Aesthetic Materialism, part 2: Escapism

Aesthetic Materialism, part 2
[click here to see part 1]

Every time another science fiction movie or comic book hero movie comes out, it's pundits' job to tell us that our culture is "escapist".  Another way to think of materialism is to ask: what is escapism escaping from?

Work?  Think of the phenomenon of "grinding" in video games.  Many video games require the player to perform the same action over and over again, more or less identically, for many hours at a time, in a manner that closely resembles work.  In some games, the player's character actually goes to work and does labor - fictitious labor, for fictitious bosses, to earn fictitious money, but which requires real time and effort and occasionally causes repetitive stress injuries in players' hands (who knows what it's doing to their minds).  This labor is forever being abstracted, quantified, supervised by software, tested, judged, and assigned a value, whether points in a score or game gold or "experience".  Capitalist labor seems to extend outside of its portion of the day and replicates itself in the world of leisure. 

I was watching the news just now, and a sports reporter was talking about the football players who are taking a knee to protest, among other things, the murderous brutality of the police toward African-Americans all over this country.  Having interviewed team owners and the NFL head honchos, he says that their position is that football is all about escape.  He sympathizes.  The rest of his reporting is about politics, but football is supposed to be fun, and here he is, talking about football, and right there, staring him in the face, is exactly what he was supposed to be escaping from: politics.  So is that it?  Is the material world the one that has politics in it?  Is it the world where people are trying to control each other?

Of course the news, nowadays, can be a form of escapism as well.  Politics can be a kind of escapism.  It can even be a fantasy - isn't that obvious when we look at every conspiracy theory, every speech from every politician that, however subtly or overtly, casts the latest political marketing scheme as a final battle between good and evil (usually in the form of an election that matters more than any election has ever mattered before)?  Isn't it the chief characteristic of our contemporary world that politics has become a kind of reality television, a gossipy scandalous drama, one that we can't look away from, a guilty pleasure, an addictive soap opera?  The attempt to escape from the world of politics and control has produced a world controlled by the politics of escape.

Cruelty can be a kind of escape now, too - just look at everything from porn to game shows in which contestants are brutally humiliated and degraded, their lives ruined as they are cajoled into marrying, cheating, and fighting, soullessly repeating their mantra that they are "not here to make friends," that they are "here to win."  Even pain can be an escape, as every masochist knows.

To throw some Levinasian jargon on it, we could put it this way: what escapism is attempting to escape from is the gaze of the other.  The material world, then, in Levinas's terms, is the ethical world.  The fantasy world is the one that you see; the material world is the one in which you are seen.  We wish to be mere spectators - invisible, bodiless, timeless, lifeless, selfless.  What we wish to avoid is the burden of having a self, of being a person, an ego, a locus of responsibility embedded and enmeshed in a web of personal obligations.  It's okay if you have obligations to fictional characters, quests assigned by wizards or teammates, even if they are avatars of your friends.  What is unbearable is your actual relationships between your actual self and other actual people.

This can help sharpen the distinction between ethics and morality.  Moralizing can certainly be an escape.  What is more entertaining than judging people?  Every latest scandal by every celebrity and every victim of day time talk shows affords us the opportunity to join in the fun of castigation - it's every bit as delightful as a witch burning or a stoning.  On the other side of the coin, the figure of the hero - the moral exemplar - is the very center of all escapist fiction.  But ethics can never be an escape.

Anyway, these forms of escape are just as material as what they appear to escape from.  There is no escape from the material world.

 --> on to Part 3

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