Posts Tagged ‘Book Blogging’

Continuing my book-blogging project on Orality and Literacy, Ong provides context for the oral tradition that surrounded the two great Homeric classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to Ong, it took decades for literary critics and sociologists to overcome their bias, borne out of literacy, and recognize how formulaic are the two epics. They are essentially pastiches of commonplace plots, phrases, and sayings of the time, which was a notable strength when oral delivery based on memorization was how epic poetry was transmitted. In a literate era, such clichés are to be avoided (like the plague).

Aside: my review of David Serota’s Back to Our Future mentions the dialect he and his brother developed, filled with one-liners and catchphrases from entertainment media, especially TV and movies. The three-word (also three-syllable) form seems to be optimal: “Beam me up” (Star Trek), “Use the Force” (Star Wars), “Make my day” (Dirty Harry), “I’ll be back” (The Terminator), etc. This construction is short, punchy, and memorable. The first holder of high office in the U.S. to attempt to govern by catchphrase was probably Ronald Reagan, followed (of course) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Donald Trump. Mustn’t overlook that all three (and others) came to prominence via the entertainment industry rather than through earnest (Kennedyesque) public service. Trump’s numerous three-word phrases (shtick, really) lend themselves especially well to being chanted by adoring crowds at his pep rallies, swept up in groupthink, with a recognizable beat-beat-beat-(silence) structure. The rock band Queen stumbled upon this same elemental rhythm with its famous stomp-stomp-clap-(wait) from the anthem “We Are the Champions,” consciously intended for audience participation (as I understand it).

Further aside: “We Are the Champions” combines its iconic rhythm with a recitation tone sourced in antiquity. Make of that what you will.

Ong goes on to provide a discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, which I list here without substantive discussion (read for yourself):

  • orality is additive rather than subordinative
  • orality is aggregative rather than analytic
  • orality is redundant or copious
  • orality is conservative or traditionalist
  • orality is close to the human lifeworld
  • orality is agonistically toned
  • orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • orality is homeostatic
  • orality is situational rather than abstract

Of particular interest is Ong’s description of how language functions within oral cultures distinctly from literate cultures, which is the source of the bias mentioned above. To wit:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing … In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase … [w]ithout writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual … [for] ‘primitive’ (oral) people … language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought — oral people commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. [pp. 31–32]

If this sounds conspicuously reminiscent this previous post, well, congratulations on connecting the dots. The whole point, according to a certain perspective, is that words are capable of violence, which is (re)gaining adherents as our mental frameworks undergo continuous revision. It’s no small thing that slurs, insults, and fighting words (again) provoke offense and violent response and that mere verbal offense equates to violence. Not long ago, nasty words were reclaimed, nullified, and thus made impotent (with varying levels of irrational rules of usage). Well, now they sting again and are used as ammo to cancel (a form of administrative violence, often undertaken anonymously, bureaucratically, and with the assistance of the digital mob) anyone with improper credentials to deploy them.

Let me draw another connection. Here’s a curious quote by Walter Pater, though not well known:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Put another way, the separation of signifier from signified, an abstraction conditioned by literacy and rationalism (among other things) is removed (“obliterated”) by music, which connects to emotion more directly than representational art. Similarly, speech within primary oral cultures exists purely as sound and possesses an ephemeral, even effervescence (Ong’s term) quality only experienced in the flow of time. (Arguably, all of human experience takes place within the flow of time.) Music and “primitive” speech are accordingly dynamic and cannot be reduced to static snapshots, that is, fixed on a page as text or committed to a canvas or photograph as a still image (hence, the strange term still life). That’s why a three-word, three-syllable chant, or better yet, the Queen rhythm or the Wave in sports arenas (a gesture requiring subscription of everyone), can possess inherent power, especially as individuals are entrained in groupthink. Music and words-as-violence get inside us and are nearly wholly subjective, not objective — something we all experience organically in early childhood before being taught to read and write (if in fact those skills are learned beyond functional literacy). Does that mean culture is reverting to an earlier stage of development, more primitive, childlike, and irrational?

For more than a decade, I’ve had in the back of my mind a blog post called “The Power of Naming” to remark that bestowing a name gives something power, substance, and in a sense, reality. That post never really came together, but its inverse did. Anyway, here’s a renewed attempt.

The period of language acquisition in early childhood is suffused with learning the names of things, most of which is passive. Names of animals (associated closely with sounds they make) are often a special focus using picture books. The kitty, doggie, and horsie eventually become the cat, dog, and horse. Similarly, the moo-cow and the tweety-bird shorten to cow and bird (though songbird may be an acceptable holdover). Words in the abstract are signifiers of the actual things, aided by the text symbols learned in literate cultures to reinforce mere categories instead of examples grounded in reality. Multiply the names of things several hundred thousand times into adulthood and indeed throughout life and one can develop a formidable vocabulary supporting expressive and nuanced thought and speech. Do you know the differences between acute, right, obtuse, straight, and reflex angles? Does it matter? Does your knowledge of barware inform when to use a flute, coupe, snifter, shot (or shooter or caballito), nosing glass (or Glencairn), tumbler, tankard, goblet, sling, and Stein? I’d say you’ve missed something by never having drunk dark beer (Ger.: Schwarzbier) from a frosted schooner. All these varieties developed for reasons that remain invisible to someone content to drink everything from the venerable red Solo cup. Funnily enough, the red Solo cup now comes in different versions, fooling precisely no one.

Returning to book blogging, Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) has curious comparisons between primarily oral cultures and literate cultures. For example:

Oral people commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give humans beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be. [p. 33]

This gets at something that has been developing over the past few decades, namely, that as otherwise literate (or functionally literate) people gather more and more information through electronic media (screens that serve broadcast and cable TV, YouTube videos, prerecorded news for streaming, and podcasts, and most importantly, audiobooks — all of which speak content to listeners), the spoken word (re)gains primacy and the printed word fades into disuse. Electronic media may produce a hybrid of orality/literacy, but words are no longer silent, internal, and abstract. Indeed, words — all by themselves — are understood as being capable of violence. Gone are the days when “stick and stones ….” Now, fighting words incite and insults sting again.

Not so long ago, it was possible to provoke a duel with an insult or gesture, such as a glove across the face. Among some people, defense of honor never really disappeared (though dueling did). History has taken a strange turn, however. Proposed legislation to criminalize deadnaming (presumably to protect a small but growing number of transgender and nonbinary people who have redefined their gender identity and accordingly adopted different names) recognizes the violence of words but then tries to transmute the offense into an abstract criminal law. It’s deeply mixed up, and I don’t have the patience to sort it out.

More to say in later blog posts, but I’ll raise the Counter-Enlightenment once more to say that the nature of modern consciousness if shifting somewhat radically in response to stimuli and pressures that grew out of an information environment, roughly 70 years old now but transformed even more fundamentally in the last 25 years, that is substantially discontinuous from centuries-old traditions. Those traditions displaced even older traditions inherited from antiquity. Such is the way of the world, I suppose, and with the benefit of Walter Ong’s insights, my appreciation of the outlines is taking better shape.

Wanted to provide an update to the previous post in my book-blogging project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy to correct something that wasn’t clear to me at first. The term chirographic refers to writing, but I conflated writing more generally with literacy. Ong actually distinguishes chirographic (writing) from typographic (type or print) and includes another category: electronic media.

Jack Goody … has convincingly shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called ‘prelogical’ to the more and more ‘rational’ state of consciousness, or from Lévi-Strauss’s ‘savage’ mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy … Marshall McLuhan’s … cardinal gnomic saying, ‘The medium is the message’, registered his acute awareness of the importance of the shift from orality through literacy and print to electronic media. [pp. 28–29]

So the book’s primary contrast is between orality and literacy, but literacy has a sequence of historical developments: chirographic, typographic, and electronic media. These stages are not used interchangeably by Ong. Indeed, they exist simultaneously in the modern world and all contribute to overall literacy while each possesses unique characteristics. For instance, reading from handwriting (printing or cursive, the latter far less widely used now except for signatures) is different from reading from print on paper or on the screen. Further, writing by hand, typing on a typewriter, typing into a word-processor, and composing text on a smartphone each has its effects on mental processes and outputs. Ong also mentions remnants of orality that have not yet been fully extinguished. So the exact mindset or style of consciousness derived from orality vs. literacy is neither fixed nor established universally but contains aspects from each category and subcategory.

Ong also takes a swing at Julian Jaynes. Considering that Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1977) (see this overview) was published only seven years prior to Orality and Literacy (1982), the impact of Jaynes’ thesis must have still been felt quite strongly (as it is now among some thinkers). Yet Ong disposes of Jaynes rather parsimoniously, stating

… if attention to sophisticated orality-literacy contrasts is growing in some circles, it is still relatively rare in many fields where it could be helpful. For example, the early and late stages of consciousness which Julian Jaynes (1977) describes and related to neuro-physiological changes to the bicameral mind would also appear to lend themselves largely to much simpler and more verifiable descriptions in terms of a shift from orality to literacy. [p. 29]

In light of the details above, it’s probably not accurate to say (as I did before) that we are returning to orality from literacy. Rather, the synthesis of characteristics is shifting, as it always has, in relation to new stimuli and media. Since the advent of cinema and TV — the first screens, now supplemented by the computer and smartphone — the way humans consume information is undergoing yet another shift. Or perhaps it’s better to conclude that it’s always been shifting, not unlike how we have always been and are still evolving, though the timescales are usually too slow to observe without specialized training and analysis. Shifts in consciousness arguably occur far more quickly than biological evolution, and the rate at which new superstimuli are introduced into the information environment suggest radical discontinuity with even the recent past — something that used to be call the generation gap.

I’ve always wondered what media theorists such as McLuhan (d. 1980), Neil Postman (d. 2003), and now Ong (d. 2003) would make of the 21st century had they lived long enough to witness what has been happening, with 2014–2015 being the significant inflection point according to Jonathan Haidt. (No doubt there are other media theorists working on this issue who have not risen to my attention.) Numerous other analyses point instead to the early 20th century as the era when industrial civilization harnessed fossil fuels and turned the mechanisms and technologies of innovators decidedly against humanity. Pick your branching point.

The backblog at The Spiral Staircase includes numerous book reviews and three book-blogging projects — one completed and two others either abandoned or on semi-permanent hiatus. I’m launching a new project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), which comes highly recommended and appears quite interesting given my preoccupations with language, literacy, and consciousness. To keep my thinking fresh, I have not consulted any online reviews or synopses.

Early on, Ong provides curious (but unsurprising) definitions I suspect will contribute to the book’s main thesis. Here is one from the intro:

It is useful to approach orality and literacy synchronically, by comparing oral cultures and chirographic (i.e., writing) cultures that coexist at a given period of time. But it is absolutely essential to approach them also diachronically or historically, by comparing successive periods with one another. [p. 2]

I don’t recall reading the word chirographic before, but I blogged about the typographic mind (in which Ong’s analyses are discussed) and lamented that the modern world is moving away from literacy, back toward orality, which feels (to me at least) like retrogression and retreat. (Someone is certain to argue return to orality is actually progress.) As a result, Western institutions such as the independent press are decaying. Moreover, it’s probably fair to say that democracy in the West is by now only a remnant fiction, replaced by oligarchic rule and popular subscription to a variety of fantasy narratives easily dispelled by modest inventory of what exists in actuality.

Here is another passage and definition:

A grapholect is a transdialectal language formed by deep commitment to writing. Writing gives a grapholect a power far exceeding that of any purely oral dialect. The grapholect known as standard English has accessible for use a recorded vocabulary of at least a million and a half words, of which not only the present meanings but also hundreds of thousands of past meanings are known. A simply oral dialect will commonly have resources of only a few thousand words, and its users will have virtually no knowledge of the real semantic history of any of these words. [p. 8]

My finding is that terms such as democracy, liberalism, social justice, etc. fail to mean anything (except perhaps to academics and committed readers) precisely because their consensus usage has shifted so wildly over time that common historical points of reference are impossible to establish in a culture heavily dominated by contemporary memes, slang, talking heads, and talking points — components of orality rather than literacy. And as part of a wider epistemological crisis, one can no longer rely on critical thinking to sort out competing truth claims because the modifier critical now bandied about recklessly in academia, now infecting the workplace and politics, has unironically reversed its meaning and requires uncritical doublethink to swallow what’s taught and argued. Let me stress, too, that playing word games (such as dissembling what is means) is a commonplace tactic to put off criticism by distorting word meanings beyond recognition.

Although it’s unclear just yet (to me, obviously) what Ong argues in his book beyond the preliminary comparison and contrast of oral and chirographic cultures (or in terms of the title of the book, orality and literacy), I rather doubt he argues as I do that the modern world has swung around to rejection of literacy and the style of thought that flows from deep engagement with the written word. Frankly, it would surprise me if his did; the book predates the Internet, social media, and what’s now become omnimedia. The last decade in particular has demonstrated that by placing a cheap, personal, 24/7/365 communications device in the hands of every individual from the age of 12 or so, a radical social experiment was launched that no one in particular designed — except that once the outlines of the experiment began to clarify, those most responsible (i.e., social media platforms in particular but also biased journalists and activist academics) have refused to admit that they are major contributors to the derangement of society. Cynics learned long ago to expect that advertisers, PR hacks, and politicians should be discounted, which requires ongoing skepticism and resistance to omnipresent lures, cons, and propaganda. Call it waking up to reality or simply growing up and behaving responsibly in an information environment designed to be disorienting. Accordingly, the existence of counterweights — information networks derived from truth, authority, and integrity — has always been, um, well, critical. Their extinction presages much graver losses as information structures and even the memory of mental habits that society needs to function are simply swept aside.

David Sirota, author of Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (2011), came to my attention (how else?) through a podcast. He riffed pretty entertainingly on his book, now roughly one decade old, like a rock ‘n’ roller stuck (re)playing his or her greatest hits into dotage. However, his thesis was strong and appealing enough that I picked up a copy (read: borrowed from the library) to investigate despite the datedness of the book (and my tardiness). It promised to be an easy read.

Sirota’s basic thesis is that memes and meme complexes (a/k/a memeplexes, though Sirota never uses the term meme) developed in the 80s and deployed through a combination of information and entertainment media (thus, infotainment) form the narrative background we take for granted in the early part of the 20th century. Children fed a steady diet of clichés, catchphrases, one-liners, archetypes, and story plots have now grown to adulthood and are scarcely able to peer behind the curtain to question the legitimacy or subtext of the narrative shapes and distortions imbibed during childhood like mother’s milk. The table of contents lists four parts (boldface section titles are Sirota’s; descriptive text is mine):

  • Liking Ike, Hating Woodstock. How the 50s and 60s decades were (the first?) assigned reductive demographic signifiers, handily ignoring the true diversity of experience during those decades. More specifically, the boom-boom 50s (economics, births) were recalled nostalgically in 80s TV and films while the 60s were recast as being all about those dirty, hairy hippies and their music, drugs, and sexual licentiousness, all of which had to be invalidated somehow to regain lost wholesomeness. The one-man promotional vehicle for this pleasing self-deception was Michael J. Fox, whose screen personae (TV and film) during the 80s (glorifying the 50s but openly shitting on the 60s) were instrumental in reforming attitudes about our mixed history.
  • The Jump Man Chronicles. How the Great Man Theory of History was developed through glorification of heroes, rogues, mavericks, and iconoclasts who came into their own during the 80s. That one-man vehicle was Michael Jordan, whose talents and personal magnetism were so outsized that everyone aspired to be “like Mike,” which is to say, a superhero elevated beyond mere mortal rules and thus immortalized. The effect was duplicated many times over in popular culture, with various entertainment icons and political operatives subverting thoughtful consideration of real-world problems in favor of jingoistic portrayals.
  • Why We (Continue to) Fight. How the U.S. military was rehabilitated after losing the Vietnam War, gifting us with today’s hypermilitarism and permanent wars. Two principal tropes were deployed to shape public opinion: the Legend of the Spat upon Veteran and the Hands Tied Behind Their Backs Myth. Each was trotted out reliably whenever we needed to misremember our past as fictionalized in the 80s.
  • The Huxtable Effect. How “America’s dad” helped accommodate race relations to white anxiety, primarily to sell a TV show. In contrast with various “ghetto TV” shows of the 70s that depicted urban working poor (various ethnicities), The Cosby Show presented an upscale black family who transcended race by simply ignoring the issue — a privilege of wealth and celebrity. The Obama campaign and subsequent administration copied this approach, pretending American society had become postracial despite his never truly being able to escape the modifier black because the default (no modifier needed) in America is always white. This is the most fraught part of the book, demonstrating that despite whatever instructions we get from entertainment media and pundits, we remain stuck in an unresolved, unhealed, inescapable trap.

(more…)

From They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014) by Paul Street, which I’m just starting to read:

The contemporary United States, I find in this volume, is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. It is something in between or perhaps different altogether: a corporate-managed state-capitalist pseudo-democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profit. It is a corporate and financial plutocracy whose managers generally prefer to rule through outwardly democratic and noncoercive means since leading American corporations and their servants have worked effectively at draining and disabling democracy’s radical and progressive potential by propagandizing, dulling, pacifying, deadening, overextending, overstressing, atomizing, and demobilizing the citizenry. At the same time, American state and capitalist elites remain ready, willing, and able to maintain their power with the help from ever more sinister and sophisticated methods and tools of repression brutality, and coercive control.

Continuing (after some delay) from part 1, Pankaj Mishra concludes chapter 4 of The Age of Anger with an overview of Iranian governments that shifted from U.S./British client state (headed by the Shah of Iran, reigned 1941–1979) to its populist replacement (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, ruled 1979–1989), both leaders having been authoritarians. During the period discussed, Iran underwent the same modernization and infiltration by liberal, Western values and economics, which produced a backlash familiar from Mishra’s descriptions of other nations and regions that had experienced the same severed roots of place since the onset of the Enlightenment. Vacillation among two or more styles of government might be understood as a thermostatic response: too hot/cold one direction leads to correction in another direction. It’s not a binary relationship, however, between monarchy and democracy (to use just one example). Nor are options between a security state headed by an installed military leader and a leader elected by popular vote. Rather, it’s a question of national identity being alternatively fractured and unified (though difficult to analyze and articulate) in the wake of multiple intellectual influences.

According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and [that] the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements … They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs [primarily] within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal. [p. 127]

This is history told by the putative winners. Mishra goes on:

Much of the postcolonial world … became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideas of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population. [p. 133]

Readers may recognize this project and/or process by its more contemporary name: globalization. It’s not merely a war of competing ideas, however, because those ideas manifest in various styles of social and political organization. Moreover, the significance of migration from rural agrarian settings to primarily urban and suburban ones can scarcely be overstated. This transformation (referring to the U.S. in the course of the 20th century) is something James Howard Kunstler repeatedly characterizes rather emphatically as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Mishra summarizes the effects of Westernization handily:

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations — the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the various ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) — reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis — religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist — on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths. [p. 158]

These descriptions and analyses put me in mind of a fascinating book I read some years ago and reviewed on Amazon (one of only a handful of Amazon reviews): John Reader’s Man on Earth (1988). Reader describes and indeed celebrates incredibly diverse ways of inhabiting the Earth specially adapted to the landscape and based on evolving local practices. Thus, the notion of “place” is paramount. Comparison occurs only by virtue of juxtaposition. Mishra does something quite different, drawing out the connective ideas that account for “converging and overlapping paths.” Perhaps inevitably, disturbances to collective and individual identities that flow from unique styles of social organization, especially those now operating at industrial scale (i.e., industrial civilization), appear to be picking up. For instance, in the U.S., even as mass shootings (a preferred form of attack but not the only one) appear to be on the rise at the same time that violent crime is at an all-time low, perpetrators of violence are not limited to a few lone wolves, as the common trope goes. According to journalist Matt Agorist,

mass shootings — in which murdering psychopaths go on rampages in public spaces — have claimed the lives of 339 people since 2015 [up to mid-July 2019]. While this number is certainly shocking and far too high, during this same time frame, police in America have claimed the lives of 4,355 citizens.

And according to this article in Vox, this crazy disproportion (police violence to mass shootings) is predominantly an American thing at least partly because of our high rate of fetishized civilian gun ownership. Thus, the self-described “land of the free, home of the brave” has transformed itself into a paranoid garrison state affecting civil authority even more egregiously than the disenfranchised (mostly young men). Something similar occurred during the Cold War, when leaders became hypervigilant for attacks and invasions that never came. Whether a few close calls during the height of the Cold War were the result of escalating paranoia, brinkmanship, or true, maniacal, existential threats from a mustache-twirling, hand-rolling despot hellbent on the destruction of the West is a good question, probably impossible to answer convincingly. However, the result today of this mindset couldn’t be more disastrous:

It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed — catastrophically failed — while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment [the West secretly at war with itself] — inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance — has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged at the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 — Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity — lies in ruins. [pp.124–125]

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.