A blast of cold air washes over his face. Rapturous air conditioning has arrived. Just as waves of relaxation penetrate to his core an intrusive voice blurts out “I abhor A/C!” He starts. The universal joy of relief from sweltering summer heat seems unquestionable. This person, this Other, must surely have an ulterior motive for disliking the invisible ecstasy which air conditioning provides. Their particular point of view must hide some desire to bend and fracture the world to meet their will. Weird. How could anyone dislike what everyone seems to enjoy; don’t some things apply to us all?
The feeling of air conditioning, like the mood of a piece of music, is only part of the story. At the sensory level much depends upon the individual. In this article I aim to demonstrate how the specificity of our individual realities seems to transcend external social forces, even as we are left only with recourse to roles and behaviours available to us in our society. At an important level there is no escape from life as a performance; no matter how authentic we feel we remain in submission to the court of social opinion.
In philosophical terms, issues of behaviour and affect (emotion) are framed as a debate between universal truths and contingent realities. The question is whether some truths transcend our particular selves or whether reality tangentially hinges upon context and experience. If the former is true then social norms must have some basis in truth. However, if the latter prevails then social relativism is the ground of being of the human experience. A recent article in ?Philosophy Now? notes that if the “essence of things is no longer transcendental, as Kant thought, but located within the contingent” then there can exist “no greater external perspective, no absolute standard…against which to measure the various disclosures of being-an idea that German thinker Theodor Adorno felt was prone to legitimizing Fascism” (Borowski, 24).
One might note that Adorno wasn’t any old ?German thinker?; he was central to the Marxist Frankfurt school, and whose critical investigations of post-WWII consumer culture remain cogent today. Adorno’s concern wasn’t coming from an abstract anti-authoritarian point of view; it stemmed from a particular historical context, one very similar to our own. No perspective completely transcends social reality; to do so would be to embody omniscience in the literal sense of the word. There is no escape from social performance; our actions are neither reflections of universal truths nor contingent specifics. And yet, when cold filtered air caresses our sweating face, It’s hard to believe anyone could disavow such a pleasurable sensation.
So, without tongue too implacably embedded in cheek, we might on the one hand ask whether a person who adores A/C, believing its pleasures to be applicable to anyone imbued with human spirit, is justified in his or her opinion. On the other hand we may ask whether an individual who dislikes A/C, despite being in the Canadian social minority, can truly hold this belief. Is the latter position merely an act, a put-on to justify environmentalism or oppositional-defiance?
As a member of the anti-A/C lobby, I would draw our attention to a common Okanagan phenomenon known as ?local smoke?. During our annual forest fire season, a deep haze descends into the Valley and fills our eyes and ears. Out in my orchard last week, the smoke reminded me of the Beatles song ?Penny Lane? and its lyrics of bucolic “suburban skies” likewise being “in my ears and in my eyes” (McCartney & Lennon, online). Despite the pleasant feel of the song, there lurk some darker notes within its lyrics.
Penny Lane’s happily wistful melody stands in contrast to its lyrics, not least of which is due to the fact that when one has something in ones ears and eyes (be they tears, waves or smoke) the sensation is often unpleasant. The refrain “very strange” takes on more meaning too; if one is partial to A/C a person who dislikes this seemingly ?universal-good? (to use a phrase of Plato and Kant) seems a little odd (McCartney & Lennon, online). You might wonder if I’m making excuses to find something sinister in a nice song and yet, within the lyrics, the tangential becomes more palpable.
A universal state of contentedness often contains fissures of discontent. Even an authentic presentation of self is not safe amidst the Pleasantville locale of Penny Lane. In the middle of a roundabout, a “pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray, and though she feels like She’s in a play, she is anyway” (Lennon & McCartney, online). Now, to anyone who’s studied performativity (ie Judith Butler and Erving Goffman) alarm bells ring out. The nurse, not unlike the person taking an oppositional viewpoint vis a vis cold dry filtered air, is aware that whether or not she smiles and tows the line or rejects the ?Never Again? narrative of Remembrance Day and its poppies, she will still be seen as performing a role.
For a literary example of authenticity and performance, we see that near the end of J.M. Coetzee’s ?Elizabeth Costello?, which won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, the protagonist finds herself in a thespian or novelist’s idea of purgatory. In protest against being asked to submit a summary of her beliefs to a panel who will admit or deny her entry through the pearly gates, she ruminates on the nature of personal authenticity and whether we can ever inhabit a subjectivity which is final, absolute, and universal:
You might as well ask which is the true Elizabeth Costello: the one who made the first statement or the one who made the second. My answer is, both are true. Both. And neither. I am an other…You have the wrong person before you. If you think you have the right person you have the wrong person. The wrong Elizabeth Costello.
Costello realizes that whatever she expresses, she does within a matrix of social norms. Far from recourse to universals or particulars, her feelings, ideas and identities are as fluid as her social context allows. The fact that context itself is what produces desire and enjoyment gives pause to Theodor Adornos? worry that it is the particular and contingent that may lead to fascism. Perhaps folks who go against the grain of common sense, even while constrained to the social tools at hand, help reign in the authoritarian possibility of truths that that appear to be natural and self-evident. Whether It’s oppositional-defiance or thoughtful authenticity, one can never be too careful. And hey, who doesn’t enjoy a breath of fresh air in the metaphorical sense?
Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.
Borowski, A. (2014). Retrieved August 2, 2015 from https://philosophynow.org/issues/108/Herder_Humboldt_Heidegger_Language_As_World-Disclosure
Coetzee, J.M. (2003). ?Elizabeth Costello?. Secker & Warburg: Great Britain.
Lennon, J. & McCartney, P. ?Penny Lane?. (1967). Retrieved Aug 2, 2015. from: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/beatles/pennylane.html