Archive for October, 2007

I’ve lost my focus with this blog. When I started, I had imagined collecting and refining my ideas about a general theory of mind and its intersection with culture. That has been the principal intellectual preoccupation of my adulthood. Although I don’t have college degrees in the usual disciplines that most researchers and philosophers on the subject have (psychology and historical psychology, anthropology, neurology and brain surgery, cognitive and learning theory, and philosophy), I’ve synthesized a lot of information that comes from these disciplines. Indeed, to even begin requires a formidable interdisciplinary breadth. In a certain respect, I’m wholly unqualified to tackle the subject, but in other respects, I’m precisely the sort of person to do so. Regrettably, other things got in the way, such as earning a living. And besides, consciousness is a moving target, which is one of my points.

Almost from the inception of this blog I’ve been delaying discussions about and further investigation of consciousness and the mind in favor of dire predictions of The Collapse stemming from overpopulation, environmental degradation, global warming and climate change, the end of oil, etc. What could be more significant that humanity’s demise at its own hand? There are no links there because maybe half my blog entries have been about those topics. Interspersed are observations about the culture at large and a few lighter, more humorous posts about a variety of nonsense.

I’ve also adopted a conspicuously dense though abbreviated form for most entries. I rarely blog over 3 or 4 paragraphs. That’s partly out of a desire not to bore my few readers or to write excessively long, scholarly tomes on a blog. I can’t say whether that choice has been successful, as there is little discussion going on in the comments. I have only two, maybe three faithful commentators and not very many more visitors. So perhaps longer, more self-indulgent entries might appear with fuller explications of my themes.

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Sewer Language

Posted: October 19, 2007 in Culture, Manners, Tacky

An opinion column in the Petosky News-Review addressess the question “What purpose does profane language serve?” The treatment is relatively brief and practically begs the question whether there aren’t more important things to worry about. At first blush, there are most pressing issues, and manners or propriety isn’t among the top priorities for most people anymore. However, I keep coming across statements by thinkers better than me that huge, intractable problems stay unaddressed and unsolved because they’re so formidable and remote. What really matters and motivates behavior (and changes to behavior) are things that are immediate and personal, such as our relationships with other people and our daily habits of perception and attitude.

The author of the article linked to above, Jim Grisso, construes the use of what he calls sewer language partially as a free speech issue but more fundamentally as an irritant to him and his wife. That’s personal enough, to be sure, but doesn’t make me care much. My greater concern is the idea that, as with food, if it’s garbage in, then it’s garbage out. Our daily diet of profanity is now such a large part of the language, now that proper usage and even having something to say — as opposed to merely giving attitude — have eroded to a considerable degree, that it’s inevitable for the garbage we hear all day (receptive speech) to be recycled in what little we have to say (expressive speech). But there’s worse, of course. The ultrautility of profanity to express paradoxically everything and nothing (fuck that or that’s shit) robs language of content. Run this social experiment (using volumes of profanity in everyday language) for even a couple generations and it’s clear that lots of folks (kids and adults) can’t form a coherent sentence with or without profanity. So a simple concept like “begging the question” (see above) passes over them as so much noise, entirely devoid of meaning.

One could argue that the state of the world, the country, the states, cities, and communities is so dismal that rebellious and profane language is warranted. Well, duh … yes! What use is it, though, when hearing those words no longer produces even the slightest sting in even the most prudish ears, that sewer language is just a mild irritant? What use is it when language is degraded in everyday use to the point that a large percentage of the population is immune to and unmoved by any sort of nuanced usage and can’t recognize when they’re being duped, lied to, manipulated, and patronized? In short, it represents a significant decline from our former stature, though in fairness it wasn’t always possible to find widespread literacy and well-spoken everymen. For this reason (and others), I can’t help believing we’re on the precipice of another dark age.

Dissent Rendered Moot

Posted: October 14, 2007 in Idealism, Philosophy, Politics

Dissent is among the most basic postures of conscience, so much so that it’s arguably the foundation of existential philosophy. It’s also one of the foundations of American-style politics from the time of the American Revolution forward. The logical trajectory of dissent, however, is to establish its points in opposition to and eventually become the dominant paradigm. The counterculture of the 1960s eventually became part of the establishment it rebelled against. Similarly, so-called political correctness began as dissent and devolved into mere formalism. That’s the irony of success: it establishes contrary thinking as dominant. The savvy among the power elite also know that nothing mutes dissent so much as co-opting it as a chic lifestyle accoutrement. Give the appearance of appeasement and make dissent disappear, i.e., the driving force behind activism often dissipates once an objective is realized (or appears to have been).

More recently, however, these dynamics have been altered. For a generation or more, depending on how one counts, political activism and dissent have been at a low ebb compared to most of the 20th century. Those issues that still pack the necessary punch to motivate public assembly and statements of purpose, if not full-blown manifestos, have not been transformed or co-opted. Rather, they have been smartly ignored. A new dynamic has emerged: routine dissent is a mere cost of doing business that can be disregarded, whereas an even modestly raised voice is an immediate ground for dismissal as either radicalism or insanity. Take to the streets in a nonviolent protest with placards and chants and it’s “just another pointless demonstration” enacted to provide the demonstrators a brief ego massage and salve to conscience. Politicians and corporations alike are utterly unmoved and unconcerned. Self-immolation on the sidewalk in front of the White House results in the complete loss of message, branding the poor soul as a crazy person (despite myriad examples in history of similar self-sacrifice to a cause or to conscience).

I learned recently that agents are sometimes sent to infiltrate nonviolent protests and stir up trouble, pushing the cause over the edge from irrelevance to something that can instead be dismissed as criminal. A violent protest, despite being a hallowed American tradition and indeed a necessary thermostatic response to abuses of power, is rebranded by those holding the monopoly on violence as un-American. Violent protest in Seattle at the WTO conference in 1999 is a good example of how disruptive behavior meant to block the meetings and raise awareness of the perils of globalization were perceived instead as mob activity, unrest in the streets, and a threat to the status quo. With that lesson still lodged in mind, it should be no surprise then that the Bush administration suggested that Americans should go shopping in response to the events of 9/11. In fact, the status quo has been so tightly maintained, despite a complete collapse in public support for Congress and the Bush administration, that Americans have no sense of actually living in wartime, which in past wars required some level of sacrifice. The only sacrifice we’re being asked to make now is our integrity. Since disruptive and/or violent dissent of the citizenry in response to what can only be called the criminal behaviors and abdication of moral authority of our elected leaders and captains of industry have been taken off the table and rendered moot, what is left but a sort of learned helplessness in the face of ongoing abuses of power? Our collective response is as predictable as is it prescribed: we shop.