Archive for February, 2015

Satire Is Older than the Two Monotheistic Religions

200px-The_gesture_svgOne sometimes hears the argument that we should respect religions because they have long traditions with which people in those religions have lived for generations. Therefore, we should not make fun of people whose metaphysics are still millennia behind the rest of us. Religion can be wonderful. It teaches people to love one another, to live in peace, to create caring communities. Most people who are religious are lovely people, but like with most things of this nature, their religion is probably not the only thing that makes them lovely. The Greeks did not have a monotheistic religion and their religion was not what we would really even recognize as a religion. There wasn’t even a sacred text. And yet they managed to give birth to us and our culture. Despite this, they had lovely qualities.

If the Greeks had something close to a sacred author, it was Homer. Playwrights like Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles might come next, but there was very little sacred about them. The Greeks would hold theatre festivals where the satyr play was one of the competing categories with tragedy and comedy. These would teach them essential things about themselves. The satyr plays were probably the throwaway stuff, because only one has survived. But that play, Euripides’ Cyclops, mocks the Homeric epics and is quite ruthless. That’s one of the fundaments of our western culture: the art of giving yourself the middle finger. The self-criticism it entails has built western civilization and that principle is older than either Christianity or Islam.

Another person has needlessly died. This time in Denmark. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it seems to me that for each middle finger that fundamentalists cut off, five more will rise. I’m as baffled as most people, I think, at my own reaction. I’m furious and have none of my usual liberal understanding towards the perpetrators. But then I remember that a fundamental value of the thought that has formed my thinking has been attacked. It’s not freedom of speech, really. It’s the right to be obnoxious, the right to call people on their bullshit, the right to say “Fuck you!” when someone tries to limit your freedom to say “Fuck you!” However we look at it, the self-administered middle finger is one of the fundamental gestures of our culture. It’s not going away any time soon.

Social Media is the Modern Day Pillory

pilloryThe pillory was the favourite method of punishing unpopular speech in eighteenth-century England. It has been said that only Daniel Defoe was able to recover from the shame of being pilloried and redeem himself as a writer in the eyes of Englishmen. Not that Defoe had it easy. He was jailed, lost his money, his business and never could just shrug off his past. He became a kind of running joke. His unfortunate role in the Shortest Way affair, as it is known after his Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), made him a household name. He was able to capitalize on his fame later on, but it would be a stretch to say that he was glad to have been publicly shamed after his failed satire.

Jon Ronson published an interesting article in The New York Times about our modern day pillory. In it, he discusses the role of social media as an instrument of public shaming. He focuses on the case of Justine Sacco, whose life was turned upside down after she made an incredibly stupid tweet about AIDS before hopping on a plane to Africa. I’m sure most people remember the case. Sacco’s tweet blew up on social media as she was still on the plane and cost her her job. The joke was too good to pass up: she worked in PR and should have known better, she was oblivious to the incredible attention her tasteless tweet generated while she was traveling, her name was Sacco (of course she had to be fired). Few of us can imagine the incredible shame she had to go through, but most of us watched the case unfold with amazement and often cynical pleasure. It’s not a coincidence that Ronson is also the author of The Psychopath Test, because he does have a keen eye for the savagery of the punishment Sacco received for her tasteless joke.

There’s no way of defending her words, but it was interesting that she pointed out that they would have been acceptable on South Park. The tweet was very Eric Cartmanesque. Whatever we think about the case, it makes it clear that free speech in the digital age outside South Park is a complex issue. We are free to say stupid things in public and others are free to judge us. This is not unlike what happened in Defoe’s time. The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, was all for the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. When satire was bad, he thought, more satire would correct the words of the perpetrator. We live in a world that looks very much like Shaftesbury’s ideal society. It’s an Enlightenment ideal that has become true thanks to technology. It’s transparent and everyone has a voice. The trouble with it is that we have come to see that with transparency and democratizing communications technology, we seem pretty ugly as a society. At times we look like a pack of hyenas. We see ourselves mirrored in the fantasy land of the Internet as bitter, angry and hateful bullies. And we do seem to love it.

Those Crazy Finns

I was reading John Beaumont’s 1705 An Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and Other Magical Practises and found an interesting account of shamanism in Lapland. Beaumont was a physician and geologist, but he had also had a scholarly interest in hallucinations and magic. He was immensely well read in the subject and took notice of Johannes Schefferus’ 1673 work Lapponia. In it, Schefferus tells stories about the magical abilities of Lapplanders and Finns. Slip a piece of silver to a native and they would tell you news about home through their metaphysical long-distance service. Here is how Beaumont tells the story:

One John Delling, a factor to a German, enquired of a Finlapper of Norway, about his master in Germany; the Finlapper readily assented to tell him; like a drunken man, he presently made a bawling, then reeling and dancing about several times in a circle, fell at last upon the ground, lying there for some time, as if he were dead, then starting up on a sudden, related to him all things concerning his master; which were afterwards found to agree to what he reported.

Is there such a big leap from ancient shamanism to modern communications technology? Yes, there is, but the service is more or less the same. We just managed to produce the technology to actually do it. Still, it is nice to think that although, as Arthur C. Clarke said, modern technology would be indistinguishable from magic to visitors from the past, magic provided the first solution to a need that was always there.

New Sincerity and the New Nihilism

One sometimes comes across the term “New Sincerity” in literary theory. When I was trying to find out out what the movement (if it is a movement) is about, I discovered that I had written an essay about it by accident. But because it’s not going to be published in a while, I though I’d write something about it here as well. It’s a recent phenomenon and as far as anyone can tell, it’s a reaction to the endless ironies and cynicism of postmodernism. For what seems like ages, modern literary theory has been a pool of swirling layers of interpretations where the only way to tell shit from shinola is by figuring out how witty the reader is.

The Wikipedia page for New Sincerity has a quote from David Foster Wallace that supposedly sums up what’s going on. In it, Wallace talks about how the new rebellious New Sincerity anti-rebels are ready and willing to seem old-fashioned, risk disapproval and not be taken in by the cool kids who run with postmodernism. He makes it sound like what New Sincerity is doing is just simply bypassing postmodernist ironies and the clever cynicism it embodies. That’s probably true, because people my age grew up with postmodernism.

People of my generation read Derrida before we read Montaigne. We sat in literature classes listening to lecturers and professors talk about a great revolution in thought that set everyone free to do their thing and write the kind of philosophy and theory they wanted, to shrug off the old guard in a brilliant gesture of enfant terribleism. We read and listened and took notes. Nobody ever told us what the old order was about. We only got the rebellion and never got to hear what the rebellion was against. History is written by the winners, as always.

There’s a better characterization of the new ethos by Wallace in an interview recorded in Conversations with David Foster Wallace (2012, 52) than on Wikipedia, I think:

For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes, and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get from my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 a.m. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end.

We only saw the party and the people in charge were not the parents who were away, but the guys running around thinking it was all great for some reason. Some of us have gone back to read about the old order and while I don’t think most people are intellectual traditionalists who want to quantum leap back to, I don’t know, New Criticism or Victorian literary history, how about telling us why reading the texts we got for homework really matters?

There is a strand of anti-intellectualism in all this, and it is troubling. But it’s easy enough to turn the accusation back at the pissing contest that is postmodernism. That’s not a jibe against postmodernist literature, which at its best will take you on an amazing ride that teaches you something about the world and your place in it. It’s a jibe against postmodernist literary theory. And I don’t think New Sincerity, whatever it is, is a case of simply insisting on the subjective interpretation of literature come what may. That can be as daunting and oppressive as the endless aporias of meaning and identity politics postmodernism portrays as thinking. If it is old-fashioned, how about a good old Wordsworthian “man speaking to men” type of attitude?

We all know what the Gianni Vattimos of the world have been saying all along: there is no essential meaning, everything is interpretation, you have to deal with relativism and nihilism. Vattimo’s nihilism is the nihilism of our parents and grandparents. We grew up with it. We’ve done all that. And now what? If one asks that, it’s not anti-intellectualism. It’s something more akin to curiosity: we got this far, nothing really matters, and what then? With New Sincerity comes a New Nihilism and we are going to have to build on it.

The Stagnated Rhetoric of Political Extremism

m_90621Helsingin Sanomat published an odd story about a Finnish neonazi group this Sunday. Apparently, the reporters infiltrated an online forum where members, several whom were doxxed and had their names printed in Finland’s largest newspaper, discussed the group’s planned propaganda campaigns. The London Review of Books published Slavoj Zizek’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he concludes that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” He calls this perhaps the “the most depressive lesson of terror.” Tariq Ali has been promoting his new book The Extreme Centre: A Warning where he seems to go Russell Brand on readers who have become totally apathetic with politics. Prince Charles expressed his concerns about the radicalization of young people on the BBC.

Warnings about political extremism have become a tool for established politicians and media personalities to promote their stale ways of thinking and to maintain their hold on power. An unthinking person might jump to the conclusion that to refuse to participate in this circus is a suggestion to join an extremist group, but this would be missing the point. Politicians have recruited radicalism and extremism to serve their own ends. Anyone who embraces extremism, it seems, will only be a useful idiot to those already in power. The discourse has been appropriated into the system and resistance seems futile. What, then, is to be done when the possibility of a revolutionary vanguard has been pre-emptively neutered by the clammy hands that guide the media?

Perhaps the first thing we could do is to recognize the stagnated rhetoric of political extremism and the even more foul-smelling use of the rhetoric of extremism by those already in power. Politicians who claim to be the only bulwark of reasonableness between us and extremism are not there to keep us safe and spotless. Their job is to get into office and their rhetoric does not essentially differ from the propaganda of extremist groups. Extremist groups, on the other hand, are hardly an option for most people who like to think themselves sane.

We should remember that great old William James quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We should recognize that what is being presented to us instead of thinking are thinky toys© which we are then expected to play with, preferably in the privacy of our own heads. Their use in journalism and the media to sell papers and books should be made more obvious to everyone. Eventually, the media might do it all by itself just by producing more lazy journalism and spouting tired rhetoric as news. If the ruse becomes grotesquely obvious, people will notice, get bored with them and finally resist them. That’s a big “if”, but where there is banality, there is hope.

A Spectrum of Misery

A little while ago, I wrote a short article about Thomas Ligotti’s book on nihilism and H. P. Lovecraft for the Finnish philosophy journal niin & näin. It should be published in the next issue. Usually I put the piece out of my mind as soon as I submit it, but something about this one stuck with me.

Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010) seemed to skip over skepticism, pessimism, cynicism and cross over to nihilism. At least that was my unacknowledged little hierarchy of -isms that I used to read him. What I did not make clear in the article was that I do categorize and file away authors according to whether they think like skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists. What the actual qualities are that make someone fall into these categories is not quite clear. It is perhaps the forcefulness of their doubt. Skeptics and Pyrrhonists doubt relatively reasonably, pessimists doubt that there is no reason to attempt anything but doubting, cynics do nothing but doubt and the nihilists’ doubt is transcendental. Or perhaps the spectrum could be organized according to hope: little hope, very little hope, no hope, the negation of hope itself. Or it could be organized according to belief, certainty, motivation or reasonableness. Ligotti’s book is somewhere at the bottom end, whatever the scale is or how it really functions.

I usually reach for Richard Popkin’s History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (2003) when I start to think about my favourite miserable philosophers. Popkin’s book is probably the best account of the history of skepticism, and it’s also quite clever. He thinks of Descartes, for example, as the “conqueror of skepticism” instead of the man who founded western philosophy on a ridiculously overamplified doubt about everything. By doing what he did after his skepticism had been inflated to absurd proportions, Descartes saved western thought from imploding. Or that’s what Popkin thought. We may need another conqueror fairly soon for our postmodern irony-saturated culture. This time we need someone to save us from nihilism, but it is very difficult to bet on a nihilist to do anything that would serve common ends. Ligotti does what he does brilliantly and it is difficult to read the book without being entertained by his bleak philosophy, but he’s probably not our man.

Because the book is so entertaining, I came to think the supreme quality of my spectrum of misery may in fact be aesthetic. To categorize philosophers as either skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists by using beauty as a tool of measurement sounds too strange to work, but it’s the best answer I’ve come up with thus far. There is beauty in the destruction of thought. It is like a dance that pulverizes the edifices erected by the reader in order to protect himself or herself from the world. After they are gone, the philosopher takes a bow, leaves the stage and he or she is left with nothing. That’s the one thing I now regret: I wish I could have found a way to say his book was beautiful.

Linguistic Nihilism and the Text as Work

Yesterday, I went to see a lecture about the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård. The lecturer was wonderful and confessed to being obsessed with the work of Bernard Stiegler. I knew very little about either of them besides that the first volume of Knausgård’s book has been waiting on my shelf for a while now and that Stiegler is a fairly impenetrable Derridean philosopher. The lecture clarified many things, but left me shaken. As we were walking back to our offices, I quipped that I was slightly traumatized by what he had said.

The topic of selfies and narrative selfies came up and as a result the spatial and temporal impossibility of self-description was discussed. The spatial distance between the self and self-description was examined in terms of portraits and mirrors. Temporal distance was discussed in terms of memory, telling one’s life story and getting ever closer to the indescribable present. I thought about the description of indescribable objects like peak-experience hallucinations and remembered that very often in such descriptions language is deemed useless as a tool for describing the experience. What authors often seem to do is to turn towards language itself in a desperate effort to explain their predicament. Some, like the author of the Hashish-Eater Fitz Hugh Ludlow, begin to dream of a divine language that could describe anything and everything. On such occasions, one is confronted with a choice. One either experiences a fall into linguistic nihilism or renews one’s faith in the power of language to truly connect with the world in a meaningful way.

What traumatized me was the realization that I was not sure if what Knausgård was doing was an interesting portrait of a mind contemplating itself or simply the mythologizing of language after the realization that such contemplation is, in the end, completely pointless and perhaps even harmful. During the discussion after the lecture, it seemed like the room was split as well, although everyone maintained their composure like real professionals. I fell and fell hard. What is to be done when one’s belief in the power of language to present deep meaning in the world is gone, when all becomes surface and mere decoration tacked onto a noumenal reality? The only thing one can do is get back to work, now as a decorator.

An old professor of mine (who is no longer with us) once gave a lecture in which he talked about the terms “work” and “text”. According to him literary works stopped being called “works” sometime during the birth of post-cultures like postmodernism and poststructuralism. They spoke of texts and the opened up literary canon was renewed as a sea of text. They were perhaps describing an important change in western culture, but their terminology was simply wrong. When linguistic nihilism prevails and suspends the belief in the power of language to assign meaning, text can only become work. When the world is made language, it seems like we have arrived at a point where we can call our culture pan-linguistic. On the other hand, we lose sight of the world and the world which language previously described is lost forever. All becomes surface and surface becomes all there is. There is no room in modern culture to mythologize language. In the beginning there was the word, but the word does not become flesh.

At such an impenetrable impasse, the cul-de-sac of our culture, how can language be anything but work? Maintenance work, decorative work, communication and translation, like house work in personal relationships, a tool bereft of its aura. There are no real insights or flashes of genius and texts differ from each other only in their surface qualities. I read all this in literature and philosophy classes, but only recently have I begun to wonder why everyone seems to be fine with it. Do they not see the magnitude of the loss? Perhaps they do, or perhaps they do not care. It is one thing to have such things explained to you, but it is another thing entirely to feel it in your gut. The mind recoils, the heart is starved of meaning and, still, one has to go on and get back to work.