Friday, 29 July 2011

A Monument to Irrationality

What is a monument to irrationality, you may ask? Well, pretty much everything of any value, to be honest. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This is the post which was going to be a digression in my post about Shakespeare which would then subsume the whole post and take it over, until I realised it would be much more sensible just to make this a post all on its own, and making a separate post about Shakespeare that would actually be, y'know, about Shakespeare.

Anyway. My mum is a teacher. So she reads the Times Educational Supplement, and we despair at how idiotic politicians are with regards to education, always messing it around and so on. And naturally one thing that comes up is what they think children should and should not be taught. Inevitably, a common feature is that all children should be taught Shakespeare because cultural heritage, lofty high art etc, never mind the fact they don't like it (This may be partly because it's taught wrongly, which in turn may well be down to the teachers focussing on the perception of Shakespeare as being great literature rather than considering it on its own merits).
But then, these are likely to be, or at least have significant overlap with, the people who will do their utmost to have some modern books banned because they're full of filth and smut and dear lord have these people actually read Shakespeare? Henry V has a scene the prupose of which as far as I can tell is solely to point out that certain English words sound like French swearwords, Macbeth has a doorman talk about the effects of alcohol on sexual desire and prowess, Hamlet while pretending to be mad and just before the play he hopes will uncover Claudius' guilt, makes a whole load of double entendres to Ophelia. I could go on. Shakespeare is full of dirty jokes. If these people want something less filthy, they should probably try Marlowe - I don't recall any dirty jokes in what I've read of him.
Of course I would never make this point to such people. I would contest that perhaps Marlowe should be taught, as should other playwrights, simply to give some variety instead of endless Shakespeare, but I wouldn't bring up dirty jokes as the reason. And why?
Well, because dirty jokes notwithstanding, Shakespeare still is great literature, high art, etc. And this is not in spite of his dirty jokes and the fact that at the time he was writing for mass appeal - it is at least partly because of those things. It's all bound up together - Shakespeare wrote the way he wrote, his writings have stood the test of time and they are great literature.

Now if stuff like Shakespeare were to be written today, dirty jokes and all, but in modern language, so it could be understood by the masses, well, they'd be very popular I imagine. But they might not be so critically acclaimed. I imagine some highbrow intellectual elitist critics would acknowledge the appeal and probably say that it was good for what it was, but really could not be considered a serious work, with all those jokes about sex and so on.
And those critics would, of course, be utterly wrong. Sadly they're unlikely to realise this, because they're all too up themselves. This is why so many things which are popular, well written, well presented and so on don't win awards in a great many cases. Because the establishment believe that theirs is the one true way, and while things deviating from that norm - comics, fantasy, sci-fi and other genre fiction, video games and related culture - may be nice enough and popular enough, in the end they're just nonsense, aren't they? They can't be considered as serious works.

We'll get to seriousness in a minute, but I have to rant about the 'nonsense' comment first (Which is something I've seen in a review of something I rather liked but which clearly didn't match up to the reviewer's 'refined' sensibilities).

So, something which is 'nonsense' is automatically denigrated with implication that however well it may be done, it can't match up to real literature/television/film. Which is total bollocks, and bollocks to that attitude. But let's examine the claim.
Leaving aside the rather highly rated Alice books by Lewis Carroll, which are pretty much defined as nonsense, the question arises: what makes something nonsense? Is it that the setting is implausible? Certain things the characters can do? Magic, or sufficiently advanced technology?
It's true that such things do not happen in the real world. They're unrealistic. But on the other hand, nothing in most works of fiction happens in the real world. They may happen in more familiar settings, which obey the laws of physics as we understand them, with regular ordinary humans. But the events described, in general, still didn't happen, and in a significant number of cases, wouldn't happen, in the real world. So where you draw the line seems to me to be rather arbitrary.
In any case, the thing is, as I said, none of the events you are reading about or watching, or listening to on the radio, none of them actually happened. This is why we require that key ability which lies at the centre of the enjoyment of fiction - suspension of disbelief. I don't imagine many people would disagree with me on that. You suspend you disbelief and consider the events of the story as if they were actually happening, including if they could actually happen.
As such, I submit that if a reviewer claims that something is "well done, but really it's just nonsense" or words to that effect, the failure is not on the part of the fiction in question. Rather the fault lies with the reviewer, who has failed to suspend his or her disbelief far enough to appreciate the work on its own merits.

Another common issue is bias, of course. Such people are biased towards believing that such things ('genre' fiction, usually) are inherently less worthy of critical praise and acclaim than the things they like (such as so-called 'literary' fiction). Likewise, this is rubbish. A work is good or not irrespective of what it is.
There is even hypocrisy evident in this elitist view. As I commented, such critics might well dismiss Shakespeare, if he were writing today instead of in the 16th and 17th centuries. But as it is, he did write his plays centuries ago, and they think he's brilliant. What's the difference? The difference as far as I can see is that Shakespeare has already garnered his reputation. When they read or watch Shakespeare, they don't think "Oh, this is quite well written, but all this stuff with the fairies and the magic is nonsense, of course, and really, those innuendos, pfft!" They think rather, "This is Shakespeare, see, that man really knew how to turn a phrase, he truly exalts his subjects," etc. Shakespeare is automatically on their list of things which are allowed to be viewed as worthy of acclaim by tradition, so they're able to consider him on his actual merits.
To a lesser extent, this is also true of Doctor Who. In years gone past, I've compared reviews in the Radio Times of Doctor Who to those of Torchwood, Primeval, and the like. Doctor Who gets very good reviews, the others not so much. And while Who is my favourite of them, it has had some rather bad episodes, and the others have had some very good ones. The reviews really smack of a double standard. In the heads of these people, Torchwood and the like are sci-fi shows, whereas Doctor Who is a national phenomenon.

Anyway, the point is that what a few snobbish elitists happen to think is incredibly wrong. They're not wrong about everything, of course. The things they do think are good generally are. I have nothing against artsy-fartsy deep and meaningful works - indeed I feel they are unjustly served by being the favourites of such people as I have described, because it inclines more people to think that such things are only for the educated high-brow intellectuals, that normal people wouldn't get them, and thus such works miss out on popularity which they may well deserve. But they are not inherently better than other works just because a certain class of people have decided that these are the 'serious' works.

There's that word serious again. I think it's time I dealt with it, since it's really meant to be the focus of this post, the rest being by way of a very long preamble. Well, sort of. It is all talking about the subject of the post, but I haven't precisely stated that subject as yet.

There is a phrase on the internet: SERIOUS BUSINESS. Typically "X is SERIOUS BUSINESS." Sometimes abbreviated to 'SRS BSNS'. And, well, this is generally said in a rather mocking way. For example, some Pokemon enthusiasts may be talking about how you maximise your pokemons' stats, and someone not so into the game would be astounded at the amount of thought and effort that goes into this stuff. To which, "Pokemon is SRS BSNS." The point being, it's not that serious. It's a game, played for fun, but people who like it get disproportionately serious about it, to a point where it seems ridiculous to an outsider. But this is their interest, and going further into it increases their enjoyment. So it is with anything.
Alternatively, it can be used in a derogatory sense. At one time I recall someone from the Playground's Free Form Role-Playing section, then still known as The Town, saying he was losing interest because so many people were making it all about SERIOUS BUSINESS whereas he preferred it when things were light-hearted and silly. The point in this instance of course being that these people are taking things too seriously and thus detracting from the fact it's supposed to be a fun pastime. And the difference being that this one is to do with personal interaction more. While those making everything serious are enjoying themselves, because that's the way their taste runs in roleplaying, they may also be rather unyielding, leading to a feeling of exclusion for those who have different tastes in this regard.

So here we see, the main views of incredible seriousness on the internet are either that anything can be taken seriously in the cause of deriving more enjoyment from it, but this does not require any inherent seriousness; or that taking things too seriously can remove the fun from it and exclude those who are being less serious.
I feel these principles can be applied outside the internet as well, in general.

Basically, nothing is inherently serious. You can take things seriously, and sometimes you should do so, for the benefit of others, generally in the form of increased enjoyment, or alleviated pain (Which could be said to be on the same scale - pain is in the negatives, while enjoyment is in the positives). If someone is in pain, despair, under a lot of stress, etc, you should generally not make jokes about it (Varies of course - sometimes a joke will help to lighten their mood, other times it'll just be insensitive; the difficulty is in distinguishing between the two). But when the problem is not so immediate, jokes may sometimes be made - black humour is something appreciated by many, though it should be used with a certain amount of caution.
Certainly, when it comes to genres of fiction, as I was commenting on above, with regards to snobbish critics, nothing is inherently more serious than anything else. The snobbery of such people taking things too seriously, however, tends to exclude fans of the things not viewed as 'serious', when in fact they have no inherent inferiority. They can be taken seriously, or not. Jeremy Jahns comments on this in his movie reviews sometimes, joking about elitist critics with a tendency to use terms like 'tour de force' and 'bravura performance', and so on, and disregarding things which don't meet their standards of seriousness regardless of the fact they're actually very good and very popular. For that reason he and various other youtube movie reviewers set up a youtube-only set of awards, in response to numerous people being annoyed at some things which had been snubbed at the Oscars.

What does matter is enjoyment. Imcreasing people's happiness, reducing pain, etc. To put it in Vlogbrothers/nerdfighter terminology, reducing suck and increasing awesome. One can take things seriously to that end, to organise things, and to avoid hurting people's feelings by making light of things which bother them particularly. But nothing is serious, there is nothing which has to be serious, all the time. Things are often better when they're not serious, because seriousness is not important. Fun is.
I have a video link to that effect:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dbUJYUWdS8

Thank you Hank Green.
Another Vlogbrothers example - John Green got mentioned in an article in the Wall Street Journal, due to the success of his new book The Fault in Our Stars, staying at the top of the Amazon bestseller list for the first however many days after it became available to preorder when it didn't even have a cover yet. This was naturally very pleasing for him, Hank, and Nerdfighteria at large, but the thing which really kind of stood out for me, and probably for a number of other people as well (Indeed John mentioned it in his blog post on the subject), was the fact that the article mentioned the nerdfighting phenomenon and therefore the websites associated with it, notably for me the forum yourpants.org.
The Wall Street Journal included in the URL yourpants.org. I was very pleased by this. Why?
Obviously it's nice to see that sort of acknowledgement to an internet community, since I'm rather enthusiastic about the idea of internet communities. Partly it's the thrill of doing something which is forbidden - it's not actually forbidden, but it feels like that is not the sort of URL which should be appearing in a serious publication like the Wall Street Journal. But really, well, it's that last thing I just wrote. That is not the sort of URL you expect to see in a 'serious' publication like the Wall Street Journal. The significance is that the power of Nerdfighteria, an internet community, has eroded some of the perceived boundaries between what is and is not serious. Because truthfully there is no reason why a URL like yourpants.org should not appear in the Wall Street Journal and there's no reason why the Wall Street Journal should not acknowledge that amazing internet community known as Nerdfighteria. Both are only as serious as you want them to be at any given moment, and it could be said that actually Nerdfighteria are a few steps ahead because they definitely realise that.

Nothing is inherently serious. Things are only as serious as we choose to take them. And when it comes to things like books, fiction in general, returning somewhat to my complaints about critics, certainly nothing is more serious than anything else. It's all a monument to irrationality.

And finally I get back to my title. This is a quote from the play Jumpers, by Tom Stoppard, about a philosopher and his wife, among other things. The relevant lines are as follows:

DOTTY: "Archie says the church is a monument to irrationality."
GEORGE: "[...]
The National Gallery is a monument to irrationality! Every concert hall is a monument to irrationality! And so is a nicely kept garden, or a lover's favour, or a home for stray dogs! You stupid woman, if rationality were the sole criterion for things being allowed to exist, the world would be one enormous field of soya beans!
[...]
The irrational, the emotional, the whimsical... these are the stamp of humanity which makes reason a civilizing force."

Looking at it purely rationally, what is the purpose of humanity, its driving force? One might argue it has no purpose, and its driving force is simply the desire to propagate its own existence. We have our hardwired imperatives to ensure our own survival and the continuation of our species, and anyhing else? Anything else we have given to ourselves. It might be considered an act of vanity on our part as a species, estting ourselves apart from other animals by daring to think that we are different, somehow superior, that we have self-determined purpose. But that is what makes us human, that is what, to quote Discworld, makes us where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
All that irrationality. Oh, one may argue that it promotes the creation of our social bonds, forming the human community, which helps propagate the species, and so it does to some extent, but it's somewhat  beyond that at this point. We do not require these things, but we desire them, irrationally, to the point that they become the purposes of our many existences. Because were we to stick to the purely rational view, all we need to do is survive and pass on our genes, that's all very well, but the question must occur to any thinking animal: to what purpose do I survive? Having ensured our survival, what should we then do with it but enjoy it? And so, we enjoy ourselves, however we may. We read and tell stories, play games, analyse them, seek answers to questions about the workings of the universe and our own existence, ever striving for our own satisfaction in these regards, and we build endless great monuments to irrationality.

This blog is a monument to irrationality, and I'm very happy about that. It'd be terribly boring otherwise.

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