Cheerleaders and mascots dancing onto a brightly lit football stadium. Hushed whispers about newer, deadlier variants of COVID-19. An elderly couple discussing their new condo in Miami. A concerned father telling his friends about how worried he is for his children’s future. Chicken wings and cold beer spilling onto polo shirts. Deranged preachers proclaiming the wrath of God.
There was this juxtaposition between innocuous, all-American college revelry interspersed with brief glimpses of the outside world’s despair that embodied last weekend’s game between Miami University and the University of Cincinnati (UC). We live in an era defined by crisis; tragedies pile atop one another until we are all crushed underneath their weight. NYC issued its first flash flood emergency. Millions in Louisiana remain without power. Droughts and wildfires pummel the west coast. All the while, COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on communities across America.
At every turn, it seems we are teetering on the edge. If the IPCC report is any indication, things are going to get worse before they can get better. Yet, on Sept. 4, throngs of people – largely mask less – crammed into Nippert Stadium and engaged in a performance of normalcy that was surreal to watch. It felt remarkably hollow.
I am not suggesting joy be taken out of people’s vocabulary. A life lived in grim despondency isn’t a life at all. Nevertheless, seeing something so normal occur in the context of current events seemed absurd. Like holding a hotdog-eating contest during the purge. Yet it was that exact contrast which I suspect made so many people attend, team loyalty and familial pride notwithstanding. Triviality can serve as an effective distraction from tragedy. We do frivolous and silly things as a coping mechanism to distract our minds and keep depression at bay. When the alternative is being forced to confront nearly incomprehensible amounts of suffering, spectacle becomes a lifesaver.
As conditions worsen and living standards decline, so too will mass entertainments’ rise in popularity. Some will wear football jerseys and cheer for their team. Others will escape through a VR headset. Others will find dreamy aesthetic movements – like dark academia and cottage-core – a fitting diversion. All three have risen in popularity during the pandemic and with good reason. When institutions have decayed to such a point that they no longer offer a viable vision of the future, we abandon aspiration in exchange for simulation.
Russian academic Alexi Yurchak – in his 2005 novel, “Everything was Forever, Until It was No More: The Last Soviet Generation” – coined the term “hypernormalisation.” Yurchak used the word to describe a phenomenon he observed witnessing the Soviet regime’s collapse throughout the 70s and 80s. Everyone living in the Soviet Union understood that the existing power structure was corrupt, immoral and devoid of any redeeming qualities. Nevertheless, no one could see an alternative to the existing society, so they proceeded as if everything was normal.
The United States now stands at such a juncture, and yesterday’s game was an example of hypernormalisation en masse. We laugh and applaud, addicted to our distractions. But can we ever fully ignore the smoke billowing in the horizon?