A Ku Indeed!

What Was Britney Thinking?

Posted in Existentialism, Life by Chris on January 14, 2008

top1235.jpgKierkegaard (19th century Danish philosopher) wrote a great criticism of what he called “the present age” — in it, he essentially argued that it had no passion, that the people living in it were existing like zombies. His specific criticism is complicated, but the basic nuts and bolts of it are easy to state. He thought that our age (we are the present age) was too detached from life. We like, he said, to be spectators in life instead of participators. We like to dabble in meaningless topics that have little to do with our lives, and that we generally seek out anything that allows us to participate anonymously in conversations dominated by “them” (the crowd, the public).

Mostly we do this because we’re afraid of making commitments to living in passionate ways regarding the realities of our lives. For the most part, he thought that we ran from taking stands on our own lives, and how to shape them because devoting real time to committing to life results in U-Hauls full of anxiety. And people don’t like anxiety!

One of Kierkegaard’s main targets in his attack was the press. In Kierkegaard’s time, the mass-circulation press was still a fairly new thing. To Kierkegaard, the press stood for a great danger, because it allowed — for the first time — the temptation of “crowd dwelling” to spread even further than ever before. Through the media the spread of “them” grows with leaps and bounds. We feel the strong pull to get involved with the lives of distant others, to generate opinions based on little to nothing about topics we aren’t directly related to. Think of the National Enquirer or Star — or any of the millions of reality shows on television. Hell, think of Facebook! For Kierkegaard, it’s all just distraction from life.

This whole criticism was in my head today with all of this Britney Spears stuff going on. It made me think of that great SNL skit, “What Was Britney Thinking?” where Pat O’Brien is walking around repeating that question over and over while world shattering events happen around him (UFOs landing next to him, etc) but he doesn’t notice because Spears is all he can think about. (I tried to find the clip but it’s impossible to find).

Is Kierkegaard right? Is the modern age particularly non-passionate in this way? Do we now, more than ever before, live in an age of distraction, one in which we desperately seek to join the crowd through non-risky involvements in causes and topics that don’t really mean much to our actual lives?

Reality Check: We have two laptops and a desktop at home. On one laptop and the desktop my wife had the “live feed” from TMZ on to see if Spears would show up to court. I would wave my hand in front of my wife’s eyes and she’d just say, “What was Britney thinking?”

Okay, maybe I looked now and again too. Sorry, Kierkegaard.

7 Responses

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  1. lindsey said, on January 14, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Having just spent the last 30 minutes reading trashy blogs about celebrity gossip instead of engaging in a real conversation with Mark (who is sitting nearby) or actually getting out and doing something with my life, I am incredibly inclined to agree with Kierkegaard.

    It is so much easier for me to distract myself by being concerned with a celeb’s pregnancy than worry about what I’m going to do after grad school.

    Ouch. Reality checks hurt.

    (But Mark just pointed out to me that this sort of thing always happens whenever a society reaches a point where we can afford leisure time. Except now the stories about Zeus and his many love affairs have been replaced with LiLo’s latest drinking binge.)

  2. eyeingtenure said, on January 14, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Living vicariously through the lives of others is a distraction from one’s own life, sure.

    To each their own. Isn’t there a certain passion in obsessiveness?


  3. Chris said, on January 15, 2008 at 9:18 am


    Kierkegaard (as an Existentialist) would most certainly disagree. I think he’d say there can be a kind of frantic desperation about a person who is obsessively addicted to superficially ‘consuming’ other people lives, but he’d certainly never say that it was passionate.

  4. eyeingtenure said, on January 15, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    What’s the crucial difference between frantic desperation and Kierkegaard’s passion, then?


  5. Chris said, on January 18, 2008 at 8:21 pm


    Passion is the desire to engage your life and be a certain type of person, to pick an identity and to forge ahead with it as a life-goal. It’s a kind of intensity of action, not a ‘franticness’ of action. Desperation is more like the attempt to look for distractions FROM engaging with your life.

  6. eyeingtenure said, on January 18, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Okay. I see a difference, but a small and narrow difference. Here’s how I figure that.

    There is a type of person these days who is a self-involved expert on celebrity. This type of person, with identifiable sort of success and popularity, is seen on the television by a second person.

    Person 2 finds the celebrity expert enthralling, and seeks to emulate that. Picking that identity, he forges ahead with it as a life goal — to harness success, self-assurance and fame through gossip. Yet that’s desperation.

    To borrow a term from the Psychology of Teaching class I took last semester, is it that passion has an internal, rather than desperation’s external locus? Is that the essential difference?

  7. Kevin said, on January 24, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Great post. A word of encouragement across the abyss of time back to ’08.

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