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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.
This little philippic is an attempt to fire and invective tipped arrow straight into the heart of current populism which is egregiously traducing my native city of San Francisco in a most distasteful way. I have long felt that due to the perception (often erroneous) of this city’s pervasive libertine political atmosphere, one can also in equal measure experience a taste of liberal fascism, and let it be clearly understood that I never use the term fascism flippantly. Since totalitarianism historically has easily ridden in on the coat tails of populism, it is always wise to be mindful of popular and unquestioned assumptions of social etiquette and intercourse. One such notion is the current rage for the new environmentalism or green politics which seem to be so idoneous to San Francisco and other such liberal conurbations. A favored manifestation of this attitude is found in discussions of transportation; what kind of car should we drive or should we drive at all, the use and improving of public transportation, or making walking easier and safer on city streets. Yet when it comes to bicycling and cyclists on the streets of San Francisco, a particularly annoying mentality emerges which one is accosted with daily when caught not transporting oneself on a bicycle.
Within the past couple of years, it appears rather obvious that the city government has completely capitulated to cyclist lobbying and civic bullying concerning the expansion of bike lanes throughout the city. And I assert this contention as a long time pedestrian and not as an apologist for motorists. Now, I am all for the promotion of lower-carbon emitting forms of transportation of which walking is the epitome. Along these lines, I am also mostly supportive of the newly augmented streets which allow for more fluid bicycle travel, and to some degree ameliorate the intrinsic hostility between drivers of bikes and cars. Wait a second, let me rephrase this. Where there are actual delineated bike lanes, this civic mollification occurs. What has more pervasively occurred though, is that a simple bicycle symbol and arrow gets painted in the middle of streets, particularly heavily traveled corridors which are notoriously narrow (as is expected for a dense city) with very little room between cross flows of traffic. So what happens is that cyclists feel that they can now freely ride in the middle of the street and impede the flow of traffic with impunity. And if you happen to be in a car in this kind of situation, then don’t you dare try to get a cyclist to “share” the road. You will rue the day!
Now what mostly pisses me off here is that this state of affairs allows for the ubiquitous dismissal of the reality that riding bicycles, which are vehicles after all, on city streets compels their drivers to obey the laws just as motorists and pedestrians must as well; this is the type of social glue which keeps our fissile society together, such as it is. Yet there is a foul disconnect here, because more often than not cyclists are completely cavalier and indolent when it comes to adhering to stop signs, red lights, and pedestrian right-of-way.
And if this were not bad enough, if a pedestrian was to say use a crosswalk and all of a sudden had to make way (which happens all too regularly) for a cyclist blowing through the intersection and this pedestrian dared to bring it to their attention as they sped away, suddenly they would find themselves being called an asshole for so impertinently asserting the obvious infractions along with being accosted with a panoply of other such expletives. This scenario I can personally attest to on a near daily basis, and is only exacerbated by Critical Mass events which can be quite harrowing for pedestrians and car drivers alike.
It has become I’m afraid de rigueur for cyclists in San Francisco to maintain this stance and attitude, so much so that I am truly and earnestly shocked on those rare occasions when a cyclist actually does obey the laws, and yes it only gets worse. For it seems to occur to me more and more as of late that I must now make way for cyclists on SIDEWALKS! It would seem that cyclists now feel anywhere and everywhere is their domain (I now regularly see cyclists using crosswalks as means of surreptitiously going through red lights). As much as I hate using populist lingua franca in my writing, it seems I just can not get away from saying What The Fuck when it comes to San Francisco cyclists and their ever increasing social pathologies.
It has gotten so bad that even senior citizens are now in the position of being killed crossing the street on green lights not only by cars and their distracted drivers, but by determined cyclists running red lights as well. In the past decade, I can safely say that I have had more close calls of being run over by cyclists in crosswalks then I have been by cars or buses, and yes I am fully aware that this is where my animus and bias finds its locus, in case anyone wants to use this as a means of criticizing me. It is this exact mentality and arrogance which needed a pother and rebuff. Because urban cycling is currently cloaked in populist rhetoric, this debate is not occurring with the civic urgency which it demands.
In my own small way I hope to have contributed to the realization of seeing an end to the delay of this debate along with also seeing the near useless police enforce the law on this group with more earnestness (or at least as much as they do on motorists and pedestrians). And yes, this endeavor has a long way to go as all attempts at pushing back at populist consensus inherently do. Perhaps then a new manifesto must be drafted to initiate the battle cry against sociopathic urban cycling. Since I can not entertain any certainty that my words alone are adequate for this polemical enterprise, I will instead leave you with a variant of some words used in a much more famous call to arms, if I dare be so impertinent: PEDESTRIANS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
How do they do it? I can’t even begin to fathom how it’s possible. How do such distinguished scientists such as Richard Dawkins maintain their patience and composure when arguing the flagrant fatuity of creationism with its laughable adherents? Granted, in the case of Professor Dawkins he had already stated years ago that he will no longer accept any public challenges from creationists on the grounds that it only legitimates their cause when there is no longer any controversy to argue about: It’s over! Evolution has won! In all my glee, please excuse the tautology, it’s so hard not to gloat. Nonetheless, I encourage all who have not yet done so to reference videos found on YouTube (both the official and unofficial Richard Dawkins channels are good for this exercise) containing BBC documentaries produced by Professor Dawkins which show the stoic and patient encounters he has had with varying creationist mountebanks. The recalcitrant way in which creationists refuse to acknowledge or flat out deny the prodigious amount of evidence present in the fossil record and modern genetics (which destroys their argument of course) along with the way in which they maintain that Darwinism axiomatically leads to the egregious philosophies of Social Darwinism and Eugenics, it just seems unfathomable that anyone could hold back the deluge of animus elicited by such promiscuous ignorance.
Still, what these types of encounters have illustrated all the way from 1859 to the present day is that it is not so much the scientific veracity of evolution which causes the religious to timorously repine vampirish like from sunlight, but instead it is the philosophical ramifications of evolution which have had and continue to have such plangent implications on human existence. And as much as I admire Professor Dawkins’s work, which has given me most of my understanding of evolution by natural selection (as well as acquiescing me to his notion of a gene centered mechanism for natural selection), he has not shown as much insight in regards to the philosophic implications of Darwinism. Now I wouldn’t normally hold this against any scientist, let alone one of such esteem, but as it happens one of his colleagues did in fact make this sophistic mention at every journalistic opportunity which was afforded him.
It was the late great Stephen Jay Gould who regularly wrote about the greater philosophic effect of Darwinism which lay at the heart of the science/religion divide over evolution. Now with out my needing to say so, it is well known that Professor Gould was one of the greatest explicators and promulgators of science to the public (along with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Dawkins, to name but a few). Yet I can not help from believing that it is in fact his philosophic contribution to the understanding of evolution which is his greatest intellectual legacy, though my bias as a philosopher probably explains this feeling.
So what is this great philosophic contribution of Gould’s? Well, in his seminal essay Darwin’s Delay, Professor Gould shares his thoughts as to why it took Darwin nearly twenty years to publish his findings on natural selection, and then only because Alfred Russell Wallace was about to beat him to the punch with his own conclusions. In preparing to write the Origin of Species, Darwin was engrossed in examining his notebooks from 1838-9 which in Gould’s words were filled with, “his thoughts on philosophy, esthetics, psychology, and anthropology.” He goes on in stating that:
“On rereading them in 1856, Darwin described them as full of metaphysics on morals. They include many statements showing that he espoused but feared to expose something he perceived as far more heretical than evolution itself: philosophical materialism–the postulate that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products. No notion could be more upsetting to the deepest traditions of Western thought than the statement that mind–however complex and powerful–is simply a product of the brain.”
And if this brilliance were not enough (remember he is writing this in the early nineteen seventies, long before cognitive neuroscience would vindicate his views):
“The notebooks prove that Darwin was interested in philosophy and aware of its implications. He knew that the primary feature distinguishing his theory from all the other evolutionary doctrines was its uncompromising philosophical materialism. Other evolutionists spoke of vital forces, directed history, organic striving, and the essential irreducibility of mind–a panoply of concepts that traditional Christianity could accept in compromise, for they permitted a Christian God to work by evolution instead of creation. Darwin spoke only of random variation and natural selection.
In the notebooks Darwin resolutely applied his materialistic theory of evolution to all phenomena of life, including what he termed the citadel itself–the human mind. And if the mind has no real existence beyond the brain, can God be anything more than an illusion invented by an illusion? In one of the transmutation notebooks, he wrote:
Love of the deity effect of organization, oh you materialist!…Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, our admiration of ourselves.”
It surely was this materialism that evolution fostered which was the devastating blow to religion (creationism) as well as our species vanity. Unfortunately, there was counter-revolution to this truly regnant and clarifying moment in human history. Gould correctly sites this blow back and ensuing manipulation and corruption of Darwin’s thought as emanating from the machinations of the obsequious Victorian pseudo-philosopher Herbert Spencer, who as it happens had his greatest vogue and appreciation here in the US. If there is one thing that continually pisses me off about people’s ignorance toward Darwinism it is the notion that the phrase Survival of the Fittest is not only Darwin’s but that this facile expression actually and accurately describes the process of natural selection. This obfuscation in reality emanated from the foul skull of Spencer, for these were words which Darwin never uttered. Darwin’s actual description for the process of natural selection was descent with modification. But how did Spencer accomplish this successful maligning of Darwin’s thought? In another one of Gould’s aureate essays, Darwin’s Dilemma: The Odyssey of Evolution, we learn that:
“Evolution entered the English language as a synonym for descent with modification through the propaganda of Herbert Spencer, that indefatigable Victorian pundit of nearly everything. Evolution, to Spencer, was the overarching law of all development. And, to a smug Victorian, what principle other than progress could rule the developmental processes of the universe?” (emphasis mine)
So, it was the Victorian obsession with Progress which allowed for the usurping of Evolution by Spencer. But this derision of Darwin’s thought had yet another disastrous consequence which was in part exacerbated by Darwin himself. He continually tried and mostly succeeded in staying out of the public controversies over his work and left his defense to his fellow scientist compatriots. By doing this, he all but guaranteed that his work would be misunderstood and mistreated, and as history has shown, this contingency has had an invidious evolution of its own:
“Ironically, however, the father of evolutionary theory stood almost alone in insisting that organic change led only to increasing adaptation between organisms and their own environment and not to an abstract ideal of progress defined by structural complexity or increasing heterogeneity–never say higher or lower. Had we heeded Darwin’s warning, we would have been spared much of the confusion and misunderstanding that exists between scientists and laymen today.(…)Today, it remains a primary component of our global arrogance, our belief in dominion over, rather than fellowship with, more than a million other species that inhabit our planet. The moving finger has written of course, and nothing can be done; yet I am rather sorry that scientists contributed to a fundamental misunderstanding by selecting a vernacular word meaning progress as a name for Darwin’s less euphonious but more accurate descent with modification.”
I mentioned that Spencer had his greatest reception here in the US. And it is this fact of history which I believe we are feeling the ramifications of most palpably today. The advent of Social Darwinism and Eugenics both bloom out the obscurantist eliding of Darwin’s thought proffered forth by Spencer in his books First Principles (1862) and Principles of Biology (1864-67). Yet it is Darwin who constantly gets the blame for these ideologies by the ignorant and misinformed (i.e. those who have never read a single page of Darwin let alone a whole book). Today though any conscientious educated individual would whole heartily contend that our society has successfully transcended the mephitic morality of Social Darwinism and Eugenics. I would mostly agree with this assessment, and yet I do not entirely. Social Darwinism as proffered forth by Spencer in the nineteenth century has not only survived but has flourished here in this republic in the twenty first. How you ask? Yet another irony of history in this tragic story is that Spencerian evolution arrived on America’s shores precisely at the moment in which this country was embarking on its path of world economic/industrial dominance and hegemony.
So of course the gospel of Spencer was ravenously eaten up by capitalists. After all, according to Spencer, science now provided the truth for capitalism to trump any socialist concern or advent in society. The proof of this is handily provided by one of Spencer’s most ardent acolytes, the squalid capitalist Andrew Carnegie. In 1900 he wrote a collection of screeds which were published as The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays. In regards to the new science of evolution and the Spencerian Survival… Carnegie wrote that:
“We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race(…) Objections to the foundations upon which society is based are not in order, because the condition of the race is better with these than it has been with any other which has been tried. Of the effect of any new substitutes proposed we cannot be sure. The Socialist or Anarchist who seeks to overturn present conditions is to be regarded as attacking the foundation upon which civilization itself rests, for civilization took it start from the day when the capable, industrious workman said to his incompetent and lazy fellow, If thou dost not sow, thou shalt not reap, and thus ended primitive Communism by separating the drones from the bees. One who studies this subject will soon be brought face to face with the conclusion that upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends–the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings-bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.”
One can almost see the self-satisfied and venal smile on Carnegie’s lips as he wrote this drivel. And doesn’t this febrile capitalist rhetoric sound so familiar? All one has to do is replace Carnegie’s millions for billions and you have the very same plea of today’s conservatives and reactionaries as they defend the plutocratic status quo. Over time, the words and thoughts of Carnegie and his ilk have formed the festered Spencerian carcass of which the plutocrats of the Right (and of the Left too I might add) have been dining on comfortably ever since. Within the view of any capitalist’s eyes, any attempt to ameliorate the plight of the exploited many over the concerns of the exiguous one percent would destroy the very foundations of society and civilization itself as Carnegie expounded so worryingly in his essay. He also put forth the still extant and ludicrous diatribe that the down trodden just need to work harder and save more to benefit and improve themselves and their lot, thus according to the laws of Spencerian evolution. More thrift, rectitude, and all ensuing contradictions of Free Enterprise for the Poor, and socialism only for the Rich is the order of the day (whether we owe this insight to Gore Vidal or Milton Friedman makes no difference to the verity of this observation).
The irony in these words are found in the fact that the great political-economic analyst Karl Marx realized this state of affairs nearly a half-century earlier than Carnegie and did so with more aptness and insight (I know, surprise surprise). In his Grundrisse, Marx wrote that:
“Although every capitalist demands that workers should save, he means only his own workers, because they relate to him as workers. By no means does this apply to the remainder of workers, because they relate to him as consumers. In spite of all the pious talk of frugality he therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive and by filling their ears with babble about new needs.”
It would seem that Marx had Madison Ave. all figured out long before there even was such a thing as Mad Men. And the apologists for the advertising industry are the very same for radical capitalism in general. For do we not hear the same piddling excuses for the status quo oozing from the mouths of our political elites and their media overlords? If you are capable of intellectual honesty then I’m sure you know the answer already and are in no need of any of my allocutions, yet our criticism can not end here.
The supreme and erudite critic of American culture and more importantly character, Gore Vidal, also had great insight into this Spencerian phenomenon and its continuing effect on our society. Mr. Vidal was never better in the exercise of his essayistic acumen then when in the full flight of his polemics he could always be counted upon to render into sublime prose apposite criticisms of the American Way of Life. Very often he would accomplish this feat all the while investigating a topic seemingly non apropos to the task–such as an examination of the literary merit of L. Frank Baum and his Oz books. Writing about the Wizard in 1977, Vidal points out a fact of life we very much recognize today (and a lot more readily than most would have back during the collapsing scenery of the post-Watergate era), the reality that we all are now residing within a second Gilded Age of plutocracy, whether we elect to be or not:
“Failure has never been much fun in the United States. During the last two decades of the Gilded Age and the first decade of the American Empire, failure must have been uncommonly grim. On every side, enormous fortunes were conspicuously made and spent. To be poor was either a sign of bad character or of bad genes or both. Hard-hearted predestination was in the air. The Origin of Species, had greatly influenced United Statespersons, and through out Baum’s lifetime Darwin was constantly misread and misquoted in order to support laissez nous faire, the Puritan work ethic, and, of course, slavery.”
And in Mr Vidal’s exquisite Homage to Daniel Shays and his famous rebellion, he again reminds us of the undeniable reality of our history that:
“A dislike of economic equality is something deep-grained in the American Protestant character. After all, given a rich empty continent for vigorous Europeans to exploit (the Indians were simply a disagreeable part of the emptiness, like chiggers), any man of gumption could make himself a good living. With extra hard work, any man could make himself a fortune, proving that he was a better man than the rest. Long before Darwin the American ethos was Darwinian.
The vision of the rich empty continent is still a part of the American unconscious in spite of the Great Crowding and its attendant miseries; and this lingering belief in the heaven any man can make for himself through hard work and clean living is a key to the majority’s prevailing and apparently unalterable hatred of the poor, kept out of sight at home, out of mind abroad.”
With the devastating criticisms of both Marx and Vidal, what else is there to glean from their insight other than that Spencerian principles are still very much alive and well in modern political economy; to deny that this is the case is simply fatuous, which the most basic empiricism will readily confirm for anyone. Can there be any hope then for a social anodyne for this state of affairs? Well…maybe, and a very slim maybe at that. It is the very same cure which is needed to rectify the dearth in Darwinian cogency. Not to over simplify, but it’s education, free inquiry, unfettered investigation. When have these values ever not been a panacea for social malignancy?
This is exactly why Gould’s scientific and philosophic legacy are secure as is Dawkins and all the other great public explicators of science. For they make it undeniable that we who are alive at this moment in time are so lucky to be living in the second century of Darwin. I fully believe that Darwin’s life and career will come to be seen as a fundamental crux of history, on par with if not surpassing the Copernican revolution in profundity. It is through the emancipation of Darwinian thought that we are free from the manacles of creationism, superstition and every other form of benighted sectarianism. Hence, Darwin must be freed from the horrible ism which has been foistered upon his name for a true and wide spread understanding of his achievements and their continuing ramifications to take place.
Just like Marx, Darwin continually needs to be pulled out from under his Cromwellian pile of dead dogs of which the cynical and unscrupulous have buried him. Then, and only then, can a second enlightenment occur which will guide our species on the continuing path of evolution. In order for us to be able to entertain the possibility of anything like a metaphorical orthogenesis or teleology for our species, then it would have to be predicated by a transcending of our degenerate and dangerous tribalism. Anything short of this realization, and there shall truly be an eschatological terminus awaiting for us all–one not requiring any supernatural intervention for its realization. If there is anything beyond our corporeality which clearly demonstrates the stamp of our lowly origin, then it would have to be this sad reality and tribute to our species unfailing solipsism and ignorance.
Besides the out right absurdity of this year’s election politics, one can always easily find fatuity in abundance within and around this country’s cultural dialogs. I dare say that the most reliable fount for such falderal punditry (at least in the US) is always to be found in and around discussions of sexuality or more to the point, the organs involved with said behavior. For example, just take a glance at the March issue of Vanity Fair, where one can find an article by James Wolcott entitled The Hung And The Restless. Why am I singling out Mr. Wolcott? Because he believes that he has stumbled upon a new understanding or change in the zeitgeist within the oeuvre of American film and guess what he feels is this fresh cinematic insight? Why its the sudden emergence of the penis en masse on the big screen. Surprised, I know I was?
To put it ever so mildly, after reading this article I felt an immediate rebuff was required but where to begin with this ersatz analysis? Well…to start off with, no where in the article does Mr. Wolcott make even a passing remark on the possible root causes of America’s acidulous relationship with the penis and with sex in general. As it happens, I have written to some extent on this phenomenon of sexual neurosis and you can read my notions on this subject in an essay entitled Why Does America Hate Dick? found on this site. To be terse in my recap of that essay, it appears rather obvious that America’s puritanical foundation has everything to do with this country’s sexual hang-ups irregardless of how they manifest themselves. For Mr. Wolcott to not even mention this country’s religiosity as a factor in his analysis is more than just rhetorically negligent, it showcases Mr. Wolcott’s extreme sciolistic understanding of what he is writing about (not a first for this writer). And even more damaging to his credibility is the fact that he misses on several occasions through out the article (he does get close though) to pronounce on an actual insight of some profundity. To be fair, he does correctly sight the long history of the lack of cinematic male full-frontal nudity all the while women being found more consistently and reliably totally nude in film. What he does not register though is that due to patriarchal chauvinism, men have always felt that it was their right to objectify women sexually to suit their prurient needs. But ever since the sexual revolution of the nineteen sixties, as women gained more and more the ability to objectify men sexually, men (I should perhaps say straight men) found they did not care too much for this role reversal and disregard of patriarchal privilege.
Yet even with this declension, Mr. Wolcott does make note of the fact that it is only the flaccid penis which is making more of an appearance in main-stream American film, not erections, and this fact is really the gravamen of his argument but more on this later. He is correct when he sites that this state of affairs has a root in the endowment of penis size (or lack there of) which a man possesses. Since this is the organ we men define ourselves by, there is a slight neurotic understanding of why it should be the case that it is only limp dicks we see in films outside of Pornatopia. But again, he could have gone further by asking why is it that on the American silver screen, seeing male arousal is verboten while seeing a man torn to pieces by bullets and bombs is sanctioned to the point of banality? Why is seeing a man hit in the testicles kosher on television while seeing a man’s testicles being pleasurably stroked is deemed obscene? Why is violence accepted more readily than any manifestation of sexuality in our culture? This truly American psycho-pathology goes completely unmentioned in Mr. Wolcott’s article. Surely this is a pretty monumental detail to forgo.
Yet I am going to ask you to disregard all of these criticisms in favor of a sole critique of Mr. Wolcott’s rather odd but nonetheless original peroration. He states in his conclusion that the possible reason behind this current effusion of phallic imagery can be found in the current social and economic malaise of our republic. He writes:
“But there’s a deeper anxiety being tickled that doesn’t involve sexual qualms or identity. It’s become commonplace in postmodern studies to speak of the clothed penis as the invisible signifier of the phallus.(…)It’s phallic authority that’s being displaced by all these actual penises, male power that’s being symbolically deflated. And not just male power. I think these dopey penises are caution flags, symbolic indicators of a national power drop that encompasses politics, economics, education–the works.”
What a breathtaking non sequitur. This has to be the first time I have ever encountered an assertion that claims a connection between political economy and male sexual tumescence. Almost as absurd is the idea of penis semiotics being a so-called postmodern area of study. My my, what else could possibly be awkwardly shoved under this untenable philosophic umbrella after the admittance of phallo-symbolism? Not only do I not see a penile advent going on within American cinema as Mr. Wolcott apparently does, but the greater questions concerning this inquiry are what is ultimately left dangling at the end of his article. What is the malign and mephitic influence of religion on sexuality? Why does one not see ads like the one to the left of this text in American publications (say like Vanity Fair) yet encounters them in European magazines with out any notice or controversy? Where does the male body and masculinity actually stand, culturally speaking, among the detritus of post-feminism and so-called postmodernism? All worthy questions of inquiry for the intellectually inquisitive. That is why seeing a half-assed assay at these important questions within the pages of Vanity Fair is so disheartening. All the more so since it points to a decline in writing quality within this magazine–especially after the death of Christopher Hitchens, or at least, that’s what I think anyway.
As promised, I am here today to present my impressions and insights gained from my attendance of this year’s San Francisco Writer’s Conference. It was held at the sumptuous San Francisco landmark hotel, the Mark Hopkins this past weekend, and without any hyperbole I can safely say that it was well worth the pecuniary investment. I now possess both a firmer grasp of the current publishing and literary environs as well as an actual business model which will help put my writing career on a more exact trajectory towards success. So what was the big secret which was unveiled at this confluence of literati? It was in fact less of a revealed enigma and instead more like a confirmation of sorts.
I have always been keenly aware and have never held onto any illusions that I would be anything but a niche writer, and more likely still a marginal one at that. And the classes which were most helpful to me all revolved around aspects of self-publishing. It appears that within the modern publishing integuments that thanks to technology, the writer not only has more options for getting their work to readers but also publishing options now reside within their grasp which allow for greater retainment of copyright. With this achievement being attained, a writer stands a much better chance of actually getting paid more fairly for their work instead of most of their surplus value going to publishers, what a concept.
Now with these insights being culled and properly digested, I am proud to announce that before this year is up (the final draft of my manuscript still needing to be completed) that I will be publishing my first collection of essays as an E-book, and by publishing I indeed mean self-publishing. Thus begins a period of furious re-writes and edits and the building of a promotional platform, this blog being one of those pieces of meta-data. With the development of my audience, I will then proceed to publish a print-on-demand version as well. So it appears that there is no turning back now from the literary path, not that I would ever consider such a contingency. Once again I have nothing but eternal gratitude for my loyal readers (you know who you are) and their support. And for my current subscribers, I make the pledge now that you all will receive a free copy of the book. I will continue to publish a monthly article for this site, but if any future delinquency of this duty is noticed, please accept my apologies now for I am sure that such an encounter would allude to my working on the manuscript’s completion. Thank you for your continued interest and here’s hoping that you will soon confront me on C-span.
How often does anyone really contemplate what the quintessence of an advertisement really is? Do you ever consciously ponder or take notice of every possible innuendo or vested interest within a marketing campaign? Even with the overwhelming ubiquitous nature of contemporary advertising, I would venture to say that not only does a contemplation of the proposed questions rarely occur, but that any means attempted of creating a systematization of inquiry based on the criterion presented would be insuperable. Why I am bringing this query to the fore of this inquest with such avowal? In the researches of sociologists it has been demonstrated that within modern advertising or in the progenitorship of marketing itself, companies use overt and sub-cognitive imagery as well as communal allusions to achieve desired consumer responses or inducements. These methods also infect the language that is used within these promulgations. It is the very astute human who notices the tendentious nature of ads as they reside in the domain of media whose universality is becoming more omnipresent every year. Media has finally evolved into being proverbial in the application of any desired socially conditioned thought or behavior, and can be influenced by any vested interest which possesses enough capital, just as in all modes and manners of political economy.
My concern here is not necessarily about the nature of media per say, but instead is in the methodological usage of language in media to achieve desired social effects, dubious or otherwise. It can be assured that there will be no reference made to any standing conspiracy theory, populist consideration, or any other such crackpot speculation in this thought exercise. My interest here is to simply explore the manipulation of language to affect particular social thought processes by using the most rudimentary empiricism as a guide. The method that will be applied for this illustration is a philosophical maxim known as the absent referent. With the use of this tenet, it will be shown how advertising with selective media advertence is altered for the existential negation of gays and lesbians within all ecumenical social abstractions of gender roles.
The initiation of this philosophical device is to be found in the seminal and highly influential treatise The Sexual Politics of Meat, written by Carol J. Adams in 1990. In this critical theory, Ms. Adams postulates that within our society the existential meaning of language which is used to describe an animal’s death is evacuated for the purpose of re-inserting a more desirable metaphorical reference, and therefore a new existential meaning. The newly created referents can then be interchanged to achieve any cogitation wanted by utilizing syntax. Within her critique, the removal of the notion of an animal’s death allows their mutilated flesh to be transformed into the more palatable euphemisms of meat, beef, pork, etc. She then shows how women are also relinquished of their existential meaning within the view of patriarchy so that the referents of meat can be applied to women for use in their denigration and exploitation.
Ms. Adams then goes on to argue that the same technique of using absent referents can be applied to any marginalized group in society with the use of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality as the referent. The variant to this maxim that I wish to employ is that the referent can also be used to distill any social metaphor or meaning down to a singular assumption and negate any other unwanted inference. This new simplified referent can then be re-employed within any segment of the media sphere all the while manifesting any desired existential value. In effect, eliding an idea or person by the non-representation of their reality in any media induced social manifestation. When investigated, this new theory clearly shows itself at work with the noetic abrogation of gays and lesbians being easily observable within the context of the mainstream (straight?) media and its outlets.
I do not remember the exact moment or even year that I first noticed the absent referent of gays in social discourse, but it is a concurrence that once noticed, is forever burned into one’s mind. At any rate, it must have occurred around the time I began to coalesce all of my concepts on masculinity and its expression in all male relations, and most readily in consideration of my own sexuality. Now I have already written several discourses on this analysis of homosexuality and masculinity and its intonation in mainstream society, so an assumption is being made here that you the reader will take these other articles (some of which are found on this blog) into the consideration of this current one. Within this essay though, all that will be applied from the previous deliberation is that the assumptive employment of effeminate (masculine) homosexuality as an absolute universal allows for the nullifying of reference to gays (lesbians) in any discourse about men or women within any straight consideration.
Empirically this gay a referent can be found in any form of advertisement or social colloquialism, but for the purposes of this exercise, I will focus on the styling of television and print ads as these marketing tools utilize the combination of image and language which colludes to create the aforementioned referent. Also, being a man I feel I can only speak to androcentric examples, but know that all examples and assertions have a direct corollary to lesbians as well. Let us examine the most general approach to any advertisement aimed at a specifically male audience. The conditions upon which these ads are based is either in the vein of male specific hygiene products (men’s shaving accessories or body sprays, jock itch or athletes foot antifungals, colognes etc.) or what are touted as integral male preoccupations or needs (meat products, alcoholic beverages, tools, sporting equipment, video games etc). Where the ads utilize the absent referent is in combining these products with images or allusions to women, usually of a sexually provocative extraction. And it is the very presence of these women that informs on assumed masculine tendencies or the affirmation of a socially accepted concept of manhood.
Obviously this appeal to the implicit male enthrallment with sex is to be expected in a solicitation seeking a man’s attention, which is not my dispute here. Instead, the first contention I do have is that the enticement used is of a variety that would appeal only to a heterosexually inclined man; heterosexuality being only one aspect to male sexuality and extremely far from being a male universal. Secondly, the attempt is to use the intimation of the language combined with sexualized female images to assert that this particular heterosexual essentialism of men and masculinity is absolute in its conjecture. The concomitant that comes out of this referent is that gay men by their presumed feminine essentialism are negated from any consideration of masculinity or to the societal delimitation of manhood whether it is consciously perceived or not.
How complicated a marketing maneuver is it to delineate an advertisement as interesting to a straight man versus a gay man? What would the interest be in not having such delineation in advertising? What is the supposition being made here about men, does it serve a political purpose? There very much is a vested activity at work here, one that is specifically aimed towards the abstention of gays. Whether there is a cabal or not behind the deliberate segregation of gay men from their straight brethren within ads is incidental to the conscious manipulation of marketers and the denouement they place over the heads of everyday citizens.
Even as the pursuit for true equality and representation continues for gays and lesbians, it is rarely noticed that the described referent in media helps to perpetuate the segregation in thought about them and their position in the greater social milieu. It is not as simple as the clichéd adage “out of sight, out of mind” at work here either. It is the very ostensible desire by the straight (mainstream) segment of our society to keep gays and lesbians segregated and marginalized from the larger societal make up. We may be afforded our constitutional rights in full someday (?), but we will still be expected to have our gay neighborhoods, our gay publications, our gay clubs and bars, our gay TV networks. We have our ghettos in society and they may even be fully acknowledged, but it must always be explicitly understood that we are separate, that we will be forced into a sectarian position whether we like it or not. It is this existential reality that allows for our attenuation of licentious stereotypes and the furthering of heterosexual elitism. It is this presupposition and referent that also derides those gay men who have their masculinity intact and are forced by society to be untenably agglomerated with effeminate gay men.
As with any other portion of the human race, gays and lesbians are not monolithic in their genetic or behavioral makeup. So the power of the absent referent is not a trivial or exaggerated postulation in its ability to manipulate societal perceptions. This Orwellian use of language to facilitate specific and desired behavior and thought is not disavowed in its materiality or even in its utility, as seen with its application in advertising. Because of this fact, it has become so necessitous for gays and lesbians to become fully aware of all the ways in which we are kept down and sequestered within the world by straight elites and sexual hypocrites. And in the push back and nullification of this described referent, we must start demanding to fully be represented within all forms of social intercourse and end the ghettoizing of our existence. Only full acclimation into every stitch of society will affect the attainment of equality and the ending of forced tribalism and third-class status. With out it, no matter the legislative gains we attain, we will always be seen (and not seen) within society’s eyes–evanescent shadows living a spectral existence.
The material world (the only verifiable world) and our existence within it is a never ending source of strife, anxiety, discomfort, and inconvenience. As if to make up for this, maybe only so slightly, our species has evolved psychosomatic pleasures of all kinds which often makes up for being a still evolving mammal. Yet if one fastidiously analyzes all cultural dialogues amongst all societies, it will quickly become obvious that most humans–unconsciously or not–elide the unequivocal fact that we are material creatures. If so inclined, one can readily find examples of this denial within people’s everyday speech patterns. Pay close attention to how people talk about corporeality, and you will unfailingly and consistently hear statements similar to I take care of my body by eating healthy foods or There was an accident and he sustained an injury to his body, or even more common, Doesn’t he have such a sexy body along with its opposite, His dead body was found in a ditch (you can think of many more I am sure). What pseudo-empiricism is being homologated here, if any?
It should appear that most individuals are conditioned to believe and view their real self or essential self as existing some how separately from their somatic self. And within the gaze of this critical light, if we were to correct the solecisms, the previous statements would instead read I take care of myself by eating healthy foods and There was an accident and he sustained injuries, he was found dead in a ditch: see, no third person references made to one’s corporeality to cause confusion or even worse obfuscation, intentional or otherwise.
The previous errors are not only philosophical but it all other ways dependent upon an assumed non sequitur and preterition of grandiose proportions. And if that wasn’t bad enough, holding this notion (unexamined or not) in the twenty-first century entails a untenable negation of scientific veracity. So what could possibly be the explanation for such an ersatz existentialism?
This phenomenon is a paltry attempt at denying what is self-evident about being a still evolving primate species, in point of fact, an animal. Humans have long known that when an individual sustains head trauma where the brain becomes injured, that that individual will act differently if not be radically changed in all behaviors, maybe even killed. It has also long been known that whenever one’s heart, liver, kidneys, or any other thoracic organ shuts down, you shut down…for good. Nonetheless, this accepted reality has never stopped philosophy and religion from asserting a metaphysical superstructure to human existence and mind which the merely corporeal is deemed not to affect–in the case of religious belief, can not affect. I feel that this denial is readily explained by what can be termed the Business of Being, please allow me to explain what I mean by using this terminology.
Let’s face it, no matter how much we tout our consciousness as possessing numinous qualities and feel that this is what makes us truly human, we can not ever hope to escape the daily reality and inconvenience of being biologically material. The assiduous need to eat, drink, defecate, urinate, (and for us men, to ejaculate) ultimately offers up nothing but the obstreperous and the tedious–in spite of some somatic delectation–to a sentient species such as ours. And of course there is no recourse or subvention to this state of affairs other than to submit to Mother Nature’s call (that ruinous bitch!).
This lack of ultimate sovereign control over ourselves (along with the illusory nature of Free Will) might also offer an explanation as to why humans like to imagine that their true selves are not of the material plane, even though all empirical evidence contradicts such a inane notion. The fact that this sentiment is a form of wish thinking is what likens it to the religious mentality. Now before going any further, let’s just get this notion perfectly clear, nicely squeezed dry of all ambiguities. We are not creatures or beings which have bodies, we are entities which are bodies. To deny this fact is to clearly demonstrate the malign and false consolation of illusion and faith.
Religion has classically offered people the false idea that all of their suffering as material creatures is not rooted in their fundamental existence of being human but instead is an inconvenient if not temporary state of being which can be transcended with the right form of propitiation. After they die (so they believe…wish), they will regain consciousness without the material moorings and ensuing exigencies of the flesh and instead will achieve a palingenesis as a revenant entity—whatever that turns out to be. Notice though, that the religious can never seem to explain or give you any explanation for their certainty beyond employing the most crude and facile metaphors and allusion.
What ever ultimately happens to our consciousness after somatic death is definitely a mystery, and we can safely assume that it will remain so (yet with a good martini, I can engage with anyone on the possibilities of this inquiry all night long). But to deny that annihilation and extirpation are also possible and realistic final outcomes following death just because it is a more comforting thought, is puerile and contemptible (if not down right dangerous and threatening) behavior for adults to indulge in, even if it is behavior which is only allzu menschlich.
As with all other attempts at understanding and explaining human existence, one must always look to the language to see what one is supposed to be enjoined to believe in by society, all the better to arm oneself for a counter-attack of individualism. And no matter how much humans try to make false consolation and illusion irenic, it is a futile exercise as these things are intrinsically nocent to human life which is only to be expected of anything which is fundamentally illusory. And if we as a species ever manage to fully except our material natures and cease to look for our reality in some beyond, the more likely we will be able to experience a true sodality along with appreciating our selves and one another’s transient existence a little more earnestly. It is hoped that this is the small sliver of consolation which one can self-assuredly hold onto within the tenuous grasp of flesh formed, all too human hands.
Socrates, Samuel Johnson as well as Karl Marx are all well known for having issued certain epigrams which extol the virtues and necessities of city living if one is endeavored to try and understand human nature and existence. In addition to these musings, they also presented admonitions against the provincial and bucolic, Marx’s derogation being on display within the title of this essay. These feelings are ones that I have also experienced for the majority of my life, my native conurbation being the SF Bay Area. I have always felt a certain unease if not just plain alienation when ever I have been enjoined into a trip or “vacation” to the countryside (thankfully though these excursions have been mercifully few in number). And by the time I reached the age of reason, it became rather obvious that if one’s intractable interest was in humanity, with all of its progressions and failings, then there was no where else to study and realize its existential epitome than within the environs of a city, particularly a cosmopolitan city such as San Francisco. Now that I am an adult urbanite, I have come to view this notion as essential if not axiomatic for the literary metier, most especially for writers of prose.
In these United States, one often encounters in both past and current political populist rhetoric, appeals to rural or small town values. Concomitant with these populist conjectures is the defense of small town (or Real American as our conservative demagogues would have us believe) values against the Coastal Elitism. What could these provincially attempted oppugns mean or be referencing? It is an obvious acknowledgement of where America’s exiguous cosmopolitanism resides along with the locus of all progressive social valuations which are currently extant in this republic. Maintaining this view also reveals why the rural or Mid-West areas of this republic are fecundate breeding grounds and sanctuaries for all social and political reactionaries. This is why such puerile slanders are in point of fact compliments (even if unintentionally) as well as vindication for one’s own decidedly hostile views towards parochial ignorance.
Another urban realization of which I have come to understand is that there are two distinct types of native city dweller. The first type is found in the individual who through the course of their life becomes so overwhelmed by urban anxiety, that they end up exiling themselves from their city to some other more wooded and verdant patch of earth. Then there is the second type of urbanite who realizes that there is no place but within a city in which they could live, function, and prosper–no exaggeration. I can safely say that I belong to the latter category.
So what is the continuing attraction then, existentially speaking, that enraptures the city dweller? There is and always has been since antiquity a unique material manifestation which occurs when people live in dense proximity to one another. And more important still is the universal quality possessed and shared by all world cities that this kind of human construct creates: the intoxicating blend of sites, smells (from food that is, though there are many others not so pleasant), and cultures from around the globe; the ability to hear several different languages being spoken while only walking a few blocks; access to the world’s civilizational achievements through museums, theaters, and street fairs. This metropolitan reality enlivens a rich tapestry of social intercourse which is endlessly fascinating and informative to anyone interested in psychology and/or any other of the social sciences. This would be the chief defense and reason why city dwelling is so essential for writers such as myself–essayists, polemicists, and the like.
And we urbanites are well aware of how lucky we are to reside within the sublime heights of human existence with access to every type of cultural and heuristic endeavor. As an ardent urbanite, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was well aware that the metropolitan milieu is quite capable of inducing transcendence as well. Writing of city streets he said that “they are more than just thoroughfares, they are social milieus; you pause there, meet others, drink, eat, and live there. Sunday you dress up and go for a walk for the pleasure of greeting friends, to see and be seen. These are the streets that inspired Jules Romains with his ‘unanimism.’ They are infused with a collective spirit which varies with each hour of the day.” Unanimism, what a concept—for does one not intrinsically feel a cumulative urban consciousness arising from city living in which we all sip from? Does one not feel even if only tacitly like a supplicant entering a concrete and glass temple when immersed within the streets and alleys of an urban jungle? Even though I give no credence to anything that claims there is a possibility of transcending individual subjective consciousness in order to reach an objectivity, there nonetheless is something quite intriguing and yes, even true about this concept in its urban materialization.
The anoesis I experience just by walking the streets of my city I can not imagine ever growing bored of, let alone not have access to. Everything I need materially and philosophically is found here. So the attempted populist slanders which the small time townees hurl at urban elites can only arise from a place of jealousy and fear. Their benighted world is destined to dissolve and wash away while the continued evolution of internationalism will eventuate into a state of world urbanity. In the future, it will no longer be asked what country are you from or in which country do you reside (or hopefully any other such sectarian query)? Instead the question will be, what city are you from? This is a future I look forward to and long for with…oh yes, vellicating anticipation.
*All photos were taken by me in San Francisco during the years 2005-08.
Can you think of anything more egocentric or self-satisfying than the adulation and celebration of one’s own arrival on this planet? I shouldn’t think so…at least outside the realm of religion. Beyond any fretting over the advancement of one’s age and impending decrepitude, I have always seen the celebration of birthdays as unnecessary and narcissistic. Be that as it may, it still remains a date which adheres rather well in the mind. It was on this basis of consideration that I had intended to publish this article on my birthday (which was July 31st), hence the title. This endeavor was thwarted though due to my having to work that day. But I thought a frivolity such as this would be an apposite follow up to the past couple of essays on this blog which have bordered on the grandiloquent in the presentation of the philosophies discussed (a commonly received criticism of my writing style). What I had intended was to showcase a few historic happenings I came across while doing research on other topics, all of which occurred on July 31st. It also seemed that these historical highlights would be of interest to my readers, so it is for them that I now endeavor to complete this exercise.
To your average educated individual and literati, Daniel Defoe is best remembered as the author of Robinson Crusoe as well as being the major proponent of the novel as an art form in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Yet being the writer that I am, he is much more important to me in another literary regard. Daniel Defoe should always be esteemed for his journalism and polemical pamphleteering. In his time, he was the leading public figure to issue forth political criticism towards the government and monarchy. Because of this, he often had to deal with legal accusations of slander (something British journalists still have to fight against to this day). So it was on July 31st 1703, that Daniel Defoe was placed in a public pillory for the crime of seditious libel after publishing a politically satirical pamphlet. This event in of itself is nothing of note, as this was common practice for the government to deal with political dissidents. What is exceptional in Defoe’s case is that rather than being pelted with various forms of vegetation as was de rigueur, he was instead pelted with flowers. An historic event which marked the great public esteem Daniel Defoe had achieved with his bravery and intellectual honesty, along with being an imperishable example for every writer to follow, even without the threat of the stock and public excoriation.
My next two historic events both deal in death. But the two figures I am going to discuss readily display a philosophic dichotomy which I find of interest. Let’s see what you think.
Now it is well attested to on this blog what my feelings are on religion and faith. To say that I have contempt for the theological is putting it considerably lightly. Yet there remains one sect of Catholicism whose scholars I still love to discuss and argue philosophy with and that is the sect founded by Ignatius Loyola, that being the Jesuits or more specifically the Society of Jesus. It is quite fair to say that I have a grudging respect for Loyola and it is rooted in his votaries promulgation of the pedagogic. All of my research into Loyola’s life has left me with an extremely cynical view of his desire to have his sect be the molders of each generation of ruling elites to be. Yet at the same time it is through the Jesuit’s adherence to education and the self-improvement which follows intense didactic devotion which guarantees my eternal esteem. And it is this fact which engenders my enjoyment and eagerness to engage in the dialectic with theologians and philosophers of this order. So as you can imagine I was quite pleased to note that on July 31st 1556, Ignatius Loyola died in Rome, ending a very interesting life (the cannon ball incident?!?). What ever his true intents were for his order, it is in their commitment to learning that I am compelled to admire and yes, even defend. This is something I know I could never say about any other theistic phalanx.
Lastly, we will touch upon the life of perhaps the greatest luminary of the French philosophic Enlightenment, that being Denis Diderot. He became well known and influential as a philosophe when he began to contribute articles to the Encyclopedie in 1750. His most important contribution to French philosophy would have to be in his admiration and (some) translation of the writing of John Locke. He proffered forth the key approaches to scientific empiricism and material notions of existence and thought. It has even been argued that Diderot should be seen as a forerunner of evolutionary theory. Either way, I see him as the key philosopher of the French Enlightenment with his still insightful Pensees sur l’interpretation de la nature (1754). So it caught my eye and I had to take note of his death on July 31st 1784. And with everything I have just written, wouldn’t you say that it is a bit solipsistic to think that it is quite eventful if not purposeful that on my birthday two great polarities of philosophy and thought reached their terminus. Perhaps…maybe…Yes of course! But you escape this self-congratulatory mire if you see all of these events for what they really are, contingent and random (this includes my birth and yours as well), which I do.
As stated in the introduction, I merely wanted to offer a bit of intellectual whimsy for my readers. Even with the egocentric nature of birthday celebrations, I still recommend that anyone reading this essay should engage in their own inquiry such as I have presented. If anything, it helps mollify the egoism of one’s own entrance into existence by entreating one to instead focus on the great arc and lessons of history a little closer. This activity being in a state of great dearth within our society, much to our detriment if not our demise and ultimate folly.
I will venture the assumption that any one reading this essay will readily notice that the title comes from the aphoristic musings of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his fellow English Romantic poets of the nineteenth century. Yet I will not be focusing on them directly for today’s inquiry but instead will investigate our shared exigent human craving for beauty or more to the philosophic point, the Aesthetic. Let me just go on the record in saying that it is absurd to even try let alone actually ignore the ascendant influence of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) when in consideration of the aesthetic realm and our human need for the exploration of this infinite land. It could be easily asserted that all of Santayana’s philosophy is in some part informed by the aesthetic and this coincides with my own sophistic views. When you realize that all human inquiries which are unanswerable by science fall into the distinct philosophic moieties of the Existential, Ethical, and Aesthetic, you quickly find that these areas of inquiry are all intrinsically bound together. In this way, Santayana was always assertive that philosophy’s utility was in showing the ways of achieving the Platonism of the Good Life, his major predicate being the maintaining of the aesthetic and ethical arenas by reason and astringency. So if this is to be one’s inquiry, then there is no better way to examine these contentions than by exploring the thoughts laid bare in Santayana’s classic treatise on the aesthetic, The Sense of Beauty (1896).
Since aesthetics and their worth in life have perennially been of philosophic interest and inquiry, why is it that Santayana and his thoughts are so important in this regard? The simplest answer would have to be that from the time of Aristotle up to Santayana’s lifetime, there had never been a philosophic inquiry into the aesthetic as a thing-in-itself. Throughout the millennia of occidental philosophy, aesthetics were consistently treated as an exercise in metaphysical contemplation, and nothing more. This is understandable though (or should I say forgivable?) because before modern science’s illuminations, anything to do with the functions of the mind was axiomatically relegated to the metaphysical. This is why even if you do not agree with all of his conclusions, you cannot disregard the revolutionary quality of Santayana’s efforts in stripping away the aesthetic from metaphysics and bringing it into its own distinct philosophical realm. So to best illustrate these contentions, I shall briefly break down the sections of the book while highlighting their insights and their possible shortcomings for your consideration.
The first section of the book is The Nature of Beauty and it is within this part of the book in which Santayana laid down his grundrisse for the rational of aesthetic consideration and to clearly show the relationship between reason and the identifying and experiencing of the beautiful as a psychosomatic sensation. For example, he says: The ideal of rationality is itself as arbitrary, as much dependent on the needs of a finite organization, as any other ideal. Only as ultimately securing tranquility of mind, which the philosopher instinctively pursues, has it for him any necessity.(…)What really demands rationality, what makes it a good and indispensable thing and gives it all its authority, is not its own nature, but our need of it both in safe and economical action and in the pleasures of comprehension. (pg. 14 1955 Dover edition)
He then goes on to correctly identify the ultimate subjective nature of beauty due to its being cognitively propagated by individual perception. It is evident that beauty is a species of value, and what we have said of value in general applies to this particular kind. A first approach to a definition of beauty has therefore been made by the exclusion of all intellectual judgments, all judgments of matter of fact or of relation. (ibid pg.14) The first snag or occlusion in Santayana’s dialectic here is the fact that through out the rest of this chapter he never states how something which is a species of value can ever be contemplated without any kind of intellectual judgement? This incomplete notion reeks of the non sequitir, but let us continue our examination.
The rest of this section goes on into detail about the distinction which must be recognized between moral and aesthetic judgment. I have to admit that Santayana argues these points well, nevertheless I have never been too sure as to why he felt the need to make it so plain that ethical judgement does not contain let alone require an aesthetic evaluation. Perhaps he may have thought it to be rhetorically requisite to clearly delineate all approaches to valuation, I just do not see this as a necessary pre-condition to this kind of examiniation. He regains his equilibrium towards the end of this section though by focusing more on distinguishing impulses of passion from sensations of aesthetic pleasure. He writes: In other pleasures, it is said, we gratify our senses and passion; in the contemplation of beauty we are raised above ourselves, the passions are silenced and we are happy in the recognition of a good that we do not seek to possess. The painter does not look at a spring of water with the eyes of a thirsty man, nor at a beautiful woman with those of a satyr. The difference lies, it is urged, in the impersonality of the enjoyment. But this distinction is one of intensity and delicacy, not of nature, and it seems satisfactory only to the least aesthetic minds. (ibid pg.24)
At the end of this sited passage there is a footnote discussing Schopenhauer’s views on the aesthetic impulse as adumbrated in The World as Will and Idea. I feel (just as Santayana must have, considering the inclusion of a footnote to begin with) that including this footnote helps to better elucidate the point just made:
Schopenhauer, indeed, who makes much of it, was a good critic, but his psychology suffered much from the pessimistic generalities of his system. It concerned him to show that the will was bad, and, as he felt beauty to be a good if not holy thing, he hastened to convince himself that it came from the suppression of the will.(…)So that, apart from Schopenhauer’s mythology, we have even in him the recognition that beauty gives satisfaction to some dim and underlying demand of our nature, just as particular objects give more special and momentary pleasures to our individualized wills.
The last important point from this first section that I wish to share with you actually puts my previous notions into a little more relief. Since most of Santayana’s views in The Sense of Beauty stem from a nascent psychology just beginning to bloom at the end of the nineteenth century, I find it amazing how he correctly stresses the subjective nature of consciousness therefore perception and valuation and that we can never escape this reality or its contingencies. Regarding this he states: If we say that other men should see the beauties we see, it is because we think those beauties “are in the object”, like its colour, proportion, or size. Our judgment appears to us merely the perception and discovery of an external existence, of the real excellence that is without. But this notion is radically absurd and contradictory. Beauty, as we have seen, is a value; it cannot be conceived as an independent existence which affects our senses and which we consequently perceive. It exists in perception, and cannot exist otherwise. A beauty not perceived is a pleasure not felt, and a contradiction. (ibid pg.29) Doesn’t this passage also seem to contradict the earlier notion of aesthetic valuation residing outside of intellectual judgement?
The next section of the book is The Materials of Beauty, and here Santayana explores those qualities of objects that appear to induce perceptions of beauty ipso facto perceptions of pleasure. From here on out through the rest of the book, Santayana explores more closely the ostensible physical processes inherent in our somatic existence which induce feelings and awareness of the aesthetic. The best way to initiate this section is to share one of Santayana’s more poetic moments in the book. In the introductory paragraph he shows us some of his own personal aesthetic notions by use of a wonderfully and skillfully epigrammatic phrase which efficiently sums of the overriding theme of the book, that theme being that Whenever the golden thread of pleasure enters that web of things which our intelligence is always busily spinning, it lends to the visible world that mysterious and subtle charm which we call beauty. (ibid pg.35)
This section’s other main purpose is to connect the established definition of beauty with the forthcoming last two sections of the book which explore the physical perception of what is seen and experienced as beautiful. When discussing the qualities of an object or concept which induces aesthetic pleasures Santayana states: Our pleasures are thus described as the pleasures of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight and may become elements of beauty at the same time as the ideas to which they are attached become elements of objects. There is, however, a remainder of emotion as there is a remainder of sensation; and the importance of this remainder–of the continuum in which lie all particular pleasures and pains–was insisted upon in the beginning. The beauty of the world, indeed, cannot be attributed wholly or mainly to pleasures thus attached to abstracted sensations. It is only the beauty of the materials of things which is drawn from the pleasures of sensation. By far the most important effects are not attributable to these materials, but to their arrangement and their ideal relations.
Arrangement is the key word to have noticed in the last extract as it logically flows into the third section of the book which is simply titled Form. This section is the largest in the book and also is the one that I feel is the most negligible to the aesthetic notions of our epoch. This is mainly due to the fact that modern science, particularly neuroscience, provides us with a much more accurate view of how or brains (as a material object) perceive and process sense data. So Santayana writing from the end of the nineteenth century can obviously be forgiven for this scientific declension. As to the merits of this section, I believe there are two notions worth your consideration. The first is the idea that a considerable amount of sense data that we humans intuit as beautiful arises from an objects symmetry. Some key examples here (or at least for myself) are of the double helix of the DNA molecule and of spiral galaxies. Who can deny the beauty to be found in these forms based purely on their structure? Neuroscience has also confirmed that a large portion of what we perceive as beautiful in a person’s face is also heavily predicated by symmetry. These observations are rather obvious to us today but to the Victorians this would have been a startling concept for an aesthetic theory to portend.
The second valuable insight in this section is the answer Santayana gives to a question that he correctly identifies as a fundamental to any aesthetic investigation. That question is, Can anything be beautiful? It seems like a rather facile question, especially in light of all that we have thus far established about the subjective nature of our perception and consciousness. Yet, how Santayana answers this question is of interest because he rightly asserts that, The temptation, therefore, to say that all things are really equally beautiful arises from an imperfect analysis, by which the operations of the aesthetic consciousness are only partially disintegrated. The dependence of the “degrees” of beauty upon our nature is perceived, while the dependence of its “essence” upon our nature is still ignored. All things are not equally beautiful because the subjective bias that discriminates between them is the cause of their being beautiful at all. The principle of personal preference is the same as that of human taste; real and objective beauty, in contrast to a vagary of individuals, means only an affinity to a more prevalent and lasting susceptibility, a response to a more general and fundamental demand. And the keener discrimination, by which the distance between beautiful and ugly things is increased, far from being a loss of aesthetic insight, is a development of that faculty by the exercise of which beauty comes into the world. (ibid pg.81-2)
The last section of this treatise is titled Expression and it is here the Santayana asserts the final requisite of an aesthetic theory which is based on the idea that much of what we find and identify as beautiful arises from a synthesis of qualities which induce sensation of beauty to begin with. Santayana cements this final assertion by describing how all of consciousness is dependent on a synthesis of sense data for as we now know we are a pattern seeking primate, so this ability to bring together and to form a notion or object of perception makes the craving for beauty and inevitable one for our species:
We must remember that the object is always but a portion of our consciousness: that portion which has enough coherence and articulation to be recognized as permanent and projected into the outer world. But consciousness remains one, in spite of this diversification of its content, and the object is not really independent, but is in constant relation to the rest of the mind, in the midst of which it swims like a bubble on a dark surface of water. The aesthetic effect of objects is always due to the total emotional value of the consciousness in which they exist. We merely attribute this value to the object by a projection which is the ground of the apparent objectivity of beauty. Sometimes this value may be inherent in the process by which the object itself is perceived; then we have sensuous and formal beauty; sometimes the value may be due to the incipient formation of other ideas, which the perception of this object evokes; then we have beauty of expression. (ibid pg.144)
So there we have Santayana’s aesthetic theory laid out. I see this theory as quite useful as a foundation to one’s own aesthetic understanding. Of course you will have to decide for yourself if this is indeed a philosophy which still possesses some utility, the only test of worth for any philosophy. But since I solely focused on the aesthetic portion of Santayana’s philosophy and did not touch too much on his ethics (the other sophic area he is best known for) I will leave you with the thoughts of Professor Willard E. Arnett who wrote a wonderful critique of the Sense of Beauty in 1955. He sums up his analysis with an erudite distillation of Santayana’s total system which I would now like to share with you as it is insightful as well as providing me with an effective closing thought in which to leave you with:
But no one, possibly, since Plato, has recognized as adequately and at the same time emphasized as eloquently as Santayana the spiritual dimension of man and its inevitable presence in any concept or actual occurrence of complete moral fulfillment. No small part of his achievement is that instead of denying or repudiating the concepts and ideals that have been meaningful–though vague and varied–in both religious and philosophical traditions, he has interpreted them in such a way that they become integral and meaningful parts of a coherent naturalism. The distinctions which Santayana draws, though certainly not the only distinctions possible, are such as are appropriate and almost inevitable–at least in the Western religious and philosophical tradition–in any attempt to describe or anticipate man’s total moral experience. Indeed, the spiritual life, the vision of ideals, the aesthetic predilection will be important distinctions in the moral life as long as there are both men-who-see and men-who-do, or as long as any man is at once an observer as well as a doer. (Santayana and the Sense of Beauty pg. 226-7)