Saturday, May 29, 2010

Thoughts on Our Present Discontent

The first thing that should be said in debates regarding what is good these days is that no argument is authoritative, and hence anyone bearing credentials of authority is merely another instance of the game of garnering authority through power. To be sure, one should always argue in terms of the Constitution if one is arguing a serious issue in American politics. As Tocqueville said, in America all political questions become legal questions. Likewise, if one is arguing in terms of the Catholic Church, then one should rely on doctrine, canon law, and the authority of the church, which in the end relies on papal encyclicals. But these things have become mere historical curiosities these days. One wonders if the constitution and the church as authoritative institutions are merely regnant of some antecedent belief in morality that has been destroyed by the belief that all men are created equal--or at least by a bastardized version of equality understood as relativism which is nothing other than the application of democracy to moral thought itself. This relativism, it seems, is the truth of things today.

But to return to the first thing, if the polity or the church are no longer authoritative these days then neither is anything else. This includes science--even with its demonstrative rhetoric of "studies show." It is true that the church, the polity, and the modern research institution--in terms of their own definition--allow for disagreement within themselves (and serious disagreement at that). They provided in the past the very place of disagreement. They provided a place of legitimacy for argument itself. However, nowadays those places no longer exist as a place. The polity, the church or the university are riddled with self-seeking placement, and they replicate this reality through sophistical reasons defending their power as truth. Instead of loci for serious debate and discussion, disagreement within and between these institutions has been these days securely been placed under the aegis of Hobbes's notion of the state of nature. This is a place with no common judge, and a place where each and every one can say and do what is what. Who are you to tell me what to do? becomes the mantra of this age as each person figures out what is right for his or herself. Following this Hobbesian logic, each sector of former institutional authority must Leviathan-like subdue the other children of pride. It goes without saying that in this scenario there is no truth without aspiration to absolute power.

At this point--enter the mass media. The media have become the definition of debate. They are a marketplace of ideas as Holmes had it. This situation becomes the contemporary understanding of democracy as one reads it from the New York Times--the religious ritual of those who are correct thinking as Thoreau had it. John Rawls, the good liberal that he was, tried to make a theory of democracy on this basis. He argued that there can be a modus vivendi amongst these different institutional worldviews without at the same time endorsing any comprehensive doctrine. Behind a veil of ignorance one can still come up with a common good that makes for an overlapping consensus. Yet, this consensus--overlapping or otherwise (general will?)--is merely a way of restating Hobbes's Leviathan in the technocratic language of the higher journalism, e.g. The New York Review of Each Other's Books.

I recognize that many--like Marx and Nietzsche and Freud and Foucault in their different ways--point out the impossibility of this "market" which allows for a "self" that can say what is what in relation to others. Each of these writers in his own way points out that no one is saying what is said. As Nietzsche put it, I don't think. It thinks. Perhaps this is true--but it is still the I that thinks that the I doesn't think. All these proto post-modern thinkers simply carry over the Hobbesean state of nature to new and future circumstances. What remains central to their project is that there is no common judge and each and every one can say and do what is what.

So this brings me to a conversation I had the other night with my friend Roger. We were drinking a few beers at the local watering hole. We got onto the question of happiness and how one finds it--especially in terms of human sexuality (or eros). Is there a a solution to human erotic longing? It came to light in a discussion about movies, but it was also a discussion that was interspersed with saying hello to various acquaintances, as well as to occasional comments about the typical clientele at this bar. It was a privileged position, which if the first thing is to be remembered, has no authority. In other words, we were bullshitting.

I made the point that there are no rules regarding love and lust these days. Male or female, romantic or cynic, gay or straight, traditionalist or liberationist--it is an open world. If there is a rule, it seems to be the central command of contemporary culture that we must enjoy this situation (cf. Slavoj Zizek). However, there used to be a time when the command was to follow the unwritten rules handed down from time immemorial. This old fashioned way led to all kinds of pain and suffering. The young woman had to choose safety over love. The young man had to divest himself from his charm for the boredom of matrimony. The homosexual was forced to live a life of lies. I could add others, but regardless, this is where the unwritten but nonetheless inscribed rules left one. It led to all sorts of unhappiness--and who knows if it led all kinds of "mental illness" (to use the invented term that the very last generation which seriously dealt with these tensions called it). Nonetheless, the folks that lived in terms of the old rules were the ones who fought wars, worked hard, raised families, and didn't bitch too much about their unhappiness--though their grievances were easily read between the lines in the best of their literature.

This sense of old fashioned rules is obviously not our scene these days. Old fashioned rules are shunned, even if they are missed as indicative in the various retro arty scenes. However, let me submit that it is a good thing that the old rules are gone. They led to all sorts of--once again to borrow the lingo of that last generation--neuroses. That said, the old rules prescribed behavior that was known by all, whereas the new way is anything goes. There was a good reason to get rid of the old rules, it seems to me, even if their rejection wasn't thought all the way through. The old rules required duty, self-sacrifice and hard work. The new rules were simply pleasure, freedom, and doing your own thing. The old rules made doing the right thing painful. The new rules allowed you to follow your bliss, and this was considered to be the right thing. To be sure, this following of bliss did not mean irresponsibility, but it allowed you to make it up as you went. This led to the beautiful array of human types to show themselves, but in the absence of rules there was a problem without a form to give them a material sense of what made one complete. It led to arbitrariness (on a side note, if you wonder why the TV show Lost ultimately sucked it was because of the application of the new rules of pure potentiality as arbitrary decision to things like plot and character). The new good was pure pragmatism--and on the most intimate and erotic level. The sexual revolution destroyed the old rules in the name of a free making of the rules. It wrought--amongst other things--feminism, abortion, two member working households, single moms, broken homes, doing your own thing, latch-key children, and the sensitive new age guy (i.e., the SNAG).

So, it seems to me, the sexual revolution is part and parcel of Hobbes's notion of each and every one being his or her own authority (or should I say following Nietzsche/Freud "its" own authority).

We are free to do so many things today. We have demolished those old rules. However, are we happier? I suspect that we are more confused and insecure. Those who say otherwise have either not heard the news, or are willfully blind. No one or no thing has authority over another. Remember, this is the first thing, but it is also the last thing.

The true question--given this circumstance--is whether the Leviathan has made such a situation possible (my opinion), or whether the Leviathan is our one and only future (the opinion of those who think their opinions still matter).

One must seriously study ways out of this predicament--i.e., Plato or the Bible. Either way would be better than this contemporary nonsense, but most these days would rely on their belief in therapy. Studies show, as it is said, that only therapy works. Or even better, the Prozac Nation of psycho-pharmaceuticals. If this is the solution, send me to the madhouse now!

For the time being, here the Modern Lovers speak of a norm (all irony included) with which I'm willing to live.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please find a very sobering essay on the state of the world altogether, and how we got to here.

    Further essays from the same remarkable book.


    Plus a set of essays on emotional-sexual Understanding via:

    Our entire culture is built on this Taboo.

    Plus another essay on the origins & consequences of the Taboo.