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Monday, March 27, 2006

Sensualists Without Heart

From the New Yorker's review of Francis Fukuyama's new book:

Modernity, Weber said, is the progressive disenchantment of the world. Superstitions disappear; cultures grow more homogeneous; life becomes increasingly rational. The trend is steadily in one direction. Fukuyama, accordingly, interprets reactionary political movements and atavistic cultural differences, when they flare up, as irrational backlashes against modernization. This is how he understands jihadism: as a revolt, fomented among Muslim émigrés in Western Europe, against the secularism and consumerism of modern life. (This is also how he interprets Fascism and Bolshevism: as backlashes against the general historical tendency.) Jihadism is an antibody generated by our way of life, not a virus indigenous to Islam.

Fascism and jihadism are nihilisms; they cannot be co-opted into the modern system of pluralism, and so they have to be wiped out. But they stand, in a perverse way, for the dark side of disenchantment, which is that, as life becomes more rational and transparent, people lose the sense that there are spiritual forces in the universe greater than themselves. Supernaturalism goes, but so does the idea that anything transcends the biologically human. The “last man” was Nietzsche’s term for the citizen of the completely modern society; “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart” was Weber’s description.
Weber was an intellectual crush of mine that never got the chance to really blossom--I liked a lot of what he had to say, especially about bureaucracy (although I apparently got a much different reading from it than most people did, but apparently most people are Marxists), but I think it just didn't entirely fit in with my interests at the time.

What's interesting about the above passage is in the way the premise contradicts the ostensible conclusion: if there is an irresistable human urge toward the irrational, then you can't see eruptions of irrationality into the geopolitical mainstream as anomalies. This only works if you read Weber's ideas as tragedy, as a story about bureaucracy as the inevitable endpoint of human history, an "iron cage"[1] toward which we proceed and then cannot escape. But to me, that's as bogus as Marx's historical determinism[2], and I think it's much more useful to regard his commentary on bureaucracy as a depiction of the push and pull between institutionalized administration and person-to-person governmental interactions, and the role each has to play in any functioning model of governance; certainly the role of bureaucracy seems poorly examined when it comes to questions of statecraft.

A much better way of looking at it would be to see things like totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism as tragic irrationalism, prophecies that seek to be self-fulfilling through the constant verbal and physical insistence on their own inevitability. But these tragic irrationalities are not doing battle with the rational practices that ultimately are too convinced of their own rightness to be bothered. No, what they're opposing is the comic irrationalities--which is to say, art and culture.

A teacher of mine once pointed out, more in passing than anything else but enough times to make it an implicit theme, that the question at the heart of all criticism is ultimately about the purpose of art, and about how the fact that there is no real rational answer for that question is frighteningly significant. I sort of disagree in that I think there are a few practical purposes for art, mainly concerning the idea of play and the way they can act as a simulator (deliberate word choice alert!) for the practice of being a citizen in a republic. But there's little use in denying that art is mainly irrational, that this is a huge part of its appeal, and further that most people's experience of art at this point in history is the kind of art we choose to call "pop culture." Pop is our aesthetics, our superstitions and our (gulp) spiritualism, the ghost in the machine if you want to talk about "transcending the biologically human"--what does that more than a DVD of Brad Pitt? If you want to talk irrational, what qualifies more than a billboard using women in bikinis to sell alcoholic beverages? Yet these are the things our beloved "islamofacists" seem to be reacting to, not "freedom" or democracy or pluralism. They are repulsed by the culture, not the politics, and they are most visibly repulsed by the most visible culture, the pop kind. So too, of course, were the other "reactionaries" mentioned above--the Nazis with their book burnings, Communists with their socialist realism and anti-aesthetics, and so forth and so on, to say nothing of (gulp again) modern-day religious extremists of all stripes, which we maybe better not get into.

What's suggested by all this is that they hate pop culture not because it's opposed to their values so much as it's competition for that irrationalist portion of the human spirit, and it has an amazing track record of winning. People complain about pop culture, of course, but if you see it as an alternative to, say, organized religion, it doesn't sound so bad. And it seems clear that art is spiritual in all sorts of ways, from its indefensible basis to its indescribable appeal to its tendency to rapture to the devotional practices of its adherants--that the word "cultish" appears in relation to pop-cultural artifacts so often is no accident. Being nerdy about a band serves similar spiritual needs to devoting yourself to Biblical study, and sitting around arguing about science fiction is not so far off from doing the same thing about the Torah. (Or what have you.) These seem like facile comparisons, but they're not--they're absolutely vital to understanding pop and the culture that contains, encourages, and eventually is overtaken by it. Pop takes all the irrational impulses of human nature, which have an unfortunate tendency to be violent and ugly, and makes them beautiful, or something like it: it makes them into play.

[1] Speaking of an iron cage, the irony behind this particular entry is that I had most of it mapped out in my head during a walk in the park during my lunch hour, but when I returned to the office--the place where art gets turned into bureaucracy, necessarily but not particularly pleasantly--it practically fled my mind.
[2] I honestly don't know why anyone would try historical determinism at this point--even if you refuse to learn from past practicioners everything from Schrodinger to a trip to the racetrack would seem to counsel against it.