Daniel R. Smith
Recently I have been thinking more about tragedy as an art-form, how the individual is portrayed in a tragic light, and whether we may apply the analysis of tragedy, as undertaken by classicists and philosophers, to the our own ‘age’. To the age of YouTube. One way into this has been the work of Soren Kierkegaard and I think a short explication of this research line can be demonstrated here.
To video blog is to do something that marks the individual out as a distinctly modern subject: to assert themselves as individuals and gain their individuality, to mark themselves out from others, to not be isolated and alone, they in fact require isolation to achieve their own exhibition.
Kierkegaard’s distinction between ancient and modern tragic heroes
In his essay ‘Ancient tragedy’s reflection in the modern’, Kierkegaard (1968a) makes the observation that a mass of individuals lost in a crowd must, in order to stand out, adopt the very isolation they so wish to overthrow: “To be isolated is always to assert oneself numerically; when you assert yourself as one, that is isolation.” (1968a:140) For Kierkegaard this is the basis of the tragic character in the modern epoch. The ancient tragedians existed in a creative tension between a heroic world of myth of a distant past and the civic laws of the polis. Tragedy tells the stories of mythic, heoric figures who make their own laws and bring them to judgement on the basis of the laws of the city-state they dwell in. That is precisely what Kierkegaard does by pointing to the numerical isolation of the modern individual so that “modern tragedy has no epic foreground, no epic heritage.” (1968a:143)
What Kierkegaard wants to point out is that the tragic element of today is the lack of either heroic figures (no stories of gods such as Achilleis), mythic figures (such as Prometheus), kings (such as Oedipus), or even the existence of the tragic chorus that comments, critiques, makes judgements upon and holds the tragic hero a mirror up to their actions in the events unfolding. All this is lost. The events of modern tragedy are not events but actions of individuals and no chorus holds them up for judgement – either through reproach, amazement, comment or consolation. The monologue of modern tragedy, says Kierkegaard, has an epic, lyrical heritage in a vague sense, giving intimation that these monologues are similar to the speeches made by Odysseus in Homer’s epic poems, but in reality these monologues today just linger on in our imagination; they are not absorbed in the actions and situations the modern hero is placed in (Kierkegaard, 1968a:142-143). The reason modern tragedy lacks this, and equally why the ancients did have true epic features to their dramas, was because (a) the Greeks lacked reflexivity and (b) modernity lacks reference to substantial categories of existence (e.g. state, family, destiny, laurels … i.e. heroism).
With regard to the first, lack of reflexivity, this is central to Kierkegaard’s conception of modern tragedy – it may or not be the fact that the Greeks lacked this – for it establishes the hero as singular and individual. This gives rise to a concern to reflexivity for it is the basis of tragic judgement; the hero judges him or herself on the basis of their own actions alone. As Kierkegaard says, “the hero stands and falls entirely on his own deeds.” (1968a:143) As spectators on modern tragic figures – example from YouTube below – we witness a moment of a person’s life as theirs alone and understand their character in relation to their words, actions and thoughts. Unlike the Greeks, modern tragedy is concerned with individuals at one moment of their life. Greek tragic figures are personifications of the city-state, the nation and household. As heroes of the mythic, epic past that has now been surpassed by the city, their destiny is a fate founded upon the judgement of the actions and words in relation to the law of the city. Over and above their own heroic autonomy, the city stands to judge their actions and deeds in relation to the substantial categories – Kierkegaard’s term – of ‘state’ and ‘law’ (cf. Vernant & Vidal-Naquet, 1990).
The chorus establishes this:
“Both the chorus and the heroes wore costumes and masks, but the member of the chorus, like the city hoplites, were dressed in uniform. …In contrast, the masks and costumes of the actors were individualised. Thus, in its own way, the chorus, confronting the hero marked by his immoderation, represented a collective truth, an average, the truth of the city. … ‘This is where the story ends forever.’” (Vidal-Naquet, 1990:311)
No law of the city judges the modern tragic hero; the law of the individual judges him, to be responsible for one’s own life as the author of its deeds and evaluations: “The tragic hero is subjectively reflected in himself, and this reflection hasn’t simply refracted him out of every immediate relation to state, race and destiny, often it has refracted out of his relation to his own preceding life.” (Kierkegaard, 1968a:143)
So: Why is this modern? And, more importantly for us, what in the world has this got to do with YouTube?
YouTube as the solution to Kierkegaard’s problem
The modernity of this can be found in the central ideology of European and American society, the cult of the individual – that the individual is sacred, exists in a vacuum of singular holiness that is both believed to be holy by oneself and others and is the God worshipped. In sociology one finds this in Durkheim’s essay on ‘the individual and the intellectuals’ as well as the works of Simmel, Goffman and in Kierkegaard’s writings (see, Westphal, 1987). As regards YouTube, I feel the proliferation of video-blogging on the site since 2005 is of key significance to how this cult of the individual is lived and refracted, to use Kierkegaard’s phrase, to itself: YouTube video blogs show the individual ‘refracted out of his relation to his own preceding life’. Speaking to a camera about oneself to an anonymous audience is an individual addressing oneself first and foremost in the anticipation of others responses. Anyone who video-blogs – like a diary writer, a protagonist in a novel – is a modern tragic hero. To be a modern hero is to be the central character of one’s own life and aware of their own heroism as they recount their character and situations to a possible reader, viewer, public. But unlike the novel, YouTube provides something that retains the modern character of the tragic hero (the singular and life reflecting individual) and allows an element of the ancients to remain, the substantial values that guide the tragic hero and his judgement against a chorus.
Below I will provide an empirical illustration of this, but first I need to point out why this is so important to modern society and the problems that lie behind Kierkegaard’s essay on the ancient/modern tragedy. Kierkegaard’s wider philosophical project and his polemical stance toward the Denmark of his day was guided by a concern for the individual in modernity, articulated by the question: How can one be a Christian in modern society? The problem is that the individual is the central focus of modern society, as noted above, as one asserts themselves against a mass. One is lonely in a crowd. For Kierkegaard, the individual worshipper is the most important reality of his Christian Denmark but is the most denied recipient of this reality. His individuality is treated ‘en massse’: “go to Church, pray, that’ll save your soul.” ran the party line of the Church.
As Westphal (1987:43ff) has observed, Kierkegaard’s polemic upon modern man refers to the underlying spiritual condition to which the massification of society brings to the surface: “this sociological event is intimately related to a parallel, ‘religious’ event, …the disappearance of Christianity from Christendom.” (Westphal, 1987:43) The problem is that this massification of society results in a spiritual despair which is, while founded in Christian theology, novel to the present age. This was what he outlined in the Postscript (1968b) as an age trying to treat the subjective reality of Christian existence as ascertainable by objective means, i.e. by assertion of faith by way of geography (Dane = Lutheran) (Kierkegaard, 1968b:49-50) or how individuality “opaquely rests or merges in some abstract universal (state, nation, etc.)” (Kierkegaard, 2008:52). Such a problem arises for individual existence not because society is sick or maligned, rather the individual’s place within it is rendered problematic – as mass society emerges, the crowd or herd becomes the primary conception of their commune but, in it, they feel isolated.
And yet Kierkegaard does not denounce modern civil society or ‘the mass’ for its social figuration but rather it’s denouncement of the individual as a ‘self’, i.e. as ‘spirit’. In the The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard posits this notion of the “self” as a spirit, conceptualised as the relation’s relating to itself. The human is two things at once: a finite mortal and an infinite soul; the self is the relation between the two. The self is the relation which is posited by something else, i.e. ‘the everlasting’ (God) (2008:11). The relation is ‘the self’ in the sense that it is “…a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” (Kierkegaard, 2008:9) This is a sickness according to Kierkegaard because these two never resolve themselves – freedom/necessity; temporality and eternity; infinity and finitude stand opposed. The self is always ‘out of joint’. These two opposed forces are the sickness of the human condition. Kierkegaard’s Denmark forgot this and as such saw the human being deny his own nature as spirit/self: “such a person forgets himself, in a divine sense forgets his own name …finds it much easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, along with the crowd.” (Kierkegaard, 2008:36)
Could YouTube re-establish this sickness in relation to the individuals own needs? Could YouTube overturn the forgetting of individual self that modern, mass society puts forward? Of course, I believe it does but to illustrate this requires an illustration. The example I give will outline (a) the modern tragic figure on YouTube (b) the importance of the chorus and (c) the sickness of the modern tragic figure.
Charlie McDonnell’s “I’m sacred” video
Monologue is the default mode of speech on YouTube. But this mode of speech breaks a seemingly theatrical illusion of an isolated individual suspended in the action of the drama, reflecting upon their own position in the narrative: the YouTube monologue is always a reflection on character to an audience. Unlike, say, Hamlet, whose constant self-criticisms remain at the level of the I (“What rouge and peasant slave, am I!”), the YouTube monologue is always addressed to a virtual interlocutor: the monologue always makes reference to “you”, that is the viewer.
In terms of the tragic figure, this has special importance. Not only does reflection have salience in terms of their own situation and character, the tragic hero is also aware of how this situation and character is necessarily reflected in the judgement of others and the constant need to be judged by external standards. Indeed, judged by external standards, namely their videos as the basis of their character and situation. This comes out in a highly popular video by a prominent UK YouTube celebrity, Charlie McDonnell and his video “I’m sacred”:
I’m not here to entertain you today; I don’t have the capacity to do that right now.
I am here as one regular human being to another, because I am not happy right now.
I’m not happy with myself and I need to talk to someone about it.
The worst part of it for me is that I am trying incredibly hard to ‘be the person I want to be’ again, but every time I sit and stare at that blank text file ready to try and come up with something new I find myself terrified to create, like genuinely scared.
And the thing that I’m scared of is, honestly, I think it’s you. I think I’m scared of you now, and that’s not good. We need to fix that.
The monologue – filmed in sepia-tone black and white, spot lit and as if it were a Hamlet soliloquy – is addressed to you. Beginning by giving a refracted vision of his own situation and character, we notice this refraction of himself comes from you: ‘I’m not here to entertain you’. After this we notice that Charlie is in fact doing this for himself, not you, and that he wants to be the person he wants to be, not what you want him to be. He sits, stares at a blank text file, a canvas of his own creative potential, and is unable to create anything. Because of you. He is sacred of you. And this ‘you’ is his chorus. And you judge him too harshly. The barrage of criticism on YouTube, the anonymous comments of vitriol; the tragic hero can’t cope. Those comments you write are the words of the chorus of the YouTube polis. And he’s afraid, for all he ever does is attempt to please others:
I realised this recently when I tried to work out, why I do anything, really why anybody does anything and the best answer I could come up with is – every person, deep down, whether they’re willing to admit this to themselves or not, wants other people to like them. And that’s all its ever been for me. … But over the course of the last year, whatever confidence I had has dwindled away to practically nothing, and what holds me back isn’t that it isn’t going to be very good it’s that you won’t like it, and by extension you won’t like me.
In this we have to ask, why is the chorus of such importance here. Of course Charlie has fully admitted that he acts for their, your, approval. The audience who speak back, the chorus, in effect, are judging the tragic hero in heroic terms. The acts of the video-blogger are being judged by the law of the YouTube polis, and the law of this polis is broadcast yourself: and whatever that version of yourself is, it better be good – entertaining, enjoyable, worthy of being watched, worthy of your approval, if not, the hero is unliked. Thumbs down. Disliked.
But is it really that simple? For it seems quite ambiguous in the grand scheme of things. The chorus that speaks to Charlie do so in an ambiguous manner: they speak praise, they speak hatred. They are ambiguous for they are a multitude, all individuals but bundled together. And it is this very ambiguity that makes him a tragic figure. Kierkegaard observes that if the modern tragic hero were truly singular, individual and all situation and character, then his guilt would not be tragic but evil. He would just be ‘bad’ and no pathos and sadness would come to us through catharsis. That we can feel some catharsis with viewing Charlie is recognition of the tragic. For we identify with him, see a part of ourselves in him, and we have a tragic collision because of this. Confronted with the judgement of a critical chorus, we also see the need to feel in some way that his acts to please us, so as to ‘be himself’, is something we all do. This is the purging of sadness we sympathetically identify with. As he goes onto suggest to ‘you’:
I hope is that this is just what it’s like to be human, that everybody feels the same way as me, just as anxious as I do about other people, but I don’t know for sure, and I don’t know what to do about this either is, like the simplest answer is to just stop caring about it, but I have no idea how to do that.
Human is, in this community, feeling the need to please others to be ourselves. To prove our own individuality we require isolation but, oxymoronically, this isolation is only felt if acknowledged by a chorus which judges the success of this isolation. This is the sickness of the individual today, their out of joint-ness. Isolation is despair for it is to be infinitely alone, but this isolation also requires a finitude that asserts oneself. The isolated self finds its finite expression in one video; and is judged by a chorus which recognise this isolation only negatively, by default. We need a synthesis between the two: between the infinity of isolation and the finitude of a video-blog as proof our own isolated, numerical individuality. We need a chorus to prove our heroic autonomy.
The presence of the chorus who judges our isolated success is our epic heritage, our heroic past: to be a hero of one’s own life is our task in our polis, our community, our age. What we require is not numerical isolation as ourselves, individuals, but this isolation to be the core of our ability to act. It’s only human and this is our ‘substantial category’ that we judge ourselves by: being human in the eyes of others.
Critchley, Simon & Webster, Jameison (2013), Stay Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine, (New York: Pantheon Books)
Kierkegaard, Soren (2008), The Sickness unto Death, (London: Penguin)
Kierkegaard, Soren (1968a), ‘Ancient tragedy’s reflection in the modern’, in Either/Or: a fragment of life, (London: Penguin)
Kierkegaard, Soren (1968b), Concluding Unscientific Postscript, (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Vernant, Jean-Pierre & Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1988), Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, (New York: Zone Books)
Westphal, Merold (1987), Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society, (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press)