Because, in fact, it is almost nowhere to be found any longer.
Once considered a virtue, seriousness is now taken by default to be a kind of pretense. The previously serious people of previous generations, it is now presumed, were actually running a card game in a back alley of the public sphere. They had pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. What they claimed to be wisdom was merely the seedy exercise of power over those born to less privilege—those uneducated enough (even this now is taken as a term of hegemony; I suppose most would now say that it is proper merely to call them “those underprivileged enough”) not to see through the charade and to understand that they were being taken to the cleaners.
There never was, goes the current imagination, such a thing as “seriousness” at all, not in the way that it was claimed to exist, and thus all of its practitioners were either crooks or charlatans.
© Aron Hsiao / 2003
And so it is that now seriousness has become a kind of inside joke. Anyone that at times claims or aspires to it does it with a wink and an elbow; it is an ironic pose, something to play with, a bit of postmodern performance, much like claiming to be a poet, writer, or historian has become. Work done “seriously?” Oh come now!
“Look at me, I’m a serious person!” now means little more than “Here I am, an activist’s activist, here to burn down your barn and do it with a smile on my face under the guise of ‘seriousness!'” and everyone knows precisely what they mean. In so-called “elite” circles, it is understood that no one is actually serious; rather, we’re all dressing our battles for advantage up under such terms for the benefit of the Soylent plebes. Isn’t it a lark! They get something to admire while being digested and we get to participate in a joyous, elite pantomime, don fancy dress, and pretend to be something archaic and anachronistic for a night! It’s like swing dancing for rich boors, haha!
— § —
The University of Chicago, where I did my master’s degree, is one of the last remaining institutions in the United States, perhaps in all the western world, to embrace “seriousness” with something akin to—well, let’s be direct—seriousness.
Even a decade and a half ago when I entered, I was startled to hear in the orientation lecture for the division that I was entering a serious place to do serious work that was meant to be taken quite seriously. Already at that time hearing such language seemed anachronistic to me. I took it initially as everyone now takes it—as either pretense or the height of irony. I wasn’t sure which.
But my time there showed me that, in fact, the school is an anachronistic institution, a place out of time. A place that still makes moral arguments about the virtues, a place with an actual philosophy behind it. I use this term merely to highlight the way in which it stands out as strange in today’s world.
As if anything means anything! As if anything is solid! As if claims can actually be made rather than toyed with! As if one might have the gall to believe that some things are right and others are wrong, that some things are better and others are worse, without framing the entire mess within the bezel of an HDTV showing, cinema verité style, how all such claims are merely parts of the game of power and identity played by all, in which every gesture is a move and every move is a tactic and every tactic happens in pursuit of a strategy existing as a matter self-serving conquest—a matter of identity, of in-group and out-group, a matter of domination by performance, a matter of hegemonic chess amongst a population of thinking animals (and I mean that in the most vulgar sense of the term).
It is one of the few places that doesn’t shrink, even today, from universalistic claims and debates, lecture rooms from which irony has been banned, large words used not in jest but in fact in functional, workmanlike parole.
— § —
The “advanced” world now hates seriousness. It is seen as a kind of implicit hate speech. Seriousness, you see, was merely the ruse that the White Male Corporate Oppression used for centuries to steal milk money from the milkmaids.
To aspire to seriousness, or to talk about it seriously?
Surely you mean “to steal something from someone,” mister pretentious! And it’s an old joke anyway—thought you were hipper than that! Surely you don’t expect anyone to believe the preposterous claim that you take seriousness seriously?
— § —
And so it is that, as I’ve said earlier, we now live in a world devoid of grown-ups.
Because seriousness lies at the heart of the image of the true adult, the true adult is either an inquisitor or a fraud. Either way, he or she can only do, and can only mean to do, harm—intolerance, ecocide, chauvinism, petty thievery—all in order to line his or her own pockets.
The game is up! The grown-ups were a band of rapists and robbers all along!
We’re, thus, all going to stay young forever. We’ll listen to a lot of rock music, eat organic, start co-ops, buy local, investigate alternative religions, read a lot of books by the hipster elite, and use “seriousness” as a the humorous lance with which we pop one anothers’ embarrassing personality boils.
— § —
The world could use some serious seriousness once again. Seriously.
It is easy to despair at the lack of it, and to imagine that it is not long for this world. Few seem willing to defend it without irony. Few seem to be able to imagine that this might even be possible, much less desirable.
Didn’t we win that battle already?
Didn’t we spend half of the twentieth century and all of the twenty-first cranking back the curtain on that particular wizard?
Well, the University of Chicago, I’m happy to say, has just shown that it has not given up on seriousness yet.
May it never do so.
I presume that its foundations, too, have seen some rot—but clearly they have not, as of yet, crumbled entirely.
— § —
We are all afraid of our own shadows, comfortable enough to desperately want to remain comfortable forever.
The serious men of the past tower above us, and so we make fun of them, like hooligans smoking weed in the high school bathroom. Our self-assurance is precisely evidence of our deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and of our attachments to our poses and cliques.
— § —
Yes, I aspire to seriousness. To become a serious man. To take things seriously. To think in moral and universal terms. To state clearly what I believe and to entertain within the light of reason all comers, in order to come to understand the best of them and to understand the problems with the worst of them.
I think this is what the last remnants of the old-guard, now-nearly-dead conservatives meant by the term “conservatism” before it was taken from them and used as a venue for deep-South barroom brawls.
They meant that they meant to be serious, and that perhaps the rest of us ought to take seriousness seriously as well, if we don’t want to leave the world worse for our children than it has been for us.
If there is no other matter that anyone can admit today to be serious in nature, can we at least agree that the question of the world that our children will live in is a serious one, deserving of serious consideration without irony or “enlightened play?”
— § —
I hope so. Seriously.