November 28, 2009

Feeding the Beast

The following quotations are from ch. 3 of Chris Hedges’ most recent book, Empire of Illusion.

“The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive....The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service...come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market....Those who critique the system itself–people such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader–are marginalized and shut out of the mainstream debate. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.”

“The bankruptcy of our economic and political systems can be traced directly to the assault against the humanities...A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death. Morality is the product of a civilization, but the elites know little of these traditions. They are products of a moral void.”

“There has been a concerted assault on all forms of learning that are not brutally utilitarian.... Only 8 percent of college receive degrees in the humanities....Business majors since 1970-1971 have risen from 13.6 percent of the graduating population to 21.7 percent....Any form of learning not strictly vocational has at best been marginalized and in many schools abolished....[The] defense of knowledge for its own sake, as a way to ask the broad moral and social questions, has been shredded and destroyed. Most universities have become high-priced occupational training centers.”

“And as small, liberal arts schools have folded–at least 200 since 1990–they have been replaced with corporate, for-profit universities....The myopic and narrow vision of life as an accumulation of money and power...has become education’s dominant ideology....The flight from the humanities has become a flight from conscience.”

“Our not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one....Their entire focus is numbers, profits, and personal advancement. They lack a moral and intellectual core. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships.”

“People like Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Robert Rubin, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, AIG’s Edward Liddy, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, along with most of our ruling class, have used corporate money and power to determine the narrow parameters of the debate in our classrooms, on the airwaves, and in the halls of Congress–while looting the country. Many of these men appear to be so morally and intellectually stunted that they are incapable of acknowledging their responsibility for our decline.”

“Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege, comfort, and entitlement....Our power elite has a blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured, enriched, and empowered it. But the elite cannot solve our problems. It has been trained only to find solutions, such as paying out trillions of dollars of taxpayer money to bail out banks and financial firms, to sustain a dead system. The elite, and those who work for them, were never taught how to question the assumptions of their age. The socially important knowledge and cultural ideas embodied in history, literature, philosophy, and religion, which are at their core subversive and threatening to authority, have been banished from public discourse.”

“The elite...know only how to feed the beast until it dies. Once it is dead, they will be helpless. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. They do not even know how to ask the questions. And when it collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, the power elite will be exposed as being helpless, and as self-deluded, as the rest of us.”

November 23, 2009

Ways of Knowing

There are a few books one encounters in the course of one’s life that prove to be transformative. In most cases, one is not expecting this. But it happens, and you know that you’ll never look at the world in quite the same way. For me, one text that was particularly life-changing was a slender volume by the classical scholar John Finley, entitled Four Stages of Greek Thought. It was as if, within its pages, I discovered what kind of writer I wanted to be; even, what kind of life I wanted to lead.

Finley distinguishes between the heroic-visionary world of the Homeric Greeks and the theoretical-rational world of their successors. There is a scene in the Iliad, he tells us, in which Hector briefly leaves the battlefield and returns to Troy, to visit his wife and infant son. Standing in front of his house, he reaches out to take the child in his arms, but the boy draws back, frightened at Hector’s helmet with its horsehair crest. Hector laughs, takes off the helmet, and puts it down; and Homer then records how the helmet sits there on the ground, all shiny and motionless, reflecting the light of the sun. The Homeric world, says Finley, is one of brilliant particulars, fixed entities that are what they are, nothing more or less. It is not an especially comforting world, he tells us, but it is at least this: absolutely clear. “Happiness, one sometimes thinks, is clarity of vision, moments when things stand clear in sharpest if revealed for the first time.” He goes on: “However intoxicating the attractions of intellect, and however essential to the structures by which we live, something in us wants also the clear signals of the senses by which alone the world is made fresh and definite.”

This is, I suppose, the world of childhood, made magical by its very realism; and there certainly is something intoxicating about it: the wind in one’s hair, the shock of a cool lake on a warm summer’s day, the dry texture of an autumn leaf. Yet Finley uses the word “intoxicating” not to refer to the world of sensual immediacy, but to that of the intellect, which has its own siren song. Once we enter the world of Socrates and Plato, and the “sunlit tangibility of the fourth century” (fine phrase, that), there is no going back. The experience of rationality, of conceptual clarity, is so overwhelming that once “infected,” the mind will settle for nothing less. When Archimedes (allegedly) cried “Eureka ” in his bathtub, his excitement was over having discovered a pattern (in this case, the law of specific gravity), not over the sensual impact of the water on his skin.

This issue of pattern is the key to the phenomenon of intellectual intoxication, and probably first occurs, in a formal sense, in the work of Plato. “Noetic” understanding, the job of the philosopher-king, moves along a vertical line, upwards toward the gods. Indeed, it is widely accepted that this vertical model is based on the shamanic or revealed knowledge of the Mystery Religions that were popular in ancient Greece. One application of it can be seen in Plato’s Republic, in the famous “parable of the cave,” in which people sit with their backs to the light and take the shadows cast on the wall for reality. Such individuals are asleep, says Plato, whereas the true philosopher, the one who is awake, turns to the light, the actual source of the perceived phenomena. What you see, then, is not what you get; real knowledge requires this type of “vertical” understanding, this digging beneath the surface. It is not for nothing that Freud compared his own analytical method to the science of archaeology. (Indeed, Heinrich Schliemann was digging up the ruins of Troy during Freud’s lifetime.) What is on the surface, for Freud, is social behavior; what lies underneath this is repressed sexuality (hence the title of one of his most famous books, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life). In the case of Marx, the surface consists of class relations; the reality, the underlying pattern, is the mode of production of a society at any given stage in its history. For Gassendi, Descartes, and Newton, gross objects were mere appearances; the reality was atomic particles. A sunset may be beautiful, but the “truth” of the situation is refracted light. And so on. Cognition of this sort can hit you with the force of a hurricane.

The alternative mode of knowing is more “horizontal”: what you see is what you get. Or as Wittgenstein once put it, “depths are on the surface.” The whole phenomenological school–I am thinking of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in particular–argues for direct physical experience as the key to the world (the sun gleaming off of Hector’s helmet, for example). The power of this type of understanding derives from the sheer “is-ness” of things, their pure ontology. To “know” a sunset as refracted light may be to not know it at all.

My oldest friend and I discovered, soon after we met, that we shared the same dilemma: we were torn between these two worlds. Both of them were intoxicating, in their own special way; so much so that we found it impossible to give either of them up. His solution was to create two separate, consecutive lives. Thus he spent three decades as a professional scientist, after which he retired to devote himself to photography, yoga, and jazz piano. My solution was to try to bring the two worlds together, and it cost me dearly. No university department could figure out what the hell I was doing, and typically regarded my writing as weird. In a culture severely split between mind and body, I could only be regarded as some sort of “cult figure,” at best. And really, what else could I expect? If you are going to insist that the dominant culture is ontologically crippled, it is not likely that that culture is going to stand up and cheer.

Reading Finley, in any case, provided me with a keen sense of validation, because he doesn’t end his analysis with a description of the two worlds and leave it at that. The “character of a great age,” he writes, is when the two worlds come together, and when, as a result, “meanings seem within people’s reach.” According to him, this unity found its greatest expression in Greece in the fifth century B.C., somewhere between Homer and Aristotle:

"Part of the grip on the imagination that fifth-century Athens
never ceases to hold is that these two kinds of worlds met
then, the former culminating as the latter came into being.
Aeschylus and Sophocles spoke for the older outlook that
saw things through shape; Socrates and Thucydides for the
nascent mind that saw them through idea."

It seems unlikely that we shall ever have such an age again, though who knows what the world will be like five hundred years hence. For now, at least, the integration of mind and body will probably remain a private experience: the intellect that feels, the sensuality that thinks. But ultimately, the commitment of the writer, or of anyone invested in the world of letters, the larger culture, cannot be restricted to individual experience, for solipsism is not an answer to anything. Putting meaning “within people’s reach” is finally what it is all about.

©Morris Berman, 2009