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Black Friday: A True Representation of Jean Baudrillard’s “Hyperreality”

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The French sociologist/philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreality is—ironically—quite real in 2018. We have, indeed, accepted the symbol as more real than that which it symbolizes. Surrounding the holiday of Thanksgiving—what was once the most wholesome and anti-consumption of American holidays—three news stories caught my eye. All three show quite clearly that Baudrillard was right: We are living in a hyperreality.

On 21 November, USA today chose to report to the American public with the headline “Why women and girls bear the brunt of the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak”. The absurdity of this headline manifests itself on multiple levels. The most dangerous consequence of irresponsible reporting like this is that it infuses identity politics into a situation which—quite clearly—affects all reaches of American society. Yet, in the hyperreality of modernity, the main (lame) stream media is telling the public that they should see a nationwide problem in terms identity politics; rather than questioning why our lettuce is infected with bacteria we are told to question the sexism of…the lettuce itself. Quite clearly, this is an absurd attempt to reframe the issue at hand and avoid asking the difficult questions.

Yet even this poor reporting might not be as absurd as the consumerist phenomenon that is “Black Friday”. The United States, over the course of the past thirty years (which correspond with the rise of globalism), has become a country where the holiday of Thanksgiving has transformed from one celebrating family and friends to a sideshow consisting of the kind of consumerism that Christmas has devolved into. While, in my childhood at least, Thanksgiving was seen as a holiday just like Christmas, it has now become a glorified pre-game show (to use sports terminology) to the consumerist “show” that Christmas has become. In what other country would we see people celebrating “thankfulness” and “family” before, a few hours later, fighting over television sets at a Wal-Mart? Indeed, this is an absurdity of the hyperreality we live in, and—sadly—it is being exported to other countries. This example alone should show us that Baudrillard was right when he pointed out that globalization does not bring us together in any “real” sense; rather it connects us in the superficial ways which befit the post-modern hyperreality.

 

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Black Friday Comes to…Brazil? If This is the Face of Globalization, Then Who Could Want It? Image Courtesy Of: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/black-friday-2018-chaotic-scenes-at-stores-worldwide-as-shoppers-dash-to-snap-up-deals-a3997806.html

 

The most interesting thing to think about is that—amid the hyper consumerism of black Friday—there are a few companies that are not doing so well. One of those is the U.S. lingerie label Victoria’s Secret, whose sales have been declining since 2016. While these figures may just seem like the bottom line of a corporate giant, to me they suggest something deeper. One clue might lie in the fact that the millennial generation is having less sex than any generation in 60 years. As one quote from Melissa Batchelor Warnke’s 2016 article points out:

 

many young people speak disparagingly of the messy emotional state love and lust can engender, referring to it as “catching feelings”.  […] Noah Patterson, 18, has never had sex. “I’d rather be watching YouTube videos and making money.” Sex, he said, is “not going to be something people ask you for on your résumé.”

 

 Both of these quote point to a closing off of emotion in favor of rational concerns like “making money” and having a good “resume”. Of course, if these are the most important concerns for modern society, then spending money on expensive lingerie would not be a priority; this would explain the drop in sales for Victoria’s Secret. But there is a larger consequence of this eschewing the emotional in favor of the rational: It denies all that which makes humans “human”. As human beings, what distinguishes us from animals is our ability to appreciate aesthetic beauty, whether that be another human being, a piece of art, or a beautiful sunrise. When we start to ignore these things—or seek to commodify them (by turning them into a vehicle for making money)—we start to rationalize the emotional. It is a very good example of what German sociologist Jurgen Habermas called the colonization of the “life world” by the “system”. Sadly, this process can also begin to slowly chip away at our own emotional sense of what it means to be “human”.

Taken together, all three of these news stories show that postmodern life has become a hyperreality, one where the rational supercedes the emotional. It is something which is ultimately very dangerous, since it threatens the very ties which bind us to on another on this earth. When we begin to see the contamination of lettuce in terms of identity politics, and not as something that threatens all of humanity equally, we are falling into a hyperreality. When we celebrate the virtues of “thankfulness” and “family” yet, a few hours later, engage in fistfights with strangers over electronics we are falling into a hyperreality. And when we begin to preference rational concerns over human concerns—and stop appreciating beauty (in all its forms)—we fall into the hyperreality. At least the football fans—as those pictured below at Partizan Belgrade—can provide us with a more real intrpretation of Black Friday.

 

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I’ll Take This Black Friday Over the Commercial One Any Day. Image Courtesy of @Balkanskinavijaci on Instagram.
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A Marginal Sociologist’s Musical Perspective on Humanism Vs. Rationalism: The Sad State of American Education That Has Failed To Separate The Two

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As a mobile marginal sociologist who likes to engage in conversation with anyone willing, I have more than a few adventures. As one great Sociology Professor at my university once told me, “to be a good sociologist you have to actually like people”. I take this advice to heart inside—and outside—of the classroom, and the last few days were no exception. In a few conversations with individuals involved in higher education in the United States I learned that higher education is not really education at all. Rather, it is a form of indoctrination. After all, how can an individual with a Master’s Degree not know who Nietzsche is? And how can someone receiving a liberal arts degree not know the distinction between humanism and rationalism? It is not because these people are dumb; quite contrary, they are intelligent people who are seeking to learn about a world that the educational system has—unfortunately—left behind. One reason may be that the educational system—in following the modern trend of rationalization that Sociologist Max Weber warned against—has failed to separate rationalism from humanism.

Since humans are not rational, humanism is not compatible with rationalism. The famous Turkish rock group MFÖ makes this point clear in the popular song “Ali Desidero”. While the video is an amusing throwback to mid-nineties Turkish pop, the lyrics are certainly prescient in that they show the odd form of confusion that defines the thoughts of the modern generation.

In the song the young man falls in love with a young lady in his neighborhood. The only issue is that the young man and the young lady come from different worlds: the young man is a self professed “simple man” hanging out at the coffee house watching football, while the young lady is a bit of an intellectual. Since the lyrics are clever (pointing out that the young man thinks Machiavelli is a footballer), they also point out the contradictions in the young lady’s intellectual thought:

Elbetteki feminist bir kız
Metafiziğe de inanmakta

Bir kusuru var yalnız kızın
Biraz entel takılmakta
Optimizt hem de pesimist biraz
idealizme de savunmakta
Ali Desidero Ali Desidero

Teoride desen zehir gibi
Pratik dersen sallanmakta
Bazen ben hümanistim diyor
Bazen rastyonalist oluyor
Değişik bir psikoloji
Bir felsefe idiotloji
İdiot idiot idiotloji

(Turkish Lyrics Courtesy Of: http://sarkisozuceviri.com/mfo-ali-desidero-sarki-sozleri/ )

 

Of course the girl is a feminist

She also believes in metaphysics

There is just one flaw with the girl

Shes a bit of an intellectual

She is an optimist, sometimes a pessimist

And defends idealism
Ali Desidero Ali Desidero

In terms of theory she’s got it down

In terms of the practical she’s a little shaky

Sometimes she says “I’m a humanist”

Other times she becomes a rationalist

It’s a different type of psychology

A philosophy, idiotology

Idiot idiot idiotology

(Author’s Translation. An alternative translation—which I did not enjoy—is available at http://lyricstranslate.com/en/ali-desidero-ali-desidero.html )

 

The kind of confusion that MFÖ sing about is not inherent to Turkish culture, it is a confusion that plagues much of the West (and yes, Turkey is part of the West in terms of its acceptance of globalized culture).  In the United States—and, arguably, most of the West—the education system is skewed to the political “Left”. Thus, it pushes a “humanist” idea while simultaneously pushing rationalization; it is characterized by a social science dominated by numbers. Sociologist C. Wright Mills was the first to point out the flaws of this kind of thought system in his famous work The Sociological Imagination by focusing on the academic field of Sociology:

…[S]ociology has lost its reforming push, its tendencies toward fragmentary problems and scattered causation have been conservatively turned to the use of corporation, army, and state . . . To make the worker happy, efficient, and co-operative we need only make the managers intelligent, rational, knowledgable (Mills, 1959: 92).

Here, Mills points out that socioligists began to serve the goals of the wider power elite in society—the corporations, the army, and the government—by pushing “rationalism”.  This has meant that:

[T]he human relations experts have extended the general tendency for modern society to be rationalized in an intelligent way and in the service of a managerial elite. The new practicality leads to new images of social science—and of social scientists. New institutions have arisen in which this illiberal practicality is installed: industrial relations centers, research bureaus of universities, new research branches of Corporation, air force and government. They are not concerned with the battered human beings living at the bottom of society—the bad boy, the loose woman, the migrant worker, the un-Americanized immigrant. On the contrary, they are connected, in fact and in fantasy, with the top levels of society. (Mills, 1959: 95).

From this quote we see that the “rationalization” of society has come at the expense of what Mills calls “the battered human beings living at the bottom of society”; this is—quite clearly—far from humanist.  In fact, to Mills, the political philosphy of those subscribing to this mode of thought is “contained in the simple view that if only The Methods of Science, by which man now has come to control the atom, were employed to ‘control social behavior,’ the problems of mankind would soon be solved, and peace and plenty assured for all” (Mills, 1959: 113). The problem with the mode of thought that Mills criticizes is, of course, the fact that human beings are not atoms. Since human beings have a minds of their own, no type of scientific rationalization can control them; to do so would mean to treat all human beings as if they were all uniform (like the aforementioned atom). This negates the diversity of humanity, and understanding this simple fact means understanding humanism; it also means that humanism is not compatible with—nor analogous with—rationalism.

A recent news story shows the problems with confusing humanism and rationalism. On 4 July 2017 The Canadian government agreed to pay a Canadian national—who admitted to killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan—the whopping sum of 10 million US dollars. According to a CBC editorial, Omar Khadr deserved this payday—despite being a murderer and a terrorist—because he was mistreated as a Candian citizen. According to Amnesty International, Mr. Khadr’s “rights were violated” (despite the fact that he admitted to killing another human being). Although those who approve of the Candian government’s settlement may see the decision as a rational, one (since Mr. Khadr’s human rights were violated) as well as a humanist one (since he was a child soldier at the time of the murder), they miss the absurdity of a terrorist being paid over ten (10!) million dollars after killing someone. This is not rational, nor is it humanist (especially if we take into account the feelings of the family members of the man Mr. Khadr killed!), and that is why this one case serves as a perfect example of the risks inherent in conflating humanism with rationalism.

To continue with the musical theme, I will offer another small example from American country music. While writing I was listening to Luke Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours” on Youtube and—like any good sociologist—I perused the comments section. In it, I came across a gem where a user asks “Is it wrong If [sic] I like this kind of music and am black?”. Of course, fellow Youtube users responded in the right way: You can like any kind of music regardless of your skin color! Thats the point of a free—and humanistic—society. However, one reason this type of comment may have been posted, is that the rationalists (due to their obsession with the classifcation of human beings) like to believe that  “rap music is for black people” and “country music is for white people”. This is, of course, absurd, yet (sadly) there are many sociology articles out there that deride country music as being “white” music and for not being “inclusive” enough.

 

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Without digging into the academic works, this blog will serve as a useful example of this type of misinformed thought. The author complains that African-American country artist Darius Rucker’s songs“contain the same themes of family, whiskey drinking, heartbreak, and Southern culture (such as the food, chivalry, clothes) and the same avoidance of touchy subjects as those of any white artist”. That Mr. Rucker is not fitting into his racial stereotype—by avoiding racial topics in his songs—is apparently offensive to the blog’s author. It is just one more sad example of the toxicity of rationalization at work, since the blogger assumes that a black singer needs to sing about “black” topics to fit into his “category” as a black country music artist. With all due respect to the sociologists, I prefer a humanistic approach—not confused with rationaliztion—which allows singers to sing about whatever they please, regardless of their race. And yes, us listeners can listen to whtatever we like, regardless of our race as well. Such is the beauty of a humanist perspective; it is a perspective that unifies unlike the divisive perspectives of rationalism.