Let it be said that “water cooler talk” is possibly one of the worst sorts of talks there could be.
You know the “water cooler talk” – what you were up to last weekend, if you watched the game, is that a pair of new shoes? Maybe you got back from a trip to Peru a month ago. Oh, I love alpacas too. I actually own a mug made in Peru. How cool.
You know all the rules involved with this sort of talk. Nothing too in-depth, a certain level of interest in the conversation is required, as is a learned subtlety to your bragging. Keep it short and polite, pretend it’s really not all about you, and definitely don’t come right out and say that you just want to get back to whatever it is you were doing.
Where did we learn how to do this? And most of all, why on earth are we still engaging in it?
Mark Greif has an interesting hypothesis on the nature of our experience. According to him, “our acceptable philosophy is eudaemonistic hedonism.” Eudaemonism: our highest goal is happiness. Hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure; self-indulgence with a negative connotation attached. Hence, eudaemonistic hedonism: the meaning of life is to be happy, and to be happy is to satiate our desire for pleasure.
Sounds acceptable enough.
Except, how is “water cooler talk” pleasuring us in any way? And for that matter, how is owning a mug made in Peru? Or bragging about a trip to Peru?
More than this, we see a trend of empowerment these days. I don’t mean empowerment in a political sense. I mean empowerment of consumer choice. A striking landscape has emerged – striking in its homogeneity. Sure, perhaps as a culture we’re finally experiencing an aversion to fast fashion. Instead, it is now one-of-a-kind clothing stores. By one-of-a-kind, I mean those with preset color palettes and shapes from which to choose. Again, you know this. The storefronts with big blocky typography? A co-opting of the minimalist philosophy against its basic principle of consumption?
I’m certainly privy to all of this. My very act of judgment is designed to set me apart from what I see as the majority, the quasi-sarcastic nature of my writing even further a reflection of the ironic, self-deprecating consciousness we have morphed into. The desire to be unique, to stand as an individual, to call attention to our postmodern existence as we live in it. Postmodernism – the era that “ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage.” Collectively, we scoff at the legacy of the collective.
Where can we go from here?
In seeking authenticity, we have branded the authentic as a commodity. Thus, in seeking our version of pleasure, so too has experience become an object.
This would at least explain why “water cooler talk” is still conducted, as hated as it is. Our objects no longer enough, we have turned to the experience behind object, the experience as object. “We become lifelong collectors,” and insofar as the experience is meant to satiate our pleasure, we have become insatiable. There’s nothing left to do but retell our stories in the hopes of reliving them. Our existential terror has driven us to identify material autonomy, itself a myth, as the mark of individuality; awareness of irony as the symptom of authenticity.
To me, it remains a question of genuine authorship. How do I decide what makes up the individual? In answering this, what are the social actions I will take?
Greif goes on to propose the radical methods of aestheticism and perfectionism as potential courses of action. Aestheticism: to view the world as you view art, such that life becomes a never-ending experience. Perfectionism: to invite a view of the world as an understanding of self, such that the process of corresponding with experience never ends. Therefore, my individuality: my experience of life as it interacts with self.
Is this radical? I feel like we’ve known this all along. How should I connect with you, now?
I’ll start by acknowledging that we are much alike, you and I, in this way. The implication of this post is that we are preoccupied with the idea of legacy to begin with. We want to be seen as having been ourselves. In many ways, we are self. But in more ways than that, we are also each other.
Transcending the modern experience is equally a recognition that this is the only world we know. Our hatred of conformity and our tendency toward it will rise and fall like tides. Beyond romanticizing this struggle as perennial, we might simply have to accept that our purpose is to resist. I resist the self that is other to you, and hence acknowledge this presence of self. I resist a pursuit of pleasure to find pleasure in all things.
Above all, I think I would like to resist drama. Perhaps then I could appreciate the banality of “water cooler talk.” If all the world’s a stage, then there must be a self who believes in the act.
I hope I have scratched the surface of the authentic with this. Remember to get at the heart of conformity and its dirtiness: it is but one narrative through which to parse meaning.
After all, life is better than in our movies. It only doesn’t play as well.
- Mark Greif discusses “The Concept of Experience” in Against Everything
- An essay on Starbucks and Coffeetalk
- More on Postmodernism