In light of the many utterly absurd events we’ve experienced of late, plus the fact that the coming western holiday season invites us all to seek refuge and meaning in religious traditions that seem more and more absurd by the day themselves, it might be in our best interests to review a certain philosophy of the same name, which invites us to at least acknowledge, if not actually revel in the profound absurdity we see everywhere these days, rather than to merely settle for continually bemoaning it. But first some definitions: we’ll go new school low-brow here and stick with Wikipedia, as I’m no philosopher and this is certainly no philosophical treatise.
 An absurdity is a thing that is extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously, or the state of being so. “Absurd” is an adjective used to describe an absurdity, e.g., “this encyclopedia article is absurd.” It derives from the Latin absurdum meaning “out of tune”, hence irrational. The Latin surdus means “deaf”, implying stupidity. Absurdity is contrasted with seriousness in reasoning. In general usage, absurdity may be synonymous with ridiculousness and nonsense. In specialized usage, absurdity is related to extremes in bad reasoning or pointlessness in reasoning; ridiculousness is related to extremes of incongruous juxtaposition, laughter, and ridicule; and nonsense is related to a lack of meaningfulness. Absurdism is a concept in philosophy related to the notion of absurdity (1).
 In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between (1) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (2) the human inability to find any. In this context absurd does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible.”The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously (1).
 Accordingly, absurdism is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make total certainty impossible. As a philosophy, absurdism furthermore explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it. The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning (2).
As I’ve gushed here in the comments section extensively previously, the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man (3), broadly labeled a “black comedy-drama film (4),” is the best recent example I’m aware of, of an extended and tightly focused commentary on absurdism, and if you’ve followed the comments on this blog for long at all, you’ll know that I’m quite enamored of it. Not surprisingly, it’s not the kind of movie that either American movie critics or audiences were at all willing to embrace, as its major “themes,” where they were decipherable at all, were simply not ones mainstream film audiences, accustomed as they are to basically being fed industrial grade shit through a straw, were willing to accept even in small doses. As the Coen’s protagonist, mild mannered Larry Gopnik, a rather high strung, hen-pecked, late 60’s Jewish college physics professor, husband, and father, suffers through a series of inexplicable life crises, he repeats the existential life question “what’s going on” over and over again, only to find that the many “experts” he consults with his problem apparently don’t have a clue either. In fact, most of the people he talks to seem to be speaking in tongues, so unintelligible is their gibberish when responding to his queries. And that’s where the Coens leave him in the end, with more questions than answers, as befuddled at the end as he was in the beginning. The parallels to our everyday modern life are obvious, which is no doubt why audiences avoided it like the proverbial plagues of Job that movie critics compared Gopnik’s plight to, and by extension, theirs as well.
Granted, many of Larry Gropnick’s misadventures seem absurd on their face, and thankfully most of us are not routinely subjected to such adverse events in the same rapid fire sequence that poor Larry and his immediate family were; but as a dramatic device, the movie succeeded all too well in alienating much of its target audience, accustomed as they no doubt were to appealing to and presumably finding at least some minimal amount of comfort from the same authority figures that poor Larry did. As to the larger question of whether or not life is best viewed through an absurdist lens (undecipherable and unknowable, although not necessarily meaningless), the movie simply asks the same questions that all of us do and leaves us to ponder them anew if we choose. An absurdist’s dilemma indeed!
And so it is that we seek to make sense from a world that more and more seems to be spinning completely out of control. As we speak, we are confronted with many of the same problems we faced a century ago, albeit in ever more virulent and lethal forms. A corporate fascist and militarist world “government” by other means instituted by the most extreme capitalist elements and given birth and continued sustenance in the new world “cradle of democracy,” the United States. A debt-based exponential growth financial/economic system that first divides and conquers the world population into economic “winners” and “losers,” then promises tomorrow’s consumption today and demands exponential human population growth to service its needs as dutiful consumers and war implements, only to likewise demand their destruction by whatever means is most profitable once their usefulness is done. A likewise exponential growth system of environmental degradation that has now morphed into exponential growth climate change which threatens to end this round of evolution not only for the humans so stupid as to implement it, but for most of the remaining “lesser species” we share the planet with as well. An emerging 24/7 National/World Security State that is rapidly developing the capability to monitor and “neutralize” anyone, anywhere, at any time, in an attempt to lock in the gains made by the exceedingly few at the expense of the frighteningly many, in a misguided attempt to establish some sort of perverse “heaven on earth,” which presumably even Jesus Christ himself would be charged to gain entry to. There’s certainly a lot more to go along with the above, but those capture the broad strokes.
What does it all mean, we ask? Is there a plan, an agenda secret or otherwise, or even a coherent guiding principle behind all this; or is history truly just “one damn thing after another,” as many of our so-called “leaders” will sheepishly contend when their guard is down. And even more frighteningly, if even our religious, political, and scientific/technological leaders don’t have a clue as to “what’s going on,” then exactly who in the hell does? Yes indeed, the Coens’ little tale seems to have had us all in mind after all and the answers we’re finding thus far are no less disquieting. But as absurd as the questions above are on their face (and they are truly ridiculous when you stop to think about it), they point directly to the even larger, truly existential questions which all philosophies and religions grapple with. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Are the answers to either of those two questions even remotely knowable? Just what in the fuck is going on here anyway?
Hierarchical systems, even relatively benign ones, are inherently coercive. They usurp the right to use violence and then in turn demand upon threat of that same violence that the individual pledges his or her unconditional subservience. And although we as individuals often appeal to a higher power spiritually (not surprisingly, usually depicted as violent and capricious as well), there can be no doubt who that higher power actually is here on earth, even after many of us have withdrawn our consent to remain subservient to its enormously destructive coercive power. Have we effectively locked ourselves into a cell from which there is no earthly escape, or are there things that we can actually do to alleviate our predicament, and if so, what are they and what price will we and our families have to pay personally to pursue them? Similarly, are we or anyone else for that matter in any way truly “exceptional,” as our hierarchical masters would have it, and what does it say about us that we’d even consider such an idea in the first place? Indeed, have we all effectively traded “a walk on part in the war” (a modest but truly free life) “for a lead role in a cage” in the form of capitalist provided wealth and leisure, as the Pink Floyd lyric(5) famously asked?
Unfortunately for all of us who have made our peace with hierarchy as embodied by global industrial capitalism (which is to say virtually everyone in all of the so-called “developed” countries in the world today) if not actually welcomed its cold embrace, recent and ongoing world events seem to indicate an end game of sorts is playing out now before our very eyes; and as capitalism has already demonstrated, it’s every bit as aggressive during its elimination cycle as it is in its growth stages, what with the ever continuing expansion of the military state at the expense of domestic infrastructure and the social safety net. In short: what happens when the few still in love with hierarchy find out that hierarchy’s no longer in love with them?
And what are we to make of the many rampant contradictions we’ve witnessed during the recent (and apparently still ongoing) election cycle, where two openly corrupt and deeply cynical politicians ran almost solely on the appeal of being the next worst option; where one openly stated that returning an ongoing cold war to hot was on the table front and center, and the other has since revealed that he’s evidently of a like mind too if blatantly coercive trade threats towards China are not capitulated to; and where climate change, now almost universally accepted as a global fact in the scientific community, has been officially relegated to ideology non grata status once again, perhaps permanently precluding any faint glimmer of hope that we will at least take responsibility for our actions in what might well be the twilight of our physical existence on this planet. In short, can our current dominant hierarchical forms be reformed at all at this late stage, or are we already in their final largely unrepentant and totally unrecoverable death throws?
And so it is that I leave you with the same absurdist existential Larry Gopnik dilemma that I came in with. What in the hell is going on here? I’m not sure what the answer is to that question and I’m not sure it’s even knowable to any significant extent, but one thing I – and Larry Gopnik as well I think – have most definitely figured out is that if you’re looking to hierarchy to provide you with the answers, you’re looking in the wrong damn place!
Best wishes to all during this Winter Solstice Holiday period, still my favorite time of the year despite all of the commercial agitprop spewed here in the west in the name of consuming even more of our non-renewable resources in the interests of making a handful of us rich at the expense of all the rest. And for those of you so inclined, HAPPY FESTIVUS as well! But please, PLEASE remember to fetch the aluminum pole from the crawl space before beginning the feats of strength! There are serious repercussions if you don’t!
Absurdity – Wikipedia
An absurdity is a thing that is extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously, or the state of being so. “Absurd” is an adjective used to …
Absurdism – Wikipedia
Basic relationships between existentialism, absurdism and nihilism; Atheistic existentialism Monotheistic existentialism Absurdism Nihilism; 1. There is such a thing …
A Serious Man – Wikipedia
A Serious Man is a 2009 black comedy-drama film written, produced, edited and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a Minnesota Jewish …