Monday, December 20, 2010

Flash Mobs To Make Chesterton Smile (Or: Why Hallelujah Choruses in Shopping Malls Make Me Feel A Bit Dirty)

I don't know if you've heard of a "flash mob", but wikipedia defines it as "a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual act for a brief time, then disperse." It is generally thought not to apply to "events organized by public relations firms, protests, and publicity stunts" but to random people who want to be a bit zany.

The ones that I have come across have been relatively harmless. Usually what they do is startle people in public places with a bit of spontaneity, personality, or perhaps juxtaposed reality. For example:

I think that such flash mobs might make GK Chesterton smile. He thought that good things get old and routine only because we lose the imagination to keep them fresh and vital. This is one of the themes of his most playful (and second best) novel, Manalive. Dale Ahlquist describes the novel this way:
The hero of the story has the best name of any of Chesterton’s characters, and one of the best names in all of fiction: Innocent Smith. “Smith” is the name of the Common Man. “Innocent” is the name of purity and sweetness and awe at the universe. It is not ignorance. It is a knowledge unsullied by cynicism. Innocent Smith is a man who keeps the commandments and breaks the conventions. He is the opposite of the modern man whom Chesterton describes in his famous essay, “On Lying in Bed”: “Our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change.” Innocent Smith knows how to change his lunch. He has a picnic - on the roof! And when he breaks the conventions, he is often mistaken for breaking the commandments. He breaks, for instance, into a house late at night, just like a thief. But it is his own house. He has a torrid love affair. With his own wife. He then leaves his home and his wife, and travels all the way around the world so that he may return home. Taking the long way home, as it were. The ultimate purpose of any trip is to get home. No matter where we go, home is our destination.... Some think he is quite mad, and they seek to have him put away, where he will no longer bother to them. Some think is the first sane person they have ever met, that knowing him is like stepping into the light for the first time.

Within reason, I think flash mobs are continuous with the Chestertonian spirit and can inject a bit of life and personality into our public spaces. Check out the Star Wars subway car, the Tourist Lane, and I Love Lunch: The Musical.

Of course, if they are merely publicity stunts, if they shame people, if they manipulate spectators, if they are less than creative or if they are potentially destructive in some way -- then to varying degrees they might not be all that good.

One of the flash mobs that has been making news lately is the choral presentation of the Hallelujah chorus in a shopping mall. For instance, see this one in a food court. Most people seem to think this is really cool. Me not so much.

I don't doubt that it has and could be done with the best of motives and with some good results. I guess I can see how it could be fun, and perhaps even poignant to some degree. Truth is, at first they make me smile a little bit. But after the whole thing has gone on for a bit, and when it is all said and done, it feels kind of dirty to me.

I wasn't sure why until James Smith put his finger on it over on his blog. He gave two reasons, both of which have to do with context. I'll put the first one in my own words and then quote his second one verbatim:

First, the Hallelujah chorus in a shopping mall has absolutely no context. It is like k.d. Lang singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at the Olympics: It sounds beautiful but we have no idea what it means. Though "hallelujah" literally means "Praise Yahweh", we can only assume that those who are not Jews or Christians mean it in the vaguest sense possible as an exclamation of joy or perhaps praise of some ambiguous deity. So what on earth does it mean to sing it in a mall? My guess is that it conjures up some sort of sense of transcendence, and in December performances also some sort of holiday spirit; some sort of tip of the hat to the "true meaning of Christmas", however conceived.

This could be harmless enough, and perhaps even positive. Such an interruption into the shopping mall routine might kindle in spectators a spark of reflection that could take them in a positive direction. I hope so. But I think more often than not the result is something along the lines of James Smith's second objection:

Second, these irruptive events do nothing to counter the formative effects and disordered telos of the mall's consumerism. Indeed if anything, they provide comfort to such practices--injecting a little dose of transcendence into the frantic pursuit for stuff, thus leaving the shoppers to happily continue on their way after the event.

Only now with the Vague Lord's blessing on all that marketplace clamor.

I realize I come off bah-humbug. In fact, that's what I thought of James Smith's objections at first. But I think there is something worth pointing out here, and it is not unrelated to the issue of whether we should complain when the general public stops saying "Merry Christmas". It is often argued that this is a bad thing, but to me it seems like if people stop misusing the words -- co-opting them for at best a banal and at worst a blasphemous meaning -- then perhaps they can mean what they mean again.

In any case, I'm sure there are those who'd be irritated by what I've said. I mean this (somewhat) lightheartedly and am happy to hear you out. I'm sure I'll be in a mall myself by week's end and I sure as heck will smile if I come across a thoughtful and creative Innocent Smith or two. In that spirit, I intend to have a happy Christmas, and sincerely wish you the same.

(Oh, and check out this hypothetical enactment of a flash mob gone wrong!)


jonkramer said...

Got forwarded that Hallelujah one a couple weeks ago.
To me, the thing that cheapens the whole event and makes it feel "dirty" is that it's videotaped. The way I see it - the end goal of the flashmob wasn't to bless people or to do something beautiful and out of the ordinary for those who were there- it was to record the event and put it on youtube for everyone else.
Reminds me of my parents' experience of attending the Gibson's Finest CFL Awards in Winnipeg a few years ago. The show is "made for TV" - so the audience is merely a prop - clapping on cue, etc. - kinda lame.
To me, it's about the integrity of the event - if it were just for those people, then that'd be special - something unique - but when it's spread all over, it's just "meh".
Like in marriage, it's the things that we keep "just between us" that are the truest and best.

Jon Coutts said...

Excellent point (even the links to harmless flashmobs that I gave are nearly ruined by the fact that they are all obviously staged for youtube). You have just bested my post my friend. Have a good Christmas.

Virtual Methodist said...

To a certain degree I would agree with you... especially when you coinsider that the said flashmob was actually a photography company's promo... However, singing hallelujah is no more without context in a 21st century shopping mall, than it was in an 18th century seedy dublin music hall... the original context... not some pious performance in a place of worship... When challenged on this very point (by an anglican cleric) Hangel is said to have quoted the line from the oratorio "The kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our God and his Christ". This is the very point I made when I used this video in our Carol service... saying that even tho the intention of the video was commercial profit the God who came to earth in Christ can subvert even the travesty that has become the celebration of his birth... if we follow him and not the well worn path to worship at the temple of mammon. This point can also be made using the other flashmob Hallelujah chorus under the Acts of Random Culture in Macy's... because even if it wasn't recorded for commercial purposes, there has never been a finer temple to mammon than macy's!

Jon Coutts said...

Virtual methodist: I can appreciate the subversive element a lot. In fact, if I felt like more people got the subversion of Mammon I'd be much happier with it. So I applaud what you've made of it and am grateful for what you've pointed out. And the bit about Handel is fascinating, if not powerful. Thanks for the comment!

Jon Coutts said...

This discussion has been furthered here: