Critic's Notebook


Connecting the dots with random notes on culture, society, policy, psychology, sociology, philosophy, economics, literature, technology, and criticism.

By Steve Hoenisch

The End of Critical Culture

From about 1990 through about 2005, it was common to suggest the end of one cultural sphere or another -- the end of history being the beginning of it all. And, finally, Gore's The End of Reason being the end of it all, showing how conservatives adopted post-modernist thought to turn politics away from truth. Now it's a permanent condition of fantasy over reality, ideology over evidence.

But after spending the last decade reading obituary after obituary in The Nation, Harper's, and (more literally) National Geographic, I feel like it's also the end of culture. We've lost newspapers, books, critical ideas, progressive ideals, and finally, after Obama, we've even lost all hope. But I keep lamenting the disappearance of a cultural movement dear to me, critical theory. I can't even find anyone to talk with anymore. Everyone I meet is entranced by junk food, junk media, junk things, and junky ideas.

How to Live Now: A Practice

Try to eat only local, organic foods. Kill your television: Watch no TV. Watch no movies, especially cgi; make exceptions for art house cinema, independent documentaries, or other independent films. Play no video games. Make nature paramount. Stop trying to impose control over nature.

Avoid going shopping. Never go to a chain store or a chain restaurant. Build community in your neighborhood. Throw your cell phone out the window. No, really: Stop talking on the phone so much. Instead, meet with people face to face.

Be kind. In the face of a neoliberal world, the piece de resistance is kindness, or maybe empathy. Practice progressive politics. The key word here is practice. Practice resistance. Stop living a fantasy of wealth and privilege that endeavors to sanitize and disneyize the world around you. Don't be a skimmer: Don't exploit others or other people's resources or natural resources for extravagant personal gain.

Go to the park. Radically reduce the amount of stimulation you need from external sources, such as media, other than people, movement, or nature. Live close to nature. Don't putt around the house: Go outside. Emphasize the visceral, the intellectual, the social, and the interactional. Read critical theory. Or philosophy. Learn to think sociologically.

Practice empathy. Understand the role of fantasy in American society. At all costs, stay out of the suburbs. Understand the interconnectedness of dominance and vanity in American society. Understand the effects of neoliberalism and the tacit role of neoliberal thought in the choices that you make. Don't allow your friendships to become transactional. Develop your own ethical framework to guide your decisions and actions. Realize that most acts -- especially your behavior as a consumer -- are political.

In some way, lead a classical life -- meaning: Listen to classical music, read Russian literature. Find a way to partake in a timeless pursuit, an activity that transcends the cultural moment in which you are embedded. In fact, try to transcend the dominant, monologic discourse of the culture in which you are embedded and stop uncritically adopting ideas just because you are repeatedly exposed to them or conditioned by them or because the ideas are generally accepted or repeated ad nauseam in the mainstream media.

Stop driving so fucking much. Advocate for change.

(Added on March 13, 2012.)

Moral Zombies

I've always seen the dominant import of Paul Bowles's work to be psychological and thus less related to the Beat writers than others think. There is certainly a strong modernist aspect to it, but perhaps there is also a dark moral undertone to The Sheltering Sky that, it seems, has fully come to be.

Part of the reason that works like The Sheltering Sky lend themselves so well to selective interpretation is that they are deeply nuanced, multifaceted pieces that change their shape every time you look at them from a different angle, or a different era. Because of their complexity and ambiguity they can be subjected to a variety of interpretations, including the possibility of parallel interpretations that seemingly conflict.

It's clear to me, though, that after looking at The Sheltering Sky again, it shows what can happen to your interpersonal relationships, your inner state, your health, and your personal freedom when you set out on a journey as a narcissist looking for an exotic adventure: The characters' fascination with and pursuit of the exotic exposes them to psychological and even physical terror; their individualism destroys their friendships and their love; their spoiled, narcissistic nature is reflected back onto them by the empty space as nihilism. The book is brilliant because it lures in the reader with an intimate sense of exotic adventure only to slowly reveal a dark psychological underside that exemplifies what can happen to individuals who slide into moral nihilism. In a book review in The New York Times, Tennessee Williams put it like this in 1949:

In this external aspect the novel is, therefore, an account of startling adventure. In its interior aspect, "The Sheltering Sky" is an allegory of the spiritual adventure of the fully conscious person into modern experience. This is not an enticing way to describe it. It is a way that might suggest the very opposite kind of a novel from the one that Paul Bowles has written. ...

I suspect that a good many people will read this book and be enthralled by it without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.

Now, in 2011, we've seen what's become of people when they persist as moral zombies. What are the social consequences that result from moral nihilism's political equivalent?

In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse points toward an answer. The book is especially poignant because passages like the following relate so closely to what's happening how, with the full-on attack on social programs and collective bargaining through the repetition of certain mantras:

One-dimensional thought is systematically promoted by the makers of politics and their purveyors of mass information. Their universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations.

Will the House's attack on workers, health care, and women's health, including the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, prompt large protests here? Why isn't there a mass protest movement in this country?

(Added on June 27, 2011.)

Monolithic Movement

The political and economic change so sorely needed in the United States requires nothing short of a unified, monolithic movement that repeatedly takes to the streets en masse -- nothing else will work, as the abject failure -- hope for change is lost -- of the Obama administration makes patently clear.

From Moral Nihilism to Bougesious Narcissisism

So, why is there no mass protest movement? Especially among "hipsters"?

Empathy Crisis

There's an empathy crisis in the United States. The utter lack of empathy I find in so many of the people I meet troubles me. Sometimes I catch myself trying to gauge -- or even test -- a person's capacity for it. Empathy, quite clearly, conflicts with our society's penchant for predatory capitalism. Is the economic system, by necessity, pushing out empathy? It has certainly done so, it seems to me, in most businesses and work places. But is it also pushing empathy out of interpersonal relationships? In such a climate, empathy and kindness become practices of resistance: They are human and humane acts that undermine structures of dominance and exploitation. As practices, kindness and empathy reorient us toward a good society. In a time when bourgeois nihilism has given way to bourgeois narcissism, they are, it seems, emotional acts that are parallel, at least on the level of interpersonal relationships, to the intellectual's responsibility to speak out against social injustice, as captured by this quote from a piece by William Deresiewicz:

Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage.

--From The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, by William Deresiewicz.

(Added on June 21, 2011.)

Connecting the Ambivalence of the Past with the Ambiguity of the Present

Patrick Leigh Fermo's A Time of Gifts ('77) and Between the Woods and the Water ('86) are seminal books that may have partially inspired a subthesis in Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines ('87) -- that to be human is to walk through nature. Saul Bellow seems to extend it in a modern and uniquely American way: that to be human is to go out into the streets, to walk the back alleys of the city. (Dostoyevsky seems to do the same in a uniquely Russian way, and I'm sure there are various other variations on this theme.)

I love this passage from a book review of Bellow's letters by Deresiewicz in a recent issue of The Nation:

And though Augie is a naif and Henderson a lout, the classic Bellovian heroes, the figures at the center of his most mature and characteristic works, are like their creator: notion-spinners, sensitive souls, idealists, contemplators, writers all. And while Augie and Henderson are perpetual motion machines, the later novels enact a more complicated dynamic: Herzog in his hammock; Sammler in his bedroom; Charlie Citrine, from Humboldt, on the sofa in his high-rise: they start in a condition of removal, of reflection, of repose -- safely ensconced, thinking it over, just themselves and the Great Books. But here's what's new: their stories drive them out. Into the city, into the uproar, into America.

But there is another assessment in the review that is leading me to the bookstore: "Understanding, for Bellows, begins in feeling -- hardly an intellectual's position or, these days, even a comprehensible one."

Another review in the same issue of The Nation takes me to a wholly different book, one that is also a collection of letters and, despite its differences with the other, seems to touch on a similar theme: It's "an accidental memoir from a disappearing world," I'm told.

Letters. Two book reviews about collections of letters that have struck my interest recently. The second book collects the correspondence between Leigh Fermor and Debo Mitford, a correspondence that is for me an otherwise uncharacteristic and unlikely interest but I'm finding it compelling because it spanned half a century and because Leigh Fermor has a prescient way of connecting the ambivalence of the (personal) past with the ambiguity of the present. I'm finding such connections fascinating right now, especially in light of all the cultural obituaries I've been reading lately, such as those for newspapers and book publishers.

(Added on July 20, 2011.)

Thematic Tags

Plutocracy | Universal Health Care | Image over Substance | Travel | Bruce Chatwin | Paul Bowles | Moral Zombies

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