Thursday, 9 October 2014

Sisyphus Doesn't Work Here Anymore

It's a pretty stock tactic: present the young undergraduate students of Philosophy with the myth of Sisyphus, and tell them it's an allegory for human existence. There's a way to get their attention. There's a way to get them thinking. Except it's not. Because Sisyphus doesn't work here anymore.

Camus really puts his heart into it, describing in visceral terms Sisyphus's struggle to push the boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down again, ad infinitum: 'the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands.' All the better to emphasize the pointless exertion that is human existence when it is stripped of the absurd fictions we have employed to make it meaningful. No God, no Human Nature, no Truth, no Right, no Purpose. Just 'hopeless and futile labour.' Students used to feel outraged, disbelieving, bewildered. Now students feel nothing. They are unaffected.

Why this is, is obvious once you think about it. It's not just that the undergraduate student of Philosophy has grown up without appeal to the grand narratives of old - no God for them; no Human Nature; no Truth, no Right, no Purpose, so any effort to disabuse them of these narratives is inevitably ineffective. It's that what remains after the grand narratives - 'hopeless and futile labour,' according to Camus - doesn't ring a bell with them either. 'Hopeless and futile labour, such that the only philosophical question left is why I don't commit suicide? What's wrong with Camus?! Life's good - why would I commit suicide? I'm having fun! I'm happy!' Poor Camus. And poor Sisyphus! Out of a job in a society for which life as uphill struggle simply doesn't resonate at all.

Luckily, there's another myth that might just work. The Myth of Truman - given to us by The Truman Show (1998). For Truman, life is certainly not about rolling rocks up a hill - Life's good! Life's fun! 'Good morning, neighbours! And in case I don't see ya, good afternoon and goodnight!' But Truman is not a true man. He is artificially constructed for profit. His job's not a true job. His wife's not a true wife. His neighbour's aren't true neighbours. They're all just representations, to constitute a thin reality-film. Truman's is not a life of hopeless and futile labour - it's a life of hopeless and futile convenience, hopeless and futile happiness, hopeless and futile ease, given over without knowing it to the values of consumer capitalism such that relations even with his wife make sense only in the context of monetary gain. And as with Truman, so with us, absurd constructs of corporate interests.

This is The Truman Show. And what is worse: the ratings are falling. Truman's life is less and less relevant to the pursuit of capitalism; its funding sources are drying up and the patience of the producers is wearing thin. Truman's just about suffered to keep going for now, in an increasingly dowdy and sparsely-furnished set and among increasingly badly-paid and disaffected actors, If only it were as easy with Truman as it was with Sisyphus: confront Sisyphus with his absurdity and he starts thinking about suicide - hopeless and futile labour isn't that easy to endure; but confront Truman with his absurdity and he just gets on with it anyway - hopeless and futile ease by definition is that easy to endure...No stones to struggle with here, just screens to switch on and sugar to slug down...