The Catholic University of America
Sep 28 2011

At Extremes

Posted by Stephen J. McKenna at 9:41 AM

We  live, so it seems, in an age of extremes.  Perhaps it’s too obvious a point to dwell upon, but recent events from Washington to Norway have me circling in thought about the culture of extremes, and of extremisms.  To judge from our fondness for the word itself, Americans are quite happy with the idea of extreme culture.  Extreme weather explains away global climate change and makes good TV fare to boot.  Extreme sports bring daredeviltry somehow within the fold of healthy athleticism, while still letting the wingsuit flyer or buggy roller keep his sense of being  above you inside-the-envelope types.  (The symbiosis of extreme sports, body-mountable mini video cameras, and YouTube’s exhibitionist theater is a sure sign of the times.)  Extreme makeovers of homes and bodies are entrancing media spectacles that provoke viewers’ unsettled desire for some ineffable, radical change, then channel it towards attainable catalysts like high fiber cereal, light beer, and sleeved blankets.  We may feel great sympathy and approval for the foster-mom’s fabulous instant home-cum-amusement arcade, and so transfer that sympathy to Craftsman power tools.  We may feel a horrified superiority to the face-and/or-body makeover subject’s willingness to undergo plastic surgery on her extremities while we can happily suffice with some new deodorant or eyeliner.  Extreme rides, extreme weight loss, extreme couponing, extreme yoga.  There seems to be no end of it, which is, I suppose, one meaning of “extreme.”

Even where the word doesn’t figure, extremism infuses the cultural air.  And water: Discovery Channel’s marketing-blitz Shark Week—nearly every commercial vaunts a clever tie-in—is always big in my house.  But as I watched Shark Week shows with my kids this summer, I felt a quasi-bored annoyance as each successive segment took us—cue ominous cello notes—Free swimming! Out of the cage! With the tigers and whites!  And what one Blakean voice-over called their “fearsome dentition”!  We gazed at stunts that “dramatically increase the danger of an attack” (so warned our narrator, Frontline’s sober Will Lyman, moonlighting from his usual work in political documentary).  We lowered our slices of pizza to exchange the knowing glance that says, “But I can to bring that risk to zero!”   I keep thinking back to one free-diving, dorsal-fin riding sharkist—his graceful and solitary silhouette against the mirrored sea surface accompanied by an almost religiously contemplative soundtrack.  At one level it was clear he wanted to be the shark—the pure and extreme top predator, the organism beyond all argument—and yet also be the prey who craftily, or luckily, escapes being dinner.  He remarked, on coming up for air, “It was the most profound moment of my life.”

Perhaps this strange mixture of solipsistic yearning and deathless deathwishing puts us onto something about our extreme fondness for extremes.  It’s there too in performance art extremism, like extreme ironing, which points to the deconstructive core of the culture of extremes as issuing from a real human urge to connect with something beyond the mundane and ordinary but also and in the same moment dejectedly admitting that, whatever this extreme activity is, it won’t fulfill that need longer than a free dive or free fall (in both cases and on several levels a striking abuse of the word “free”).  There is no lasting transcendence in our culture of extremes, hence the compulsiveness of extreme activities and their spectation, as well as their inevitable entanglement with consumerism.  From this position, perhaps we can see the self-consuming contradiction of the extremist as one who puts herself beyond the usual range of human activity or beliefs, yet still asserts to belong to and to represent, even more organically and essentially somehow, the core reality of things. Extremism is thus a conflicted phenomenon, a No that asserts its Yes-ness, a perfectionism claiming pragmatism, a fundamental irrationality.  Perhaps this revelation, if it is one, applies even to political extremism, limning a basic incoherence in the term.
To be continued…