29 June 2006

Yes, Virginia, We Are Devolving

Eric Larsen has a new book out, and has posted an excerpt on his website... and it's an interesting read.

In A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit, Larsen asserts that we are fucked. We have substituted abstractions (identity politics) of what the world is and means for actually looking at what is there, have allowed corporate greed to shape us into consumers instead of thinkers, and basically no longer have the cognitive tools to create meaningful political, intellectual, or artistic discourse.

Of course, my kneejerk reaction is, "Yup." But of course this puts me out of a job. So... fuck this guy! Surely we can keep thinking and producing our way out of this mess, right? I'm still thinking... you're still thinking. I'm not ready to cue the fat lady.

And it seems like he has no plan for moving past the flattening effect of identity politics on intellectual discourse, except to reject it. This is ridiculous. Thickening the crust of the local Women's Studies Department by asking harder questions and having more arguments seems like a better strategy (ie, it admits that postmodern theory happened).

But man... I can reject what Larsen is doing with his thoughts, but the thoughts themselves are powerful. Read this excerpt of the excerpt:

"the observable pattern is simply this: Great numbers of people will not talk about great political matters that are unprecedented or of the most towering and important consequence. For example, they won't talk about the possibility of interpreting the Supreme Court's intervention in the 2000 election as the equivalent of a coup or the installation of a junta. And they won't talk about the possibility that the Bush administration knew that 9/11 or something like it was coming but did nothing to prevent it since it would be useful to their own political interests. That is, people will not even entertain the possibility of such ideas.

But why on earth not? I'm not asking for agreement on any such questions, but I am asking—no, I'm imploring—that it be permissible to consider them. To make it something not considerable seems to me the equivalent of willful blindness and very dangerous. I have an acquaintance who is an internationally recognized and highly honored senior professor at a major—no, an illustrious—university. Admittedly, he is conservative politically and considers himself so, but it seems to me that conservatism is one thing and denial another. In an exchange, I asked him whether or not law is built on precedent. Yes, he said, in extremely large part. I asked him if the court's intervention in the 2000 election was a first-time thing and unique or whether it had a precedent. A first-time thing, he said. So I asked: Doesn't the Court's action then stand as a precedent in this area of law, making it more rather than less likely that the Court might again enter into a similar electoral matter and that a parallel or corollary finding might be handed down again? No, he said: It doesn't and it won't.

Even my acquaintance's deep conservatism can't explain this simple stubbornness: after all, he's done something akin to saying "a dog is a cat," or "a dog is not a dog." He would never admit that he'd done so, but hasn't he, in effect, said, "A precedent is not a precedent"?

On the face of it, an absurdity. But I think I understand it, at least to some extent, just as I think I understand the refusal of my colleagues, friends, and other acquaintances even to entertain the notion that the Court's action could conceivably be understandable as a coup. And the reason is that the very thought is unbearable. It is unspeakable. In a word, it's unreal.

Indeed it is. And yet that's the very last reason not to speak of it. "


Blogger highlowbetween said...

YOu know its great someone is at least talking about that "activist" intervention by the Supremes. It got buired rather quickly by the MSM but I have to believe it is a central case for the study of law moving forward. What is interesting in the decision is that not one justice signed their name
to the document. Not one.
The argument by Scalia and Thomas was that the candidate Bush wasn't given due process. Funny how they weren't concerned with the voters right to due process.

29 June, 2006 10:15  
Blogger DilettanteVentures said...

Morris Berman covers much of the same territory in The Twilight of American Culture. In short, he argues that we're on the verge of a new Dark Age and that it's best to face the "reality" that we cannot reverse this, there is no (short term) hope - "...history rarely moves as fast as a single human life." Taking the long view, he proposes what he calls the "monastic option" - the preservation of knowledge by individuals for later employment by civilization...bleak, but it rings true.

29 June, 2006 13:42  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Monastic option, nuclear option...


29 June, 2006 13:54  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

Dilettante - that is a great/grim book! So glad to hear some one has actually read it. Also pickup a copy of The Law in Shambles by Thomas Geoghegan - I just read it.

Here's the Amazon plug:
Book Description
It's an enduring axiom: before there is democracy, there is rule of law. Thomas Geoghegan argues here in his lively pamphlet that as the pillars of the American legal system are crumbling, so too is the American democracy.

Geoghegan convincingly explains how the 2000 presidential election was only the first sign that justice is now driven by party politics. He notes how even lawyers are becoming disillusioned with the law, as federal cases are increasingly determined by whether they are heard by a Bush-appointed judge or a Clinton-appointed judge.

Geoghegan ultimately contends that the sense of disorder in our legal system has never been greater, and we may no longer have the basic civic trust necessary to preserve the rule of law.

29 June, 2006 14:06  
Blogger serena said...

Highlow--it strikes me that some of the basic assumptions underlying the way our legal system is structured are at the root of the problem, and the obvious political polarization of decisions is merely a symptom. Our legal system is structured under the assumption that two opposing sides can battle each other and arrive at the truth. This is a Socratic dialectic that was blown out of the water by Robert Pirsig in 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.'

But I digress.

One thing that give me hope, as I ponder a possible oncoming Dark Age, is the fact that even as political power becomes increasingly centralized, communication becomes radically decentralized. When in the history of mankind has the average individual been able to exchange information and ideas instantaneously with other people all over the world, as we are doing right here? Of course, political polarization manifests in the blogosphere as well, but there are ways to work through that.

The organization of the Internet is starting to mirror the holistic organization of the human mind, and I think it is possible that salvation and healing will arise from that. But I'm a determined optimist.

01 July, 2006 18:49  
Anonymous Eric Larsen said...

Hello, Deborah Fisher. It’s me, Eric Larsen. I’m glad you saw A Nation Gone Blind and that you think it has power. But, wait a minute—what? it offers “no plan” for escape or survival? Hey, sure it does. Making Women’s Studies tougher won’t help at all, since the “field” or “discipline” is hopeless by merit of being politicized from the foundation. It’s not really study at all. But doing women’s studies inside of history, or inside of anthropology, or inside of psychology—doing that would strengthen the studies and make them honest—and bring about actual and genuinely productive results. The same is true of all the other “victimology studies.” And then the other part of the survival plan—isn’t it also clear? It amounts to finding, at any cost, a way to get and be free from the mass media and the “aesthetic” that that media creates, the “aesthetic” that people then accept as the “real” or as “reality” when in fact it’s no such thing but is phony and false to the core. Without this escape-the-media way of re-claiming the true, irreducible, and meaningful self, there can never be a way toward again being able to tell or know the difference between feeling and thinking (the corporate state wants people to feel, never to think).
In a real sense, postmodern theory never did happen, since in order to “happen,” it had first to remove itself from any of the true disciplines. So it ain’t an intellectual discipline but a thing of “feeling” and hence doesn’t exist and has no meaning, since only thought can produce meaning.
That’s what so valuable and impressive , Deborah Fisher, in your own remarks about your art as opposed to your writing. Just look at what you say:
“I make art specifically because I am trying desperately to understand something that my verbal self can’t touch. Writing a statement about what my own work means is therefore an unhelpful enterprise. This is not because I am an illiterate artist, but because I am compelled to make visual art for specifically nonverbal reasons.”
Brava! In other words, you are thinking aesthetically, and the aesthetics you’re thinking in are non-verbal. That makes you, today, one artist in a million. My book’s second chapter is called “The Death of Literary Thinking in America, How It Happened and What It Means.” The argument is, in a nutshell, that “aesthetic thinking” has disappeared (in all the arts) and has been replaced by the familiarly politicized “feeling-thought” of, say, Women’s Studies. I couldn’t praise you more highly for still understanding—and being able to say—of what it means to be a real plastic artist at a time when most plastic art is just banal political position-taking.
So: Redeeming the arts is a central aspect of the survival-plan. I’m just not sure it can happen. And yet, look, you yourself are an example of the doing of it! A truly big-time hats off to you!

08 July, 2006 09:32  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Dear Eric Larsen,

Thanks for reading my blog and understanding what I am doing, and thanks for taking me to task. I think I get what you are saying, I have ordered your book but haven't read it, and tend toward lazy, pronouncement-filled writing... blogging doesn't help that. Reject is a strong word that is more about my own entertainment than careful consideration.

I am not an intellectual; I lift heavy stuff all day. And so I am interested in the practical application of what you are saying, especially since you are so invested in the real and reality (I am too). And so when I said that I reject this, what I was prodding at is...

...how is this going to actually play out?

I see what you're saying about postmodern theory never happening--your logic is elegant. But man, all those departments, with jobs and classrooms and photocopiers and filing cabinets and students and books and articles sure did. Advertising and media may be equally phony to the core, but the effects are real enough to make it a real problem.

It sounds like that's your whole point. But then what? What is the practical point of decrying something as illegitimate and phony when in fact its effects are pervasive? As a thought experiment, what you are saying works very well for me and I stand corrected. But what about the bricks-and-mortar situation? What about all those women's studies majors? They exist, and saying that they shouldn't doesn't seem like it's going to do anything.

It is entirely possible that I just don't know enough yet. I am going out right now and I am going to buy your book and stop waiting around for it, and when I have read it I will post more. What you are saying is quite relevant around here, and I want to understand your argument in its entirety it before I say anything else.

I am glad you stopped by.

08 July, 2006 13:41  

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