"The Festival of Insignificance": On Asking Big Questions
Every era has asked big questions about its culture. Are we asking any now, or is modern life little more than, to borrow from Milan Kundera's last book, a "festival of insignificance"?
Introducing the Question(s)
When Milan Kundera – in the opening of The Festival of Insignificance – puppeteers one of his marionette characters down a Paris street, the story begins not with a bang or a whimper but with a question. More precisely, it opens with a series of interrelated questions. The introductory character is Alain, who is the act of existential enquiry given human form. And on these opening pages, Kundera – via Alain – attempts to raise lechery to the status of philosophy as he gazes at “the young girls, who – every one of them – showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short”.
This literal navel-gazing is at the centre of Alain’s curiosity about historical obsessions with various parts of female anatomy. If men (“or an era”, Kundera adds, hinting at the widespread bias that equivocates between male experience and the experience of humanity) view breasts as the pinnacle of “female seductive power”, that might suggest a certain sanctification of woman as mother; the Virgin Mary as an ideal; “the male sex on its knees before” the female sex. If an era fixates on the thighs, this might suggest a “metaphoric image of the long, fascinating road ... that leads to erotic achievement”. If another era obsesses over the buttocks, this might indicate a “brutality” that seeks the shortest route to “the goal”.
Some readers might be led, witnessing such pontification, to wonder about the seriousness and sincerity of the writer. And if he is serious, isn’t that evidence of pretentiousness and a lack of critical self-insight? In the popular vernacular, wouldn’t he be a douchebag? Yes, and also no, and yes again. Kundera is infatuated with humour and irony, and self-deprecation is not beyond him. All of the aforementioned leering at young girls and philosophising over their anatomy is the set-up; the punchline lies in where this arrives at, with Alain’s gaze turned to the navel.
But first: What is this playful opening winking at?
The ancient Greeks asked a lot of questions. Socrates asked so many that he gave rise to a system of questioning named for him and was put to death for his practice of asking, according to the Athenian court, the wrong kind of questions of the wrong people. The Greek philosophers, who would have endorsed Alain’s perambulatory style of musing, asked some of the foundational questions of human living, and some of their answers still resonate today. Many of their enquiries tell us much about what preoccupied their culture; in particular they were interested in the question of how to structure a society.
Leaping forward via the time machine of the mind to reach a fuzzily defined period in Western history in which Christianity dominated the cultural scene, and especially casting our eye with interest over the Protestant Reformation, we can see that a prominent cultural question was how to position oneself in relation to the divine. Revelation or natural evidence? Personal relationship to the godhead or via hierarchical mediation? Culturally contextual or timeless? The Age of Enlightenment later superseded such problems with questions of how to position the individual within humanity as a whole.
Returning to the here and now, what, we might wonder, are our epochal fixations? What big cultural question are we asking in this moment?
The Joke Is No Longer Funny
Returning to Alain’s interest in the navel, Kundera seems to be indicating modernity’s relationship to grand narratives and cultural questions: Such things are mere exercises in navel-gazing. A preoccupation with Big Questions is suggested to be – whether in full sincerity or not – like the feather hovering near a ceiling in a later scene and which captures the attention of another character, Charles. A friend, observing Charles’ strange fixation on the feather, thinks: “What a pleasure not to worry about something happening up there, what a pleasure to be right down here.” This is the complacency of contemporary capitalist culture at its worst, captured in an image. How nice not to be bothered by high-minded, difficult problems, how nice to be vacantly absorbed in nothing.
This is the posture towards life’s complexities taken by Nietzsche’s “last men”, who avoid great lows and highs of emotion, preferring to stay comfortably middling in life, neither achieving nor losing very much. They avoid the strain of intellectual enquiry and drown out the awful echo resounding in the absence at the heart of their lives with the noise of consumerism, the busy rush of buying, buying, buying. This is the posture of those discussed in my essay on Moonrise Kingdom, those who retreat from the pain of a world that is not how it ought to be, by sacrificing their sense that things should and could be better. Hope of that kind, requiring commitment and consideration, is dismissed as mere navel-gazing.
Having shunned philosophical enquiry, sincerity, and optimism as childish or gauche, the Last Men of our time strike a pose of sophisticated boredom. The critical heuristic of academia known as postmodernism achieved dominance, decades ago, in pop culture as a form of flippant irony that does a disservice to the literary experiments of postmodernism that were once, briefly, interesting.
This flippant irony, this perpetual shrug, eventually demands a salve to its own boredom, which is provided by a cultural fixation on the ephemeral and the insignificant. Objects of mass culture* that pop in and out of existence faster than anyone can keep up with, and which are engaging enough to distract but not so deep as to invite the discomfort of a meaningful meeting with reality – these are the amusements of a complacent culture.
This is the kind of era that can – returning to Kundera’s vehicle of cultural analysis – place the navel on a pedestal. Like the belly button, this postmodern view of things is built around a hollow. If the thighs are representative of the long road towards a worthy goal, and the bum is indicative of the short path to pleasure, the navel is symbolic of the emptiness of nihilism. To see Kundera’s imagery to its natural conclusion, and to put it rather crudely, you can’t have sex with the navel, and so as a sexual object it provides no fulfilment. It is as pointless in erotic terms as postmodernism and nihilism are in a cultural sense. Little wonder then that so much of mass culture seems to so many to be so utterly boring.
As far as methods of alleviating boredom go, pretending to be Pakistani is as unique to Kundera’s characters as it would certainly be anathema to contemporary politics. Charles and Caliban invent a “Pakistani-language” to use while acting as waiters, so that the act of speaking a convincing fake-language to the guests will keep them from dying of boredom. This is a routine the duo have been performing for a while, until their friend Ramon, in a despondent mood, critiques the act as a piece of commentary on the age:
“We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power. You force yourself to speak Pakistani to cheer yourself up. In vain. All you get out of it is weariness and boredom.”
Here we find ourselves, bored of our boredom, incapable as a species of centring our sense of meaning around an insistence on the meaningless at the centre of everything. As Penelope Lively writes in her ever-relevant Moon Tiger, “By the time we have reduced everything to entertainment we shall find that it was no joke after all.” Our cynical, world-weary boredom cannot sustain itself or us; but inside this failure we find a reminder of truths that we might revive.
The Lost Question Their Loss
There is a section of society that has not forgotten what we once knew. This cultural group prides itself on being society’s memory, on its backwards glance that acts as a reminder to those who would look only ahead at tomorrow and would forget what we knew yesterday. We tend to describe those in this group as “cultural conservatives”. They are not necessarily Conservatives, nor conservative in any generalised or traditional sense of the term, and this group includes many who were once or now remain only tentatively on the Left. This group tends to include those known as centrists, a term now disparaged in the way agnostics and bisexuals have been denigrated in the past for a perceived inability to “pick a side”.
People of this broad persuasion are prone to asking Big Questions: What have we lost? they wonder out loud, and How have we lost it? and What (if anything) is taking its place? Such worries have always preoccupied conservatives, although the specificities of cultural loss have altered with the birth of the internet and the rise of social media. Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, set in an American suburb in the 1970s, describes in intimate detail one generation watching the world they knew passing away, with little sign of what would remain in the end or what might take its place.
In Eugenides’ novel, the Lisbon family become detached from the rest of the world as one by one the teenage daughters kill themselves. There is a poignant scene (most affecting after realising that it marks in its specifics a general loss, a macroscopic decline within the microscopic descent) in which the neighbourhood all rake their autumnal leaves from their yards into piles they collectively burn. The Lisbon family remain absent from this annual act of communal cleansing, “one of the last rituals of [the community’s] disintegrating tribe”.
“When we lit the bonfires that night, every house leaped forward, blazing orange. Only the Lisbon house remained dark, a tunnel, an emptiness ...”
By the end of The Virgin Suicides, that once-unified neighbourhood has atomised into constituent families and isolated individuals who “rarely ran into one another anymore”. The trees have all been cut down the by the city council, and “without trees, there were no leaves to rake, no piles of leaves to burn”. Their rituals have been lost, their shared past forgotten, and they are each left wondering what can take its place. There is the suggestion of a pessimistic answer when a new couple move into the old Lisbon house and “set themselves so purposefully to removing signs of the Lisbon girls”. The couple have the whole house sprayed with a paste called Kenitex, predicted to be the future of house painting, but:
“... it took less than a year for chunks of Kenitex to begin falling off like gobs of bird shit.”
In this, we are shown not only a prognosis for the future of society but a diagnosis (at least a partial one) of the problem: forgetting or deliberately disregarding the past. It is salient not only that the new couple cover the house with some modern crap that does not last; it is important to note that they do so as part of a project to erase what the house used to be. Cultural conservatives, in their unabating remembrance of things past, have touched upon what they believe to be an answer to one of their pressing questions – not what was lost, or when, but how. The basic consensus is that the past is the victim of cultural amnesia.
Let’s return to the three periods – not chosen at random but not exhaustively representative – that offered us examples of epochal questions. If, symbolically, the ancient Greeks with their love of wisdom and asking questions represent an Age of Discovering Ideas, and the Printing Revolution – as seen through the lenses of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment – represents an Age of Disseminating Ideas, what does our modern, Internet-based age represent?
Cultural conservatives note the near-total lack of restrictions on our capacity to store or seek information with the internet, which has led (so their theory goes) to a frivolous view of the content we commit to the web’s memory. We would not bother to scribble as a note most of what we freely and frequently tweet or send as an online message. And when information can be summoned instantly, and so much of it has barely any relevance to our passing interests, there is less perceived need to remember any of it. This is how some have come to see ours as an Age of Amnesia.
A Well-Meaning Interlocutor Objects
Two obvious objections to this accusation of cultural forgetting raise themselves, but can be shot quickly down. The first is that in its seemingly infinite capacity to store information, the internet preserves our history. Everything we have learned can be discovered with the ease of a Google search. But you have to search for it. If no one other than revising students bothers to look up the history of Soviet atrocities, or the causes and outcomes of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, or the syllogistic structure of the Socratic method, then that information is as good as forgotten. And in a culture that offers a constant supply of “new content”, increasingly designed to be as attractive and then as addictive as possible, and in which the urge to know something can be perpetually deferred in the belief that it will always be there to look up later, there is decreasing incentive to search for this knowledge.
The second attempted refutation has the virtue of appealing to a complaint I have voiced myself, right here in Art Of Conversation – that there is an increasing number of reboots and remakes of material from our cultural history. Surely this, a well-meaning interlocutor might object, shows a desire, however non-committal, to engage with the past. To this, the ripostes are numerous. The “history” these remakes draw on comes only from the last hundred years (in the case of television and cinematic rehashes) to three hundred at most (for adaptations of Dickens or Austen). They only draw on a relatively small cultural pool (the two aforementioned writers, a handful of others, and movies or TV series from the eighties and nineties). Worst of all, most of the do-overs, especially big studio films, treat the “past” of those things they are repeating as merely quaint artefacts of nostalgia. They rarely interrogate their subjects, and they frequently smooth over the historical aspects to modify them into products that fit seamlessly into our own time.
There is, however, a third objection, and this one has real power. It cannot be dismissed so easily, nor should it be. The third objection is that there is a third view of what our epochal questions are. We are not left with a binary between cultural complacency and conservative concern for the past. Another section of society have been asking their own cultural questions.
New Identities Emerge
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, humans are unable to bear mythless, clear-eyed rejections of narrative, metaphor, and meaning. After close to a century of attempting to topple all that Western cultures had built, a twenty-first century response to the boredom and meaninglessness of postmodernity emerged. In the decade starting in 2010, the identity politics that had been fomenting for several decades in the West found new purchase.
If the old stories could not hold up, and the myths of religion were now useless, and the political battles of previous generations were predicated on first principles that came last in contemporary lists of priorities, then it seemed to some that meaning could only lie within the individual self. Purpose might be discovered in the processes of forging and establishing an identity. This is not even close to the full story of the rise of identity politics – which travels back through the solipsism of consumerism, through the gay and civil rights movements, through the existentialism of Sartre et al, and further back still – but the disappearance of group meaning and community solidarity is a vital component of it.
The diffuse project to build meaning out of the components of self-identity met with the solidarity of group expression, which led identity politics to the forefront of political activism over the last decade. Like the modernists a century ago, the rallying cry became to “make it new”; the search was for new forms of expression to capture a new world. But the movement was still hindered in large part by the same political failing of the previous decade, in which the most prominent political activism was against the Iraq war: Activists weren’t sure of what they were for, but they knew what they were against. And in this new period of identity politics, a reckoning with the past offered up a menu of things to be against.
Those of the identitarian mindset have raised their own cultural questions, the issues they believe are of vital importance in our time. These are “big questions” of who we are as individuals relative to the groups to which we happen to belong, and how we define ourselves relative to our race, sexuality, sex and/or gender, and other accidents of birth, as well as asking who has power and what they should do with it – or what those without said power should do to even the balance.
Into these enquiries comes the same dynamic that plagues this movement’s expressed political goals – that definitions are made in the negative. It is possible to reject traditional gender norms, to oppose inequality, to tear down the structures that oppress minorities – in short, to deconstruct essentially anything – and to adopt identifying labels that express these oppositional poses (non-binary, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, atheist). There is, however, a distinct lack of focus when it comes to what they hope to build.
There is a growing number of those from this worldview who espouse socialism and even outright communism as expressions of what they stand for, and yet even this is most clear on what it opposes (capitalism). On asking for what they hope to put in place of capitalist societies or Enlightenment rationality, one often receives mumbled platitudes about inclusive societies where everyone is equal. Pressing for details usually acts as a strong wave washing over their ideological sandcastle. A typical follow-up tactic against this onslaught of reason is for the progressive to return quickly to listing the evils of the current status quo.
It is not only the sins of the past that these revolutionary types want to cleanse from our collective consciousness, it is also the very questions we once asked of ourselves. These questions took many forms and touched on myriad topics, but they all fed data into the cultural calculator seeking the sum of human experience: What does it mean, we asked, to be human?
This question is seen by identitarians to be unhelpfully broad, at best, and cynically universalist as a method of distracting from the “real questions”, at worst. Those “real questions” are of course determined by the central preoccupations of identity politics, critical race theory, and solipsism that inform the major progressive movements today.
It is this dismissal of the humanist project, coupled with the pseudo-religious effort to purge the world of sin and remove idolatrous imagery, that means this third way, like the Last Men, reinforces the notion that ours is an Age of Amnesia.
The Festivals of Insignificance
In their quests for cultural dominance, each faction of the so-called “culture wars”, each in their extreme polarised position at antonymic odds with the other side, insists on undermining their opponents by labelling them one of two things: dangerous or irrelevant. Warning the world of how threatening the other side is, we hear that the conservative Right are wealthy fascists committed to crushing the weak, while the progressive Left are aspiring despots dedicated to the overthrow of Western culture.
Or, as we have seen, each side pretends the concerns of the other side are self-centred, ignorant, and plain silly. The conservative Right are worried about some dead white males losing their prestige; meanwhile, the progressive Left think that words are like sticks and stones in their capacity to cause actual, physical violence. In this mode of dismissing the cultural questions of other mindsets, each views the other as indulging in a festival of insignificance. If we can only shake off the tendency to move from the specific critique to wholesale rejection, we might see that there are concerns from the “other side” that can act dialectically to strengthen our own positions. We might – naively ecumenical as it sounds – learn from each other.
There can be a certain short-sightedness that comes with the rose-tinted glasses conservatives often wear when looking back at a remembered “golden age”. What is obscured from their view is the undeniable truth that any so-called “golden age” was only better in a limited context and without regard for all the ways in which things were worse. Those nostalgic for “the best of the Empire” would not bring back its worst; to yearn for the Roaring Twenties or la Belle Époque is not to wish for the racism, sexism, mass illiteracy, child mortality, or any other number of social ills that accompanied those otherwise “glorious” years.
The ejections of each of those negatives from society were revolutions on various scales, many explicitly fought for by those who were regarded by their times as rascals and revolutionaries with no appreciation for tradition. And this is one of the stronger defences of the progressive position – that so much of the past eulogised in the present was the result of massive upheavals that, back then, seemed unconscionable and, now, are taken for granted. Today’s socio-political radicals might be helping to discover ways of redefining society that tomorrow’s conservatives will accept as part of the fabric of “how things ought to remain”.
Of course, the riposte to this is a counter-critique every bit as valid – that, too often, progressives fail to see that there is just as much wisdom as there was bigotry in the past, and that new answers to future dilemmas might already exist in some prototypical form in our history, waiting to be rediscovered and reappropriated for the present.
What I am espousing here is frequently referred to, in scoffing tones, as being “centrist”. This is a position I write frequently in defence of, and it needs defending because the extreme poles of our political divides see any kind of centre as synonymous with the enemy, for not being conservative or progressive enough. It is seen as yet another festival of insignificance, a set of big cultural questions to be dismissed as irrelevant.
But centrism need not be a final position, a fallacious philosophy that the truth on any topic is to be discovered in the middle between extremes. It can be an acknowledgment of the missing syllogistic element that gives value to disputation between a progressive thesis and conservative antithesis (or vice versa): It can offer a (temporary) synthesis, from which we can derive a new starting point for future debates.
Regarding the question of what today’s important cultural questions are, the centrist (if you insist on the term) or liberal (my preference) position here is simply to take seriously the concerns of those from different camps. It might be that in looking for the validity in the ideas of other worldviews, seeking the seed of truth in forests of dissent, we might find new paths forward. Because, in the end, the greatest Festival of Insignificance might be comprised of two sides screaming and no one hearing a thing.
* It is a peculiarity of my own that I see a distinction between “pop culture” and “mass culture”. In my usage, pop culture refers to all manifestations of culture that are not traditionally categorised as “high culture” – TV, cinema, and many kinds of literature that connect elite art with art accessible to mainstream audiences. Mass culture, meanwhile, refers to those cultural artefacts churned out in high quantity with little regard for quality: TikTok videos, everything to do with Snapchat, many cinematic reboots and remakes, and the blogs that focus on daily clicks over longevity. There is, of course, overlap between pop and mass culture, but I find that the latter deserves opprobrium while the former does not and yet frequently receives it from those who refuse to discern between what is popular and what is crass.
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• The Festival of Insignificance, Milan Kundera (2015)
• Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively (1987)
• The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)