Thursday, 15 July 2010

Recreational virtual grief

I heard the term for the first time today on radio with reference to the Raoul Moat Facebook page. (I'm not linking to it but I've seen it and it is natural BNP territory, which is in itself interesting.)

What a perfect formulation of what theorists of a certain persuasion describe as 'the post-modern condition'. Certainly it has never been uncommon to pour unarticulated personal feeling into a proxy of some sort. A residue of fury or frustration or depression has built up in us for some reason and we transfer the weight and power of it onto an object that might serve as focus or container. It is the viral communality of the experience that is fascinating.

The first startling example of this I personally recall is the funeral of Princess Diana where the intensity of feeling seemed to me grotesquely to outweigh its object. It was, I felt, a turning point in British society in that it was uncharacteristically hysterical, overt, larded with cheap little symbols, the very opposite of 'the Dunkirk spirit' or 'the spirit of the Blitz'. I don't mean the emotion itself was cheap but that its blinding glitter had passed through the magnifying lens of an acute communal sentimentality. It was, I was sure, a displaced emotion. Diana herself was as much a symbol as the symbols offered in her remembrance, and in much the same way. Something else was going on here.

When Stalin died the world stopped and women wept in their millions. When Valentino died several women allegedly committed suicide. Feminism has properly questioned the idea of hysteria in women, the word itself deriving for the Greek for womb, but one way or other an excess of overt emotion has been associated with femininity. Men were expected to restrain their emotions: women were expected to give way to theirs.

Perhaps the display of emotion at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 was evidence of the often argued feminisation of society. Soon enough - the next year in fact - David Beckham, the model of metrosexuality, would be wearing a sarong. Footballers wept buckets. Weeping by men was permitted, even approved, and men blossomed in tears.

The interesting term in recreational virtual grief is, however, not virtual but recreational. The transference of suppressed emotion to other objects is a basic human characteristic whose patterns were clear long before post-modernism raised its head. The virtual has always been there. Being 'there' is its very purpose.

But recreational? The word' recreation' is generally defined as:

refreshment by means of some pastime, agreeable exercise, or the like.
a pastime, diversion, exercise, or other resource affording relaxation and enjoyment.

Refreshment, relaxation, pastime, an agreeable exercise - like golf for some, or train-spotting, or flower-arranging, the suggestion is that recreation is a product of leisure. We have some leisure time, so why not let our hair down and get ourselves into a proper frenzy about... about what? Why, whatever most addresses our condition, which is one of guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, uselessness and inarticulacy combined. Time for some me time, but me doesn't know what to do with itself. So it creates its own avatar of fury and frustration, and that avatar, for some, for now, is Raoul Moat. Never mind that he shot those people. Shooting is the fury part - the justified fury part. And Raoul Moat is, in virtual terms, immediately available.

And interestingly most of the commentators on the Facebook site are men, not women. Some energy is bleeding (I use the term advisedly) across the gender line.

It is the sad mad music of humanity we can hear playing under this. Like the pro-wrestling matches where the crowd shift from fury to tenderness and back again at the drop of a virtual hat, recreational virtual grief is a kind of dangerous tenderness verging on fury. And yes, it's cheap, cheap as life, expensive as despair and guilt.

As for 'recreational rioting' see the BBC site here. What recreational people we are!


Poet in Residence said...

I must confess that I've never heard of Ruala Moot. Mind you we have our own varieties lurking in the undergrowth. It's a common thing worldwide.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this outpouring of emotion is surprising. Traditionally, attending church and all that went with it was the way of dealing with and controlling (controlling being the operative word here) emotions. But with the absence of the church or any compelling religion within most of our lives, who else and what else do we have to look up to? How else are we going to find answers to our big questions? I am lucky because I have very strong spiritual beliefs which help me to come to terms with death and pain but many people I try and talk to about such things won't even talk about them - let alone have a clue about how to start dealing with them.

Diana was an interesting phenomenon. Many of us wanted her to be our fairy tale princess - and to live the life of the happy ever after story we heard in childhood stories. I think this is particularly strong in women even if some feminists don't agree. Most of us secretly knowingly or unknowingly want to be whisked away and looked after by a handsome 'prince'. But in most cases, it does not happen to us. We wanted it to happen for Diana. But it didn't. It seems to me that much of our outpouring of grief over her was about our own disappointment that she had not lived the life that we wanted. Plus her BBC interview and revelations about Charles (whom we wanted to be our 'prince') made us dislike/hate her. And we felt guilty about that. With her gone, we have no-one else to look up to in the same way. Everyone who has tried to replace has been a poor second best. The result is that we are totally confused. And in this chaos, we are finding it harder than ever to deal with our emotions.

I don't know whether this applies to men. One challenge for them though is how to deal with their primeval need to hunt and kill etc. I wonder how the manage this in the chaos of our world - in which aggression is frowned on and sometimes punished. I watched a TV drama recently in which one male character had been sent to prison for killing a Police officer in a pub brawl when the Police officer tried to arrest him. The killer had just returned from Afghanistan where he had been paid to kill. If a similar situation had arisen there, he probably would have been awarded a medal but here he was jailed for life. What a double standard? How do we expect people to deal with such things unless they are helped? And there does not seem to be much/any emotional support for soldiers who experience the trauma of war. And we think we are civilised! Sorry this has turned into a bit of a rant with several threads...

George S said...

..her BBC interview and revelations about Charles (whom we wanted to be our 'prince') made us dislike/hate her. And we felt guilty about that.

Now that is an interesting and complex state of affairs, Kathy. 'We hate her / we feel guilty about that / so we proffer wild symbols of love to her now she is gone'. That seems to me a recognizable process of compensation. I also thought it worked the other way, that Charles then became the focus of hate and despair for those to whom their husbands had been unfaithful.

The other example of the returning soldier killing a policeman is not quite so convincing, if only because there have always been warriors and the vast majority did not return from battle and start killing people. It might be understandable that now and then they might want to but military discipline or possibly the sense of comradeship under danger seems to prevent it being anything but a very rare occurrence.

There is certainly a deep religious instinct involved in all this but it is still surprising in England because Anglicanism, and indeed most of the other churches bar the spiritualists or charismatics of one or other denomination tend not to encourage emotionalism. It goes against my own experience of English emotional life.

Poet in Residence said...

"in the absence of the church ... what else do we have to look up to"

Hello Kathy,
why do/should we need anything/body to look up to?

maybe it's all this looking up to people/things/gods/whatever that is at the root of the problem?

I can look up to Vincent van Gogh, Emile Zola, Ludwig van Beethoven, but that's my own choice, that's an individual thing. It's all this organised looking-up that bothers me.