Gravitas and Levitas and the End of Ideology
In this post, I want to pick up and elaborate a bit on a theme that I raised in a comment thread to the posting “The Austerity Fraud“. It was in a comment in reply to LittleBigMan about political humour in the United States, and how you have these contrasting types — John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart in contrast to the conservative “heavies” such as Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Coulter, Beck, or Hannity, who are usually the targets of the light-hearted mockery and ridicule of the former (and the very “mass” of the latter presents a very big target, indeed).
What is happening in the United States in terms of its political culture is really quite fascinating, as it seems no longer to be so much about ideology and conflicts of ideology than it is about matters of mood; not so much the old “right versus left” contest, but gravitas versus levitas. In that sense, we can truly speak of “The End of Ideology” as Daniel Bell once anticipated.
One can’t help but notice how gravitas — or the spirit of gravity — weighs on the words of the conservative heavies. They are very self-important. They take themselves very seriously. They believe they alone deal with “weighty matters” but which often don’t look like “matters” at all. This gravitas they call their “realism”, and their “reality” as they pretend to know it is very, very serious business indeed. But like the force of gravity itself, that mood of gravitas seems to be attractive to many others who also take themselves and what they do very, very seriously. And yet, there is something altogether quite insincere in all this gravitas, — the force that drags down.
One could say that gravitas is the true conservative mood or style, even as it grows increasingly incoherent and unintelligible in ideological or philosophical terms (like the other grand ideologies of modernity). That very incoherence and insincerity (that which is called “willful ignorance”) is what makes the conservative pundits mentioned such tempting and irresistible targets for mockery and ridicule.
Nietzsche, for example, called this gravitas or “spirit of gravity” his enemy, and he represented it in the symbol of the dwarf (this dwarf being the contrary to his overman).This gravitas he contrasted that with his own “gaia scienza” — gay science or mirthful wisdom. This is levitas. It rises. It ascends. And in quite a few ways the great American political comedians mentioned are the practitioners of this gaia scienza, or mirthful wisdom.
But just as gravitas disguises a large dose of insincerity, the clown really disguises a large dose of sincerity behind his clowning and his “tom-foolery”. This tension between gravitas and levitas, and between the insincere and the sincere, is what makes the “Jon Stewart vs. Chris Wallace” interview that I watched on YouTube so interesting.
If you watch this contest between Stewart and Wallace carefully, you will see that neither is really speaking for themselves alone, but as representatives of different types. This is why Wallace has such a great deal of difficulty pinning Stewart down in the segment. Wallace is angling for an ideological declaration from Stewart in which Stewart will compromise himself publicly. Stewart is resisting and subsequently puts Wallace in his place. Stewart is correct. He remains uncompromised. It’s not about ideology, it’s about mood. It’s about levitas against gravitas, and even moreso of the sincere against the insincere.
I think there really is some justification in speaking of “the end of ideology”, and that like much else pertaining to “liquid modernity”, ideology is dissolving and disintegrating into self-contradiction also as a reflection of the breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness. What is replacing ideology is mood, which is something quite a bit less structured and more fluid than systematic thought.