A new silly season

2008-12-08 00:00

It’s that time of year again. The time in which, as the hymn puts it, the “hopes and fears of all the years” blend and congeal. It’s a bittersweet time. It’s what’s known in the media as “the silly season”.

What does the silly season imply? Silly might mean a little loopy. In this sense, it might connote innocuous irresponsibility.

But silly might have harsher connotations. We might say: “What a silly thing to have done.” Damaging irresponsibility.

Silly might constitute an excuse or be inexcusable.

November 1 scarcely dawned and the malls filled with exotic artifice. Malls are always filled with the exotic. E-x-o-t-i-c: “non native”. E-x-o-t-i-c: “eye-catching”. Or again, e-x-o-t-i-c: “outlandish”.

Malls always attempt to seduce us to an elsewhere. Or to what appears to be an elsewhere. Read the names of shops. Look at the brand names on those exotic little bags containing dear goodies clutched by momentarily appeased shoppers, and one is not in Pietermaritzburg, Langlaagte or Johannesburg. One is in Milan, Paris, or New York. Swipe the plastic and be elsewhere.

Elsewhere only for a season. We always end up at home. In fact, we never left. This is the mendacious grammar of exotic shopping. Stepping into the fairyland of elsewhere we never left the native soil of selfhood and nationality. What we buy tells us who we are. Or who we’d like to be. Swipe the plastic and be elsewhere.

Have you noticed how our malls are inevitably indoor spaces, “shielding” us from the here and now? Step outside and the inevitable truth dawns: you’re still you and here is still here. Is it too grave in the silly season to stress that, like gravity, this selfhood thing remains put? That the children still grumble, that the partner is still fat, that the dog still needs deworming and that the cat’s inoculations are long overdue?

Cognitive dissonance.

If the exotic is not accessible via the predominant national pastime of shopping, do I veer towards some austere philosophy of anti-consumerism? I can’t do that. I am on the side of a better life for all.

For many, our new credo is something like this: “I shop, therefore I am.” And I have been suggesting that what one is, is confirmed not denied by the swiping of plastic in an exotic environment. Rampant consumers, we buy into things. We buy into our selfhoods. The exotic locale of the mall is where we most are what we are.

The exotic artifice that spread like glittering mange on November 1 is merely a different kind of mall-dressing. The silly season gives a particular kind of look, that’s all. It is green and silver and red, mainly. It tweaks childhood yearnings that have often become habituated.

Perhaps heretically, I think of this season as one especially attuned to youth and beauty. The old story about a baby born to redeem us. It mutates the ugly duckling: humble origins, the stable as the neo-natal ward and the myth of recovery. All of these have a potent pull: the “promise” of youth and the beauty of redemption.

Commercially, these qualities are embedded in the impulse to buy exotic things. We will be different in those jeans; on that sofa. The self reborn. The self redeemed from self, that tatty native. It’s silly to believe, even for a season, that the self might be redeemed by the label on a piece of cotton.

Politically we’re at an interesting point. Controversy over the name of a new political grouping: Congress of the People. Names can hurt. Names offer hope. Cope: hope chastened into an ability to cope? Cope. Christmas. The African National Congress. Can these labels become talismanic groupings of letters that will translate the hopes and fears of all the years into a means of being?

Voters are shoppers. Will marketing win out over scrutiny? Can we distinguish between the ANC and Cope? Is the country in a new silly season politically?

The silly season coincides with December 1, World Aids Day and the 16 Days of Activism of

Non-Violence Against Women and Children initiative. Despite antiretrovirals (the “Lazarus drugs”), for too many in this country life-saving drugs are too far away, are expensive or are too late. Silly. Many say this will be a bleak Christmas. They mean we will not be able to shop as liberally as we hoped. Silly. Then again, how can an assault on identity be silly?

Oh, it is bittersweet. It is exotic. And, yes, it is here, it is now.

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