Thursday, December 16, 2010

In Frivolity we trust

One of the main points in a Huxleian vision of a bleak future, one that I heartily agree with, is that we are turning into a trivial society too amused by its own silly frivolities to consider doing meaningful things, or to even recognize its own serious problems. This classic comic comparing Huxleian and Orwellian dystopias would be a quick summary. 

I found these paragraphs in Alain de Botton's most excellent Pleasures and Sorrows of Work a fantastic counterbalance to this claim: 
It was in the eighteenth century that economists and political theorists first became aware of the paradoxes and triumphs of commercial societies, which place trade, luxury and private fortunes at their centre whilst paying only lip-service to the pursuit of higher goals.From the beginning, observers of these societies have been transfixed by two of their most prominent features: their wealth and their spiritual decadence.

Their self-indulgence has consistently appalled a share of their most high-minded and morally ambitious members, who have railed against consumerism and instead honoured beauty and nature, art and fellowship. But the premises of a biscuit company are a fruitful place to recall that there has always been an insurmountable problem facing those countries that ignore the efficient production of chocolate biscuits and sternly dissuade their ablest citizens from spending their lives on the development of innovative marketing promotions: they have been poor, so poor as to be vulnerable citizens, whom they have lost famines and epidemics. It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centred and the childish ones have, off the back of their doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.

Amsterdam was founded on the sale of raisins and flowers. The palaces of Venice were assembled from the profits of the carpet and spice trades. Sugar built Bristol. And yet despite their frequently amoral policies, their neglect of ideals and their selfish liberalism, commercial societies have been graced with well-laden shops and treasures swollen enough to provide for the construction of temples and founding hospitals.
Alas, it is true. It is the finicky cigarette manufacturer looking for a new thing to say in his marketing campaign that is interested in the intricacies of a better edge-detection algorithm. The question, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?" quite loses its punch, doesn't it?


Sayanganguly said...

Let me make a last ditch attempt to salvage the situation. de Botton fails to give examples of high-minded societies which let thier poeple starve. A society has produced their high-minded and morally ambitious members only after achieving frivolity. Do we see any societies around with their artists and philosophers but not their sugar-water counterparts? Ok, in Kolkata yes, But where else?

S said...

Why do you call the honest, hard-working, fine gentlemen who sell biscuits and raisins frivolous?

S said...

But are you equating biscuit-selling with "amusing ourselves to death"? As I see it, those who sell biscuits aren't doing it for frivolous reasons; they're doing it for the money. Similarly, the makers of American Idol aren't (or their activity isn't) frivolous; the viewers are.

I see not a dichotomy but a trichotomy: things done for high ideals, things done for money, and things done for frivolity. (Now, neither those who make pictures of lolcats nor those who spend time watching them are doing it for the money, so in this case unlike TV shows there's frivolity on both sides.) And of course it's unreasonable for any society, no matter how high-minded, to demand that everyone work for noble goals; the overwhelming majority of people are motivated by money and other niceties. The most a "morally ambitious" society can hope/wish for is that those sufficiently motivated by "noble" goals don't have to work for money, that they can afford to indulge their pursuits. This requires that the rest of society make enough money to patronize these folks (and that not too many are allowed to "slack off" like this), which is why economy-driven cities can contribute more to humanity. Everything makes sense; there's no contradiction. :-)

(This is how research universities work in my mind: the rest of society jokes that a scientist is one who satisfies his curiosity at public expense; the scientist doesn't see it as a joke.)