Ratcheting it up

Posted by on Mar 27, 2013 in Blog | Comments Off on Ratcheting it up

I suppose I should be offended by Joan Rivers’ recent remark about German model Heidi Klum that referenced to gassing Jews, and by the casualness and callousness by which mention of the Holocaust is tossed around. But it’s hard to find the time, for soon a fresh form of outrage—some racial or homophobic slur, or just a slaphand nasty remark—will hit the airwaves, now crowded with smartphones, cell phones, iPods, iPads, and laptops.  Soon some other politician or revered cultural figure will be photographed with his pants down or her stockings torn.

It’s not that we haven’t always been like this. It’s that now the echo chamber of our inanities echoes louder and longer than ever, thanks to the instant tweets and texts and other winged messengers zinging through the ether. Before, a bruising remark would fall off at the edge of a continent or fade away at the outer recesses of a room; now, it’s broadcast all over the planet in no time flat. What this means is that our vulgarities are inevitably ratcheting up, because a vulgarity must, in order to be effective, deliver a bracing slap, a temporary shock to the nervous system. With the loosening of censorship and the flood of sexual, scatological, and political effluvia pouring upon us, it is ever harder to epater the fabled bourgeoisie. So those who are in the business of doing so have no choice but to step it up higher, in order to create the impact they desire.

The consequences are all around, inside and outside us, as images crash and collide against each other at a faster and louder pace. This year’s cool film has to outdo last year’s film, and it does that by out-grossing (double meaning intended) its predecessor. We don’t emulate our artistic models so much as we eat them alive. Reality echoes this amping-up tendency in a horrible way: this month’s mass shooting left more people dead than last month’s mass shooting; and every month, there is a new one. Disturbed people grab guns to outdo the mass shooter they saw on the webcast, thereby becoming the next mass shooter in turn being viewed by others. We are terribly busy assimilating new information, and terribly naïve at understanding why we want what we want, and what this is doing to us. This is one of the great ironies of our times: machines are growing more sophisticated, sleek, and responsive, while its human users are rendered more and more passive, inarticulate, and dyspeptic.

It may seem hopelessly old-fashioned to even use the term “vulgarity” in a world like this. It has a whiff of the pipe and the lace collar to complain that much of what passes for American popular culture is as violent and crude as the gladiator fights the Romans enjoyed of old. Yet it’s clear that human beings long for authenticity and connection in their lives; they are, to borrow a phrase from William Carlos Williams, literally dying for lack of  it. Critics parse the plausibility of the latest thriller, only occasionally, as after the mass shooting at Newtown, pausing to question the moral implications of what they are critiquing. It’s hip to laugh at a movie or show watching people getting ripped up; to object to it is to declare one’s unfitness for the times. I say we reject this nihilism outright and start anew, demand more from our cultural impresarios than what they are giving. I say we understand that there is more to human expression than volleying images of our worst moments across the Internet. I say we need a greater mastery and maturity when we press a button lighting up one of our glowing, gloating toys.