Thursday, December 21, 2006

The stars have really aligned this week

Here's an article from the Economist which combines Foucault, Hayek, and YouTube all in one disastrously written "special report" on shopping and post-modernism. As usually happens when some journalist decides to throw "pomos" at a wall and see what sticks, there are sloppy bald assertions, elided distinctions, and just plain wrong use of terminology. Horkheimer and Adorno become the "founders" of postmodernism, and the author moves us swiftly along to the idea that their point was that we must "deconstruct" "meta-narratives," a gross amalgamation of separate thinkers. We are to understand that all postmodernists "wanted to destroy capitalism," which of course is a fundamental mistake, confusing modernism (marxism) with postmodernism (localized politics, resignation, or whatever).

I suppose every philosophical movement, if you can even call postmodernism a unified movement, gets the short end of the stick from the press. The utilitarians were pleasure-loving swine, Sartre had a notorious time explaining that existentialism was more than black turtlenecks and despair, and marxism continues to be "an evil ideological religion." All share the distinction of being the pariah of conservative society, at least until the useable bits can be incorporated into advertising and pop-culture referencing. (As we've seen this week, YouTube has allowed us to "seize the reins of the new global media," it's a veritable "democratic revolution.") What's never questioned is the "naturalness" of capitalism, its role as a firm, stable rock against which so many quirky philosophical waves impotently crash. The author(s) of the Economist piece seem to view things that way: Aren't these postmodernists interesting? Didn't they, in their leftist folly, predict what wonderful twists and turns marketing and advertising would take? I guess they were good for something!

I think one of the most important things I learned in the past year was that we have to get out of our easy modes of thinking. This means more than just learning about "alternative" views: it means understanding that your views are also alternatives and that all views tend to construct a naturalized edifice for themselves, one that makes them appear to themselves as the center of the universe. This means ceasing to take for granted the various theodices of the status quo we have been taught, especially since we are all basically well-off Americans. This is not a call to rampant relativism, but, I think, to the truth, or some important bundles of truths. For my own part, this sort of questioning has led me to realize that certain political positions deemed "radical" in the United States really aren't so, especially considering how widely they are accepted and even taken for granted abroad. (Of course, sheer numbers can never justify a position; the quality of the people holding the position is foremost. That being said, is it so bad then to subscribe to "socialism," when the governments of Spain and Great Britain are part of the Socialist International? Well, Great Britain might give us pause... Also, not to forget there are people in those very countries who are probably sick to death of the socialism they've been raised on.) My speechifying is beginning to run wild here, so I will wind this down, but I thought it important to share with you all the incredible sense of newness I felt this year, one which I suppose I was supposed to feel all my life while learning new things, but which has just new truly descended on me. Perhaps I'll change so much that I'll come to the truly impossible: a John McCain sticker in '08.


Blogger kushakov said...

In the holiday spirit, and that of Scantron's post, I offer the warmth and wisdom of Jacques Barzun:

"Holding radical opinions is by no means a guarantee that one belongs to the thinking part. It is just as easy to sink into blind unrealism on the Left as on the Right. The only difference to human history is that the point of resistance to reality comes sooner or later in chronological time. How to stick to principle or social aim while facing facts as they are is the peculiar problem for human intelligence in a democratic culture, and this reliance on brain power always implies that it is free, that the choice is real. Hence the need of resisting absolutes - that is, party labels, rigid loyalties, simple rules of thumb, easy or cynical fatalism. Anybody can take sides when things are labeled 'revolutionary,' 'fascist,' 'progressive,' or 'democratic.' But what is it we are asked to believe, to consent to, to support? What value is there in opinions that flow from us like saliva in Pavlov's dogs, at the ringing of a bell? And again, if our fate is mechanically ground out by the omnipotence of interests, then why so much talk and print? If talk and print play their part, then why handle them like a mace, incapable of flexible and pointed use?
The fascist may have said in his heart, 'There is no justice,' but the facts rebuke him. Has the democratic, popular opposition to fascism crystalized around material interests? Not in the least. It has become significant in defense of men representing Opinion in the arts and sciences: university professors, shy scholars, childlike mathematicians - all manner of mild life which is commonly thought to deserve pity and contempt. Basque children, poverty-stricken Jews, ignorant peasants, even wild blackamoors from the mountains of Ethiopia - these have concentrated democratic passion, expressed in money and lives. Where is the interest? What miracle has united Liberals, Communists, Catholics, and Jews, if not a vested interest of Intellect against a totalitarian mass confessing that it has given up its will, its intelligence, and consequently its fate, into the hands of absolutists?" (On Human Freedom, 1939, pp. 37-38)

Scantron, your words give me pleasure and hope - not that you'll join the "radical" camp, whatever or wherever that may be, but that your discovery smacks of Barzun's discussion of intellect and its fundamental role in the cultural life of free democracy. To reject absolutes is what we're about - "to ruthlessly interrogate narratives," as it was once put.

This past month, I've been applying to graduate programs, and have given a lot of thought to the academic calling, and to my place within the discipline of art history. The kind of academic I don't want to be is one who sides with Adorno and Foucault simply because they're the Left's legacy; or one for whom "localized politics" are of a priori value only. The scholars I admire are those who, like Barzun, study culture first, and art or literature as phenomena of culture, not its determinants. (It's a shame, at least for me, that Columbia's Department of the History of Culture, the program that spawned Barzun in the 1930s, isn't around anymore. Instead, we have "Cultural Studies" - a discipline that hasn't got the balls to call culture 'Culture,' and its history 'History.') If we learn anything from the spinfulness of mainstream political discourse, it will be to do as Barzun suggests, and vigorously resist the temptations of absolutism - of "party labels, rigid loyalties, simple rules of thumb, easy or cynical fatalism."

I don't hold much stock in the so-called democratic potential of YouTube and the blogosphere. I once argued that the drive to blog and 'cast is underwritten by narcissism as understood by Lacan and Freud. A year later, I would revise this statement: narcissism, like absolutism, is no more easily resisted through YouTube than in the street with one's fist in the air. Democracy (for Barzun; collectivity for Arendt and politics for Badiou) are difficult because they are matters of culture, and cannot therefore be legislated into being - as our folly in Iraq has proven. Democratic politics, Barzun argues, belongs to culture as surely as to the science of policy and administration. When we talk about "localized politics," for example, aren't we really referring to politics in the realm of culture? In other words, politics as it intersects with belief, desire, necessity, and narrative? It's for this reason, I think, that I have such trouble defending my interests against the perspective of political science, and the argument that the discussion of politics should involve, to the exclusion of all else, the support or defense of policy-based solutions. If we are to be debaters of policy, then yes, we must engage in cross-examination and propose workable solutions. But I suspect that those who excercise power over policy discover quickly the importance of the cultural realm - first in the creation of policy, and then doubly so for its implementation. We are not policy-makers, and so our interactions with the challenges of collective life are even more surely based in the practice of culture. Few blogs can claim to represent such a diversity of interests in politics and culture as ours; rather than self-censor or censor others, we should encourage each other to develop further our ideas and wild political speculations.

That said, please, Scantron - do not affix McCain's sticker to any bumper you call your own. Please? I can have my grandma pray for you if you want. She's a Catholic.

Holiday mirth to all...

1:11 AM  

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