Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The New American Philistine

Recently I received an email which read, in part, “you are often railing against the philistines, but you have yet to really define who they are.  Just so I fully understand your points of view, who are these philistines that you see every day, and how can I recognize them?”
Good questions all.  You correspondent must confess that defining the contemporary philistine is a formidable task: the picture must, thanks to the rapidity of change, shift too fast and too regularly for a concrete definition to take hold.  However, like the good judge and pornography, I know it when I see it and so, in that spirit, following are some of the defining traits of the new American philistine.
None of these characteristics, separately or in-and-of-themselves, are enough to label one a philistine, but one or more are a sure sign of cultural and intellectual decay.
Multiple tattoos, for instance, or, anyone with tattoos that are visible when fully dressed.  Why this repulsive, tribal holdover has reemerged is a mystery of terrifying potency; at times, it almost seems as if modern man wishes to run around in grass skirts and nose bones, which leads us to the next signifier.
Multiple piercings – if an individual is pierced in the eyebrow, nose, tongue, perineum, lip or has more ear holes than a rotary phone, then a charge of philistinism is warranted.  In fact, I had recently seen a woman with so many piercings in her lip that watching her drink was like looking at a fountain.
If underwear is at all visible when fully clothed, then that person is a philistine (and rather unhygienic, to boot).  Similarly, if trousers are worn so low on the body that running becomes impossible, you are witnessing witless philistinism.  Such individuals invariably have photographs of themselves with: a baseball cap turned sideways or backwards, thumb-index-and-pinky-finger extended, tongue pointed at camera, or, a gun.
If you are near someone listening to an iPod, MP3 player or similar device through earphones and you can hear the music, you are near a philistine.  If you can hear the music through their earphones more than two feet away, it is quite possible that the wearer is not only a philistine, but functionally brain dead.  The same is true of car stereos audible outside of the actual car itself.  Which leads us to another indication…
If the subject is interested in rock (be it ‘classic,’ glitter, glam, pop, bubblegum, hard or whatever), funk, rapp, hip hop, reggae, gangsta, disco, gospel or soul, then you are dealing with a philistine.  This, I’m afraid, is beyond debate.
If the person in question owns fewer than 25 books (not including, of course, children’s books and/or comics and ‘graphic novels’), then they are a philistine.  Similarly, a taste for Dan Brown, Harold Robbins, or Harry Potter is highly suspect.
A philistine thinks movies made pre-1980 are ‘old,’ refuses to watch anything in black-and-white or with subtitles, and equates box office success with quality. 
If the television is on whenever the subject is at home, they are a philistine.  If they have a predilection for Mad Men, they are a philistine with pretentions.
If artistic tastes run towards graffiti, ‘tagging’ or other forms of public vandalism, then you’re dealing with a philistine.
If tastes turn towards ‘art’ that incorporates any of the of the following – feces, urine, decapitated cows, lard, blood or detritus – then that individual has surpassed philistinism and entered barbarism.  If you have paid a considerable amount of money for a signed urinal, ‘street art,’ a soup can label or a bucket of broken glass, you are not just a philistine, but a sucker, as well.
The philistine decorates their home with ‘collectibles’ issued by the Franklin Mint.  Often, there is at least one picture of a napping puppy, throw pillows with ‘cute’ phrases stitched into them or potpourri.  If you, gentle reader, find yourself in such an atmosphere, run for the nearest exit.
These are the signifiers that immediately come to mind.  I now open the floor to my readers – how do you define the new American philistine?


Masha Falkov said...

Greetings James Abbott,

I stumbled upon your article, "The New American Philistine", and could not help but feel a tad of indignation for philistines like myself. Your definition is vague, many years out of date and is rather Victorian in essence, in that dwellers of Victorian England would label an entire culture without knowing a thing about it.

We philistines are a proud people. Our title either refers to ancient Palestinians, or people who care nothing for art nor culture (whose art? whose culture, really?). However, the definition does not match the use of the word. It appears that the mark of a true philistine is the love of art and culture so alien, that it is repugnant to those who cannot see beyond its superficial difference and feel the need to state its inferiority.

It's true, philistines like myself often wear multiple piercings. There are many reasons to get pierced, from enjoying the pain of metal passing through one's body and sporting a souvenir thereof, to merely an aesthetic preference. For some, it is to replicate the rite of passage most non-industrialized cultures of the world have used for thousands of years. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, the modern industrialized world has no tangible rite of passage for young men (and women) to recognize that they have become so. Adulthood for many is vastly dictated by advertising and institutions - untrusted by any good philistine- so, in Campbellian tradition, we must invent our rites. Piercing is sometimes one of them.

Many of us wear tattoos, though even the most accepting philistine would frown upon the recklessness with which some individuals walk into a parlor, without researching art or artist, point at a flash
design, and ask to have it permanently etched on their body. Many philistines work with an artist to get a design that is truly meaningful and representative of one's life philosophy. I am not tattooed myself. For me personally, it is not the permanence of the medium that is worrisome, but rather its impermanence. Tattoo ink fades and blurs with time, and will not look as beautiful ten years past its creation. Until an archival quality tattoo is invented I personally will abstain - though will look with admiration upon the works of beauty some of my peers' bodies have become.

I can recognize a fellow philistine and he or she most certainly no longer listens to rock music, for it has made far too much an impact on musical culture to even bat an eyebrow these days. Mick Jagger, whose image once lay beside the dictionary definition of 'philistine', is beknighted, and the Beatles' revolutionary chord changes have finally been recognized by even the most jaded music critic. True philistines these days relish the sound of electronic music. Be it the tentatively experimental shades of Stockhausen from its inception, to the progressive, repetetive psytrance melodies, electronic music is the medium of choice. The grinding rumble of the dubstep genre inspires so much cognitive dissonance that the uninitiated wonder how it can garner any enjoyment at all. It is true, the visceral rhythms of hip-hop, gangsta-rap, and trip-hop still remain favorites on the philistine's musical playlists. Unfortunately, certain artists' notions of paradise -violence, the subjugation of women, and the use of low-quality drugs- offend the taste of the most all-embracing philistine and therefore remain ignored by us as a group.

There is a length limit for the comments, so I will post my response in two parts.

-Masha Falkov

Masha Falkov said...

A true philistine has read many books, a sizable portion of them graphic novels. Graphic novels are a medium so extraordinary- combining the art of illustration and fine writing - that the non-philistine is too unsophiticated to understand it, and has probably never even opened a copy of "The Sandman" by Neil Gaiman, "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, or "The Watchmen" by Alan Moore. The non-philistine merely pigeonholes those magnificent works with traditional superhero comics. That is perfectly fine for us, for the last thing we need is for the unitiated to try to "critique" a masterpiece when they clearly lack the education and vocabulary to properly do so.

True philistines' headphones emit no sound, as they have spent an exorbitant amount of money to keep the music in and ambient noise out. Now if you see one wearing BOSE phones and can hear them from more than six inches away, that is truly cause for regret. Perhaps they are not brain-dead, but their requests for you to repeat yourself many times over might certainly make it seem so. Most music concerts are played much too loud and a good philistine carries heavy-duty earplugs to enjoy an amazing effect: The louder the music is, the more it is felt, literally, in one's bones - a delightful experience if the eardrums are well-protected. Personally I prefer quiter shows, but sometimes the only way to see one's favorite band is to carry proper ear protection.

Philistines have a word for posters of napping puppies and emroidered pillowcases. It's "kitsch". Many debates are held among us as to what is kitsch and what isn't. On occasion Norman Rockwell has made the ranks of kitsch, on others mailboxes carved into a bear or a dolphin. We do not understand what compels humans to buy kitsch, only the shame that in our secret heart, something that we love dearly would be considered kitsch by a peer. No matter how many times I explain to my friends that the airbrushed painting of an outerspace scene evokes themes of Ernst Fuchs, uses techniques invented by Max Ernst, to them it was still created by a homeless person in a matter of minutes using a method resembling an assembly line.

Finally, a true philistine's ideals revolve around the respect for others to modify their bodies as they so desire, and to withhold judgement of others based on a factor so insignificant as one's choice of style or taste in art. Whether they wear an Armani suit or dreadlocks with giant beads, their choices for donning either remain hidden to us until we speak to them. Among us, judging an entire group (unless they're clearly violent or militant) is considered, at best, impolite. A true philistine understands that there is much to be learned from the very things we understand least, and therefore fear or despise most.

I hope that this contributes to your concept of The New American Philistine. Kudos on your insightful blog!

Philistinically yours,
Masha Falkov

RobinJThomson said...

Viz. "...the rapidity of change..."; Unless you are typing about a vending machine in some sort of post modern non sequitur you mean "the rapid rate of change". As for the (ahem) "article" - what a pseuds thrashabout.

James Abbott said...

A cogent and well-reasoned rebuttal. Congratulations.