Are we all idiots now!?
Firstly it’s useful to have in mind a clear example of an ‘idiot’ and since many of the attacks on our senses come from visual media it makes sense to illustrate this idiot with reference to the media. Britney Spears serves well to give us a clear image of the idiot’s plight, let me say now that I use the term idiot both corrosively and in upmost sympathy since only an idiot can have a genuinely tragic experience, the cynics I will go on to describe are already lost, postmodern husks.
Spears video ‘Everytime’ perfectly displays the totally embedded nature of the idiot who believes fully their own truth. In the video Spears acts out the tragic circumstances of a popular star played by Spears herself who, hounded by the press loses her boyfriend and flirts with suicide in a bath. The hypocrisy is obvious, Spears has pursued fame and exploited herself creating a marketing phenomenon and in the process has become a multi-millionaire and yet her indulgent self-pity is not just an act as her public breakdown shows us. Never the less she is unable to see the ways she has created this problem, she has a blind spot and targets in her video the very forces which propelled her to her own vision of success. Spears position is tragic, her blind spot is genuine not played at and as such like so many of us, she is an idiot, however as indicated earlier only from the fully engaged position of the idiot can we experience a truly tragic fall into awareness.
The post-modern cynic would resist this assertion he/she is a nihilist who claims to have ‘seen through’ things and as a consequence is justified in mocking both the idiot and the critic. In a meaningless universe the nihilists so called truth is as pointless as the idiots, so why crow so hard about it? Where does the motivation to do so come from? It is not the facts that a nihilist is interested in, what they want from their meaningless universe is permission to be a coward, to abdicate from the pressure of making meaning and giving force to ideas. The Idiot so offends him in a game of posturing in which the nihilist assumes the position of a wise man, in fact he is coward without a project!
The Movements of the Central Idiot
The 1st movement (the idiot embedded)
The cynical application of irony leads to a kind of slide into stupidity. In the first instance mentioned above the ‘idiot’ is before us we see them engaged in their behaviour giving force to an idea, we are free to identify or resist and be critical. The position of critic is, with us in the audience. In my example Britney Spears’ overblown self-pity stands for the idiotic or naive truth, despite our alertness to the hypocrisy and overall trashiness of the work there is never the less a fascination in the position of the idiot which is easily exploited.
The 2nd movement (The idiot and critic become one)
This exploitation is exaggerated and illustrated perfectly in Lily Allen’s music video for her song ‘The Fear’. Here the idiot is ‘played at’ by the performer, indeed we might imagine that Allen has performers like Spears in mind in her mannerisms and in the critical thrust of the lyrics. Allen’s performance of the idiot both indicates her superiority with her knowing glances and self-aware statements while simultaneously exploiting her own femininity/sexuality in the formalistic structure of the music video. As such this manoeuvre feeds both the appetite and fascination for the exploited idiot and the critical position synonymous with credibility and self-awareness. In this instance we identify with the dualistic critic/idiot who is in both positions throughout. We can enjoy the cliché while distancing ourselves from this enjoyment, what we don’t register as quickly is how our critical self is now at least in part projected onto the figure of the idiot rather than with us in the audience. This position is the most prevalent and potent risk to actual criticism but once an appetite for this is cultivated further ‘slide’ is inevitable…
‘The Fear’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-wGMlSuX_c
The 3rd movement (explicit criticism is out and is only implied by the central idiot/critic)
In the third stage of the slide the overt critical posturing is jettisoned totally. The central figure is still the self-knowing idiot but now much more in a kind of Andy Warhol dead-pan guise, following the music video examples this is best illustrated by the performer Psy and his worldwide hit ‘Gang Nam Style’. The video and lyrics are no longer attacking anything, it suffices that the chorus and dance stands for a self-aware ridiculous act performed in unison with the other self-aware ironic people who express their solidarity in the galloping self-mocking act. Here criticism is gone only the dead smirk of the central figure remains to reassure us. The position of the idiot is focused on him, Psy but we are implicated expected to get involved, notice the many parodies and viewer responses. It no longer makes sense to say this is foolish since the act is an act of self-knowing idiocy we either join in or shut up. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse… further slide is possible
The 4th movement (All critical allusions are gone leaving a super charged idiot)
At this stage even the ironic smirk or deadpan expression which indicates self-awareness has been jettisoned and replaced with total enthusiastic involvement. A clear example of this is the song and video for, ‘What does the fox say?,’ The content is banal and purposely simplistic, ‘cow says moo, sheep goes baa,’ only the ‘self-evident’ stupidity of the song and video and many viewer responses is meant to indicate the safe ironic position. Watching is now an implication of solidarity with this position (the self-aware idiot) why would a person direct criticism at something so obviously and intentionally stupid? The fact of its inherent stupidity is enough to convince the audience that it must be somehow ironic and distanced from actual idiocy. And yet there is still yet another level we can slide to…
‘What does the fox say?’
The 5th movement (The central idiot is jettisoned and the supper charged idiocy is redistributed among the audience)
The fifth stage recognises the internet phenomenon or meme. I have in mind here the ‘Harlem Shake’ craze. Here there is no central idiot at all but rather people often in work places recording themselves going about their ordinary duties, suddenly there is a cut in filming music plays revealing all of the ‘ordinary’ people dancing in overt and ridiculous ways in a kind of debasing idiotic solidarity to show that they aren’t simply ordinary embedded idiots doing ordinary things but on another level they are ironic and self-aware idiots. The position of the idiot is ‘out there’ rather than the result of a studio or artist fabricating it. People themselves show they too are clever enough, humble enough, fun enough to be idiots and they expect rightly that other people will watch this, enjoy it and replicate it. A community is established of self-knowing idiots, its currency is all the aforementioned stages of an eventual slide into willed nihilism.
‘The Harlem Shake’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8f7wj_RcqYk
Irony is not always applied in a way which leads to this slide into nihilism. The comedian Stewart Lee manages to employ irony to great effect playing with linguistics and cliché to undermine weak arguments and draw attention to inconsistencies in his opponents ideology. However Lee is first critical, second ironic, this is important, he applies irony to further his criticism. With the Lily Allen example or Psy they are first ironic, they wear criticism to further an ironic disposition, to celebrate the self-knowing cynic who has co-opted criticism into an ironic, idiotic persona. Think also here of the limitations of the ‘comedy roast’ phenomenon which is willingly attended by the target of the criticism to show how open and aware they are to exercise and expose their shortcomings.
Nietzsche once said men of knowledge leave everything as they find it, well so to the men and women of irony they leave everything as they find it!
Notice for example the difference in tone in Allen’s video which displays an excess of photoshoots and press attention mixed with a traditional music video, the seductive imagery, rhythm and lyrics all serve to pull the viewer into the world which directs the central figure of Allen herself. In Lee’s take on celebrity culture his long attack on the total uselessness of the celebrity hardback book is funny but the humour serves to push the viewer out of their casual acceptance of low or rubbish culture, his real target is his audiences lazy thinking, their laughter does not serve as a show of solidarity with the target it reveals their own inner critic, the shock makes them laugh. Lee’s gamble is that his audience will appreciate the activation of their critical awareness rather than hating him for revealing their lame sympathies. We can imagine that Britney Spears and other genuine idiots are redeemed by Lee as they laugh themselves into a critical awareness, a fall, while Allen and Psy prepare attacks and resistances to help them maintain their own stance.
Handling Irony is like handling plutonium you must be careful that the radiation doesn’t kill you or at least rob you of the ability to make meanings and give force to ideas and of course to be able to tell the difference between glib semi-intellectual posturing and genuine critical awareness, these things require a kind of effort that self-aware idiocy depletes.
To the agents of that turgid and most corrupt position which arrests the development of their audience…
“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee,” Melville
Just in case there is any doubt, I apply the quote above without any irony!
by Michael Eden