Weird shit is my shit, it’s my life. Unusual things are what get me out of bed in the morning, it’s where I find most of my beauty. But I don’t like weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Years and years ago I watched the first season of LOST and loved it. As an aspiring academic political philosopher, I was tickled by all their references to state of nature social contract theorists (i.e. Locke, Hume, Rousseau) and by the general edge of absurdity and darkness to the show. It was weird for a purpose, and genuinely good art.
Eventually though, as the series progressed, it became apparent that the creators had no real vision for the show, no direction, but because of the nature of popular television, this thing had to grind on, and it had to grind on in a specific way: cliffhangers. By shocking the audience, they got us to sit through commercials. By shocking the audience, they garnered chatter between episodes, playing into the hands of deftly synced marketing campaigns, social media astro-turfing, all the whirring bits of the New York ad-industry hype machine. By shocking the audience, they sold advertising.
It didn’t matter what the shocks were or what they were for, what mattered was that they were effective, and they were. This is the formula for daytime soap operas — no meaningful part of this process is about making art. The show had become an advertising delivery mechanism, where the advertisements and the back of my brain talked directly to each other, while the front of the brain was distracted with explosions, death, sex, laughter, all the shiny monkey shiny look shiny things.
Shocking me to sell advertising, once I’ve wised up to what you’re doing, is both alienating and upsetting. It’s cheap psychology that’s painfully effective because in many ways we are still slaves to the evolutionary imperatives of our atavistic monkey brains. I would argue free will itself is suspect, and all our choices are constrained, but that’s another conversation. My point here is that we are eminently manipulable, and the incentives of the global capital system reward our manipulation.
It’s not that advertisers are evil, any more than corporations are evil, I have good friends who work in both areas. These people by and large are doing only and exactly what the system they exist within values. It’s like water flowing out to find the limits of its container, this shit was always going to happen. It’s symptomatic of the real problem: a global morality based on pure profit. More than anything else, it’s this morality, and the plausible deniability of all of our participation in it, that will one day ruin us all.
But though advertisers as a whole can’t be labeled evil, some of them certainly are, and the umbrella under which they operate definitely is. Advertising is evil because it works on us in a way that’s beyond our choice, it preys on us without consent. It’s about planting seeds and turning the science of psychology to its logical economic extreme; it’s effective despite us, and it feels like being used because that’s what it is. Shiny thing, snapping fingers, get your wallet, snapping fingers, shiny thing. It’s insulting because it works — it’s evil because it’s rape. I want what I want to be what I want. Is that so much to want?
I realize most people weren’t… personally insulted… by the artistic direction of the LOST franchise. I realize this is part of why life is so difficult for me. The reaction I’ll get from people who care about me when I get worked up about things like this is usually, yeah, okay — but is it worth it? Are you happier for having spent your time this way? I don’t know. There’s certainly no societal validation in it, but I have to believe it’s worth it somehow. You have to believe in something, right?
Weird is still one of my highest compliments, and taking risks is a huge part of making art. The psychology of advertising exists in art as well, and the line is a blurry one sometimes. A really sad side-aspect to all of this is that the best advertisers are incredibly smart, incredibly capable creatives. They’re evil geniuses, who in another world would have been artists. They’re the black knights, in their Manhattan towers and sushi dinners, to my white knight with no home and nothing. We all make choices. And in the end, when all is said and done, outcomes are irrelevant; what’s important is the motivation behind our risks.
This Grizzly Bear video has always bothered me. It’s weird for the sake of being weird. The song itself is ostensibly about domestic violence, but the video, though it has interesting moments and visuals, connects neither with the song, nor with itself. It’s just sort of meandering psychedelia with a diffused hippie message about the mechanization of mankind. I think. But in the end, I forgive them, because this is not about selling me anything, it’s not about tricking my monkey brain to sit through commercials, or planting the seed of a product so when I go looking at a shelf I have that subtle prodding push to buy what’s familiar — no, this failure is about art. And in the pursuit of beauty, unlike profit, there is nothing more noble than a weird, embarrassing failure.
“Can’t you feel the knife?”