Posts Tagged ‘Allan Bloom’

I simply can’t keep up with all the reading, viewing, and listening in my queue. Waking hours are too few, and concentration dissipates long before sleep overtakes. Accordingly, it’s much easier to settle into couch-potato mode and watch some mindless drivel, such as the Netflix hit Bridgerton binged in two sittings. (Unlike cinema critics, I’m not bothered especially by continuity errors, plot holes, clunky dialogue, weak character motivation, gaps of logic, or glossy decadence of the fictional worlds. I am bothered by the Kafka trap sprung on anyone who notices casting decisions that defy time and place — an ill-advised but now commonplace historical revisionism like editing Mark Twain.) As a result, blog posts are less frequent than they might perhaps be as I pronounce upon American (or more broadly, Western) culture, trying vainly to absorb it as a continuously moving target. Calls to mind the phrase Après moi, le déluge, except that there is no need to wait. A deluge of entertainment, news, analysis, punditry, and trolling has buried everyone already. So rather than the more careful consideration I prefer to post, here are some hot takes.

The Irregular Aphorist. Caitlin Johnstone offers many trenchant observations in the form of aphorisms (some of which I’ve quoted before), all gathered under the subtitle Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix. The modifier irregular only means that aphorisms are a regular but not constant feature. Her site doesn’t have a tag to that effect but probably ought to. Here’s one in particular that caught my attention:

Everything our species has tried has led us to a dying world and a society that is stark raving mad, so nobody is in any position to tell you that you are wrong.

Twin truths here are (1) the dying world and (2) societal madness, both of which I’ve been describing for some time. Glad when others recognize them, too.

Piling on. Though few still are willing to admit it, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs, e.g., distancing, masks, and lockdowns) to stall or reduce the spread of the virus failed to achieve their objectives according to this study. Instead, NPIs piled on suffering no one could forestall. I read somewhere (no link) that the world is approaching half of total, cumulative deaths/infections predicted had nothing been done to impede the pandemic running its course. Adding in deaths of despair (numbers not entirely up to date), we’re using the wrong tools to fight the wrong battle. Of course, interventions opened up giant opportunities for power grabs and vulture capitalism, so the cynic in me shrugs and wonders half aloud “what did you expect, really?”

Growth of the Managerial Bureaucracy. A blog called Easily Distracted by Timothy Burke (never on my blogroll) publishes only a few times per year, but his analysis is terrific — at least when it doesn’t wind up being overlong and inconclusive. Since a student debt jubilee is back in the news (plenty of arguments pro and con), unintended consequences are anticipated in this quote:

When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers.

Something similar may well be occurring with stimulus checks being issued pro rata (has anyone actually gotten one?), but at least we’re spared any petitionary humiliations. We get whatever the algorithms (byzantine cutoff points) dictate. How those funds will be gamed and attached is not yet clear. Stay alert.

No Defense of Free Speech. Alan Jacobs often recommends deleting, unsubscribing, and/or ignoring social media accounts (after his own long love-hate relationship with them) considering how they have become wholly toxic to a balanced psyche as well as principal enablers of surveillance capitalism and narrative control. However, in an article about the manorial elite, he’s completely lost the plot that absolutism is required in defense of free speech. It’s not sufficient to be blasé or even relieved when 45 is kicked off Twitter permanently or when multiple parties conspire to kill Parler. Establishing your own turf beyond the reach of Silicon Valley censors is a nice idea but frankly impractical. Isn’t that what whoever ran Parler (or posted there) must have thought? And besides, fencing off the digital commons these very entities created has catapulted them into the unenviable position of undemocratic, unelected wielders of monopolistic power and co-conspirators to boot. That’s what needs to be curtailed, not free speech.

The Taxonomic Apocalypse. Although drawn from fiction and thus largely hypothetical, a new book (coming late 2021) by Adam Roberts called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? surveys doomsday stories and categorizes different versions of how it all ends. Alan Jacobs (yeah, him again — must have an advance copy of the manuscript) recommends it as “a delightful and provocative little book” but fails to grok two things: (1) these stories are rehearsals-cum-preparations for the real thing, and (2) the real thing really is bearing down on us implacably and so is no longer a mere hypothetical to contemplate and categorize for shits and grins. Despite acceptance of the eventualities that await all of us, reading Roberts’ taxonomy is not something I would expect to find delightful. Skip.

Narrative Collapse. Ran Prier (no link) sometimes makes statements revealing an unexpected god’s-eye view:

[45] is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he’s the messiah. We’re lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.

This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that’s part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.

Collapse of certain fundamental stories that animate our thinking is at the core of The Spiral Staircase (see About Brutus at top), though it’s often couched in terms of consciousness in transition. Getting through the transition (only temporarily, see previous item in list) probably means completion of the Counter-Enlightenment historical arc, which necessarily includes further descent into barbarism.

Hail Mary for Individualism. I always take special notice when someone cites Allan Bloom. Alan Jacobs (um, yeah, he’s prolific and I’m using his ideas again — sue me) cites Bloom to argue that individualism or the sovereign self, a product of the Enlightenment, is already dead. No doubt, the thought-world described so ably by Bloom no longer exists, but individualism has not yet died out by attrition or been fully dissolved in nonduality. Many of us born before the advent of the Internet retain selfhood and authenticity not yet coopted by or incorporated into mass mind. Moreover, ongoing struggles over identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, and race that are often used improperly to define the self) result from an inchoate sense that individualism is eroding precipitously, not that it’s already passé. Defiant attempts to (re)establish an authentic self (contravening all logic and becoming critical theory of one sort or another) in the face of this loss may well be a last-ditch effort to save the self, but it’s failing.

The embrace of all manner of stimulation is a symptom of our time. The idea of “getting the most out of life” or the expectation that we should (or even can) have an ongoing series of peak experiences manifests in our culture in myriad ways, each pointing to a desire or expectation of revved-up sensation. Returning to the office every Monday, we’re almost ashamed if we haven’t capitalized upon the promise of the weekend with a story of some sort of excess.

A sybarite is one who fetishizes food and luxuriant comforts, which in a wider sense is an almost hedonistic abandonment to the experience of one’s senses. The catatonic, on the other hand, is someone for whom modern life is an excessive barrage of stimulation, a deluge, more stimulation, in fact, than can be absorbed and dealt with. This difficulty leads to a hollowing out of the qualitative aspects of experience, a sort of unfeeling, automatic, patterned response to outer reality that strips away information and affect to the point that the individual’s inner reality collapses and he becomes his functions, as opposed to a thinking, feeling, interactive participant in the world. In a bustling metropolis, the mere act of walking down the sidewalk requires excluding from attention various things pressing upon us except for footfalls, jostling amongst people (traffic), and the eventual destination. The catatonic becomes the function of travel and experiences very little of it in any meaningful sense.

The paradox of the sybarite and the catatonic is that both are examples of people who can’t feel, though they come to it from different directions. The former can’t feel anymore, having lost all sensitivity, and needs things to be amplified just to register; whereas the latter can’t feel anymore because the experience is too intense or confusing. Both become, in effect, unthinking, and in affect, unfeeling. One might object that this isn’t true of everyone, which is acknoweldged. However, even a passing examination of the culture reveals that we’re a nation of excess. We’re encouraged at every step to maximize or minimize; rarely are we encouraged to optimize. We all tend toward the extremes, and the ultimate effect, always visited upon the more adaptable young than the more fully formed adult, is the zombie or automaton.

The most obvious example is the drug culture, which many adults have successfully avoided but is now almost a rite of passage among today’s youth. I’ve actually seen posters in high schools where 25% of students (based on local data) were praised for not being drug users (including marijuana). I am by no means the only or even first person to notice these effects. Consider the following passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987):

Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors — victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits … [S]tudents who have had a serious fling with drugs — and gotten over it — find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations … They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living … [R]ock addiction … has an effect similar to that of drugs. The students will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it … in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle … [They] will study economics or the professions and … will want to get ahead and live comfortably. But this life is as empty and false as the one they left behind … [A]s long as they have the Walkman on [now smartphone], they cannot hear what the great [liberal arts] tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.