Saturday, September 27, 2008

Existentialism (nowhere to be found) in America

Democracy, freedom of speech, protected privacy…what next? Revolution’s won. Freedom. Independence. What do you do now? Oddly enough, these questions formed the core of Tocqueville’s fascination with America.

His treatise, Democracy in America, is not so much a well-documented historical work as it’s an essay about the changing face of humanity - about an era which may later b
e seen as a tipping point, so to speak, when more than a handful of people started leading themselves, rather than being fed noble lies. But after those wishes are granted, then what? What do you do with your free time when it’s finally yours?

This question fascinated – and irritated – Europe to no end. It was all quite new. Wrote Tocqueville, “Individualis
m is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth.” What do you do when you’re not being told what to do? In America this was just daily life. But in Europe it was a mindfuck.

Europe’s attempt to answer this seemingly simple question gave birth to existentialism, to completely new notions of the truth (now with a lowercase t); it underscored the French notion of ennui.

For obvious reasons these philosophical insights fell deaf on American ears. It’s no mystery to us, it’s just the life we lead. Yet even in modern times Europe seems at times blindsided by America's embodiment of progress and change. Ironically, France - the biggest ally in our fight for independence - most embodies the continent’s old spirit. Their government even obsesses over keeping their language authentic – or, at least, by the governments interpretation of authentic.

Keeping with such policy, in 2003 the French government tried to ban the word "email" from their language. It seems silly - at least to an American mind, who’s immediate response is:

"Isn’t language determined by the majority of people who speak it? Doesn’t it change with the times? Doesn’t it change with technology?"

To these questions the French government emphatically answers, no.

To which the American would reply, “That’s just ridiculous.”

Well, in a sense it is and in a sense it’s not. Certainly there was a time when that type of authority was widely accepted. The French just still feel that way. However the absurdity of the whole situation - the government’s obviously futile efforts to keep their language pure - shines favorably upon the American argument: yes, language is determined by the majority of people who speak it; yes, it is changing with the times; and more broadly, yes, the masses don’t all have to be told what to do.

New terms and emerging slang - these are the sorts of things that we take for granted, a natural byproduct of democracy in America. But they're surely not universal. Even an ally as close to us as France looks down upon such social change as pedestrian, degrading, dirty.

Underlying these subtle differences, Tocqueville saw shades of America that were industrious, practical, superficial, passionate. He observed our apathy towards purely theoretical questions in life. We had our Mark Twain while Europe had its Immanuel Kant - two authors who are actually quite similar - that is, if any American could ever understand Kant, whose sentences today would surely qualify for the worst sentence contest…or, for that matter, if any European ever really got Twain.

Every day, the question - what is one to do when obeying his own will? - is answered through daily action.

What do you do everyday?

Watch TV? Read paperbacks? Check out blogs? Go hiking? Follow football?

America's restaurants and its movies tell all about us - they're two industries with a distinct American twist. I enjoy all these things to no end.

But I still do wonder what a more controlled life would feel like - a simpler one, with less choices, perhaps a more "pure" language. Would it feel less hollow? Our neon lights and entertainment and technology - are these just distracting us from life's real meaning?

The answer seems to come from existentialist literature.

The answer is no.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Photograph of Alberto Giacometti (used) by Henri artier-Bresson; fair use rationale: An artistic depiction of the nature of European philosophy in the 20th century; (2) "Femme aux Bras Croises", by Pablo Picasso, 1902, fair use rationale: An artistic depiction of the nature of European philosophy in the 20th century; (3) official logo of the French government; (4) Mark Twain; (5) Immanuel Kant

Video: (1) Sigur Ros, "Njosnavelin", live in Paris; (2) Ratatat, "Seventeen Years", from Ratatat, 2004


Upcoming ideas:

  • Freedom through the eyes of Pascal
  • "Distractions"
  • Concept of flow
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