Open Thread: Are We Really Living in the Age of Silly?

Lee Siegel’s new book, Are You Serious? How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly, is out, so we thought it was as good a time as any to discuss the idea that few people are taken seriously these days, as levity is often valued over sober criticism. In one of the opening chapters, Siegel mentions the case of Socrates in order to show the difference between viewing seriousness as “reasoning power and moral courage” within individuals, and the public face of seriousness, which is displayed by stoic generals and heads of state. (And is generally considered to be self-important and boring.) He then mentions that 9/11 was supposed to usher in a new age of seriousness, but instead just brought military opportunism and the supposed death of irony, along with pomo nihilism, which just sucked the air out of the room.

Siegel discusses the incredible impact of the post war intellectuals that influenced so many writers and artists thereafter, from John Updike to Jackson Pollock. So where are the Lionel Trillings and Dwight MacDonalds of our day? Siegel writes that “the intellectual was replaced by the well-remunerated academic whose seriousness seemed less organic than institutionally derived.” Through this, topics became ghettoized, separated from the public eye. And intellectuals become suspect. So what happens when the “cultural elite” gets put into scare quotes? It becomes a joke. The one good thing that came out of all this is Jon Stewart, who Siegel calls “by far the most serious and consequential comedian around.” Stewart is the voice of the angry everyman who is taking all of this bloated political rhetoric very seriously. And politicians and newscasters respect him for this quality.

A few weeks back, Julie Klausner mentioned a similar phenomenon on her Tumblr. She writes, “I’m begging age-appropriate females: Read something written before you were born. Stand up straight. Make sure you own one piece of jewelry that you did not purchase on Etsy.” Also: enough with the fucking birds.

As Klausner states, the problem with this twee, cutesy behavior in young (and older) women is that no one can take you seriously when you’re wearing an outfit and accessories that were once the domain of the slouchy preteen. She urges readers to step up and become women, because “the larger issue is that it is a lot easier for men — or even guys or bros — to demean us, if we’re girls.” In other words, playground politics shouldn’t rule your life, ladies. It’s time to start acting your age. The same goes for the “guys or bros” Klausner writes about — those dudes who would rather have a date sitting in front of an XBox than sitting across from someone and having a conversation about things larger than your fantasy worlds.

Maybe we all need to grow up a little and read something more like How Proust Can Change Your Life, rather than Your Handwriting Can Change Your Life! In other words, let’s all try for less self help and more self regard. Even though we have to admit that we’ve never been a fan of Marcel, we think we just might pick it up and start thinking deeply about our lives before we all end up in some future version of Idiocracy.

What do you think, dear readers? Are we living in an age of silliness and self-absorption or is this time no different than any other?