New Age and the culture of performance
What is left of Kant`s disinterestedness and of Baudelaire`s over-interestedness? Where can we find in the experience of today manifestations of these two great cultural turns that have characterized the experience of modernity? To be sure, a return to their origins is always possible. Aesthetic disinterestedness can rediscover the religious origins from which it derived. In fact, the movements of the so-called Protestant awakening (Pietism in German speaking countries, and Methodism in 11land) have provided the model of spirituality on which aesthetic experience was founded. Analogously, anti-aesthetic over-interestedness can find in the descriptions of drug addiction and psychosis provided by de Quincey and Poe their own archetype.
The cultural movement of today that can be considered the heir of the eighteenth century seems to me to be the so-called New Age. In this trend we find the three characteristics that we have singled out as the essential aspects of aesthetic cultural turns: rejection of conventions, openness on extra-European cultures and attention to alternative experience. It has been rightly observed that it is impossible to describe New Age as the sum of simple elements. In it flow tendencies that have nothing to do with one another, so that the movement in its complexity is varied and indefinite. In fact, New Age originates from a mixture of elements that come from esotericism, from youth counter-cultures, from different forms of Oriental spirituality, and from the world of alternative therapies. It, furthermore, is characterized by a low theoretical and intellectual profile and by the absence of a rigid normative ethic, all factors that naturally facilitate its social circulation.
At first sight, there seems to be an incongruence between aesthetic disinterestedness, which by definition leaves out of consideration any utilitarian and functional point of view, and New Age that has been interpreted as the introduction of a pragmatic point of view in religion. However, in my view, the affinity between aesthetic disinterestedness and New Age resides in the special emphasis on the subjective experience of harmony and conciliation, which is common to both. Both aesthetic disinterestedness and New Age escape the perception of opposition and conflict tending to present the image of a world where contrasts can be overcome in the individual experience of reconciliation and quietness. In New Age, this rejection of conflict ends up by escaping from any determination. Since »omnis determinatio est negatio«, any determination is a negation, to the spirit of New Age is proper the avoidance of identification, the escape from any type of definition. Also striking is the affinity between the aesthetic figure of the eighteenth century »beautiful soul«, that was the object of Hegel`s sarcasm, and the trans-personal way of being outlined by the psychology of New Age. For Hegel, it is a divine and noble soul that rejects everything as unworthy of her, as it moves in its very personal religious and moral lucubrations.
In actual fact the objective of trans-personal psychology does not consist in a stabilization of a personal identity but, on the contrary, on the overcoming of all identities and in the attainment of a »depth of the soul«, a subterranean region of the mind« that brings along a feeling of profound tranquillity and superiority over everything (Dobroczynski, 1997). Thus New Age would be the present manifestation of what Umberto Eco has defined »hermetic semiosis« (whose origins are in Platonism), which by rejecting any determination as inadequate takes away from language any communicative power, at the same time conferring on its adept the presumption of possessing the secret of the world and of happiness (Eco, 1990).
New Age constitutes the present version of aesthetic experience. The present heir of anti-aesthetics, instead, is that social phenomenon contemporary to New Age that we could call the »culture of performance«. Differently from New Age that corresponds to a type of sensibility that privileges peace and relaxation, emotional over-investment finds its own model in sport performance. The energetic aspect is emphasized to the highest level. A living style is elaborated whose dynamic is characterized by the attainment of always new records or by overcoming handicaps. An acute observer of the phenomenon observes: »Sport has by now taken the place of school becoming one of the major referents of social excellence and fair competition« (Ehrenberg, 1999, 18). This dimension, however, does not entail a discovery of subjectivity, singularity, or individual creativity. It does not come into conflict with the so-called »egalitarian common sense« because it constitutes »a perfectly impersonal process«, a way of feeling that falls within the category of the »già sentito« (already felt) (Perniola, 2002). In other words, the cult of performance is not the invention of a personal destiny but the taking on of a »ready made« type of sensibility, prêt à porter, so to speak.
The basic tonality of the culture of performance is not directed toward the fulfillment of pleasure but toward the preservation of excitement. As the sociologist Anthony Giddens asserts, the gratification connected to it cannot be described in hedonistic terms. It is rather the slang term high that characterizes this type of experience, which is a type of euphoric state closer to an »artificial feeling«, to an addiction, than to a feeling of intimacy (Giddens, 1993).
What is striking is the enormous cultural pervasiveness of the addiction. This notion, originally tied almost exclusively to the consumption of alcohol and drugs has acquired in the last few years an unlimited extension until becoming a general form of feeling that can pertain to any context. One can be addicted to smoking, food, sex but also to work, exercise, love! These contexts are interchangeable. As Giddens remarks, often an individual fights to escape one addiction only to fall prey to another. At the basis of this functioning there is naturally the plasticity of psychic processes, their mobility.
The culture of performance can also acquire a violent aspect. However, this violence is qualitatively different from functional violence understood as a mean of obtaining something that one cannot have peacefully: »this `traditional` violence is a `practical` sort of violence: chosen as one means over others ... for such ends as money, career, power, rev11e, or jealousy« (Kupfer, 1983, 42). Even political violence is still a type of traditional violence because directed to the fulfillment of a certain purpose. Here, instead, we have to do with a type of behavior that is an alternative to traditional logic and belongs rather to the society of the spectacle. It has no other purpose than »to insert the self into one`s image of the world. The violent act forces the individual into the `public view`, perhaps with the aid of the media« (Kupfer,1983, 50).
Sporting events in the last few decades of the twentieth century also provide the most adequate instruments for the understanding of violence. As Ehrenberg remarks, soccer is not only a sport but also a way of life (Ehrenberg, 1999, 18). In this respect, the last generation of ultras provides elements of particular interest. In fact, they are different not only from traditional fans but also from the hooligans of the sixties and seventies who were held together by a kind of community solidarity, however distorted. The new hooligans, that Ehrenberg rightly considers the heir of the dandies, do not constitute a crowd, but are individuals that temporarily gather together to act in the crowd. In other words, they do not constitute an universe of formless and dangerous mass, but they »exhibit a will of making only themselves visible.« (Ehrenberg, 1999, 173.) Sociologists define them as »casual hooligans« also because they often have a social and cultural position much higher than the »hooligans« belonging to the working class. Violence for them is not an outlet, but a cultural sign where appearance counts more than substance. The 11lish word »aggro« (in French »accro«) renders very well this dimension that combines »aggravation« and »aggression«.
Published in ”Filozofski Vestnik” (ed. Aleš Erjacev), vol. XXVIII, Number11 2007, pp. 46-49.