Thursday, June 08, 2017

The Walk To Kallipolis



The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

Preface

Inspired by Cicero’s dialogues and the letters of Seneca, I have sought to compare the ideas of Alasdair MacIntyre, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Nietzsche in a speculative chat on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, and how both relate to the process of judgment in both spheres.

Although an attempt to be humorous, I refer to these very modern thinkers like contemporaries to my
ancient interlocutors out of the conviction that the topics of philosophy are of perennial interest and,
her practitioners are forever in dialogue with the great names of the past as philosophy’s past (I hope)
will remain eternally relevant to its present and future.

With Aristotle, MacIntyre argues that man has a Telos or end, an end shaped by our community
and its traditions. Wittgenstein makes the claim that art can only be understood within a community, or context, that is trained to understand it. Finally, Nietzsche’s Perspectivism helps to bring the two
together and points to its use as a criterion of judgment in both morals and art.

Although the speakers reach no definite conclusions, the reader is left with much to consider on
the issues, and are invited to continue the inquiry on their own.


The Walk To Kallipolis

My Dear Johannus,

You must forgive so late a reply to your last letter. Yesterday I had the good fortune to
encounter Marcus while on the road to town, and instantly we found ourselves on a very
different road indeed as we began to discuss the nature of judgment in art, and its relation to
ethics.

By some odd path of logic, we found ourselves on the topic of that greatest of poets,
Homer. In discussing the beauties of his verse, of which there are more than may be counted, it
occurred to Marcus to question the very nature of such judgment itself.

Surely,” said he. “There must be some criteria for aesthetic judgment.”

At this suggestion, I was at once reminded of that scene from the Iliad which has come to
be known as The Judgement of Paris. I remarked upon how difficult such a choice would be for
any of us. To which Marcus replied:

Yes, but few judgments of beauty, that world of abstract forms, have had such influence
upon the material world. When man judges beauty for the wrong reasons it always seems likely
to reach a bad end.”

How so?” I replied. “You seem to imply some ethical connotation I do not see.”

Ah!” Smiled Marcus knowingly. “I had hoped you would catch that. I have been doing
much reading of late that has been deeply stimulating on just this matter. Are you perchance
familiar with the Caledonian philosopher MacIntyre?”

I declared that I was not.

Then allow me to illuminate you, as I feel his thought may aid us somewhat in this
business. MacIntyre has taken the concept of Telos from our old friend Aristotle and given it
new life. As you may recall, Aristotle does not separate the domains of Ethics and Politics as he
sees them as means to the same end, human happiness. Happiness, of course, consisting in the
cultivation of virtue. What virtue consists of we may put aside for the moment, but he assumes
that our reason, once fully developed, will naturally seek it out.”

And,” I interjected “To fully develop our reason and so attain virtue is thus our end
purpose or, Telos?”

Precisely. And this is exactly what the institutions of the state are for; the state serves
merely to help us reach our teleological end.”

But,” I questioned perplexed. “What has this to do with aesthetic judgment?”

We will get there,” Marcus replied. “But there is much still hidden that must be brought
to light. Here perhaps is where MacIntyre and Aristotle appear to part company. Although
Aristotle seems to imply that his idea of virtue is the same for all, MacIntyre argues that each
polis, or community, will have different concepts of virtue. Every community is guided and held
together by the glue of tradition. It is in this context of community and its traditions in which we
fulfil our Telos as citizens.”

Ah, I see where you are going Marcus. If virtue is interpreted through the lens of
tradition then our standards of beauty will be also.”

Just so. Politics leads to ethics, leads to community, leads to tradition, leads to our
judgments about value, as it is only in community, and its standards of traditional concerns, that
our Telos is fulfilled and our judgment is confirmed.”

I objected. “But this sounds off to me. Does not the isolated individual, like that goatherd
over there in the fields, not have a set of values and opinion’s there on?”

Certainly,” Returned Marcus. “But one’s virtue can only be fully realized in relation to
other human beings, that is, in community. It can matter very little, I should think, how loving
you might be if there is no one whom you might lavish with your affection. But to return to the
question of aesthetic judgment I am reminded of some things said by that old recluse,
Wittgenstein of Vienna. He has said very little on the subject, and of that cryptically like an
oracle but, just like an oracle, worth paying attention to all the same. His comment was upon
music specifically, but I feel it has wider implications----”

Please Marcus, what did he say?” I prodded rather impatiently as I was caught up in the
current of our discourse.

Well, he asks how one might demonstrate one’s understanding of a piece of music.
From this he asserts that it would require ‘a culture’, that is, a set of practices or traditions shared
by a community. Specifically he calls this understanding a ‘form of life’, but I prefer the less
ostentatious term context. Thus, all aesthetic judgment must occur within a context. He or she
who has been educated or lived within that context are best able to understand it. For instance, I
have often been a witness to the generational gap in humor. A younger generation finds terribly
funny what the older can barely comprehend. Or, to be more concrete, many of the conventions
of Opera appear alien and artificial to those before being educated in its history.”

Marcus stopped for a moment as if an odd thought had just struck him.

In a way this tallies well with something else MacIntyre relates. Among the South Sea
islanders a large part of their ethical traditions consist of a concept they call Taboo. These
taboos forbid certain actions or the entry to special areas set aside for the gods. As the context of
those societies changed, one by one the taboos were removed, but this incited little resistance as
the context or ‘form of life’ had been so altered that the taboos had long before been stripped of
their spiritual or didactic purpose. Perhaps one might compare this ‘stripping away’ of context
as it were, to the work of art turned into a mere commodity?”

It seems plausible Marcus but, you still have yet to explain how one might assess the
merits of art. I can see how you relate ethics to aesthetics, but I have yet to find the connection
to judgment. If anything I fear, you have merely added to the cause of Relativism.”

Yes, that does appear to be the case at first glance. But, remember the concept of Telos.
I think it uncontroversial to argue that, although we are uncertain if human beings have an innate
Telos, it seems perfectly defensible to assume that art does. After all, every work of art, if
consciously made, has an intended purpose, and that is to invoke in its audience whatever
thoughts or feelings the artist intends. And this leads me to the last piece of this puzzle, the
question of judgment. In an age such as our’s of nihilistic indifference to value, how might we
choose? As you know I am very fond of Nietzsche, whom I jokingly refer to as The
Philosopher since his concerns are still so overwhelmingly our own. Well, somewhere or other
he puts forward something he calls Perspectivism, and with it perhaps we can find a means of
egress from this blind alley we have encountered. Nietzsche was speaking more of morality but,
as I believe we have already demonstrated, moral judgment and aesthetic judgment are two sides
of the same coin so, it should be little objected to if we just flip the coin over in this case.
Nietzsche considered truth and knowledge as eternally unattainable, for we can only view the
world as it is reflected back to us through the lens of human thought and experience. Whatever
we think or do is always seen in this all too human light. This is not to say that all views are
equally true, however. Rather, some intellectual products have a greater value, are more true as
it were, than others based upon their perceived utility for life, but not just life in general but of a
specific form: social life . Here we can see Wittgenstein’s idea of a ‘form of life’ in aesthetic
terms echoing Nietzsche’s moral terms.”

So, you are saying that we can make aesthetic judgments in the same terms that we
make moral judgments, the criterion being that both can be valued in how much or how well they
support life.”

Not just any life remember, but social life, that is, community. If our Telos can reach its
end or goal only in community then, the judgment we might make of the validity of any ethic or
aesthetic would be in its promotion of this Telos. In other words, we may make a judgment upon
an action or work of art upon how much it ultimately supports and encourages the Telos of
community. The very word ethics derives from ethos after all. If we reflect upon those lines of
Homer regarding Paris and the contest now, we can see more clearly I think, how his judgment
was poor. What were those lines again?:

Yet Hera would not grudge one inch to Troy,
Could not forgive the slight of Priam’s boy
Who chose the gift of lust. O choice unwise!
Brought Hector to the dust and Troy’s demise.”

At this Marcus stopped as if to await my own judgment.

Yes but,” I stammered. “Nietzsche’s choice of perspective is still only a choice, not a
universal.”

True, but then Nietzsche did not see his perspective as applicable to all, only the rare
and lonely few.”

Shortly after this we at last arrived and, after the traditional formulations of bidding each
other good day, went our separate ways, he to his business and I to mine, but now with the

stream of thoughts I have just related still flowing through my head.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Playing God: The Rise of the Actor and the Decline of Tragic Art

The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.
In The Birth of TragedyFriedrich Nietzsche argues that, through his protégé Euripides, Socrates had injected into Greek tragedy the seed of questioning doubt that brought an end to the religious animus of drama, the fire that fueled its creation and sustained it. Thus, cold reason killed tragedy. Although he would later modify this view, it remains a powerful and influential polemic in the history of aesthetics.
I would like to propose a variant explanation for the death of drama in the ancient world—one that, while not necessarily throwing out Nietzsche’s metaphysical conception, stands more on the evidence and authority of history, and is thus less complicated than the apparatus of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles Nietzsche used to define tragic motivation. Nevertheless I hope to show that, despite this, Nietzsche might have agreed with at least some of my conclusions.
Tragedy before Euripides was very much an art that raised important questions. Sophocles’s Antigone, which Hegel pointed to as the high point of Greek drama, involved questions concerning the individual conscience and the state, and whether personal values can come before the perceived greater good of the community as a whole. So it would be unfair to say that, at least in this broad view, pre-Euripidean tragedy did not involve itself with questioning. After all, it was this very desire to give meaning to the suffering of life through a religious rite that, as Nietzsche recognizes, brought it into existence.
However, there was indeed a change that came with Euripides. Nietzsche perceived this change as due to the influence of Socrates, whose need to undermine all certainties in turn undermined the very origin of tragedy as a religious ritual, of the universalizing qualities of myth. This may be so, but I would go further in specifying a type of reasoning in particular, that involving the political sphere, that marks the true, and perhaps inevitable, alteration in tragedy’s fabric.
As the last of the great triad of dramatic poets, Euripides was born in an Athens expanding into an empire—born, according to tradition, on the very day of the Battle of Salamis, the great naval action that forever destroyed Persian hopes of conquering Greece. After winning this decisive victory against Persian invasion, Athens was emboldened by her command of the seas to branch out and increase her territory and influence. By the start of the Peloponnesian War, Athens had become such a power in the region that she began to appear a threat to neighboring Sparta. The ensuing period of conflict was reflected in the subject matter of Euripides’s dramas.
Whether one interprets the early plays to be patriotic in content and the latter plays to be antiwar is of little concern in this discussion. What matters is the obvious contemporary political commentary Euripides directs to his audience. Tragedy was no longer the expression of the eternal, but had begun its slide into the earthly and the ephemeral. My purpose here is not so much to pass judgment on Nietzsche's claim that this slide meant the death of Greek tragedy, as it is to draw attention to the new dynamic between the stage and its reflection of the realities of life and the political world.
At around this same time, in the last flowering of the Athenian stage, being a tragic actor had grown into a true profession, with all the weight of ego and pretension that came with it. The Artists of Dionysus was established, a guild that both offered organized support to professionals, and protected established actors' interests by controlling who could and could not perform. The social status of actors attained a level of respectability it would not see again until the modern day, and as we shall see this newly achieved status made possible new forms of abuse.
The ancient world, where mass media did not exist, was a world in thrall to the spoken word. This was especially true of Athens, and later Rome, where great orators not only used their rhetorical skills to win court cases but as an essential tool for political advancement as well. Like the orator, the actor was a trained speaker. Therefore, it is not at all strange that, with the rise of the actor’s social status in Greek society, the actor’s involvement with the political world of the orator began to overlap.
I think this is nowhere better illustrated than by the career of Aeschines, the archrival of Demosthenes and one of the greatest Attic orators, whose career began on the stage before moving to the law courts. Demosthenes himself, the greatest orator of any age by some assessments, was rumored to have been taught elocution by the tragic actor Polus of Aegina, his equal in fame. No shame was involved, as the actor was viewed as the practitioner of a holy religious ritual, and their persons were considered inviolable, allowing them to move through war zones and foreign territory with complete immunity. This high esteem, along with their speaking skills, made them excellent ambassadors, and we have many examples from antiquity of such embassies of actors speaking on behalf of their cities on the most important of diplomatic missions.
The power to draw the masses together and to influence those masses were acceptable and necessary powers of the actor and orator; they  help ensure a democratic society and, for these very reasons, remained a threat to absolute power when democracy was dead. In the wake of King Philip of Macedon’s quest to control the whole of Greece, a quest aided in part by the turncoat actors Aristodemus and Neoptolemus in their capacity as ambassadors, we might contend that among the first liberties to be curtailed was the liberty to dissent. It is telling that, with the ascent of the Hellenistic monarchies that arose upon the death of Alexander the Great, among the changes in literature was the development of New Comedy.
New Comedy represented a break with the outrageous and bawdy style of Aristophanes's Old Comedy, a comedy meant to satirize and poke fun at politicians and other public figures who were perceived by Athenian society to have become too big for their britches. By contrast, New Comedy was tame, domesticated. In fact, it is the very source of the domestic kitchen-sink comedy we still enjoy today. No longer were satire and invective used to lampoon the mighty. Instead, stock character types with broad universal appeal and no political commentary became the order of the day.
For tragedy, this fate was suffered twice over. It could no longer be allowed to address the contemporary but, in addition, with the rise of the actor, content was no longer important. Whatever serviced the actor’s needs was now paramount. What was more important were stories pleasing to a mass audience, subject matter that was easily understood outside the social and political context of Athens and, above all, roles that gave the actors the best opportunity to display their versatility.
Such an example we find in another treatment of the myth of Antigone, this time by the very popular Astydamas the Younger. Much of Sophocles's plot remains but, instead of the bleak ending of the original that raised uncomfortable questions for the audience to answer for themselves, we have the introduction of a deus ex machina in the form of Heracles to bring the play to a less unsettling conclusion. Drama, once the showcase of free speech and arresting ideas, had become merely the vehicle for the actor, a spectacle of inoffensive and unenlightening mass entertainment.
At this point the reader may be led to protest at the perceived illogic of such a proposition. Did not drama, including tragedy, revive at the start of the Renaissance? And did not Europe see a continuous succession of great dramatists from Shakespeare to Ibsen? This is so, and it would be ridiculous to contend that King Lear or Racine’s Phaedra were not tragedies in the highest sense. No, again it is the actor upon whom I wish to focus—the political context that he inhabits and how this pattern affects drama today.
We have already seen the Greek stage devolve into something less than divine with the fall of the Athenian empire and then the development of the Hellenistic monarchies. With the rise of the Roman Empire, this pattern becomes even more pronounced. It is well known that Roman theater abjured tragedy in preference to comedies derived from the Greek model of Menander. But even this rather sophisticated dramatic writing paled in terms of popularity with the pantomime.
A truly Roman art, pantomime evolved from having limited speaking and singing to a totally wordless presentation. This was the very best form of acting in an authoritarian society. Unlike the Greeks, Roman actors were held in contempt at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Nevertheless, their popularity with the crowd and their symbolic quality as signals of a patron’s wealth and pretensions to Greek culture gained them entry to the very highest perches of imperial power, even as friends and advisors to the Emperor himself (Mnester under Caligula then Claudius, and Paris under Domitian representing some of their greatest excesses).
With the fall of Rome in the West and the growing adoption of Christianity, the reputation and status of the actor reached its lowest point. Even as drama revived with the stirrings of the Renaissance, acting as a profession was looked upon with disdain and suspicion. Until the nineteenth century, the word actor was a near-synonym of prostitute and clown. How far from being the votaries of Dionysus they had fallen!
This Christian-inspired view kept actors out of high places in the intervening centuries, royal actress mistresses notwithstanding. It could almost be said that between the ages of Nero and Reagan the actor stood apart. With the twentieth century, however, increasing secularization and the growing popularity of film began to change this view. Once more the actor had become a “star,” and the cult of celebrity has almost come to take the role once played by religion, filling the void left over by the death of God.
It is here that we look back to Nietzsche and his own comments upon the death of tragic art:
A people which takes as its point of departure the absolute validity of the political instincts will just as necessarily end up following a path of extreme secularization, whose greatest but also most terrifying expression is the Roman imperium. Situated between India and Rome and forced to make a seductive choice, the Greeks managed to invent with classical purity an additional third form, admittedly not one they used personally for long, but for that very reason they achieved immortality. For that the favorites of the gods die young holds true in all things, but it is just as certain that they then enjoy eternal life with the gods. One should not ask of the noblest thing of all that it have the toughness and durability of leather; stout perseverance, as is typical for example of the Roman national drive, is in all probability not one of the necessary predicates of perfection. But when we ask which remedy enabled the Greeks in their period of greatness, at the time of the extraordinary strength of their Dionysian and political drives, to avoid exhausting themselves either in ecstatic brooding or in a consuming pursuit of global power and prestige, and to achieve rather that glorious mixture resembling a noble wine, which both inflames and induces contemplation on the part of the drinker, then we must remember the tremendous power of tragedy which stimulates, purifies, and discharges the whole life of the people; whose highest value we only sense when it draws near us, as in the case of the Greeks, as the epitome of all prophylactic healing powers, as the mediator which holds sway over the strongest and in themselves most disastrous characteristics of the people. (The Birth of Tragedy, trans., Douglas Smith)
What should we take from this? At least in part, it would seem to suggest that Nietzsche agrees that there was a political component in tragedy's demise. Further, it is telling that he singles out secularization as a factor.
This is not to say that a return to religion is enough or even can revive tragedy. On the contrary, as we have already demonstrated, religion in the form of Christianity witnessed a series of great playwrights. Rather, it is this turning away from the author in preference to the actor, in conjunction with the rise of imperial aspirations and authoritarian governance, as well as the death of faith and its comforting illusions that make for such a noxious mixture. Nietzsche confirms this role for religion in tragedy's birth when he writes:
I feel myself compelled to the metaphysical assumption that the truly existent primal unity, eternally suffering and contradictory, also needs the rapturous vision, the pleasurable illusion, for its continuous redemption. (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann)
The hopes of the worldly rather than the otherworldly begin to intrude; the concerns of the moment, replacing the contemplation of the eternal, render the tragic into mere melodrama.
With this, we begin to see the true nature of things. The actor, symbol of free speech, ironically becomes just another mouthpiece of power; the troublesome questioning poet is shouted down—at best. The twentieth century is abundant in examples of the worst that is possible. Tragic art must inevitably die anywhere the performer is given precedence over the creator, and this precedence is almost always initiated where the factors cited above press back against the desires of unfettered creation.
For the actor does not create, but only interprets what another has made, as a musician does with a composer’s score. For the actor, the content of what is acted is never so important as how it is acted. The words are merely a vehicle for the actor’s performance, a demonstration of his or her versatility. Consequently, any opportunity to appear before an audience is acceptable regardless of context or ethical implication. So long as the star is allowed to shine, damn the consequences. A similar observation was made by T. S. Eliot in his essay "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama":
A struggle, more or less unconscious, between the creator and the interpreter is almost inevitable. The interest of a performer is almost certain to be centered in himself: a very slight acquaintance with actors and musicians will testify. The performer is interested not in form but in opportunities for virtuosity or in the communication of his “‘personality’”; the formlessness, the lack of intellectual clarity and distinction in modern music, the great physical stamina and physical training which it often requires, are perhaps signs of the triumph of the performer. The consummation of the triumph of the actor over the play is perhaps the productions of the Guitry.
Seen in this light, the death of tragedy is no longer merely of academic interest, but a sign that of something that the average individual should heed. More than anything, art—a phenomenon that is an inescapable part of every person’s life, and, one might argue, the crowning glory of our species—should not be viewed so casually as mere passive entertainment.
The drama began as an act of religious observance in honor of the god Dionysus and, through the experiment of democracy, became the supreme art form of an age, the actor being but a mere officiant. It should alarm us, then, when through some perverse dialectic the actor becomes the focus and not what is enacted. The actor, once a servant of a god, has now become a god; a miraculous blasphemy for our age that has perhaps already given us reason to repent.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Idealism By Other Means

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason.” — John Kenneth Galbraith
It is a well-known proverb that history is written by the victors and one that has been thoroughly disproved by the survival of the accounts of Native Americans, the narratives of slaves, and the archives bursting with the atrocities of colonialism. Nevertheless, at the moment the crime was becoming merely a record, the victors were righteous and their actions justified and sanctified for the masses. And although today the victims have been vindicated, they still remain cold and dead. To cite another proverb: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Although progressives have jettisoned many of the values of the past, including a primitive authoritarian form of religion, they still retain that religion’s residue of pity. And, out of pity of the suffering violence can inflict, have in light of the bloodshed of the French and Russian revolutions, cast all thought of armed revolt to the winds. Such hesitation is rarely a virtue and, as we may see, could potentially cause even greater suffering to come through inaction.
And yet, such action is unlikely to spring from the Left. If the revolutions of France under the Bourbons and Russia under the Romanovs had any great advantages, there were at least two: Populations with nothing left to lose and, well-defined ideologies that made sense to their public’s as much as to their pundits.
In America, these conditions are reversed. Although the Left has an ideology, it is a fractured one. Liberalism in our nation is founded upon a pluralism that, in its constant desire for inclusiveness, must always second-guess its self and question the justice of its action’s. Such a state of self-doubt is inimical to action. The Bolsheviks and the Jacobin’s had a unifying faith, a clearly defined path, the American Left has no such certainties. With this lack of direction the Left are doubly prey to the effects of one of Liberalism’s most crippling characteristics — -idealism. For the left, idealism has many of the qualities of religion in that the rosy optimism of the idealist is always in constant expectation of a better tomorrow. Just as many liberals ignored the possibility of a Trump presidency because it was too terrible to believe possible, so the liberal idealist, like the early Christians, tacitly ignore the hard realities of this world for the kingdom of Heaven to come.
However, perhaps the most important reason revolutionary change is unlikely to arrive in any form from the Left, at least in its current state of disunity, is due to class. It is no secret that in The United States the majority of the population who count themselves as Left-leaning also tend to be the most well educated, and in turn, more affluent relatively than most on the Right. This economic reality may be a hurdle too high to overcome, as this Bourgeois Left has too much to lose, in terms of both middle-class comforts and professional advancement to risk blood and treasure to defend abstract ideals in the face of harsh reality. All of which paints a gloomy picture for the preservation of Liberal values and the continuation of hard-won social victories.
The election of Trump, the threat of Global Warming, the invasion of Iraq, all demonstrate that objectivity and facts are no longer possible. You cannot reason with people who have dispensed with reason.
It is too often forgotten, in what Gore Vidal called The United States of Amnesia that, despite years of struggle by abolitionists, it required a bloody civil war to end the institution of slavery. If the institution of our corporate oligarchy is to be removed, why do we expect it will take anything less?

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Risks of Authenticity

“He who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.”
---Martin Heidegger

Since the publication of the Black Notebooks in 2014, the question of Martin Heidegger’s
anti-Semitism, his association with National Socialism and the influence of both upon his thought
have been given renewed impetus. From unpublished papers and other sources, we have a better
understanding today of how Heidegger viewed the Nazis and what he expected of them. But the
reasons for his post-war silence, or near silence, on his involvement, have been harder to discern.
If the man himself would not speak perhaps his philosophy might be more forthcoming.

It is, of course, no secret that Heidegger’s politics were deeply conservative. In large part, this
was almost certainly inspired by his view of the essential autochthony of the German people, that
identity is something grounded in a homeland. Autochthony means literally “ people sprung from
Earth itself”, and Heidegger placed great importance on this concept as he argued that a proper
home was necessary, in which Being could fulfill its potential. With this in mind, it is much
easier to grasp what attracted Heidegger to National Socialism at its inception. And indeed,
Heidegger was there on the ground floor, becoming a party member as early as 1933, well before
the ultimate direction party policy would take could be known. But what Heidegger did know at
the time was that this was a political party and a leader which supported a strong image of the
fatherland and national unity, qualities, as I said, of no small importance in his thinking.

Perhaps of even greater importance for gaining insight into the psychology of his motivation,
however, is Heidegger’s concept of authenticity. Although authenticity is the common
translation used, and the one adopted by Sartre and others, the actual German Eigentlickheit is
more literally “ownedness”, implying that we own what we are and what we do. On the road to
becoming our authentic selves, there is always the risk along the way of surrendering to the
“dictatorship of the They”. The “They”, of course, are the majority of individuals who have
yielded their task of fulfilling their potential to live inauthentic lives. Why would one wish to
remain inauthentic and unfulfilled? For Heidegger, a principal reason is comfort, and it is here
he echoes Nietzsche and the Last Man when he writes of Dasein, or the context of the self,
becoming absorbed “into the being of ‘The Others’”. We most often surrender our own true self
to meet the expectations of others. In return, we can relax from the struggles of living
authentically and flow with the warm predictable current of the conformity of the “Them.”

The They, in setting the standards for how we live, determining for us what we wear, what we
find funny what sad, etc., proscribe the limits of our being, our possibilities. University culture
could be characterized then as much as now as largely politically liberal in outlook and
sympathy, especially after the rise of the Weimar Republic. Heidegger, it was assumed, would
follow his colleagues in dissent of Hitler’s rise. This taken for granted attitude perhaps helps
explain in part the utter shock his declared support for the new regime elicited in fellow faculty
and associates. But, in terms of Heidegger’s thought described above, many should have been
less surprised. This is not to say that Heidegger’s philosophy was somehow “Nazistic” to its
core, as some have suggested, but rather it is that that very assumption he would naturally
acquiesce to what he may have interpreted as the forced opinion of the dictatorship of the They,
perhaps helped influence his decisions. Certainly, it is in alignment with his conception of
authenticity.

Seeing possibilities and taking decisive action, are also characteristics Heidegger associates with
the authentic self. His support of the National Socialists so early in their rise is certainly a
decisive act. And his avoidance too of a clear and direct apology after the war is also consistent,
it is what the They demanded and thus, he could not give and at the same time not surrender
something of himself, however cold this might appear to others. For ultimately, for Heidegger,
there can never be an escape from the social world, a world that is forever attempting to drag us
away from ourselves. Because of this constant assault of the They we are repeatedly taking a
stand, Verstehen, on who we are against the questioning of our identity, our very being. This, of
course, does not excuse his behavior but then, what we think would have mattered little to
Heidegger, an indifference that perhaps the release of the Black Notebooks was meant to reflect.
All of us have at some time been guilty of something, or at least felt guilty. And when that guilt
is discovered or acknowledged it can be used as a weapon against us. Perhaps it was the desire
to soften the blows of that weapon against his Dasein that led to Heidegger’s deflated and
depersonalized apology. It was a means of saving face, and saving himself.

If we remember the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger makes plain that he did not accept
Humanism’s metaphysics of a shared essence. People are subjective but Being itself is objective,
above the merely human which is forever tied to history and custom. The world and its value’s
change, but Being does not. Is it possible that, in waiting so long to publish these final thoughts,
Heidegger was taking a gamble that the world to which they would be introduced would be one
more receptive to its message? If the furor after their release is any indication, it is a gamble that
he clearly miscalculated. But, in gambling, as in every other choice we make, there is always a
risk. And, whatever you may think of the man and the choice of his political allegiances, Heidegger was clearly a thinker not afraid to risk it all.

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Real Redneck

The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

The return to the soil, to nature, is a recurring preoccupation of the civilized. Whenever a society reaches a state of high development it seems a repeating pattern that a segment of the population begins to yearn for the good ol’ days of yore. Ironically, even the ancients knew this temptation. Recall Cicero’s lament: “O the times! O the morals!” But even the Greeks reached a point when they began to dream wistfully for a golden age that never was.

This dream is perhaps most beautifully realized by the reinvention of pastoral poetry in the third century CE. The product of the fertile mind of Theocritus, it was devised as an entertainment for the court of the Ptolemies of Egypt, arguably the most sophisticated society in the western world for its time, and home to its greatest library, that of Alexandria. Theocritus wrote of his native Sicily, of singing shepherds and the love stories of goatherds, of silver streams and green pastures that give us the images we associate with the word "idyllic," a word derived from the name of this new form of literature: the idyll.

By the start of the French Revolution, this form of aristocratic playacting had reached strange absurdities. At Versailles, Marie Antoinette and her lady friends dressed in peasant clothes and pretended to be milkmaids in a miniature reproduction of a peasant village, beating Walt Disney by about two centuries in turning the troubles of the poor into theme-park entertainment for the idle few.

Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had begun to put pen to paper. Rousseau, born to the liberty of the Swiss, made talk of liberty and the brotherhood of man popular among the aristocratic class who, in practice, believed it not at all. An accomplished amateur botanist in addition to being a philosopher, Rousseau taught that man in his primitive state was pure but, after the rise of civilization, like Adam and Eve and their loss of innocence, there had been a fall from grace. An idea that we shouldn't be surprised took root in a mind that had sprung from Calvinist Geneva. In consequence, we must “get back to nature” if salvation was to be had. This was at least the reductionist take-away from a deceivingly simple thinker.

Such revolutionary ideas were enthusiastically adopted by a bored aristocracy happy to entertain any new novelty that could distract them from the tedium of existence, and give a new rationale to their seemingly childish preoccupations. Despite this popularity with literate society, however, the state sensed the obvious danger in his ideas for traditional authority, and Rousseau fled France as an exile like Cain with his mark. Yet his influence remained, and after the revolution, this desire to return to the perceived authenticity of the natural world carried over into the next century as the driving force of the romantic movement in art and literature.

And it has been with us ever since. Bound by a growing nationalism, first in France, then through the rest of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s armies, the life of the humble peasant became the source of every nation’s purity and pride. Peasant songs were collected, studied, and emulated, and the Brothers Grimm began the serious study of the common folktale for the first time. Thus, contrary to American myths of exceptionalism, the United States was not the first people to admire the rugged individuality of the lonely woodsman and the solid humility of the lowly farmer.

What is exceptional in America’s case is the persistence of this view and its unsevered link to authenticity and individuality in the American mind made toxic by partisan politics. For in addition to the myth of exceptionalism, Americans also suffer from the illusion of a classless society. Class indicates a state of affairs in which one’s success or failure in life is not entirely within one’s power to change, a thought that must be banished in a society that views all outcomes as the result of the individual’s will and hard work. This self-image plays well with the tropes of the cowboy, the mountain man, and the gunslinger, which, for our purposes here, can all be conveniently set beneath the catchall term “redneck.”

At this moment in US politics, it is perhaps more important than ever to revisit and seek to better understand the deep ironies and contradictions involved in this phenomenon. For instance, how is it that an identity so tied to the poor and rural life is just as often found among the middle class, and in well developed middle-class neighborhoods at that? Because the term redneck is less about the ideal of country life than a projection of a perceived lost age of white dominance. An ideal the wealthy are happy to sell. An excellent example of what I mean can be found in the very popular Duck Dynasty franchise. Although the patriarch may be true to his roots, it is well known by now that the rest of the clan is, as one clever critic dubbed them, “hillbillies in drag.” Rather than sons of the soil, these rednecks need never labor again, have in fact done little by the typical definition of labor all their lives.

But this matters little, the bourgeoisie has always taken its cues from the upper class they so hunger to join. Just witness the contradiction in their relationship to higher education. Redneck culture is at its heart deeply anti-intellectual and suspicious of all perceived academic authority. Yet, few redneck parents, above all those from a middle-class background, would be ashamed if their child acquired an ivy league diploma, a college credential being an important outward sign of economic status. The real redneck is self-sufficient and needs no fancy book learnin’.

Of course, this is not to say that background and social context has nothing to do with taking up the redneck mantle as a title of pride, that it is not something genuine to the individual's experience. We are highly susceptible to the influences of childhood. It is only natural that one would come to associate grandma's apple pie and fishing trips with daddy with the feelings of warmth and security we might equate with a particular worldview and lifestyle in later life. It is just that, sometimes, we are thirsty but drink from a well that is unknowingly poisoned. Many excellent people are attracted to the shadow of the idea without a knowledge of its origins, of seeing the thing itself in the light of day.

We see now that the obsession with the pastoral ideal was and is almost exclusively but the distraction of the wealthy and those who would be wealthy. The distinction then is one between need and want. The true redneck, the redneck of history and historic myth, was forced out of necessity to farm and hunt to live. Today most family-owned farms are being bought up by agribusiness, and most people hunt less due to fear of starvation than as a sign of one’s class, as it was for the fox-hunting aristocrats of old. After all, hunting equipment, hunting licenses, as well as the pure leisure simply to run around in the woods pretending to be Daniel Boone, are all outward signs of middle-class prosperity. If the true redneck is one who is happy without modern electronics, cares nothing for the internal combustion engine, and has no deep desire for indoor plumbing or personal hygiene, then clearly Ted Kaczynski stands crazy head and shoulders above the rest.

The redneck has little to do with the rustic. No self-described redneck would be without the pleasures of materialism and technology. They will be happy to talk at length to you about the joys of the simple life on their Chinese manufactured smartphone while driving to town in their gas-guzzling oversized pickup truck to purchase the newest state-of-the-art video game from the local Walmart. By comparison, the often-maligned “dirty hippie” who lives in a co-op and grows his own food is closer to the backwoods ideal than even the dirtiest mud-caked redneck on his all-terrain vehicle. Thus, it is not so much traditional values or independence from state control that they hold dear. Rather, they are quite content with the state so long as the state reflects their own economic interests over the interests of society as a whole. As Trump has demonstrated, they are happy to accept a brand of authoritarianism that allows for the economic prosperity of the few at the expense of the many rural poor who they, if they followed the logic of their own thinking, should idealize.

Instead, the redneck we see is just the label of yet another product for the white middle class to consume, albeit one with strong emotional resonances. And it is those emotional connections that Republicans have tapped into for decades and made disastrous use of. Through propaganda and psychological manipulation, they have created a leviathan whose force they sought to harness for their own political ends, but the beast has now appeared to be turning on its masters, and the outcome may leave us all longing for a golden age that has passed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Please Patronize Me

 The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

A rather rotund man hunches over a walking stick disdainfully in the reception room of an obviously powerful and busy Grand Signor. The man is but one of many individuals crowded together uncomfortably, some attempting to pass the time as entertainingly as possible, others patiently waiting their turn to be called for an audience. At the end of a great hall a door is open slightly, and we catch a small glimpse of the noble personage as a client stoops in a low bow before entering into his master’s presence.

This scene is depicted in a rather overdone painting by Edward Matthew Ward. It is one of those historical set pieces that were very popular with the Victorians, meant to illicit a chuckle or teach a lesson, sometimes both. In this one we have the recreation of a famous moment from the life of Samuel Johnson. According to Johnson, in an attempt to garner financial support for his proposed dictionary of the English language, he was one day kept waiting by his patron Lord Chesterfield too long, and when finally heard treated with a perceived indifference. The incident was the cause behind the composition of a letter today hailed as a declaration of independence for the modern author. In it Johnson famously asks: “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?” However, as usual, the facts of history are far more grey than they at first appear. Chesterfield’s involvement in the plan was always minimal at best, and the project as a whole was from the first proposed and financed by London publishers. Johnson’s outburst is more one of childish resentment at a perceived slight than a declaration of anything more profound. Nevertheless, this image of authorial liberation misleadingly remains.

In truth Johnson’s fiery missal merely represents a transition between the educated aristocratic world of thoughtful discernment and the new world of mass production for mass gains. In other words, Johnson only exchanged one master for another of less discriminating taste. The costs of such a transition are still in evidence today.

Since classical antiquity the client/patron relationship had had a special status as the only respectable option for the artist who sought financial independence. Ideally, the arrangement was like a friendship. The Roman poet Virgil was treated by his social and economic superior Maecenas as one of the family, and was never made to feel like a beggar at the door. Unfortunately, the opposite was more often to be the case, as the satirist Juvenal infamously outlined the daily itinerary of the poor client in Satire V:
"First of all be sure of this—that when bidden to dinner, you receive payment in full for all your past services. A meal is the return which your grand friendship yields you; the great man scores it against you, and though it come but seldom, he scores it against you all the same… For [the master] a delicate loaf is reserved, white as snow, and kneaded of the finest flour. Be sure to keep your hands off it: take no liberties with the breadbasket! If you are presumptuous enough to take a piece, there will be someone to bid you put it down: " What, Sir Impudence? Will you please fill yourself from your proper tray, and learn the colour of your own bread?" "What?" you ask, "was it for this that I would so often leave my wife's side on a spring morning and hurry up the chilly Esquiline when the spring skies were rattling down the pitiless hail, and the rain was pouring in streams off my cloak ?"… And so you all sit in dumb silence, your bread clutched, untasted, and ready for action. In treating you thus, the great man shows his wisdom. If you can endure such things, you deserve them…."
As bad as this may appear, it is to our discredit if we fail to see how little has changed in two thousand years. The modern writer or artist is still as much in need of letters of introduction as in the past if any hope is to be had of success in the larger world. Today however, the minimum number of those letters are three—M.F. A. But these come at a far higher cost than the bit of bowing and scraping expected of previous generations. Today one is less a name than a number, while as a student you must compete against an army of worthy applicants. In addition, even should you succeed in acquiring your degree, you may spend a lifetime in paying it off. Even Johnson was not expected to reimburse Lord Chesterfield for his contribution.

This returns us to the competitive nature of this new system of patronage. As I said, one must not only pay for a letter of introduction, one must also have friends in high places. For, as it has seemingly almost always been, it is less skill and talent that makes a man than his friends. Once the proper credentials are acquired and, quite frequently while still attaining them, the artist is forced to hobnob and network, to debase herself in a manner even more deplorable than Juvenal ever dared imagine, in large measure because at least Juvenal’s client knew he was debasing himself. The modern bootlicker is not burdened with any such self-knowledge; instead he or she is simply “playing the game.”

This has become the primary method of seeking patronage but in our digital age, it is no longer the only one. Now, with the help of websites such as the aptly named Patreon or Go Fund Me, one can request money for one’s projects from perhaps millions of strangers. In some instances one need not even have a project, as “cyberbegging” has entered the lexicon as a new phenomenon. If you have trouble paying the rent or need a little extra gas money, there’s no shame in asking.

Finally, what does this say to us about the state of culture today? It has certainly become more democratic. The artist is no longer the personal adornment of a single patron’s ego, a servant to his whims and obliged to flatter his desires such as with the Medicis. But, even in the past this was rarely the case among the greatest. The patrons of a Johnson or a Beethoven at the very least only required a mention from time to time, very often as the dedicatee of a new symphony or an epic poem. More importantly, by commissioning work from an artist, a patron of high taste and education could direct the artist’s talents where they may never have been applied on the artist's own initiative. Pope Julius gave Raphael the Papal apartments to decorate, and Michelangelo the Sistine, two projects of unsurpassed genius that have come to define an entire age.

On the other hand, today's artist has not one patron but perhaps thousands, and each often expects far more for their money than a humble admission of thanks. The artist is no longer the private adornment of the aristocrat, a servant whose works were meant to display the taste of the patron, if not the wealth to afford it. Now he is viewed as the personal possession of a thousand enthusiastic persons. One only need recall Beatlemania and its often silly, and sometimes obsessively dangerous (and in one case deadly) excesses, to see what I mean.

Yet above all what has been lost is that quality of educated discernment. Remember, artists were patronized precisely because they were perceived to have cachet, or social capital, which was the special province of the privileged class to recognize and reward. An artist achieved fame through a benefactor, but it was the benefactor who basked in the reflected glory of the artist’s accomplishments, a reflection too of the patron’s high taste and discrimination that perceived the potential.

What Dr. Johnson forgot when he stamped out discourteously from Lord Chesterfield’s study that day, and what we have forgotten through equal impatience and the infinite dilution of quality by quantity, is that good taste, like good manners, can never be a property of a mob. The days when the artist was forced to bow to one master are irrevocably lost. Art, or what we now call art, is now the servant to a multitude, and in such a sea how much glory has been drowned we can never know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Genre of Despair

The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

The quotation above from H. P. Lovecraft is perhaps symptomatic of a larger trend in the public consciousness. We have seen the horrors of reality, the apocalypse is nigh, so let us sink into forgetting and thoughtlessness before the end. Popular entertainment has always been a way of forgetting one’s troubles, and in the literary world, popular entertainment most often comes under the heading of genre fiction.

It has been lamented for some time that serious literary fiction is on the wane. Whereas just a few generations before, a Hemingway or Fitzgerald were household names even in subliterate households, few with a similar level of education today could tell you who Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace might be. Such a decline is often attributed to literary fiction no longer speaking to ordinary human concerns. This is an odd argument, considering that few of the novels of Hemingway or Fitzgerald would be said to mirror the daily life of the average person. Yet, they still have a semblance to reality. This cannot be said of genre fiction, however, which if anything rebels against the substance of real life.

Lovecraft, whose intent was to emulate anything other than real life, developed a philosophical worldview he termed Cosmic Horror—a worldview in which the centuries-old anthropocentric universe was overturned in light of recent scientific discovery and replaced with the revelation of our collective inconsequence. Humanity, which long saw itself the measure of all things, was uncovered for the less-than-divine thing it is. Mankind, it appears, was but the byproduct or mistake of greater alien forces that had come to this world long before us and would soon return, like the second advent of Christ but with even less pleasant consequences.

But Lovecraft is not a special case, for escapism is at the heart of all genre fiction. Literary fiction is hard, it requires effort to appreciate fully. It does not allow us to disappear passively into a narrative because literature gives us tools with which to deal with life. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is above all an escape from life. It is then no surprise that this medium has always been complementary to conservative thought. We have but to mention Lovecraft again and recall his xenophobia and horrifying racist comments to understand the allure of escaping reality to such individuals. But horror is not alone. Dystopian tales help destroy the notion of progress. Fantasy, a term that says it all, allows readers to return to a postulated golden age, and an idealized human nature. Even science fiction is not immune. One only need examine the social and political views of M. R. James, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or Orson Scott Card to see a well-established pattern.

Of course, this is not to deny that such fiction cannot be art. If the author creates an entirely new genre such as Lovecraft did, if it shows original elaboration on a theme or presents an intensely personal vision, the limitations of genre can be overcome. The mere imitators who come after—and these make up the bulk of what goes by the name genre fiction today—typically represent a degeneration of the original. Like a copy of a copy, they become merely pastiches of the genuine article they seek to emulate.

It is also important to remember that escapism is not an entirely bad thing. However, it often appears that escapism is the only thing at the present moment that such entertainment is expected to provide. This would appear to indicate a society deeply disinterested, even passionately opposed, to reality. Is it possible such a development is reflective of a deeper despair in the society at large? Perhaps reality has become something too hard to endure without an opiate for the masses.

At the end of the Roman Empire, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus reflected upon the general decline of culture in his age:

"[H]ouses which were formerly celebrated for the serious cultivation of becoming studies, are now filled with … ridiculous amusements … reechoing with the sound of vocal music and the tinkle of flutes and lyres. Lastly, instead of a philosopher, you find a singer … and the libraries closed for ever, like so many graves." [1]

With libraries closing throughout the country and humanities departments losing more of their funding every day, it’s as if Ammianus was talking about us.

The fall of Rome coincided with the rise of Christianity, a religion that put an emphasis upon the life to come when we will shed our material selves for a perfect spiritual self. This idea is echoed in St. Augustine’s City of God, which argued that the spiritual city will inevitably win out over the city of man since man’s city is temporary whereas the city of God is eternal. The desire to escape what seemed to be a hopeless and dying world was the impetus for Christianity's rise. Are we repeating the same pattern again? For the early Christians, a mood of despair gave rise by an accident of history to productive action. Our modern passion for escape and diversion, by contrast, shows no sign of evolving to meet reality. A nascent theology of hope for the dispossessed became the glue of social cohesion for that era we call the dark ages. If we should have another dark age (and there are many who argue that with growing ecological disasters and another economic collapse just around the bend we may live to see one), it seems unlikely that the adventures ofHarry Potter or Game of Thrones will be enough to pull us through to the light.