Archive for July, 2015

An Engine of Meaninglessness in a Nihilistic Age

Fight apathy or don'tThe philosophy professor Rick Roderick was part stand-up comedian and part intellectual. His Teaching Company lectures were proof of his sense of humour and his ability to present complicated philosophical arguments in a way that was simple and entertaining. The title of one of his great lecture series was “The Self Under Siege”. In the lectures, he spoke about the ways in which modernity had annihilated humanity in favour of a disenchanted rationalized world. He spoke of Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre, Heidegger, Marcuse and Habermas, among other thinkers. You can find the lectures online with a bit of googling, if you so wish.

His Marcuse lecture was one of my favourites. He talked about the way mass media banalizes questions that have previously been fundamental for humanity. Banalization is most often achieved through repetition and is a form of social control. For example, the media bombards us with pictures of Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner and tells us it is very important that we all talk about his sex change operation. Aside from the fact that someone has had such an operation, the main message seems to be that we all now have to talk about it and repeat his story ad infinitum. A few clever people stop to ask the question: Why? What if I don’t care about Bruce Jenner and his sex change operation? Do I really have to join in the discussion if I simply do not care? In fact, that’s the only way of avoiding the banal discussion: not to care. Not to care about Bruce Jenner or, by extension, transsexuals in general.

Mass media does this with almost everything. Boko Haram, Isis, 9/11, Sars and Ebola, war and famine. I have watched the Middle East explode in flames over and over again since I was a small child. The best way to escape the bombardment is to become nonchalant about it. The media helps all of us do so by manufacturing apathy. It repeats and repeats its message with the ironic tag, “It is important we all are aware of X and discuss it”, but what it really does is to repeat its trauma-inducing message until it becomes meaningless and untraumatic. This is not unlike what happens when you repeat a word over and over again out loud. Try it and you will find the word quickly loses its meaning and becomes noise. The viewer is not to blame and neither is the media, really. It is a perverse symbiotic relationship that is a veritable engine of meaninglessness. We are taught not to care and we love it.

What, then, is the upshot? For Roderick it was a generation of nihilists:

Some of the symptoms that we see around us that our own lives are breaking down in the life of our society is a generalized cynicism and scepticism about everything. I don’t know how to characterize this situation. I find no parallel to it in human history. The scepticism and cynicism about everything is so general. And I think it’s partly due to this thing I’ve called banalization. And it’s partly due to the refusal and the fear of dealing with complexity. Much easier to be a cynic than to deal with complexity. Better to say everything is bullshit than to look into enough things to know where you are.

As a college professor he had seen this first hand:

To me it’s historically unmatched. I’ve never read or heard of a period like this. And I’ve read about many historical periods. But not one in which you can talk to young people the way you can at the college level today and find out that they believe nothing, want nothing, hope nothing, expect nothing, dream nothing, desire nothing. Push them far enough and they’ll say “Yeah, I’ve gotta get a job, I spent a lot of money at Duke”. That’s not what I’m talking about here. They hope nothing, expect nothing, dream nothing, desire nothing. And it is a fair question to ask whether a society that produces this reaction in its young is worthy of existence at all.

Roderick reminded his audience that his students were mostly upper middle class and upper class privileged youths. These were the kids who were doing fine and better than fine at the time. Few people would say things have gotten better since the early 90s when Roderick gave his lectures. In light of this unbearable ennui that plagues the young, it is not difficult to understand why a young person would want to leave everything and move far away from the West. Our culture has created an information cycle that churns meaning into noise. Everything it devours turns into an amorphous mass that has no relevance to our lives. As our world becomes ever more saturated with media and our lives virtual, our culture becomes ever more meaningless. It gives us nothing and hence we desire nothing.

What, then, is to be done? Who knows? Any solution or scenario I can think of sounds ridiculously naïve. The reason for this is probably that I can hear the machine churning away in the background and can imagine my words disappearing into the barren sands of our common nihilistic age even before I have written them down. After a bit of study, the best I can do at the moment is identify the reason for my quietism. At least that’s a start. Thanks, professor Roderick!

Who’s Elitist?

Book_shopIn a blog post entitled Is Our Concept of “Well-Read” Elitist? Morgan Jerkins asks what one should read in order to be considered well-read. I read through the list of books she names in her post and found that I have read them all. She discusses the canon and rehearses the old argument that the canon is a collection of works written by white male authors and, therefore, somehow an evil influence on our notion of what it means to be a well-read person.

Two things about the argument always bother me. First, it assumes that it is a bad thing to read canonized authors who are white and male. The history of literature being what it is, there are a lot of white male authors in the canon. Whatever you think of white males, they have written some of the greatest literary works in history and they should be read. The quality of the literature they have produced is not diminished by their ethnicity or gender. Second, this particular argument against the canon has not been true for a long time. The canon, whatever it is, is a beautiful living thing. It allows us to select from an incredible range of literature that is being updated all the time. Books are discovered, forgotten and rediscovered. There is no grand list of works we can consult, no clergy, no real hierarchy, no real restrictions. The closest one can get to scripture is to look at college reading lists and the like. There is no reason to blame others for your own ignorance anymore.

There is also a false dichotomy in Jerkins’s premise. The fact that one has read the classics does not mean that one has no interest in weird stuff that nobody else reads. The opposite is probably the case. A person who has read his or her classics is likely to have all kinds of odd and even marginal tastes that have to be satisfied after the more mainstream classics have been dealt with. Besides, the classics are usually the weirdest of the bunch. That is what makes them lasting canonical works of literature. It sounds strange, but the most bizarre stuff can be found on shelves that house established canonical classics. If you still thirst for the strange after reading Milton or Shakespeare, I doff my cap to you.

I am an elitist when it comes to literature, because I love language and literature. I love books, ebooks and audiobooks, old books and new ones, canonical works and books nobody has never heard of. I am not a big fan of authors. I remember reading Beckett’s biography and feeling rather disappointed with the man. Celebrity authors are often rather crass and vulgar, even if their prose or poetry is fantastic. One exception to this in my case is John Dryden, a seventeenth-century poet and critic. But even he, the dear old elitist, is interesting mostly because he saw literature as the creation and distillation of language into something greater than it previously was. This brings me to my final point.

I confess I have large gaps in my reading when it comes to the Russian and Japanese literature Jerkins mentions. In the case of Japanese literature the gap is a deep dark chasm of ignorance. A lot of it has to do with the unfortunate fact that I do not read Russian or Japanese. The Greek and Roman classics I have read have been translated and adapted for me by mostly Enlightenment writers, though I hope my language studies will help me enjoy the originals in the future. But that is not the point I want to make. Mostly, my reading has been directed by what I will call my love of literature. Teachers have played a part in all this, sure, but I like to think I have become aware of my own tastes, desires and loves by now. It is old-fashioned and sappy to call it love, but there is no better word for it. If my love makes me an elitist, so be it. Literature is a wonderful lover even to an elitist. It gives you the world and all it asks for in return is a little time.