Tragedy and sitcoms
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.They kill us for their sport.”— King Lear
These words strike us moderns as quaint. We look at the tattered king in the eye and say: What a gloomy gus! Give the old guy some Prozac!
No, we've struck a bargain which gives us management of all that we can see. We manage our businesses, our lives, our environment. Not stewardship, not guidance, not quivering before the awesome power of the irrational, but MANAGEMENT.
The notion that we can manage our world (or even our own lives) would have struck people a hundred years ago as literally insane. What sort of hubris-filled mortal could say that in the face of the death of children, the striking down of the good and healthy, the genocidal eradication of entire peoples? Who could claim management of the environment in the face of a single crack of thunder? As Woody Allen once wrote (or was it the Talmud?): You wanna hear God laugh? Tell him your plans.
Having lost any sense of place or humility, we have, of course, lost the sense of tragedy. Tragedy requires an uncaring, uncontrollable universe. But a new form has emerged that replaces tragedy, an art form unique to the second half of this century: the situation comedy.
Sitcoms are a highly formal art form. Although there are of course exceptions, the paradigmatic examples all concern a group of people with quirks (quirks are the laff riot equivalent of character flaws). These quirks result in misunderstandings that are resolved by the end of the show. Rather than standing on the brink of death and misfortune, the characters in sitcoms are safe. We know that Rachel isn't going to get shot in the eye by Travis Bickle and Frasier isn't going to run over by a truck. We know that the characters are going to return every week, no wiser and no more at risk.
Most of all, the sitcom is characterized by the Group Hug. Despite all the quirks and flaws, we all just really love one another, don't we? Instead of wandering the heath, naked to the elements, self-blinded, with a fool along to taunt us, the entire court gets together and makes the promise that, when the going gets toughest, our extended, post-modern family will keep us safe. No cluster bomb appears to blow Elaine, Jerry, Kramer, George, Hawkeye and Hotlips to a quick and bloody end. Couldn't happen. And so the credits roll as in the background Peter Frampton sings his cover of "I believe I can fly," a psychotic disconnect from even the most basic facts of physics. "You can be anything you want, if you want it bad enough," we lie to our children, dooming them to a life of disappointment.
Marketing — internal and external — is all a part of this incapacity for tragedy. All the news must be happy. Every customer must be joyous, or, brought to joy. Plenty of humor is used in order to disarm the wary, but the humor is as safe as a joke about Ross's hair or Reverend Jim's former (former!) drug use. The humor that heals -- cauterizes — can never be heard because it is the humor of the dark truth of our fate. The one cultural icon not yet coopted by commercial forces is Lenny Bruce.
Marketing, management, managing knowledge, portals that filter, information that's always crisp and to the point — all ways of making the world safe for us as workers and consumers. All essential lies that would make cowards of us all.
David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.