Metamorphosis on Planet Lazer

Soon we can imagine what happened to Justin Bieber at Planet Lazer on October 15, 2010. But first we must sketch a few ideas of the 21st century absurd.

Everywhere, the absurd is confused with the surreal.

Surrealism, in literature, seeks to render the sensation of dreaming; and in life, "surreal" describes any experience which blurs that blink of a boundary between our dream lives and waking lives.

The absurd is quite another thing. To say, "It was absurd! My wife and I were making love, and she suddenly looked like my mother," would be a colloquial misuse, when what that poor lover means to say is, "I had to unplug the lamp. It was surreal."

We'll forgive him, but not ourselves. Let's consider the word itself. Absurd. It's a puzzling inheritance from Latin: absurdus or "out of tune," the root of which, surdus, means "deaf," closely related to sussurus, a murmur or whisper. Something absurd, then, comes ab-surdus, "from deafness," and ab-sussurus, "from the whisper."

Popularly, we relate absurdity with the legacy of Kafka, Beckett, Camus, whose frequently surreal imagery is partly responsible for our confusion.

But absurdity, as explored in the works of those authors, is inspired by Kierkegaard, who articulated a contradiction in the soul of human existence, an existence he called absurd. We have a need to find meaning in our lives, he wrote, and yet the universe is apparently meaningless. Any literature in which characters strive to resolve this dilemma is fit to be called absurd. Gregor Samsa waking up as a bug is a surreal premise. It develops into an absurd experience.

So what do we do when faced with the absurdity of human existence? Kierkegaard offers two choices: suicide, of course, or his famous "leap of faith," an irrational plunge off the precipice of human knowledge into the, hopefully, meaningful unknown. In his Myth of Sisyphus, however, Camus offers a third solution. Writing in a moral wasteland after the death of God, Camus dismisses the leap of faith as "philosophical suicide," and suggests we must instead accept the absurd: simultaneously embrace it, and live in constant revolt against it.

The absurd hero, then, in literature and in life, is someone who acknowledges what comes from the whisper, but pushes back against meaninglessness.

But 2010 doesn't need to be taught existentialism. The ideas are obvious to us; they permeate our culture. God has been dead longer than the Soviet Union, and we aren't crouching under desks anymore. So have we lost a use for the literature of the absurd? Do we read Beckett only to confirm our existential dogmas? Are we really challenged by Camus, or are we Adbusters subscribers applauding the latest Michael Moore premiere?

Surely absurdity hasn't disappeared. Nothing is more timeless than the absence of meaning. So the 21st century must have something which comes from the whisper; and we must have our absurd hero.

Now we turn our attention to Justin Bieber.

Bieber doesn't come from the whisper. Bieber comes on the scream of a prepubsescent fanatic. His 16 years of life have been styled, recorded, packaged, distributed. He is idolized. His video for "Baby" is the most watched video in the history of YouTube, presumably in the history of the Internet, at almost 383 million views at the time of this writing.

The only match for Bieber's image is his detractors. The two stand in perfect antithesis: his individual, omnipresent image versus the plural facelessness of online slander. And if we hold our ear close enough to his detractors, something from the whisper becomes audible.

Here are three recent and anonymous YouTube comments on "Baby":

#1: "JUSTIN BIEBER IS GAYER THAN SPERM ON A MUSTACHE";

#2: "I fucked Bieber's tight asshole until he cried. Then his filthy mom wanted some, so I busted a huge nut all over her face";

and #3: "if i ever see jb i will slice up his stomach with an rusty fishing hook, shoot his left foot off with a shotgun, rip the right foot apart with an chainsaw, blow his shins off with a frag grenade, crush his head with a sledgehammer, cut his fingers off with a combat knife, shoot the rest of his hands off with an 9 mm pistol, pull his arms off with my bare hands, crush his torso with an 9 tons weight, mount his surviving eye on a spear and fill his dick with gunpowder [sic]."

So how does Bieber exist, scrutinized at all times by faceless eyes, assaulted at all times by threats from the whisper? We know he's aware of his detractors, but presumably he organizes life in such a way to never confront them. Presumably many people organize their lives to never confront absurdity.

But at Planet Lazer on October 15, Bieber transformed himself, if only for an instant, into a hero of the absurd.

Perhaps there is no better theatre for a confrontation with absurdity than a laser tag arena. We now imagine our way into the room, all smoke and mirrors, dead ends, steep angles, sudden footfalls and silent lasers, cutting the dark. Ironically, Bieber is attempting facelessness, playing with 35 other players in a masquerade of a regular childhood. But inevitably there is recognition. The rumour flourishes. Bieber is tagged, the target vibrates on his chest, above the heart. A birthday party of 12-year-olds emerges from the smoke, clusters around him. Sweat gathers on his tweezed brow. The slander begins, not anonymous whispers now, the words are shaped by human faces. Justin Bieber is gayer than sperm on a moustache. His antithesis has cornered him. He must acknowledge them. The lasers strike repeatedly, from all angles like the Ides of March; his chest vibrates like an incoming call.

And what does Bieber do?

He's never thought of this before.

But he doesn't succumb, doesn't knock on the coffin of God.

He slaps one of the faces, and pushes his way roughly out of the room.


This essay was delivered at the second issue launch of The White Rabbit Quarterly, November 13, 2010.