Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Living in a former Soviet satellite has naturally forced me to think about Communism: its ideology, its practice, the conditions of life it created for millions of people during the 20th century. It really amazes me how a theory aimed at liberation could translate so readily into mass oppression.
The problems of modern 'bourgeois' society have been on my mind as well—namely, consumerism and its tendency to push everyone and everything towards sameness, except on the most superficial levels (Coke vs. Pepsi, Burger King vs. McDonalds, for instance—now that's what I call choice). The 'goals' that the mass media foists on us are fairly uniform; it's not the grayness of the Eastern Bloc, sure, but uniformity of culture is uniformity nonetheless.
I was assigned to read part of the essay "The Power of the Powerless" by former Czech President Vaclav Havel, written while (then) Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. I highly recommend it—it's a very illuminating account of the way Communist society functioned and perpetuated its power, and also a very inspiring call for individualism. But Havel recognizes that the soul-crushing workings of conformism are not limited to Communist society, but are present in modern civilization as a whole, so far as we've adopted the herd mentality of consumerism.
The following excerpt really struck me:
"In highly simplified terms, it could be said that the posttotalitarian system [Havel's name for the Communist regime] has been built on foundations laid by the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society. Is it not true that the farreaching adaptability to living a lie and the effortless spread of social auto-totality have some connection with the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their spiritual and moral integrity? With their willingness to surrender higher values when faced with the trivializing temptations of modern civilization? With their vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference? And in the end, is not the grayness and the emptiness of life in the post-totalitarian system only an inflated caricature of modern life in general? And do we not in fact stand . . . as a kind of warning to the West, revealing its own latent tendencies?"
True freedom cannot be exercised when we let our possibilities for existence—our values, our goals, our aspirations—be dictated by the crowd, whether that society takes the form of a Communist "auto-totality" or a vast consumer machine, offering us a million trivial "choices" while letting us lose sight of ourselves.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
|You are what you drink?|
A friend of mine pointed out an inconsistency in the collegiate penchant for heavy boozing. As conscientious students, we spend most of the day trying to improve ourselves mentally and physically. We study, we explore new things, we work out and try to eat healthy. But come Thursday night, the typical students undo much of these gains by subjecting their bodies to heavy doses of alcohol for the weekend. Presumably, this inconsistency does not go unnoticed, but the gains of a good night out must be thought to outweigh the costs of toxins entering the bloodstream.
The whole practice of drinking has bothered me for a while. There's something almost nihilistic about the custom of drinking: its historical and cultural pervasiveness suggests a widespread human need to numb our senses and our intellect in order to enjoy ourselves. Of course, this discussion isn't limited to alcohol, but drinking is by far the favored means of inebriation in most times and places, for good or ill (Read: Everyone knows marijuana isn't as dangerous as alcohol). But I digress...
In the '80s, the straight edge movement emerged in reaction to the somewhat nihilistic, hard partying tendencies in the American hardcore punk scene. It all began with the song "Straight Edge" by D.C. hardcore idols Minor Threat, where singer Ian MacKaye screams with a moralistic edge: "I'm a person just like you/ but I got better things to do/ then sit around and fuck my head/ hang out with the living dead..." Unwittingly, the band launched an anti-drinking, anti-drug movement in hardcore that persists to this day.
Straight-edgers notwithstanding, one cannot deny that humans of all times and places have seemed to feel a need to drink. Perhaps it is natural; I remember a friend once telling me about a scientific study that purported to reveal a human need for intoxication, whether it be drug-induced or otherwise. I think of the The Birth of Tragedy, in which Nietzsche identifies two opposing sources of artistic creation, which he calls the Apollinian and the Dionysian. The Apollinian instinct is analogous to that of the dream world, where individual beings are reflected in a transfigured, heavenly light; the Dionysian is analogous to intoxication, in which the boundaries of ordinary consciousness between man and man and between man and nature are dissolved into a primal mystical unity. Perhaps it is this need, the need to blur the rigid boundaries within which we normally set ourselves and others, that is behind much of the pleasure we get out of drinking.
All in all, I don't think I will go straight edge anytime soon—but I continue to ask myself if I and a lot of others would not be better off by going in that direction. Share your thoughts!
Monday, September 6, 2010
One of many cultural differences I've been warned about is that, when you ask a Czech person "How are you?", they think you actually want to know how they are, and vice versa. From what I've been told, the same holds in Russian. Hearing this, I've always wondered why the questions "How are you?" or "How's it going?" are little more than formalities in the United States. Not always, of course, but we usually don't ask these questions expecting a sincere dialogue about a person's physical or mental health.
Maybe we use the question to establish a pseudo-closeness with our acquaintances? To have something to say other than just "Hey" or "Hello"? Perhaps, after we ask someone "How are you?" enough times, we actually start to mean it? After all, I often say "How's it going?" automatically when I see someone I know only casually, but I also genuinely mean it when I ask my friends or family.
I wonder what would happen if everyone just started answering honestly when asked "How are you?" Would it make things "too real?" Cause social pandemonium? Bring people closer? Sounds like a good experiment...Let me know what you think!