That’s Just Ridiculous.
Is our reliance on absurdity deadening our ability to see the world as it is?
“And without formulating anything clearly, I understood that I had found the key to Existence, the key to my Nauseas, to my own life. In fact, all that I could grasp beyond that returns to this fundamental absurdity. Absurdity: another word; I struggle against words… But I wanted to fix the absolute character of this absurdity here.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
“I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen.”
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
“Baby carrots are making me gay.”
-Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!)
There is mounting evidence that the language of our age, of my generation, is sarcasm. And nowhere is this so clear as in the media we consume. But this trend is old news—cultural monitors have noticed since the early nineties that the overwhelming defense mechanism to an increasingly detached and discomfited society is a matching detachment, through a tonal and linguistic separation via sarcasm.
But our bent towards sarcasm and mild self-deprecation hasn’t just held steady: it’s grown huge as our reliance on it builds, a monstrous mockery-of-a-mockery. We no longer consume through mere satire; we have shifted, it seems, to rely on the absolutely absurd. The age of traditional late-night talk shows with gap-toothed skunk-haired comedians feeding us the news with a joke and a greasy wink is drawing to a close, having lost top ratings to “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” where it’s dished out in screaming disbelief (in the case of the former) or by a persona built entirely on unremitting satire (in the latter).
The tendency to resort to absurdity when we cannot reconcile ourselves with the modern situation was a key theme of existentialism (see again the passage of Sartre at the top). The existentialists posited that any true efforts to live genuinely in a world that is indifferent to our existence at best—contrary, at worst—will be met with absurdity. For example, most people live as though there are elements of themselves that are infinite, despite the world’s evidence that nothing is, or can be, infinite. This longing for infinitude, then, is absurd. The same may be said about the human predilection for desiring things we cannot have. Absurd.
This also made possible an idea that came several decades later. In the first half of the twentieth century, a dominant theme of modernism was that there existed an underlying current which guided the stream of all human life and activity; this idea is known as a metanarrative. But after the second world war and the discovery of the massive and terrifying power of the nuclear age, reality did not seem to reflect such a unified direction. Humanity simply did not seem united. This led to the stance of the post-modernists, who explicitly distrusted metanarratives which seek to totalize human existence. The modernist claim that all humans seem to be implicitly working toward a shared goal was judged absurd.
And although he predated the principal thrust of existentialists by nearly a century, Dostoevsky is quite right when he writes that absurdity is a necessary mental state in certain situations. If we cannot play host to an absurdity (or said another way, ignore a paradox fundamental to Being), we might cease to function. Our ability to live despite absurdities, like our desire for infinitude, is absolutely imperative—and this is exactly why we recognize absurdities as being absurd. There’s something off, something backwards, in what we otherwise consider to be a logical world.
Here we might recall the dadaists, who responded to the ineffable horrors of the first world war by embracing, or as some might say, deifying, the irrational.
“How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness.” -Hugo Ball, 1916
The word ‘absurd’ itself comes from the French absurde, which was adapted from the Latin absurdus, constructed of ab (intensive) + surdus (deaf, or insufferable to the ear). Perhaps that definition is even more appropriate than the modern understanding of the word; taken from the Latin, the absurd is that which is insufferable. We respond to the insufferable by turning away from it. The absurd is that which is too difficult for us to look upon, because it stands at odds with what we perceive to be the logical world around us, driving us to look away from it.
But in recent years, absurdity—and our relationship with it—has morphed into something that might be utterly unrecognizable to Sartre or Dostoevsky. It seems that we have begun intentionally turning our eyes toward absurdity, lingering on it, living in it. Like gazing into a fire so long that its image burns into our eyes and upon looking away obscures everything we might otherwise be able to see, we focus so intently on the absurd that it becomes an intellectual soporific. What used to be the means by which we would mute existential angst has actually become the goal. We are living for mutedness. And that’s a bad thing.
What used to be the means by which we could mute existential angst has actually become the goal. We are living for mutedness.
When social vernacular is built on a foundation of sarcasm, the ability to communicate sincerity is destroyed, or at the very least, crippled. This shift has been fostered by the continuing transition from modes of communication that might be called ‘intentional’—phone calls, snail mail, face-to-face interaction—to those that are (or at least, feel) incidental: instant messaging, texting, web forum posts, email, and so forth. Those in the latter category are far more likely to be the modes of transmission for the absurd.
And ever since it was revealed last week (to the indignant uproar that scores of would-be linguists struggle to create) that the OED’s definition of the word ‘literally’ has been altered to include a clause that the word can be “used for emphasis rather than being actually true,” the public eye is once again focused on the landscape around the collision of technology and communication. Mashup becomes more incidental than deliberate.
When we are crippling our ability to communicate sincerely with each other, isn’t it also likely that the resultant cold, insincere relationships will fundamentally change how we see the world? I’m skeptical that such a change could possibly be for the better.
“At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. As it is, in its distressing nudity, in its light without effulgence, it is elusive. But that very difficulty deserves reflection.”
-Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”
“’Sincerity is out,’ Ron said. ‘The joke is now on people who’re sincere… Act as if you knew from birth that everything is cliched and hyped and empty and absurd, and that that’s just where the fun is.’”
-David Foster Wallace, “My Appearance”
“Champagne wishes, 30 white bitches
I mean the shit is, fucking ridiculous
Fucking ridiculous, I mean the shit is
-Kanye West, “So Appalled”