Election time brings it out, I suppose: the deafening clash of certitudes. However vainly, I find myself wishing to hear a candidate ask a question without a foregone conclusion, actually engaging us in discovering new answers. But no matter how clueless they may feel inside, politicians act like they know it all. And no matter how uncertain we may be as to how to fix things (the road to hell being well-littered with bright ideas that succumbed to the law of unintended consequences), we tend to cast our vote with the one who utters our favorite certainties with convincing verisimilitude.
I’ve had so many conversations lately about certainty that when I hear the opening words of a confident assertion about the character or fate of our species, my mind rebels. When a sentence starts, “Most people…,” I find it hard to hear what follows. It can be comforting to believe that we know what things mean, and that those meanings stay put—so comforting that, for many people, even the existence of equal and opposite convictions doesn’t disrupt their rocklike certainty. Yet even the most Rushmorelike fixtures of history acquire new meanings when people begin to chip away with questions. It’s hard to think of a figure whose meaning is more overdetermined than Hitler’s, no? Well, read on.
Increasingly, questions interest me far more than answers. I know I’ve quoted it here before, but no one could say this better than James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” And perhaps the purpose of life as well. Like yours, my life requires a constant stream of decisions, based on preferences, hunches, or calculated choices. I’m happy to speculate about their meanings or consequences, but I draw the line at pretending to know conclusively what those might be. More and more, I’m turned off by the habit of mind that plugs the hole created by a question with an attractive answer, then wipes its hands, closing the subject.
Certainties tend to be categorical: people often make general statements about topics like religion, or technology, or sex. But when we view the world without the need to impose verdicts, we see that sometimes each of these things is an instrument of liberation, and sometimes, tyranny; and the same is true of their opposites: secularism, Luddism, celibacy. Even the purest ideas—maternal love, charity—can be distorted into harm; and even the most menacing—murder, for instance—can spring from altruism. If you’re really paying attention, meanings don’t stay put.
There’s only one thing I’m willing to say with absolute certainty. If any answer seems particularly satisfying, stick around: it will change.
Two stories keep cycling through my mind.
Earlier this month, I blogged profusely from the annual Grantmakers in the Arts conference (here’s the first of six successive essays). But it’s a story I didn’t write that keeps resurfacing. At the final panel of the Support for Individual Artists Preconference, John Corbett, a musician and cultural entrepreneur associated with free jazz and other improvised music, recounted having attended TEDx Midwest, one of the independent events loosely affiliated with the big-ticket TED extravaganza, showcasing groundbreaking speakers.
Corbett was still trying to process what he’d experienced the previous day, which he described as a “marketplace of ideas,” founded on the assertion that “entrepreneurship can solve all problems.” One (unnamed) speaker’s response to Mideast conflict was to “turn terrorism into tourism,” a formulation that to Corbett sounded either absurd or callous or both.
But then I got to thinking about a project I encountered in Barcelona a few years ago, “Tactical Tourism,” described this way by its creators:
Since year 2001 group of artists Tactical Tourism has been realising interventions in the public realm using tourism as a media.
These interventions have been carried out in diverse cities and in different formats –such as the tour on foot or by bus– combining in them audiovisual media, radio broadcasting, publications and performance. Tactical Tourism has also designed wireless technology projects for the intervention of the air space….
Our tours consist of a route through the city or the rural public space. During the journey, places would be visited that are related to the narrated events. Tracks and remainders would be sought: graffiti, monuments, buildings, walls, squares, streets, venues, etc. The visited space could also have been previously “intervened” by us according to the designed route through the use of graffiti, mise en scène, performances, participative actions, etc.
A just-published academic paper on Tactical Tourism explores multiple layers of meaning exposed by the project, explaining that “Tactical Tourism turns to tourism not simply to explore the identity of the city but to transform it, by rescuing ghostly presences of its political past and developing new ways of ‘looking around’ the city.” (If you have access to academic journals, here’s the citation: Obrador, P. & Carter, S., 2010. “Art Politics, memory: Tactical Tourism and the route of Anarchism in Barcelona.” Cultural Geographies, 17(4), pp.525-531.) In other words, even tourism can be the container for deep questioning of historical meanings, for peeling back the layers of accreted convention adhering to a particular site, for raising the questions that have been silenced by certainty.
The definition of “terrorism” is always contested, of course, but in my lexicon, the Franco regime’s relentless commitment to depriving the people of Catalonia of liberty—including the liberty to speak their own language—easily qualifies. The Statute of Autonomy, officially restoring to Catalonia the rights Franco had abolished in the years after taking power in 1936, wasn’t passed until 1979, a year after Franco’s death. Meanings morph at light-speed: terrorism to tourism in the scope of a generation.
The second story turns on YouTube parodies of a scene from the 2004 film Downfall/Der Untergang, portraying the final days of the Third Reich. In the original, Hitler’s trusted comrades begin jumping ship, driving him into extreme fear and despair, played with scenery-chewing conviction by the great Bruno Ganz. Many, many people have substituted their own subtitles for the originals, with the result that successive iterations of the clip portray increasingly trivial disappointments: Hitler is banned from Xbox, he responds to Hannah Montana’s new album, he has problems with Windows Vista, etc. A YouTube search for “Hitler rants” turned up nearly 4,000 hits.
I was at least as horrified to hear about this as John Corbett was to encounter “terrorism into tourism” for the first time. But 29 seconds into the clip that portrays a June, 2009, strategy session at Republican Party headquarters I was helpless with laughter as Hitler says, “Governor Palin will protect us. She can see Russia from her house.”
Among the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of videos (multiplying every day), there are meta-parodies, in which Hitler finds out about the YouTube videos and protests the violation of his copyright. “I’m not a funny man,” Hitler says. “Yet somehow they have made me funny.”
It is the sheer volume of parody that seals the joke. When anyone possessing a computer can reduce one of the greatest monsters of human history to the scale of an ant having a tantrum, we understand an essential truth of human resilience: that all of us possess the power to alter meanings, weakening the certainties that limit our sense of possibility. How much might history have been changed if the same impulse to miniaturize a mammoth bully had been enacted on a comparable scale 75 years ago?
The most-quoted bit in Karl Marx’s pamphlet on the latter stages of the French Revolution, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon, is this: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Marx wasn’t thinking of Hitler on YouTube, of course, and by no stretch could he or anyone else of his time have predicted either Hitler or YouTube. He wrote the pamphlet with an agenda, to analyze the coup staged in 1851 by France’s elected President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, viewing it through the lens of class struggle. Louis-Napoléon issued proclamations ending the Republic and restoring the Empire, installing himself as Emperor Napoleon III. He presided over countless military ventures, exiling political opponents to Devil’s Island. Marx portrayed Louis-Napoléon as a farceur, a buffoon who’d been projected onto history’s stage by events rather than being cast there by his own character or gifts.
But by restricting the point to two repetitions, Marx greatly understated it. Long after they first occur, all word-historic facts and personages continue to unfold through time, morphing from tragedy through farce to meanings as yet undiscovered. The challenge is to go on noticing as things change, to avoid succumbing to the certainty that signals the death of awareness. How would this look, I like to ask myself, if I let go of whatever I’d previously decided to believe about it?
Soundtrack? What else could it be but Bob Dylan’s 1964 “My Back Pages,” sung by the Byrds? Dylan knew even then that certainty was a young person’s pitfall. It’s a habit we tend to pick it up early on, but it’s never too late to put it down.
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now