In Kierkegaard's Reflektion?: Arcade Fire in a "Reflective Age"
Like Kierkegaard did more than a century-and-a-half ago, Arcade Fire has the courage to ask whether our experience of the world is really as spectral, thin, and shallow as it sometimes seems.
Around the time of the release of their latest album Reflektor, Arcade Fire's Win Butler revealed in interviews that one of the album's main conceptual and thematic inspirations was Søren Kierkegaard's acerbic little essay, "The Present Age". Published in Denmark in 1846, "The Present Age" was an attack on what Kierkegaard perceived as the shallowness and triviality of his day, which he describes as an age of lazy "reflection". He remarks, "The present age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence." Its condition, he goes on, "is that of a man who has only fallen asleep towards morning; first of all come great dreams, then a feeling of laziness, and finally a witty or clever excuse for remaining in bed."
For Kierkegaard, the reflective age is one of continual talk but very little action. This pull towards inactivity is nurtured by the constant empty chatter of the media and polite society, and by the incessant noisemaking of "advertisement" and "publicity", which offers constant distraction from the underlying paucity of meaning. "Nothing ever happens," says Kierkegaard, "but there is instant publicity about it," and so the age of reflection is defined by a sort of pathological "talkativeness" that "jabbers on incessantly about everything and nothing."
Amidst the clamour of this non-stop jabbering, Kierkegaard argues, "Only someone who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk and act essentially." Yet this essential silence -- at once "the essence of inwardness and the inner life" and the pre-requisite for meaningful speech and action -- is forgotten about, and indeed feared. In an age of decadent lethargy, lost in its own trivial amusements, "talkativeness" becomes afraid of the silence that would "reveal its emptiness".
It is not particularly hard to find in Kierkegaard's account of the reflective age a prophetic insight into our own day, in which the continuous production and reproduction of news and entertainment fuzzes away in the background of our everyday experience like a kind of white noise. In our own present age, the advertising and publicity industry functions as a sort of Huxleyian desire-therapy for the masses, subtly whispering in our ears, teaching us how and what to want on a daily basis. Everything always changes, there is always something new, and yet -- on a deeper level -- everything stays the same.
Certainly, Win Butler sees the parallels: "it sounds like he's talking about modern times," he said last year to Rolling Stone about Kierkegaard's essay. "He's talking about the press and alienation and you kind of read it and you're like, 'Dude, you have no idea how insane it's gonna get'." Their album's title, Reflektor, is a direct homage to Kierkegaard's description of this age of reflection, and to the continued resonances that Arcade Fire believe this description has today.
When Kierkegaard said that the talkativeness of his age was afraid of the silence that would reveal its emptiness, he meant that it was haunted by the fear that it jabbers on because it has nothing really to say. It fears that its constant talking is a means of concealing a deeper absence of meaning and connection. It is precisely this anxiety that stalks much of Arcade Fire's Reflektor. This is especially the case with the album's title track, which addresses directly the seeming lack of solidity and depth in our contemporary experience of the world. The song speaks to the fear that our experience is just "a reflection of a reflection of a reflection", a sort of hall of mirrors that causes us to confuse meaning for its absence. In somewhat clichéd fashion, for example, it worries that despite our increasing technological connectedness, we are growing more distant from one another: "The signals we send are deflected again / We feel so connected, but are we even friends?" And again: "I thought I'd found a way to enter; it was just a reflector / I thought I found the connector / It was just a reflector."
Yet where Kierkegaard spoke to his reflective age as a kind of outsider, Win Butler speaks as one who inhabits it, yet with significant discomfort as to what that means. The potential hollowness of current existence is front and centre -- the image invoked is that of a chimerical semi-existence: "Entre la nuit, la nuit et l'aurore / Entre le royaume des vivants et des morts," which translates as, "Between the night, the night and the dawn / Between the realm of the living and the dead." Of course, the question as to whether there is or is not something more substantial underlying our contemporary way of life is never given an answer. Indeed, it is simply the felt existence of the question which haunts.
After the title track, we don't really return to these concerns until the (comparably much darker) second half of the record. "Here Comes the Night Time II" immediately strikes a much more ominous tone than does its carnivalesque sister track on the first disc. Here the "night" implies negativity and estrangement ("I hurt myself again / Along with all my friends"), rather than celebration and festivity.
After this, the anxiety voiced in Reflektor on disc one is refocused around the authenticity of our claims to love and to be loved, and gestures again at the hollowness and transience of our relationships. In "Awful Sound" this is bound up with the theme of silence: "when I say I love you, your silence covers me / Oh Eurydice, it's an awful sound." This invokes Kierkegaard's idea mentioned above that, in a reflective age, silence is feared because it threatens to reveal our emptiness. When it continues, "We know there's a price to pay, for love in a reflective age," we are left to wonder whether this price is perhaps love itself, in any meaningful and lasting form. In track three, which like its predecessor muses on the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, despite the repeated refrain of "It's never over," the song concludes, "Reflected light, a hollow moon / It's over too soon." Here again, what was thought to have permanence proves to be short-lived.
In "Porno", the theme of silence briefly re-emerges, again as that which reveals emptiness or absence: "Before the break up, comes the silence." The track as a whole wrestles with problems of distance and detachment -- "I thought I knew you / You thought you knew me"; "Can you see me? Something's wrong..." -- and concludes with Butler almost pleading to be told of love's reality (even its negative reality): "You say love is real like a disease / Come on tell me please..."
Indeed, these anxieties reach a certain crescendo in "Afterlife", which again wrestles with a creeping sense of distance and detachment, and the fear that what one thought to be genuine connection will ultimately turn out to have been a deception, a kind of spectre. The lines, "I've gotta know...Can we work it out? / If we scream and shout, till we work it out? / Can we just work it out?," are repeated throughout, alongside the melancholic question, "Oh, when love is gone, where does it go?" At the song's conclusion we're left simply with bare hopelessness: "We know it's gone, but where did it go? Where do we go?"
As in the album's title-track, in "Afterlife", it is the insolubility of these questions that haunts the listener. This introduces the possibility that love itself is a kind of illusion, a reflection of a reflection, just another hall of mirrors. And, if it is -- if "real" connection is impossible -- we are led to ask the final question of "where do we go", of how we are to go about situating ourselves in the world, of whether we are not somehow cut adrift.
One might dismiss all this as self-indulgent nonsense. Surely questions as to the solidity of our experience of life must go by the wayside once one embarks, like any "normal person", upon the gritty business of mortgages and pensions? Perhaps Arcade Fire are rich brats with too much time on their hands, sitting around nursing their various existential crises, moaning about modern about society while simultaneously benefiting from it in the form of album sales and gig tickets.
First, however, it's worth saying that this line of "realist" cynicism ignores the very real grasp that Reflektor seems to have on some of the chief anxieties of our day. A late- or postmodern age is one that has rejected grand narratives, or all-encompassing stories about the world and our place in it as humans. With the continuous stream of words, sounds, and images poured forth on television, radio, and internet, we are indeed more "talkative" than ever before. Yet this talkativeness co-exists with a kind of collective fear that, if the cacophony were to die down for a moment, it would reveal a fundamental emptiness or void. Are we speaking about something or nothing with our many words? Given that we have no grand narratives that we can agree on, what grounds our experience of the world, or is it groundless? Are we simply spinning towards our own extinction, distracting ourselves from this simple fact with endless chatter and a magpie-like collection of shiny, pretty things? Is there more than this? Does this matter? Not everyone asks these questions, but many do, and Reflektor articulates them well.
Similarly, we apparently want to be more connected, and we continually invent new tools to help us towards this end. Yet this gives rise to paradoxical new insecurities. The phenomenon of being alone together, the peculiar isolation of the socially-networked self, leads to a basic ambivalence about whether our connection with others is real or illusory, and about how this might be determined. This sense of alienation is also a characteristic of the late-modern consumer, a being whose desire dances skittishly from object to object without satisfaction, satiation, or respite, always seeking something new with which to amuse itself. The social theorist Zygmunt Bauman has described the consumer self as one who ultimately desires nothing other than the continuation of her own desire, and who, in the end, therefore desires nothing at all -- a hall of mirrors indeed. As Bauman says, for those who inhabit this consumerised world, "you may do all sorts of things except one: to declare, after Goethe's Faust, 'O moment, you are beautiful, last forever!'." The various images of transience and impermanence on Reflektor, the doubts about the depth of our experience and the accompanying sense of aimlessness and rootlessness, all fit here.
So, Reflektor nudges at the some of the chief anxieties of our day. Lending further weight to Arcade Fire's claims to critical depth is their continued attachment to Haiti, both a musical and conceptual influence on this album. Butler has commented that "Going to Haiti...was the beginning of a major change in the way that I thought about the world," and Arcade Fire continue to devote significant efforts, as they have for many years, to helping the Haitian people. Of course, for a time, after the earthquake in 2010, Haiti's poverty and suffering were subject to one of the West's brief media-driven "bursts of enthusiasm," as Kierkegaard would have put it. Although there is still significant charitable work done in that country, much of the popular fervour has passed, and Haitians have been left largely to their own devices. Moreover, those Westerners that do come to help often do so with an unacknowledged condescension. This is what Butler is referring to in "Here Comes the Night Time", with the lyric, "The missionaries, they tell us we'll be left behind / We've been left behind a thousand times." Expanding on this line in interview, Butler referred to "the absurdity that you can go to a place like Haiti and teach people something about God. Like, the opposite really seems to be true, in my experience. I've never been to a place with more belief and more knowledge of God."
Butler doesn't seem to be speaking just about religious belief here, but a whole way of life. By way of comparison, in the 1960s, when the United States was sending large numbers of missionaries and aid workers to help "develop" Latin America -- and causing untold cultural damage in the process -- the late Catholic radical Ivan Illich called for the realisation from Westerners "that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared." Arcade Fire's love for the life and vitality of Haitian culture might be seen as the flipside of their anxious questioning of the aliveness of their own culture. Haiti acts for them as kind of contrast case to the West, a place that has retained through poverty and suffering the depth and vibrancy of its way of life. In this sense, the Kierkegaardian melancholy evident in Reflektor's darker moments on is perhaps only one side of the coin, counterbalanced by, in particular, the rhythms of Haitian rara music and all that that evokes.
Here, however, we must return to lingering questions about the integrity of Arcade Fire's critical project, since they themselves appear -- in many ways -- to be complicit in the very cultural habits and practices they critique. First off, for example, is the fact that Reflektor, what with all the guerrilla marketing and release of cryptic snippets, was subject to a masterful promotional campaign designed precisely for the age of social media. Do Arcade Fire not benefit far more than many others from the kinds of mass cultural hype that Kierkegaard anticipated and denounced in "The Present Age"? Is this not fundamental to their success, and does the critique not apply to them too? Is this not just rank hypocrisy? Second, Arcade Fire's use of Haitian musical forms could easily be interpreted in terms of the sort of cynical cultural appropriation typical of Western globalized capitalism. Again, even though Butler has said they're not trying to "play Haitian music", from a certain perspective they might be seen as guilty of the very practices Butler otherwise condemns.
How to respond constructively to these potential criticisms is a difficult question, but an answer may be found in the form of Reflektor itself. Whereas Kierkegaard's stance in "The Present Age" was to stand over-against the society in which he found himself, diagnosing and dismantling its shallowness and superficiality from a distance, in Reflektor Arcade Fire articulate the anxieties of the late-modern age very much as participants in it. In other words, it is they themselves -- and not some theoretical other -- who seem to feel and fear these anxieties, and bring them into speech, without necessarily seeing or offering a way out. Reflektor, in a sense, itself reflects the cultural bind in which it finds itself, and we can interpret this, perhaps, as Arcade Fire's tacit recognition of their own complicity in a reflective age. They are not, I don't think, claiming to be apart from this age, or to have withdrawn from it into a sphere of relative purity -- there is more ambivalence than that -- How could they? They've won Grammys. Is this a weakness?
Well, it is and it isn't. For those of a revolutionary disposition, who brook no compromises, it of course must be. But one can perhaps be more generous. The German critical theorist Theodor Adorno once remarked, in his Minima Moralia, that "He who stands aloof runs the risk of believing himself better than others and misusing his critique of society as an ideology for his private interest." Insofar as Arcade Fire do hold themselves aloof, while feathering their own nests with the proceeds of their album and ticket sales, they can be regarded as guilty of this. Yet, as we have seen, their position is in some ways more complex, at least on Reflektor, where they appear very much as participants and sharers in the various cultural predicaments they also want to critique. Adorno said that "There is no way out of entanglement," and that "the detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant." It may be that, in some way, Butler and co. realise their own entanglement in the late-modern cultural morass, and that this realisation finds expression in the ambivalences of Reflektor.
Musically, Reflektor isn't an easy record. The fussiness of its composition and production means it takes longer to endear itself than any of the band's previous work. But, difficult or not, it articulates the anxieties of the late-modern condition in a distinctive and individual way. The repeated question is whether our experience of the world is really as spectral, thin, and shallow as it sometimes seems today -- if it is anything more than a "reflection of a reflection of a reflection." If, as Kierkegaard suggested, a talkative age is "afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness," then one of the reasons we keep talking is to avoid facing up to such questions. Amidst the overwhelming banality of much popular music, at least Arcade Fire have the courage to ask them.
And perhaps, in asking them, they also raise the possibility -- for some at least -- of a return to that "essential silence" of which Kierkegaard spoke, which is the prerequisite for more meaningful speech and action. For many, of course, the questions don't matter, and there are also those who would rather we didn't ask them. But they probably do matter. Written on one of Win Butler's old guitars was a Haitian proverb, in Creole, "sak vide pa kanpé," which roughly translates as "an empty sack cannot stand up".
Simon Ravenscroft is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @S_R_Ravenscroft.