The Rise of . . . Jesterdom?

5 September 2007

Larry has posted before on the end of Christendom, that phenomenon which is the presumption and ubiquity of a Christian or at least Christian-referent culture common to most of Europe for centuries.

Sometimes I wonder what has replaced Christendom, at least in the United States.  One of the great attributes of Christendom was education.  While by no means universal, literacy and education was available to many persons, mostly male but also female, through either Christian institutions or institutions founded by the church (e.g., almost every university).

With the Enlightenment, although an often, if not inherently, elitist movement, education and literacy became more and more universal, eventually leading to the advent of public schooling in much of what was Christendom.

I do not bemoan secularization, but I do bemoan what has happened to Western culture in the last few decades.  With the final decline of Christendom, which in the end is likely a good thing, I wonder if what has replaced it, in the United States at least, is Jesterdom.

The Jester is an august and important cultural institution of the West, and maybe the East, too, for all I know.  The Jester, while a jokester and fool, was also charged with telling the ruler what no-one else could; in a classic, almost archetypal paradox, the Jester was a Socrates: simultaneously the wisest of all and universally regarded as a fool and toruble maker.

The Jester, properly speaking, is today’s satirist, holding everyone —Prince, President, UN Secretary-General, even the audience itself— up to the harsh light of ridicule and, often, truth.

And yet, the satirist is often the modern-day jester: Will Farrell, a simple fool,  a worker in the meaningless absurd, a crude and cruel joker unable to understand or even formulate a meaningful contribution to the greater cultural conversation.  If there is a greater cultural conversation.

All this Neil Postman-ism comes from the beginning of school.  Some of my students, especially my Juniors, seem to regard mischievous, disrespectful humor as an end in itself.  And I can’t help but think of them as jesters, but not Jesters; amusers and pokers-of-fun but unthinking ones.

I considered the possibility of jesterdom —the saturation of reality shows, of which Flava Flav’s is possibly the worst example— becoming the prevailing culture as I made the bed this morning.  Even things like pro wrestling, where the wrestlers are essentially physical jester-amusers in a situation wherein the audience is treating as “un-staged” something that is completely staged, might be seen as an element of this.

My students seem to rarely care about work, study, and thinking, and instead simply want to be funny in a very puerile and vacuous way.  I’m not sure if it was ever different, but it sure can be depressing.

I know I sound cranky, crankier than I probably feel, but this is what was going through my head this morning as I tried to make order from disorder, and make the bed.


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