Monday, July 19, 2010

Why moderate? Why contrarian?

As early as childhood, I have been accused of playing devil's advocate for a host of rather impure motives on my part: presumptuous assertions lifted from crude distillations of Freudian notions of selfhood. Thus it has been said that I am the kind of man who, out of sheer sadistic glee, for drama, or even as a kind of tic, wants to assert the precise opposite of my interlocutor, bereft of genuine convictions of my own, but rather "acting out", however obviously true the assertion is with which I am presented. They fear that I would just as soon say Paris is dull when someone speaks of its sexiness and soulfulness, and when presented with evidence of Brigitte Bardot's physical virtues, would reply that she was plain.

But I will only all too gladly agree with whatever the said interlocutor presents to me if that presentation is true, even if the presentation smacks of flattering salesmanship and buttonholing, even arm twisting. If someone told me they were from Paris, most likely, barring temporary mental insanity, I would immediately reply that I loved their city without any rude qualifications. If someone told me Bardot was beautiful I would reply most quickly with little thought. Moreover I would thank them for their contributions to world culture and their hospitality when I visited their country. I would love to deliver the above in their native tongue, but, alas, my French is not what it should be.

The problem is that, it has always felt to me that most people have been wrong about most things. It is not so much that I know better; it is that usually I have though a great deal about whatever the assertion is and have had to come to conclusions of my own that diverge, sometimes in opposition, other times with qualifications.

This has nothing to do with status and station in life; it doesn't have even to do with intelligence. One can be quite uneducated and even temperamentally dim but nevertheless realize that Bush Jr was impossibly bad for us. During the twentieth century some of the most gifted and intelligent minds around the globe stubbornly clung to the myth of the superiority of command styled, state socialism, even in the face of gulags, reliable witness testimony of former comrades, and the cruel spectacle of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Mao's Cultural Revolution in China. As George Orwell once quipped, "there are some things so stupid that only an intellectual will believe them". I shall answer two and only two questions as they are not rhetorical.

I am contrarian in that I start from a position of skepticism, of suspicion towards what is presented to me, and above all, can not and will not accept any proposition or assertion without the sufficient evidence. I am Socratic and argumentative in my style and at times even a bit cranky. I admit to being a curmudgeon.

But if I am contrarian, I am also moderate too. This second position greatly inflects, informs, and humanized my argumentation. Being moderate is the most unsexy position you can take, It has no glamour in it, it seems dull and resigned, some suggest it is akin to rearranging the deck furniture while the Titanic sinks.

Yet to be moderate is to be automatically, always already in sympathy with the great mass of humanity in one important sense. To be moderate is to be most open to others because, by virtue of disavowing radical or extreme positions, the moderate wants to include parts of other's views into their own, sees in compromise the greatest virtue, and is already prepared to meet others halfway.

I am contrarian in intellect and moderate in heart or spirit.

There is not world enough and time to offer a sufficient defense of the moderate, especially when it has been so fashionable to be radical for so much of our modern and contemporary history.

Even Gore Vidal gives the radical label an honorific by deferring to the etymology of the word: that in going "to the root" of things you will more truly solve problems and get a complete picture. This is an old argument by radicals; to disable the reformist or moderate opposition as insufficiently "holistic" and as excessively in cahoots with the status quo, that formulation always already guilty until proven innocent by virtue of the crimes and horrors of the past, and by virtue of the understandable need to transform and improve out lot in this life.

But, notwithstanding my great respect for Gore Vidal, being a radical is based on a fallacy: the fallacy of the whole. (Vidal is also confusing radical with liberal here which is a conflation best reserved for attack at another date).

As a moderate I reject the notion that there is one interconnected world or whole. Thus, if there are evils in this world to be corrected, those evils do not warrant a thoroughgoing destruction of the given society in which we find those evils as such societies. I leave aside the special horrors of totalitarian or aristocratic regimes. In those cases radical measures should be taken to prevent the crimes of such regimes.

The trouble is that, in Vidal's case, and in most cases when radicalism is posited as a solution, we are dealing with rather imperfect, partially democratic societies. They are societies that so motley, so mixed up, so, dare I say it, non-holistic, that one can point to as many good or even excellent features in such societies as one can point to errors and crimes. That is why the best reformers and activists in the United States like Dr King and the women's movement, aim not to destroy, but rather force us to more fully live up to our promises and to more fully complete our attempts at self improvement. But social movements that seek change do not, at their best moments, construct a holistic picture wherein all parts of the criticized society are inherently corrupt and deformed by an evil root or center.

It is true that the radical feminist, Marxist and even anarchist movements do paint such a simple and reductionist picture. They see the world as a coherent whole so that any solution involves wholesale destruction of that whole and its replacement by an entirely new world. But that very overarching and abstract view of life is false and is precisely why I am a liberal and not a radical and why I am reformist in economics and not revolutionary.

Think about this truth: practically all of the greatest crimes and evils of the previous two centuries have been due to some kind of radicalism or extremism: the far right led to fascism and the far left led to corrupt and inefficient state economies that were at times no less murderous, in statistical terms, than their far Right counterparts. Any genuine defense of radicalism has a lot to answer for given its history.

But this problem with radicalism starts from a flawed premise, that premise being that the given society which must be overthrown is one thing and one thing alone, that it not a mixture of several competing things.

The other problem with radicalism is an ethical and temporal one in that it asks us to USE people in the present for the sake of a future that it posits and promises as inevitably better, in the abstract. As Isaiah Berlin put it: "in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain an omelette. Eggs are certainly broken, never more violently than in our own time, but the omelette is far to seek. It recedes into an infinite distance". This is why war is one of the most radical acts to be committed by nations and peoples: it violates the Kantian insight that people should be ends and not means.

And finally and most importantly, all problems to which radicalism is deemed the solution were in fact problems of radicalism, temperamentally defined.

Take the interstate highway mess, sprawling suburbia, the domination of our entire civilization by the car. Sure they were created by the status quo, but they were radical acts. It is radical to require that everyone own and drive individual cars. It was radical to develop a centralized oil system to extract that from the earth. To be so single minded in overhauling our industrial system in that way was quite a radical set of decisions. Radical in the sense of being extreme in its narrow focus and in the demands it placed upon ourselves and the earth.

Much of what currently goes by the name of radicalism is a response to rather older radicalism that has now become so ingrained that that older radicalism is now considered tradition and thus what is conservative. Perhaps radicalism is a cycle that humanity falls into: radical decisions beget yet more radical responses to those decisions to solve the side effects of the earlier radicalism.

Moderation and compromise may be unsexy; they may be unglamorous. But they could save us from a lot of excess. One of the chief virtues of Obama as president is that he refuses to impose radical ideologies and tactics upon the American people. Little wonder that radicals on both Left and Right may very well hate him. But the problem is not in Obama, whatever his flaws, but in the human need for radical action and in the human inability to compromise and negotiate.

In defending moderation I am in no way defending lack of innovation or revolutions of a different order. In painting, in representation, in culture, radicalism has been most defensible, and when it was not welcome most of the time it should have been.

But that is a realm of representation, of, in most cases inanimate objects. It is quite another thing to be radical with people's lives, to force them to fit into a prior arranged scheme against their will.

To the degree to which moderation is philosophy of caution, of trial and error, I say we should be moderate. If moderation says we should take a little bit of what is valuable there, and a little bit of what is valuable here and, with subtracting what is evil, we come to something new, yet something that honors where people have come from
, then moderation seems the best "solution".

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: GETTING LOOSE, Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s Sam Binkley (Duke University Press 2007)

As a non professional scholar and obsessive of all things 1970s related it seems there is always more to learn and in turn be inspired that most complex and crazy of decades. I thought Bruce Schulman's THE SEVENTIES an excellent start, especially on the (party) politics of the period. I also endorse Thomas Hine's THE GREAT FUNK as it has an orientation towards what in academe is called "material culture" and actually attempts to investigate and make sense of the DESIGN of the period.

But in GETTING LOOSE, Sam Binkley has added another important voice to the discussion, that of sociology and cultural studies in general and the "genealogy" of Foucault in particular. I have a vexed and ambivalent relationship to some of cultural studies in general. Sam Binkley's book, however, as old fashioned as it may to be to put it this way, is simply excellent history. In GETTING LOOSE Binkley makes us go on a journey through some of the most important psychological developments of that period, and their implications for today. It is an intellectually curious book, at times funny, but most of all, at once critical and evenhanded, even entertaining.

One of the ways Binkley accomplishes all of this is through examples of texts from the period (some of the most exotic are the hippie and communal and handmade alternative family newsletters) as well as narratives of the men and women who wrote them. An attempt is made to get inside the motivations and minds of the people as well as draw political conclusions about their varied and various projects. The book is filled with reproductions of some of the most iconic as well as lesser known examples of the various cultures that flourished then. Also each chapter focuses on a certain aspect of the decade in great detail, for example, the story if Ida Rolf and rolfing, the exploits of gurus like Stewart Brand, and the explosive creativity of the women's movement contribution to psychology and health. This is a dense book: there is a lot here and it all adds up to a thorough if motley and cubistic picture.

As one reads the book a genuine paradox emerges: this is that "getting loose" becomes both a kind of liberation of body, mind and spirit and from rigid "boxes" of the past. Yet at the same time getting loose itself becomes a compulsory regime of discipline. In Binkley's narrative there is no free space of uncompromised purity. Like Marx and his dialectic, the radical changes wrought by the new modes of being and behaving serve contradictory yet inextricable ends. The result is an extraordinary shift consciousness perhaps parallel to that which occurred after developments like Gutenberg's press. As Binkley succinctly puts it:

"Identity today requires reflexivity and the willingness to make substance out of one's choice of oneself, but also a tolerance for the ultimately ephemeral quality of this substance, whose fragmented story one rewrites with every mundane lifestyle choice".

Reading this I was often reminded of Clane Hayward's memoir THE HYPOCRISY OF DISCO. Clane Hayward's book is a very good book of literature, a memoir of some of the more extreme of the alternative living arrangements and from the point of view of children living with and "under" them. Like Hayward, Binkley makes you understand and empathize with the struggles of some of these pioneers to make a different and, to their mind, better world. Also like Hayward, there is a sense of pain too when it fails or goes awry. As Bruce Schulman pointed out in a more explicitly political context, there is a sense in which "doing your own thing" could be a new form of restriction, that is, a new way for conservative and purely market forces to extend their influence over all of everyday life.

GETTING LOOSE is a must for those interested in American history and in some of the changes in our lives that have come to us over the past forty-odd years. Reading it, I wished more scholars in Binkley's model shared his flair for the stories of history and comprehension of subject matter. Whereas all too often I find them a bit bland or ideological, I find Binkley immersive and scrupulous. Reading it proves there is much excitement still in the fields of sociology and American studies. I came away from GETTING LOOSE as confirmed as ever in my view that the 1970s has never been more relevant to many of the basic cultural and material matters that at times we take for granted.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Declaration of Independence

On the fourth of July in the year 2010, I hereby declare my own independence. I hold to an independence from all that is systematized in our daily lives, to all narrowing of possibility and stunting of imagination.

Through an act of will, however unfree that will may in actuality be, I wish an independence from any creed, doctrine or guru that would have us be in any way finished, finalized, understood and explained. I recognize that such explanation explains away.
There are many facts to be said about us, and our structures and institutions might hold necessity, in much the same way as a flower needs soil in which to grow and flourish. But this necessity does not give any of us the justification to forget our inner conscience or real nature. At every moment of life we must take an inventory of these structures and ask if they are good for us, or just so much convenience and habit. This sense of being that resides in all of us, from the most abject to the most elevated among us, always holds great promises and powers. One has only to listen, but what if it were only that easy! What will be heard is different for every human being yet nevertheless is the only way to know how or where to turn, and most importantly, why. Any compromise of the truths to be found in that place of being ends in some kind of ruination. If we coast along in ignorance of the truth in question we may be happy half of the time, and we may even find a degree of comfort, but we will be only half alive to this world.

And we must ask ourselves if an alleged necessity is right by our nature. It will be very different and vary from one to the next. A scholar who tends to their garden knows it is not right for their constitution to be in an after hours club in town. But someone whose heart is in the bustle of that club and is invigorated and fortified by the electricity of the human connections to be found there does not belong on the farm or even in the study holding the world’s greatest wisdom. What would be noisome and empty to the scholar, is, for the partygoer, a living human comedy with vibrancy, with all of its glories and all of its flaws. Somehow, by each following their nature, in the apparent chaos that ensues, some measure of harmony will be achieved.

I remember some time back in the early nineties when I was discussing with an anarchist friend the dissolution of the old Soviet empire and its replacement by independent and sovereign states based on tradition and group identities with shared history. Although nobody in their right mind would have been sorry to see that awful empire fall I was suspicious and confused about the prospect of all of these new nations and histories to take into account. It seemed like a great deal of trouble to me. Moreover I wasn’t sure independence wouldn’t form new tensions and excessive tribal pride. My anarchist friend was only happy about the turn of events. As he succinctly put it: “I think everybody should get out of everything.”

My first thought was of bad marriages and the relatively recent divorce laws that enabled their dissolution. His recommendation has haunted me ever since.

Everybody should get out of everything. John was surely unto something. It is not merely that as a nation we are entangled in a barbaric war as wasteful of spirit and body as much as purse. It is not only that each of us, as a result of having made a bargain for temporary security, is mired in a complex interdependent system whose success threatens our very survival.

The problem lies rather in the province of ontology. As never before in human history, with the likely exception of the medieval period in the West, we are constantly told, by way of mass communications of all kinds, who we are, what we are, and what we are meant to do about it.

We are told of how every gesture we make and every though we think is incredibly important, of what evolutionary purpose all of our vanity has served. The lowest habit of the most abject, pitiful creature and the highest reach of the most elevated Samaritan are flattened onto the same plane and analyzed and explained to us in the most banal of terms: perhaps as positive and negative sides of a single coin.

One time, not so very long ago, we were told who we were on the recommendation of arcane, incongruous, and improbable texts believed to be penned by a god. Now we are told who we are in the form of brute facts, with which nobody dares to argue on risk of being though delusional or worse. That what we are told now is demonstrable or true is scarcely an improvement. The net effect serves only to limit human possibility, all the more so, since today’s map of the human has that blunt force of fact in its favor. Never before have we been so systematized and. It is little wonder, then, that leading research neuroscientists seriously consider the possibility that robots or machines that resemble us in every way from the outside would ipso facto be indistinguishable from us on the inside, since the private experience inside of our skulls that each of us lives all of our lifelong days is thought to be unreliable at best or literally an illusion at worst.

Doubtless, we can all appreciate the pleasures of certain knowledge. Much like that which can be gleamed from a PBS science special or the daily act of reading the morning paper, there are things about us which can be understood and quantified. There is more to us than that, however. That this something more, has been the cause of much religious nonsense and fanaticism is most unfortunate, as it is no cause for denying the obvious.

But that sense of our own existence - call it consciousness if you will - is the one thing of whose existence we can be sure. Ironically, the very thing thought in certain respectable quarters to be utterly unreal - because they are out of reach of the third person, objective view - turns out to be all that, in the end, we have. Descartes had a real sense of this insight in his “I think; therefore, I am” quote. One might reverse this formulation. At first we are. There is being. There is something prior to thought, whether that thought be discursive or transcendental in nature. That something has no proper name, brooks no easy explanation and is slippery when one attempts to grasp it. Yet each of us knows it and knows further that “it” is the only thing to which we can turn to remedy any problem. It is intensely personal and unique yet has universal import. In my more elegiac moments I might call it love. Fear has no place here; indeed, it is stronger than any clumsy caution we might feel to be necessary. That is why we can escape any systems laid out for us. We can surprise ourselves and others. We are but works in progress and it is work never done.