Monday, November 23, 2009

The banality of banality

A few days ago I talked with a friend of mine, a photographer, about taking pictures of banal things. My friend is good in it but most photographers, professionals as well as amateurs, take photos of things that are striking in some way and that are therefore not banal by definition. What is beautiful; a place where something is happening, like an accident or a birthday party, a political fact; a place where we have been because we want to keep a memory of it. These are usual themes for photos. But most photographers do not make pictures of what they consider banal. An odd corner between houses with rubbish. A cable lying on the ground. Laundry on a line. Most photographers do not feel it worth to make a photo of it, unless it has a striking aspect, like a coloured detail which makes it artistically interesting, or when the photographer comes from a country where things are different.
It is the same for philosophy and sociology. Scholars in these fields tend to study what is conspicuous or important for some reason. Violence, the mind, power, and so on; themes that are very important, indeed, and that have a great influence on our life. But isn’t that true, isn’t that even more true for the banal?
Once I published here a blog about waiting. It was because of a few photos that I had taken of this theme. Some time later, I have googled the word. And what did I find? Nothing. Oh no, that is not true. I found my own blog (Google is an excellent searching machine), I found a website where my blog had been bookmarked, and in addition two or three other relevant websites. That was all. But despite the little attention given to waiting, it is an important aspect of our daily life and we spend a lot of time on it! For a substantial part, living is waiting.I’ll not try to give here a list of banal themes that would earn more attention in the sciences and philosophy of man, in my opinion. But is the banal really as banal as many people think? If we say no, it sounds like a contradiction, for we just take no notice of it because it is not worth to give it attention, and that is what makes the banal banal. This seems to be true unless we realize that the banal is often not as innocent as we think. We simply have to think of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is a book on the banality of evil as the subtitle stresses, for realizing that banality can be dangerous. And isn’t it so that the idea of “bread and circuses” shows that it is good for a dictator to promote the interest in the banal in order to stay in power?

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