Complexity, dumbing-down, Go set a watchman, To kill a mockingbird

Toronto                                                                                                                                                  (c) Koen Douterloigne
Throughout my childhood and young adult life, while teachers and people were still telling me things before the advent of adult silence, I constantly recall hearing advice such as "don't try to do too much", "keep it simple", "simple is better". This applied to writing, projects, means of expression, art, work, etc. In short, I heard it everywhere. Although I don't hear it any more, I'm sure that these words are leveled as criticism of our peripatetic and transposition project.

The "keep-it-simple" approach has worked very well in a number of areas - first and foremost: business. A product is made easy to use; the marketing team develops direct messages for its promotion; the simple benefits are easy to remember and repeat in social circles; the benefits will allegedly contribute to a slight improvement in your standard of living; word-of-mouth publicity increases familiarity; people get excited; happiness is on the doorstep, and so it goes...
Toronto                                                                                                                                               (c) Koen Douterloigne
Another area where I used to hear about it and still read about it is in literature. Perhaps this is why so much contemporary literature is so nauseating. Here I'm thinking about a biography on Henry James that I recently read. It was written by a dilettante (as far as I can tell it is no longer available) who focused primarily on where James went when and what his financial situation was. The author did an excellent job of keeping it simple, the trouble was, you couldn't possible be interested in the biography, which gives us a nice segue to the opposite view.

The counterargument is that this keep-it-simple approach leads to oversimplification as well as a lack of depth and complexity. I like to speculate that this movement to simplify is a materialist conspiracy propagated by the business community to dumb down mankind and make us a consumption machine. Most people think that is going a little too far, whatever the cause of this development is, we can certainly observe some consequences of its usurpation of agency.

München                                                                                                                                        (c) Koen Douterloigne
Sebastian Moll has written an interesting review of "Go set a watchman" in Spiegel, arguing that reading the now published draft manuscript of the novel against what became To Kill a Mockingbird offers a more complex portrayal of the main character Atticus Finch:

Im "Wächter" erfahren wir nun, wie tief er selbst den Rassismus des Südens verinnerlicht hatte, auch wenn er sich gleichzeitig dem Gleichheitspostulat der amerikanischen Verfassung verpflichtet fühlte. Es ist die realistische Zeichnung eines amerikanischen Archetypen: Des liberalen Südstaatlers, der gönnerhaft seinen schwarzen Nachbarn Gutes angedeihen lassen will - für den wirkliche Gleichstellung jedoch undenkbar bleibt.
In der Hitze der Bürgerrechtsbewegung der Sechzigerjahre war für eine so nuancierte Figur kein Platz. Damals mussten klare Linien zwischen Gut und Böse gezogen werden. Doch angesichts der Ereignisse der vergangenen Jahre, in denen der Rassismus nicht nur im Süden, aller formaljuristischen Fortschritte zum Trotz, unübersehbar zutage tritt, wird der ambivalente, weniger heroische Atticus immer plausibler.

The speculation that a nuanced liberal southerner was modified to create the thoroughly angelic figure of Atticus Finch with whom the target audience could easily identify would be right in line with this movement to simplify. Why represent a character in a complex way that will cause controversy when an idealized one will be much easier for readers to grasp and thus promote sales? Sure, it may prevent the novel from becoming a classic after the publishing industry can no longer influence that, but who cares about what happens in 60 to 70 years?
München                                                                                                                                              (c) Koen Douterloigne
Such reasoning is perfectly logical, but as we simplify one sphere after another, grinding everything down to the common denominator of materialism or a higher materialistic standard of living, we run a major risk of becoming resources for business ourselves. And haven't you heard something like this before? Maybe something called human resources? Is that perhaps the department that hired you?

But the absence of complexity and nuance in modern-day thought, literature and other spheres has even more far-reaching consequences, particularly social ones in terms of the acceptance, tolerance, openness, but also personal ones in the sense that periodic deviance from a purported standard may lead to feelings of unease, uncertainty, frustration, etc. Yet what if exactly those temporary states must be experienced in order to experience positive, rewarding, enjoyable ones? In such a case, oversimplification will reduce your life to mediocrity and stress to maintain mediocrity. How miserable...

Text by Henry Whittlesey
Photos by Koen Douterloigne 
July 2015

Further reading

Moll, Sebastian. Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman": Der Rassist, den wir liebten. Spiegel-Online. July 15, 2015.
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