The Vitalist

A Literary Laundry Blog

The Peeling of the American Rind

In the past two weeks alone, I’ve read  columns by David Brooks, Stanley Fish, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Leon Wieseltier in which it’s been stated in the most dire terms that the humanities are dying—and all of these commenters are right:  the humanities are dying and they are being forgotten and instead of humanists we have technocrats and fetishizers of science and instead of people who like to read books we have semi-literate consumerists whose idea of a soul doesn’t extend past whatever pathos Don Draper exhibits on Mad Men or Ned Stark on Game of Thrones.

It’s just true, true, true, that the humanities are shit, that very few people can hold an intelligent conversation, and that those who can are just too depressed by the state of general “culture” to have any desire to have that conversation; what’s not true is that this is anything new and that making a case for the humanities in an op-ed article for the New York Times is going to change anything — and what’s also not true is that occasional carping by people within the humanities about their own impotency is going to make a damned difference: if that were the case, everyone would be English majors again and our cultural familiarity with The Greaty Gatsby would not be defined by Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging mug and the aging music of Jay-Z. What’s not true in other words, is that we’re just a step away from restoring the old traditions: rebuilding the ivory tower, re-leathering those leather-bound books, and getting our old-school humanists back into the fitting room for a fresh pair of tweeds. The humanities are deeply fucked because human beings are deeply fucked — that’s the deeper, more bitter truth. Techologism and scientism aren’t just harming the humanities, they are redrawing the boundaries of what it means to be human; our aspirations are no longer even vaguely ethical or aesthetic, our aspirations are to literally become more like machines.

The old pleas for a new humanities refuse to really acknowledge that we have a fundamental choice: that the future of any culture that can Google itself must choose between the ultra-efficient, metric-driven civilization of the future (and present) and the clumsier, less-efficient, less satisfying-in-some-ways society of the past. This isn’t to say that computers are bad, that the internet is bad, that technology is bad—they  are in fact completely neutral tools—this is to say that our present use and fetishization of these tools reformulates an entirely new vision (or mode) of what it means to be human. It’s one thing to remark, as Klinkenborg does in this past Sunday’s Sunday Review, that less college students major in English, but these kinds of observations are not only obvious and perfunctory (by this point) but they miss the opportunity to point out that the entire foundation for humanistic inquiry — which is not just the desire to know but the desire to become “great-souled”— has fallen into a sinkhole and disappeared completely.

The best criticisms of American culture and university culture came at least twenty-five years ago and they were made by Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and George Steiner; the condition of the humanities was actually critical then, now the humanities are just dead. To wonder outloud what happened, or even to hope or claim that the humanities could be resusitated by a few structural changes to our educational system is to forget that our culture has been dying since we invented TV and perhaps since as a long as we invented the billboard. It might seem outrageous and anachronistic to blame technologies that are themselves being outmoded — but what I’m trying to point out is that our standards didn’t disappear yesterday: they’ve been cut in half more times than Lear’s kingdom.

American culture can’t on one hand worship and cultivate and praise mass-market advertising, “cutting-edge” TV shows, billion-dollar sporting events, shitty fucking Hollywood blockbusters (cue the sound of all twenty of this summer’s post-apoloclyptic space thrillers being played at once) and pretend that the academy just needs to tweak a few things and that our general attitude towards the academy just needs to be a little friendlier. We aren’t a little Tolstoy and Jane Austen away from restoring our humanisitic equilibrium: we are an entire canon, an entire way of life away from restoring that equilbrium, which is really, truly, our spiritual sanity.

The only honest statement about the humanities—and by extension about ourselves—is that our souls are too dead to appreciate them, study them, or care about them; that we’ve reversed the loop of personal growth to the point where we are too stunted —as a general cultural body and as individuals— to know how stunted we really are. We are aesthetic dwarfs complaining that we aren’t tall enough. We are spiritual anorexics staring at an untouched feast of beauty.

A few years ago, Philip Roth took unction at the idea that the novel was dying, it wasn’t dying Roth said, it was already dead. At the time, this seemed to me unduly pessimistic, but now it seems like the only honest thing anyone has said in a long time about the state of learning or reading or the soul in the U.S. and probably the first world: the novel is dead, poetry is dead, and so are the humanities (stretched too long on the rack of this tough world). 

A great book teaches us how to accept our own deaths, and fundamentally, that’s what all great wisdom really reduces to: the terrible irony among the humanities and humanists is that they can no longer recognize their own mortality.

MG

Cinema Poem 3 (version 2)

(Source: vimeo.com)

Thomas Lebaron

—Prelude to Canto VI

Prelude to Canto VI, written and recorded by Thomas LeBaron.

Thomas LeBaron lives in Colombia Heights, D.C. 

The Novel’s Wisdom

As human beings and social creatures, we have a tendency to cast ourselves in the role of judge. Quite distinct from the role of victim, this instinctive inclination to pass judgment on decisions and behaviors that do not involve us is frequently marked by a profound resistance to self-reflection – we judge by idealized moral principles and often ignore our personal records of imperfection. We tend to carry this inclination into our engagement with the novel; however, the mark of a great work lies in its unique capacity to undermine our moral certitude. Indeed, the novel teaches us to be ever skeptical of our superior righteousness.

In evaluating our personal lives, we deeply understand the complexity and ambiguity of moral decision-making, and are thus often inclined to be more forgiving of our own transgressions. We allow ourselves a leniency that we do not necessarily extend to others, whose transgressions are perceived to be acts of simple immorality. Without understanding the complex nebula of situations and circumstances, we are less able to extend empathic sensibilities into our judgment of the transgressor. Naturally, empathy is a trait that occurs in the population as a spectrum: each of us falls somewhere between the extremes of those agonized by universal empathy and those dangerously incapable of it.

Furthermore, most of us experience stronger empathy towards certain people in our lives, and a much fainter version for others outside the scope of our personal experience. The more empathetic one is by nature, and the stronger the bond between oneself and transgressor, the more likely one will be to understand the psychological pain of morally ambiguous decisions – the shame or remorse of a loved one carries far more weight than the imagined discomfort of a stranger.

The beauty and facility of the novel is its unique capacity to invoke empathy and emotional investment in the reader: a great novel complicates the process of moral judgment by weaving a tapestry of contexts, characters, and emotional complexity in which the reader is submerged.

A perfect (though extreme) example of such mastery is Nabokov’s classic Lolita: we are morally disgusted by the idea of seducing, abducting, and molesting a child – but Humbert Humbert is magically and inexplicably able to captivate and, in a way, seduce the reader. The legal and moral norms violated over the course of the narrative are shrouded in an aesthetically beautiful web of emotions, intentions, and contexts – all which serve to nurture the seed of empathy within a reader’s mind. (In fact, the reader-as-judge role is made brilliantly explicit by Nabokov’s choice to frame the novel as the protagonist’s defense speech before a judge and courtroom.)

In more subtle narratives, the novel is unrivaled in its ability to impose upon the reader a perfect state of uneasy moral ambivalence. We empathize with the characters, some of whom are formed before us with lives as rich and complex as many of our real acquaintences. We are uncomfortable and spread thin with contradicting empathy for several characters simultaneously. More often than not, we realize we have found ourselves faced with similar moral dilemmas in our own lives, and regardless of what decision we ourselves made at the time, we can empathize with the difficulty of such choices.

A brilliant author who has mastered this intriguing form of moral ambiguity is a personal favorite I often discuss: renowned Czech novelist Milan Kundera. In his novels, the narrator cultivates an atmosphere of philosophical inquiry and moral subjectivity, achieving a playful yet soul-probing dialogue about human behavior. We know infidelity is wrong, but when reading Immortality or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we find ourselves frozen with gavel in hand: the affairs, the moral transgressions are far more complex than could be encapsulated within a simple verdict. And we begin to doubt the legitimacy of our judgment regarding such matters in the first place – considering, of course, that we have all at some point found ourselves overwhelmed by moral ambiguity and desire, and maybe even once succumbed to weakness.

I suspect that this is one of the greatest gifts the novel bestows upon humanity: this reminder that in practice, empathy is a function of how able we are to understand the complex humanity of another. Often, we fail to extend our empathetic considerations beyond those who we know and love – we find ourselves treating others with judicial severity: the sexually licentious woman, the man who steals food for his family, the drug addict who is unreliable and self-destructive. By no means am I suggesting the cold blooded killer, the rapist, the torturer, even the white collar criminal should be judged in the same manner as one who has intentionally done no harm to others, but the novel reminds us to question our illusions of moral superiority.

Certainly all immoral or normatively transgressive behavior warrants the appropriate severity of punitive response – this is a critical feature of the social contract into which each of us has entered. But as we inevitably find ourselves in the role of judge throughout our lives, the novel exhorts us to serve with empathy – it reminds us that beyond deviance there is often a complex web of internal and external forces, and surrounded by these forces is a human being – a soul with as much humanity as ourselves.

MM

Blogs and Aphorisms

Are the conditions for writing blogs adequate also for writing aphorisms – that is, for writing laconic philosophical statements or pithy wisecracks that make a relevant point?

To answer this question, we need to have a sound grasp both of what a blog is and of the general history of aphoristic practice. While there are many varieties – journalistic, reflective, catalogical, humoristic – a blog is basically a finite repository of written or verbal enunciations that are cast out into an expanding web-space. The expanding web-space demands that individual blogposts be brief and, if not succinct, at least very short, so that a reader will not be overwhelmed with content. As a result, stylized blogs have proven themselves to be prone to soundbytes and snark, presumably because this is what makes them compelling to the general reader.

Without a doubt, the classical practice of aphoristic writing holds the potential for blog writing within it. Hippocrates, generally considered the original aphorist, wrote aphorisms chocked with wisdom about day-to-day medical problems – ‘Diseases about the kidneys and bladder are cured with difficulty in old men…’; ‘Hemorrhoids appearing in melancholic and nephritic affections are favorable…’ (1); and so on.  Offhand, we can all probably think of a blog with alternative medical advice, dietary planning strategies, or a related daily living theme. Since Hippocrates, however, the writing of aphorisms has expanded to include ‘high’ Western philosophy – an unofficial but more or less continuous tradition that began with long-ago folks like Erasmus and La Rouchefoucauld, and continued with moderns such as Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, et al. Even Karl Marx, in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ dabbled with aphoristic writing.

But not all aphorisms are of the high philosophical tradition. In fact, most Americans with a high school education are likely to be aware of the humoristic application of aphorisms – the wisecracks and wisdoms of Mark Twain, for example, which tend to have a snappy political bent. According to the standard definition, the effectuality of a funny aphorism derives chiefly from its ‘pithy’ delivery. Pithiness has a twofold effect of being rhetorically expressive and of intensifying the significance of what has been said so that it appears to make a shrewd critical point. Many popular political blogs today try to extend this tradition, commenting on legal and political affairs with a Twainian snark that, while perhaps less effective than in Twain’s day, nevertheless attempts to achieve that kind of effect. The snarky blogosphere scoffs at the pretentiousness and pseudo-wisdom of the high philosophical aphorism, containing a wit, as one New Yorker contributor recently put it, that ‘saves the aphorist from self-importance’ (2).

It is not difficult to see the connections between aphorisms and blogs, nor the ways in which aphoristic thinking has shaped how ‘thoughtful’ bloggers produce intellectual content. Nevertheless, there are formal features particular to a blog that would deter it from achieving the same ends as the philosophical or pithy aphorism. Here are a few that I feel comfortable conjecturing:

  1. Blogs that purport to produce ‘intellectual’ content tend to do so in a brief though not necessarily succinct manner. Tumblr and other platforms tend to encourage amalgamated, copy-and-paste enunciations via the various sharing functions. Thus, the outcome of thoughtful blogging in the majority of cases is not a cannily delivered, aphorism-like enunciation but rather a mish-mash of lofty quotes and book-clippings.
  2. Since becoming ubiquitous over the last decade, so-called thoughtful blogs have tended en masse toward seeking private self-reflection or individual subjective truths. This fact does not necessarily sever their relation from aphoristic writing, which can also be a mode of subjective truth-seeking, but it does, in a fashion, suggest that bloggers prefer to access objectivity through their digitally individuated subjectivity and not through the practice of writing ‘objective’ statements that contact a socialized truth.
  3. Blog language, like many other digital modes of communication, has a Newspeak quality to it. Aphorisms also suffer this problem as participants in their determined form, but it is usually because they are attempting to access an objective truth/truism and must use the codified language of ‘thought’ to access it. The intense codification of language and the inflation of certain key-words is inevitable even in so-called wizened discourses.
  4. Inter-media tweeting and sharing on blogs gives them a journalistic pulse that aphorisms do not have. The quote-impulse of blogs makes them great for cataloging but not always for original thinking.
  5. Personal blogs affirm without question the meaningful individuation of the author. In turn, blogging becomes a hobby, something I as an individual like to do and take a special interest in, without always being reflected upon as a practice corresponding with digital-age socialization.

Those are just some conjectures. However, if thoughtful blogs have become popular repositories for truism-like aphorisms, it is in large part due to their ability to inflate the signifying effects of soundbytes and memorable quote-clippings. The arrangement of personal blogs around aestheticized quote-clips proves, on the one hand, that there is still a ubiquitous interest in cataloging wisdom, and yet, on the other hand, that catalog-blogging does not always produce reflexive thinking about its own practice, since its very ubiquity as a practice has already de-sensitized us to the purported wisdom of its content. (That’s why when you read an unapologetically pretentious blog post you go… ‘Ugh!’)

A great example of unreflective cataloging would be blogs that are literally dedicated to cataloging aphorisms (these are surprisingly numerous – try a Google search). While aphorism-blogs may produce something of archival interest, in form they crystallize the truth-seeking character of aphorisms and stunt their potential to develop in accordance with digital trends. Quotes on blogs, however pithy, cease to move us once they become too numerous or kitschy. Our situation in the blogosphere is therefore this: that thoughtful bloggers en masse are articulating truths that are so subjectively mediated that their only objective element is the truth of bloggers’ hyper-mediatized thinking space. The aphorism, in turn, is affected by this objective situation, in that the truth-content it carries is no longer as valid as it once was in previous moments of aphoristic writing when the content of the phrase was less mediated by digital materials.

The takeaway is that aphorisms, if they are still valuable, have to change their style. They can’t just be snippets or witty wisecracks anymore without running the risk of complete neutralizing their truth-content. Feel-good wisdom, positivistic assertions, and even great quotes have lost their luster during the profligate growth of the blogosphere. So where does that leave bloggers who want to produce ‘thoughtful’ or ‘intellectual’ content of social and political relevance? It leaves them, perhaps, with a mandate for a new approach. To make meaningful statements about the world, digital thinkers need to focus more deliberately on critical activity and less on wisdom-accumulation.

KMS

SOURCES

  1. Aphorisms, by Hippocrates. Sourced from The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu//Hippocrates/aphorisms.html
  2. ‘Yes, I wrote a book of aphorisms,’ by James Guida. Sourced from The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/12/writing-aphorisms.html