Things I've figured out (#1)

When I was in college, there was a hypothetical question that made the rounds -- would you rather live in a developing civilization, or in a decadent one? How you answered was supposed to reflect significantly on your essential character, or something.

You wouldn't see a question like that going around on MySpace today, mostly because hardly anyone under the age of 30 understands what the word 'decadent' means any more. Which is regrettable and ironic simultaneously, because, well, it's pretty much the best word the English language has for describing our current culture... such as it is.

Or so it seems to me. If you go to an online dictionary, you'll find that decadent means

1. Being in a state of decline or decay.
2. Marked by or providing unrestrained gratification; self-indulgent.

Which is all well and good, but, honestly, how are you supposed to tell whether your surrounding cultural matrix is really in 'a state of decline or decay', or, for that matter, 'marked by or providing unrestrained gratification, self indulgent'? I mean, sure, any Republican Presidential candidate, and all those family values dipsticks, will nod like little bobbleheads when asked if American culture has become decadent, but you can't trust anything those guys say... especially since many of them probably couldn't even spell the word correctly, much less articulate to anyone what it actually means.

Still, much as I hate to end up agreeing with conservative dimwits of any stripe or station, well, I already did, three sentences into this entry. The civilization we are living in is (in my opinion) near-entirely decadent. Why do I say this?

Because, as a culture and as a people (whatever those words may mean) we spend billions if not trillions of dollars a year entertaining ourselves.

Entertainment is, by and of itself, decadent. Why? Well, what is entertainment? Think about all the things you and everyone else you know entertain ourselves with. Movies. TV shows. Board games. Collectible card games. Video games. Roleplaying games. Sports, either participatory or observed. Hedonistic sexual activity. Pornography. The Internet. Books. (Yes, a very very few of us, percentage wise, still do actually entertain ourselves with books.) Puzzles. Listening to music.

If you look at all of this, every bit of it, it's all designed to do one thing and one thing only -- artificially create, and then release, tension.

Straight up. That's all we're doing when we watch a movie or a TV show, or we play a game. Or we go dancing, or we work a puzzle, or we look at porn and jerk off. Even sex, if we're not doing it for purposes of reproduction -- in other words, if it's for the physical, sensual pleasure of doing it -- is, at base, a physical process that creates, and then releases, tension.

This is essentially why we regard a particular movie, or game, or TV show, is being either 'good' or 'bad'. A good movie/game/TV show creates tension in a way that we find interesting and even pleasurable, and, more importantly, releases it in a way that is equally acceptable to us. If a movie creates no tension in us while we are watching it, then there is no release and we don't like it ('man, that flick was really boring'). If it creates more tension than we want it to, we may not bother to finish watching it; if it creates tension and does not release it satisfactorily ('the ending sucked!') then we won't like it. Games are the same way; I enjoy KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC enormously up to the climactic fight with Darth Malek at the end. I rarely even bother to finish with that fight, because, frankly, it bores me -- you're supposed to run around and trash all the captive Jedis that Malek is going to drain life force from over and over again, and only after you do that can you actually beat him in a stand up fight, but I find all that extremely aggravating and stupid, so I don't bother doing it. The build up of tension takes too long, and the eventual release (finally killing Malek) isn't worth it to me.

Contrariwise, when a movie works, it really works. THE USUAL SUSPECTS builds tension throughout its entire running time, mostly around the central question "Who is Kaiser Soze?" When you finally find out who Kaiser Soze really is, well, the release of tension is perfect (unless you guessed beforehand, which I very nearly did when I noted how the one character kept successfully manipulating all the other characters into doing whatever he wanted them to do, but the fake flashbacks kept making me doubt my own conclusions, so I was still surprised when the big reveal hit).

Here's the thing -- expanding civilizations are, essentially, frontier societies. People living in a frontier society do not need 'entertainment', which, let's remember, is simply the creation and release of artificial tension. Frontier dwellers don't need no artificial tensions; they have plenty of the real stuff in their day to day life. People who live in expanding civilizations spend their time dealing with real honest to jebus life and death situations. They may not survive the winter if they don't get a good crop in. They may get eaten by a b'ar if they leave their cabin. They may get scalped by murderous heathens. They could catch the flu, or smallpox, and die. They could break a leg and die. They could die in childbirth. All of these very real tensions are very much matters of mundane, everyday reality for such people. The last thing they want is artificial tension, a little faux stimulus to get them all tense, excited, and frustrated, just so those feelings of tension, excitement, and frustration can be artificially satisfied by a well crafted fictional climax and resolution.

When you live in a frontier society, here is how you have a good time -- you relax for a couple of minutes behind barred, solidly built doors and shutters. You close your eyes. You enjoy the (momentary, always fleeting) peace and quiet. There's meat in the smokehouse and grain in the cupboard. You have enough firewood cut to get through the night. Nobody is beating a war drum anywhere nearby. Nothing is on fire that shouldn't be on fire, there's no nasty little critters gnawing on any of your limbs, nobody is throwing anything lethal at your head.

If you are a member of an expanding civilization, dwelling on the fringes of the frontier, and you DO undertake some optional recreational action more active than simple relaxation, it is generally social, interactive, and often creative. You make something, or help someone else build something. You play an instrument. You sing. You make a baby, not because it's a lot of fun, but because in a couple of years that baby will be big enough to help out around the place and take turns standing watch against the murderous heathen.

In other words, every effort you make, every ounce of energy you expend, is going into your survival, or the survival of your family/extended clan/village/society. Even your recreations, few and far between as they are, specifically serve this purpose -- not individual survival, but to help a social unit -- your family, your village, your tribe -- work together better towards the goal of mutual survival.

Only in decadent societies do people get bored, and require constant stimulus that simultaneously simulates and mocks the very real hazards, perils, and dangers of more primitive lifestyles. Only a spectacularly decadent society could come up with so many and varied and, in the context of individual and even cultural survival, utterly useless (or even contra-indicated) ways of generating that kind of faux excitement/release. Millions of people in the world starving, dying of curable diseases, suffering from thirst, miserable and wretched, barely eking out subsistence level existences... and our society spends billions of dollars a year on professional athletes, on video games and platforms to run them, on reality TV, on movies, on books and comic books, on collecting little glass and plastic and metal doodads that have no useful purpose whatsoever.

Why? Because we're bored. And this is what we do when we're bored.

For what it's worth, whenever anyone asked me that 'what kind of civilization would you want to live in' question, I always answered 'a decadent one', because, of course, decadence is way more fun.

But I have little illusions as to how long I'm going to survive in post-Apocalypse America.

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