Three particular features of modernity may be seen — in a pessimistic light — as making civilization either impossible or no longer desirable. We have liberal economic markets. If you can pay, you can have what you want so long as you do not break the law. Whether your choices are good or bad is for you to decide, and you can pursue them until you run out of credit. Therefore the market says: I do not care about quality of choice or whether people consume wisely. I care about whether or not they can pay for whatever it is they happen to want.
We have cultural democracy. Who is to say what sort of art or books or architecture I should like? Everyone’s preference is on an equal footing. Some people like Beethoven, some Britney, others both. In the past, elites could trumpet their preferences as superior; they were the only ones in a position to do any trumpeting. Today, there is little cultural authority — there is little deference.
We have freedom of opinion. I am entitled to think whatever I happen to think — irrespective of logic, evidence and self-examination — so long as it doesn’t directly and obviously harm other people. No one has any right to tell me what to think. Such freedom is rooted in the profound point that the truths we discover for ourselves are more valuable than those we merely accept on external authority. One is expected to have strong opinions on the widest range of baffling technical matters and impacted problems: how to bring peace and justice to the Middle East; how the economy can be put to rights; the relationship between science and religious faith. The quality of information on which we base our opinions may be low and the quantity slight. But we are perfectly entitled to our own views.
These conditions are associated with a pessimistic view of civilization today. Triumphant vulgarity rules the world (it is said) because the democratic numbers and the market forces always win. Once you have markets, cultural democracy and freedom of opinion, questions about merit and meaning will always be settled by majorities and money. But majorities and money have no real authority on questions of value.
the geist of the zeit
The Value of These Tensions
Nevertheless, Ellul’s analysis of freedom holds up, since most of us are not masters but consumers of technology, adapting to it and prone to mistake the valuable tensions involved in pursuing the highest goods for nothing but technical problems to be solved (and surely our technicians are no less prone to this). Recognizing the value of these tensions can be difficult, as in many areas of life the constant improvement of techniques to alleviate them becomes an unquestioned goal. But standardized tests cannot measure students’ curiosity, social networking cannot replicate the fullness of face-to-face relationships, and poll-tested ads are no substitute for political deliberation. Of course most of us know these things; and yet, our social ethos seems fixated on prizing ever better tools as ways of overcoming challenges and relieving tensions that we ought to recognize as indispensable to many kinds of excellence.
Tension and struggle are productive forces, on both the individual and social level. Many valuable aspects of life cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator of quantifiable data. We generally understand this, yet our age is one in which we feel compelled — and compulsion is indeed an apt description of this thoughtless urge — to “solve” anything we see as a problem, and to do it as quickly as possible, especially through the use of science and technology. As our shared moral vocabulary withers, we default to a utilitarian standard that can only think in terms of maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. But as mystics have been saying since forever ago, a vision of a world in which “bad” and “undesirable” things can be progressively erased until there’s nothing left but good, pleasant things by default is absolutely incoherent, based on a terribly mistaken understanding of reality, and doomed to frustration and failure if pursued.
Yes, I realize I just rephrased the very section I excerpted. I can’t help it; I’m just wallowing in the profundity of it. Compelled to rearrange everything we can for reasons we hardly understand in service to a chimerical vision of life we wouldn’t want even if we could achieve it. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the grand folly of it all. Hell, even the relatively straightforward task of trying to pin down happiness makes us look like complete fools.
Footnotes to Nietzsche
In the same way that massive intrusion into our online lives came not from ‘big brother’ but from our own desire to share the minutiae of our lives with the world, so the great intrusion into what we do with our bodies came not just through some top-down diktat but from a rising and generalised agreement about the most efficacious use of the public coffers. An opt-in health insurance system allows you to take whatever risks you are willing to pay for with your own body, whereas the NHS gives everybody an interest in everybody else’s body. And without strong ethical or moral guidance from any other source this rampant utilitarianism becomes the dominant ethic in the land. It does seem to have some idea of a life well lived: a non-smoking, non-drinking fitness fanatic who starts a family in their most productive years and has the decency to die at just the moment when they risk taking out more money than they have put in.
The new feminism, this global franchise, this pop and political phenomenon, is not really a movement. Nor is it, as men’s rights complainers argue, a feministic conspiracy to do down men. Rather, it is but the keenest expression of the mainstream misanthropy and turn against Enlightenment thought of the modern West itself. The ‘male’ values being attacked are really the universal values of reason, autonomy, progress and truth — values that both men and women need, and deserve.
I’ve been watching the women’s World Cup this month. I hadn’t ever paid attention to women’s football before, not because of my virulent misogyny, but because of prosaic time constraints. Good stuff. I’m enjoying it. Reporting my initial impressions to my inamorata, I said that it was nice to see the absence of dirty fouls as well as the general lack of belligerence and aggression. The men, by contrast, are constantly scrapping, shoving, mouthing off, squaring up, and generally acting the way you’d expect athletic young men to act toward each other in a highly competitive environment. “Testosterone poisoning, I’m telling you,” she said. “Yeah, well, good luck selling that one politically,” I replied.
From there, we went on to talk semi-seriously about how Huxley’s dystopian vision of chemical coercion seems to be much more relevant today than Orwell’s more conventional story of political totalitarianism, Nietzsche’s idea of aristocratic vs. slave morality, psychological vs. physical cruelty, and the possibility that behavior modification rooted in utilitarian ethics might prove to be a defining issue of our century. What I mean is, take the idea of testosterone being the root of most of the serious problems in the world. I can envision this becoming more than just a fringe notion worthy of ridicule. I’m not predicting that a feminist vanguard is going to seize political power and forcibly neuter “problematic” males; I’m just saying that if anything is going to challenge the axioms of liberalism, it could likely be some form of utilitarian public safety issue, married to trendy fixations on biochemistry and neuroscience.
I’ve been lately thinking a lot about liberalism and its past and future alternatives, wondering how long this relatively stable, peaceful state of affairs (in this country, if not the wider world) will last before people get impatient and start fantasizing about a system without gridlock and diluted compromise, a system where we can finally achieve everything we can imagine, a system which will be little more than a narcissistic fantasy of unrestrained power, where everyone who matters shares your beliefs and goals, and anyone who doesn’t has been marginalized or eliminated.
As evidenced by the post title, I find myself, while reading the above pieces, thinking about the death of God. With that famous phrase, Nietzsche of course was referring to a cultural center of gravity, what Yuval Harari calls an imagined order. As more people lost faith in Christianity, in a shared moral yardstick, what would become of their morals and values? What would come to fill the void? He feared the worst and was subsequently proved correct. But even now, with those paroxysms of violence passed, we still struggle to find values in common to anchor society.
I also find myself recalling Matthew Crawford’s quoting of Tocqueville, where he observed that, barring a recognized source of moral authority, people will measure themselves against each other. “Normal” will be judged according to statistical aggregates. As Murray says, utilitarian consequentialism fills the void when a culture loses its sense of identity and purpose, and that itself is another form of uninspiring compromise.
But has there ever been a “shared moral yardstick” that was anything other than a cultural/political aristocracy capable of imposing its values on society? We shudder to think of doing that sort of thing anymore. Nietzsche would likely say that we still have a cultural/political aristocracy, just one that’s been poisoned by its own self-loathing, wallowing in post-modern, post-colonial guilt. The big, transformative ideas that fired the imaginations of the intelligentsia in the past have turned to dust. But what new idea might come along to persuade them to dream again?
As Michael Lind said, the next great religion to seize hold of the cognoscenti won’t present itself as a religion at all, in the same way that Marxism, Nazism and Freudianism all claimed to represent the cutting edge of science in their day. We look back scornfully, wondering how anyone could have seriously believed in any of those ideas. But how likely is it that we have finally outgrown all such delusions? What notions might our culture take for granted that will likewise appear ludicrous a century from now?
My provisional answer is, as I said, the promise of biochemical and genetic modification. Throughout the last few centuries since the Enlightenment, the dominant project has been to shape the system to best serve human needs. In the recent cases of Marxism and Nazism, this has obviously led to even greater suffering and destruction. Now, I think, the logic will turn toward shaping people to fit better within the system. A kinder, gentler form of eugenics, perhaps, one which isn’t so much about an intrusive state forcing sterilization upon “unfit” members of society, but one which allows consumers more choice in selecting the behavioral traits they would like to emphasize or suppress through medication, or in genetically designing their offspring for maximum advantage. Perhaps, like Freudianism, this might be the kind of idea that appeals more to artists and thinkers than policymakers, but I could imagine it becoming a dominant theme of the cultural cognoscenti in the near future. And being a pessimistic sort, I could likewise imagine people a century hence looking back in bewilderment at our hubris, wondering how we could have ever believed that we had the wisdom and ability to reshape human nature to our specifications without incurring unintended consequences.
“Man Forced to Apologize for Sexist Shirt After Successfully Landing Spacecraft on Comet” has to be the ultimate headline for our age.
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) November 14, 2014
Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross:
No one knows why Taylor chose to wear that shirt on television during a massive scientific mission. From what we can tell, a woman who goes by the name of Elly Prizeman on Twitter made the shirt for him, and is just as bewildered as he must be that anyone might be upset about her creation. Taylor apologized on Friday during a live ESA broadcast for wearing the shirt, stating that “the shirt I wore this week… I made a big mistake and I offended many people, and I’m very sorry about this.” Still, Taylor’s personal apology doesn’t make up for the fact that no one at ESA saw fit to stop him from representing the Space community with clothing that demeans 50 percent of the world’s population. No one asked him to take it off, because presumably they didn’t think about it. It wasn’t worth worrying about.
This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don’t feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague’s office and they know they aren’t respected. They hear comments about “bitches” while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the women who actually make it that far. Those are the few who persevered even when they were discouraged from pursuing degrees in physics, chemistry, and math throughout high school. These are the women who forged on despite the fact that they were told by elementary school classmates and the media at large that girls who like science are nerdy and unattractive. This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.
Emphasis mine. I swear, I’m beginning to suspect that these people are the result of an intensive, long-term breeding program designed to produce some kind of human super-terrier that can tunnel through layers of solid rock in fanatical pursuit of the faintest trace odor of offense to be taken.
As a good pluralist, I’m naturally inclined to believe that most issues admit of more than one valid interpretation. Ferzample, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being the type of person who sees a shirt covered in images of sexy pinup girls and gets offended. You can offer up a number of reasons why such a person might be mistaken to see it that way, or perhaps some suggestions that life will be more pleasant and productive for them if they try to lighten up and take a less-judgmental stance, but ultimately, they’re entitled to feel however they want. And even for those of us who don’t go through life with a thorny stick wedged painfully in our posteriors and perpetually pursed, disapproving, lemon-sucking lips, it can of course be fairly argued that, whatever the backstory, it’s at least inappropriate to wear a shirt like that on that particular occasion. It’s obviously not worth being put through a show trial, but being pulled aside and told, “Hey, dude, come on, you’re going to be on international television; maybe something a little less gaudy” wouldn’t be an onerous imposition.
Notice, though, how a certain type of Puritanical feminist refuses to even consider the possibility that other people could have different, yet equally valid reactions to seeing Taylor’s shirt. As you may have heard by now, Elly Prizeman is a close friend of Taylor’s. He was the best man at her wedding. She made him the shirt as a gift, and he wore it to give her artwork a little publicity boost. Nonetheless, her opinion doesn’t count, femininity notwithstanding. Any other woman shrugging her shoulders and saying, “What’s the big deal?” would likewise be dismissed as irrelevant and unwelcome in the discussion. 50% of the world’s population is being demeaned by that shirt! Of course, if even 50% of that 50% stood up and said, “Actually, we don’t see it as a problem; you just need to chill the fuck out,” their objections would be overruled even as their existence would continue to be cited as support for the Puritanical view. No woman could possibly see him wearing that shirt in conjunction with his tattoos and general demeanor and think Hey, he looks like a fun guy; no, they would see him as intimidating and threatening. They wouldn’t “feel welcome”. This is all stated as matter of fact, not as one perspective among many.
Notice the immediate assumption of the absolute worst-case interpretation. Generic sexual images, even campy ones, when sported or appreciated by a man, are sexist. Inherently offensive and harmful. The images of sultry, busty babes couldn’t possibly be equally representative of comic book art or cheesy SFF; they can only represent filthy, degrading, aggressive animal lust, which all right-thinking people should be properly ashamed of. Any woman who sees them will take them personally and feel disrespected. Any man who enjoys them can clearly only think of women as second-class citizens, mere blow-up dolls to be used, abused, and cast aside. Nothing positive could ever be associated with them. Their very existence, especially when made public in any way, demeans all women, even the poor brainwashed ones who stubbornly cling to their ignorant opinions to the contrary.
Notice how the slippery-slope argument becomes a sheer logical plummet down the face of a cliff, as Taylor’s shirt becomes an inkblot suggesting everything a woman could ever find to complain about. Well, again, they’re free to find tendentious causal connections wherever they want, but the rest of us are also free to point out that they are simply projecting their own twisted, morbid obsessions onto everyone else, in the long-established tradition of fundamentalist crusaders of all kinds.
One member of the Slymepit had what I thought was a good take on it:
So a man is the best man of a woman. The woman makes him a shirt as a thank you. He wears it. Sounds like a pretty normal thing to do among normal, socially aware, empathetic people.
But since there was a woman in a sexy position on that shirt, suddenly the man is the devil, he sets back history, he’s sexist, he’s the reason why women are raped, etc.
And they say they’re sex positive, progressive people. I’ve met nuns who were less of a prude. This objectification rhetoric hides pearl-clutching former fundies who get mad when they see female flesh exposed, be it real or fictional.
Also, for people who are all about “empathy”, SJWs have very little social and emotional empathy of their own. They don’t seem to understand the concept of being proud of your work, or of having friends, or even of humor and a relaxed attitude towards sexuality. They’ve lost the sense of wonder before the accomplishments of the human race.
It seems like a trivial, almost painfully obvious point to me, but apparently it needs to be said anyway: these people represent an extreme viewpoint, only one of many possible viewpoints, but for some odd reason, a lot of otherwise moderate people, as well as a lot of media outlets, seem inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they aggressively proceed as if theirs is the one true perspective on gender issues. Oh, for the day when this unthinking, groveling deference finally wears off…
It’s not hard to imagine a future when neurohumanities and neuroaesthetics have become so adulated that they rise up and out of the academy. Soon enough, they may seep into writers’ colonies and artists’ studios, where “culture producers” confronting a sagging economy and a distracted audience will embrace “Neuro Art” as their new selling point. Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000? Will artists, and advertisers who use artists, employ the lessons of neuroaestheticism to sharpen their neuromarketing techniques? After all, Robert T. Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Berkeley, is already the science adviser for NeuroFocus, a neuromarketing company that follows the engagement and attention of potential shoppers. When neuroaesthetics is fully put to use in these ways, it may do as Alva Noë said: “reduce people and culture to ends, simply to be manipulated or made marketable.”
And he has a point. Today, there’s the sudden dominance of so many ways to quantify things that used to be amorphous and that we imagined were merely expressive or personal: Big Data, Facebook, ubiquitous surveillance, the growing use of pharmaceuticals to control our moods and minds. In other words, neurohumanities is not just a change in how we see paintings or read nineteenth-century novels. It’s a small part of the change in what we think it means to be human.
Perhaps I have an answer to the question I asked a few months ago, then. Maybe people will look back on the early 21st century and laugh at the way so many educated people thought that the colored lights of fMRI studies would offer truer or deeper explanations of human existence rather than simply rewording what we already know.
Fish Don’t Know They’re in Water
Somehow, the rebels of half a century ago have grown up to become the new Victorians. There’s a right way now to eat, vote, laugh, think.
Which means it really shouldn’t be that difficult to make an avant-garde. Here are some of the pieties that it might undertake to profane. That people are basically good. That freedom is the chief ingredient of happiness. That we control our fates. That society is slowly getting better. That we are more virtuous than those who came before us. That the universe coheres in a mystical whole. That it all works out in the end. In short, the whole gospel of self-improvement, progressive politics, ethical hygiene, and pantheistic spirituality. The upper middle brow is as committed to the happy ending as is Hollywood. Tragedy is inadmissible: the recognition that loss is loss and cannot be recuperated, that most people’s lives end in failure and emptiness, that the world is never going to be a happy place, that the universe doesn’t love us.
W.H. Auden described Freud as “no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our differing lives.” I thought of that while reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, where he related Frederick Crews’s summary of one of Freud’s most famous case studies:
Freud was determined to find a primal scene to serve as the fountainhead of Pankeev’s symptoms. He made it materialize through a transparently arbitrary interpretation of a remembered dream of Pankeev’s from the suspiciously early age of four, about six or seven white wolves (actually dogs, as Freud was later compelled to admit) sitting in a tree outside his window. The wolves, Freud explained, were the parents; their whiteness meant bedclothes; their stillness meant the opposite, coital motion; their big tails signified, by the same indulgent logic, castration; daylight meant night; and all this could be traced most assuredly to a memory from age one of Pankeev’s mother and father copulating, doggy style, no fewer than three times in succession while he watched from the crib and soiled himself in horrified protest.
It seems absurdly ludicrous in hindsight, but that’s the thing — how likely is it that we don’t have shared cultural delusions that will be looked back upon in another century with similarly incredulous humor? Which scientific and aesthetic ideas do our cognoscenti see as obvious to the point of being unremarkable? What sorts of things do educated, intelligent people take completely for granted and reinforce among each other?