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Same day as the US

I was rushing through town on my way to work when I saw a large ad:

Same day as the US

If you watch American TV series and you live outside the USA, you know what this means: a local TV channel is publicising the fact that it broadcasts a popular series (was it Game of Thrones?) on the same day as it is first broadcast in the US.

But why does it matter to a European audience to see a TV drama on the same day as people in America can watch it – so much so that it becomes the central slogan to promote the series?

I can think of two answers to this question.

by Hans, Pixabay, CC0 1.0.

The first one is the most popular one with academic researchers (sociologists, geographers, literary historians…) who study questions like these. They tend to see simultaneity as a symptom of the modern age: these days, we get more and more opportunities to experience things at exactly the same moment as others are experiencing them. After all, we have telephones and the internet, and, more generally speaking, satellites and all types of wires that connect us with the rest of the world.

And because simultaneity is now possible, we also feel compelled to do things at the same time as everyone else. We are rushed along to stay in touch, to remain up to date, to keep ourselves informed. We would be ‘so yesterday’ if we couldn’t tell who betrayed who in yesterday’s soap, or what’s the latest foolish thing a president across the ocean has said.

Some of these researchers and critics would also add something about the US holding a global cultural monopoly: why do we need to watch everything on the same day as in the US?

In my research job, I read a lot by these authors, so this is the explanation that immediately sprang to my mind.

And the explanation certainly has an aspect of truth to it. It keeps us on our toes when it comes to considering who decides what is important in life – do wealthy American production companies decide what to do with our free time? do our own governments tell us how to be fit for the job market? do IT corporations tell us what hardware to use to be cool? And why do we give those people so much power?

But it’s also a one-sidedly pessimistic view on human motivations, one that risks dividing people into meek sheep on the one hand and clever critics on the other.

Sani ol Molk/Abu’l-Hasan Khan Ghaffari Kashani, illustration (1849 to 1856) for One Thousand and One Nights

Perhaps these researchers and critics forget to look at a second possible answer, a more pedestrian one.

Because why, really, do you look forward to the next episode in your favourite series? Because you want to know what happens next.

We all love a good story. We all love an interesting character. This has nothing to do with modernity, and only a little with powerful corporations.

Think the Odyssey, think One Thousand and One Nights, think animal-trickster cycles such as the African/American Ananse-Tori. You don’t (just) want to be up to date with your peers when listening to a story. You’re simply dying to find out what happens next. It’s not (just) a social or economic pressure: it’s something personal between you and the story.

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Huizinga gets angry

Many feel we are living in times of crisis, and our civilisation is under threat. (Whose civilisation, by the way?) As is usual with these things, we are not the first people to have this feeling. Many – writers, priests, scholars, politicians – have voiced the same idea, in many different centuries.

The great historian Johan Huizinga was one of them. Even though he understood that the sense of a downfall was nothing new, he nevertheless thought things were fundamentally different in his day. In 1935, he published his book In the Shadow of Tomorrow (originally In de schaduwen van morgen. Een diagnose van het geestelijk lijden van onze tijd, but soon translated into English and many other languages). In it, he complained that

We are living in a possessed world. […]

almost everything which once seemed certain and sacred, has become unsteady: truth and humaneness, reason and right. […]

since recently, a mood of impending doom and the festering decay of civilisation has become general.

Johan Huizinga (unknown photographer), Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst

Johan Huizinga (unknown photographer), Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst

Clearly, historians are not immune to short-sightedness. Nor do they always know how to separate the important from the less important. One thing Huizinga was bothered by, was aesthetic innovation. Amongst many other things (dadaism!), he disliked cinema and the radio: for him, they could never be art but merely ‘a cheap mass product’, ‘trivial’, ‘fake’, ‘external’. Those who enjoyed them were the ‘passive’ consumers of the ‘shadow’ of something real.

drawing by Pepe Robles, CC BY-SA 4.0)

drawing by Pepe Robles, CC BY-SA 4.0

We have the benefit of hindsight of course, and for the same reason we can tell that it’s not all naivety we find in his book. For instance, Huizinga had a sharp eye for fashionable cliches. Just like about ten years ago, everything suddenly had to be ‘sustainable’ or green, in Huizinga’s day it was all about ‘life’, ‘blood’, ‘dynamic’, and, soon, he predicted, the word would be ‘existential’…

This critique by Huizinga, which in the first instance just uncovers a laughable habit, becomes more serious as he turns it into a political critique.

In the 1930s, European political discourse was suffused with the idea ‘don’t think: act’. Even if politics had never been particularly friendly anyway, strive and conquest had now become a sanctioned goal, bare and unexcused, beyond all judgement of good and evil. It was no longer considered the right thing to do, according to Huizinga, to fight against evil: it was now fine to fight against anything and anyone who was different from you – less powerful. War had become the normal state of being.

This ideology justified any act of violence, and announced the collapse of the fragile international peace that had reigned in Europe, at least, since the First World War, and the impending wolfing down of all societies by one military superpower. Obviously, Huizinga was thinking in the first place of the German state.

But Huizinga also turned to his fellow academics and researchers. In his book, he launches a sharp attack at those biological anthropologists who espoused racial theories. As he writes,

[This era] has become susceptible to a degree of nonsense, to which it had been immune for a long time.

Although clearly untenable, Huizinga explains, because these scientists assumed people to be completely determined by their birth and failed to take into account the influence of culture, racial theories nevertheless had an enormous popular appeal to Huizinga’s contemporaries, as he notices with disdain.

Jews and Germans are [both] exceptionally gifted in philosophy and in music […] This must be deemed to point to the strongly similar nature of the semitic and the germanic races. And so on, according to taste. The example is ridiculous, but not any sillier than the conclusions which are nowadays commonplace in wide circles of educated people.

To most of us nowadays all of this looks pretty obvious, but in the 1930s, reasoned racism was the order of the day (practical racism still is, of course). And, though even Huizinga did not completely escape racial thinking in his work, the following probably constituted the most important contribution he wanted to make with this book.

For he writes that even if someone ‘instinctively’ feels that certain people are different or less than they, it is their duty as ‘civilised human being’ to suppress this ‘animal-like’ thought. So quite the opposite from nurturing it with science and scholarship. The cultural crisis of the 1930s had to be averted by controlling these less-benign aspects of our nature. This was what ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ was all about: control. And Huizinga certainly accepted the consequences of his ideas, by clearly voicing his antifascist opinion in publications and university politics.

For Huizinga, going to the movies, racist science, and a score of other things that were completely different again, such as the supposed collapse of sexual morality, were all symptoms of the same cultural crisis. Perhaps we should be a little more discerning than Huizinga was in this matter, but equally brave.

Quotes are from pp. 1-2, 48-9, 57-9 and 68-79 of the Dutch edition (1963 reprint). Translations are mine.

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With a little help from my strangers

Last night, I was in trouble.

I live in a city. It is a hilly city. I try to cycle around as much as I can, but yesterday I was on foot, quite a long way from home, tired, hungry, and… near a tram stop. Isn’t modern city life wonderful?

I got into the tram and discovered that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for my fare.

Now we have to move back a few hours, to the moment I was still at work. My task was to get better acquainted with theories of modernisation. One of the most famous theories, and one that many of the newer ones rely on, is that of Georg Simmel. Simmel lived in another city, Berlin, around 1900 (okay, I have to admit that even in 1900 Berlin was somewhat bigger than the city I live in). He believed that life in the city made people blasiert: hard, arrogant, unsocial. People in the city, he wrote, were only interested in treating each other correctly; not in getting to know them. People in the city were rational, unfeeling. They treated other people like things, machines to be used to get on with one’s own life and then discarded.

All in all, my situation was looking pretty grim, there in the tram-car on a cold night in the big city.

Honoré Daumier, 'Entre onze heures et minuit', from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

Honoré Daumier, ‘Entre onze heures et minuit’, from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on http://www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

At that moment, a single modest individual stood up and proved Simmel and his succeeding generations of theorists wrong by a simple but brave act. She offered the conductor the amount for my fare. And was interested in chatting with me for the rest of our shared journey. In fact, she was a city dweller if ever there was one: she was born in one, and had lived in various cities and metropolises around the world. So she was certainly not the Last of the Mohicans, taking a fading country-side mentality with her into the modern metropolis.

It is true: the town or city makes different demands on its inhabitants than the village. It has always done so, and it always will: there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about that. As soon as a place grows so big that you cannot know everyone, your attitude to your fellow citizens necessarily changes. This is because we cannot follow up on most of the social encounters we have: we will never build relations to most of the people who serve us in shops, check our parking permit or sit with us in tram-cars. Therefore, we can never ‘reward’ the people we are grateful to, nor ‘punish’ those that have done something wrong in our eyes.

This is also why begging homeless people form such a ‘challenge’ to city councils and affluent ‘homed’ people alike. Their unboundness, their freedom of sorts, makes giving to them scary. People want to know what happens with their money: ‘If we start giving to them without asking anything in return, where will it all end?’ Another city where I used to live explicitly advised its new (homed!) citizens not to give any money to those directly asking for it, but donate to an official charity instead.

Whether this is a sound advice, I do not know. Probably, the answer cannot be general but has to be specific to the circumstances: somewhat intellectually handicapped, freedom-loving 60-year-old tramps for life are a different matter altogether than (to give a quite different example but one that operates under the same mechanism) ministers of poor countries, which may be better off with trading opportunities than guilt-assuaging money.

But I know that this city’s warning appeals to the desire most people have to control the recipients of their charity. And, perhaps, also, not to come too closely to them. Strangers feel safer at a distance: in that sense, Simmel was absolutely right. Therefore, I called my ransomer’s small act brave.

She was acting from the age-old hope that the good you do will return to you some day. Was her decision therefore old-fashioned, un-modern? I believe not. Urban disinterest, which is inevitable to some extent, does not govern all we do. Just think back to the past year: I am pretty sure you can remember some instances when someone (in the city!) has done something good for you without expecting anything in return from you.

And that almost turns this column into a Christmas wish (aaargh)…

(Ok, lets get it over and done with:) I will close with the same two words spoken every day by Ellen DeGeneres:

‘Be kind’.

This post was written on Tuesday 10 December.

P.S. I know there are some critical readers out there who might object that acts of charity, like this one, tend to reinforce social (‘class’) distinctions (crudely put: we help the people who look like us). I do not believe this is completely true – I am not as pessimistic as that – and even to the extent that it is: that story needs to be told some other time and, I think, does not undermine today’s.