popular culture’ and criticising it is seen as an attack on people – particularly the working-class. I’ve long argued that this argument shows far more contempt for both popular culture and the working-class than the criticisms themselves. Indeed, there is a strong, proud tradition of intellectualism amongst the working-class – the conflation of being ‘ordinary’ with ‘lowest common denominator’ is a pernicious fantasy. It is a rarely challenged one, with the aforementioned charge of ‘snobbery’ being wheeled out frequently, yet the fantasy is openly exposed when figures like Gordon Brown attempt to appear ‘ordinary’ by speaking about ‘X Factor’ and we rightly respond with ridicule and cynicism.

The common thread of Fox’s assertions – that we are increasingly unwilling to engage in demanding intellectual effort (I’d go further than this and say that we are increasingly scornful of anything and anyone which expects this) struck a chord with me as I am currently slogging my way through a difficult book. It’s only 200 pages long but it has taken me weeks to read 50 pages. This isn’t because it’s tedious or terrible but rather because every page is packed with people, ideas and history which I am completely unfamiliar with. The desire to find out more about them sends me off on lengthy internet tangents. If I’m being honest, however, this isn’t why it’s so difficult. Rather, it’s because it makes me feel very ignorant and stupid. I’m squarely confronted with how little I know, how quaint and mediocre much of my thinking is. The temptation to toss it aside and take comfort in some lighter reading is very strong, not least as it would cause me to cringe less at my blog posts which seem absurdly naive and banal afterwards.

Reading ‘Dumbing Down’ brought this experience to mind instantly and caused me to think about its root cause. It struck me that it’s because we largely consume culture in order to flatter our own egos. As with so much of modern life, the things we read, the music we listen to, even the conversations we have – they are extensions of ourselves and we process them by thinking about what they say about us rather than what they say about the world. Even when we flatter ourselves into thinking that we are being ‘objective’ and reading alternate viewpoints, they tend to be prosaically oppositional within a strict, narrow continuum. Truly challenging ideas, those which violently confront our core assumptions and beliefs, threaten to chip away at (or even fundamentally alter) our closely-guarded sense of self. Changing this (improving it, if you want to call it that?) requires dedication, effort and an ego which can accept both being completely wrong and also holding previously contradictory, even unacceptable views. More than this, it necessitates a powerful and eager curiosity which values discovery over personal gain.

Why do I say this? Well, the extension of ourselves, specifically our egos, into everything we touch goes far beyond the culture we consume. It seems quite fundamental to the way we relate to each other. It’s a basic concept of psychology that we are drawn to others whom we believe are similar to ourselves; however, while this would traditionally be taken as meaning that we have a strong sense of self and associate with like-minded individuals, it currently commonly seems to mean that we are fearful of expressing any strident identity. Sure, we have brought brushstrokes which we cling to – ‘liberal’, ‘light-hearted’, ‘intelligent’ etc – but the ego is so paramount that people adopt personas in order to be validated rather than forge friendships based on an honest, messy relationship between two distinct personalities. The relationship therefore is one of mutual gratification where each acts as a mirror, reflecting the person the other wishes to see. It’s arguable then that a truly rewarding relationship with another person requires, as with culture, intellectual effort and an acceptance that it will not always take you to comfortable or affirming places.

Effort can often feel like a slog – that’s why it’s so easy to get stuck where we feel comfortable. Guarding against this is constant, requiring an unshakeable conviction that pushing our minds, ourselves, to places where we feel exposed and where our egos are shaken is the only guarantor against a living death. I make no grand claims to be any better at this than anyone else but I’ll finish that book and celebrate that it will perhaps make me that tiny bit less ignorant.

Dumbing Down

You gotta have friends

The Adbusters piece I shared earlier, with its description of relationships as “transitory counterpoints to the anomie induced by a culture of individualism”, was neatly timed. The nature of ‘friendship’ is something that has occupied my mind for a while and I’d had a few conversations about it this weekend. What does it mean to be a ‘friend’? Looking around, there is much anecdotal evidence that many modern friendships are not borne out of any compelling relationship between two people, any curiosity concerning another person’s inner life. Instead, they are extensions of the self – shallow, convenient arrangements wherein we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us. Of course the observation that we tend to gravitate towards people with similar opinions and attitudes is nothing new; what is perhaps novel is the effect of social media which has undoubtedly increased the speed of social interactions. Arguably, it has lessened the depth of emotion and empathy involved. For all the wonder of social media and the opportunities it affords, it seems very easy for it to become a giant echo chamber. Contemplation and dialogue are not encouraged in the race to quickly express an opinion. Interestingly, however, we seem less and less willing to a) have our opinions or, more, our conceptual identity challenged or b) challenge the same in others.

A huge part of this is a modern emphasis on an insipid individualist ‘positivity’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘support’ others. This typically means supporting their own concept of self rather than critically engaging with them. Banal praise is the order of the day. Criticism is seen as negative and there are few worse crimes than to be viewed as such. Indeed, the only criticism which even begins to be acceptable is ‘constructive’ – it must not be too forceful, too disruptive or fail to demonstrate respect for aforementioned ‘self’. Online, those engaging in this increasingly lumped in with ‘trolls’ who hurl mindless abuse. In the ‘real world’, we bristle with indignation when our friends strongly disagree with us – it almost feels like they are moving their tanks onto our lawn. We all want to ‘belong’ and as we all grow less tolerant of being challenged, social groups can be in danger of becoming metaphorical circle jerks. This pervades much of our society, from our politics to our media. Indeed, it often manifests itself in avoiding sincerity altogether and instead communicating in dripping irony and sarcasm.

Morrissey famously sang that we “hate it when our friends become successful”. A negativity regarding the personal achievements of those close to us can come easily and lazily. Yet it comes from the same place as the counterpoint empty positivity – a desire to protect our ego and our core sense of who we are. It seems that there is so much to be lost in this mindset. So many opportunities to see ourselves in different ways, examine our beliefs and our actions, subtly alter who we think we are. In attempting to move beyond an individualism which values nothing higher than our own self-belief and self-worth, we can find enduring relationships based in a mutual respect and a deep understanding that being ‘wrong’ is not a terrible thing, not a personal attack and is even something to celebrate. Those relationships are the ones which endure. It’s a lesson I am learning, I hope.

This strikes me as a companion piece to the article I posted earlier about social media and ‘close friends’, albeit one that isn’t wide-reaching enough. Because the “sharp exchange of humour, with a bias towards the jocular insult” and “shallow verbal sparring” which it describes is literally the only mode of communication that I witness in some ‘friendships’/social groups. As I’ve written before, there seems to be a mortal fear of being seen as ‘serious’ which extends to even being sincere. This is so pervasive that it infects our media, with a whole class of ‘journalist’ whose entire schtick is ‘SCREAM! I’M ONLY JOKING! EXCEPT I’M NOT! BUT I AM!’ Describing it as ” the tyranny of banter” seems appropriate as any effort to interrupt this tone and actually attribute meaning to things people say seems to be rather frowned upon. In fact it can inspire rather aggressive, shrill responses which leap to the personal rather than attempt to sincerely explain or defend what exactly was meant. Aren’t we all getting a little tired of it?

The art of banter: ‘It’s like a boxing match. It can be bruising’

Seriousness needs to be pursued and protected. It cannot be magicked into life by august committees, as each crisis unfolds in our public life. It ultimately comes down to our own individual choices and priorities.

This is quite an interesting article and ties in quite neatly with some recent conversations I’ve had about the “Age of Irony”. I don’t think this is confined to our public life (where Prime Ministers feel the need to comment on ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘X Factor’ in order to have the right image) but is woven through our whole society. Being ‘serious’ is not seen as a desirable quality. Being “too serious” is a big turn-off. It’s all about being ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ and ‘not taking yourself too seriously’, which often doesn’t seem to mean being able to laugh at yourself and your foibles but being able to discuss reality tv in great detail.

When I look around me it seems that there is a common fear of being serious and/or sincere. Entire relationships are conducted under the guise of ‘an irony that scorched everything it touched’ (as Coupland brilliantly put it) and people perform a personality for each other, contorting to make things easy for each other. Don’t break the spell, don’t undermine the performance and whatever you do, don’t be ‘serious’. It’s a superficiality which seems to pervasively overwhelm and flatten all social interactions so that absolutely everything becomes merely another way of illustrating the character. This will, counterintuitively, sometimes involve brief ostentatious and insincere touching on ‘serious’ matters as one character seeks to demonstrate that, hey, they can chat about BIG ISSUES as well as ‘The Only Way is Essex’. In the Age of Irony this is what counts as a ‘well-rounded individual’. It struck me in several of the responses I saw to Amy Winehouse’s death where people took time out from their rigid jollity to suddenly develop a very public concern for perceived ‘serious’ events that were happening in the world. This interest appeared to develop for no other reason than to berate others for earnestly responding to Winehouse’s death. This was a betrayal of the performance. ‘Hey, if you’re going to be serious, I can be more serious than you!’

Much of this thinking stems from my sitting in a bar and suddenly being aware of a very earnest discussion that was happening next to me. It was completely jarring for me to hear two people quietly chatting in public about various things with seeming disregard as to how others would perceive them or their subject matter. Some of what I heard wasn’t far off the author’s example of “I would be able to discuss human rights in Uzbekistan in the pub without being laughed at” and it struck me that so many of us have become used to a self-enforced censorship where we wouldn’t dare venture to be so earnest in general company, at least not without serially undermining what we were saying with humourous nods to the character such discussions would be perceived to ‘belong’ to. In short, it was jarring to hear two people having an exchange where each seemed genuinely interested in what the other had to say and weren’t just using each other to validate a self-image.

Politics on a personal level has been warped by this too. It fascinates me that we are all eager to be seen to have opinions but as soon as you draw links between what someone says/does and their political beliefs, this is frequently seen as going ‘too far’ and being ‘too serious’. Politics is seen as some completely separate and intensely private realm which must only be ventured into carefully and with mutual consent. Believing that someone’s political beliefs are an integral part of their personality is seen as pompous and while we will happily argue with each other about whether we like Cheryl Cole, we will keep clear of anything that could be perceived as ‘political’. Then, despite this unspoken agreement, we will attack anyone who presents a discussion of pop culture devoid of social or political context as being in any sense ‘lightweight’ as being a ‘snob’ (and there is a clear link to be made between this and the ‘Golden Snitch’ argument I made here).

Perhaps this has all come across as rambling nonsense. It’s something I’m still very much thinking through and the conversations I’ve had about it in the past week have been enormously stimulating (and perhaps those very conversations completely destroy my argument?!). If you feel you have any thoughts to contribute, please do!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/02/hackgate-trivia-911-new-seriousness