Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Reality Shows

An American Rendition (Jane Comfort and Company) premiered September 24, 2008 using integrated text, movement and extended vocal techniques to depict the story of an American story: a U.S. citizen is kidnapped, interrogated, and tortured in a secret prison while the rest of us distract ourselves with our favorite models, pop stars, and fashion queens.

Using the remote control as a theatrical device, the dancers flip from reality to Reality Show (way more fun) as they offer savage parodies of American Idol, Fear Factor, and America's Next Top Model - humiliation we find both captivating and delicious.

Comfort and company explore the moral and political paralysis confronting a nation addicted to reality TV shows. Intense, non-stop viewing, seamless, scene-to-scene transitions push the often reluctant viewer through channels of discomfort, confusion, and titillation. Only almost invited to participate in an environment saturated with sound, image, movement, and color, the audience is as commandeered and subjected as Sean, the increasingly broken player we follow to his end.

In conversation following the performance at Purdue University (October 27), Comfort referenced the FBI's definition of successful torture: the victim becomes willing to do whatever will make the perpetrator happy. The discussion further layered an already provocative evening with yet other complexities and considerations.

In what could only be an interesting intersection of coincidence, I was that day reading the last pages of Camus'
The Stranger. Just two passages may bring you to the place of thought I occupied:

[E]verybody knows life isn't worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn't much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living - and for thousands of years. In fact, nothing could be clearer. Whether it was now or twenty years from now, I would still be the one dying. At that point, what would disturb my train of thought was the terrifying leap I would feel my heart take at the idea of having twenty more years of life ahead of me. But I simply had to stifle it by imagining what I'd be thinking in twenty years when it would all come down to the same thing anyway. Since we're all going to die, it's obvious that when and how don't matter.
Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. Throughout the whole absurd life I'd live, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they thing they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers?
At the crossroads of two works of art I was brought to a dark reconsideration of "reality" showing, and I admit to being overtaken by a kind of emotional standstill. What did it matter anyway? I'd come too close to torture; I knew torture, and I knew the captivatingly delicious seduction that could overtake you there. The next day would come regardless of my will, and if or when they stopped coming, would I remember how to know the difference? As I say, ... dark days.

I am moving again now (even today, even as my stomach rides high in election-day anxiety) with renewed confidence and re-commitment to be the world I want to live in - to greet a neighbor, to pick up the litter, to work the extra unpaid hour, to pray, to laugh, to love the children, to safeguard the elders, and to keep reading, thinking, learning, growing. ... all this yet with no desire at all to fight with Camus.

The dark wind continues to rise out of my future and convince me as it did Meursault that life is absurd at best, that when and how we die can't possibly matter if measured against the ultimate fact of death, that we can not know, and that (perhaps more importantly) knowing is as likely to make matters more difficult to navigate as to increase ease. And so, you might ask to my pleasure, why go on?

Because we must. Because we do. Because we will.

Wanting the answer to be more meaningful is naturally compelling but equally the very personal, very singular, and intensely individual business of faith - not fact, and it could be nothing more.

I elect to practice faith in God (an act I believe should have no right to govern another's practice), and I recognize in the great privilege of my citizenship an opportunity to put my faith in the American Dream.

If you have not had the opportunity to view Bill Moyer's wonderful work, "Deepening the American Dream," I recommend you find the time. It is free for viewing in its entirety online. I draw my own understanding of what the
American Dream is from ethicist Martha Nussbaum who offered this reflection:
My vision would be of an America in which we recognize that we each have a conscience, that each of us is searching for the meaning of life - a very hard thing to do, and that we agreed to respect one another as equals as we carry on that search.
The rest of Nussbuam's essay can be read online, but this passage is enough for me to point to my own conviction, my own hope, that we will finally respect the difficulty of answering Camus, the difficulty of answering Jane Comfort and Company, and that, with renewed respect for the utterly necessary and ultimately inescapable condition of our singularity, we would commit ourselves to building communities that would in every way possible nuture, encourage, and protect all the people of this great nation as they work out an answer for themselves that will hold against the howling wind.

Such bold freedom is uniquely American and forever worth the price to preserve.

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