Posts filed under ‘Sociology’
Now my acquaintance is not alone with his sentiments. Apart from all the Romantic poets in the 19th century, which had a similar response to the increasing scientificization (is this a real word?) and mechanization of the world, some very influential philosophers have also been critical of the effects that an over-emphasis of objectivity has on society.
There is, to begin with, Nietzsche and his distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian ways of thinking. Apollo, the god of light and truth, stands for objectivity; Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, for subjectivity. And Nietzsche thought that there can be a kind of Apollonian tyranny at the expense of our Dionysian feelings. In that sense, he saw the philosopher Socrates with his incessant questions as a kind of mental tyrant: someone who attempted to set up the absolute rule of Apollonian rationalism, suppressing everything Dionysian in us. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche specifically applied this to art and literature and thought that Socratic rationalism had a bad effect on the Greek playwrights.
Then there is Max Weber (1864-1920), usually considered a sociologist, but quite a philosophical one. He called the history of modernity a process of rationalization in which life is chopped up into separate subunits, and the goal is to increase the efficiency and productivity of each subunit. Life is no longer an integrated whole, but an exercise in jumping from one compartment to the next: job, family, religion, politics, hobbies, everything is quite separate, and it is often frowned upon if you mix the different compartments in life too much. Life by boxes, like in a museum of natural history in which the different stuffed animals have their own separate showcases. And what rules each of these compartments of life is a bureaucratic apparatus, not charismatic leadership. This is not all bad, since equality hinges on bureaucracy. But it has its price.
In his lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (“Science as a Vocation”), Weber says that this compartmentalization of life leads to what he calls “value polytheism.” By this, he did not mean that we worship many different gods, but that all our activities, being driven by instrumental rationalism, are no longer integrated into any ultimate ends or goals in life. We have separate rational goals for separate compartments in life, and they are often in competition with each other. What we have to do is choose between them.
Weber uses the same term Marx used to describe this condition, “alienation,” though in a somewhat different sense than Marx. Weber thinks that modern humans have an identity crisis, not just as a passing condition but as a way of life. We are “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” And yet such empty entities as ourselves imagine that we have achieved a level of civilization never before attained.
A different way that science can be seen as an intrusion into life was expounded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). He stressed the importance of naked experience, without the cumbersome layers of science that we have dressed ourselves with over the centuries. Husserl was not anti-scientific as such, but he stressed the importance of suspending our judgment in order to experience the true flow of consciousness as it actually occurs.
Then, as a last example, one might mention Michael Foucault (1926-84). Though I am not uncritical toward the postmodernists, I find Foucault’s concept of the power structures erected by the advances of science worth considering. “Knowledge is power,” Francis Bacon had said, and that is true. But power by whom over whom? It is often said that the knowledge achieved by science has given humanity power over nature. But “humanity” is an abstract concept. “Knowledge is power” means in reality that some people have power over nature and over other people. And more often than not it means that few people have power over a great many people. The advancement of science and technology has given a few nations great power over many nations, and few individuals within nations great power over many individuals.
Now it can be argued that science and technology increasingly empower lowly individuals, too, especially since the invention of the internet. But the basic tendency of science and technology to give people much greater power over others than they would have otherwise had probably still holds true.
I said in my last post that the modern age has been marked by a striving for objectivity. In a word, by science. To take three rather mundane examples: Our lives are run by the clock, often to the minute or even second; we no longer have any freedom in how we wish to spell words but have to adhere to strict rules; and we have to deal with a huge bureaucratic apparatus just to stay alive.
It may be asked what clocks, spelling and bureaucracy have to do with science. A lot, I think. They have grown out of that same attempt to bring objectivity to our lives. I no longer go by the subjective feeling of how time passes, but look at the outside perspective of the clock. I no longer spell words the way it makes sense to me, but go by established rules. I am no longer being dealt with by authorities on an individual, subjective basis, but have to submit to an impersonal bureaucratic apparatus that treats everyone the same way.
Science and bureaucracy go hand in hand; they are both expressions of the same striving for objectivity. Hence we can read Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle not just as a nightmarish picture of bureaucracy, but also of science.
I know someone who feels this very strongly, and Kafka is one of his favorite authors. Like the characters “K.” in Kafka’s novels, he feels like a stranger in this world of ours that is run by the clock, by countless rules, by impersonal forces, by paperwork and computers and science. For him, it is a nightmare. He longs for a world based on personal relationships rather than rules, for a world without clocks and computers. He detests that you can no longer strike up a friendship without being immediately asked whether you are on Facebook.
He is a real poet at heart and reminds me of the way Stefan Zweig describes his encounters with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his memoir Die Welt von Gestern (“The World of Yesterday”). For Zweig, the quiet, mysterious, almost invisible Rilke was like a breath of fresh air in an increasingly mechanical world. While in Paris, Zweig says, Rilke had no house, no address, no home, no job. “Immer war er am Wege durch die Welt, und niemand, nicht einmal er selbst, wusste im voraus, wohin er sich wenden würde.” (“Always he was on his way through the world, and no one, not even he himself, knew beforehand where he would turn.”)
That exactly describes the person I know. I have no idea where he is at the moment; somewhere in Europe, I think, and God knows how he manages to make a living. He is still young—in his mid-twenties—but I seriously doubt that he will get very old. Unless he has a breakthrough as a musician, artist or author, he will probably never succeed in our bureaucratic, rule-based, science-saturated society. It is just not made for him.
One might say that he is not very well adapted and that something is wrong with him. Maybe. But he, of course, thinks something is wrong with our society. He finds it ridiculous that we have lists with the exact height of every mountain on earth, and yet so many of us have never climbed a single mountain! He would say, “Go out and have the experience of actually climbing a mountain; that is a billion times more meaningful than this sick obsession with measuring everything.” He sees an obsession with science almost like a mental illness. When I told him a couple of years ago that I had spent a lot of time recently wrapping my mind around Einstein, he got seriously worried.
While I do have a deep appreciation for science and its many achievements, we are rather obsessed with measuring things, aren’t we? As soon as a new human being enters the world, it has a rude awakening to the fact that it has been born into a world obsessed with quantification. Even if it is perfectly obvious that the baby is perfectly healthy and within a normal range of weight and height, the first thing we do is to rip the baby from its mother and plonk it—screaming now—on a cold, impersonal scale in order to know just how many grams or pounds it weighs, and then we pull out our measuring tape and try to unnaturally straighten the curled-up little body in order to know just how many centimeters or inches it is long. It is really ridiculous, once you think about it.
And, oh yes, of course, it is also vitally important that, as soon as the last bit of the baby slips out of the womb into this world, some birth attendant looks immediately away from the baby to a clock to see what exact minute it was born. Why, why, why is this so important?
By the time the baby is five minutes old, it has already collected enough paperwork to counterbalance its body weight, and long before it forms its first conscious thought, it is entangled deep within the complex net of bureaucracy.
I, at least, can empathize with my friend who seems to have never gotten used to this net—who has never gotten used to lying on this cold scale that is our modern society. There is still an infant in him kicking and screaming.
In my last post, I mentioned Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and raised the question whether an acquaintance with great books of the past can liberate us from the cave of popular culture.
While I think there is definitely something to that thought, it is also possible to have a wrong idea of those great books from the past. Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged in the disreputable southern side of London, essentially the red-light district. As a common laborer in Elizabethan London, you might work, watch a bear fight, and then buy a cheap ticket to go see a play by that Shakespeare dude, munching away on snacks during the performance and loudly voicing the emotional effect it has on you.
In a similar vein, the great Russian American novelist Nabokov did not at first manage to get his novel Lolita published with anything but a trashy pornographic publisher. Can you imagine a professor of literature being caught with it at the time? It would have been embarrassing. Today, any professor of literature can proudly hold up his Vintage edition of Lolita, showing what fine works he is reading. And if you look at the lives of the great composers, many of them lived as much like a rock star as their often limited finances would allow.
Frequently, the classics of today were yesterday’s pop culture, and what is taken up into (or drops out of) the canon of great literature changes over time. Literary sainthood is a fickle club.
Personally, I am not fond of an overly sharp distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, between real literature and mere entertainment. Not only were many highbrow works in the current canon originally anything but highbrow, but I think the implied supposition that “literary” works are somehow always more profound than popular works is false. Sure, Joyce’s Ulysses is a unique work and a great experiment of what you can do with language, and its many references and puzzles furnish literary classes with much to talk about, but in terms of the content, is it really more profound than popular works? For my money, I find The Lord of the Rings more profound than Ulysses, even though Tolkien is clearly part of popular culture.
Now Allan Bloom contests that the Great Books have a richness that is missing in popular culture. While I do not completely disagree, I find some of his examples rather badly chosen. He says that “students today have nothing like Dickens who gave so many of us the unforgettable Pecksniffs, Micawbers, Pips, with which we sharpened our vision, allowing us some subtlety in our distinction of human types. It is a complex set of experiences that enables one to say so simply, ‘He is a Scrooge.’ Without literature, no such observations are possible and the fine art of comparison lost. The psychological obtuseness of our students is appalling, because they have only pop psychology to tell them what people are like …”
Really? We have no equivalents of Dickens’ characters in current pop culture? Dickens was an extremely popular writer in his time, not someone whose readership was limited to those with a highly developed literary taste. So, for some reason, Bloom seems to suggest, popular writers have become much less perceptive in their portrayal of human characters since the golden age of Charles Dickens. Pardon me, Professor Bloom, but I don’t think so. I have read many popular novels where I was impressed by the perceptive portrayals of human character, even in novels that are clearly meant to thrill rather than educate us, such as those of Stephen King.
To take the issue beyond the written word, is the statement “He is a Scrooge” really such a more profound statement than, say, “He is a Mr. Burns” (from the Simpsons)? Many people today might not be familiar with Pecksniff, Micawber and Pip anymore, but they have the unforgettable Snape, Dumbledore and Harry Potter. Even though it is a children’s book series, Harry Potter deals with many important issues. As does Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, to name but two of the most popular book series of current popular culture.
Nevertheless, I think Bloom has a point that often, what we find in popular culture are dumbed-down and falsified concepts from earlier thinkers. “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”
As he says in another passage, “somehow the goods got damaged in transit.” Again talking about Marcuse, Bloom says that he “began in Germany in the twenties by being something of a serious Hegel scholar. He ended up here [in America] writing trashy culture criticism with a heavy sex interest in One Dimensional Man and other well-known books. In the Soviet Union, instead of the philosopher-king they got the ideological tyrant; in the United Sates the culture critic became the voice of Woodstock.”
When it comes to fiction, I am not convinced that books of the limited highbrow canon are always better than those excluded from the canon. But when it comes to non-fiction, particularly philosophy, I would agree with Bloom that there have been a certain amount of thinkers who continue to influence us, and knowing them helps us evaluate the popularized and often falsified versions of their thoughts.
For instance, Obama said during his recent address to the United Nations that “freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.” That’s quite a big claim, and I think knowing the Great Books helps evaluate such a claim. It helps us know where such a sentiment comes from.
Bloom is right to point out what has been pointed out by others before: that one can indeed be chained to the shadow puppetry of contemporary popularism, especially in our age of mass production, and that a knowledge of the Great Books can help turn our heads away from the shadows at least long enough to gain a better understanding of what is really going on. Or, to change the picture, they can pull us up from among the throng of mass culture at least long enough to get a picture of some its direction, separating us from the throng long enough to gain a bit of individuality—to gain a mind not completely controlled by the dictates of mass consumption.
It’s been a week and a half since my last blog post. But of course this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been anything on my mind the last days. In fact, it’s usually when I blog the least that I have the most on my mind.
Apart from work, family, enjoying the snow, working out, meeting some new people, drawing, playing the guitar, preparing for Christmas and other activities, I’ve been reading the first half of Rousseau’s Confessions, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and I’m currently busy with The Grapes of Wrath (yes, to my shame I have to admit that I’ve never read it before).
Since I’ve already had a few posts on Rousseau this month, let me follow up on them by a few more thoughts on relating Rousseau to our lives today. As many people have probably heard, Rousseau was an idealist who championed compassion and thought that technology and urban living robbed people of their natural inclination toward empathy. He was all for personal relationships, not for a life centered around possessions. That’s why I think he would be critical of some of our online interactions of today.
I’m often surprised (well, perhaps not surprised anymore, but still disheartened) by how rude people are to each other on the internet. Many YouTube comments are absolutely vicious. Why? Because compassion and empathy do not blossom very well in front of a computer screen. If I talk face-to-face with a person, I can actually see the effects of my words. I can see if what I say hurts the other person, or confuses him, or delights him, or amuses him, or touches him. We can actually interact and make an empathetic connection.
In contrast, with a computer in between you and me, it’s easy for me to forget that there is an actual person “on the other side” reading this and being emotionally affected by it. It’s difficult to convey the empathetic facial expressions and body language of personal conversation in written words. That’s why it’s so easy to be rude in writing. But at least I try (I don’t know how successfully) to retain my humanity even when communicating via technology with people I don’t know personally. Others seem to not try at all, hammering the most awful insults into their keyboards without any consideration of the emotional effects on the recipient.
This is part of our current condition, in which technology has alienated us from reality (a major theme in The Grapes of Wrath, by the way). How much easier it is to kill someone by pressing a button far away from the victim than it is to take a sword and hack that person’s body parts off. But the results are the same. Only the human feelings about it are less. The empathy and compassion are less. Nowadays, you can kill someone in Afghanistan by sitting in front of a screen on a military base near Las Vegas and steering a drone. To a lesser degree, we kill each other with words and other impersonal interactions.
Even though Rousseau was not at all against the written word—in fact, he said he could express himself in writing much better than in person, and he was awkward at socialization—he would still deplore the way technology can alienate people from nature and humanity. Some have called Rousseau an “evil genius” because of his desire for transparency, but I’d rather call him an idealist in a similar vein as Marx. Both brought forth needed criticisms of their society, though their solutions were not attainable and could even prove worse than the ailment they tried to cure. And it is even questionable whether Rousseau intended his ideal picture of society as a solution at all or only as a way to make us think.
Rousseau was a fan of small communities (10,000 max) based on personal relationships. He would not support a situation in which anonymous people from any community whatsoever can send in secret documents to someone who puts them into an electronic box and everyone around the world can sit alone in front of screens to peep into that box and find out the nasty things politicians have said about one another (see WikiLeaks).
In closing, let me stress that I am much less knowledgeable on Rousseau than a lot of other people, and I might be entirely wrong about what Rousseau would or would not support if he were alive today.
In response to the recent Wikleaks disclosures, there was a discussion on French television entitled “The Tyranny of Transparency.” An online friend who lives in Paris translated part of the program. This is what Luc Ferry, a French philosopher said during the discussion:
“What is very interesting in this story is, and I come back to what Jacques said we are all for transparency. Who is going to be in favor of lies in a democracy? When it comes to fighting against lies, including diplomatic lies, I am delighted. But there is a big difference between legitimate transparency in a democracy, and voyeurism.”
I agree. What is disturbing in the Wikileaks affair is not so much the disclosed details—they hardly come as a surprise—but the possibility that the value of transparency might turn into a kind of tyranny in which privacy gets lost.
Ferry then pointed to Rousseau as someone who desired this kind of transparency:
“… in the letter on the arts and entertainment, Rousseau criticizes the theatre. He hated the theatre, but of course he aims this at Voltaire who loved the theatre. But, behind this criticism of the theatre, there is something very profound that touches on our subject matter. That is, Rousseau reproaches the theatre because the people in the theatre have no connection to one another except via the intermediary which is the stage. In the theater, the spectators are seated in the darkness, so they can’t see one another. They are not transparent to one another. They cannot see one another transparently like Jean-Francois and I can see one another right now. They are lodged in the darkness, they are stuck in the darkness. And the communication passes by a third intermediary separate from the individuals.”
For Rousseau, this was a metaphor for the monarchy. Said Ferry: “It’s the king that connects all the individuals, but each individual has no direct contact with other individuals except via the mediation of the king. So, Rousseau replaces the theatre with the festival. There is no stage in a festival. He said plant a pike into the ground in the town square and arrange to have music played, and the people will dance. And this [festival] is the metaphor for the democracy in opposition to the metaphor of the monarchy, so that all individuals can see each other in perfect transparency … for me, perfect transparency is horrific. Perfect transparency is a horror … maybe you can say a word about Saint-Just, as a historian, because he is all about this ghastly idea of Rousseau’s …”
While I support Ferry’s concern, we have to realize that in times of limited mass communication and even more limited education of the masses, the need for freedom of speech, bridging the gap between rulers and people, and empowering people by connecting them was much more pressing than the need for privacy. Judged in its historical context, I find Rousseau’s desire for transparency quite understandable and even praiseworthy. I doubt he would voice the same need in our digital age in which the "ethic of transparency" means that recording devises are all around you and anything you say or do might end up on the web and be seen by people on the other side of the world in a matter of minutes.
In the early 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber saw in his contemporaries a society that pursued irrational ends by rational means. People made humongous rational efforts for economic gain, but what did they want economic gain for? Rational ends? No, Weber said, the drive toward more and more economic gain was an irrational one.
The epitome of this paradox was the Third Reich, which pursued highly irrational ends such as hero worship and Arian purity, using equally highly rational means of technology, science, and organization. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare come true: a bureaucrat like Eichmann sitting at a desk and calmly, rationally organizing the extermination of several million Jews.
Weber saw this development coming, but he maintained that the basic pattern of pursuing the irrational by means of the rational was true even before the rise of Hitler (which he himself did not live to witness), and no doubt he would say that it has continued on even after the death of the Führer.
The means by which we organize society are more rational than ever before, but have our ends become more rational? Can they become more rational?