Archive for the ‘Intellectual History’ Category

Decades ago, I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Lots of inventive things in those books have stayed with me despite not having revisited them. For instance, I found the SEP (Somebody-Else’s-Problem) Field and the infinite improbability drive tantalizing concepts even though they’re jokes. Another that resonates more as I age is disorientation felt (according to Adams) because of dislocation more than 500 light-years away from home, namely, the planet of one’s origin. When I was younger, my wanderlust led me to venture out into the world (as opposed to the galaxy), though I never gave much thought to the stabilizing effect of the modest town in which I grew up before moving to a more typical American suburb and then to various cities, growing more anonymous with each step. Although I haven’t lived in that town for 25+ years, I pass through periodically and admit it still feels like home. Since moving away, it’s been swallowed up in suburban sprawl and isn’t really the same place anymore.

Reading chapter 4 of Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger brought back to me the idea of being rooted in a particular place and its culture, and more significantly, how those roots can be severed even without leaving. The main cause appears to be cultural and economic infiltration by foreign elements, which has occurred many places through mere demographic drift and in others by design or force (i.e., colonialism and globalization). How to characterize the current waves of political, economic, and climate refugees inundating Europe and the smaller migration of Central Americans (and others) into the U.S. is a good question. I admit to being a little blasé about it: like water, people gonna go where they gonna go. Sovereign states can attempt to manage immigration somewhat, but stopgap administration ultimately fails, at least in open societies. In the meantime, the intractable issue has made many Americans paranoid and irrational while our civil institutions have become decidedly inhumane in their mistreatment of refugees. The not-so-hidden migration is Chinese people into Africa. Only the last of these migrations gives off the stink of neocolonialism, but they all suggest decades of inflamed racial tension to come if not open race wars.

Mishra cites numerous authors and political leaders/revolutionaries in chapter 4 who understand and observe that modernizing and Westernizing countries, especially those attempting to catch up, produce psychic turmoil in their populations because of abandonment and transformation of their unique, local identities as they move, for instance, from predominantly agrarian social organization to urbanization in search of opportunity and in the process imitate and adopt inappropriate Western models. Mishra quotes a 1951 United Nations document discussing the costs of supposed progress:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress in impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of cast, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated. [p. 118]

Thus, men were “uprooted from rural habitats and condemned to live in the big city,” which is a reenactment of the same transformation the West underwent previously. Another insightful passage comes from the final page of Westoxification (1962) or Weststruckness (English transliteration varies) by the Iranian novelist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad:

And now I, not as an Easterner, but as one like the first Muslims, who expected to see the Resurrection on the Plain of Judgment in their lifetimes, see that Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Ingmar Bergman, and many other artists, all of them from the West, are proclaiming this same resurrection. All regard the end of human affairs with despair. Sartre’s Erostratus fires a revolver at the people in the street blindfolded; Nabokov’s protagonist drives his car into the crowd; and the stranger, Meursault, kills someone in reaction to a bad case of sunburn. These fictional endings all represent where humanity is ending up in reality, a humanity that, if it does not care to be crushed under the machine, must go about in a rhinoceros’s skin. [pp. 122–123]

It’s unclear that the resurrection referenced above is the Christian one. Nonetheless, how sobering is it to recognize that random, anonymous victims of nihilistic violence depicted in storytelling have their analogues in today’s victims of mass killings? A direct line of causality from the severed roots of place to violent incidents cannot be drawn clearly, but the loss of a clear, stabilizing sense of self, formerly situated within a community now suffering substantial losses of historical continuity and tradition, is certainly an ingredient.

More to come in pt. 2.

For readers coming to this blog post lacking context, I’m currently reading and book-blogging Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. It explores Western intellectual history that gives rise to feelings of radical discontent over injustices that have not been addressed or remedied successfully for the entirety of the modern era despite centuries of supposed progress.

Continuing from part 1, the case of Voltaire is a curious one. A true child of the Enlightenment, my inference is that he came along too late to participate in the formulation of foundational Enlightenment ideals but later became one of their chief proponents as they diffused throughout Europe and into Russia and elsewhere. He joined many, many others in a belief (against a preponderance of evidence) in human progress, if not perfectibility. (Technical progress is an entirely different matter.) One of the significant aspects of his ideology and writings was his sustained attack on Christianity, or more particularly, Catholicism. More than three centuries later, the secularization of Europe and diminished influence of medieval church dogma stand out as part of the same intellectual tradition.

Enlightenment canon includes aspirational faith in the ability of reason, mechanisms, systems, and administrative prowess to order the affairs of men properly. (How one defines properly, as distinct from equitably or justly, is a gaping hole primed for debate.) In the course of the last few centuries, history has demonstrated that instrumental logic spawned by this ideology has given rise to numerous totalitarian regimes that have subjugated entire populations, often quite cruelly, in modernizing and Westernizing projects. Voltaire found himself in the thick of such projects by willingly aligning himself with despots and rulers who victimized their own peoples in pursuit of industrialization and imitation of urbane French and British models. Russians Peter the Great (reigned May 7, 1682 to February 8, 1725) and Catherine the Great (reigned July 9, 1762 to November 17, 1796) were among those for whom Voltaire acted as apologist and intellectual co-conspirator. Here’s what Mishra has to say:

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteen century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, [effectively] postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model. [pp. 98–99]

and slightly later

… it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment. [p. 102]

No doubt plenty of rulers throughout history understood in the proverbial sense that to make an omelette, a few eggs must be broken, and that by extension, their unpopular decisions must be reshaped and propagandized to the masses to forestall open revolt. Whose eggs are ultimately broken is entirely at issue. That basic script is easily recognizable as being at work even today. Justifications for administrative violence ought to fail to convince those on the bottom rungs of society who make most of the real sacrifices — except that propaganda works. Thus, the United States’ multiple, preemptive wars of aggression and regime change (never fully declared or even admitted as such) have continued to be supported or at least passively accepted by a majority of Americans until quite recently. Mishra makes this very same point using an example different from mine:

… cossetted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an idea society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute … a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination, authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering. [pp. 104–105]

As I reread the chapter in preparation for this blog post, I was surprised to find somewhat less characterization of Voltaire than of Rousseau. Indeed, it is more through Rousseau’s criticism of the dominant European paradigm that the schism between competing intellectual traditions is explored. Mishra circles back to Rousseau repeatedly but does not hesitate to show where his ideas, too, are insufficient. For instance, whereas pro-Enlightenment thinkers are often characterized as being lost in abstraction and idealization (i.e., ideologically possessed), thus estranged from practical reality or history, Rousseau’s empathy and identification with commoners does not provide enough structure for Rousseau to construct a viable alternative to the historical thrust of the day. Mishra quotes a contemporary critic (Joseph de Maistre) who charged Rousseau with irresponsible radicalism:

… he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile to his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems. [p. 110]

The notion that leaders (monarchs, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, social critics, and more recently, billionaires) ought to be in the business of engineering society rather than merely managing it is tacitly assumed. Indeed, there is a parallel hubris present in Rousseau as a thought leader having questionable moral superiority through his vehement criticism of the Enlightenment:

His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time. [pp. 111–112]

This is a recapitulation of the main thesis of the book, which Mishra amplifies only a couple paragraphs later:

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power. [p. 112]

Does “the incendiary appeal of victimhood” sound like a potent component of today’s Zeitgeist? Or for that matter “militant lowbrow” (names withheld)? At the end of the 18th century, Voltaire and Rousseau were among the primary men of letters, the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, articulating competing social views and values with major sociopolitical revolutions following shortly thereafter. The oft-observed rhyming (not repetition) of history suggests another such period may well be at hand.

Returning to Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, chapter 2 (subtitled “Progress and its Contradictions”) profiles two writers of the 18th-century Enlightenment: François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Voltaire was a proponent and embodiment of Enlightenment values and ethics, whereas Rousseau was among the primary critics. Both were hugely influential, and the controversy inherent in their relative perspectives is unresolved even today. First come Rousseau’s criticisms (in Mishra’s prose):

… the new commercial society, which was acquiring its main features of class divisions, inequality and callous elites during the eighteenth century, made its members corrupt, hypocritical and cruel with its prescribed values of wealth, vanity and ostentation. Human beings were good by nature until they entered such a society, exposing themselves to ceaseless and psychologically debilitating transformation and bewildering complexity. Propelled into an endless process of change, and deprived of their peace and stability, human beings failed to be either privately happy or active citizens [p. 87]

This assessment could easily be mistaken for a description of the 1980s and 90s: ceaseless change and turmoil as new technological developments (e.g., the Internet) challenged everyone to reorient and reinvent themselves, often as a brand. Cultural transformation in the 18th century, however, was about more than just emerging economic reconfigurations. New, secular, free thought and rationalism openly challenged orthodoxies formerly imposed by religious and political institutions and demanded intellectual and entrepreneurial striving to participate meaningfully in charting new paths for progressive society purportedly no longer anchored statically in the past. Mishra goes on:

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence. [p. 89]

Sounds quite contemporary, no? Driving the point home:

What makes Rousseau, and his self-described ‘history of the human heart’, so astonishingly germane and eerily resonant is that, unlike his fellow eighteenth-century writers, he described the quintessential inner experience of modernity for most people: the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection. [p. 90]

While most of the chapter describes Rousseau’s rejection and critique of 18th-century ethics, Mishra at one point depicts Rousseau arguing for instead of against something:

Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly un-cosmopolitan and uncommercial. In this society at least, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country. [p. 92]

Notably absent from Mishra’s profile is the meme mistakenly applied to Rousseau’s diverse criticism: the noble savage. Rousseau praises provincial men (patriarchal orientation acknowledged) largely unspoilt by the corrupting influence of commercial, cosmopolitan society devoted to individual self-interest and amour propre, and his ideal (above) is uncompromising. Although Rousseau had potential to insinuate himself successfully in fashionable salons and academic posts, his real affinity was with the weak and downtrodden — the peasant underclass — who were mostly passed over by rapidly modernizing society. Others managed to raise their station in life above the peasantry to join the bourgeoisie (disambiguation needed on that term). Mishra’s description (via Rousseau) of this middle and upper middle class group provided my first real understanding of popular disdain many report toward bourgeois values using the derisive term bourgie (clearer when spoken than when written).

Profile of Voltaire to follow in part 2.

Intellectual history is sometimes studied through themes and symbols found in novels with the writers of those novels being manifest about their intent. This is the second of two blog posts exploring truth-telling in fictional narrative. The first one is here.

Although I watch exactly zero TV, I see a fair number of movies (usually at home on DVD), which fulfills my need to stay in touch with the Zeitgeist of mainstream culture. Periodically, I go to iTunes Movie Trailers to see what’s coming out. In my experience, most offerings are interchangeable genre films with themes, stories, and effects drawn from the same worn-out bag of tricks. Actors, directors, and screenwriters repeat themselves with predictable regularity, which I’ll admit doesn’t necessarily stop their films from being entertaining or making money. If I’m drawn to any particular genre, it’s science fiction, which typically presents some provocative ideas, though they are promptly sacrificed to cinematic convention.

Considering the way the world is going, it was only a matter of time before yet another film explored transhumanism, though no one ever says transhumanism, if indeed they are aware of their underlying themes or merely express themselves through an inchoate artistic sensibility. The latest (due out in mid-April) renames the phenomenon Transcendence and stars Johnny Depp as a terminally ill mad scientist whose mind is up- or downloaded into a computer only to go power-hungry and berserk. (I’ve only seen the trailer and a couple featurettes.) Maybe it’s a cautionary tale, but not before luring credulous viewers into technophilia over the wildly imaginative possibilities of minds housed in computers. Michio Kaku, a science explainer/popularizer and author of the book The Future of the Mind, also teases initiates with the ridiculous potential to, say, reduce consciousness to a collection of data points to be “preserved” on a CD-ROM. Thus, through storytelling of consciousness disembodied and gone haywire, the controversy is taught, yet the inevitability of this future is plainly assumed. The scientists in the featurettes, by the way, say we’re only about 30 years away from being able to accomplish the wonders portrayed in the film.

(more…)

Intellectual history is sometimes studied through themes and symbols found in novels with the writers of those novels being manifest about their intent. This is the first of two blog posts exploring truth-telling in fictional narrative. This is also cross-posted at The Collapse of Industrial Civilization.

One of the many recurring themes and ideas that appear on this blog is that the essential form taken by consciousness is story or narrative. Story enables us to orient ourselves in the world and make it somewhat intelligible. It should not be overlooked that it is we who tell ourselves stories, narrating life as we go via the inner voice no less than attending to the great stories that inform culture. The Bible is one such story (or collection of stories), though its message is interpreted with a scandalously high degree of controversy. (I’m especially intrigued by Paula Hay’s thesis over at Mythodrome that the story of The Fall is really about the loss of animism, not a literal expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Tao te Ching and the Qur’an are similar, one might even say, competing stories from other world cultures.) Story has taken on many forms throughout history, beginning with oral tradition. Setting epics in song and/or verse made them memorable, since fixed written forms came rather late in history (conceived in terms of tens of thousands of years). The appearance of books eroded oral tradition gradually, and the transition of the book into an everyday object after the invention of the printing press eventually helped undermine the authority of the Medieval Church, which housed libraries and trained clerics in the philosophical, ecclesiastical, and scientific (as it was then understood) interpretation of texts. Story continued its development in the Romantic novel and serial fiction, which attracted a mass audience. Today, however, with literacy in decline, cinema and television are the dominant forms of story.

Many categories, types, and genres of story have evolved in fiction. Considering that story arcs typically progress from calm to conflict to resolution, the nature of conflict and the roles we are asked to assume through identification with characters (often archetypal) are a subtly effective vehicle for learning and mind control. Those whose minds have been most deeply and successfully infiltrated are often the same who argue vociferously in defense of a given story, no matter the evidence, with arguments playing out in political spheres and mass media alike. In addition to lighter fare such as RomComs and coming-of-age stories, both of which define not-yet-fully-formed characters through their solidifying relationships, we get hero/antihero/superhero, war, and dystopian tales, where characters tend to be chiseled in place, mostly unchanging as action and events around them take center stage. It is significant that in such tales of conflict, antagonists typically appear from outside: political opponents, foreigners and terrorists, aliens (from space), and faceless, nameless threats such as infectious disease that one might poetically regard as destiny or fate. They threaten to invade, transform, and destroy existing society, which must be defended at all cost even though, ironically, no one believes on a moment’s contemplation it’s really worth saving. Exceptionally, the antagonist is one of us, but an aberrant, outlying example of us, such as a domestic terrorist or serial killer. And while plenty of jokes and memes float around in public that we are often our own worst enemies, becoming the monsters we aim to defeat, stories that identify our full, true threat to ourselves and the rest of creation precisely because of who we are and how we now live are relatively few.

In light of the story of industrial collapse, probably the biggest, baddest story of all time but which is only told and understood in fleeting glimpses, it occurred to me that at least two shows found in cinema and TV have gotten their basic stories mostly correct: The Matrix (predominantly the first film) and The Terminator (the TV show to a greater degree than the movie franchise). In both, a very few possess the truth: knowledge of our enslavement (actual or prospective) to machines of our own invention. Characters in the matrix may feel a sense of unease, of the projected reality being somehow off, but only a few take the notorious red pill and face reality in all its abject despair while most prefer the blue pill (or more accurately, no pill) and the blissful ignorance of illusion. Traveling back and forth between realities (one known to be quite false), the ultrachic glamor and superhero antics of the false reality are far, far more appealing than the dull, cold, grey reality without makeup, costumes, and enhanced fighting skills. Everyone behaves in the false reality with cool, almost emotionless confidence, whereas in the other reality everyone is strained to the breaking point by continuous stress at the threat of annihilation. In Terminator world, time travel enables a few to come back from the future, in the process spilling the beans about what happens after the Singularity, namely, that machines go on a rampage to kill humanity. The dominant emotion of the few initiates is again stress, which manifests as bunker mentality and constant battle readiness. Casualties are not limited to frayed nerves and strained civility, though; plenty of innocent bystanders die alongside those fighting to survive or forestall the future.

Those are only stories, reflections of our preoccupations and diversions from the truth available to witness without needing a red pill. But reality is nonetheless a bitter pill to swallow, so few who become aware of the option to square up to it vs. ignore it really want the truth. I judge that most are still blissfully unaware an option exists, though evidence and supporting stories are everywhere to be found. For those of us unable to pretend or unknow what we now know, the appearance of stress, paranoia, self-abnegation, infighting, gallows humor, and nihilism run parallel to character traits in the Matrix and Terminator worlds. Through story, reconfigured as entertainment, we may indeed be working through some of our psychological issues. And we experience some of the same coming together and tearing apart that inevitably accompany the great events of history. But unlike the childish teaser in this CBS News story that the apocalypse has a date, the machinations of history, like death and extinction, are not strictly events but processes. The process we initiated unwittingly but then ignored is beginning its final crescendo. Stories we tell ourselves conventionally end with triumphal resolution, flatly ignoring the destruction left in their wake. I warn: do not look for triumph in the story of industrial collapse except in those tiny, anonymous moments of grace where suffering ends.