For a while now, I’ve found frustration with some Radio 6 shows without being sure of the source of my anomie. And then I sussed what it was. The station has quite a few presenters who ape the excitable pumped-up language of disc jockeys from an earlier era — the likes of ‘Fluff’ Freeman and Emperor Rosko — but deliver their spiel ironically. That is, the words are enthusiastic, but they’re not communicated with enthusiasm.
Now, I’m not expecting people playing indie tunes for two hours at a time to be full of bounce about their chosen trade — although, frankly, it’s one of the less demanding career choices. It strikes me that irony is the easy route though, and ultimately an unchallenging one. If you never meant it in the first place, it didn’t matter. Easy to hide behind such a posture — a phrase which brings out the fact that irony is of course a dissociative technique.
I remember back in Gulf War 1 seeing the publicity films that Saddam Hussein was showing to his people. By Western standards they were massively unsophisticated, but given a population that hasn’t been exposed to the full gamut of capitalism’s desire not just to flog you stuff you don’t need but to pretend that purchasing will make you a better person, that difference wasn’t really surprising. If anything, seeing the quaintness of Saddam’s operation should have made us all the more questioning about the variety and sophistication of means used to keep us passive and on message about the accident of geography that resulted in oil being beneath the tyrant’s soil at a point when we were running out.
It was not always thus. Go back a few centuries, and things were more straightforward. The world was essentially stable. You could spend your life putting the finishing touches to a cathedral that your father had worked on his whole life, and his father had dug the foundations of. No need to juggle dozens of information sources when the Church told you what to think and do, and it conveniently coincided with what the local landowner wanted.
A few generations earlier still, and Julian Jaynes reckons things were even more straightforward. If you heard a voice in your head, he proposed in The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, it clearly came from a god, or at the very least your tribal leader. No wonder we call that period of history the Heroic Age if people believed — knew — that deities were guiding their actions. How would you act if that was the case?
There’s not a lot of room for ambiguity in such a worldview. Which is what made tricksters so intriguing, and so powerful. Every culture had its version of the trickster archetype, many of them supernatural. And humans could learn to do what those mythical figures did, too. That’s what a shaman was. And it explains the power of the bard, who was feared for the ability to use sarcasm. Which, put in modern money, is the ability to fully utilise what Timothy Leary and Robert Wilson termed the symbolic circuit — that is, the ability to utilise language to its greatest potential. At its strongest, it could also include knowledge of how to manipulate the metaprogramming circuit, the ability to change perceptions of ‘reality’. If you’re in any doubt about that, read up on how Sufi teaching works. Better yet, experience it — one way in is to read any of the the Idries Shah collections of Nasrudin stories, study of which is said to affect brain functioning. More pragmatically, there are plenty of instances of cultures taken over by aggressors and being stopped from using their language. You don’t do that unless it gives you an advantage.
As society has developed — I won’t say evolved since that implies a degree of progress that I find questionable — things have changed radically. And mostly those changes have come across as the unintended, and unimaginable, consequences of technological development. Printing led to the spread of radical ideas about Christianity across Europe, that leaders either adapted to or were shaken by. And we’re still dealing with the knock-on effects of electricity, let alone the digital revolution.
Contemporary citizens are awash with information sources, and while it’s possible to filter out a lot of those that contradict your preferred worldview, stuff has a way of creeping in regardless. There are positive aspects to this, such as being able to enter and influence the dialogue. Many Twitter users changed their claimed location to ones in Iraq, to make it trickier for the security forces there to find genuine residents talking the regime down. No irony there: that’s the intentional use of deceit to support people the Twitterers have never even met but feel sympathy with.
Maybe it’s intent that’s the gamechanger in all this. Look at The Exorcist and Linda Blair is a victim, shifting personalities from moment to moment under the guidance of a demon. Learn to make that work for you and you become Robin Williams, his chameleon comedy a response to the blizzard of signals he exposes himself to — he ingests them, and spits out what doesn’t provide nourishment to tease out the contradictions in a communal experience. Never mind Virginia Satir’s handful of categories for classifying archetypal behaviour in families — Williams has internalised the entirety of American media.
All of this serves to make the likes of Williams, and forerunners like David Bowie, whose transformations are slower but still notable, elude whatever frame you try and put them in. Not only have they digested media, they produce it, and it has clarity and enduring worth. And they’re just two examples: Bjork, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, Prince, and Anita Roddick are a few of those with the same knack for imposing their signal on society’s noise.
Get it right, and you’ll understand the difference between Jedward’s woeful cover of the Ghostbusters theme, and artist Jeremy Deller‘s fascinating and musically convincing reinterpretations of acid house classics by the Williams Fairey Brass Band. Might seem a stretch, but the connection Deller saw was that acid house and brass bands were the northern working class music of their day, those days being some decades apart. That kind of insight, and what he did with it, is worth paying attention to.
Another such figure is writer Grant Morrison. Born to a working class Glasgow family, and brought up on a dayglo diet of pop culture and radical politics, he never went to university and got educated by going out there and making things happen. Along the way he experimented with magic and psychedelics, becoming one of the best comics writers the industry has known, his stories infused with and enthused by a kaleidoscopic imagination and utopian vision. At the heart of it all — is heart. And he puts it fantastically in this extract from a 2008 speech, well worth returning to if you’re wondering whether there’s a place for you in the scheme of things:
“You gotta remember in the entire history of the universe…you’re the only ‘you’ that has ever existed and ever will exist. There’s nobody in existence who is you, and no one can ever see the world the way you see it and can tell the rest of us how it looks. And it might be so different and so beautiful that it changes everything.”