@Absurdity: The societal breakdown of post-modernity

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 7:12pm

Check out the rest of the Weird Twitter B-Side hereherehereherehere and here.

I have been staring into the abyss for a while now. And honestly, I’m not sure it’s staring back. It might be, but really it’s a bit difficult to tell. The abyss’ gaze seems to wander over a whole lot, and to say I’m a particular focus probably isn’t correct. To be completely frank, it might be looking at any number of things — underwhelming sentient televisionsrapid-fire false equivalenciesspeculative urban development, etc. — but I can’t tell what because the abyss is sporting a pair of pixelated sunglasses.

This abyss is named @Dril, by the way.

@Dril lives in the dimly lit corners of the Twitter-verse, little-reached regions that are entirely alien to me. He’s one of the most famous of a loose collection of people casually referred to as “Weird Twitter,” a sort of Internet sub-culture that, until now, hasn’t intersected with my own existence. Somehow, despite living in an age in which it’s the favored vehicle of invective for a certain former reality television star, I’ve never so much as entered the Twitter URL before this week (which is why, I suppose, I’ve been asked to write this). So to plunge headfirst into the phenomenon of Weird Twitter has been sort of like trying to watch a Samuel Beckett play after first imbibing a couple hundred micrograms of Tim Leary’s favorite nutritional supplement.

Weird Twitter itself, I’ve learned, is a sort of amorphous collection of typically pseudonymous Twitter-users who have a penchant for the bizarre, satirical, absurd and generalized drollery. In short, they’re the sort of crowd who in all likelihood would mirthfully mock and roll their eyes at what I’m about to try to do, i.e., “get” them. But they’re probably not going to read this anyway, so here goes.

After careful consideration, I have concluded that the existence and ethos of Weird Twitter — like most everything else — perfectly align with my Almost Comprehensive Theory of Existence in the Postmodern American Era.

But seriously, while the ACTEPAE doesn’t actually exist, I do think there are a number of characteristics of Weird Twitter that can be viewed as microcosms of society at large, particularly in regard to the socio-political developments of the last few decades (and especially the last few months). The most prevalent of these is probably the overwhelming ubiquity of irony.

We live in a culture that’s saturated with sarcasm. I won’t bother listing many examples because it’s next to impossible that you don’t know what I’m talking about, but to give one, there’s the fact that for nine years one of the most watched late-night TV shows (“The Colbert Report”) starred a character who literally never spoke unironically. My own generation, in particular, seems to be extraordinarily deft at this sort of thing — and I include myself in that characterization. It’s certainly not uncommon for me to have an entire conversation with a friend using the sort of straight-tone sarcasm that leaves some people from older generations (e.g., my mother) baffled at the turn of the talk. We’re the generation who can casually suggest that the appropriate retributive response to a perceived slight is an action that would make Hammurabi look like the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all without our conversational partner batting an eye.

Hardly ever would our words be regarded as literal by our peers. Despite the fact that we no longer go through the same type of baroque contortions to signify our use of sarcasm, as did previous groups, we almost perfectly understand one another. We have developed our own subdermal language beneath the spoken/written word, a jargon built as an imago to the vernacular. One discerns intent primarily through anticipation of insincerity.

The reasons why we do this are more opaque, but I grow more and more convinced as time goes on that irony today principally functions as an antidote to (or fortification against) pain. No matter what your politics are, most of us can agree that the world today is generally what could be classified as “screwed up” — and while we might know, objectively, that it’s on the whole a lot better than it was in the past, we feel acutely all the anxieties and discomforts of living in a flawed planet that increasingly appears to lead an absurd and meaningless existence in the galactic boondocks. Almost certainly this collective existential dread stems from the newfound interconnectivity of the world, and the omnipresence of 24-hour mass media, but knowledge of the conduits doesn’t do anything to mitigate the feeling. But coming at this pain obliquely via irony certainly takes off the edge.

Explanations as to why (with respect to the “screw[ed] up[ness]”) differ greatly, of course, but my personal view is, to a great extent, derived from observations about the culture of postmodernity, especially in this country. To me, one of our main problems lies in the misalignment of our value systems, which springs principally from our economic model. For instance, in contemporary parlance the words “value” (n. in the financial sense) and worth (n. in the definitional sense) have come to be inextricably bound-up with one another, circuitously leading to such absurdities as a belief in the automatic virtue of the rich, or the cult of wealth — warped perspectives that no doubt contributed to the calamitous consummation our country will be undergoing tomorrow at noon.

Though it’s not as if this mindset is new: Albert Camus noted it in his day, remarking, “A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are taken for the end.” A person confuses the value of something with its worth, and sets up the false equation of “money = happiness.” These same concerns that troubled Camus when he was developing his views on absurdism are pertinent today.

And it’s not just this value vs. worth confusion that’s the issue in postmodern life — one of the worst culprits in our collective malcontentment is the sheer biting dullness of it all. Most of us go through our limited days following an unimaginative rubric that goes something like this: childhood, high school, college, nine-to-five job, spouse, kids, social security paycheck, retirement and la fin. In our free time we’re concerned with our lawns, our houses, our cars, the next winner of The Voice and all the other humdrum bullshit that’s part of a standard-issue postmodern existence c. 2017.  We use these minutiae to try to find fulfilment, but somehow it still eludes our grasp — hence, the perception that it’s all “screwed up.”

Throw a bit of the recent political scene into the mix and it just exacerbates the problem. The colossal absurdity of it all still makes one’s mind spin. We’ve come to such a point in our crisis of culture that the previously referenced former reality television star has been selected to lead the free world. That such a man, who is easily the most mendacious candidate in history and whose maladroit syntax scrambles the senses, could achieve the highest office in the nation is troubling, to say the least. But the fact that so many of us can still sit here and pretend that we — as a culture — were asymptomatic prior to this, that what has happened doesn’t have anything to do with how we live, is perhaps more surprising. No wonder “surreal” managed to be named Merriam-Webster’s 2016’s word of the year. With all this strangeness floating around, the present moment has honestly turned out to be a breakdown of Baudrillardian magnitude. Scheming billionaires, corrupt officials, Russian cabals — the whole thing is really turning into a bad satire of a Bond movie without the love-interest.

All of which, believe it or not, brings me back to Weird Twitter. Because even though they offer their message 140 characters at a time and don’t spend 1,000 words prattling on about the perils of postmodernity, they get it. Maybe they don’t ever articulate it in quite the same way as I do, but the more I read their tweets the more I become convinced they understand that our society has come to a crisis of culture, and that this crisis stems from the way we view and experience the world. Sure, some of their stuff is mindless shitposting, but if you look past the irony and absurdity and vulgarity often you’ll find a message containing a keen social critique.

Some of those from Weird Twitter realize it too. At the core of the Weird Twitter political scene is a collective known as Chapo Trap House, a group of three core members who originally came together to do an ad-hoc radio comedy show mocking the then-recent film “13 Hours,” by Hollywood director and part-time conservative propagandist Michael “more-explosions-is-always-better” Bay. But CTH ended up sticking together, and have since been producing a profanity-laced, firmly leftist (not “liberal”) podcast that has been perhaps the loudest voice in the self-titled “dirtbag left.”

CTH has had a real run of it in recent months, the pack of vulgarians turning their vituperative scorn on the short-fingered vulgarian. But following the failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign especially, CTH has turned much of its ridicule toward other targets closer to home, namely, they lambast the sort of lackadaisical liberals who they feel handed the nomination to Clinton, and subsequently, the presidency to Trump. They demand a left that is more resolute in its convictions and fierce in its fights, mocking those in the Democratic Party who lacked either the passion or the courage — or maybe both — to truly stand up for the ideals of the left in the same sort of invigorating way that an FDR or JFK might have.

And certainly CTH has been noticed; in November, The New Yorker ran an article about them and their future (though am I the only one that finds it strange that CTH agreed to be interviewed by a publication which is exactly the sort of liberal elitist snobbery they rail against? The New Yorker spells it “élitist,” for God’s sake). But it will be interesting to watch where they go from this point forward, particularly as it pertains to the reform of the American left.

But in my view CTH, and Weird Twitter as a whole, faces a very real challenge to its efficacy as an agent of change. And this challenge comes from within itself — just as I have spent the last few days gazing into the abyss of Weird Twitter, so too has Weird Twitter spent its lifetime gazing into the abyss of our reality, and they would do well to remember the first half of that Nietzsche quote: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” For mockery and ridicule will only get one so far. Perhaps I sound like a follower of Burke or a Girondin or some such thing, but to me one must not only tear down, but also build up. To commentate is easy — creation is harder.