Via a reader: Saul Leiter’s just a great photographer. Each photograph is well-composed, layered, with excellent use of color. They are like paintings. Abstract Expressionism was hot in the painting world, and it shows. He didn’t pursue too much attention, making some great images with the tools he chose, in search of beauty:
Readers of this blog know I harbor deep skepticism. I’m not persuaded that many people advocating for change are any more ‘peaceful,’ ‘democratic,’ or worthy of authority than what’s come before. Will radical ideologies wrapped in high ideals actually work any better than a sovereign nation, full of citizens following the rule of law?
At the ol’ Human Church, the crazies gather in the back pews.
‘The place of Foucault in 2021 is not just a matter of academic interest; his changing position tells us a great deal about recent evolutions of both the left and the right.‘
Oh, there will be rules, and authority. Beneath that, a group of influence-peddling scribes, directing flows of received opinion and vaguely new information. ‘Explainers’ as they say. I suppose we all need to keep explaining the world to ourselves, and for ourselves, for as long as we can.
‘Used judiciously and with a suitably grim humour I think Plato can be a help. On the one hand he suggests that the issues raised by the relation of Showbiz to the rest of society have changed little over more than two thousand years. On the other, that the myriad effects of high-tech modern illusionism, both social and political, should not be too casually brushed aside.
The ‘is-ness’ of say, Unit Vector scaling (used in game dynamics) need not answer the many questions we might have about reality and the world (how should I behave? why am I here? what is my purpose? where is all this headed? when should I turn GTA off and go to bed?) but hopefully, such knowledge will simply produce people capable of understanding this knowledge and applying it, as well many others just enjoying a game.
Against the modern grain of having such questions asked solely by the religious, countered by the New Atheists and the secular, but also by the increasingly moralistic ‘-Ismologists’ and ‘Wokists’, it’s interesting to cast such a debate in more ancient terms.
Such framing can even provide breathing-room beneath the arguments flung over the table between analytic philosophers and many a postmodern nihilist.
Camille Paglia has her own take, from 40 years spent within, and on the fringes of, American academia. This is quite a curious mix of 60’s radicalism, art theory, history and criticism, some political philosophy, pop culture and various other influences:
A body-positive, quite radical/anti-anaesthetic and associative feminist art historian (with deep Italian Catholic roots)?
‘However, these boundary-dissolving expansions were unfortunately not the route taken by American academe in the 1970s. Instead, new highly politicized departments and programs were created virtually overnight — without the incremental construction of foundation and superstructure that had gone, for example, into the long development of the modern English department. The end result was a further balkanization in university structure, with each area governed as an autonomous fiefdom and with its ideological discourse frozen at the moment of that unit’s creation. Administrators wanted these programs and fast — to demonstrate the institution’s “relevance” and to head off outside criticism or protest that could hamper college applications and the influx of desirable tuition dollars. Basically, administrators threw money at these programs and let them find their own way. When Princeton University, perhaps the most cloistered and overtly sexist of the Ivy League schools, went coeducational after 200 years in 1969, it needed some women faculty to soften the look of the place. So it hastily shopped around for whatever women faculty could be rustled up, located them mostly in English departments at second-tier schools, brought them on board, and basically let them do whatever they wanted, with no particular design. (Hey, they’re women — they can do women’s studies!)’
“Between these two lines of attack, she believes, the university must articulate a conception of itself that defends the standards of reason, while remaining open to new points of view; that preserves the intellectual traditions and canons that define U.S. culture, while consciously broadening the curriculum to expose students to traditions which diverge from their own and which, in their difference, may confront students with an awareness of their own parochialism; that remain respectful and tolerant of many points of view without lapsing into relativism; and in short, that manages to prepare students simultaneously to be citizens of U.S. society, and cosmopolitans, “citizens of the world.”
This has always struck me as a little too broad of a vision to maintain (too heavy on the gender and equality side of things, deep the shards of disruptive radicalism embedded),though I certainly respect the attempt. We should aim to be citizens of the world and in the best Aristotelian sense (such depth and breadth may be in fact necessary). But is it enough within this framework?
“The works of Shakespeare contain important knowledge. But it is not scientific knowledge, nor could it ever be built into a theory. It is knowledge of the human heart”
“…in the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities—women’s studies, gay studies and the like—which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they.”
“And since there is no cogent justification for women’s studies that does not dwell upon the subject’s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms.”
Much like Paglia…
Terry Eagleton, British Marxist and professor in the humanities, debates Scruton below.
Will Marxism & continental philosophy become further guiding lights for the humanities here in America as we find much more so in Britain?
Are we really that thick into the postmodern weeds?:
Judgment, as Scruton points out, shouldn’t necessarily be subsumed to political ideology. I would agree, and I generally default in assuming that each one of us is the ultimate arbiter of our own judgment.
But, no man is an island.
Does Scruton’s thinking eventually lead us back to the problems that religion can have with artists and writers?
Is there anybody whom you trust to decide what you should and shouldn’t read?
Parents? Great authors? Public intellectuals? Professors? God? Laws and lawmakers? Religious leaders? A school-board? A democratic majority? People who think like you? A Council of Cultural Marxists?
The Department of Institutionalized Idiocy?
As to the policial/social climate, did the 60’s counter-culture and the conservative counter-counter culture both win, in a sense?
Christopher Hitchens, William F. Buckley and Peter Robinson discuss below, including the sexual revolution:
What did a man who eventually became an openly practicing Roman Catholic witness during the 60’s protests on campus?
Bork argues that during the 1960’s, likely starting with the SDS, a form of liberalism took shape that promotes radical egalitarianism (social justice, equality of outcomes) and radical individualism (excessive freedom from the moral and legal doctrines which require an individual’s duty and which form the fabric of civil society). This is the New Left.
Bork is quite explicit about the violence and threats of violence he witnessed, the barbarism on display, and the confused, tense years that unfolded (culminating in the Kent State debacle). He was one of two conservative law professors at Yale during the late 1960’s and he argues that events have rarely been represented accurately as he saw them. It is a personal account.
‘Liberals engage the right mood by contemplating the experiences of those they take to be oppressed, in what I have called “suffering situations.” You might think this an admirable altruism amid the selfish indifference of the mass of mankind, and there is no doubt that it has often been sincere and that it could at times mitigate some real evils. But the crucial word here is “abstract.” The emotions are elicited by an image, as in the craft of advertising. The people who cultivate these feelings are usually not those who actually devote their time and energies to helping the needy around them, but rather a class of person—liberal journalists, politicians, social workers, academics, charity bureaucrats, administrators, etc.—who focus on the global picture.’
I would add that while I have my doubts about the religious true-believer and salvationist, I have particular doubts about the Neo-Romantic Environmentalist, the secular, progressive do-gooder, and the high liberal globalist shuttling between academy and government.
‘The centerpiece of Miller’s argument is the making and appreciating of art. Miller’s idea of art, as we might expect, is wide-ranging and popular, drawn more from everywhere in culture: dancing, body-decoration, clothing, jewellery, hair-styling, architecture, furniture, gardens, cars, images such as calendars and paintings, creative uses of language, popular entertainments from religious festivals to TV soaps, music of all kinds, and on and on. Miller’s discussion is less focused on the high-art culture of modernism and postmodernism, since it anyway distinguishes itself against popular taste.‘
Of course, there will be all manner of reductionism (art=sex) and popularized idiocy (Bach + brain-scan = pop-neuroscience) to follow.
There’s something about both our cultural tilt towards (S)cience-ifying every aspect of life (stretching out these new fields of knowledge) as well as the popularized explanatory journalism (Jesus Christ not another think-piece) which are worth thinking about.
Witnessing the outcomes and consequences of such truth and knowledge claims downstream, some quite possibly more true than others, invites skepticism.
‘…aesthetics is going to replace ethics, art is going to replace religion, as the means through which educated people express their spiritual worthiness…‘
Don’t worry, ‘ethics’ on the fly, in universities and in journalism is everywhere these days, and beneath that, some crazy new true-believers.
As posted, please check out Jeff Koons (if you thought the celebrification of politics was striking, culturally, this happened quite before with the celebribrification of art):
There’s always been a bit of the showman about Jeff Koons; the kind of young man who could put on a bow tie and try to give many museum-goers their time/money/aspirations’ worth at the membership desk.
This blog forgives people trying to explain what their art ‘means,’ exactly, but confesses to pleasure in seeing Koons put on the spot under the suspicious eye of an ornery old Robert Hughes.
I don’t fault Koons for finding himself firmly within modernism, searching for universal forms and broader historical context within those confines, but I admit it’s nice to see him held to account for his bullshit, and perhaps the broader, deeper bullshit he shares with many modern and postmodern artists: Pursuing novelty and recognition and thus making art into a business and often commercializing it, aiming for celebrity while offering meta-critiques on celebrity, making the personal and private very public (masturbation into social commentary, sex into meta-critques of religious shame, ‘culture’ and pornography).
Two quotes by Hughes that stood out:
‘Religion is diminished into celebrity..a kind of reverse apotheosis.‘
‘This alienation of the work from the common viewer is actually a form of spiritual vandalism.’
It’s tough to say that art is really about religion (though much clearly is), but rather more about an experience Hughes wants as many people as possible to have, and that such experiences can elevate and expand.
Aside from the above, there’s something that strikes me as not just late 20th century-modern about Koons, but also very American
Technology can affect each of us personally and intimately; vast distances suddenly bridged and scaled downwards. Endless distractions.
How to live and what to do? Family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, people in the academy; some people are handling this change better than others, personally and professionally.
High rates of technological change are likely a leading cause for our institutional chaos right now; the political extremes dominating discourse, the shifting middle, the more visibly grubby political class members ascendance and the social media mobbing.
It seems many on the ideological Left are thinking the same (back to the Commune), despite a longer, rather successful march through many institutions and likely being overstretched at the moment (the dark web cometh).
I figure if you know how to value that which matters most, you’ll navigate alright. Don’t forget to do right by those you love, and those who love you: Work, effort, and sacrifice. Take a look at the stars when you can. Keep learning. Take it easy, sometimes.
I explore the fine line between being "woke" about racism and indulging in a kind of replacement Christianity complete with original sin, an Old Testament God and judgement day. Too much of the latter since about 2014. https://t.co/xxqq5cGs8D via @aminterest
Dorothy Thompson speculates who would go Nazi in a room full of people at a dinner party.
‘Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes–you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success–they would all go Nazi in a crisis.’
Power through discipline! Strengthen your will!
Intellectuals running things…who joins mass movements?
The most morally righteous (not necessarily right) can be found most vocally pushing ‘Climate Justice’. The conflict between Conceptions of (S)cience as a tool of the ‘oppressor’, AND as intellectual justification for technocratic, dirigiste, authoritarian and Statist rule is never fully resolved, nor does it have to be. The (S)cience is clear. ‘We’ must act now!
When your own moral philosophy fails to resolve deeper problems regarding human nature, proper epistemological and metaphysical foundations, and the consent of the governed, you don’t necessarily have to resolve these conflicts. Rather, you just have to gather in the public square (pursuing a kind of ‘Rapture’).
This is a fairly influential coalition, now more visible in Congress and the Senate on the Democratic side of the aisle. Through recent legislation, they are now trying to consolidate political and economic power. The political economy is where we all lose our most important freedoms (to think and speak against authority, to get a job, to try a new venture, to manage our own time and energy). This is where new rules and ‘rule-following punishers’ will be made.
This blog has been seeking to anchor liberal thinking in more tried-and-true moral philosophies of J.S. Mill, Scottish Enlightenment empiricism, and a return to neo-classical thought, for starters.
“For today’s ecologists, their hope of regeneration presupposes a return to primitivism, and thus, whether they wish to enunciate it or not, concomitant anarchy, the burning before the replanting, the cutting down of the dead tree. The father of the movement is an utter rejection of all that is, and for at least three millennia all that was.”
Libertarians would generally see many environmentalists as a threat to their definition of liberty.
-Another environmentalist root comes by way of the’ Tragic Earth’ romantic lament, which may have as much to do with the rise and fall of post-modernism in American Universities as it does with Nature, and the restless attempt to fill the post-modern void in a post-Nietzschean world. I think part of this is due to the collapse of the modern liberal arts curriculum to its current state, which has followed excessive relativism and multi-culturalism to some of its logical conclusions. The “science is settled” may be appealing to many in filling that void. Of course, good poems and poets transcend the often strange things good poets can believe, but I suspect this has something to do with it. Al Gore has probably been influenced by this school of thought, though he is a politician, carbon-credit-salesman, and a poet.
Whatever your view of the science, its transition and use for ideological, economic and political purposes should give intelligent people pause, not just those who see threats to liberty.
Self-reliance may still be a better intellectual American influence, even with some downside to pragmatism.
I don’t mean to imply some people have turned their limited understanding of climate data into an anti-human, anti-science cult. Given human nature, such a turn of events is completely unforseeable!
Aside from passionate crazies, however, there are certainly not people who’ve turned global warming into a gnawing, apocryphal certainty; certain enough to offload their own fears of death into abstract ideals which might live beyond them. This can lead to technocracy as a form of leadership; knowledge implemented through institutional bureaucracy and more diffuse accountability. Plenty of journalists and aspiring professionals will follow those incentives into careers, opportunity and authority.
Some poets, even, and there’s certainly not any postmodern mysticism, anti-science rationalism and irrationalism to be found around and about:
‘In “Sea Change,” Graham becomes Prospero, casting spells by spelling out her thoughts to merge with ours, and with the voices of the elements. The result is a mingling of perceptions rather than a broadcasting of opinions. Instead of analysis, the poems encourage emotional involvement with the drastic changes overwhelming us, overwhelm- ing the planet.’
‘Strengths and weaknesses, flows and ebbs, yet every poem in “Sea Change” bears memorable lines, with almost haunting (if we truly have but 10 years to “fix” global warming) images of flora and fauna under siege. Jorie Graham has composed a swan song for Earth.’
Older folks are left to display one’s virtue, good behavior and rule-following among the living. That Tesla sure is sleek. Show off that new canvas bag. Scowl at the plastic one. This binds people up together and keeps social harmony. The knowledge is here, all that’s left is the wise, equal, and just enforcement of new rules. Don’t you want to be good?
Maybe we can turn this thing around after all, discovering that Romantically primitive modern Eden upon the horizon. We must act.
Alas, young, true believers, reformers and the narrowly righteous see deeper, of course, through the hypocrisy of a more settled complacency. Tim Black at Spiked: “The Ongoing Creation Of Greta Thunberg.“
They can become heroes to some, rather pathetic ciphers to others:
‘It is all very disconcerting. From her breakdown, to her recitation of carbon-emission facts, the Greta that emerges in Our House is on Fire doesn’t feel like an individual. She feels like a fictional device. A God’s fool-style character, descended down to Earth to expose our folly.’
And by no means are those on the political Left, often seeking radical revolution and ‘Capitalism’s’ overthrow for the new ‘scientific’ Socialism to come, involved here. Institutions are clearly not susceptible to committed ideologues, operating upon failed theories of (H)istory, forcing themselves into institutions (which radicals don’t normally recognize as having moral legitimacy, unless and until it’s their moral legitimacy).
What if you have an opposing, or different view to a majority? Isn’t that the point of free speech?
‘It’s de rigueur on college campuses to pledge allegiance to the climate agenda, denouncing Luddites who impede progress on the climate policies that all right-thinking people support. Those of us who work in academia are used to this ritual, but every once in a while an academic decides to distinguish himself by making his denunciation louder and more strident than the rest of the crowd. ‘
At Peace Pavilion West, breathing restrictions help keep the Collective healthy. Put the canvas bag over your head when entering the Human Pagoda. Zero-carbon. Zero-oxygen. Zero-waste. Namaste. Be safe.
From a reader: Christopher Essex discusses ‘Believing In Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, And Climate Models:’
It really shouldn’t be that difficult a thing to keep a strong interest in the natural world and a desire to understand it quite apart from such true-belief, collectivist virtue-signalling, hyperbole and ideology.
‘The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.’
‘And so there is less reason than many think to doubt humans’ ability to be reasonable. The dissenting critiques of the cognitive-bias literature argue that people are not, in fact, as individually irrational as the present cultural climate assumes. And proponents of debiasing argue that we can each become more rational with practice. But even if we each acted as irrationally as often as the most pessimistic picture implies, that would be no cause to flatten democratic deliberation into the weighted engineering of consumer choices, as nudge politics seeks to do’
A 20th century address of such problems:
‘But my object is not to refute Rationalism: its errors are interesting only in so far as they reveal its character. We are considering not merely the truth of a doctrine, but the significance of an intellectual fashion in the history of post-Renaissance Europe. And the questions we must try to answer are: What is the generation of this belief in the sovereignty of technique? When springs this supreme confidence in human ‘reason’ thus interpreted? What is the provenance, the context of this intellectual character? And in what circumstances and with what effect did it come to invade European politics?’
Oakeshott, Michael. “Rationalism In Politics“. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. (Pg 17).
Related On This Site: Cass Sunstein’s got to create some space between the Bloomberg backlash and the totalitarians on the Left: Daddy’s Gonna Make You Do It
‘Clarity: As I’ve said, the movie abstracts from concrete reality certain general character types, purges from them the nuance and complexity in which we find these general patterns embedded in everyday life, and re-embodies them in extreme characters so that we might more carefully consider those types. Just as we know more clearly what it is to be a triangle by abstracting from particular triangles (red ones, green ones, triangles drawn in ink, triangles drawn in chalk, etc.) and considering the general pattern, so too does the movie allow us to see more clearly what it is to be a desperate man, a cruel man, a weak man, a dishonest man, a broken man, and so on, by way of its skillful caricatures.
So, in its integrity, proportion, and clarity, Glengarry has the marks of a beautiful thing, despite its grim subject matter. One need not admire and approve of Satan in order to admire and approve of Dante’s or Milton’s literary representations of Satan, and one need not admire or approve of the sorts of people represented in a film like Glengarry in order to admire and approve of the representation itself.’
‘You call yourself a salesman you son-of-a-bitch?:’
For those who’ve ever had a real job, and seen people at their best and worst, or been reasonably honest about their own motivations and willingness to be do right by others under duress, well, there’s a lot of truth to be found in this particular work of art.
Like boxing gyms and MMA matches, or call-centers full of debt collectors, or daily life on public city buses, the stuff of humanity is pretty much the same as anywhere else, just more raw and closer to the surface.
On fuller display, perhaps.
Feser provides some reasonable context, here, the kind that forms the backbone of a good Catholic education, and which this blog considers to have enriched the debate.
For those who didn’t ask!:
As this blog sees things, the modernist project is not explicitly ideological, but it is extremely ambitious: Make it new. Start from the ground up, or go back to the foundations and take a really good look, and have the individual genius start building his own, new foundations (alone or in contact with others, such as the Bloomsbury Group).
It takes really talentedindividuals to pull this off; often individuals with previous exposure to tradition; young practitioners with enough talent and perseverance, as well as enough of a pedagogy to inherit and rebel against should they choose.
As this blog has noted, it’s not hard to witness a string of causation between high modernist aims and a lot of the modern and postmodern aimlessness we see all around us. There sure are a lot of poseurs and would-be artists bobbing in the postmodern stew, left to sort out the entire world and their relation to it alone, or upon a stage (as alone and not alone as one can be).
They write these f**king art blurbs before they have any art! What the f**k is this lady doing?:
‘The most useful definition of modernist fiction I’ve encountered comes from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction. He says modernist fiction tends to “foreground epistemological questions” such as “How can I interpret the world I’m part of? What is there to be known? Who knows it? What are the limits of that knowledge?” In contrast, postmodernist fiction tends to “foreground ontological questions” such as “What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there and how are they constituted? What happens when…boundaries between worlds are violated?’
The above can invite all manner of despair and isolation, and perhaps a deeper cynicism we see in upcoming generations’ rather pervasive desire for fame and recognition.
The above can also exacerbate the spiritual and meaning-making demands individuals place upon the Marketplace, the Church, and in The Media and The Academy (where an authoritarian/totalitarian radical Left seeks to control institutions, institutions where a kind of Western secular humanism and standard-issue political idealism often dominates).
As I see it, I cannot call myself a believer in the questions the Catholic Church claims to to be able to answer, but many modern political and politico-philsophical movements are incomplete at best, and dangerously wrong at worst.
Ah well…there’s my two cents.
There’s good art to be found, of course, but like most well-made things, good art is relatively rare, its ultimate value and quality endlessly disputed, but perhaps, enduring.
–Born and raised in Chicago, Mamet seems pretty old-school and pretty tough. He reminds me a bit of Norman Mailer, verbally pugilistic and combative, though unlike Mailer he’s taken a different turn into ju-jitsu, instead of boxing, as well as into a different set of motivating principles. Alec Baldwin’s Death-Of-A-Salesman-on-steroids speech from Glengarry Glen Ross is a well-known example of Mamet’s work (demonstrating the kind of balls-out truth-telling dialogue from which Baldwin has possibly not recovered). I’m guessing Mamet grew-up back before anti-bullying campaigns and excessive political correctness became the norm.
***As I understand it, Thomas Sowell, after becoming a young Marxist eventually became a young ex-Marxist, embracing a hard-bitten empiricism regarding outcomes and results, not the intentions, of economic and social policies. See him discuss his later vision of human nature and political organization in a Conflict Of Visions.
–Mamet cites the Bible, but mainly the Talmud as a source of wisdom and knowledge to draw upon as a guide for flawed human nature. Jewish folks in the U.S. have traditionally formed a reliably liberal/Democratic voting bloc, so unlike many Christian religious conservatives, they aren’t necessarily voting Republican. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but to be sure, there are also many tales of neoconservatives ‘mugged’ out of the social sciences and policy-making halls of the liberal establishment into doubt and skepticism, some chased away by the New Left. There is also a conservative Christian/Jewish pro-Israel alliance which has traditionally been strong on national defense (some fundamentals of that American/Israeli relationship may be changing).
Religious belief can ground one in a kind of traditional and tragic view of human nature. This, say, as opposed to human nature understood as simply a blank slate or existentialist absurdity, or by some political movements as human clay to be molded with the right knowledge and right people in charge of our social institutions (they always seem to nominate themselves). As Mamet discusses in the video, there are distinctions to be made between Talmudic justice and social justice.
I’m guessing he might agree there are distinctions to be made between abstract equality and equality under the law (the exception of Civil Rights and black folks held under the civil laws is discussed). I’m also guessing he’d argue there are distinctions to be made between life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on one hand, and liberation theology and/or individual freedom granted by a rights-based cohort in charge of government on the other.
–Mamet also touches on the fact that the arts aren’t a political endeavor. If writing a play is simply a didactic enterprise and/or a vehicle for deploying a political philosophy (Ayn Rand?), then I think the artist has probably failed in some fundamental way to show the audience/reader a unique truth which only that work of art has to show. Didactic art can come across as clunky at best, pure propaganda at worst.
Personally, I tend to believe that politics, religion, convention and popular thinking all have trouble with the arts.
Anyways, this is just a brief summary. Any thoughts or comments are welcome.
Guilt and shame are the primary teaching tools of the old religion and the new, woke religion. If you don’t care, no one can make you care. This leaves many sociopaths with competitive advantage. For the rest of us, being an asshole to the ones you love and with whom you deal isn’t a laudable goal. As much as this is true, decent people have to strike a balance. Sometimes, when you think you have the truth, you must speak that truth, even to loved ones and even when it hurts.
You also need to hear the truth. This hurts, too. It’s really one of the only ways to make your life better and deal with the problems you have. Growth isn’t possible without it.
In the public square, I believe it’s necessary to fight against the true-belief of zealots and fools, while doing my best not to become either of these things myself. What truth I might have to tell, should be told. This [often] puts me on the side of religious liberty and tradition in the good old U.S. of A.
Sometimes it puts me on the side of (S)cience and (R)eason.
Such skepticism also recognizes the danger of bad ideas. A lot of people will find the framework of radical resentment to be sufficient in their lives.
Guilt and shame are also how ideologues make headway. This has consequences for all of us:
Below is a poem by Wendell Berry. Berry is chiefly agrarian, anti-technology and pro-environmental in his outlook. He’s also a traditionalist, who believes family and local associations come first.
For Berry, (M)an must return to family, traditional values and to the Earth. Technology corrupts and while business might scale, both create alienation and unrooted individuals.
Of course, a return to (Man) and (N)ature is not an uncommon view amongst poets, especially since the Romantic Poets in England. Around that time, (M)an, instead of God, became one of the highest things around. Serving the poor and dispossessed is the work of those who care about (H)umankind. Oh, how some people care.
One thing Berry seems to be saying: A route to truth lies in overcoming shame.
Do Not Be Ashamed
You will be walking some night in the comfortable dark of your yard and suddenly a great light will shine round about you, and behind you will be a wall you never saw before. It will be clear to you suddenly that you were about to escape, and that you are guilty: you misread the complex instructions, you are not a member, you lost your card or never had one. And you will know that they have been there all along, their eyes on your letters and books, their hands in your pockets, their ears wired to your bed. Though you have done nothing shameful, they will want you to be ashamed. They will want you to kneel and weep and say you should have been like them. And once you say you are ashamed, reading the page they hold out to you, then such light as you have made in your history will leave you. They will no longer need to pursue you. You will pursue them, begging forgiveness, and they will not forgive you. There is no power against them. It is only candor that is aloof from them, only an inward clarity, unashamed, that they cannot reach. Be ready. When their light has picked you out and their questions are asked, say to them: “I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon will come around you. The heron will rise in his evening flight from the hilltop.
On that note, I am pretty pro-technology and science. While I have no particular quarrel with neuroscience on its own, pop-neuroscience is often a repository for the modern search for legitimate experiences and theories of the Self. In some quarters, this becomes the window-dressing to sell discredited ideologies.
Readers often come for the anti-woke sentiment, and stay for the personal charm and winning personality (kidding). I get complaints that I am too anti-woke. Or that I’m not anti-religious enough. Or that I’m too pro-religious.
A while ago, I wrote about Jeff Koons, and the removal of religious guilt and shame as a central idea in his work. I also frequently write about Marxism and neo-Marxism as relying on both liberation and revolutionary praxis for their survival. Such doctrines get nature and human nature horrifically wrong, but they get enough of both right, it seems.
Robert Hughes wasn’t a big fan of Koons, and looked at him with a skeptical, suspicious eye:
Celebrity, money, art and fame are mixed in a big bowl:
As posted, I think this except highlights the idea of liberating one’s Self from not only guilt and shame, but judgment. Artists and the avant-garde thrive in such space, but so do ideologues and the worst kinds of people, and a lot of what’s bad in people.
Many avant-garde have become avant-huitard.
Jeff Koons’ Made In Heaven blurred the line between art and porn, private experience and public show, innocence (so easily corrupted) and naive, narcissistic indulgence.
‘Ours does not promise to go down in literary history as a great age of religious poetry. Yet if contemporary poetry is not often religious, it is still intensely, covertly metaphysical.‘
For Heidegger, more than any other philosopher, looked to poetry as a model of what thinking should be. He used individual poems, especially the hymns of Hölderlin, to help explicate his own ideas about nature, technology, art, and history.‘
‘This is the dead end of Modernist culture, which sought to break down traditional values and rules but was unable to replace them with anything better. It left us in a cultural void where, as the New York Times piece puts it, everyone is afraid that “serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst.” In the second half of the 20th century, this corrosive Modernist skepticism brought us the ruling concept of contemporary popular culture: the “cool.” Remember the original meaning of the term. To be “cool” is to be emotionally cool, to refuse to be caught up in enthusiasm. Early on, this could be taken to mean a kind of manly reserve, the ability to be calm, cool, and collected in the face of strife, or to refuse to be carried away by momentary or trivial emotions. This is the sense in which James Bond was “cool.” But by the end of the 20th century, the culture of cool increasingly came to mean a studied lack of response to values. It meant refusing to be carried away by enthusiasm about anything.’
You’ve seen the game some people start playing when they don’t have other things in which to believe. They play the everyone-is-Hitler-game. They share ‘literature’, torch courthouses and deploy violent individuals within mob anonymity. They don’t believe in legitimate authority.
Liberal leadership doesn’t seem to have a strategic response, other than keep pushing the ‘liberation’ narratives while accruing more authority.
Zhou’s response was that of a hedgehog. He had just one issue: Taiwan. “If this crucial question is not solved,” he told Kissinger at the outset, “then the whole question [of U.S.-China relations] will be difficult to resolve.‘
Some interesting takeaways from the interview above (Kissinger was a young man whose family fled the Nazis and who not long after served in the American military, helping to free a concentration camp).
-According to Ferguson, this still tends to make Kissinger an idealist on the idealist/realist foreign policy axis, but it also likely means he’s breaking with the doctrines which animate many on the political Left, hence his often heretical status.
***I’d add that unlike many thinkers in the German philosophical and political traditions, the Anglosphere has economic idealists and various systematists battling other systematists, yes, but there are looser networks of free, civic association and more avoidance of top-down organization and fewer internalized habits of order.
Perhaps such looser civic associations, broad geography and rougher, cruder practices of freedom help keep power and authority dispersed. Kissinger came closer to being ‘America’s Metternich‘ than have all but a few other actors, and Kant was quite serious in the scope of his metaphysics.
‘The most original and interesting aspect of the biography is Ferguson’s ability to engage with and analyze Kissinger’s ideas as set forth in the voluminous letters, papers, articles, and books written by Kissinger as a student, academic, and policy adviser. According to Ferguson, Kissinger the political philosopher was closer to Kant than Machiavelli. While he admired the brilliance of Metternich and Bismarck, his ideal statesmen (e.g., Castlereagh) sought to construct international orders that did not depend upon a guiding genius for their stability.
He was not, however, a Wilsonian idealist—idealism based on abstraction instead of experience, he believed, was a “prescription for inaction.” “The insistence on pure morality,” Kissinger once told a colleague, “is in itself the most immoral of postures.” Statesmen must act under a cloud of uncertainty and often their decisions reflect a choice among evils.’
Dear Reader, let’s say the following is mostly true: ‘In lieu of religious belief; the orienting structure which Christianity provides, most people in the West will replace faith with something else.’
Portions of this debate are as old as the Enlightenment, (much older, really) with regard to the natural sciences, born out of what was once natural philosophy.
Depending on what’s true and what is known, an additional question looms: Who ought to be in charge?
As many readers know, I’ve been looking at liberal and secular humanist leadership, finding much rot and confusion (modern conservative movements are hardly models of principled health and organization, Dear Reader).
Whether or not the proposition of the first sentence above can be empirically proven as emergent behavior, rooted in biology, at the level of basic individual consciousness, I believe to be another matter. I’m not expecting the growing fields of neuroscience and evolutionary biology to answer all questions as to deepest human problems.
As to bearing the weight of faith, true-belief and social organization, (how to live, what to do), such fields as evolutionary biology and neuroscience seem woefully inadequate; subject to ad hoc departments of ethics and groupthink (enforcers of the emergent, and often ideologically rooted, norms).
I will say I think neuroscience may be analogous to where internal medicine was right before the x-ray. It’s going to do a lot of us, a lot of good, a lot of the time.
Furthermore, I’m also of the mind that wrestling with one’s own heart, and works of creative genius, is what a good humanities education was supposed to be doing before the field drifted into the postmodern morass.
A lot of good art, poetry and music can elevate our base impulses into appreciation of the beautiful, the good, and what’s true.
I also expect a lot of modern leadership to claim the arts and sciences as credentials, and reasons to trust their leadership, freezing-out political enemies. I’m looking at a lot of the new moralizing busybodies, nitwits and ad-hoc ethicisists with skepticism.
Endless pursuit of (S)elf, the individual isolated and alone, drifting along currents of Romantic–>Modern–>Postmodern conceptualizations, has made for a kind of mystic gnosticism. Modern, feelings-first primitivism is drifting fast into something like a new religion.
Additionally, something I’m calling Neo-Romantic Collectivism, or Romantic Primitivism, generally tends to drive much behavior I see in Seattle (as if you care and as if you were planning a move):
‘If we all give ourselves to collectivist principles by sticking it to the (M)an, everyone will be made equal. The trains and buses will run on time. Gaia will be happy.’
We already know the modern ideologies promise a new telos (end-point) to (M)an’s affairs, politicizing private life into the public sphere, often as a badge of righteous honor.
As Roger Scruton continually pointed out, a basic organizing principle of the ‘conserve first’ mindset, with all its drawbacks, brings more mid and long-term stability: ‘What if our existing institutions are already representations of who/what we are?’
I’m not sure having to pass through Schopenhauer’s looking-glass is necessary, nor on through Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power, but it helps understand where a lot of people are coming from.
Long-story short: There are many people pursuing something like tenets of faith, rule-following punishment, and a commitment to thoughtless conformity during these times.
But we pretty much already knew this to be true, if that opening statement is mostly true.