We ended our last article on the psychology of conflict with an insightful point about the gap between our intuitive understanding of life and the laws of conflict creation and development set out in Aristotle’s Poetics.
Especially when it comes to movie productions of mass culture, where happy-end stories dominate, evil is punished and the do-gooder triumphs.
And most importantly, the protagonist of such narratives actively acts, changes himself and changes the world around him.
The question is: Are we changing?
Still from the movie “The Truman’s Show”
Sometimes the authors of such works openly declare these goals. At least once, each of us has witnessed a statement by a present-day filmmaker or writer expressing the hope that his or her work will certainly “make you think,” “make the audience a little kinder,” or allow them to “take a closer look at life”.
The apparent ineffectiveness of this impact raises an even more important question: are works of mass culture intended to change audiences?
By the word “changes” we do not mean admissions that life was split into before and after the Adam Sandler movies, but rather a phenomenon that could be confronted with Freud’s principle of saving psychic energy. According to this principle, patterns of mental behavior do not tend to change if an initial pattern has already been formed that successfully satisfies a given request.
Simply put, we can think of the person as a stable set of habits, which, if they are changed, are changed by an effort of will, not by watching a movie.
If we focus the question in the context of mass culture, then Guy Debord gives an even more fundamental answer: the works of mass culture do not help us to change ourselves and the world around us, but are designed to prevent us from doing so.
Both at the level of behavior and at the level of thought.
According to Debord, the main task of the “society of the spectacle” is the passivity of the spectator, his fascination with the spectacle.
The audience engagement is a reflection of the ability to influence the story with one’s participation and change the world around us. After all, any soul and mind activity in search of an alternative will be sublimated by the products of mass culture. For example, to empathize with the hero or to discuss the new season of a favorite TV series.
This is why Debord calls such works “idle machines of eros”.
Frankly speaking, a member of the “society of the spectacle” has a sad destiny. He will have to focus the life’s creative energy either on constructing new machines of eros or on burning out feelings and thoughts through the reproduction of the “spectacle”.
It is quite curious that in this case the mechanics of society’s action are quite similar to the fate concept in ancient dramaturgy. Thus, Oedipus discovers that he has unconsciously taken part in a conspiracy to save his city from the plague. And the pathos of Oedipus is in suffering from this discovery, the agonizing acceptance of his doom.
According to Debord, so too are filmmakers who try to change the world by making some honest and uncompromising movie — but in essence, they’re just expanding the spectacle’s wine list.
In other words, the society of the spectacle is our destiny. And the very popular dramaturgical trope about the opposition of individuality to the social system acquires an accent of doom. After all, resisting fate is like fighting the natural elements.
However, the demand for alternatives can be handled in a much more graceful way.
Conspiracy as the limit of revolutionary thought
In his lectures on politics, Alexander Piatigorsky argued that a revolution in the socio-political space is preceded by a revolution of thought, “as a result of which this very thinking, this very reflection, changes its qualitative character and changes its ontological foundations”.
In other words, the revolution of thought presupposes a completely new qualitative state. It means an attempt to think the unthinkable. For example, the rejection of Euclidean geometry the fifth axiom about the parallel lines non-intersection allowed Lobachevsky and Boyai to formulate the ideas of alternative mathematics.
However, a question arises. How can we conceive of the unthinkable within the society of spectacle total mechanism?
Let’s be honest, radical art forms are successfully integrated into the market today. What cannot be let in the front door is let in through the fire escape.
Moreover, echoing Debord’s ideas, let’s not forget that the spectacle society is very sensitive. It is not uncommon to find paradoxes and shadows of a challenge to the existing order within the mass patterns of art.
Conspiracy theory is undoubtedly one such form. This seems to be the maximum limit of revolutionary thought at the moment.
It is not so important whether it is a conspiracy theory, a work of art, or interpretations of the latter. The main feature of the conspiracy lies precisely in its mass appeal and its euphemistic claim to be revolutionary.
For example, both the Matrix trilogy and the background around the life of its creators (gender change, disputes about hidden LGBT propaganda, etc.) work according to the same mechanics.
Thus, the conflict between individual and society cannot presuppose at least a claim to alternative, revolutionary thought today.
Radicality will be neutralized within the narrative itself.
Let us not forget that the above-mentioned “Matrix” trilogy culminates in a successful reboot of the matrix itself. And the movie “The Truman Show” ends not only with the triumph of authenticity in the life of the protagonist, but with the viewers switching channels in search of a new show.
Agression or so-called evil
In one of the final scenes of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” the protagonist commits a mass murder. Travis Bickle’s conscious motive is the desire to help a young prostitute.
Probably, the psychological interpretation of the action is the attempted suicide of Travis. And in the sociological prism we can talk about the unsuccessful conflict resolution between De Niro’s character and society, which results in an eruption of violence.
Konrad Lorenz’s programmatic work “Aggression, or so-called Evil” highlights a number of universal postulates about aggression.
Thus, perhaps the most important of these states that the degree of aggression within a species is directly proportional to the ability of individuals to distinguish one another.
Thus, the most aggressive species, such as wolves, have a high ability to distinguish between individuals. On the other hand, storks (the symbol of family) are extremely poor at recognizing each other’s traits.
In other words, aggression correlates with individuality.
In the last article we noted that a character actually has no past in a dramaturgical work. His personality is presented in the form and way of interaction with obstacles and with other protagonists. In fact, Lorenz’s thesis confirms this idea of the correlation between individuality and aggression.
Moreover, it is tempting to see the hero’s individual qualities as prerequisites for potential conflicts.
Otherwise, these qualities can be called redundant when the character’s individuality does not manifest itself in any way in the subsequent interaction. At least in dramaturgy with its expedient logic.
Simply put, the character’s conflict set is limited and predetermined by external and internal qualities if we exclude coincidence as an artistic trick.
It should be recalled that Roland Barthes proposed the term “reality effect” for literary texts with many items that do not appear in actions. In other words, these are Chekhov’s guns that do not fire but by doing so they create the effect of a life-like effect.
Because life has a lot of superfluous things.
It is quite curious that aggressiveness degree correlates directly not only with the individual’s ability to distinguish the identity of the partner but also with such a phenomenon as friendship.
It’s hard to be friends with someone whose traits you haven’t memorized.
Lorenz sees positive prospects for humanity in this. After all, only an aggressive species is capable not only of fondness for a particular person, but also of friendship with everyone.
Art of misunderstanding
Let us return once again to the above-mentioned scene in the movie Taxi Driver.
We have already noted that the act of violence here is a consequence of the hero’s failure to integrate into society. It is a kind of desperation gesture, the last argument of existence.
In a sense, Travis’ act is an attempt to find a language that will finally be understood by everyone without exception.
Obviously, the multiworldliness of contemporary culture and media complicates the process of understanding.
Jürgen Habermas was one of the first to declare the ethical pathos of communication. He defined the rationality of communication, first of all, as the desire to be convincing: The truth is what has passed the test of public discussion, in different languages.
This is in contrast to the tendency towards pragmatic communication where the main goal is to make an impact on the audience. It is much more effective to influence emotions rather than arguments. Especially if you have significant social and media capital.
Understanding is an active process according to another communication theory idea. The other person cannot be understood by another one without a minimum common set of values.
In other words, understanding requires not only mutual transcending the boundaries of one’s own language. It is also a kind of co-creation in the third space building of understanding. One could say that in dialog both participants leave their previous worlds to discover and create a third one.
The question of how often you have the desire to go beyond the boundaries of your own language will be considered rhetorical.
Moreover, in later works, Habermas argues that the increasing intensity of exposure to various media not only does not increase the degree of understanding between people, but, on the contrary, decreases it.
By the way, misunderstanding is historically a significant element of dramaturgy. For example, the point of conflict could be the information asynchrony that the characters learn (e.g., Oedipus) or the confrontation between duty and desire (the theater of the Classical era).
The linguistic turn of the twentieth century, however, allowed even more sophisticated forms of misunderstanding to appear in the dramaturgy of Chekhov and Harold Pinter.
Thus, it is rather the genre features interact with each other than protagonists and their personalities in most of Chekhov’s plays. There is a character-comedy, a character-tragedy, etc.
Pinter’s language games are constructed in a different way. Strangeness and misunderstanding are realised through the mismatch of communication styles. In particular, we are not surprised that the speech of the characters in Homecoming reveals their different social backgrounds. The trope has an impact later when the philosophy professor’s wife not only understands the jargon of the pimps well but she bargains perfectly using.
Let’s try to summarise our conversation.
There is less and less understanding around us. And, most likely, we will have to accept it.
However, the art of misunderstanding may be a bright prospect for us, since we have failed to find ourselves in the art of understanding. After all, any conflict is essentially a form of contact.
Even if not always successful.
So we have to be attentive to the misunderstanding around us and learn new forms of conflict formation from it.
And this is probably the only good news for filmmakers.
Author: Alexander Polubinsky