Excerpts & Passages, Part 1
The trouble with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, the widely respected Oxford biologist, is "theologically illiterate," writes Terry Eagleton. Dawkins thinks anyone who believes in God -- any God -- is a total fool, of the same intellectual stripe as "those rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals"; he is thus "like a man who equates socialism with the Gulag."
He happens also to be "arrogantly triumphalistic about science."
"On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity," Eagleton writes, "he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare."
"A person's own Ego has become a product to be had; one receives training in how to sell oneself. Being an integrated and authentic person is no longer the goal: possessing the right personality profile is what counts. It is of vital importance to make oneself attractive, sell oneself successfully, portray oneself in the right light, to present oneself with focused self-confidence. It is no longer of interest what feelings one has and who one really is.
"The aim of modern society is not the realization of the human being, but profit; not profit in the sense of greed, but in the sense of maximum efficiency of the economic system...Our society offers the picture of a low grade chronic schizophrenia. The fact is that most people today are employees high or low [who] do what they are told or what the rules tell them and feel as little as possible because feelings disturb the smooth functioning of the machine. People must train themselves to have as [few] emotions as possible because an emotion costs money."
"The postmodern sensibility is a product of the electronic media, which lend themselves more readily to the traffic in dreams and incantations than to the distributions of coherent argument. As the habits of mind beholden to the rule of images come to replace the systems of thought derived from the meaning of words, the constant viewer learns to eliminate the association of cause with effect...
"Because the camera sees but cannot think, it doesn't matter who sings the undying songs of love, or whether the twenty-four-hour circus parade goes nowhere except around in circles. Nothing necessarily follows from anything else; what is important is the surge and volume of emotion, not its object or its subject...Narrative dissolves into montage and knowledge becomes a matter of instantly recognizing the iconography (Osama's beard, the Nike swoosh, Ralph Lauren's polo player, Howard Dean's upraised fist); history reverts to myth, and politics collapse into the staging of pageants sometimes accompanied by a fall of brightly colored balloons."
Notice that in the first seven lines of each stanza the poet is commenting upon the world almost as a disinterested observer, but in the last line of each stanza he is addressing himself to a certain someone. Might the poem being saying as much about the motives of philosophy as about love?
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another's being mingle --
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdain'd its brother:
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea --
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?
"...a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America.
"In their delightful book Debunked!...CERN physicist Georges Charpak and University of Nice physicist Henri Broch show how the application of probability theory to such events is enlightening. In the case of death premonitions, suppose that you know of 10 people a year who die and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the 10 people, a probability of one out of 10,512 -- certainly an improbable event. Yet there are 295 million Americans. Assume, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you. That makes 1/10,512 x 295,000,000 = 28,063 people a year, or 77 people a day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable. With the well-known cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias firmly in force (where we notice the hits and ignore the misses in support of our favorite beliefs), if just a couple of these people recount their miraculous tales in a public forum (next on Oprah!), the paranormal seems vindicated. In fact, they are merely demonstrating the laws of probability writ large."
"The modern scientist is not so naive as to deny God because he cannot be found with a telescope, or the soul because it is not revealed by the scalpel. He has merely noted that the idea of God is logically unnecessary. He even doubts that it has any meaning. It does not help him to explain anything which he cannot explain in some other, and simpler, way...
"What science has said, in sum, is this: We do not, and in all probability cannot, know whether God exists. Nothing that we do know suggests that he does, and all the arguments which claim to prove his existence are found to be without logical meaning. There is nothing, indeed, to prove that there is no God, but the burden of proof rests with those who propose the idea. If, the scientists would say, you believe in God, you must do so on purely emotional grounds, without basis in logic or fact. Practically speaking, this may amount to atheism. Theoretically, it is simple agnosticism. For it is of the essence of scientific honesty that you do not pretend to know what you do not know, and of the essence of scientific method that you do not employ hypotheses which cannot be tested.
"The immediate results of this honesty have been deeply unsettling and depressing. For man seems to be unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of this life have some meaning and goal in the future. At once new myths come into being -- political and economic myths with extravagant promises of the best of futures in the present world. These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort, in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness. Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them -- for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark."
Last year the American Psychological Association published an article titled "Political Conservatism As Motivated Social Cognition" in its Psychological Bulletin. According to the authors of the study, some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include "fear and aggression; dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity; uncertainty avoidance; need for cognitive closure; and terror management." The research was based in part on an analysis of fifty years of research literature. For an overview, see UC Berkeley News for 25 July 2003.
The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick pondered this question some years ago in an article for the Cato Institute's Online Policy Report. "It is surprising that intellectuals oppose capitalism so," he wrote. "Other groups of comparable socio-economic status do not show the same degree of opposition in the same proportions. Statistically, then, intellectuals are an anomaly...Wordsmith intellectuals fare well in capitalist society; there they have great freedom to formulate, encounter, and propagate new ideas, to read and discuss them. Their occupational skills are in demand, their income much above average. Why then do they disproportionately oppose capitalism?"
But do they? In the online version of this article Professor Nozick assumes that this is so without referring the reader to any serious study on the subject. To some of us it might seem quite otherwise: the vast throng of writers, academics, journalists wouldn't dream of replacing the market economy with something else. But his explanation for what he sees as true is intriguing: most intellectuals, he says, wish their society to be a school writ large -- the equivalent of an academic environment where they, as opposed to others, succeed. The fact that this isn't so, especially in the United States, breeds a kind of animus.
A common refrain among many Americans today is that they're overworked; that it takes two incomes to handle the load of monthly bills; that there is little time left at the end of the week for most parents to do anything meaningful with their children. Numerous books over the years have contributed to this chorus, from Juliet Schor's The Overworked American to Jill Fraser's White Collar Sweatshop to John De Graaf's Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.
A similar complaint, in fact, was audible nearly a century and a half ago. Henry David Thoreau, for one, decried what he felt was the obliteration of leisure time -- life completely taken over by "incessant business." This is how he expressed himself in his essay "Life Without Principle" in 1863:
"This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents...If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for life...it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for -- business! I think there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business...
"If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!...
"The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get 'a good job,' but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends...
"So far I am successful. But I foresee, that, if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure, that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living."
Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher and founder of deconstructionism, died October 11, 2004 at the age of 74. Other well-known academics have recently passed away, including two Harvard philosophers, Robert Nozick and John Rawls, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and author and Palestinian rights advocate Edward Said.
Whether Derrida's theories and teachings will stand the test of time is an open question. It is likely that deconstruction will be written off as an academic fad, a theory appealing only to those who relish obscurantism, and who prefer anything, so long as it is sophisticated and new, to the conventional and familiar. The late Cornell University linguist Robert Hall claimed that Derrida's theory of language was completely devoid of merit; that the philosopher was guilty of "solipsistic ego-tripping," and that the implication of deconstruction is that any old interpretation of a text is just as good as any other, a view Professor Hall (and others) have denounced.
Noam Chomsky, addressing himself to the larger post-structuralist tradition out of which Derrida emerged (see "Rationality/Science"), confessed to being put off by it:
"Quite regularly, 'my eyes glaze over' when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed. Perhaps the explanation lies in some personal inadequacy, like tone-deafness. Or there may be other reasons...The critique of 'science' and 'rationality' has many merits, which I haven't discussed. But as far as I can see, where valid and useful the critique is largely devoted to the perversion of the values of rational inquiry as they are 'wrongly used' in a particular institutional setting. What is presented here as a deeper critique of their nature seems to me based on beliefs about the enterprise and its guiding values that have little basis."
Some useful links:
1. Derrida Obituary in The Guardian, 10/11/04.
3. "Language, Politics, and Composition": An interview with Noam Chomsky. "I don't know this literature [critiques of western metaphysics] very well," Chomsky says, "and to tell you the truth, the reason I don’t know it is that I don’t find it interesting. I try to read it now and then but just don’t find it very interesting."
4. The Sokal Affair. In 1996 a physicist submitted a sham paper to the journal Social Text to see if its editors would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."
5. "The Meaninglessness of Meaning." "Although the language of deconstruction is forbidding," writes Roger Kimball, "the appeal of the doctrine is not hard to understand. It is the appeal of all intellectual radicalism." The notion that political, social, or even intellectual radicalism goes hand in hand with deconstruction is untenable. Professor Chomsky's radical political credentials are well established, but he himself is not warm to the doctrines of deconstruction and postmodernism.
The passages below first appeared in Martin Buber's Israel and the World; they have been excerpted from The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. by Will Herberg, (Meridian Books, 1956):
"We are living in an age of the depreciation of words. The intellect with its gift for language has been all too willing to put itself at the disposal of whatever trends prevail at the time. Instead of letting the word grow out of the thought in responsible silence, the intellect has manufactured words for every demand with almost mechanical skill. It is not only the intellectuals who are now finding a suspicious reception for their disquisitions, who must suffer for this 'treason.' What is worse is that their audience, above all the entire younger generation of our time, is deprived of the noblest happiness of youth, the happiness of believing in the spirit. It is easily understood that many of them now see nothing but 'ideologies' in intellectual patterns, nothing but pompous robes for very obvious group interests, that they are no longer willing to believe there is a truth over and above parties, over and above those who wield power and are greedy for it. They tell us, tell one another, and tell themselves, that they are tired of being fed on lofty illusions, that they want to go back to a 'natural' foundation, to unconcealed instincts, that the life of the individual, as well as that of every people, must be built up on simple self-assertion...
"We are not the owners of the truth, but this does not mean that we must depend either on vain ideologies or on mere instincts, for every one of us has the possibility of entering into a real relationship to truth. Such a relationship, however, cannot grow out of thinking alone, for the ability to think is only one part of us; but neither is feeling enough. We can attain to such a relationship only through the undivided whole of our life as we live it. The intellect can be redeemed from its last lapse into sin, from the desecration of the word, only if the word is backed and vouched for with the whole of one's life. The betrayal of the intellectuals cannot be atoned for by the intellect retreating into itself, but only by its proffering to reality true service in place of false. It must not serve the powers of the moment and what they call reality -- not the short-lived semblance of truth. The intellect should serve the true great reality, whose function is to embody the truth of God; it must serve. No matter how brilliant it may be, the human intellect which wishes to keep to a plane above the events of the day is not really alive. It can become fruitful, beget life and live, only when it enters into the events of the day without denying, but rather proving, its superior origin...Our first question must be: what is the truth? what has God commanded us to do? But our next must be: how can we accomplish it from where we are?"
Those still perplexed at the extent to which religion can influence the attitudes (and voting behavior) of a certain segment of the American population should consider Tocqueville's thoughts on the matter. Democracy In America is hardly an anti-American manifesto: indeed, Tocqueville spoke glowingly about the young republic's experiment in democracy and believed the old aristocratic traditions of Europe would die out. But there were certain aspects of the American character he reproved, and one of them was what he called "religious insanity." Tocqueville took a tour of the States about 170 years ago and thought that the nation's preoccupation with material prosperity might have something to do with its religious fervor. The passages below have been excerpted from the chapter "Why Some Americans Manifest A Sort Of Fanatical Spiritualism":
"Although the desire of acquiring the good things of this world is the prevailing passion of the American people, certain momentary outbreaks occur when their souls seem suddenly to burst the bonds of matter by which they are restrained and to soar impetuously towards heaven. In all the states of the Union, but especially in the half-peopled country of the Far West, itinerant preachers may be met with who hawk about the word of God from place to place. Whole families, old men, women, and children, cross rough passes and untrodden wilds, coming from a great distance, to join a camp-meeting, where, in listening to these discourses, they totally forget for several days and nights the cares of business and even the most urgent wants of the body.
"Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.
"Nor ought these facts to surprise us. It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for what is infinite and the love of what is immortal; these lofty instincts are not the offspring of his capricious will; their steadfast foundation is fixed in human nature, and they exist in spite of his efforts. He may cross and distort them; destroy them he cannot.
"The soul has wants which must be satisfied; and whatever pains are taken to divert it from itself, it soon grows weary, restless, and disquieted amid the enjoyments of sense. If ever the faculties of the great majority of mankind were exclusively bent upon the pursuit of material objects, it might be anticipated that an amazing reaction would take place in the souls of some men. They would drift at large in the world of spirits, for fear of remaining shackled by the close bondage of the body.
"It is not, then, wonderful if in the midst of a community whose thoughts tend earthward a small number of individuals are to be found who turn their looks to heaven. I should be surprised if mysticism did not soon make some advance among a people solely engaged in promoting their own worldly welfare...If their social condition, their present circumstances, and their laws did not confine the minds of the Americans so closely to the pursuit of worldly welfare, it is probable that they would display more reserve and more experience whenever their attention is turned to things immaterial, and that they would check themselves without difficulty. But they feel imprisoned within bounds, which they will apparently never be allowed to pass. As soon as they have passed these bounds, their minds do not know where to fix themselves and they often rush unrestrained beyond the range of common sense."
"When I'm online, I'm alone in a room, tapping on a keyboard, staring at a cathode-ray tube. I'm ignoring anyone else in the room. The nature of being online is that I can't be with someone else. Rather than bringing me closer to others, the time that I spend online isolates me from the most important people in my life, my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my community...I've got a half-dozen computers in my house. But this cult of computing gives me the heebie-jeebies, the sense that if you don't have an electronic-mail address, if you don't have your own customized homepage on the World Wide Web, if you don't have your own domain name online, then you're being left behind, that progress is going on without you. Human kindness, warmth, interaction, friendship, and family are far more important than anything that can come across my cathode-ray tube. While I admire the insights of many of the people in the world of computing, I get this cold feeling that I speak a different language." -- Author and astrophysicist Cliff Stoll, quoted on the website Digerati.
Ten years ago Microsoft pitched Windows 95 to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up." That was hardly the first time a well-known rock tune was put to such unabashedly commercial use, but the trend since then has spiraled out of control. Today one is likely to recognize the sound of Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Clash, and scores of other bands when spying a commercial on television.
"No, rock music isn't sacred," writes the film critic Wallace Bain. "But the best rock music is designed to be subversive, to subtly (or not so subtly) fight authoritarianism and stiff-arm conformity by promoting individuality, free expression and free thinking...In Martin Buber's famous model, commercialism is a classic I-It relationship. Art, on the other hand, works on an I-Thou relationship, a communication that isn't looking for something -- money, votes, consent, behavior -- in return, but simply a connection for its own sake. The best pop music speaks to us on such a level. Its commercial use introduces a taint of insincerity, the first symptom in the disease crippling secular society, the cynicism that assumes everyone's either a con artist or a sucker."
"The intellectual was once seen as a solitary, driven being, searching passionately and single-mindedly for the truth. But what happens when there is no truth? Or, at least, when nobody believes that there is any such thing as 'one truth'?
intellectual disappears. Or so a spate of books in recent years has
it...Frank Furedi's Where Have
All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism
(Continuum) is a short...sharp look at why thoughtful, serious men of
letters have been replaced by well-groomed pundits who can only speak in
sound bites." -- Kelly
Jane Torrance, The American Enterprise Online.
"Literary dystopias have this in common: They are imagined societies in which the deepest demands of human nature are either subverted, perverted, or simply made unattainable. Not that it is necessarily bad to say 'no!' to human nature. When it comes to certain inclinations, such as violence or extreme selfishness, there is much to be said for defying the promptings of biology. But when society presses too hard in ways that go counter to natural needs, the result can be painfully unnatural, which is to say, dystopian.
"What are some exemplary dystopias? Foremost for many readers are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. The towering influence of these works stems not only from their imaginative and artistic qualities, but also from the powerful theme that all dystopian literature shares: the horror of a society that runs roughshod over our instincts, forcing people to be, literally, inhuman...
"[O]rganic genuineness has become less accessible to us all. 'The ordinary city-dweller,' wrote philosopher Susanne Langer, 'knows nothing of the earth's productivity. He does not know the sunrise and rarely notices when the sun sets...His realities are the motors that run elevators, subway trains, and cars...Nature, as man has always known it, he knows no more."
This question was once put to Joseph Campbell by Michael Toms, a frequent interviewer of his. Here is Campbell's reply, as found in An Open Life (Perennial Library, 1989, pp.102-103).
"JC: It's worse here in the United States. In France, they name streets after their poets; we have them named after generals. When you think of Melville, Mark Twain, and Emerson, and you go to the places where those men lived, there's no recognition of their having been there; names of former mayors are on five or six different street corners, but not the poets and the artists.
MT: What does that reflect?
JC: It reflects, I think, a businessman's mentality. That's what's running, and has run, and has made this country. It's a curiously unartistic country in its common character, and yet it has produced some of the greatest artists of the century. But they're not recognized publicly; those that are recognized publicly are the razzle-dazzlers who come across in the popular media.
People fatuitously fall on their faces before some marvelous movie actor, but the poet, the artist...And it isn't as though we didn't have poets and artists. For instance, Robinson Jeffers is one of the really great poets of the century; his "Roan Stallion," to me, is a revelation. And when I mention him, as I frequently do, people don't even know his name; but when they read the lines that I cite, they recognize a poet. It's curious.
MT: We have few means to allow artists and poets to even survive in our culture.
JC: One means of real support would be the popular mass media, and they're not interested.
MT: Yes, because of the commercial orientation.
JC: I don't know what it is. I don't understand those people. The things they're interested in purveying to the public seem to be of momentary sensational interest. I'm not saying that they're not worthy, but why are they all running in the same direction?
MT: And you feel that it's important that art and poetry and music be a vital part of any culture.
JC: It is what is vital; the rest isn't."
Kevin Myers, writing for The Telegraph, does not remember Susan Sontag the way most of her memorializers have. The "wretched, credulous, self-hating American academia wanted to fawn on an intellectual whom popular culture could celebrate, and it chose Sontag and her vapid aphorisms. 'The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own;' or: 'What pornography is really about, ultimately, isn't sex but death;' or: 'Sanity is a cosy lie;' or: 'Good health is the passing delusion of the doomed.'
"Well, actually, the last one is mine. We can all do this kind of poser-cleverness, but we'll never find our way into any dictionaries of quotation because one has to have a certain academic status before one's pseudo-sage declarations come to be exalted as 'sayings'."
Is the ghost of Oswald Spengler in the air these days? Is the West heading for a gigantic fall? According to Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald (subscription-based), it is. He adverts his readers to the work of a few renowned scholars, among them Jane Jacobs, who has spent 40 years writing about thriving and decaying communities and believes sorry times await the nations of the West. In Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004) she claims that the signs are everywhere today:
-- In our rotting communities and families: "A culture of consumerism and debt is working against long-term cultural regeneration. People are choosing houses over families, consumption over fertility, debt over discipline."
-- In our higher education: "Credentialling, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities."
-- In the tax policy of industrial nations: "Fiscal accountability of public money has almost disappeared from the modern world. False image-making has become a very big business throughout North America and is a staple of the US government. Legions of hired liars labour to disconnect reality from all manner of images."
Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu had strolled on to the bridge over the Hao, when the former observed, "See how the minnows are darting about! That is the pleasure of fishes."
"You not being a fish yourself," said Hui Tzu, "how can you possibly know in what consists the pleasure of fishes?"
"And you not being I," retorted Chuang Tzu, "how can you know that I do not know?"
"If I, not being you, cannot know what you know," urged Hui Tzu, "it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know in what consists the pleasure of fishes."
"Let us go back," said Chuang Tzu, "to your original question. You asked me how I knew in what consists the pleasure of fishes. Your very question shows that you knew I knew. For you asked me how I knew. I knew it from my own feelings on this bridge."
Arthur Miller "was grieving for mankind, for man's inability to connect with his fellow man, maybe for the need to dream," writes Richard Corliss. "Miller saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream."
"For all its compassion," Lewis Segal notes, 'Death of a Salesman' is arguably the most subversive play ever written in and about America: a depiction of middle-class domesticity as a trap in which all the trophies of the good life -- devoted spouse, healthy kids, house that's nearly paid off -- ultimately matter less than the insurance policy that says you're 'worth more dead than alive.'"
"In the United States," writes Harold Pinter, "they didn't like him very much because he was too outspoken and too critical of the way of life in the United States...But he was unremitting and remorseless in using his critical intelligence. He did this both as a man and as a playwright, and that's why he's such a remarkable figure."
According to social critic David Walsh, the films turned out by big studios today "are largely execrable -- shallow, pointless, trivial, aimed at some imaginary demographic. I don't feel that cinema audiences are particularly satisfied by what they experience. They go out of habit, dutifully, but present-day films don't provide much -- in some cases, a few violent shocks to the nervous system, in others, mild titillation, etc. I don't think one would get much of an argument about the deplorable state of the American film industry, even from many within that industry."
And independent film? "American 'independent' cinema is created by and, apparently for, self-involved 28-year-olds with degrees in film studies and not much else. I don't see any indication of anyone having lived a substantial life, having lines on his or her face or in general, many signs of thought or depth...What inspires the artist? The cruise missile, the stock market boom, the 'global war on terror'? Hardly. Art and film need a new perspective. It will not be discovered in the advanced decay of American capitalism, in its drive for world domination. Or in the moral sweatings of self-absorbed social layers who have sealed themselves off from every authentically pressing human issue."
According to Elizabeth Warren, an expert on bankruptcy and a professor of law at Harvard, "The number one New Year's resolution for 2004 was [to] try to reduce the debt load. That's the first time something has beat 'try to lose weight' in more than 20 years. Middle-class Americans, hardworking, play-by-the-rules Americans, Americans who lost a job, Americans who don't have health insurance, Americans who are in the middle of a divorce, Americans who are trying to take care of elderly parents, ... those are the Americans who are carrying enormous credit card debts."
From the chapter "Indifference and Hatred" in Jean Baudrillard's The Perfect Crime (Verso, 2002):
"We are in a social trance: vacant, withdrawn, lacking meaning in our own eyes. Abstracted, irresponsible, enervated. They have left us the optic nerve, but all the others have been disabled. It is in this sense that information has something of dissection about it: it isolates a perceptual circuit, but disconnects the active functions. All that is left is the mental screen of indifference, which matches the technical indifference of the images...
"Everyone is moving in their own orbit, trapped in their own bubble, like satellites. Strictly speaking, no one has a destiny any more, since there is destiny only where one intersects with others. Now, the trajectories do not intersect...They merely have the same destination. And so, as on interchanges or motorways (and this goes for information superhighways too), people see only those travelling in the same direction. And even then, they see them no more than fish see each other, when they all instantly veer off in the same direction. There is less risk of an accident that way, but the possibility of meeting is non-existent. The other no longer has any but a marginal value...
"These are, indeed, the only passions we have today: hatred, disgust, allergy, aversion, rejection and disaffection. We no longer know what we want, but we know what we don't want."
"Who are the wise and who are the fools?" asks David Hoffman, legal editor of Pravda. "Are the wise those who live long lives, acquiring material possessions through stealth, deceit and the exploitation of others while being trumpeted with sycophantic praise? Are the fools those who dare to struggle for a better world, thus spending their often too brief time on earth in suffering, hardship and frustration?
"I do not know the answers. But I cannot help but think that thousands, perhaps millions, ask these same questions everyday."
The passages below have been excerpted from a column of H.L. Mencken's for the Baltimore Evening Sun, dated April 7, 1924:
"It is almost as safe to assume that an artist of any dignity is against his country, i.e., against the environment in which God hath placed him, as it is to assume that his country is against the artist. The special quality which makes an artist of him might almost be defined, indeed, as an extraordinary capacity for irritation, a pathological sensitiveness to environmental pricks and stings. He differs from the rest of us mainly because he reacts sharply and in an uncommon manner to phenomena which leave the rest of us unmoved, or, at most, merely annoy us vaguely. He is, in brief, a more delicate fellow than we are, and hence less fitted to prosper and enjoy himself under the conditions of life which he and we must face alike. Therefore, he takes to artistic endeavor, which is at once a criticism of life and an attempt to escape from life.
"So much for the theory of it. The more the facts are studied, the more they bear it out. In those fields of art, at all events, which concern themselves with ideas as well as with sensations it is almost impossible to find any trace of an artist who was not actively hostile to his environment, and thus an indifferent patriot. From Dante to Tolstoy and from Shakespeare to Mark Twain the story is ever the same. Names suggest themselves instantly: Goethe, Heine, Shelley, Byron, Thackeray, Balzac, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Dostoevsky, Carlyle, Moliere, Pope -- all bitter critics of their time and nation, most of them piously hated by the contemporary 100 percenters, some of them actually fugitives from rage and reprisal.
"Dante put all of the patriotic Italians of his day into Hell, and showed them boiling, roasting and writhing on hooks. Cervantes drew such a devastating picture of the Spain that he lived in that it ruined the Spaniards. Shakespeare made his heroes foreigners and his clowns Englishmen. Goethe was in favor of Napoleon. Rabelais, a citizen of Christendom rather than of France, raised a cackle against it that Christendom is still trying in vain to suppress. Swift, having finished the Irish and then the English, proceeded to finish the whole human race. The exceptions are few and far between, and not many of them will bear examination."
"I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with the awareness of -- and glimpse into -- the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive...
"The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us westerners in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal: free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind...
"But if one holds these high principles clearly before one's eyes and compares them with the life and spirit of our times, then it is glaringly apparent that mankind finds itself at present in grave danger. I see the nature of the current crises in the juxtaposition of the individual to society. The individual feels more than ever dependent on society, but it is not felt in the positive sense, as an organic connectivity or a sense of security, but rather more as a type of endangerment to his natural rights, or even his economic existence. His place in society is further from that advanced and cultivated by his own egotistic driving factors, nonetheless hindering the weaker social driving forces to a large extent.
"It is my belief that there is only one way to eliminate these evils, namely, the establishment of a planned economy coupled with an education geared towards social goals. Alongside the development of individual abilities, the education of the individual aspires to revive an ideal that is geared towards the service of our fellow man, and that needs to take the place of the glorification of power and outer success."
-- From an essay read on National Public Radio's "This I Believe" program in 1954.
"The 356 richest families on the planet enjoy a combined wealth that now exceeds the annual income of 40% of the human race," writes Jeremy Rifkin. "Two-thirds of the world's population have never made a phone call and one-third have no access to electricity."
According to Rifkin, the recent French rejection of the EU constitution reflects an uneasiness about the future of the global market economy. "In a curious way," he notes, "what is really on trial is not the EU constitution but the future of capitalism itself. An increasing number of Europeans are asking themselves whether the liberal market model or the social market model is the best approach to charting the economic future."
In 1916 Bertrand Russell published a work titled Principles of Social Reconstruction, in which he made this observation about the fear of thought:
"Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth -- more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.
"But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back -- fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. 'Should the working man think freely about property? Then what will become of us, the rich? Should young men and young women think freely about sex? Then what will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? Then what will become of military discipline? Away with thought! Back into the shades of prejudice, lest property, morals, and war should be endangered! Better men should be stupid, slothful, and oppressive than that their thoughts should be free. For if their thoughts were free they might not think as we do. And at all costs this disaster must be averted.' So the opponents of thought argue in the unconscious depths of their souls. And so they act in their churches, their schools, and their universities."
Thirty years ago, notes Lewis Lapham in the August 05 issue of Harper's, a nation forced a sitting president from office "because democratic government was thought worth the trouble of preserving."
An earnestness permeated the political air which today is all but absent. Who "now can imagine," Lapham writes, "much less pay to see, a politician (any politician, Democrat or Republican) coming into Congress, as did Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina in the winter of 1974, to speak for three hours on the topic of the Constitution; or an attorney general resigning his office, as did Elliot Richardson in the autumn of 1973, rather than carry out an unethical order from the White House; or a national news media unafraid to bite the hand of the Pentagon zookeepers who bring the noonday fish?"
Today a nation can be led to war under false pretenses; civil liberties can be systematically destroyed; gross irregularities can occur at the ballot box during a presidential election, and next to no one can get worked up about it.
As Lapham notes, "The story of a democratic republic confronted with a mortal threat to both the letter and the spirit of its law doesn't draw a crowd, gets in the way of the regularly scheduled programming, doesn't sell the high-end soap."
From the standpoint of sheer intrigue and glamor, what political scandal or uproar du jour can possibly compete with the latest revelations of Brad Pitt's love life or Russell Crowe's skirmish at a New York hotel? Who doesn't become bored with the political spectacle after a season or two? Who isn't wearied by political spin, by all rival claims and counter-claims to the truth?
The dizzying flow of information is also implicated in this nihilism. After a while, all messages and declarations amount to so much noise, and the urge to tune it all out, or to pick choice plums from the tree of a thousand meanings, becomes irrepressible.
"News broadcasts come and go as abruptly as the advertisements winking on and off in Tokyo and Times Square," Lapham concludes, "the messages equivalent in their weightlessness, demanding nothing of the audience except the duty of ritual observance. Who knows or cares to know whether Rush Limbaugh's truths are truer than Toyota's? Who can follow a story to the end of the week, much less over the distance of thirty-three years? Nothing necessarily follows from anything else, and the constant viewer is free to shop around for a reality matched to taste, to make use of the advice imparted by a wise old Jedi knight to the young Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, 'Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don't think. Trust your instincts.' "
What exactly is wrong with the spectacle of celebrity benevolence -- of all pleas on behalf of the suffering, of all televised vows to aid tsunami victims, combat African poverty, eradicate AIDS? What about it seems farcical and unconvincing?
The cynic sees the hand of commercial self-interest in all such events: aging rockers keen on boosting CD sales and energizing a flagging career; actors timing their interventions right before the release of a big film, and so on. But there is no shortage of opportunities today to publicize and promote oneself. Brand names do not need a 'great event' because they already enjoy a symbiotic relationship with media. Every radio interview, every TV appearance, every picture on the cover of a tabloid is itself an advertisement. Those truly starved of publicity can always think up a ploy to get back in the news: a new marriage, a third or fourth divorce, a petty scandal will often do the trick.
There is something else at work here, and it has to do with the marked contrast between the public show of altruism and the tenor and feel of our postmodern world -- a world long since fatigued by political causes, moral seriousness, and every sweet project to reinject meaning into social life; a world governed by advertisements and imagery, that can only ever be serious about balance sheets and money. It is the rockers and actors who are the beneficiaries of this postmodern age, who collude in the manufacture of the cool attitude and glamorous image, in the desacralization of all things, and who are the big players in the marketplace of personality. When suddenly, for no reason at all, they turn up as the spoony advocates of the downtrodden, the paragons of compassion, even those not cynical by nature must wonder about their motives.
It could be that they themselves are needy, cloyed by privilege and sick for meaning, and so others' suffering presents an opportunity for them -- an axiological opportunity, a moral opportunity, good enough to fill the void of their soul for a season (or weekend), so that they can get back to basking in the world they partly created.
Jean Baudrillard broached this theme in the context of the AIDS phenomenon. "The AIDS obsession," he wrote, "doubtless arises from the fact that the exceptional destiny of the sufferers gives them what others cruelly lack today: a strong, impregnable identity, a sacrificial identity -- the privilege of illness, around which, in other cultures, the entire group once gravitated...All the anti-AIDS campaigns, playing on solidarity and fear -- 'Your AIDS interests me' -- give rise to an emotional contagion as noxious as the biological."
In the recent 'Make Poverty History' campaign Neil Davenport saw a celebration of giddy political consensus. "Today's clamouring for happy-clappy consensus," he writes, "means that proper social criticism isn't allowed -- or is reduced to the level of teenage cynicism...The absence of social critics -- formerly known as the left wing -- made Live 8 a peculiarly queasy event to watch. It had the appearance of a carnival celebrating the evacuation of politics from Western society."
"What if Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Poe had taken Prozac?"
Peter Kramer, author of Listening To Prozac, says this question is often posed by those who romanticize depression. No one, he notes, would ask a similar question about a disease like epilepsy, even though such heavy intellectual hitters as Dostoevsky, Tennyson, Moliere and Pascal have been presumed epileptic by one or more medical authorities. No one asks, "What if they had been given anticonvulsives?" because had the medicine been available, it would have been dispensed without hesitation. "While we are protective of depression," Professor Kramer writes, "we would be happy to eradicate epilepsy."
But are the examples comparable? Can the milder forms of depression be classified as a disease? Can the depressed state ever constitute a point of view about life as a whole or about one's society? And can a regimen of antidepressant pills actually deaden a creative genius' vision? These questions are broached in Tim Ruggiero's article Philosophy and Depression. Can the two perspectives be reconciled?
(Footnote: "One in 10 American women takes an antidepressant drug such as Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft, and the use of such drugs by all adults has nearly tripled in the last decade," notes The Washington Post in an article it published last December titled "Antidepressant Use By U.S. Adults Soars." According to the article, the "number of children getting psychiatric drugs also soared. In 2002, about 6 percent of all boys and girls were taking antidepressants, triple the rate in the period 1994-96.")
The passages below have been excerpted from Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out (Verso, 2002). Baudrillard is the author of over 30 books, including The Consumer Society; Simulacra And Simulation; The Perfect Crime; and Impossible Exchange.
"Somewhere in New England, not far from Dartmouth College, you still find Shaker villages. In accordance with the religious law of that sect, the sexes live meticulously separate lives and do not reproduce...Now, on the nearby campus, which, like the other American campuses was one of the centers of sexual liberation, more or less the same situation pertains: the sexes no longer touch each other, no longer rub shoulders with each other, no longer attempt to seduce each other. Without any explicit prohibition or discrimination, they find themselves -- in the name of sexual harassment and for obsessive fear of it -- in the same condition of apartheid as prevails among the Shakers. The AIDS obsession doubtless plays a role in this voluntary exiling of sex -- though there are never any causal relations in these kinds of things: AIDS is perhaps just one of the obscure pathways for a disaffection with sex which began long before the appearance and spread of that disease. It seems here that sexuality itself is at issue -- each sex being, as it were, afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease that is sex itself.
"There is a fear of catching AIDS, but a fear also of simply catching sex. There is a fear of catching anything whatever which might seem like a passion, a seduction, a responsibility. And, in this sense, it is once again the male who has most deeply fallen victim to the negative obsession with sex. To the point of withdrawing from the sexual game, exhausted by having to bear such a risk, and no doubt also wearied by having historically assumed the role of sexual power for so long. Of which feminism and female liberation have divested him, at least de jure (and, to a large extent, de facto). But things are more complicated than this, because the male who has been emasculated in this way and stripped of his power, has taken advantage of this situation to fade from the scene, to disappear -- doffing the phallic mask of a power which has, in any event, become increasingly dangerous...
"Sexual harassment (the obsession with it and with AIDS) as a ruse of the species to revive the anxiety around sexuality -- and more particularly a ruse on women's part to revive desire (men's desire, but their own too)?...
"Whereas in the past it was freedom, desire, pleasure and love which seemed to be sexually transmitted, today it seems to be hatred, disillusionment, distrust and resentment between the sexes...
"Animal species react to situations of crisis, shortage or overpopulation with sexual continence and automatic sterility. We are perhaps reacting similarly -- quite outside any subjective conviction or ideology -- to a situation of plenty, liberation, well-being and release which, being quite alien to the species over its history, we find agonizing and inhuman. The hatred which the issue of sexual harassment releases may perhaps simply be the repentance of a liberty, individuality and freedom to express our desire which were hard won, and which we are now paying for with a new-found voluntary servitude. Might not servitude itself become a sexually transmitted disease?"
The passages below have been excerpted from Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life:
"It was as if they were in a cage whose door was wide open without their being able to escape. Nothing outside the cage had any importance, because nothing else existed any more. They stayed in the cage, estranged from everything except the cage, without even a flicker of desire for anything outside the bars. It would have been abnormal -- impossible in fact -- to escape into something which had neither reality nor importance. Absolutely impossible. For inside this cage, in which they had been born and in which they would die, the only tolerable framework of experience was the Real, which was simply an irresistible instinct to act so that things should have importance. Only if things had some importance could one breathe, and suffer. It seemed that there was an understanding between them and the silent dead that it should be so, for the habit of acting so that things had some importance had become a human instinct, and one which was apparently eternal. Life was the important thing, and the Real was part of the instinct which gave life a little meaning. The instinct didn't try to imagine what might lie beyond the Real, because there was nothing beyond it. Nothing important...
"On the public transport which throws them against one another with statistical indifference, people wear an untenable expression of disillusion, pride and contempt, like the natural effect of death on a toothless mouth. The atmosphere of false communication makes everyone the policeman of his own encounters...If men were transformed into scorpions who sting themselves and one another, isn't it really because nothing has happened, and human beings with empty eyes and flabby brains have 'mysteriously' become mere shadows of men, ghosts of men, and in some ways are no longer men except in name?
"We have nothing in common except the illusion of being together...In a gloomy bar where everyone is bored to death, a drunken young man breaks his glass, then picks up a bottle and smashes it against the wall. Nobody gets excited; the disappointed young man lets himself be thrown out. Yet everyone there could have done exactly the same thing. He alone made the thought concrete, crossing the first radioactive belt of isolation: interior isolation, the introverted separation between self and outside world. Nobody responded to a sign which he thought was explicit. He remained alone like the hooligan who burns down a church or kills a policeman, at one with himself but condemned to exile as long as other people remain exiled from their own existence. He has not escaped from the magnetic field of isolation; he is suspended in a zone of zero gravity. All the same, the indifference which greets him allows him to hear the sound of his own cry; even if this revelation tortures him, he knows that he will have to start again in another register, more loudly; with more coherence...
"People will be together only in a common wretchedness as long as each isolated being refuses to understand that a gesture of liberation, however weak and clumsy it may be, always bears an authentic communication, an adequate personal message. The repression which strikes down the libertarian rebel falls on everyone: everyone's blood flows with the blood of a murdered Durruti. Whenever freedom retreats one inch, there is a hundred-fold increase in the weight of the order of things. Excluded from authentic participation, men's actions stray into the fragile illusion of being together, or else into its opposite, the abrupt and total rejection of society. They swing from one to the other like a pendulum turning the hands on the clock-face of death."
Many moons ago, if a student asked a teacher why she should bother reading Shakespeare, some version of the reply "Because knowledge is preferable to ignorance" was good enough to put the question to rest. Not that it was satisfactory, just that the student suspected that some great principle or truth was being affirmed.
Today such a reply is much harder to sell, because what lies between the covers of classics just doesn't seem as real and relevant to people's lives as anything turning up on 500 channels or millions of web pages. The faces of MTV speak to 20-year-olds in a way that Hamlet cannot; a movie starring Scarlett Johansson or Kirsten Dunst seems so much more interesting and important than the mid-week lecture on haiku; the dalliances of Hollywood couples are more intriguing than Moby Dick.
What's an educator to do, or to hope for, in the face of such grim circumstances? Here is one literature instructor's take:
"I ask my students each year which they would prefer in life: wisdom or happiness? Increasingly, the answer has swung toward happiness -- the winner by default, since it seems the fin-de-siecle student is unable to imagine a wisdom beyond mere opinion...The bugaboo of relativism has consumed all talk of the universals William Faulkner spoke of in his 1950 Nobel Address ("love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice"). The new cry is, "that's your opinion" and it is just this certainty, that uncertainty is the principle of life, which undercuts the arguments in favor of literature. An unholy new trinity of "so what?" "who cares?" and "what's the difference?" interrupts all explanations of worth and quality. In this sense, then, the "answers" won't reach an audience until the audience at least allows the possibility that some things have more worth than others. If Duke University professors revel in the provocative view that comics are as worthy as Shakespeare, and presumably believe their own arguments, then the prospects for the study of great literature are bleak. The chance of supplying persuasive "answers" to students made cynical by the non-value values of a postmodern age shrivels...
"But answers there are, if:
-- you are prepared to think of yourself as more than a fairly complex bit of protoplasm entering and exiting time/space on the principle of pure chance. (Thomas Hardy was troubled by this view, but his poems remain powerful for the subtle anguish he makes us share over it, not for the message itself);
-- you are willing to pursue that intuition in you that tells you that Pavarotti sings better than you, Lindros plays better hockey than you, Michaelangelo fashions better sculpture than you;
-- you can remember those moments where you felt the "landscape sit up and listen"; where time seemed to slow down; where love seemed all and enough;
-- you are still troubled about the idea of life, the injustice of life, the problem of pain (as C.S. Lewis called it), the pointlessness of life (unlike the comic book profs who see this, but develop philosophies to remain untroubled);
-- you are suspicious that, contrary to popular opinion, Shakespeare has not survived 400 years just because some privileged people have pressed him upon us;
-- you still feel that some things matter even if nothing works...
"Is life only to be made up of the bottom line, a job, entertainment, cynicism and sneering, the practical and useful? Literature gives us the chance to awaken the humanity in us. It isn't interested in increasing that storehouse of opinions we all carry about. Its answers are in an awareness of self and in the dispelling of our aloneness. These are fleeting experiences in continual need of renewal. But, you only need to feel its power once to know it is real. In childhood, literature allows us to escape ourselves in flights of fancy; adults are offered the solace of finding themselves again. If it seems imperfect at times, try doing without it. Or have you been?"
The list below was compiled by Norman Mailer for the March 26, 2006 issue of The Nation. "A hundred, if not a thousand, couplings could be offered in their place," he notes.
Here are a few of our own:
Politics seems always to be a dead-end business -- at least compared to the fields of science, medicine, and technology. These last are forever making immense strides toward important goals, and often even attaining them, but politics? All the old problems -- war, greed, poverty, injustice, hooliganism -- are with us. They were with us several millennia ago; they are with us today, and they will likely be with us ten centuries from now (assuming human life continues on that long).
How does one explain this immutability? One might say that human beings are so frail and so fumbling that any expectation that they can pull themselves up by their own moral bootstraps is naive. Political and moral problems, on this view, cannot be overcome in history. Finite creatures cannot fully grasp the historical processes in which they are inextricably bound up, much less surmount them. This idea was advanced by Reinhold Niebuhr in his two-volume Nature And Destiny Of Man, and is the linchpin of Christian realist thinking on the subject. (Some in this school put an even stronger accent on the intrepretation and say that involvement in nature is itself the source of evil. The beginning was the mythical fall from Eden, in which humankind was condemned to roam around the dark plains of the sublunary world, yearning to be reconciled with God.)
Another view is that the common herd lacks the wisdom and acuity to create an ideal society. People are easily taken in by ideology and mountebanks and fail to see social reality as it actually is. Until philosophers become kings, and kings philosophers, Plato wrote, the fabric of social life will continue to bear the stain of evil.
An altogether different position was put forth by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World Revisited. The trouble, Huxley said, is that human beings are not fully social animals. Gregarious, yes; social, no. This lack of sociality makes it very difficult to achieve lofty political ends. It would take a certain intellectual and emotional unity, a convergence of individual interests and passions, in order for a civic ideal ever to be realized. Here is how Huxley put it:
"Biologically speaking, man is a moderately gregarious, not a completely social animal -- a creature more like a wolf, let us say, or an elephant, than like a bee or an ant. In their original form human societies bore no resemblance to the hive or the ant heap; they were merely packs. Civilization is, among other things, the process by which primitive packs are transformed into an analogue, crude and mechanical, of the social insects' organic communities. At the present time the pressures of over-population and technological change are accelerating this process. The termitary has come to seem a realizable and even, in some eyes, a desirable ideal. Needless to say, the ideal will never in fact be realized. A great gulf separates the social insect from the not too gregarious, big-brained mammal; and even though the mammal should do his best to imitate the insect, the gulf would remain. However hard they try, men cannot create a social organism, they can only create an organization. In the process of trying to create an organism they will merely create a totalitarian despotism."
We read and hear often these days that people are working longer hours than ever before, and that the one thing that they crave, presumably more than even money and sex, is time. Various philosophers over the ages have condemned the ethic of overwork. One thinks naturally of Thoreau. "It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once," he wrote in "Life Without Principle." "It is nothing but work, work, work...I think there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business..."
The same regret is sounded by Bertrand Russell in his influential essay "In Praise Of Idleness" (1932). Here are a few passages from it:
"I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached...
"If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment -- assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure. In America men often work long hours even when they are well off; such men, naturally, are indignant at the idea of leisure for wage-earners, except as the grim punishment of unemployment; in fact, they dislike leisure even for their sons...
"It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them...
"In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.
"Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever."
"Unlike you, I don't think an intellectual's purpose is to run the RAND Corporation or any institution like it," Bernard Henri-Lévy recently exclaimed in a debate with Francis Fukuyama.
But this is to beg the question, "What is an intellectual's purpose?"
In an essay written almost 40 years ago, Noam Chomsky argued that it is the "responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies." In the western world, he noted, intellectuals "have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us."
But are intellectuals obliged to invest themselves so thoroughly and narrowly in politics? What about those who feel duty-bound to write novels, produce films and plays, tackle math problems, or contemplate their being-in-the-world in the manner of a Zen sage?
The ancients believed an intellectual should be interested in just about everything. As the Roman playwright Terence once put it, "Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto."
Is the intellectual's responsibility the same across time and place? What would it be today, in a world glutted not only with information and choices, but with images, montages, advertisements, and sound bites? What should the approach of a thinker be in a world in which, as one scholar puts it, "the fragments that present themselves to us do not stand still long enough to analyze"?
For a thinker like Jean Baudrillard, the whole media system is nihilistic. It exhales the carbon dioxide of simulacra all the time. Nothing anymore poses a maleficent threat to it: not transgressive art, not ideological radicalism, not even the nihilism of such early twentieth-century movements as dada. The system absorbs everything and opposes all challenges with what Baudrillard describes as the "nihilism of neutralization."
For Chomsky, the world is still evident, and excessive theorizing about it is useless. Facts can be unearthed with a little effort, and the collective efforts of honest intellectuals can in time lead to substantial social change.
For Baudrillard it is false appearances that exist today, not facts:
The image can no longer imagine the real since it is the real. It can no longer dream reality since it is virtual reality. From screen to screen, the image has no other destiny but the image...Reality has been driven out of reality, and has left us in a hyper-reality empty of meaning. Perhaps only technology still relays the scattered fragments of the real? Where has the order of meaning gone?
He would argue that there is no longer a public that can hear the supposedly subversive message of a Chomsky, and that such subversion, in any case, is destined to be absorbed (and thus annihilated) by the system.
According to Baudrillard, the only option left for the intellectual is "theoretical violence," "criminal objectives" -- a determination not to play the game of discourse by all the old rules. Does life unfold today at the speed of light? Then the thinker should try speeding it up by, say, conceiving of life after human cloning. Is humanity itself becoming more and more un-human -- is it in fact slowly disappearing? Then artists should try performing an "an art of disappearance." Is life as a whole becoming more banalized and meaningless? Then thinkers should try making it even more meaningless, thus ushering the social order to its demise:
Cipher, do not decipher. Work over the illusion. Create illusion to create an event. Make enigmatic what is clear, render unintelligible what is only too intelligible, make the event itself unreadable. Accentuate the false transparency of the world to spread a terroristic confusion about it...Promote a clandestine trade in ideas, of all inadmissible ideas, of unassailable ideas, as the liquor trade had to be promoted in the 1930s...We shall take the view that the official thought market is universally corrupt and implicated in the prohibition of thought by the dominant clerisy.
In "Alienated Concepts of Identity," an article written some forty years ago, the psychiatrist Ernest Schachtel observed that many people not only build a negative sense of self around what they perceive as a flawed appearance; they see this flaw as dooming them to a life of unhappiness.
In an age in which millions happily undergo cosmetic surgery, Dr. Schachtel's observation may not exactly seem like a revelation. But he noted something else that few of us ever pause to consider: namely, that our idea of beauty corresponds more to a photographic still or confected image than to an aesthetic that emerges from a certain smile or laugh or gesture -- an aesthetic that is in motion. Today, the photographic still is seen as a mask that represents beauty; for many, not to have the mask is to feel unattractive, and the "solution" is simply to have a surgeon cut one's face into the accepted contours.
This is how Dr. Schachtel put the matter:
"Very often real or imagined physical attributes, parts of the body image or the entire body image, become focal points of identity. Many people build around such a negative identity the feeling that this particular feature unalterably determines the course of their lives, and that they are thereby doomed to unhappiness. Usually, in these cases, qualities such as attractiveness and beauty are no longer felt to be based on the alive expression and flux of human feelings, but have become fixed and dead features, or a series of poses, as in so many Hollywood stars or fashion models. These features are cut off from the center of the person and worn like a mask. Unattractiveness is experienced as not possessing this mask."
A few months ago the website AlterNet asked outgoing Harper's editor Lewis Lapham why he favors the impeachment of president George Bush. More interesting than the interview itself was this brief comment by one of the site's visitors:
If impeachment were to happen, it would be little more than a face-saving measure for the entrenched bureaucracy and plutocracy. Elected officials are little more than talking heads on the order of news anchors or motivational speakers. The agenda is set fully outside the context of electoral control.
Representative democracy in the US now is nothing more than a façade, a public relations exercise, a legitimation and assent ritual. This is what must be rectified, not the "establishment's" specific choice of a figurehead.
The process of rectification must occur almost entirely outside the electoral arena. The bureaucracy, the corporatocracy, and the military-industrial and prison-industrial complex is where the competition for institutional control must be carried out. Those places are where the scripts for putatively elected representatives are written, and so where activity must take place.
To exercise power, one must acquire power. To acquire power, one must understand from where it's derived. You will get nowhere by writing letters to your Congressman's wastebasket or by holding up signs in the street so storm troopers can gun you down more easily.
If you want to work on something, work to become a general, a CEO of a megacorporation, a billionaire, a CIA director, an FBI director, or a National Security Council member. From such vantage points you can exercise influence. From ghettos, grassroots movements COINTELPRO'd into nothingness, and the graves the Pentagon puts people in for speaking openly, one can do nothing.
The idea of "changing the system from within" has little to recommend it, and the suggestion that the government would care enough to send "storm troopers" onto the streets to gun down placard-brandishing protesters strains credulity. (After all, the bureaucrats know only too well that such protests are useless.) But the idea expressed in the first couple of paragraphs is far closer to the mark than the regnant view of the respectable thought market, which must forever go on pretending that the parties are so substantively different from one another, and that elections themselves matter.
What, then, can disrupt the equilibrium of the system if reform can come neither from within institutions nor from outside in the form of protests?
In his book Nature, Man And Woman (1958) Alan Watts offered the following defense of vagueness:
"...there is something to be said in defense of philosophical vagueness. Strangely assorted people join forces in making fun of it -- Logical Positivists and Catholic Neo-Thomists, Dialectical Materialists and Protestant Neo-Orthodoxists, Behaviorists and Fundamentalists. Despite intense differences of opinion among themselves, they belong to a psychological type which takes special glee in having one's philosophy of life clear-cut, hard, and rigid. They range from the kind of scientist who likes to lick his tongue around the notion of 'brute' facts to the kind of religionist who fondles a system of 'unequivocal dogma.'
"There is doubtless a deep sense of security in being able to say, 'The clear and authoritative teaching of the Church is...,' or to feel that one has mastered a logical method which can tear other opinions, and especially metaphysical opinions, to shreds. Attitudes of this kind usually go together with a somewhat aggressive and hostile type of personality which employs sharp definition like the edge of a sword.
"There is a place in life for a sharp knife, but there is a still more important place for other kinds of contact with the world. Man is not to be an intellectual porcupine, meeting his environment with a surface of spikes. Man meets the world outside with a soft skin, with a delicate eyeball and eardrum, and finds communion with it through a warm, melting, vaguely defined, and caressing touch whereby the world is not set at a distance like an enemy to be shot, but embraced to become one flesh, like a beloved wife. After all, the whole possibility of clear knowledge depends upon sensitive organs which, as it were, bring the outside world into our bodies, and give us knowledge of that world precisely in the form of our own bodily states.
"Hence the importance of opinions, of instruments of the mind, which are vague, misty, and melting rather than clear-cut. They provide possibilities of communication, of actual contact and relationship with nature more intimate than anything to be found by preserving at all costs the 'distance of objectivity.' As Chinese and Japanese painters have so well understood, there are landscapes which are best viewed through half-closed eyes, mountains which are most alluring when partially veiled in mist, and waters which are most profound when the horizon is lost, and they are merged with the sky."
"The contrast between what is glamorous now and what was glamorous in the days of Cary Grant and Norma Shearer says much about how American society has changed," notes Carina Chocano. In the past, glamour required "wit, urbanity, intelligence and a talent for adapting to change. And it was all wrapped up in very adult sequined dresses, martini glasses and flutes of champagne."
But today wit, class, intelligence and urbanity have been devalued, and all that seems to matter is money. "What does it mean to be glamorous anymore?" Chocano asks. "Is Paris Hilton glamorous? Is Donald Trump? Is Trump's late-model wife?"
If it is no longer easy to identify someone who meets the old criteria of glamour, neither is it easy to find many people who fit the description of "hero". In America today, writes Gregory Foster, "who you are and know is much more important than what you do or stand for." Celebrities abound, but they are distinctly different from heroes: the latter "are transcendent, mythic, seemingly superhuman figures who combine greatness with goodness." They have not only size and reputation, but stature as well. It is stature that distinguishes a Nelson Mandela from a Bill Clinton, or a Vaclav Havel from a Bob Dole.
According to Professor Foster, we "live in singularly unheroic times"; so "ambiguous in form, effect, and importance are the circumstances we regularly face that events no longer seem capable of making the person."
But is this so? Is it modern "events" that preclude the sprouting up of heroes? Or is it that people today consciously choose to lead an "unheroic" life? "Unheroic" here would mean a life bereft of convictions; a safe, banal, conforming, self-interested life -- one whose highest aim is simply to succeed in the marketplace. Such a life would require that people accept rather than question established norms; that they go along to get along; that they avoid making waves or rocking the boat.
The hero, by contrast, is willing to risk something big -- a career, a reputation, money, esteem -- in order to affirm some ideal or principle. "Heroism feels and never reasons," Emerson wrote. It "works in contradiction to the voice of mankind...When the spirit is not master of the world, then it is its dupe."
We don't need to look far for examples of people choosing self-interest over a more principled course of action.
Consider, for instance, the situation that former Secretary of State Colin Powell found himself in three years ago when his colleagues were pushing for the Iraq war. Powell had entertained a doubt or two about invading Baghdad, but decided nevetheless to go to the U.N. to present "evidence" that Iraq was building a deadly arsenal.
Suppose Powell had decided not to be the good, loyal subordinate and appear before the U.N. Suppose he resigned his post on the grounds that the impending war was a complete sham. Imagine him repudiating his hawkish colleagues and even criticizing President Bush for reckless decision-making.
To be sure, he would have paid a price. Three years ago Mr. Bush was wildly popular with the electorate, and just about no one in the major print and broadcast media made a peep about the war. Had Powell resigned in protest, the scurrility artists on radio and TV would have derided him as a traitor. He would likely have lost friends in important places, and jeopardized whatever career aspirations he still had.
But he would be regarded today as a kind of hero. He would be lauded for his convictions, and respected for having stood up to popular opinion, and seeing what very few at the time could see. Who knows? there might even be a "Draft Powell In 08" movement afoot.
So maybe the absence of heroism and glamour today has something to do with the eclipse of idealism. Going back to the earlier point, how many Mr. Smiths or George Baileys do we find in the halls of Congress these days? How many of us could lose all our possessions, our social status and network of friends, and still be serenely indifferent to it all, rather in the manner of a Humphrey Bogart staring out into space and exhaling smoke at the world?
Joseph Campbell was once asked whether the society he had grown up in had become a wasteland, or whether such a diagnosis wasn't overblown. This was his response:
"The majority of my friends are living Waste Land lives. In teaching, you have people who haven't come into the Waste Land yet. They're at the point of making the decision whether they're going to follow the way of their own zeal -- the star that's dawned for them -- or do what daddy and mother and friends want them to do. The adventure is always in the dark forest, and there's something perilous about it. Now, since retiring, I've been lecturing for the most part to adults, many of whom feel they need a new start; they have to find a center in what they do that really meets their lives. And my impression is that many of my friends just are baffled; they're wandering in the Waste Land without any sense of where the water is -- the source that makes things green.
"...life is different from the way it was and the rules of the past are restrictive of the life process. The moment the life process stops, it starts drying up; and the whole sense of myth is finding the courage to follow the process. In order to have something new, something old has to be broken; and if you're too heavily fixed on the old, you're going to get stuck. That's what hell is: the place of people who could not yield their ego system to allow the grace of a transpersonal power to move them."
-- Quoted in An Open Life, ed. John Maher & Denise Briggs (New York: Perennial Library, 1989).
"In our time all it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good men to be a little wrong and have a great deal of power, and for the vast majority of their fellow citizens to remain indifferent."
"Some people think that to do something truly evil you have to be some kind of Bengal tiger. In fact, it is enough to be a tame tabby, a nicely packaged citizen, safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. It's enough to be a nice guy, as opposed to a good man."
-- The late clergyman and peace activist William Sloane Coffin, in Yale Alumni Magazine (1967) and Credo (2004), respectively.
Why would any thoughtful person give any credence at all to the notion that the September attacks of 2001 were set in motion by some elaborate conspiracy? Granted, throughout U.S. history there have been conspiracies from time to time (Watergate was a conspiracy; the Iran-Contra Affair was a conspiracy). And granted, the leaders of our political class are so thoroughly awful that one could believe them capable of just about anything. But really!
Edward Feser sees the roots of conspiratorial thinking in what one thinker has called the "Skim Milk Fallacy": i.e., "the fallacy of assuming, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, that 'things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream,' so that common sense can in general be presumed to be mistaken."
"The absurd idea that to be intelligent, scientific, and intellectually honest requires a distrust for all authority per se and a contempt for the opinions of the average person," Feser writes, " has so deeply permeated the modern Western consciousness that conspiratorial thinking has for many people come to seem the rational default position."
Further: "Authority, tradition, and common sense come to be regarded as something to be constantly unmasked and undercut rather than consulted as necessary, though fallible, sources of wisdom. Indeed, they come to be regarded as something positively hateful and oppressive, from which we must always feel alienated."
Another possibility lies in the psychology of those who cling too rigidly to extremist causes and fantastic points of view. Their lives are barren and humdrum, so they seek an easy escape (conspiracy theory gives them something to "feel" about); or they have a shaky sense of self, so they reach for something that expels the bad dream of being in the world. This is Eric Hoffer's idea, developed persuasively in The True Believer:
"A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge if offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves -- and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole."
The cultural historian and philosopher Walter Ong once noted how fearful humanity is of the onrush of time. Writing some 40 years ago, he made the following observation:
"Though he was born into time and lives in its stream, man does not readily believe that time is good...Man fears time, for it lies totally outside his control. Despite anything he can do, it moves inexorably on, never reversing itself, never allowing him really to recapture a moment of his past, even when this past grows in charm and poignancy as it recedes into the distance. Science may control genetics and even the weather, but it cannot harness time. Not the least promise shows here. Worst of all, time engulfs all our decisions. A decision once made cannot really be retracted. So-called retraction or retractation means not a withdrawal of the first decision, which has already vanished down the steadily moving stream of time, but rather a second decision which we must add to the first. Instead of 'replacing' a decision, we now have two on the record. Time is beyond all persuasion. It hears no pleas. This inexorability of time tempts man into illusion: he likes to think that time is cyclic, that it will return either to give him another chance or to show that he never had a chance at all -- what happens happens because it had happened before, so that he has no responsibility. But this pretense is unreal, and it reveals itself more and more as unreal since the discovery of evolution, which is the discovery of the unrepeatability of all being."
-- From Ong's In The Human Grain: Further Explorations Of Contemporary Culture (Macmillan, 1967), pp. x-xi.
"Oct. 11, 1973, Venice. c. 10:00 a.m.
A clutch of affluent women, with cliched faces
one of them spots a shop window,
with barely a glance at the window,
she calls out:
1st Woman: Mabel, come here, it's fantastic!
Mabel: (goes over, and turns her glutted eyes to the window: a clear moment before her eyes have contacted the window display, she shouts out)
"I used this vignette in several lectures to illustrate the thesis that we live within, or can easily come to live within, a skein of words, such that we see, as it were, other people's descriptions of the world, instead of describing what we see. Other people (like the first woman) are not 'seeing' the world either, very often.
The map is not the territory,
The menu is not the meal, etc.
But that mote in one's own eye(s)!
Jutta: (driving through fantastic scenery) Isn't it fantastic scenery (with cursory turn of head) Fantastic!
Me: (with cursory turn of head) Fantastic!
Natasha: (new dress) do you like it?
Me: (writing) yes, it's very nice
Natasha: how do you know? You haven't seen it yet
(I had forgotten to look up)"
--- R.D. Laing, The Facts of Life (Pantheon Books, 1976)