Monday, 14 January 2013

Idiot of the Western World

I finally saw the film, The Cabin in the Woods. I do highly recommend it if you have not seen it. The film introduces five figures which can be viewed as either archetypes or tropes in modern horror films: the athlete, the scholar, the virgin, the whore, and the fool.

The virgin and the whore are well-worn topics. The athlete is the alpha male warrior-type man and the scholar is the beta male who essentially has run human society since the beginning. The alpha may hold the reins of power, but the betas make things happen. The last one is the most fascinating. The archetype of the fool is mislabelled. He is not a fool, he is an idiot.

The word idiot comes from the Greek word idiotes meaning a private citizen or individual. Moving into Latin it becomes idiota meaning the same, an ordinary person or layman. In ancient Athens, the idiot was someone seen as being self-centred and concerned exclusively with private life as opposed to the public life of the citizen. This state of mind was equated with children who were born as self-centred but matured through education to be citizens involved in the public life with others in their community; therefore any adult who possessed these traits was seen as being immature or mentally undeveloped and widely considered to be dishonourable.

As the word moved from Greek to Latin to late Latin to Old French and then into Middle English around 1300 AD, the original meaning of individualism and selfishness was lost and the word idiot came to be defined exclusively as a mentally deficient person.

Marty, the character of the fool in The Cabin in the Woods, is by no means mentally deficient. He is an avid pot smoker, slacker, and social drop-out. He represents an increasing class of people in the West who look at public life and turn their back in disdain. He is an idiot not because of pure selfishness, self-centeredness, or ignorance. He is aware, both cognitively or intuitively, that civic life is a con, and his seemingly paranoid belief in the puppet masters proves correct.

For example, consider that the presidency of Barrack Obama is no different from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, in terms of policy; and his challenger in the polls for the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, was not that different from Obama. So why bother voting? Why go through a pointless process like election campaigns and civic involvement when the outcome is no different? Why act when the “puppet masters” have predetermined the outcome?

The idiot looks at the world and sees his fellow man scurrying around competing for women always who seem to exploit and reject them in the end.  He sees people paying fortunes for worthless university degrees and end-up working dead-end jobs.  For those who get the great high-paying jobs the cost is freedom sold to employers, spouses, and children.  The view is not that different from the line of reasoning that led King Solomon to declare in Ecclesiastes that all is vanity and striving after the wind – or to put it in the vernacular, “It’s all bullshit”.

The fool in the films Clerks and Clerks 2 is the character Randall Graves who confesses that he behaves as irreverently as he does because when he looks at the world everything looks stupid to him. Likewise we have the Comedian from Watchmen or the Joker from Nolan’s Batman who see the world as one big joke. The idiot sees that the game is fixed and refuses to play, but if he does choose to act, then he acts against society. The Comedian and the Joker are both in the guise of “fools” but their actions veer towards destruction. Likewise, Randall looks to cut down others, and Marty brings about the end of humanity.

A valid question to speculate is whether the idiot in the sense presented here is an archetype or a trope. Archetypes are ancient images preinstalled into the human psyche, like the warrior or the fool, and can be found across time and space in human narratives. A trope is more of a modern convention that recurs in films, television, books, and comics. The idiot has its precursors, such as the fool and the rebel, but I see it as a wholly modern response to a modern context.

In the film, Pump Up the Volume, we have the character Mark Hunter in 1990 who assumes the guise of the pirate DJ known as Happy Harry Hard-on responding to a letter from one of his listeners.

'Dear Harry, I think you're boring and obnoxious and have a high opinion of yourself.' Course some of you are probably thinking I sent this one to myself. 'I think school is okay if you just look at it right. I mean I like your music, but I really don't see why you can't be cheerful for one second.' I'll tell you since you asked. I just arrived in this stupid suburb. I have no friends, no money, no car, no license. And even if I did have a license all I can do is drive out to some stupid mall. Maybe if I'm lucky play some fucking video games, smoke a joint and get stupid. You see, there's nothing to do anymore. Everything decent's been done. All the great themes have been used up. Turned into theme parks. So I don't really find it exactly cheerful to be living in the middle of a totally, like, exhausted decade where there's nothing to look forward to and no one to look up to.

Nine years later, we have Tyler Durden in the film, Fight Club:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

The issues described by these characters over twenty years ago have not improved.  They have gotten more pervasive as more and more people are becoming idiots.

It is common to identify these idiots as rebels. We might contrive that in the case of Tyler Durden in Fight Club, but generally the difference between the idiot and the rebel is that the idiot sees the pointlessness of rebellion. In his mind, cutting-off the hydra’s head will only spawn two more, so what is the point? What Tyler Durden does have in common with the idiots is that he sees the only solution to be not a new head, but the complete destruction of the existing order.

In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.

Looking past the idyllic primitivism of Durden’s desired world, what we see is a life where life has purpose and actions are meaningful and appreciated. In 1980’s post-apocalypse films, we have raiding marauders or mutant monsters. Today’s expressions include shows like Jericho and Revolution that focus on community values, honest living, and a purposeful existence. It is almost as if we want Western Civilization to die.

The television show Revolution is a post-apocalyptic world where electricity stops working and society crumbles. One of the characters, Tom Neville, is a typical tamed man. He works as an insurance adjuster beaten-down by his corporate boss and goes through life meekly asking permission. He lets off steam with a punching bag hung in his basement and tells his son, “We only hit the bag, not people”. After the blackout, the chains come-off and he proves himself to be capable, ruthless, and tough. With civilization gone, he is able to live to a potential that he never knew he possessed. The character may be a villain, but I think many viewers can relate to his position. They cannot articulate this, but they feel trapped.

We live in a world where people seem in practice to define freedom as a state of being free from oppression. When in fact freedom means being free to act without prevention. These may seem very similar, but the difference is vital. A person might say that they are free because they do not fear jackbooted thugs patrolling the streets and harassing citizens, an image that they identify with oppression, true, however neither is there the freedom to act without fear that the government may punish actions through arrests, courts, and penalties. Whether there is active oppression or subtle nudging, the power to act is removed from the individual and without the power to act there is no freedom.

Idiocy is a reaction to this sense of fear and powerlessness, this absence of freedom that the idiot alone recognises. When society at large accepts a particular narrative that they consider normal, then anyone who rejects it is not normal and therefore weird, alien, and outcast. This social exclusion may even exacerbate his rejection of society. He does not want to reform the plantation. He wants to burn it.

They say, “Don’t rock the boat, especially when you are standing in it”. It takes an idiot to do something that stupid, but maybe that is what we need to shake things up.

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