February 05, 2012

Louis C.K. & the Pointlessness of Civilization


Tip o' the Hat to Guy McPherson and his Nature Bats Last blog for posting the hysterically funny Louis C.K. rant on civilization linked above. My daughter acquainted me with Louis and his "sitcom" series, which is a sort of postmodern update on existential themes featured in Seinfeld, in the sense that both series concern Absurdity, the alienation of modern life and the elaboration of the pointless dramas we create in order to distract ourselves from the fact of our mortality (and all such modern cinematic themes, in America at least, originate with the great Woody Allen).

Louis is discussing, from another angle, the concept of the "organic society" mentioned here a few posts back; civilization is built on specialization and the creation of a societal machine comprised of interrelated parts (called "jobs," including call centers which focus on making sure you're deriving maximum enjoyment from your World At War video game, as Louis suggests) which provides a "living" for modern human beings. We forget, almost always, that this way of approaching human life is not an inevitable choice (there is nothing in human evolution which compels the organization of human life along these lines), but is simply the outcome of cognitive decisions, enforced now by modern industrial culture. In many ways, as Henry David Thoreau pointed out, and as Louis C.K. in a very funny way describes, this specialization leads to a preposterously constricted, dull and unsatisfying life for the vast majority of its human participants. And it has led, among its other drawbacks, to environmental disaster and the prospect of near-term extinction through either global warming or nuclear holocaust.

I think I can answer the question Louis poses concerning the very real hostility of Evangelical Christianity to environmentalism in general and to climate change arguments in particular. In the superstitious world of Apocalyptic religion, extinction events are the exclusive province of the supreme beings. No matter how large a trash pile we create on what the Christians call "God's Creation," it's okay because this life doesn't really count anyway. Thus, it is presumptuous and probably sacrilegious to contemplate puny Man's ability to bring about his own extinction; the Christians are wrong, of course, because species become extinct all the time (the average life being about 200,000 years, accelerating now because of the cesspool humans have made of the world), and homo sapiens will prove no different. Our assumption is that the "lesser mammals" lack a sufficiently complex central nervous system for misuse in the creation of religious mythologies; that would appear to be the only distinction.

I think Louis presents a genuine insight into the nature of human cities. They are themselves concentrated areas of pollution and litter, and it is counterproductive to insist on their "cleanliness" since this simply potentiates the externalization of their trash into the broader civilization. We are talking only of a certain fussy "aesthetics," and yet, as Louis points out (very subtly), cities are already very alien, inhuman places, with their smoothed (paved) surfaces and rectilinear construction of tall buildings and streets laid out on a grid. These features are what give cities such a nightmarish, alienating feeling, an "inhuman" feeling, captured best, perhaps, by the German Expressionist painters and the American artists they influenced, such as Edward Hopper (I'm thinking particularly of "Night Hawks" .)

One takes one's Sunday morning sermons where one finds them, I suppose, and a Big Up to Reverend Louis.