Thursday, July 28, 2011

the tyranny of happiness and Mountain Dew, part 1

I had a teacher in high school who made quite an impression on my young mind, Dr. John Shedd. He was the kind of self-effacing, quiet, smart person who managed to make you want to think. He taught Modern European History with an emphasis on the relationship between the culutural/ intellectual life of the era and its social/ political/ economic life. And he had a bit of a gift for telling stories that brought out these relationships.

[The following might not have happened exactly like this. It was a long time ago.] 

In talking about the reaction to WWI in art and intellectual life, Dr. Shedd described all of the traditionally accepted “causes of war” and said that these causes did not actually explain the war, that they always existed. Why then did war break out at that precise moment in history? And the possibility he suggested was that it was an accident. That there was no specific cause other than the shear absurd motivations of limited people with limited information. And then to further drive home the emergent cultural response to the war, he told a story of what it would have looked like to a Martian.

Basically the story goes like this:  Europeans dig giant holes in the ground,  and fill them with people and crap from around the world. Then when the people on one side of the holes run out of stuff, they fill all the holes back in.

As you zoom in to this absurdity, it takes on a much more sinister view. Those holes were filled with the endless fear, anxiety, suffering and death of millions, and that suffering extended well beyond those trenches.

And thus



Kollwitz 1921


In another context – maybe when reading Candide, or maybe just for fun – Dr. Shedd told us about his theory of teenage suicide, The Mountain Dew Theory.

It was really quite simple. Kids kill themselves because they are conditioned to expect an impossible life. On TV they see their mirror-selves, surrounded by beautiful friends, who love them, having more fun in a few seconds than they can expect to have in their entire lives. So they feel inadequate, like their life lacks meaning.  

This is one of a series of Mountain Dew commercials airing at that time:



And while I doubt he really meant to draw a direct correlation between suicide and pop, I do think there is a story worth exploring here, especially when taking Dr. Shedd's Martian into account.

Anxiety, anguish, distress, horror are not unreasonable responses to the world as seen from the point of view of a Martian. If you were a Martian looking down on this planet right now, what you would see is something not entirely different from Dr. Shedd's WWI, but on a much larger scale. Huge amounts of machines and people are moved around the world to get stuff from the ground, which is then moved around the world by other people and machines to another place where different people and machines turn it into different stuff that then gets sent around the world again, where a whole other group of people receive it. And then they dig giant holes in the ground to bury part of it, incinerate other parts of it, and send the rest of it back where it came from to sit in giant piles to maybe get turned into other stuff that will … . When there is a disruption in the flow of stuff, more people and stuff are moved around the world to get it moving again. It goes on and on like this.  And I bet that if we were to ask our Martian friend how this story ends, she would say something like: "well, it looks like eventually they're gonna run out of stuff to make stuff, and then most of them will die."

And as you zoom in from Mars what you see is that, by any metric, our current form of social and economic organization produces the largest amount of suffering for the largest amount of people to benefit the fewest.

[...]

I'd really like to spend the rest of the morning finishing these thoughts. But I have to go do my small part in this process. Fuck work.

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