Sit back and enjoy the absurdity


I’ve just this minute finished Michale Foley’s book The Age of Absurdity, which, among many other things, invites us to look upon absurdity as the new sublime.

While they are fresh in my mind I thought I’d just remember out loud a few favourite Foleyisms.

Happy, shiny work people
Foley notes how employees increasingly have to present and develop themselves not as a person but as a brand. And the brand identity? “Bubbly and smiley”. God help you if you don’t want to “lighten up and have fun”.

Hard wired for fatalism?
Foley references some impressive neuroscience to challenge the pervasive concept of the ‘hard-wired brain’. “Far from being fixed millions of years ago the individual brain constantly rewires itself throughout a lifetime in response to experience,” says Foley. This newly discovered plasticity allows the creation of entirely new brain configurations through persistent, attentive activity of more or less any kind. It also renders less useful the excuse “I’m an arsehole because I was hardwired to be an arsehole. It’s just the way I am”. Your basic temperament may indeed be set at arsehole, but if you really work at it you have the potential to be just mildly irritating.

Staying cool is such hard work
Foley: “…staying cool is hard work because the cool is constantly destroyed by mass adoption. It was cool to get a tattoo when tattoos were the insignia of the dangerous outlaw — but soon even suburban housewives had tattoos on their bum”. Unarguable.

Real-life just seems boring these days
Giant-size, miniature, plasma, touch — the screen is omnipresent. Pin sharp, bright, highly edited — it’s making real-life seem boring. The increasingly frenetic rate of image change of our new screen lives is also putting our brains into a continuous state of psychological red alert. Brain and body simply can’t recover equilibrium.

Foley shows that this growing addiction to passive, stimulus-driven entertainment means we struggle with anything static and slow moving. We’re losing the capacity to concentrate. Read a book? Have a conversation? Focus on a single task? Forget it.

The failure of the primary experience
If it wasn’t photographed, or it didn’t get videod, it never really happened. We live our lives through a lens, and then view it on our “shiny, twit machines” (thank you, Charlie Brooker, for that one)

Micro evolution — adapting for the workplace
To a greater or lesser extent we are all actors when we’re at work. Foley laments that we become a “simplified persona” — shallower, actorish versions of our true selves — through a process of unconscious adaptions. These generally take mildly depressing forms. For example, Foley drinks cheap instant coffee at work and it’s always tasted fine. At work. He knows if he drank it at home (where he always grinds beans to make fresh espresso) it would taste vile. At work, he concludes, “even my taste buds renounce complexity and depth”.

Where did my vibrancy go?
As well as the “ceaseless acting” we do at work, says Foley, we also channel considerable energy into maintaining that bubbly, smiley persona. This is bloody hard work and everyone needs a break. Hence when you spot colleagues out of work — in the lunch hour for example — they often appear “shabby, diminished and furtive”. They’ve gone “off the set” and the artificial vibrancy has been extinguished.

Lost the plot? There never was one.
Not infrequently I am reminded of my inability to follow a plot (of a film or book). This is viewed by my family as mildly comical or “a bit sad”. But I’ve always maintained I’m just not that interested in plots, or narratives generally. And now, in Michael Foley, I have discovered a fellow traveller.

The pleasure of the plot is all expectation and sensation, says Foley — but  the “dénouement of the plot-driven novel is often implausible and disappointing, so the pleasure is illusory and short-lived”. Novels that reproduce some of the texture and feeling of life are less likely to rely on plotting — no need, real life has no plot — but are more likely to provide richer satisfactions and live longer in the mind. Says Foley. And says me.

Needless to say The Age of Absurdity is determinedly and joyfyully plotless. Foley ranges around his subject — contemporary cultural conditioning — with abandon. A contrarian on the loose, in the age of conformity as well as absurdity.


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