Off-topic only to the extent a discussion of crowds and their dynamic is out of place on these pages, Carol V. Hamilton's "Being Nothing," (2004) wonders, in essence, if the United States has reached a stage where only dumbed down public figures are compatible with the shallowness of the information age and does so using one of my favorite works of fiction, Jerzy Kozinsky's "Being There" (1970) as a metaphor for the observation. While needlessly partisan overall by virtue of its focus on George W. Bush (of whom I am no great fan in any event), the otherwise outstanding essay brings up what I view as critical questions about the population at large. I see the essence of the piece as less an indictment of a given leader (none in my lifetime have much to recommend them) than an exposition into the deteriorating collective of the public. It is for this reason that I am able to forgive the work its bitter, partisan aftertaste, even if it requires extensive surgery and the extension of its theme to extract any real value.
Hamilton's selection of Being There, at least, is keenly on point. The work's probing and satirical exploration into the impact of a different information revolution, the rise of television, makes for such timeless political and social commentary that one can absorb the book and, more ironically, appreciate the superb Hal Ashby film of the same name (highly recommended by your humble author; the combination of Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine is beyond hysterical) some 37 and 28 years later without more than a hint of temporal shock. Says Hamilton:
In Jerzy Kozinsky's 1970 novel Being There, a character named Chance the Gardener, whose entire existence has been restricted to watching television shows and tending a walled garden, is suddenly thrust into the outside world. Here he acquires admirers who rename him Chauncey Gardiner, mistake his ignorance for profundity, and take his horticultural allusions for zenlike koans. His intellectual limitations and personal inadequacies become social and political virtues. At the end of the novel, the President's advisors gather to consider a candidate to replace the current vice-president. One of them suggests Chance. "Gardiner has no background," he declares. "And so he's not and cannot be objectionable to everyone! He's personable, well-spoken, and he comes across well on TV." Although Being There is over 30 years old, it is eerily pertinent to the current political scene.
Roger Ebert's 1997 re-review of the film for his "great movies" selections comments thus:
If Chance's little slogans reveal how superficial public utterance can be, his reception reveals still more. Because he is WASP, middle-aged, well-groomed, dressed in tailored suits, and speaks like an educated man, he is automatically presumed to be a person of substance. He is, in fact, socially naive... but this leads to a directness than can be mistaken for confidence, as when he addresses the president by his first name, or enfolds his hand in both of his own. The movie argues that if you look right, sound right, speak in platitudes and have powerful friends, you can go far in our society.
The impact of such a character and his necessarily neutral passivity as protagonist (an outstanding instrument itself, this choice) presses us to wonder after the lack of depth in the world around us. If such a flat character can, in fact, meet with nearly unbridled success and fortune, what value is merit? What is the cause of this disconnect? Hamiliton gives us hints early on:
As a result of his immersion in television programs and limited experience with the outside world, Chance is unable to distinguish videotaped fictions from social reality. Being There recognized the capacity of images- the spectacle- to displace or colonize the real....
The result is an often comic demonstration of the old turn of a phrase to the effect that heaven keeps a special eye out for fools; or perhaps, that to the eyes of a shallow public, a blank slate takes the form of the viewer's own biases. From the film:
Stiegler: Mr. Gardiner, I'm Ronald Stiegler, of Harvard Books.
Chance (a two-handed handshake): Hello, Ronald.
Stiegler: Mr. Gardiner, my editors and I have been wondering if you'd consider writing a book for us? Something on your political philosophy. What do you say?
Chance: I can't write.
Stiegler (smiles): Of course, who can nowadays? I have trouble writing a post card to my children! Look, we could give you a six figure advance, provide you with the very best ghostwriters, research assistants, proof readers...
Chance: I can't read.
Stiegler: Of course not! No one has the time to read! One glances at things, watches television...
Chance: Yes. I like to watch.
Stiegler: Sure you do! No one reads! Listen, book publishing isn't exactly a bed of roses these days...
Chance: What sort of bed is it?
I wonder after the market effects of this sort of dynamic, particularly in the face of the wholesale launch of the "individual investor" into the field of equity investment and active investment management. Complexity, somehow, has been cast aside in favor of shallowness. With the new reach communications gives content providers of every ilk, I might be tempted to say that this shallowness is the new opiate of the masses, but believing this a revelation of any kind necessarily presupposes that religion, such as it was before efficient communications, was more than a mere delivery channel for the same shallowness the masses now seek solace in. I think it more accurate to say that shallowness has always been the opiate of the masses, but that its delivery is no longer an endeavor confined to wealthy and influential institutions, or the higher "estates of the realm." Sez Hamilton on this point:
Under the sign of postmodernism, the hermeneutics of depth have been replaced by the play of surfaces, and the flat celebrity has superseded the complicated historical figure. In his magisterial Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson commented on the shift between the deep subjectivity represented in the modernist novel and the postmodern "death of the subject." "This new order," Jameson writes, "no longer needs prophets or seers of the high modernist and charismatic type, whether among its cultural producers, or its politicians. Such figures no longer hold any charm or magic for the subjects of a corporate, collectivized, post-individualistic age."
This, in itself, would not be so concerning if not for the parallel tendencies, recent in my view, to penalize those who can perceive the complex and therefore profit by it. Hamilton supposes that, "perhaps, a complex, three-dimensional personality, full of contradictions, corners, and real history is difficult to reduce to a flat surface." If this is so, and unlike Hamilton, I am far less worried about the impact on various political leaders whose power is, to my way of thinking, threatened by irrelevancy, but rather on the figureheads of capitalist endeavors. To the extent these actors are successful in the market and attract resources with which to augment their influence in the pricing of assets, the banality of flat surfaces (oil company greed and conspiracy being responsible for price fluctuations in gasoline for instance) might be repelled. But what if these same actors who bring rationality into the equation are routinely vilified and attacked by a society that casts confused and envious eyes in their three dimensional direction? This, perhaps, goes some way towards explaining my puzzlement after the very conflicted attitudes towards capitalism that make the likes of Mark Cuban a folk hero. Hamilton illuminates this, inadvertently I think:
...Chance's ignorance of the "real" world causes him to remain silent when he doesn't understand questions, remarks, and behavior directed toward him. His strange passivity prompts other characters to interpret him as they see fit. When [the] wife of the elderly Mr. Rand, makes sexual overtures to Chance, for example, she regards his lack of response as indifference to her particular physical charms. When ambassadors at the United Nations meet Chance at a dinner party, they quickly leap to wildly inflated assumptions about his linguistic and cultural fluency. No one realizes that in every situation, Chance is completely out of his depth.
Hamilton views this metaphor as a referendum on a given leader (Bush), but I wonder if a deeper message doesn't lie at the base of it. What reader hasn't at some time related to Chance's defense mechanism, feigning understanding in a meeting, nodding despite confusion, in the face of the fear of being discovered as shallow or unprepared. Chance's success is intertwined with the collective and self-sustained illusion created by those around him. Shallowness begets shallowness, as it were, and in the absence of some complexity to shatter the brittle surface, shallowness succeeds. This is borne out in Being There by the character of Doctor Allenby, who eventually discovers the inadvertent artifice in Chance (and who Hamilton conveniently omits from her discussion). Faced with disclosing the fraud to the wealthy king maker, Rand, Allenby instead remains silent, understanding, perhaps, that the crushing realization may be too much for the enthralled patriarch to endure. From the film:
Allenby: Ben, I want to talk to you about Chauncey.
Rand (smiles): Oh, yes- Chauncey- you know, Robert- there's something about him that I trust- he makes me feel good. Since he's been around, the thought of dying has been much easier for me.
Allenby is silent and thoughtful.
This, coming in the final act of the film, suggests to me that the real indictment belongs not attached to a blind distaste for a given elected official (I see in many, even all public officials shades of Chance), but in the difficult self-realization that we are all afraid of being Chance, and that the Doctor Allenby in us will likely keep quiet in the face of this collective fear. To do otherwise in the face of public opinion, and fear of being exposed as shallow, would be to face ridicule and even ruin. Whistleblowers historically fare quite badly in our culture. It is this instinct that permits Chance's (and by extension banality's) quick rise.
What will be the fate of a culture that celebrates blank slates with a penchant for easily translated image and heaps ruinous scorn on the complex and difficult to describe who have the gaul to profit by their pursuit of complexity and truth over simplicity and form?
Dudly: But what do we know of the man? Nothing! We have no inkling of his past!
Nelson: Correct, and that is an asset. A man's past can cripple him, his background turns into a swamp and invites scrutiny.
Caldwell: Up to this time, he hasn't said anything that could be used against him.