Friday, January 19, 2007

Weakened Societal Utopias and the Psychological Utopia of Action Heroes

With the arrival of a real winter, the Chicago free rag market apparently has taken upon the responsibility of making dark social criticism. A reviewer from the Chicago Reader reviewed a collective art exhibit, theatrical act and music performance last week. Reading the review, I couldn't stop myself from feeling amused and frustrated about the reviewer's disappointment in the lack of an original utopian presentation.

I would have linked to the article, but we would each have to pay $1.75 to read it. For the purposes of The Lextopia, though, I don't think it needs to get linked.

On another pessimistic angle, the Chicago RedEye observes that movies have taken to portraying a lot of tough guys (takes a few minutes to load & the article of note is on page 40 and 41) rather than other characters. Some interesting speculations on the matter:

Paul Dergarabedian, President of box office monitor Media by Numbers, LLC --

a lot ... to do with the way movies present these characters, who have very dubious moral and ethical compasses. The cinema can manipulate audiences to where they're cheering for people they wouldn't want in their homes.

Article writer --

Why are moviegoers responding to these questionable heroes? Perhaps young people, made cynical by the behavior of public figures they've observed, are less willing than previous generations to accept black-and-white morality, preferring the more realistic gray

Eric Roth, screenwriter of The Good Shepherd --

I think it may just be serendipitious . . . I think people were a little more willing to acept it because of the current political situation and perhaps the film [The Good Shepherd] resonates more now than it would have earlier.

Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics about The Lives of Others:

Not only is there a character you never would have seen before, a Stasi agent, but he's redemptive! That's the thing. People love that. They love the power of redemption.

The "state of society" speculations feel somewhat pretentious and charged to me. I don't know how well I warm up to the people loving the redemption theme in regards to people going for complicated and morally ambiguous characters. Look at the heroes of Homer, most especially Odysseus. In the Illiad, the guy thought about slaughtering a camp of enemies in their sleep, while in the Odyssey, the guy slept with tons of woman while his wife waited faithfully for him at home while also hoodwinking plenty of other people and creatures to survive. Take a look at Achilles, too: he drags the guy who killed his shield bearer behind his chariot. Plenty of them also loot the dead after having killed them. These stories of morally ambiguous characters got told millenia ago, and people loved them.

Personally, I think the enjoyment of these morally ambiguous, realistic characters and the failure to create original utopias comes more from a social and economic pessimism. In the book Utopias and Utopian Thought edited by Frank E. Manuel, I found an essay by Crane Brinton called "Utopia and Democracy." It explores and expounds the interesting idea of the liberal utopia, which put simply: through democracy, capitalism and technological advancement, we will become more efficient and not have to work so hard to have the material plenty that will enter us into full integration, which I define as Utopia.

Funny, reality seems to show that in a capitalistic society with a focus on justice (as opposed to care) ethics, this whole efficiency thing screws people over. We needed tons of people in the past to do the work of machines and computers. Sadly a long time ago and still in some "backward" parts of the world, slaves did and do that kind of work (thus making the angry machines in The Matrix and other evil machine stories somewhat sympathetic characters). Technology has also brought about medicines that can help us live longer.

But sadly, in this day and age of our capitalistic country/world, people need money for the medicines that will help them live longer, along with food, shelter, etc. etc. The world centers around money, and we don't have enough money to go around. Maybe we do, actually. Maybe we do have the resources to go around to everyone. Whether we do or don't, the capitalistic system works horribly to create a utopia when there's enough efficiency in it. Essentially, those who have the productive resources will consolidate those resources and materially require fewer other people.

At some point, that money could become worthless for material goods once it becomes consolidated under one roof along with the rights to all the resources. Where does that leave the people in this world? Some people theorize that America has reached a point where it produces enough culture and knowledge to trade elsewhere. Everyone becomes required to create knowledge and culture to possibly get money from the person who has all the money (everyone's screwed if that person doesn't care for more knowledge or culture).

But the main guy who has all the money can get overwhelmed by the culture and knowledge. I'll imagine that things have advanced so far that this world has some kind of machine that can judge the quality of knowledge and culture. Even with the machine, though, only a limited amount of the knowledge and culture can make it to the person or family with the money. I already feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of all that stuff in our world now. Some of that money will get released out into the general public, but what happens to that money? It would essentially all return to the person/family with all the material goods.

We haven't necessarily reached that point yet, but we do have a world with tons of mass poverty in it. The US has tons of poverty in it, too. Even plenty of people who once had good jobs find it difficult to get another one. China has started developing, but do we know the whole story? The same to other prosperous nations. Also in the world, we have tons of irrational killing and warmongering. . .and terrorism, yes, terrorism. I won't get incredibly deep into theories of terrorism, but I feel that I can realistically speculate that the sole purpose of terrorism isn't to destroy democracy for the sake of destroying democracy.

The world has progressed far in terms of technology, but it still has lots of work for growing in the department of compassion. On a certain cultural and primordial level, I think everyone on this planet understands this point, even the people who lash out and terrorize. The fair trade of compassion, caring and support often proves difficult. On some level, we all want that foundation of support so that we can have freedom. Aristocratic European White males have pretty much had this privelege since the dawn of time. I don't have to wonder too much to understand how and why men came up with idea of possessive individualism.

In this world of disparity, though, people of one stripe of another have grown sick of not getting that compassion, care and support. Even the Aristocratic European white male and working class white male feels rejected when those without means demand the fulfillment of their rights to compassion, care and support. After all, in this capitalistic and just world of ours, people have to work (or inherit) to get the material things they deserve. If they don't work or can't demonstrate ability (unless, of course, they're retarded or have a physical disability upon birth. . .if you hurt yourself later, you should've been smart enough to have disability or health insurance!), then they don't deserve anything.

So in a world that has the pretense of sophistication and potential for integration but can't show compassion, care and support to strangers, can we really blame the paradoxes of Jack Baeur, George W. Bush, Jack Bristow, 01 Boxer and others? Can we blame them for acting in a "might is right" type of way to protect the things they find important? Is it that hard to understand why radical Islamists may turn to terrorism to fight for compassion, care and support? Don't kids act out because they think it's the only way they can get attention?

I feel that the utopia event the Chicago Rader reviewer attended couldn't create an original utopia because our world has yet the ability to express it. Utopias only really started addressing the human desire for compassion, care and support in 19th century, according to the research that I've done. Even then, they generally focus so much on the unity of a country or community, materially supporting its members and providing people with work as a form of meaning. Even then, the 19th-century utopias mostly provided a criticism of material inequality in larger society. The acknowledgment of utopia as integration in a social psychological type of way only seems to come out in the 20th century. And even then, it comes out in ambiguously utopian ways or in dystopian expressions of want.

The attraction of morally ambiguous and complicated characters, I feel, doesn't come from some cynicism about our disappointing public figures or even as a reflection of the world that experience. Rather, I think it comes from the cynicism of our realistic, everyday, boring world. The "silent majority" hasn't lost their values and neither have the inner city drug dealers, either. The machine, the ticktock man, the bureaucracy and the order and predictability of progress and production has turned on the everyday man. Frankly, the world hasn't ever shown kindness to the everyday man. Those on top have pretty much exploited the everyday man to support their fat asses up their on the top.

Stuck up intellectual types and outcasts that feel misunderstood don't necessarily think of the everyday man as rational. If they were rational, wouldn't they vote, wouldn't they take part in public life, wouldn't they protest about the condition of things they don't like? And the risk their fragile livelihood? Why should they? It's fragile, but it's materially good, especially when they've got people depending on them. Furthermore, the people on top give them the means to support their family and also protect them, so they can support their family. And, even more to the point, God has created the natural order that allows for it all to exist in the first place. So for people for people who don't see their vote counting for much and feeling involved in the meaningful current world, I can see them rationally supporting the world system in which they live.

At the same time, many studies have concluded that salary, health benefits, bonuses or even necessarily responsibility doesn't provide an employee with real satisfaction for more than a couple weeks. They stay there, but they may not necessarily enjoy their job. Just look at how many people complain about work on a regular basis. People find more satisfaction in meaningful relationships, opportunities to grow, learn and understand and even prestige and appreciation. A small minority of people actually get these elements at work and a fair amount probably get it in US society. After all, the people of the US haven't really had any major armed conflicts with each other since the mid-19th century.

Nonetheless, a fair amount of people, on some level, feel that they don't get the full amount of compassion, care and support available to them. This scarcity of it causes them to believe that they need to horde and protect it. These morally ambiguous and complicated characters embody this fight to acquire and keep that good stuff. We find these people fascinating and even sympathetic because they will fight for it. On the other hand, the audience believes they have the most they can get and that fighting for more feels like too much of a risk. Why try to grab onto more if losing the battle means losing the small amount of compassion, care and support held now. Classic situation of why people don't try, they feel failure.

Thus, these macho, tough guy characters represent psychological utopias. Societies and institutions have proven empirically that they can't provide enough people with all the compassion, care and support they desire. Complicated and morally ambiguous characters, however, demonstrate the worthiness of protecting those good things or the value of maximizing all those good things for an individual or for a small group. We forgive them because they do the things that the everyday person won't do. The everyman goes through repetitive, boring day-to-day life to keep it, but the complicated and morally ambiguous character lives to the fullest in meaning because they fight for their meaning. It may not have a good moral quality to it, but it still has a lot more feeling than our everyday lives.

We can live their fantasy life for a couple hours here and there, or we can even live it vicariously through a leader. In the end, though, we still have to go back to our predictable, boring lives to protect what little compassion, care and support we have. Do you really wonder why we keep going back to those psychological utopias of meaning and can't imagine original utopian societies anymore?


Jeremy Roby said...

Amazingly, Amanda and I have been having many discussions on this very topic (the need for more compassion in the world). I find it absolutely mind-boggling that people in Indiana are almost as crass in terms of their professional and personal relationships as the biggest Hollywood hotshot is in Los Angeles. We just chalk it up to people are people wherever you go. (And most people will hate other people no matter what.)

Dawn Xiana said...

Interesting. The theme of redemption has always been at the core of Christianity--the idea that even the most unsavory characters can change (Saul, who tracked down and killed many Christians, becoming Paul, the writer of many of the New Testament books; David, who murdered a man in order to acquire his wife, with whom he was having an affair, still being called a 'man after God's own heart' because when he realized what he'd done he was filled with remorse and changed completely).

The_Lex said...

Coming from the perspective of a skeptical agnostic viewpoint, redemption, especially Christian redemption and the washing away of sin by accepting Christ, can get tricky.

Didn't at least one Roman emporer convert and accept Jesus at his deathbed? From my understanding of some Christian beliefs, that's fully acceptable for getting into heaven (but not so, probably, for a Dante-type Christianity).

I also remember talking to a Jewish person who got somewhat incensed when talking about Christianity. They just couldn't wrap their head around and believe the idea of someone living a life of sin, accepting Jesus as their savior and everything is OK.

Once at my UU church, a minister told the story of someone whose son was murdered in some kind of gang violence. Instead of exacting vengeance in some way, though, this guy realized that society had a lot more to do with the death of his son rather than the individual standpoint of the murderer. Circumstances created the murderer. So this guy made it a point to focus on reaching out to the murderer, helping them reach a new level of consciousness then help the murderer become an activist against gang behavior and such in society.

Christianity, itself, touches me as a tricky topic with so many facets and so many interpretations, by Christians and non-Chistians alike (and even within the different denominations). With the loud Christian neo-cons like Rick Santorum, George Bush, Pat Robertson and others, I've got a negative knee jerk reaction. But there's also plenty non-dumb Christians out there, too. . .so it's a pretty diverse group.

So, in the end, redemption gets tricky. . .and so, I believe, does the viewpoint on redemption. Can someone actually prove that they have really converted to the redeemed person? Can a domestic partner who engages in domestic violence find redemption? How about a senator who has a sordid history about getting into a car accident that killed a woman? And then there's a president who led a hard partying young life and caused many companies to go bankrupt, not as serious as other people, but as far as redeeming himself in regards to job qualifications?

I don't have any statistical evidence or anything really valid, but my anecdotal evidence leads to inconclusives. In my gut, though, the story about the guy who reached out to his son's murderer who then actively worked out his redemption through good works touches me in the gut as true. At least, more true than other instances of redemption.