It is a sad thing to be reminded of how transparent everything has become, and how the plenty we have all become accustomed to (of food, of useless things that make us feel better, of marketing language that gives us a false and inflated sense of our importance in the world) really conceals a great deficit. Daily interaction, which now too often takes the form of reaction, continuously betrays a general and profoundly disturbing lack of knowledge and of subtlety. In the spirit of the proverbial global village, and in the spirit of the biggest box-office hits, everything is just so goddamn BLATANT; and very often blatantly stupid.
This week’s Mail & Guardian contained a humorous little anecdote about the American “Mexican” fast-food chain Taco Bell, which has recently opened an outlet Mexico City, and plans to supplement with a second one shortly. Comments included a complaint from ‘pop-culture historian’ Carlos Monsiváis, who suggested that “It’s like bringing ice to the Arctic”. The absurdity here is not really that an American chain is offering “Mexican” food to Mexicans – in Taco Bell’s defense, that conceit is actually taken care of by the fact that they call their tacos “tacostados”; in other words, they make no secret of their bastardisation of Mexican food – but that the “analysis” based on the analogy of bringing ice to the Arctic shoots itself in the foot by implying that what Taco Bell sells are, in fact, tacos. A more clever – and more accurate – analysis would be that it’s like bringing fake ice to the Arctic. Which, if any of Al Gore’s inconvenient truths are actually true, might not be such a bad idea. Besides, how is Taco Bell in Mexico any more offensive than “Proudly South African” products that are actually made in China?
This is just one example of missing – and misrepresenting – the point because people don’t take the time to stop and think about what they’re saying, or what they’re reacting to. Part of the reason this happens, I suspect, is because there’s so much information out there that people just latch onto whatever’s going, and suck in as much of it as they can before passing onto the next thing. This is the principle of fashion, of course, and also of the so-called Attention Economy; the idea that the more information that’s out there, the more scarce our attention becomes, because we can only concentrate on so many things (or one thing) at a time.
I think that the notion of attention becoming an increasingly rare commodity helps to explain a lot of things. It explains, for instance, how people can so easily buy into new theories and trends – one minute McDonalds is to blame for obesity, the next day it’s your fat friends – and it also explains how there is so little irony left anymore (I found a blog today, called eggbaconchipsandbeans, which is – surprise surprise – about eggs, bacon, chips, and beans), and it also explains how university students can display the spectacular conceit of thinking of themselves as customers who have the right to condescend to lecturers as if they are servers at the local Taco Bell.
The problem with all the information out there is that it distracts from the basic ability to see a connection between action and consequence: poor analysis and misinformation multiplies because no one has time to object to it before the next dinner-table anecdote appears; twenty-something year-old students of “higher learning” can call a lecturer an idiot (and they do), or sign an email “thanx”, because they are miraculously convinced that their only task is to sit like just-hatched birds in a nest : to squawk and feed, and give nothing in return.
Fortunately, there is still The Onion, which continues to supply excellent reminders of how stupid the world can be, and all of its own doing. Don’t miss their special report on Taco Bell’s first attempt at colonising the Mexicans, their coverage of Hershey’s plight to repay Obese Americans $135 billion, or of the amazing E-Toilet, set to revolutionize online shitting.
(Addendum: this is brilliant too)
So, read The Onion and laugh. But don’t forget, either, that as Adorno and Horkheimer were clever enough to realise on the eve of war, in 1944, ‘There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at’.