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I am not quite sure why I felt that I should write another feminist polemic after having just published an inquiry into the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir. Perhaps it was just that, a random event of having been steeped in feminist writing for the past couple of weeks. Whatever the actual impetus was, today’s topic definitely felt long over due for this intentionally dialectical blog. And it is not just about voicing my own particular views on abortion but is instead another foray into ethical philosophy, a dialectical arena I have often found myself engaged in while posting essays on this site. I intend to sidestep some of the typical (therefore banal) tendentious points which are often espoused in our culture’s political debates which concern this topic. So the initial step in achieving this goal has to be to make sure that I am perfectly clear as to what…
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Over the past couple of weeks, a considerable amount of people have found their way to this site while doing searches on the esteemed French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. I have already written to some extent about the impact of her philosophy on my own epistemology, yet an epicure such as Madame de Beauvoir most certainly deserves her own separate inquiry. Now there are two distinct methods of approaching her philosophic analects: one is from the feminist perspective and the other is from the existential paradigm. As I have already written in a previous essay (The Ethics of Uncertainty), it is Ms de Beauvoir’s existential philosophy which has had the most marked influence on how I view the ontic versus the existent and their relation to ethical inquiry, so I wish to focus a little closer on that aspect of her thought along with the publications which are…
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Death and Capitalism revisited
There are few things in life which cause more obsession, fear, and angst than the contemplation of one’s own inevitable death, although for myself I can not even begin to fathom why this is, at least in regards to developing a neurosis. Anthropologists and Sociologists have long known that one is capable of learning a vast amount about any society throughout human history by analyzing their cultural attitudes towards death along with their treatment of the dead themselves. And when engaged with the contemplation of the human history of funerary custom it becomes rather intriguing to single out the most recent addition to this history–this thanatotic province being the modern American funeral. It is within the bounds of this region where one journalist’s influence is felt with plenary force, and I am alluding of course to Jessica Mitford and here seminal expose on the American funeral industry, The American Way…
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Without becoming too lachrymal or effusive in apologetics, I entreat all my readers and subscribers to forgive the tardiness of any new essay appearing on this site. The main force behind this delinquent appearance of new ideas is entirely related to that classic problem of time and the ultimate lack of its convenient availability. Maintaining even the minimum of standards of output I set for myself regarding this site has finally become too much of a distraction; all the reading I involve myself with in order to be able to produce an interesting and intellectually stimulating essay once a month is more prodigious in its scope than one might assume. For whatever reason, over the past three months my noetic focus has found itself solely engaged with one writing project that I now feel must become my first published work and it will be achieved at the total expense of any new material manifesting on this site. Owing to the fact that I now sit upon about one hundred essays (half being more or less available on this site), I feel little worry in eventuating a published collection or two of these works. What I am currently working on now though, demands all of my focus as it is the largest in scope of anything I have thus far endeavored in my life, written or otherwise.
My long time readers will already be well aware of the fact that I have been studying and writing philosophy for some twenty years now. And being that I am quite proud and confident in the hard won autodidactic erudition I am presently in possession of, I feel it is at last time to produce a work to showcase this achievement. When revealing oneself as an autodidact, it is quite appropriate to assume that one has never matriculated to any university environment. For the most part this is true in my case, as I have only one year of university experience to speak of and therefore am not in possession of (willfully I might add) any type of degree, or financial debt for that matter. So the book I wish to be my first published work is a dissertation of sorts if not in actual fact.
And of course twenty years of intense study counts for some pedagogic achievement; I could have for example, easily garnered three PHds (an actual Doctor of Philosophy) by now. Yet for such an assertion to be able to gain tenability, some kind of written exegesis must be issued forth for academic scrutiny and criticism. It is for these reasons that I have come to realize a book regarding a man whose creative and sagacious output I have been involved with for the entirety of my intellectual life seemed the obvious choice for such an academic effort; this man being Herr Nietzsche.
It has taken some time and much hard work to develop, but I finally feel that I am now endowed with enough testicular fortitude to be able to confidently walk into the thicket and mire of academic Nietzschean criticism and proffer forth my own work: the number of books in this arena being capable of filling the shelves of a Borgesian library, and if you will allow for the mixing of metaphors, attempting to read them all a Sisyphean impossibility. In some ways I feel the reason for the sudden impetus to write a book on Nietzsche has evolved from my recent third re-reading of his entire corpus (thanks must be given here to Stanford University Press for the ease of this endeavor, and of course the essential and imperishable translations of Kaufmann and Hollingdale!) along with comparing and contrasting the notes of my fifteen and thirty five year old self; this kind of exercise being of intrinsic value all on its own, as the man examines the thoughts of the boy he once was and comes to a new existential understanding of himself. This species of thinking is intensely invaluable to my objective, particularly in re-analyzing and digesting the core of Nietzsche scholarship, which has taught me so much beyond pure philosophical insight: the classic treatises of Kaufmann, Hollingdale, Danto, Jaspers, Schacht, and Nehamas (and of course to some degree the work of Foucault and Heidegger, though definitely not the thoughts of the superfluous and equally laughable Derrida).
Without these men (and of course the valuable psychological insight offered up by Frau Lou), I would feel woefully inadequate as an anglophone to attempt this task; my German being sehr schlecht, making it nearly impossible to read Herr Nietzsche in his own hand. I am still working out the form of this book, but as I continue my reading I feel in some ways that it will revolve around the perennial question at the center of all Nietzsche scholarship and criticism: Is Nietzsche more of a writer or philosopher or some kind of amalgam of both vocations? And perhaps an even more controversial notion: in point of fact all of Nietzsche’s greatest intellectual achievements solely prove him to be as he often touted himself, the first Psychologist of the modern era!
I hope that I have now clearly expressed the reasons why I will not be adding anything new to this site for some time. I will of course though publish updates concerning my Nietzsche project along with continuing to make revisions and improvements on the essays thus far published on this site. I wish to again thank the readers who have followed me this far, with special thanks given to the small number of individual subscribers. Forty people who have proved to me that even within the morass of cultural mediocrity we daily find ourselves slogging through, there exists an audience (no matter how exiguous) who craves intellectually difficult and stimulating writing. For such a pessimistic and cynical man as myself, this proof of an audience for a recondite writer is a source of optimism I can truly grab a hold of while traversing the daily challenge of existence. Thanks again for your interest.
(aka Kris Eye)
“In 1965 Calvino published “Cosmicomics”: twelve brief stories dealing in a fantastic way with the creation of the universe, man, society. Like Pin’s young friend who decided that life indeed resembles the strip cartoon, Calvino has deployed his complex prose in order to compose in words a super strip cartoon narrated by Qfwfq whose progress from life inside the first atom to mollusk on the earth’s sea floor to social-climbing amphibian to dinosaur to moon-farmer is told in a dozen episodes that are entirely unlike anything that anyone else has written since, let us say Lucian.”
May 30, 1974
The New York Review of Books
It is usually noted early on in one’s career as a student of literature that the very best writers possess an equally prodigious talent for literary criticism; what Gore Vidal wittily gave the appellation of Book Chat. At first, it may appear that this observation is self evident. Why wouldn’t any writer of even the most exiguous amount of talent not be able to produce some manner of useful criticism about the very craft of which they employ? Yet with continual didactic advancement, what actually becomes self evident is that this phenomena is not in any way axiomatic nor to be expected. But when endowed with great talent and genius, the literary metier evinces their critical power wherever and everywhere the proverbial pen hits the page. Is any of this made clear by example of the preceding quotation?
The above extract is taken from an essay I first encountered in 1993. That was the year in which Mr Vidal published his monumental tome of essays, United States. A book which with no possibility of hyperbole or overstatement I can say changed my life forever. This was after all the book which initiated and acquiesced me into the realm of Mr Vidal’s prosaic genius as well as firmly cementing the fact that it would be the essay where I would find my life’s devotion, my literary summa vitae if you will. And if this were not enough of a gift from one’s decided pedagogue, I am also forever indebted to Mr Vidal for bringing to my attention so many other writers who would also become canonical in their influence. Such is the case of the work of Italo Calvino.
There is nothing controversial let alone novel in this notion concerning Mr Vidal’s influence. He is quite rightly touted as the main promulgator of Calvino’s work within the Anglophone world. And throughout his lifetime, he never stopped asserting Mr Calvino as the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. In re-reading all of Mr Vidal’s essays concerning Calvino, I can think of no one else who managed to so perfectly capture his ethereal genius on the page. As with the amazing style and sagacity of his novels, Mr Vidal’s adeptness in criticism also grabs one’s interest by the throat and never lets go with its ability to amaze and delight. This type of blandishment is not at all a common quality encountered within the work of the mavens of book chat and could only manifest from the pen of a writer possessing absolute acumen concerning their subject. With so much acute understanding and appreciation of literary originality, it feels rather odd that Mr Vidal never really bothered in print with Mr Calvino’s literary criticism, of which there is also a considerable amount. Within the meeting of these two great minds, this lacuna of analysis becomes more conspicuous in one particular regard (an area I have to concede is extremely vital to myself), that existential realm where one finds the intersecting paths of philosophy and literature.
In the beginning, it always feels a bit unnerving when as an acolyte one attempts to critically engage with one’s master. Yet, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra informs us, an acolyte may never deem himself a master until he can go against his master. And in terms of philosophy, this has to be the only area of inquiry where I would ever dare to question the regnant genius of Calvino, thus completing Zarathustra’s challenge. For he consistently misrepresented the perennial quality of philosophy with more contemporary and transient academic proclivities concerning philosophy’s role in human existence. To test this assertion, one need look no further than an essay Calvino wrote in 1967 for the Times Literary Supplement, simply entitled Philosophy and Literature, which we will now dissect and scrutinize.
When I first encountered this essay fifteen years ago, I knew immediately that I was going to take issue with the ensuing polemic as soon as I digested the very first sentence: Philosophy and literature are embattled adversaries. Why? Why such a unnecessary and cruel issuance of pain? Are my entrails expected to spill onto the floor? Okay, a bit too lugubrious, right? But seriously, how is it even possible that such an astute litterateur could even begin to postulate such a blatantly false antithesis? I am supposed to believe that the two prevailing forces within my life are actually mortal enemies, forever threatening to shred one’s mind in two? And the defamation only gets worse as we continue on to the very next sentence.
Though beautifully written, Calvino sets up a caricature of the philosopher and his intellectual endeavors of which he will employ for the rest of his argument: The eyes of philosophers see through the opaqueness of the world, eliminate the flesh of it, reduce the variety of existing things to a spider’s web of relationships between general ideas, and fix the rules according to which a finite number of pawns moving on a chessboard exhaust a number of combinations that may even be infinite. There is no way in which this rather facile generalization of the philosopher and his role in life should be tolerated. There is no ONE way or method to philosophizing; I don’t eliminate, I don’t reduce, I don’t fix…anything! And as Philosophers are human after all, Calvino must have noticed this rather conspicuous fact about human nature, our infinitely permutable consciousness and ensuing psychology. But as we continue just a little further into Calvino’s polemic, we find the first source of his contention. Calvino asserts that the battle between philosophy and literature is initially based on a commonality of weapon: And the wrangle goes on, with each side confident of having taken a step ahead in the conquest of truth, or at least of “a” truth, and at the same time perfectly well aware that the raw material of its own constructions is the same as that of the opposition: words.(…)The clash between philosophy and literature does not need to be resolved. On the contrary, only if we think of it as permanent but ever new does it guarantee us that the sclerosis of words will not close over us like a sheet of ice.
Very revealing. What can we glean here about Calvino’s prejudice in this supposed conflict of interest? It would appear that he would like us to believe that it is within the role of the writer where this battle finds its locus and crux of existence. But he assures us at the same time that this battle is really negligible and only manifests a quandary when considered as a perennially self-refreshing clash. After all, does not philosophy and literature have similar ends and goals for human life, a search for unreachable truth? Perhaps then we are to be wary of too close of an interplay between these two distinct methodologies. Is this what Calvino is entreating us to ponder? He next tells us that: In the same way, philosophy, when it is too fully clothed in human flesh, too sensitive to immediate, lived experience, is for literature a less exciting challenge than is the abstraction of metaphysics or of pure logic. Phenomenology and existentialism border on literature along frontiers that are not always very clearly marked. Can the writer-philosopher cast a fresh philosophic look upon the world, a look that at the same time is also fresh for literature?
Okay, now we have Calvino giving us a greater clue to work with. It is the individual who is a writer/philosopher who must directly confront this existential challenge. Because ultimately, It is only when the writer writes “before” the philosopher who interprets him that literary stringency can serve as a model for philosophic stringency, even if the writer and philosopher happen to dwell together in the same person. This holds good not only for Dostoyevsky and Kafka, but also for Camus and Genet. The names of Dostoyevsky and Kafka remind us of the two supreme examples in which the authority of the writer—that is, the power to transmit an unmistakable message by means of a special distortion of the human figure and of situations—coincides with the authority of the thinker on the highest level. True enough, for the most part. And yet Calvino does not successfully convince us of WHY the “writer” must be the first to write before the “philosopher” can interpret. As if the writer solely “writes” and the philosopher solely “thinks” in all manners of human endeavor and exigency. Again, we see the all too easy resort to caricature. And as far as my own literary and philosophical investigations can be brought to bear on this argument, I find this notion completely nonsensical and illogical, no matter the form of interpretation or intent of meaning. There is just too much evidence on display; a great mind continually illustrating sciolistic understanding of that which he is criticizing.
At this point, it would appear and would also be true that Calvino has exhausted this line of reasoning. So he ingeniously (as I would expect of genius) changes his focus to an area where indeed philosophy and literature meet at a crossroads of some profundity: The terrain on which philosophy and literature traditionally meet is ethics. Or, rather, ethics has always provided an excuse for philosophy and literature not to look each other directly in the face, being certain and confident of being able to reach easy agreement about their task of teaching virtue to mankind. Once more, at the risk of impertinence, I must counter my master. One of Calvino’s major problems or weakness of argument throughout this polemic revolves around a matter of interpretation and usage of terminology. Yes, indeed Ethics is a critical arena for both philosophy and literature. Tautologically so in the case of philosophy, as ethics is a cardinal branch of philosophic inquiry. But I would rather say for literature that it is the best and most effective means of exploring the ethical dilemmas propagated by philosophic inquiry. When used this way, one can easily see the non sequitir of Calvino’s opening sentence. Philosophy and literature are not embattled enemies, but instead are complimentary tools of investigation useful to both the litterateur and philosopher alike.
Besides the misinterpretations of Calvino on the matters of philosophy and its utility, he next tells us that he is in fact reacting to current trends in academia and their ensuing influence on the young, which he finds so distasteful. In consideration of the fact that he was writing this essay in the late sixties, I can entirely understand his umbrage: The climate dominant today among young writers is more philosophical than ever, but imbued with a philosophy internal to the act of writing.(…)Literature seems to make itself manifest as an austere and passive speculative activity, as far from the outcries of tragedy as from the fantasies of happiness. It evokes no colors and no images other than the whiteness of the paper and the arrangement of black lines. Realizing that he has reached a polemical terminus, Calvino is forced to ask a rather prominent question to himself, which he promptly does: So does my original thesis no longer hold up? I would say it never did, but yet again Calvino changes focus and instead wishes us to consider an intriguing speculation: The fact is that if I wish my picture of things to be valid not only for today but also for tomorrow, I must include an element that I have so far neglected. What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a “menage a trois”: philosophy, literature, and science.
Initially, it has to be conceded that the inclusion of science and scientific inquiry into this diametric battle is more than just a little quixotic. Of course though, because we are dealing with literary genius we are next given by Calvino and intriguing synthesis of his proposed triune: While waiting for this time to come, we have no choice but to dwell on the available examples of a literature that breathes the air of philosophy and science but at the same time keeps its distance, while with a gentle puff it blows away both theoretical abstractions and the apparent concreteness of reality. I am speaking of that extraordinary and indefinable area of the human imagination that produced the works of Lewis Carroll, Queneau, and Borges. At last we have it presented to us. Calvino is implicitly admitting to a failure of his original thesis in favor of entreating us to instead view the amazing existential impact created by a writer who utilizes philosophy and science for the benefit of the literary imagination. This phenomenon Calvino explains issues from the eighteenth century enlightenment with the creative ventures of Voltaire, Diderot, Swift, and Sterne where: At the same time as the “conte philosophique” or, slightly later, the “conte fantastique” and the Gothic novel unleashed the obsessive visions of the unconscious.
Is it not all entirely salient at this point of what Calvino’s dispute with philosophy actually is? Calvino’s fear was that philosophy with its abstractions of thought and persistent analyzing of every aspect of human existence (consciousness), if mixed with literature, would enervate literary imagination and there by etiolate the intrinsic value of all literature. Yet at the same time, he could never fully elide the literary merit of philosophy: Since Lewis Carroll a new relationship has developed between philosophy and literature. We see the advent of those who delight in philosophy as a stimulus to the imagination. Queneau, Borges, Arno Schmidt—all have different relations with different philosophies, and use these to nourish vastly diverse visionary and linguistic worlds. Well, there we have it don’t we, Calvino has given us a resounding Au Fond, Je suis vaincu!
It’s ironic how Calvino did not see that the final part of his critique/encomium exemplified his own genius and literary efforts. Or perhaps he did. This we can never know for sure, but what we can assuredly glean from Calvino’s criticism is that he fully understood the sovereign and eternal role in human life that philosophy and literature both play. Even if he was indeed fearful of an unretractable battle between these two forces, it does not diminish from the undeniable fact of Calvino’s greater understanding. That this existential dichotomy is irrefragable to us all and that it must be faced just as surely as death itself must be; for they both lie deep within the depths and crevices of what it fundamentally is to be human.
“Robinson Crusoe” was a philosophical novel without knowing it, and even earlier “Don Quixote” and “Hamlet”—I do not know with what degree of awareness on the part of their authors—had opened up a new relationship between the phantom lightness of ideas and the heavy weight of the world. When we speak of the relationship between literature and philosophy we must not forget that the whole question begins there.
“Sex times technology equals the future”
from 1974 interview with Peter Linnett
“Just as sex is the key to the Freudian world, so violence is the key to the external world of fantasy that we inhabit. There’s this clash between what we all believe to be true, such as that violence is bad in all its forms, and the actual truth, which is that violence may well serve beneficial roles–much as we might deplore it.”
from 1971 interview with Brendan Hennessy
Contemplate if you will, the pathetic failure of postmodernism to elucidate in any fashion the existential predicament of modernity. Does it not immediately become easier to focus on the few creative geniuses of the past century who actually did achieve a higher synthesis of contemporary ideations, along with their analects? A synthesis which unlike the intellectual pabulum of postmodernism actually does give greater clarity to all manner of psychological and philosophical quandaries which center on what it is to be human within the modern world; the world which is of our own species design. And there are particular areas of inquiry where their sagacity possesses extreme utility. For example, the perennial existential theme of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos which is always the most vertiginously effective and often equally the most informative inquiry anyone can endeavor to navigate for themselves.
Consider the twentieth century, and one immediately thinks of the doyennes of this stygian exploration such as Francis Bacon, Arthur Fellig, William S Burroughs, Diane Arbus, Joel Peter Witkin, and David Lynch–to name just a few whose work I find attractive and equally intoxicating. Yet there is one member of this group who posthumously possesses the most profound and abstergent effect on how we view our modern technological existence, this being the apocalyptic litterateur, JG Ballard (1930-2009).
Between being a maven of the short story and the creator of the most successfully experimental novels (perhaps second only to William Burroughs who Ballard was a consistent and ardent admirer of), Ballard has left us a prodigious panoply of what he termed psychological case studies and thought experiments which transcend literature in a way which no other writer I can think of has ever managed to do. Ballard’s life long fascination with psychology and its familial ties to philosophy all but guaranteed his becoming an astute chronicler of human existence. This coupled with his formidably fulgurant imagination and ability to look unflinchingly at our nature has created a literary legacy which remains in the final analysis, a useful series of road maps to the possible futures of our luckless species. Hence, he was always quick to assert that Science Fiction was the true literature of the twentieth century. And in terms of SF, it is not so much that he was prophetic in his writing, but that his literary exploits are much more akin to (as Ballard so often asserted in interviews) an examination of our current psychological proclivities set against the technological constructs of our world. It’s no wonder then that this genre or any other for that matter could never have hoped to contain him.
It was this unforgiving stare of Ballard’s prose which made and continues to make so many people squirm and fidget at the existential possibilities on offer, particularly the prose which deals with the aforementioned Eros and Thanatos–sex and death being the unappealable arbiters of our transient lives, from our screaming entrance all the way through to our unknowable exit. This contingency alone all but guarantees that Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash will continue to be the most controversial and also the most intellectually rewarding of all of Ballard’s amazing and essential novels and stories.
Interestingly, the history of the controversy over this novel (as well as the 1996 movie adaptation by David Cronenberg) is practically concomitant with the metaphors at play in the novel itself. There was contention and polemic in play almost immediately from the novel’s very parturition, which has maintained itself until the present day with the same level of vehemency, both pro and con, whenever this novel is mentioned in public discourse. As novelist and Ballard enthusiast Martin Amis wrote in a review of the film in 1996, “…the critical community greeted Ballard’s novel with a flurry of nervous dismay(…)the hard stare of Crash, which is about the sexuality of road accidents and doesn’t blink once in 225 pages.(…)It is like a clinical case of chronic shock, confusedly welcomed by the sufferer. Prose remains the stronger medium for the glare of obsession. It’s not so much what you can put in: it’s what you can leave out. Ballard’s rhythms control everything: the crowds, the weather, the motion sculpture of the highways.”
This is an astute observational description of exactly what the novel in fact does do to the first time reader. It straps you in (please forgive my pushing this metaphor to the edge) with forced eyelids open and glazed, and steps on the gas without hitting the brakes once–starting from the opening jolt of, “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.” until the very last screeching halt of a sentence: “The aircraft rise from the runways of the airport, carrying the remnants of Vaughan’s semen to the instrument panels and radiator grilles of a thousand crashing cars, the leg stances of a million passengers.” This intellectual jounce is the chief reason why with each re-read I always try to finish the novel in one sitting; the expectant frisson of the reader of this novel is seldom achieved by any form of writing, let alone writer. This is not too much of shock though, considering it was in the twentieth century where the novel shed all of its previous gentility and expectation of form (becoming what we today rather lazily call transgressive fiction), most conspicuously in the anglophone world.
Besides just plain originality, Crash as a novel achieves greater insight into human nature by its exploration of psycho-sexual pathology and its possibilities in augmenting human existence through manipulated sexuality; along with the attendant altered states of consciousness. All those critics and readers who found an uncomfortable prurient interest in the novel’s thematic metaphors revealed something more about themselves and not of any quality innate to the novel. It has to be noticed early on that no matter what sexual situation is on display and described, it is always presented in clinically linguistic garb. There is no use at all of any sexual slang that could even hint at lascivious intent by the author. And beyond the sexuality presented, which is after all being used for psychological inquiry, it is the overarching philosophical insight of the novel which alludes to the author’s genius and grasp of the ambiguous and heteromorphic nature of our existence as sensually experienced.
Crash perfectly encapsulates this cardinal predicament of modern life. How does one endeavor to give meaning to one’s corporeal and noetic existence within the purview of an absurd, nihilistic, and contingent universe? Could new forms and integrations of sex and violence offer new possible insights along with developing novel methods to better grasp our ontic quandary? These are the queries which underlie all of the sexual metaphor and ambiguity employed by the author for this psychological case study. This contention is best illustrated by the narrator himself (also named Ballard) in chapter four when he admits to us that the car accident he experiences in the opening staves of the novel has now become existentially key to his being as a man:
“The crash was the only real experience I had been through for years. For the first time I was in physical confrontation with my own body, an inexhaustible encyclopedia of pains and discharges, with the hostile gaze of other people, and with the fact of the dead man. After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident. Like everyone else bludgeoned by these billboard harangues and television films of imaginary accidents, I had felt a vague sense of unease that the gruesome climax of my life was being rehearsed years in advance, and would take place on some highway or road junction known only to the makers of these films. At times I had even speculated on the kind of traffic accident in which I would die.”
The lack of cogency so many experience in reading Crash exactly emanates from not comprehending this philosophical underpinning of self-actualization. Ballard was preoccupied until the end of his life with the inner dominion of the human mind. This bizarre and surreal world which is housed by our brains is the only realm from which we can glean some kind of understanding of who and what we ultimately are. Because we are a still evolving mammals, a half-tamed animal, we will always have to face the unpleasantness of our dual natures; our authentic selves being an amalgam of the sublime and the caliginous.
Not only does Ballard continue to give us a mirror into which we can clearly see ourselves, idiosyncratic pathologies and all, but the power of his imagination is what will remain insurmountable and necessary to apprehending and fathoming our psychological underworlds in all of their labyrinthine majesty and horror. And it is this aspect of his canon which engenders him into the realm of the philosophical as well as literary genius. Like all great and imperishable thinkers throughout history, Ballard forces us to acknowledge an often unwanted conclusion about being human and more importantly, human nature: we can only ever be paltering ourself and our consciousness, forever marring the possibility of authentic existence, when we fail or refuse to see our self as existing somewhere between the ever vacillating grips of sex and death.
“…He was also a one-man genre. He was impregnably sui generis. No one is or was remotely like him.”
–Martin Amis 2009 introduction to
The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard
Beauty, like truth is subjective. We all have our own criterion when it comes to satisfying our individual human need for the aesthetic. For some of us, this craving can only be sated by the imbibing of unorthodox manifestations of visual delectation. And when in consideration of dissident visions of beauty, how many people have there ever been whose artistic gravitas is so powerful that their subjectivity continues to plangently affect others many years after their death? Very few I’m sure you’ll agree. One such epicure I will contend was Francis Bacon. For myself, I can assuredly say that there is or was no other painter of posthumous significance in the entirety of the past century, and I will risk holding this contention at the expense of Picasso. Since there have been so few individuals which I have ever encountered who have shared my aesthetic, I feel some what enjoined…
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I tried yesterday to initiate a rather lengthy critique and analysis of the thoughts of Professor Camille Paglia which is to be delineated into three separate sections on this site. Obviously I ran into some difficulties in writing the first part of this essay as it is not what you are currently reading. Owing to the fact that I have a rather acute intellectual love/hate relationship with Professor Paglia, I very much wanted to first get my animus out onto the table of discussion being that I always prefer engaging with hate before ever tackling love.
Even though Professor Paglia has some rather thought provoking and sagacious ideations on the historical angst between the sexes as proffered in her seminal monograph Sexual Personae, all of the notions through out her corpus of work concerning the specifics of male sexuality, and how it biologically informs on every aspect of existentially being a man, are either ludibrious and bizarre or they are just plain ignorant and even at times wicked. With this being my state of mind, I found that my thoughts were becoming too mendaciously tangential when trying to write yesterday. So I am hoping that by letting the basis for all of my notions on male sexuality hang out, so to speak, it will make the task of writing about Professor Paglia’s propositions on the same subject a little easier.
Everything which I assert about male sexuality is heavily predicated by two over-arching and under-girding existential points of view which Professor Paglia consistently fails at noticing (partly owing to the rather obvious fact that she is a woman; yes, in adjudicating male sexuality possession of a Y chromosome, let alone a penis and testicles is necessary and not just sufficient). My first and probably most radical idea is that there is NO extant demarcation of male sexuality in how it manifests; id est no male homo/hetero/bi sexuality, there simply is MALE sexuality. A man simply has one cardinal sexual exigency if not preoccupation for the majority of his life: satisfying his biologically induced ejaculatory devoir. How this task is accomplished is seldom of any concern to a man. The tacit understanding every guy has with his manhood is that the penis has demands and simply put, they must be sated with as little interference from the higher cognitive functions as possible. With this understanding of what it is to be a man, it is easy to see why male sexuality is so extremely protean, multifaceted, and adaptable to a myriad of situations and scenarios. One should expect this contingency on evolutionary grounds alone for a sentient and self-actualized species such as ours where for a man the sexual primacy is in quantity instead of quality. And I have witnessed these phenomena in countless situations and environments (also in myself of course) spanning over many years and a copious amount of male/male sexual encounters, all of which imbue my assertions with their rhetorical heft.
The second contention is one which is influenced by the writing of Gore Vidal on this subject. By the nineteen sixties, Mr. Vidal was always quite candid in asserting that when you use the terms homosexual or heterosexual, you are in fact only describing acts, behavior, not individuals. This led him to the view that there most likely is an exiguous amount of intrinsic homo/heterosexual humans with the majority being some measure of a bisexual. This intellectual stance is not far from Professor Paglia’s or at least she sees this kind of sexual orientation as the only possible solution to the male/female sexual divide, as adumbrated in her intellectually impressive and equally depressive essay, No Law in the Arena.
Yet one can never have any dialectical clarity with these contentions unless you realize that the terms gay and homosexual not only can not but more importantly should not ever be conflated or thought interchangeable. Both Mr. Vidal and Professor Paglia could never get this right, although in Mr. Vidal’s case he did not care for either term and eschewed using them in most cases except where necessary for clearness of thought (he often used the term homosexualist in this vein). And I most ardently defend the idea that Gays and Lesbians are distinct in human terms just as people with brown hair or green eyes or more melanin rich skin are. This is what makes the bigotry hurled at Gays and Lesbians untenable and opprobrious and necessitates the acknowledgement of legal Constitutional special status. In this way, I agree with Mr. Vidal that homosexuality is a behavior, just one aspect of male sexuality, yet we still do in fact need the word gay or some other word like it which admits to this distinction. A distinction which informs more on one’s emotional make-up then sexual make-up or dare I say it, “identity”–a word to be only used in quotes. Gay used as a word of description is an exhausted word and should be retired immediately, but what should replace it in dialog? This is where what intellectual acumen I am in possession of is in a lamentable dearth as I have no talent for neologism, but I am quite eager to see someone else take up this challenge.
There was no intent here to defend these assertions or present a more scientific and scholarly grounding for the thoughts which are promulgated (i.e footnotes, cross-referencing, etc). Instead, these tasks are accomplished in the essays which specifically concern male sexuality in my first collection, still incubating and waiting to be published. But now that they are more plainly laid out for your inspection dear reader, I feel that the next essay I write on Professor Paglia’s views on this subject and my contention with them will be more coherent, less verbose, and hopefully worth your time to read.
I have often found it a rather odd characteristic of overtly patriarchal societies that a hatred of male genitalia can always be palpably felt. And it is no coincidence at all that such psycho-sexual pathology is most acute in cultures which derive their assertive patriarchal and hegemonic world views from monotheism. Anyone who would care to take umbrage with this contention is left with many rhetorical tasks of Sisyphean proportions, one of which is the defense of routine infant circumcision. The religious dimension to this argument surely only makes it more exigent for one to share and make plain either their criticism or their defense of this act. So under these rhetorical auspices, an attempt to illustrate the unethical and inexpiable nature of neonatal circumcision will ensue. If the justification for this act emanates from religion or tradition in general it does not ultimately matter, for the very same defensive…
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Even with it being still a little too premature to give a final pronouncement or any other such historical adjudication on the social utility of so called social networks, criticism is in its own function perennial and necessary for the examination and understanding of such advents within our culture. And since we are dealing here with the modern manifestations of media, it should I would hope appear rather elementary to initiate one’s inquiry by scrutinizing the cultural dialogs surrounding this actuality within the media itself. In my own attempt in this endeavor I have come across from time to time (yet not as often as I would have thought) varying media pundits announcing that Facebook has conclusively inaugurated our society’s transformation into a Global Village. Now before we can even argue if such an assertion is even tenable, it would seem that a re-examination of Marshall McLuhan and his pop cultural and intellectual legacy are in order. In spite of this critical necessity, I have yet to come across one media/technology commentator bring up McLuhan’s name in any discussion about Facebook. How could this be?
My guess would be that just plain lack of knowledge of history is to blame here, but this would simply be an acknowledgement of one of our culture’s greatest and most virulent intellectual pathologies and is not in any way a new critical epiphany. And since I do not want to commit the same error as those whom I criticize, I feel it to be entirely prudent to not assume total prior knowledge of this man and his ideas. So, I hope that those of you “in the know” will now forgive me as I attempt a terse apercu for the uninitiated.
Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian professor of Medieval Literature primarily at the University of Toronto and became a media and cultural phenomenon (to say the least) in the nineteen sixties with the publication of a series of books: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967). By using the term phenomenon, I mean it in its most pungent syntax. Keeping in mind that his global celebrity was actualized some fifty years before YouTube would be making the banal and mediocre famous, should give you some idea as to the heft and gravitas that this man generated within all cultural and intellectual circles as well as all forms of extant media. But when one applies even the most casual hindsight to examining his token ideas and beliefs (his adult conversion to Catholicism often gets left out of these inquiries, an important detail I shall get to later), it quickly becomes quite conspicuous that McLuhan could not have achieved his notoriety in any other milieu than the nineteen sixties; a decade rife with cultural mountebanks, gurus, and crackpots of every stripe and abstraction all finding an eager audience as they spoke of what the people eagerly wanted to hear (always a portentous combination).
As with most historical examinations of this type, it is more than a little illuminating if not just plain necessitous to re-read the contemporary criticisms and defenses of contentious ideas. After re-reading McLuhan’s books (an obvious first task for the critic), I have found for some time now that the best book to follow up with is a collection of essays entitled McLuhan: Pro & Con (1968) edited by Raymond Rosenthal. This collection has an impressive breadth of Literature professors, Sociologists, Cultural critics, and Philosophers arguing for and against the need to take seriously the intellectual notions of McLuhan which have catapulted him to such unprecedented fame and cultural eminence, at least for a university professor. A fair portion of the critical essays place their rhetorical stance firmly in examining The Gutenberg Galaxy and its cardinal proposition which undergirds all of McLuhan’s subsequent ideations from that point on.
The basic premise of the Galaxy is that our modern era and all of its problems can be traced back to the invention of the printing press and that this advent was ultimately calamitous to our species as it ended the era of the spoken word as the chief method of the promulgation of ideas (i.e culture). In its place, our species has become enslaved to the eye and the visual transmission of ideas which print necessitates. This allows for the cloistering of men and their being cut off from their fellows as reading became a solitary act: hence the final abrogation of tribal or village society (as if this could be anything but a social anodyne!). In the aforementioned collection, Professor Neil Compton encapsulates the Galaxy and its bizarre and eccentric thesis brilliantly in his essay The Paradox of Marshall McLuhan when he explains that McLuhan would have us view history in such a way as to believe that:
“Until the fifteenth century, aural and visual modes of thought continued to coexist in relatively fruitful tension. However, with the invention of printing (a characteristically “visual” attempt to achieve quantity, uniformity, and repeat-ability) the visual bias of European culture began to assume murderous proportions. All values that could not be reconciled with mathematical order, utility, or empirical rationalism were undermined and subverted. From the triumph of Gutenberg technology stems everything that McLuhan most detests about the modern world–capitalism, secularism, industrialism, nationalism, specialization, and socialism. Worse than that, those who ought to lead their fellows back to a saner mode of life–the intellectual and academic elite–are so “stunned” and brainwashed by their dependence upon print that they are incapable of understanding what is happening to them. These “bookmen of detached and private culture” mistake for reality what is really the pre-packaged, homogenized, and denatured product of assembly-line Gutenberg thought processes.” (emphasis mine)
And sociology professor, Tom Nairn, rams this McLuhanian historical synthesis even further which also exposes McLuhan’s rather bizarre notions on media’s influence on our biology:
“…the “implosion” of instantaneous electric communication has thrown back together what Gutenberg sundered, and brought about a new multisensible world of wholeness and all-at-onceness. Intellect is no longer isolated in a corner, or on a professional rostrum; it can literally be everywhere at once, in the “cosmic membrane that has been snapped round the globe by the electric dilation of our various senses”.(…) A part of McLuhan’s thesis is that this social history is not the history of a constant “human nature.” Because the communication media are “extensions” of the senses (or even of the nervous system as a whole, in the case of electric media), they shape our psychology as well as the fabric of society.(…) The contemporary age made by the new forms of communication is an age of myth. By contrast, the age of the printed word was one of literalness, and books were the original “square” things. The new media environment we call “popular culture” is one in which the mind reaches for an immediate, sensible explanation, an image, an involving experience–for a “mythic dimension” of knowing, a new totemism. McLuhan’s own work is—and is seen by him—as part of this dimension.”
Yes, it was rather prescient (in this case at least) to announce that pop culture would evolve into the search for and satisfaction of immediacy and sensation, but anyone could have seen that as a logical progression of mass media based on and fed by the visual, and many other critics did at the time. So of course I fully admit there are grains of interesting thought to be found in McLuhanism, but they are just that, twee and far between. Nonetheless this kind of insight always gets blighted by his more, shall we say, eccentric ideas such as that electric communication is literally an extension of our nervous system and not merely a metaphorical extended phenotype.
What was so clear back then and even more so now is that it only takes the simplest application of rudimentary logic to highlight what drivel McLuhan was overall peddling. And it is not even really important what a nonsensical and a historical interpretation of history McLuhan’s notions are because ultimately they are more frightening and dangerous in what they portend. As I am sure you recall I alluded earlier to there being relevance to McLuhan’s adult conversion to Catholicism which I would hope is now plain with what has just been laid bare about his thought processes and views of the world. Because all of his thought, affected or not, was underlain with an acute and pernicious reactionarism which I feel definitely had its locus in his Catholicism. This is why I have always found it so odd that anyone could have interpreted his thought as visionary or even more absurdly mantic and radical in how they viewed history and its contingencies. Under this light, it then becomes easier to also see McLuhan’s notions as stemming from his hatred of Marxian thought and the materialist conception of history. His felt that he had found the true key to history in his facile and most popular maxim, The Medium is the Message, as adumbrated in Understanding Media.
After McLuhan had done away with the printed word and the intellectual content it carried in Galaxy, he establishes in Understanding Media, that in our mass media and technological present, all that truly matters is the way in which media is transmitted, content is negligible if not undesirable. Once again, we can see the bullshit continuing to expand prodigiously. This is why I contend it was only in the sixties that such nonsense could have been taken seriously even for a second. Who now would be so fatuous as to contend that television or Internet programming has its utility solely in the way in which it transmits data and that the data itself is not important? Is it not now so depressingly obvious that we are all drowning within a deluge of imagery at all waking moments? If anything, it is image and imagery that has now become so regnant within our daily existence; so much so, that how anything but content could be of the highest concern to those who promulgate the images and ensuing thoughts which control the way so many interpret reality is beyond consideration.
Ultimately with this babble McLuhan wanted us to believe that mass media/communication (or the Internet as McLuhan would have undoubtedly said if he were alive today) transmission is reconnecting our species without the linear written word and its supposed divisive and homogenized thought, in a sense bringing us back to a pre-industrial tribal society, what he termed a Global Village.
So how can it now ever be thought tenable and apposite to use McLuhan’s Village to describe Facebook and their ilk? Social Networking, whatever its teleological ramifications end up being, is in no way “connecting” anyone. Technology is an artifice and cyberspace involves an existential reality divorced from the corporeal. Whatever connection there socially is, is purely in a vitiated form. But even disregarding this fact, how is it helpful correlating Mark Zuckerberg’s exploits with the reactionary ideas of Marshall McLuhan? And further still, even if you wanted to give the intellectual benefit of the doubt to McLuhan’s notions, they are still blatantly self-contradictory to an absurd extent.
The man who so fiercely derided Academia stayed where? Why he stayed all is adult life in Academia. The man who so inveighed against the written word and the transmission of ideas through books, still wrote and promulgated his thoughts through what? Books! This bizarre mentality was perfectly encapsulated by Gore Vidal in his pungent analysis of Henry Miller when he stated that, “The paradox is that if he really meant what he writes, he would not write at all. But then he is not the first messiah to be crucified upon a contradition.” And not even flagrant hypocrisy begins to explain this paradox either. I’m afraid in the end McLuhan was just another example of the intellectual fallacy that believes that obscurantism can portend profundity. And even though there still is intellectual merit to studying and analyzing McLuhan’s place in the thought of the past century, it has become pointless to even try to deny that he can in no way or fashion help us to understand the social implications and continuing evolution of media and the Internet. At best, his thought is a cache of anachronistic and glib slogans best now only viewed as sociological curiosities from an all too often intellectually gelastic era.