Saturday, 19 March 2016

Shock Therapy?

Watching The World Burn: Shocking the middle-class today isn’t about engaging in political or moral therapy. Today, it’s about shocking people literally. As in alarming, disturbing and frightening them. As in outraging, appalling and provoking them. The sofa-burning revels of Otago students are a case in point. Except, of late, even these ritual fires have been deemed too tame. New shocks are in store for Dunedin's long-suffering citizenry. 
AS IS THE CASE with most things arty, the French have a name for it. Épater le Bourgeois! (Shock the Middle Class!) became the catch-phrase of the French decadent poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. Their artistic mission was to cultivate a lifestyle of such unrelenting transgression as to throw into sharp relief the dull torpor of middle-class existence. Like a bracing bucketful of cold water, the uncompromising radicalism of their art was supposed to shock its victims into a new level of consciousness.
By the early Twentieth Century, épater le bourgeois had morphed into the notion of an artistic avant garde (advance guard) dedicated to all things new and challenging. From Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the mostly middle-class consumers of art were taken on a dizzying journey to worlds so utterly unlike their own that they could scarcely take them in. The debut performance of the Rite of Spring provoked first cat-calls and then fist-fights amongst its Parisian audience. Le Bourgeois was very épater indeed!
There was more than a little épater le bourgeois about the youth rebellions of the post-war era. Rock-n-Roll scandalised the buttoned-down middle-class suburbanites of the Eisenhower Era. (All those nice, white, boys and girls gyrating to “Negro Music”!) Events took an even more radical turn in the 1960s when thousands of nice, white, middle-class college students began “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out”. Mum and Dad may not have known much about Baudelaire’s or Rimbaud’s sybaritic predilections, but they harboured deep misgivings about the (very similar) hijinks of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. As Bob Dylan wryly put it in his Ballad of a Thin Man: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?”
But, if the Middle Class was being shocked by the artistic avant garde, it was also being improved. The innovative and experimental work of all these poets, painters, playwrights, novelists, musicians and composers more than repaid the “squares” who were willing to lay aside their prejudices and wrestle with artistic expressions as exciting as they were illuminating. Regardless of whether they were listening to the Rite of Spring or Highway 61 Revisited, there was always a lot more than shock on offer. People emerged from these experiences changed – for the better.
In its most recent iteration, however, épater le bourgeois has undergone a dramatic change. In the past, the artistic and political avant garde shocked people for purposes that were more-or-less noble. The bourgeoisie had, after all, started out as a revolutionary class, preaching the gospel of universal emancipation. Avant garde artists were hoping to shock the smug and self-satisfied middle-classes back into loving freedom; scandalise them back into demanding justice.
No such nobility impels today’s avant garde. Shocking the middle-class today isn’t about engaging in political or moral therapy. Today, it’s about shocking people literally. As in alarming, disturbing and frightening them. As in outraging, appalling and provoking them. Not for any transformative purpose, but simply for the thrill of traumatising one’s fellow human-beings.
If you’re looking to pin the blame for this sorry state of affairs on someone or something, look no further than the Post-Modern ethos. Post-Modernism, like a carnival mirror, makes everything that is big look small. Even the possibility of nobility is denied. And if men and women are neither good nor bad, then damnation’s as pointless as redemption. Épater le bourgeois no longer has a purpose – other than to give pleasure to the people doing the shocking.
When I was a student in Dunedin, I cultivated a romantic persona: styling my hair like one of King Charles I’s cavaliers; writing articles for the student paper; and singing songs attacking the pretensions of my smug university city. If I ever set out to shock Dunedin’s middle classes, it was only in hopes of waking them up.
Forty years later, I read about a vanload of Dunedin students pulling-up alongside a car containing a woman and her dog. Suddenly the door of the van slides open, and one of the students yells at the startled driver: “If it wasn’t for the dog, we’d rape you!”
As performance art, it was certainly a case of épater le bourgeois. The driver was shocked. I was shocked. Whether either of us were improved is less certain.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 March 2016.


greywarbler said...

The actions of these brave young people in Dunedin flouting convention, wishing to shock and cause fear because of their aggression, and lack of respect for other vulnerable and unaggressive humans reminds me of Aldous Huxley. This must have been carried out by Dunedin male students for it to be truly frightening, though some pliant female ones may have been present.

Was the murder of Sophie Elliott in Dunedin by a university lecturer of 33, a reaction to the theme of refusal to accept regulation of emotion, of refusing to personally deny oneself an outlet for feeling and experience by someone prepared to go to the extreme
I am reading Affluenza by Oliver James where he talks about the dulling of morality and human kindness with instead the constant desire to attain, to compete, to possess, to be aggressive in acquiring goals that gain the actor a prized status symbol.

Brave New World compares restraint and rigid moralistic attitudes to the opposite, with someone trying for a meaningful personal life of some spirituality perhaps, becoming a guy for the mindless, vapid society of hedonistic pleasure and wish fulfilment. This summary is from the end of the book, Chapter 18.

The Savage, John, feels distressed and isolated after his mother dies. He finds the society he is in amoral, and contrary to the precepts he has absorbed as he has grown up. He retires to a lonely place to live simply, but is followed by a paparazzi who films him secretly knowing that he will be a money-maker in the cinema. He becomes an object of interest, fascination, speculation and people are drawn to his retreat to watch this novelty.

Shmoop summary:
The men and women who pour out of these helicopters have brought cameras and things like peanuts to throw at John, as though he were "an ape." When he yells at them to go away, they all laugh and have a generally good time watching him rage.
When he goes for his whip, they all cheer, thinking they're going to get to see him whip himself.
John advances on the spectators with his whip, but though they waver, they don't back down. They ask him again to do "the whipping stunt," and begin an incredibly disturbing chant of "We—want—the whip."...

He is drawn to Lenina, but wants to distance himself from the immorality of that society and cannot accept his own or her affection and he rejects her when she speaks and opens her arms to embrace him.

John, in response to this demonstration of genuine love and concern, calls her a whore and starts beating her with his whip....John chases after her, yelling, "The flesh! Kill it!" ...
The crowd begins to imitate John. The text explains it by saying they are fascinated by pain, that they want to be unanimous in their actions, and that their conditioning makes them want to cooperate. So they all start thrashing each other wildly, all the time singing "orgy-porgy" and "beating one another in six-eight time."

The crowd eventually leave in their helicopters and when a swarm of them carry a large crowd to the spot the next day they find John, the Savage has hanged himself. His feet move in a circle, perhaps echoing the minds of the crowd which has no fixed values, "turning slowly and mechanically in the air "like two compass needles," clockwise, then counter-clockwise, "South-south-west, south, south-east, east…"

Anonymous said...

As an Otago alumnus and prime campus student property owner for 25 years, I've seen it all.

The problem is this: too many 'C' grade or worse individuals attending Otago University (mostly from the North island) and treating it as some kind of rite of passage ie drink themselves stupid, wreck property and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

To be frank, as an Otago alumnus, I don't want to be associated with this dross and have my quality degrees devalued in the process.

Isn't it time for restricted entry to Otago like other major universities of the world?

Anonymous said...

It is mindless nonsense, students and/or the people that engage in this nonsense should have the book thrown at them by the council and the police.
The longer it is tolerated and tut,tuted by authorities the longer it will go on and lives will continue to be at risk.
The story of the open window and the lady in the other car with her dog is disgusting, what does the university say about that. Stum. Because student fees are more important.

A good and informative story Chris, it deserves wider viewing.

Robert M said...

Anon 14.59 the problem has always existed in Dunedin, of the E grade Commerce students and the C grade Dental students who gained entry to the Dental School with really no more than 50% in either Bursary Physics or Maths and a bit of swot on the misguided theory that a Beta could be made into a good doctor. Usually such people joined the Army Dental core, so they could drink on full pay while at varsity and wear the uniform. Right up to the first decade of this century at most NZ universities half the Accountancy 1 intake managed a mark of 10/15% in their stage 1 exams and in the words of Vic Accountancy Prof Don Trow, seemed never have mastered adding,subtracting, multiplying or dividing let alone using a calculator.
Dunedin is a very conservative city with a ferocious South Dunedin working class. There are few strip clubs, good brothels or gays in Dunedin and the climate is shit.
My siter and I very much enjoyed the era of the Punks, Pistols, Echo, Smiths, Jam and Pretenders and the Aus equivalents Hodo Guru, Divinyls, Nick Cave, Models etc but that sort of Music and the related embrace of living for free on the benefit ( saving the taxpayer from the need to create unproductive work and leaving the jobs for the simple and immigrants who needed them) never caught on in New Zealand's stupid puritan small town agricultural economy.
The non aspirational values expressed in Chrisie Hyde's 'Reckless' of the glory she found in the paradise of mid 1970's England, Benefit for nothing, the right to seize unused townhouses and squat in them with the council putting the power on for you and that you travel around all day on the tube, avoiding paying while be allowed to drink freely all day, (byo) on these London tube trains. Such values unfortunately never caught on her the NZ left being very prim and proper,using from first or second generation education .
Excessive drinking and destroying property is the only really acceptable protest in New Zealand, gays are tolerated in part because their old fashioned and conservative and usefully self destructive and dont compete with working class men for women. There is no tolerance for individulistic non materialistic behaviour or protest and shocking New Zealanders is not very possible because the envelope of what is tolerated is very low, this can be seen in the dislike of freedom campers, free young, beautiful, hetrorsexual immoral Germans and Europeans are the sort of people ordinary New Zeaalnders hate. Its a hopeless repressive culture, which has nevr been challenged - people like Coddington, Taylor,Shadbolt were always essentially communists rather than libertarians

Anonymous said...

When was it established that these louts were students. I listened to Kathryn Ryan interviewing the woman concerned and she didn't know who they were.

greywarbler said...

It is concerning that there is not more discussion about this behaviour as an example of deterioration in our social fabric. Whether they are students or not is a side issue, except it is worrying if people who are being advantaged with higher education behave like this.

hey are supposedly more intelligent than average and more able to utilise their learning and experience for the good of society. We don't want to find we are financing and advantaging a group of amoral thugs who merely adopt the pose of having reached higher standards of thinking, skill and knowledge expected in well-educated, 'civilised' people.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"deterioration in our social fabric. "

Or that more people are willing to complain these days because it's seen as wrong. If we were to argue about social fabric, I would be asking people if they'd like to return to the 1950s, when Maori and women were seen as inferior, and gay people were regularly beaten up with few consequences.

greywarbler said...

Thanks for the feedback GS. But consider that though we have advanced to the stage where Maori and women have profile and consideration from most people, we have newly formed prejudiced, uncaring, disrespectful, uncontrolled young people thinking it funny to utter threats to targeted people, such as women and Maori. Usually they don't ride around cat-calling at the wealthy emerging from their watering-holes and restaurants.

The students, or other young men, may think it is funny, never intend to carry it out (but are prepared to use their power as the aggressive gender to shock and frighten). That does not show true advance in society. True civilisation hasn't reached blokey NZ yet.

And indeed what has been called 'ladism' with this sort of careless, hooliganish behaviour and speech, has also affected females. Their language to girlfriends can contain such terms as whore, as I heard being yelled loudly in a carpark recently. People who don't set any limits on everyday language, smear their whole discourse to the same mud colour. How can those who want to criticise roundly politicians and others when they are becoming predators rather than pillars of society, lose the strength of their special negative epithets for such gutter-snipes if that is their common usage.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Then perhaps we could say that the social fabric has shifted rather than deteriorated? Because it has improved for a lot of people.

Charles E said...

Subjective I know, but my observation is that 'my lot' were way worse, selfish and disrespectful of age than the young today.
I am constantly very impressed with youth today, and I'm sure there are fewer little shits about among students today too. Believe me, I speak from experience as I see a lot of students, though not many from Dunners.