Monday, July 1, 2013

Intellectuals Whining about America

Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster are unhappy about contemporary America. Ok, fine, lots of people are unhappy with contemporary America. But these two intellectuals -- a philosophy professor and a psychoanalyst -- are unhappy  in such a vague and pointless way that I must protest their critique. They have written a model of meaningless grouchiness, dressed up in rhetorical gravity. They start out like this:
The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!
But what is wrong with "well-being" as a goal for life? As a piece of practical advice, "achieve well being" may be useless, but as an overall goal I think it is about the best we can do. It is, after all, what the classical philosophers came up with; eudaimonia, Aristotle called it, and he argued quite explicitly that this is the highest aim we are capable of pursuing.

The really strange thing about Critchley and Webster's essay is that they never get around to suggesting any alternative to well being as a goal for life. Instead they throw out vague fulminations like this:
Despite the frequent claim that we are living in a secular age defined by the death of God, many citizens in rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another — abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness. The latter does not make the exorbitant moral demands of traditional religions, which impose bad conscience, guilt, sin, sexual inhibition and the rest.
So? Even if this were true, which is debatable, why is it bad? They never say. If Critchley and Webster are Christians, they do a good of hiding it. They give some hints that they may be Marxists, or just old hippies who miss the Movement.
In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. . . . Whereas the American dream used to be tied to external reality — say, America as the place where one can openly practice any religion, America as a safe haven from political oppression or America as the land of opportunity where one need not struggle as hard as one’s parents — now, the dream is one of pure psychological transformation.
I love the way people toss "the American Dream" into conversations as if it had some agreed-on political or moral meaning. It does not; so far as I can tell, the only agreed-on component of this myth is that you can start out poor, work hard, and end up in the middle class. Pure eudaimonia. Critchley and Webster seem to prefer some sort of collective action, but they won't come out and say it. Why not?

I would say that collective political action as a route a human betterment took a beating the the twentieth century. As a truly grand project, it gave us World War I, fascism, and communism. It survives in the form of  a moderate political struggle for incremental betterment, which is nice but won't give many people real fulfillment, and the sort of fringe or niche crusades that are at best an irritant for the broader culture and a worst a real bane (the Tea Party, Autism awareness, vaccine hysteria). Every once in a while a cause comes along that is both a good idea and becomes a passionate cause for a large group of people -- gay marriage, for example. Part of the character of the 1960s came from the simultaneous emergence of four important causes -- Civil Rights, women's rights, environmentalism, getting the US out of Vietnam -- which when thrown together with sex, drugs, and rock and roll created the illusion of a world-transforming movement. It was wonderful for a while, but once the main legal goals had been achieved and the troops had come home, the whole thing fell apart and we got disco.

But that's just me rambling; Critchley and Webster don't say what sort of collective action they would like to see more of, they just whine about selfishness. Ok, fine, great, we should be less selfish. What sort of social reform plan is that? They move on from this pseudo-political whining to a very strange sort of whining about work:
the classical distinction between work and nonwork has broken down. Work was traditionally seen as a curse or an obligation for which we received payment. Nonwork was viewed as an experience of freedom for which we pay but that gives us pleasure. But the past 30 years or so has ushered in an informalization of the workplace where the distinction between work and nonwork is harder and harder to draw. With the rise of corporations like Google, the workplace has increasingly been colonized by nonwork experiences to the extent that we are not even allowed to feel alienation or discontent at the office because we can play Ping-Pong, ride a Segway, and eat organic lunches from a menu designed by celebrity chefs. If we do feel discontent, it must mean that something is wrong with us rather than with the corporation. . . . Work is no longer a series of obligations to be fulfilled for the sake of sustenance: it is the expression of one’s authentic self. 
Here we have a grotesque bit of ahistorical nonsense. The idea that our work should be an expression of our authentic selves is a very old one; this was known as a "calling" in early modern Christianity and, after all, that is where most of us got our names. I assume that Critchley and Webster did not got through their decades of schooling to get jobs they find to be "a curse or an obligation." Isn't the whole point of becoming a philosophy professor to do work that expresses your authentic self?

I could go on, but that is probably enough. I went through all of this because I despise this kind of free-from grumbling about the sins of the culture. If you have suggestions as to how we might make things better, let's hear them; otherwise, shut up and go home.


Unknown said...

I have to say, I have NEVER read a good essay in The Stone, which this is taken from. Most are a waste of time, and some are positively emetic. The tone was set by one of the first (possibly THE first), which proposed that, in order to follow the ethical principle of removing pain from living beings, we should gradually eliminate all predators, perhaps by sterilizing them, perhaps by manipulating their genes and environment so that they would no longer need to kill in order to live. The author admitted this would take several hundred years and that eventually there would be no more tigers etc. as we now know them. The tone was so earnest that any intent to make satire or simply to provoke was hidden, at least from me. As far as I could tell, the author was serious.

John said...

It is a puzzle why the Stone, which seems like a great idea -- let all sorts of American intellectuals write a few hundred words about whatever moves them -- is such an irritant. Are most American intellectuals like this, annoyed and condescending but without anything to say? Do the editors of the Times like this crap? Or do they publish essays they think will get a lot of feedback, good or bad?