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Critical Theory of the Absurd

Mark Shupe

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Theatre of the Absurd is the dramatic display of human life in search of purpose. As a genre, it became popular in America and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, and, as the pessimism suggests, the structure is circular and plots are abandoned. Accordingly, its characters grope to find meaning and some semblance of control over their futures. This is the malevolent universe of chaos and catastrophe doing its thing on stage.

Eighty years ago today, and on the opposite end of the spectrum (benevolent universe), Russian/American novelist Ayn Rand published her third novel and first masterpiece of literature — The Fountainhead. As such, the story lines are romantic and the dramatic genius is inspirational to readers focused on the motivations of the characters. Originally rejected by a dozen publishers for being “too intellectual,” it is still in print.

One small illustration of the novel’s commanding presence can be found in the last chapter of Part 3. With a scene describing a popular play attended by the novel’s two most introspective and enigmatic personalities, Ms. Rand anticipates Theatre of the Absurd — a decade before it surfaced. Furthermore, six months from today, the essence of that scene from The Fountainhead will do its thing at the Union for Democratic Communications (UDC) annual conference.

In this essay, excerpts from The Fountainhead and the UDC Conference Announcement will be presented together. For transparency, the announcement can be read here in its entirety. In addition, because the conference deals mostly with effects and turns them into causes, a synopsis is included to illustrate the inversions. For a full presentation of true integrity and independence, read the novel.

ACT ONE

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “Originally, the title of this beautiful play was an authentic line drawn from the language of the people, with the brave, simple eloquence of folk expression.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023)— The possibilities and perils of leftist organizing and media scholarship assume greater urgency in the face of “backsliding democracy.” ‘Undone’ reflects numerous senses: as a temporary disunity; as an important task unfinished; as a representation of disarray; but all senses of the word hold hope for its reversal.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): To translate back into common language, ‘backsliding democracy’ is a package-deal: two unrelated terms adding up to a fallacy. In the context of Critical Theory, ‘democracy’ is code for servitude by vote, aka socialism. For creating a sense of urgency, ‘Undone’ replaces principles, logic, concepts, and perceptions with sensations. Will the cognitive skills of the audience backslide into disarray? Groping for purpose, let’s find out.

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “The things being done on the stage were merely trite and crass; but the undercurrent made them frightening.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — We are excited to return to the spirit of in-person collaboration, community, and co-presence that is the heart of this organization. A global climate crisis is joined by new wars, inflation, supply chain crises, and algorithmic governance across private and public spheres. Democratic institutions — and even the notion of democracy itself — are under attacks on multiple fronts, as right-wing movements globally have been energized.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): With scripted effects unburdened by causal evidence, the antagonists are played by the phantom menace of globally energized individualism and capitalism. Miraculously solving right-wing weather, algorithms, greenbacks, and supply-siders, the UDC protagonists are played by community and democracy themselves. Only democratic institutions can evade the principles of complex systems and call it progress, right? Unseen consequences? Stage right!

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “There was an air about the ponderous inanities spoken, which the actors had absorbed like an infection; it was in their smirking faces, in the slyness of their voices, in their untidy gestures.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — The work of the UDC and all scholar/activist organizations has always been one of struggle and persistence. Advocacy for equal justice, fair representation, and radical democracy is always an incomplete project. Both material and discursive attacks on the left have sought to undo what progress has been made and forestall the momentum of progressive and radical movements.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): The cast of scholars/activists get down with the struggle for radical democracy! In response to the discursive attacks, precise definitions for terms like scholar, radical, fair, equality, and justice will be fluid. In a world where nothing is certain, the slyness of the voices on the UDC stage will resonate with every collective mind and the untidy gestures of the players will speak for themselves.

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “It was an air of inanities uttered as revelations and insolently demanding acceptance as such; an air, not of innocent presumption, but of conscious effrontery.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — What strategies, from micropolitics to international social movements, are required to combat widespread shifts towards authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes? Critical media-makers, scholars, and activists are invited to reimagine, reinvent, and reclaim communication for democracy–for the people–through the inherent optimism of criticality.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): What does it take for a purpose-free life to become a critical media-maker or bona fide activist? Will the organizers encourage the character-building attributes of integrity, productiveness, and independence, or will intimidation (reimagine, reinvent, reclaim) become their collective purpose? In this act, the UDC cast will make demands, citing the inherent optimism of criticality, whatever that is, or else.

ACT TWO

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “As if the author knew the nature of his work and boasted of his power to make it appear sublime in the minds of his audience and thus destroy the capacity for the sublime within them.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — The UDC has always stood as a site of collaboration between activists, scholars, and practitioners — an organization rooted in critical scholarship and practice about the structures of communication themselves, not just in the US, but worldwide.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): For the grandeur and beauty of critical scholarship to be understood by the masses, the communication structures will avoid the facts of reality and tools of logic. Because slogans and bromides are easy for passive minds to accept as truth, their practice will be judged by the frequency with which they are repeated worldwide. This soliloquy will feature internationally acclaimed critical media stars: the Macedonian Content Farmers!

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/14/1943) “The work justified the verdict of its sponsors: it brought laughs, it was amusing; it was an indecent joke, acted out not on the stage but in the audience.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — The 2023 conference will see us look back at the first 40 years of the UDC, but we will also look ahead to consider the role of critical communication scholarship and activism in organizing, engaging, and energizing leftist alternatives to authoritarian politics.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): The set-up is that authoritarian politics are historically at odds with UDC’s leftist alternatives. The punchline is that the despotism and democracy are mutually exclusive, despite the evidence for anarchy in both. To prove the efficacy of groupthink, the audience will become jurors in a mock trial from 1960, affirm the conviction of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell, and prove that rights are assigned by the prevailing majority.

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “It was a pedestal from which a god had been torn, and in his place, there stood, not Satan with a sword, but a corner lout sipping a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — Media platforms and discourses are fertile ground for anti-democratic groups which have garnered funding and media attention that has seen formerly-fringe beliefs move toward the mainstream.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): The pedestal to be torn down is the Preface to America’s Declaration of Independence. As the target of Critical Theory, this monument to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and blind justice are to be replaced by protected groups. Enjoying the leisure that naturally proceeds from the practice of the principles they’re tearing down; the audience will declare them fringe beliefs. Independence had never been imagined, invented or claimed until 300 years ago, why let it go mainstream?

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “There was silence in the audience, puzzled and humble. When someone laughed, the rest joined in, with relief, glad to learn that they were enjoying themselves.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — Left Undone thus proposes a two-part call for clarity. What new theorization might be necessary to guide activism in the decades ahead?

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023) — The first call for clarity is to equalize the physical, intellectual, esthetic, ethnic, national, and economic differences into which all people are born and cannot control. The second call is to neutralize those who are more productive and goal-directed (volitional) for being oppressors. After all, most people are poor dumb slobs (equally volitional), life is mostly chaos, humility is a virtue, and earned pride is to be mocked.

ACT THREE

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “Jules Fougler had not tried to influence anybody; he had merely made clear — well in advance and through many channels — that anyone unable to enjoy this play was, basically, a worthless human being.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — It is time to engage challenging conversations among critical scholars across political economy, critical and cultural studies, science and technology studies, critical sociology, and their complementary fields to ask if a different foundation can be reshaped and built.

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): No doubt, today’s critical mass for poor dumb slobs is a cause for celebration. Nonetheless, critical studies funded by perpetual government programs are needed to stem the tide of authoritarian politics. The challenge is to double down on the foundations of critical sociology with new public/private partnerships. Reshaped from the wildly successful joint-stock communes of the 1619 Projects in Jamestown and Plymouth, challenging conversations can be built.

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “In the intermission, Wynand heard a stout woman saying: It’s wonderful. I don’t understand it, but I have the feeling that it’s something very important.”

UDC CONFERENCE (10/15/2023) — What role can critical communication scholarship and activism play in organizing resistance to authoritarian movements both in the U.S. and abroad?

SYNOPSIS (4/15/2023): The identity of these authoritarian movements cannot be discussed in polite company. Instead, the radical conformists in diversity officer positions at American universities, corporations, military, and federal agencies will play the critical communications role. Never has there been a more well compensated, indoctrinated, dedicated, and rested band of apparatchiks in authoritarian (the good kind) positions. Arbitrarily, this is wonderful and something very important.

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (4/15/1943) “I think we have a great deal in common, you and I. We’ve committed the same treason somewhere. Yes, I think that’s the right word. It’s the only one that has the feeling of what I mean.”

IMAGINED CONFERENCE CHORUS — You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one. Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. Yoo-hoo, ooh-ooh. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one. — John Lennon

SYNOPSIS: Another fine Weimar Germany production, Critical Theory is a brand of 20th century intellectualism founded in the 19th century socialism of Karl Marx and historicism of Georg Hegel. Despondent over the peaceful rise of mass prosperity, its goal is to negate the cause of 19th century miracles in science, economics, political rights, and the arts: material and spiritual independence.

DENOUEMENT

Fueled by the desire for unearned wealth and recognition, Critical Theory is the force of politics over the minds of men. Its tools are activism over logic, patronage over profits, emotion over reason, and guilt over pride. In other words, community cancelling property, bigotry superseding rights, and determinism paralyzing free-will.

To rationalize this, critical scholars have defined their enemy as “power structures.” It matters not whether it’s the economic power of voluntary production and trade or the political power of mandatory schooling and angry mobs. Furthermore, this brand of egalitarianism is the rotten core of injustice. When their professed love for mankind is predicated on hatred of man’s nature (malevolence), the categorical imperative is for each man to commit treason against their own sacred honor.

Likewise, life in a truly civilized, benevolent culture begins with the individual. As realized by the two characters attending the play, the last excerpt above from The Fountainhead is today’s wake-up call for rational introspection.

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Mark Shupe

Mark Shupe writes about economic and political freedom.