Paper 1: Defining the “West”: An orrery of cultural paradigms
Part 1: An attempt at tracing the historical roots of the postmodern humanists
In his very last interview to a reporter, Robert Frost would make the following statement: “I don’t take life very seriously. It’s hard to get into this world and hard to get out of it. And what’s in between doesn’t make much sense. If that sounds pessimistic, let it stand”. It is precisely such “in between” phase which may be said to constitute what André Malraux had referred to as the “human condition”. To understand the “West” – and to attempt to define it through the orrery of cultural paradigms that have come to delineate its history and identity – one would need to commence with that which apparently “doesn’t make much sense”, it being the “human condition”, and as that has been experienced by the so-called “Western” individual.
We know that the human predicament has revolved around what has sometimes been referred to as “nature’s point of view” and its apparently “senseless” forces that often seem all too pitted against the human species. As in the case of other peoples, we know that “Western” man has attempted to “control” such forces of nature. And we further know that he has attempted to do so through a particular form of “civilization” and its various social practices [at least as interpreted by Freud in the late 1920’s].
In this first of a series of papers, we shall attempt to examine certain general dimensions of “Western civilization” and its social practices and how these have yielded essentially conflictual cultural/ideological paradigms within the ambit of the “Western world”. Here, our major [though not only] source of investigation shall be based on the thinking of John Updike, and especially with reference to his Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, Hamish Hamilton, 2007. There shall also be references, inter alia, to the thinking of Alfred Lord Tennyson, retrieved from The Collected Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Wordsworth Poetry Library series, 1994.
The issues we shall attempt to explore are complex, and they are so given the interplay of a diverse array of factors that have operated in the history of the “Western world” – and yet, the questions to be discussed are not necessarily in themselves “profound” [whatever be the exact meaning of such word]. This has to be pointed out for at least one rather important reason: analysts that have been inclined to assume a certain “profundity” regarding the “human condition” and its “progress” have produced texts burdened by an often impenetrable obscurantist jargon, and that at the expense of linguistic transparency [let us remember here the case of someone like Louis Althusser, and how he had earned the wholesale rejection of more down-to-earth Marxist intellectuals across the Channel].
There is a sense in which the “human condition” – at least as regards that of the “Western world” – both escapes all sense of “profundity” and, precisely in so doing, attains a rather enigmatic nature [and which is a peculiarity, as we shall see, not completely unrelated to the ultimately conflictual cultural/ideological paradigms that seem to be tearing the “West” apart in the 21st century]. In discussing the work of Sinclair Lewis, Updike himself raises the issue of “profundity”, and he does this by stating the following: “It is the conflicting fate of an American artist to long for profundity while suspecting that, most profoundly, none exists; all is surface, and rather flimsy surface at that” [p. 546].
Our attempt to explore the orrery of cultural paradigms that have come to compose [and perhaps ultimately decompose] the “West” shall have to dwell on just that “rather flimsy surface”. For it is on just such “surface” that “Western” man would struggle to “control” the “senseless” forces of nature besieging his condition.
We well know that, confronted by such “senseless” forces within which he would find himself “thrown”, the “Western” individual had to gradually establish certain mechanisms for his own self-protection. One such self-protective mechanism was the establishment of what may be described as manufactured illusions. Freud’s landmark work, The Future of an Illusion, written in 1927, deals with precisely such self-protective mechanism. One need not at all agree with Freud’s psychoanalytic approach [and the emphasis he places on the question of primitive impulses] as adopted in this study – his observations did nonetheless mark a turning point in our understanding of human behaviour. By 1930, in his work entitled Civilization and its Discontents, Freud would complement his observations on this self-protecting mechanism of illusions by this time relating it directly to “Western civilization”.
A second, and as important, self-protective mechanism would be that of “Western”-type habituation, a fairly well-defined form of behaviour that should be seen as directly related to the establishment of manufactured illusions. The relationship is clear: much of habitual behaviour would be informed, across history, by the mechanism of manufactured illusions. We know that, above all, it has been Max Weber’s presentation of mass habits as a form of “life conduct” that has most lucidly dealt with the phenomenon. It may be said that the specifically “Western” habituation to a distinct regularity of life has imprinted itself as a “custom” in accordance with the dictates of the mechanism of manufactured illusions, and as such illusions have morphed across the history of “Western civilization”. By becoming “accustomed” to both his condition and his self-protective mechanisms, the “Western” individual has protected himself from the exigencies of being alive.
Now, Updike would himself acknowledge such almost self-evident little truths of the “human condition” – in 1998, he would write of “All the habits and illusions that protect me” [p. 23]. He was, of course, speaking in his capacity as the par excellence “Western Man”.
Before we proceed any further, we may at this point draw a general, albeit rather tentative, conclusion regarding the role of illusions and habits in the history of all peoples, and which would include that of the “West”. In the last instance, it has not been the so-called “mode of production” of whichever social formation that has ultimately “determined” the movement of human history. And further, it has not been the form of State – and/or its ideological “moments” – of whichever society that has played such “determining” role [although these have certainly contributed their part to such “determination”]. Rather, it is the illusions and habits that are embedded in all of these social structures and practices that have played the “overdetermining” function in the final instance. That type of “determination”, however, escapes the observer – it eludes him because he is part and parcel of both the illusions and the habits. And to the extent that we – as observers – can only but fail to comprehend such form of “determination”, the very concept of “determinism” simply falls apart [as it does for a variety of other reasons which shall not concern us here].
Of course, the sheer force and determination of habituation in the “Western world” has deeply concerned much of “Western” intellectual discussion. We may here simply refer to Louis Malle’s 1981 brilliant motion picture, My Dinner with Andre, which focuses precisely on the problem of habituation as experienced in a developed capitalist country such as the USA. Parenthetically, a number of pertinent observations may here be recorded with respect to the discourse of this important picture: [i] “Western” habituation to regularity is starkly contrasted to the realities of “the rest” of the world; [ii] habituation is presented as the mother of illusion and not vice versa; [iii] whatever attempt be made – on the part of the “Western” individual – to “break” with the illusions and habits of “Western” life can lead to tragic consequences [and especially in cases where the “break” is taken to its extremes].
The third observation is of special importance for our purposes: it points to the sheer continuity of the role of illusion and habituation in the formation [or even deformation] of the “Western world” throughout its history – breaking with such particular continuity could open the way to [what dominant cultural paradigms within the “Western milieu” would deem as] anti-social and/or pathological behaviour. We intend to explore this train of thought further below but with special reference to the identifiable continuity of certain cultural/ideological paradigms that have threaded their way across the different phases or conjunctures of “Western” history. As we shall also try to show, the continuities of “Western” illusion and habituation have at the same time been marked by internal ruptures and splinters yielding precisely what we have referred to above as a conflictual orrery of cultural paradigms.
We know that, from a generally historical perspective, the human need for self-protective mechanisms of manufactured illusions – and the habits and customs that accompany such mechanisms – has yielded what has often been called “the religious instinct”. The latter has been described – by Freud amongst so many others – as a historically [not to say psychologically] necessary human need or desire. This instinctual tendency may be said to have survived right across human history, and we intend to explore the manner in which this has occurred in the “West” itself. Writing in 1999, Updike informs us as follows: “As William James asserted …, the human creature’s religious instinct is as obdurate and resourceful as its sexual instinct, and as impervious to reason” [p. 30]. What is of special interest to us is that incredible resourcefulness of the religious instinct, and how this would enable it to morph into different forms in the course of “Western civilization” – and do so in its own particular manner right up to modern and even postmodern times [of course, the fact that it is also “impervious to reason” raises a variety of highly telling questions related to the “rationality” or “irrationality” of human behaviour, dimensions of which have of course been rigorously explored by Vilfredo Pareto]. Wishing to verify the obduracy and resourcefulness of “the religious instinct”, Updike goes on to present us with a couple of examples so characteristic of “Western” history – he writes: “One thinks of the Irish and the Polish rallying around their Roman Catholicism to spite their larger, colonizing neighbors” [ibid.]. Updike is of course referring to very “modern” events that may nonetheless be traced back to the depths of the Roman Empire: it is beyond doubt that the whole history of “Western civilization” – and its mechanisms of manufactured illusions and concomitant habits – cannot easily be disentangled or abstracted from the apparently all-mighty Judeo-Christian cultural/ideological paradigm.
Having said this, it may be argued that we are now faced with an apparently major paradox. For, how be it possible that, while the cultural/ideological paradigm of Christianity cannot possibly be disentangled or abstracted from “Western civilization”, this very same paradigm would, from a particular point onwards, ultimately undergo a decisive self-cancellation? And how, if that be the case, can one possibly speak of whatever continuity within “Western civilization”? To the extent that such self-cancellation has actually occurred – and we know that that is the historical case – how can one possibly speak of some type of identifiable continuity with respect to the role of the Christian paradigm as a self-protective mechanism of “Western”-type manufactured illusions? What has happened to Updike’s obduracy and resourcefulness of that “religious instinct” in the “West”?
But, then, is it not possible that that very Christian “religious instinct” has actually morphed – and given its obduracy and especially its resourcefulness – in a manner that has preserved the essentials of its moral system? And is it not possible that even the ruptures and splinters within the “Western” illusion do in fact belong to that same family of morals? And further, may it not be possible that even the supposedly anti-moral or amoral tendencies bred within the “Western” illusion are simply reducible to fratricidal impulses bred of the selfsame “Western” abiding habituation?
To help us understand the question of continuity within “Western civilization”, we shall have to make a distinction – but which clearly presupposes a commonality – between religious religiosity [Christianity proper] and secular religiosity. The latter shall need to be defined and shown to have gradually morphed from the former. Before we examine the discrete moment of such secular religiosity, we need to briefly consider the sense in which religious religiosity would undergo its self-cancellation within the “Western milieu” [we need not concern ourselves here with the degree or depth of such cancellation – empirically speaking, the phenomenon has occurred all too unevenly across the “Western world”: let us not forget that Mount Athos monasticism is still thriving in northeastern Greece; there is yet still the monastic brotherhood of Saint John the Baptist in UK’s Essex; religious values are said to prevail amongst certain segments of the USA’s MAGA movement].
It goes without saying that the relative marginalization of Christianity would come about following a series of technological revolutions that would unfold in certain areas of the “Western world”, and which would be accompanied by the emergence of what has often been referred to as “the scientific spirit”. Obviously, and taken by itself, this would not necessarily suggest a self-cancellation of the Christian paradigm [and we here need to keep Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” in mind, suggesting a certain “cooperation” between the spirit of capitalism and that of Protestantism]. On the other hand, the rise of “the scientific spirit” – as a force external to whatever religiosity – would come to induce a certain enfeeblement of the Christian paradigm, ultimately prompting it towards self-cancellation in the long run. Even prior to whichever technological revolution, Continental rationalists such as Descartes and Leibniz would attempt to reformulate the existence of God in a mode of thinking that would ultimately pave the way for such self-cancellation. The point here is that the Judeo-Christian paradigm – and the discourse of Christianity per se – contained within itself the seeds of its very own destruction.
It may be argued that the theological discourse of Christianity was such as to set the standards of certain supposedly universal values which included “equality”, “justice” and “freedom” – these were of course all subsumed, inter alia, within Saint Matthew’s “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”. But, then, having set such standards, Christianity would finally come to be criticized in terms of these very standards. The point here is that the Christian discourse was such as to engender its own critique, and – especially with the advent of modernity – a questioning of what has been called its “patriarchal history”. It would thereby ultimately engender its own cancellation. At some point along the line, this could possibly have meant a relative destabilization of “Western civilization” itself – we shall be arguing that there would be a restabilization of the civilizational status quo with the emergence of what we have already referred to as a form of secular religiosity.
With respect to the self-engendered critique of Christian discourse, Updike – whose thinking was apparently sympathetic towards a certain antinomian Christianity – would put the matter as follows: “How apologetic should Judaeo-Christianity be about its patriarchal history? The standards by which it is criticized – the ideas of equality, fairness, and freedom – are by and large of its own engendering” [p. 455].
It would be in the context of the modern and postmodern periods of “Western civilization” that Christianity’s moral standard of “equality” would come to attain a special significance: the Christian discourse offered women spiritual equality – and women would naturally accept it. In terms of the standing hierarchical/patriarchal system blessed by Christianity, this could at the same time be said to constitute a “revolt” of “slave morality” cancelling both Christianity and its “patriarchal history” and thus also the social foundations of that particular “religious instinct” as enshrined in the Bible. In discussing Cullen Murphy’s The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, 1998, Updike comments: “Christianity, though not exempt from sexism, offered women spiritual equality and importance, and women, accepting that offer, played a major role in what Nietzsche scornfully called ‘the slave revolt of morality’” [ibid.].
The “slave revolt” on the part of the “Western” female would herald a new ideological trend signifying an apparently new morality – it would thereby upset the “patriarchal history” of a self-cancelling Christian discourse and, at least potentially, establish a relatively new hierarchy within the “Western” family unit. The term often used to describe the new male-female relationship has been that of “women’s empowerment” – naturally, this would also manifest itself in terms of a certain changing material power on the part of “Western” females. Updike’s “Rabbit series” seems to capture such developments over a thirty-year period of “Western” social [or familial] history: each of his four books had been written at the end of a decade, between 1960 and 1990, and thus each seems to consummate the progress of events on a stage-by-stage basis. In his Due Considerations, Updike comments as follows about Janice, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s spouse: “Janice, whom we first meet as the woefully insignificant spouse of a Harry still trailing clouds of athletic glory, gains strength and assets in the course of the saga; it takes her most of her lifetime, but she comes into her own, as Harry, despite an occasional surge of energy, slowly sinks. The ideological trend of the decades acts to strengthen her …” [p. 647].
One consequence of such developments in the moral and ideological field of the “Western world” would, as we know, yield a major crisis within the “Western” family unit – Updike would himself describe Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s family as a “dysfunctional kinship set” [ibid.]. Of course, the point here is that such foundational dysfunctionality would be one basic manifestation of the self-cancellation of the original Christian discourse.
We may go one step further and argue that this foundational dysfunctionality may be traced back to that “moment” in the history of “Western civilization” when its own belief in the Christian God would be veritably annulled – and we know that it would be Nietzsche who would first declare to the “Western world” that its own “God is dead”. It seems as if, at the time of the declaration, the “Western” individual was already somewhat aware or half-aware of such death [the French Revolution had already initiated a dechristianization of France]. On this point, Updike notes: “A generation before Nietzsche, God was pronounced dead as a practical matter; theism so severely preached was hard to distinguish from atheism” [p. 522].
Generally speaking therefore, one may say that, even prior to Nietzsche’s time, and right through to the modern and postmodern era, Christianity would be undergoing a process of self-cancellation. Also generally speaking, one may add that the self-cancellation would become most evident in the fuzziness that ultimately characterized whatever dividing lines between theism and atheism.
The self-cancellation of the Judeo-Christian paradigm would have major repercussions on the “Western” social order and on the manner in which the “Western world” would come to organize its new self-protective mechanisms of manufactured illusions and the concomitant modes of habituation. The newness of such mechanisms would be that crossing over from religious religiosity [theism] to secular religiosity [atheism] – importantly, both placed the value of “equality” as the central organizing principle of their ideological discourse [and which would go some way in explaining the fuzziness defining the lines of division between theism and atheism].
The placing of “equality” as the central organizing principle of ideological discourse – and which would necessarily permeate the mode of operation of “Western” society’s self-protective mechanisms of manufactured illusions and habituation – would signify the birth of what would come to be recognized as an egalitarian and/or democratic social order. Purely theoretically speaking, one may say that, at some point in time, “Western civilization” would go through a juncture whereby it would have to make a choice between two radically different types of moral systems. The one – and as an antidote to the self-cancellation of the originally patriarchal Judeo-Christian paradigm – would be the Nietzschean vision of “morality”, going well beyond all prevailing sense of “good” and “evil”. Updike describes this, with some oversimplification, as follows: “Nietzsche’s alternative morality, that of the autocratic ‘Übermensch’, [which] holds out no mercy to women and the weak” [p. 455].
The other moral system, which we refer to as secular religiosity – and which would be a secularly egalitarian religiosity – would prevail in the “Western world” and thereby herald the birth of the so-called “social sciences”. All too tellingly, the latter would be centered on the “humanities” and which would investigate, defend and wish to verify – in different and often conflictual modes of thinking – the values of “equality”, “justice” and “freedom”. All such values, of course, had already been subsumed within the teachings of Saint Matthew. We shall need to further dwell on this movement from religious to secular religiosity and especially on the dawn of the “social sciences”, and the historical implications of this.
It may sound offhand or maybe even quite provocative to suggest that the “social sciences” are in some way related to whatever “religiosity” [and given the latter’s imperviousness to reason, as noted by Updike]. And yet, the historically tight relationship between theism [Christianity proper] and what would gradually morph into a fully fledged atheism [“God is dead” for all intents and purposes in the modern and postmodern “Western world”] is clearly evident in the very birth of the “social sciences”. The history of the matter is clear: one may cite, for instance, the case of Henri de Saint-Simon, considered one of the founding fathers of sociology. While his thinking brought sociological issues to the forefront – and especially the concept of society and social change – he would at the same time wish to establish a new religion or a “new Christianity”. The case of Auguste Comte is even more telling: while considered to be the founder of sociology per se, he was nonetheless bent on establishing a “secular religion”, his “Religion of Humanity”. We well know how adherents of this religion had built “chapels of Humanity” in countries such as France and Brazil. And we further know that Comte’s ideas had contributed to the establishment of “ethical churches” in the USA itself. Finally, one may here mention that most influential of sociological trends throughout the “Western world” – atheistic Marxism – and note how its grand founder had been deeply influenced by the messianic eschatology of Judeo-Christian theology.
Nietzsche’s erstwhile declaration that “God is dead”, therefore, may be said to have described a “Western” movement from theism to atheism – and yet, the former was already deeply embedded in the latter, yielding a religiosity within the new secularism. The theism within the new atheism would announce a search for yet another “theo” – that, of course, could only but be social “theo”-ry itself. Its purpose was to critically investigate the “human condition” in terms of age-old, familiar values – those of “equality”, “justice” and “freedom”. Each of these three nouns would be accompanied by one central adjective – “social”, thereby heralding, as already noted, the birth of the “social sciences” as we have come to recognize them today.
Both “the religious instinct” [in the form of Christianity] and the new “social sciences” [in the form of the “Humanities”] constituted self-protective mechanisms of manufactured illusions and modes of habituation – both were meant to deal with the Malrauxian “human condition”, and as that “condition” would cumulatively attain its own complexity in the course of human history. Importantly, the “social sciences” would gradually give birth to altogether new modes of manufactured illusions – these new modes may be subsumed under one general classification which came to be known as “social structure”, and which would prevail throughout the “Western” universities at least by the 1960’s [be it via the important work of Talcott Parsons or the highly influential Marxist structuralists].
Before we proceed any further, however, we need to clarify that our reference to the concept of “social structure” as a mechanism manufacturing illusions is in no way meant to degrade whichever “Western” social theory or to reduce “Western” social research to the production of a necessarily false representation of reality. Above all, the manufactured illusions [the “social structures”] of the “social sciences” are rarely comparable to the metaphysical – or “other-worldly” – illusions of theological discourse. They should rather be seen as selective abstractions of reality maintaining their own internal logical cohesion – of course, being “selective” and “abstract”, they can only but remain manufactured illusions. Further, they may be empirically verifiable or falsifiable [as in the case of Marx’s “falling rate of profit”] or not at all verifiable [as in, again, Marx’s “labour theory of value”]. On the other hand, and to the extent that a social theory may be impregnated with some degree of eschatological teleology, then one may say that such social theory is certainly as illusional as is theological discourse itself [a perfect example here would be the thinking of Ernst Bloch].
The birth of the “social sciences” in the “West”, marked by the central concept of “social structure”, would yield a chain of interrelated concepts that would, in the last instance, reinforce the selectivity and abstraction of theoretical and/or field research methodology. The end-product would be such as to bolster the manufacturing of illusions. This chain of interrelated concepts has its own history, spanning both Marxian, quasi-Marxian and non-Marxian attempts at trying to comprehend and deal with the “human condition”. While we shall not endeavour to narrate such a complex history of ideas, we may here simply mention the basic concepts and/or sub-concepts that were to be generated in the course of time.
One may begin by observing that the concept of “structures” would willy-nilly call for an analysis of the “functions” of these “structures”. This would call, inter alia, for the identification and analysis of the role of “functionaries” [operating within the functional or dysfunctional “structures”]. The role of “functionaries” would, through an entangled process of induction, yield the concept of practices [or social practices], usually enacted in opposition – or as an alternative – to “structures” and their “functionaries”. The concept of practices would further yield the concept of subjects [or social subjects]. This would naturally lead to an identification of different categories of subjects, taking the form of social classes or sub-classes and/or social strata and other social groupings. Finally, we would see the birth of the concept of “types”, or “social types” – and one may argue that this particular concept of “social types” would come to be enthroned as the central most important organizing idea within the realm of the “social sciences”. One may further argue that such an enthronement would even be to the detriment of the concept of “structure” itself – the latter had to be shown to undergo continual adjustment or “radical change” under the impact of actions undertaken by a certain “social type” [or an alliance of “types”] that would be ordained as “the motor of history” itself.
The birth of the concept of “social type” in “Western” social theory would enable theorists to identify categories of people belonging to an array of what has often been referred to as “social position”. We know that the list of “types” would come to include the “proletariat”, the “petty bourgeoisie”, the “middle class”, the different internal strata of the “middle classes” [lower/middle/upper], the “capitalist” generally, the “local capitalist” [or “national capital”], and of course the “international” or “transnational capitalist” [similar to “multinational” or “global capital”]. Very importantly, the list of “types” would later be enriched by categories such as “ethnic group”, “racial group”, “gender group” or groups of various “sexual orientations”, and so on.
Now, to the extent that separate individuals can be “placed” within such “social positions” [something which is in itself controversial], all such categories of “types” may be said to be real, although they nonetheless constitute selective abstractions of reality. On the other hand, such selective abstraction of reality can amount to an illusory conceptual/ideological mechanism in cases where a particular “type” is endowed with a specifically ordained historical “mission” [as in the classical case of the “proletariat”], or when some other “type” is explained in terms of a specific role, behaviour or intentionality in human history. In fact, the “social sciences” may be said to function as a mechanism of manufacturing illusions whenever they attempt to evaluate each of these “social types” according to the primordial values of “good” and “evil” – viz. in terms of those very values of Christian morality centered around “equality”, “justice” and “freedom”, and as originally expounded by Saint Matthew.
Historically speaking, of course, the concept of the “social type” has not been a matter limited to the academic concerns of intellectuals – the “Western world” has, at least since the 19th century and right through to the postmodern era, witnessed the popularization of such concept in the form of popular ideology, and which has amounted to a widespread secular religiosity amongst the masses of the “Western world”. The popularization of the concept, especially through the various forms of the mass media, has assumed a very specific form: it has consistently differentiated between the so-called “reactionary social type” and the “progressive social type”. We know that it has always been the latter who has promoted the universal virtues of “social equality”, “social justice” and “freedom” generally. One may here observe that, like the physical sciences, the “social sciences” have gradually moved from a speculative to a conjectural enterprise and have ultimately ended up operating as a “tool” of investigation based on the a priori assumptions of such conjectural enterprise – especially for the mass media, such “tool” has taken on the added function of a “political” or “moral” instrument. Often enough, academics have themselves actively participated in the creation of “tools” of thought with a distinctly “political” or “moral” functionality within “Western” society, thereby further reinforcing the mass-based secular religiosity.
Now, the emergence of the concept of “social types” in the “social sciences” raises yet further questions. It is not merely that such “typology” is a system of selective abstractions informed by supposedly universal “moral” values – what is of interest is that such “typology” may be considered to be inherently problematic in that it can begin with abstract “types” and then proceed to include concrete individuals within the manufactured category. By so doing, the identity and/or life experience of the concrete individual may thus be distorted so that he may fit the “type”. In such case, the end product would be the theoretical construction of “social types” that point to nothing at all. This may sound like an unfairly trenchant – and all too sweeping – critique of the “social sciences”. While the observation is not necessarily meant as a critique of the manner in which the “social sciences” have come to emerge in the “Western world” [our intention is meant to merely describe such manner and draw certain implications thereof], it should nonetheless be noted that only an outsider to the “social sciences” can possibly observe whatever resultant “nothingness”. Such an outsider is F. Scott Fitzgerald – and it is Updike who quotes the writer’s aphorism on “types” appearing on the first page of his The Rich Boy. The aphorism reads as follows: “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing” [p. 156]. Such “nothingness”, of course, would not necessarily shake the foundations of the social theory that has manufactured the “social type”. The theoretician would verify his construction through some form of circular reasoning – a “type” would be said to exist in the real world precisely because it has been manufactured to so exist. Much more interestingly, groupings of individuals that have been named as a certain “type” by a social theory may choose to behave in terms of criteria determined by that theory [and would do so in cases where the politics or moral virtues of such theory have been propagated by the mass media and/or political parties]. This form of socio-theoretical experimentation, approximating cases of a “social laboratory”, may be said to be rather similar to the “observer effect” in physics.
On the other hand, we have also witnessed the emergence of oral history workshops in “Western” social research – and which emerged precisely in response to the types of problems we have enumerated above. This approach – and quite in keeping with the F. Scott Fitzgerald aphorism – would begin with a concrete individual [usually investigating his or her case mainly through interviews] and then draw more general conclusions. The conclusions drawn may be either implicit or explicit and would – yet once more – point to the social attributes of more general, abstract “social types” [need one say that unless such more general conclusions be successfully drawn, the research undertaking would remain indifferent or irrelevant to the field of the “social sciences”]. Here again, however, one suspects that a particular individual would be selected as the object of investigation so that the researcher be able to manufacture – or attempt to verify – a distinct abstract “social type” that fits the overall ideological paradigm to which that researcher subscribes. Generally speaking, and in keeping with the values of “equality”, “justice” and “freedom” as discussed above, the social researcher would select individuals as objects of research that are deemed to constitute “victims” of the so-called “system” [and where both the term “victim” and “system” are heavily value-laden]. An excellent – not to say brilliant – example of such oral history is that of Charles van Onselen’s The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985, Hill and Wang, 1996. Typically, the book records the life and struggles of a “victim” of Apartheid South Africa – the individual is presented, not merely as a “victim” of the “system”, but also as a “hero” resisting it. Kas Maine is a veritable “Black Odysseus”.
Generally speaking, therefore, one may say that whether the “social sciences” in the “Western world” have moved from the abstract “type” to the supposedly concrete individual [or to a mere “nothingness”] or the other way round, they have nonetheless come to function as value-laden mechanisms of manufactured illusive/ideological paradigms. This is not meant at all as a critique of the “social sciences”, let alone as a call for whatever self-correction – not at all: without wishing to sound too deterministic, one may argue that the evolution of the “Western social sciences” could not have happened otherwise, and they could not have developed otherwise given their essentially Manichaean religiously-rooted origins. For historical reasons, they could only but have evolved into mechanisms of manufactured illusions protective of what Nietzsche would refer to as “the slave revolt of morality” [as quoted by Updike].
The inherent “morality” [or even the so-called “slave morality” in the Nietzschean sense] historically embedded in the mechanisms of the “social sciences” established a series of “types” that have come to compose ideological dimensions of the “Western milieu”, and which would ultimately yield different cultural paradigms within the real world of that milieu. While the “types” were theoretically and/or ideologically manufactured, sizeable segments of the “Western” masses would respond to such ideological paradigms in their capacity as supposed “historical subjects” – or as the more or less self-conscious “motor of history” with a well-defined “mission”. It would of course be absolutely wrong to see such historical response as the mere product of ideological “manipulation” emanating from so-called “above” – rather, one would observe real “victims” of the “human condition” operating as agents in their own interest. It would be “slaves” revolting for “equality”, “justice” and “freedom”. A secular religiosity would be born, and it would be centered around a key ideological article of faith – that of humanism. Of course, in cases where the “victim-agents” had been richly endowed with an eschatological “mission” in history by the theoreticians of the “social sciences”, the masses would come to discover their own limitations – they would be confronted with, and have to square up to, the manifest “nothingness” of abstract “types” as pinpointed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Their faith in humanism, however, would remain intact – and it would do so because it would confirm a faith in themselves as surviving subjects. On the other hand, and following a series of what may be called “historical defeats” on the part of organized masses of people, the ideological content of such humanism would gradually diversify into a number of self-contradictory directions which we intend to explore below.
The manufactured illusions protective of “slave morality”, we are arguing, would give birth to a secular religiosity of humanism that would be adopted by a series of “social types” that have more or less prevailed in the “Western milieu” – this would itself yield a sequence of conjunctural circumstances that would be stamped by an ultimately conflictual orrery of cultural paradigms. Below, we intend to examine the extent to which secular religiosity would yield – as in the case of religious religiosity – its own self-cancelling contradictions within the “Western world”. To put it otherwise, we shall examine the extent to which the ideological concept of “social structure” would move, from the establishment of a “pluralist” society [the functionality of structures], to one in which different socio-cultural groupings would come to engage in a war of mutual cancellation [the dysfunctionality of structures]. Our analysis shall attempt to answer one key question, and which may be put as follows: would it be accurate to assert that, while the “Western world” of the 20th century would be marked by a functional pluralism [and despite the major social upheavals of the period], that of the 21st century would be characterized by a dysfunctional pluralism heralding a relative decomposition?
Before we attempt to examine the specifically postmodern implications of the ideology of humanism as a form of secular religiosity, we shall need to very briefly dwell on the term “secular religiosity” itself. It seems unduly paradoxical that such a type of ideological paradigm could have possibly survived its own internal contradictions right through to the present. On the one hand, the discourse of humanism clearly entails elements of a religion, with its own irrationalities [or that imperviousness to reason mentioned above]. On the other hand, and despite whatever has been noted above regarding the “social sciences”, the latter have upheld a certain element of rationality on the basis of their emphasis on empirical research. How be it possible that both such elements have successfully coexisted within the selfsame hub of human intellect? We shall at this point merely cite Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose style of thinking typically lurked on the boundary between the pre-modern and the modern eras [and whom we intend to further refer to below] – sensing the continuity of the irrational within the rational, he would rather perceptively write in one of his pieces in The Collected Poems about “The knots that tangle human creeds” [p. 8]. It is obvious that words such as “knots”, “tangle” and “creed” may go a long way in explaining the mode of human thought spanning different eras of the “Western world”: it is precisely such “knots” of human discourse, their “entanglement”, and the perseverance of quasi-religious “creeds” in the modern and postmodern “Western world” that shall be explored in what follows.
We may now proceed to explore the secular religiosity of humanism as it would manifest itself first in the modern and then in the postmodern world. For reasons that can only be explained in terms of particular historical conjunctures, humanism would assume very specific [albeit entangled] historical forms in the course of these two eras. Whatever the particular form, however, the discourse of humanism would nonetheless either be a sublimation of “the religious instinct” or a mere continuation of such “instinct”, though this time with a deeper “social” or even “socio-political” content.
The sublimation of “the religious instinct” as a pre-postmodern secular religiosity of the 20th century would be dominated by a Leftwing mass political movement [with its various strands of the socialist and/or communist movement stretching from countries such as Italy and France and through to the State socialism of the then USSR]. On the other hand, the continuation of “the religious instinct” with a “social” or “socio-political” content would be most interestingly manifested in the various strands of Radical Christianity that would emerge in places such as Latin America [often referred to as “liberation theology”, and which was deeply impregnated with Marxist or quasi-Marxian ideological tendencies]. Further, even formal denominations such as Catholicism or Anglicanism would – especially after the Second World War – readjust their theological discourse and practice in a manner that would focus on “social” or even overly “political” issues [one may here refer to internationally acknowledged social activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu, or to the lesser known but perhaps as telling case of that of the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, the Very Reverend Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytach, who would allegedly be involved in underground, so-called “terrorist” activities against the Apartheid regime].
In discussing the belief-system of a writer such as Thornton Wilder – whose writings are often said to express some form of “Christian Humanism” – Updike goes on to describe the 20th century in a manner that seems to accurately encapsulate that era. He informs us that the whole of that period may be depicted as “a desperate game of twentieth-century commitment” [p. 159]. Such “game of commitment”, we are saying, had been most obvious in the ideological wave of Leftwing mass politics that would sweep right across the era – mass newspapers such as L’Humanité, which was then the organ of the powerful French Communist Party, would dominate in the “Western” ideological terrain.
The clearly secular religiosity of the communist movement – and the “commitment” which it inspired in vast masses of people – is by now almost a truism. Updike himself would note as follows by 1999: “Communism was no doubt a religion, with martyrs and a static future paradise, until its preachments were put into practice” [p. 37]. The “preachments” were of course “put into practice” in the East – the most avid believers in such “preachments” were, however, to be located in the “Western world”, although we know that many “Western” intellectuals would gradually come to espouse various “New Left” currents.
Specifically with respect to the “Western world”, one may say that both the traditional Left and the “New Left” would constitute a sublimation of “the religious instinct” espousing some form of “future paradise” and which would be the outcome of a “ruptural fusion” vis-à-vis the capitalist world effected by a historical agent [or agents]. The de facto religious “commitment” was obvious: Karl Marx’s Das Capital would be treated as a near-sacred text, and a variety of schools of Marxian thought would emerge based exclusively on a particular interpretation of that long three-volume text [one may here simply refer to just one obvious example, that of Louis Althusser’s then-popular Reading Capital, published in 1968]. Naturally, the Leftwing movement would also worship what Updike calls its “martyrs” – and the worshippers would be both university students and the wider segment of the popular masses that believed in the dictates of communism [or even socialism, for that matter]. We well know that longish list of “lay saints” that would be revered both intellectually and emotionally: for the students in particular, such “lay saints” would include Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara, and quite a number of others. For the older generations – and especially those who subscribed to the teaching of the traditional Communist Parties – there would even be a reverence for Stalin himself. Most seemed to have a deep respect for the life and thought of Lenin – surely one of the most obvious verifications of a sublimatory “religious instinct” in 20th century communism was the embalming of Lenin’s body and the establishment of his tomb in the Red Square. It goes without saying that, for the vast majority of Leftwingers in the 20th century – and which would of course include those of the “West” – Moscow would come to constitute their veritable “Red Mecca”, something also noted by Eric Hobsbawm himself.
This 20th century religious commitment to the ideology of communism with its apparently secular martyrs and erudite “priests” would present itself with a dogmatic certainty that stood in stark contradistinction to a string of persisting uncertainties that would haunt other academic disciplines and which would point to the puzzlement elicited by the “human condition” itself. Questions relating to at least three central issues – those of “consciousness”, “free will” and the “self” – were much debated and remained completely unresolved, as they do so to this day [consider, for instance, Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, 1989, or the volume edited by Fabio Scardigli, Artificial Intelligence Versus Natural Intelligence, 2022]. All three issues at times appeared real and graspable and yet reappeared as illusory and intractable. Within such a context of rampant puzzlement, the dogmatic certainties of the Left could only but have functioned as mechanisms of manufactured illusions – retrospectively speaking, such illusions now seem all too naïve: history had supposedly endowed a specific social agent with the “free will” and the appropriate “consciousness” to lead humanity to a particular “future paradise” that would finally come to be classless and would thereby free the “self” from the burdens of capitalist “alienation”.
We know of course that Marxian academic discourse was usually couched in language highly reminiscent of the “rationalist” tradition [let us remember the case of Georg Lukács] – much more than that, academic Marxism would produce a vast array of empirical studies in fields such as sociology, anthropology and history. And yet, its findings would be informed by dogmatic certainties rather akin to a metaphysical system of discrete moral values pertaining to a credo of class-based “social justice”: as such, Marxian academic output would carry within itself the “irrationalism” of religiosity. It would thus be symptomatic of those “knots that tangle human creeds”, as Tennyson had put it. And further, it would – like all forms of religiosity – remain impervious to all types of “reason” that came from outside of it, almost always reducing these to “bourgeois” apologetics. Engaging in polemics as would any religious creed, it would continually reproduce its own illusions. The movement’s political representatives would at times attempt to adjust such illusions to the socio-economic realities of the “West”, and they would do so as they sensed the Left’s ultimate ideological defeat in the face of such realities. And yet, the movement would generally prove incapable of expunging its central ideological [or quasi-religious] creeds, and when it did so it would simply collapse.
Although what Updike calls the “preachments” of the Left would fail when put into practice in the 20th century, “scraps” [at least in the sense used by Walter Benjamin] of its secular religious ideology would survive and spill over into the 21st century – such scraps would yield a new form of postmodern humanism, the specific ideological contents [and contradictions] of which shall be investigated below. It has been argued that such new form of humanism would base its central ideological tenets on scraps retrieved from the 20th century’s “New Left” currents, and especially on political thinkers such as Michel Foucault and others. We do not intend to examine the precise manner in which this evolution of creeds – from pre-postmodern secular religiosity to postmodern secular religiosity – would occur. Much has been written concerning such history of ideas within the “Western milieu” – one may here simply refer to Helen Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories, 2020, although the manner of presentation is in this case rather biased.
What is of greater interest to us is how Updike’s 20th century of “commitment” would morph into a 21st century of even greater “commitment” to a new, supposedly universal “faith” exclusively expressive of the “Western world”. Being essentially religious in nature, the new humanism would – as is the case with all religiosity – carry ideological artifacts that are “more of the same” [Updike, p. 36] with respect to the past secular religiosity. That sameness would naturally revolve around a similar moral system delineating the meaning of “good” as “equality” and that of “evil” as “inequality”. Such sameness would therefore further imply that the tenets of “justice” of the new humanism would be – and again as in all forms of religiosity – essentially “conservative artifacts” [Updike, ibid.]. And they would be “conservative” since the new “faith” would be “made from the scraps of others” dating back to the pre-postmodern era [Updike, ibid.].
In all, one may therefore speak of the sublimation of “the religious instinct” in the 21st century – and this would apply to both the “social sciences” as practiced in the universities and to the dissemination of the concomitant mass ideology at large. In an important sense, Roger Penrose’s specific critique of the “New Physics” would all the more so apply to the field of social theory and ideology: the discourse of 21st century “Humanities” studies may be said to be determined by “fashion”, “faith” and “fantasy” [cf. Roger Penrose, Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe, Princeton University Press, 2016]. All three of these symptoms may be said to directly apply to the “social sciences” as practiced in the present century and specifically as regards the “West”. Firstly, the symptom of “fashion” is evident in the particular “group-think” amongst social theoreticians – their mode of thinking is subject to the “habituation” of academic fashion-trends. This is meant to “protect” social researchers from the pressures and fatal risks of academic peer review. Secondly, the symptom of “faith” – which constitutes what we have referred to as the sublimation of “the religious instinct” in the “social sciences” – ensures a religious adherence to the primordially dominant moral values of “equality”, “justice” and “freedom” dating back to the Christian view of morality [and which Nietzsche, as already noted, had once presented as a “slave morality”]. Finally, the symptom of “fantasy” is precisely that mechanism of manufactured illusions as discussed above, and which would in the 21st century come to yield very specific and highly selective abstractions of “social structure” and corresponding “social types” supposedly expressive of the postmodern “Western world”.
What, then, is the ideological content of the dominant form of postmodern humanism in the 21st century? We shall begin our presentation of such content with a number of preliminary observations. It has been noted above that – and according to Updike at least – the “human condition” may be said to escape so-called “profundity” as “all is surface” and “rather flimsy surface at that”. It escapes whatever “profundity” since, in the very last instance, all civilizational practices are meant to merely control and fastidiously “clothe” the naked [or raw] human instincts in a variety of sublimatory forms. In direct contrast, postmodern humanist ideology finds this absolutely insufferable – whichever discourse is devoid of human “profundity” cannot possibly hold a candle to the life of a human being. Updike himself writes of that “uninhibited thrust and concern with profound humanistic issues” [p. 614]. Naturally, Updike is not – and cannot be – at all critical of such “thrust” and “concern”. He cannot be since the ideology of postmodern humanism takes the “profundity” of all “humanistic issues” as an “obvious” given, and we know that it is the very function of all ideological systems to convert that which may be “nonobvious” into an “obvious”. But much more than that, the idea that the value of human life is profoundly “obvious” is so universally accepted – and so ubiquitously propagated by the mass media – that it would be a form of anti-social madness to assert the opposite. The pervasiveness of such obviousness across the “Western world” is beyond doubt – fringe ideological groupings that may remain outside such value-judgment are either incomprehensible or in any case not worthy of mention. However, and as we shall see below, the “obvious” in any ideology – while it could perhaps be “true” in itself – may at the same time secrete particular ideological implications that may themselves not be at all “obvious”. To the extent that that happens, the particular ideological paradigm would begin to show signs of intra-conflictual tendencies. While the generic “obvious” could be upheld by all within the “Western milieu”, offspring ideological accretions may not.
We are arguing that the dominant form of postmodern humanism has come to function as a mass-based ideology; that it is based on and expressive of habits and illusions; and that it has been manufactured from “scraps” of past religiosity – such “scraps”, we are suggesting, have been retrieved primarily from Christian Humanism and Marxist Humanism. We have also suggested that the dominant form of postmodern humanism may be said to be a “conservative” ideological artifact – on the other hand, and since it is a child of “the religious instinct”, it is also highly resourceful. Its resourcefulness lies in the fact that, as postmodern humanism retrieved its ideological “scraps” from Christianity and Marxism, it would use these “scraps” in its own special way: it would be highly adjustive and selective in the manner in which it would present all “profound humanistic issues”.
It would nonetheless be altogether inaccurate to suppose that such adjustiveness and selectivity are symptoms of some deliberate “political” bias, at least as regards the intellectual work of academia. Rather, one would argue that postmodern humanism adjusts and selects in a manner that allows it to articulate its own “grand theory” of the world – and it needs to articulate such “grand theory” very much in keeping with its own historical predecessors, Christianity and Marxism. Both of these, need we say, were ipso facto “grand” in their perspectives. And both, we should further add, had to be selective of their subjects in articulating such “grandness”: it would be the repentant sinners that would enter the Gates of Heaven; it would be the awakened workers who would create what Updike refers to as a “static future paradise”.
In the 1950’s, C. Wright Mills had been able to observe such attempt at “grandness” in the “social sciences”, and so he had appropriately [albeit perhaps naively] warned sociologists of the dangers of “grand theorizing”. While primarily targeting sociologists such as Talcott Parsons, his critique would have certainly also applied to 20th century Marxism. Likewise, it may be said to apply to the postmodern “Humanities”, and especially with respect to their view of an “ideal world”. Now, the “grand” worldviews of Christianity and Marxism, as also the “grand” vision of postmodern humanism – and given such “grandness” – are prone to “intoxication” [a term used by C. Wright Mills himself]. Such “intoxication” goes hand-in-hand with “the religious instinct” in its various levels of sublimation. In the case of postmodern humanism, this “intoxication” would yield a very specific type of eschatological humanism – being eschatological, it would be a utopian humanism.
The specificity of postmodern eschatological/utopian humanism may be compared in a variety of ways to that of the eschatological humanism of 20th century Marxism. At this point, we may compare the two types of humanism as follows: while in the case of Marxism it would be a worker’s paradise that would lead to a classless society and thus to the end of conflictual human history, in the case of postmodern humanism it would be the inclusion of all heretofore oppressed minorities [and their cultures] within social norms and structures that would lead to a “global village” of equals, and which would put an end to socio-cultural wars and thus allow for the end of all conflictual human history. The postmodern eschatological/utopian humanism of the 21st century would therefore articulate an adjustive and highly selective discourse that would be fiercely protective of the rights of a variety of clusters of minority groups.
Above all, therefore, postmodern humanism would be an ideology focused on inclusivism. The concept of inclusivism would virtually monopolize academic papers in the course of the late 20th century and by the first quarter of the 21st century – social researchers would either explore its various theoretical extrapolations or apply it in their empirical studies of a variety of social phenomena. We may here present just two random samples to help illustrate the prevalence of the concept. First, consider the following introduction to an article written by N.Z. Gazizovich and N.R. Hamzievna, entitled “Humanistic Foundations of Inclusive Pedagogy” [and which is of course typical of the eschatological/utopian humanism we have spoken of above] – we read: “The humanistic idea of inclusive education at all levels, the inclusion of all children in this system, regardless of differences in abilities and opportunities of their cultural and social status is gaining popularity. The eternal humanistic dream of mankind about a just world where no group of people is isolated from the rest and the interests of any people are not oppressed by the interests and needs of others became possible due to the inclusive model of education” [The Social Sciences, Vol. 10, Issue 4, 2015, pp. 426-431]. The second random sample is from an article written by N.I. Anstead, entitled “Hooking Kids with Humanities” [and which is itself typical of the eschatological/utopian humanism encapsulated in the idea of a “global village”] – it reads as follows: “We live in a multicultural world that calls for knowledge of diverse peoples. The Humanities offer windows into these cultures … they help us appreciate the societies they reflect and promote tolerance for cultural differences” [Educational Leadership, Vol. 51, No. 1, Sept. 1993, p. 85].
It is of great interest to note that Updike has himself identified and duly noted this major ideological trend – he has presented it as “today’s strident climate of defensive diversity” [p. 651]. There are two observations one need make here: Firstly, Updike’s use of the term “defensive” is naturally another way of saying “protective” – and the implication is that the ideological climate is therefore “protective” of [or “defensive” of] the sub-cultures and sub-groupings that constitute the variety of clusters of minority groups [be these ethnic, racial or of a certain sexual orientation, etc.]. These need to be “protected” or “defended” because they have been the historical victims of oppression, exploitation or suppression – they have been, in other words, thus far excluded from the norms and structures of civil society [it goes without saying that, for the likes of a thinker such as Nietzsche, what is here being “protected” or “defended” is none other than the originally Christian milieu of “Western” so-called “slave morality”].
The second observation is even more important: while both the concepts of inclusivism and that of Updike’s “defensive diversity” may point to a defense or protection of social heterogeneity – as they certainly do – both nonetheless point elsewhere in terms of the long-term “grand” vision of the “ideal world” of eschatological/utopian humanism. We shall be arguing below that the postmodern – and specifically “Western” – ideology of utopian humanism envisages a progressive movement from “diversity” to the all-inclusivist globalist assimilation of cultures in an ideal “global village” that would be free of culture-inspired wars [nationalism] and fully cognizant of the ecological destruction that such wars can cause. Thereby, both humanity and its planet shall be saved. Now, such sense of all-inclusiveness brings us to the central concept of “monoculture”.
By 2000, Updike would somewhat curtly express the following sentiment: “Monoculture of any sort is frightening” [p. 75]. We do not mean to present Updike’s “fright” as a critique of the idea of “monoculture” – his was a subjective response to a looming world that was alien to his own experience of what was primarily the 20th century. For the postmodern utopian humanists of the “Western world”, in any case, that 20th century was an essentially failed century, and especially given its two horrific world wars and the almost irreversible destruction of the natural environment.
We are here arguing that the dominant ideology of a specifically “Western” humanism may now be described as a tendency towards “monoculture” stretching across the globe [or in any case stretching to wherever “Western” hegemony has been able to assert itself] and thereby universally upholding the values of “equality”, “justice” and “freedom” for all the “citizens of the world”.
We do not intend to explore the complex meanderings of post-Marxian thought and the manner in which the present-day ideology of inclusivism would ultimately come to establish both its “humanistic foundations” and its “monoculturalist” tendencies. We have of course already made mention of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, but one would also have to refer to writers such as Jacques Lacan [especially his concept of the “Other”], Jacques Derrida [especially his so-called “profound humanism”] and a whole host of other 20th century post-Marxian thinkers, and how their mode of thinking would ultimately yield present-day theories of “otherness” and “othering”. While the latter terms have played an important role in inclusivist thinking, we shall nonetheless choose to dwell on the manner in which Updike has himself dealt with the rather contradictory and at times all too obscurantist work of postmodernist thinking, and which would allow us to draw more specific conclusions regarding the idea of “monoculture”.
Firstly, Updike points to what he calls “postmodernism’s rampant eclecticism” [p. 375]. This may at first sight suggest that postmodern utopian humanism is based on a certain morally relativistic understanding of the world. While the work of thinkers such as Derrida may have been understood – or had perhaps been mistaken for – some form of moral relativism, this is not at all the manner in which the “social sciences” have come to operate in the 21st century [or it is not the way in which they have come to make use of thinkers such as him]. The element of “eclecticism” in present-day utopian humanism is such as to combine ideas from a variety of other [or past] systems of thought – we have already referred to the notion of “scraps” above. But the crucial point here is that this combination of ideas [or combination of “scraps” for that matter] is based on a selection which seems most useful for the intentions of postmodern humanist research. Being essentially “defensive” – as Updike has suggested – postmodern humanism chooses ideas that are useful for whatever it wishes to “defend”. The choices of the discipline, therefore, are both adjustive and highly selective as regards the new, postmodern conjuncture [the need for inclusion]. We may say that, in the last instance, the “eclectic” is such as to select and control the apparently “rampant”.
Secondly, and further expanding on the idea that postmodernism is “eclectic”, Updike writes that “truth became thoroughly relative” [ibid.] within the postmodernist mode of discourse. At least as regards the postmodern humanists, however, such apparent relativism would never question a certain underlying system of morality [and especially the primordial value of “equality”] – it would in fact bolster it, and we need to explain how that would be effected. The relativism of postmodern humanism would be a deeply value-laden methodological relativism meant to accomplish a very specific purpose: all research undertakings would wish to demonstrate the “equality” of all sub-cultures and sub-groupings that are ostensibly included [or should be included] either within a particular country or within the “global village” as a whole. Research projects would need to be undertaken so as to stress the absolutely sacrosanct need to “promote tolerance for different cultures” [as N.I. Anstead, amongst so many others, has written] as also to “promote tolerance” for the “other” [the practice of “othering” being a moral anathema]. In fact, and in direct contrast to the type of research work undertaken in the 20th century [and especially in contrast to the 1960’s-1980’s period, and which would also include Marxist-oriented research], present-day university research in the field of the “Humanities” is prone to making morally principled recommendations to entities such as government bodies, the business community and others – such is the absolute adherence to a particularly selected moral system that all research findings are meant to “engage” with “Western” civil society with a view to implementing that set of moral values specific to the moral system.
Such methodological relativism with a distinctly moral mission [and which, as we are suggesting, is tantamount to a secular religiosity], may be presented slightly otherwise. It may be argued that the methodological relativism of postmodern humanism is a mode of research work that constitutes a moral acknowledgement of “historical and cultural variations” and that “there is more than one way of human flourishing”, as Richard Lea had written in The Guardian [18.11.2004] following Derrida’s death. The apparent relativism is meant to absolutely “value” and “affirm” that which is “different”. One may thus conclude that the ideology of postmodern humanism – and the endless number of academic papers that are being produced without much hiding such ideological principles – is such as to affirm the absolute value or truth of “diversity”. Were such truth to be in any way doubted by an academic research paper, the dominant peer review mechanism would almost automatically be activated and the paper would risk rejection.
The absolute truth of “diversity”, being an affirmation of that which is “different” within a society [or “global village”], necessarily translates into a “protection” [or “defense”, as Updike would put it] of specific social identities [and which would necessarily bring us back to our discussion of the birth of the concept of “social types” in “Western” social research]. We know that in the case of “gender studies”, the key “social type” that is to be affirmed, defended or protected is the “oppressed woman”; in “queer studies” it is the person with a particular sexual orientation; in Critical Race Theory it is the “oppressed Black” or the “oppressed Muslim”, and so on. Our purpose here is not at all meant to dismiss any of these academic disciplines as mere “ideological” exercises – rather, we simply which to assert our central proposition that postmodern humanism expresses an absolute affirmation of certain specific “social types”, and is not therefore in any sense relativistic. As such, one may safely say that postmodern humanism constitutes a continuity of secular religiosity in “Western” thought.
In response to Updike’s suggestion that “truth” has “become thoroughly relative” we may thereby state that whatever “relative” in postmodern theory has ultimately gestated into a new absolute truth. Before we go on to consider Updike’s next reflection on what he sees as postmodern thought, we may here make a brief observation with respect to this “relative” versus “absolute” element in the postmodern mode of thinking. One may say that that rather early element of relativistic thinking in postmodernist writers would constitute a wish – on their part at least – to escape from the “absolutes” of both Christianity and especially Marxism, and they would wish such urgent escape given the latter-day disasters of all quasi-Marxist social experimentation. And yet, the needs and realities of the postmodern world [such as migration] would be such as to push the postmodern mode of thinking back into a form of secular religiosity – in fact, it would slip back into its own [often subterranean] “absolutes” with an even greater force and sternness than in the past [and especially, as we shall see, given the intra-conflictual tendencies that would emerge within the “Western milieu” as a whole].
Now, Updike’s third reflection on postmodernism suggests that, in its mode of thinking, “image seized priority over fact” [ibid.]. Of course, such a statement would obviously not apply to the work of academia itself. On the other hand – and to the extent that it constitutes a factual accuracy – it would tell us much as to the manner in which the research findings and “truths” of academia are conveyed as popular ideology to the “Western” masses. We know that “images” had always played a vital role in cementing the religious practices of the Christian masses [the use of icons, for instance] or in cementing the beliefs of the Leftwing masses [the use of symbols such as the hammer and sickle, statues, statuettes, and so on]. In some sense, therefore, one could say that the “image” has always been around in the history of the “Western world” [both ancient and modern]. But could one say that, either in Christianity or in the case of the Marxist movement, “image [had] seized priority over fact”, at least as regards the popular masses? We shall have to leave that an open question. But Updike, it seems, is pointing to the very specific role of the Internet in the 21 century. We intend to dwell on the question of the Internet further below – all we may say here is that this network of mass communication has become the grand site wherein “images” are floated so as to promote the values of postmodern humanism. Since, however, this happens in the context of openly mutual interaction, users of the digital communication landscape have discovered the as yet unheard of “democratic” capacity to oppose or debunk such dominant “images”, depending on their sentiments. This has taken the form of endless “meme wars”, usually suggesting a deep political cleavage amongst “Western” users of the Internet – and which would again point to the intra-conflictual tendencies we have been alluding to above [we shall of course come back to this major present-day reality of the “Western milieu”]. In any case, Updike’s observation regarding the role of “image” vis-à-vis “fact” is of some special interest because it may be said that he is here casting a certain doubt on his own emphasis regarding postmodernism’s “eclectic” or relativistic nature – if it is true that “image seized priority over fact”, then it may also be as true that the postmodernist humanist presents his own choice of image as the absolute fact.
Updike’s fourth reflection on postmodernism concerns the important question of history and, by implication, that of historiography. He tells us that, in postmodernist thinking, “the historical past became an attic full of potentially entertaining trinkets” [ibid.]. For us, it has proven rather difficult to accurately decode what Updike wishes to say with this fairly hazy statement – on the other hand, he does seem to be quite unambiguously critical of what has “become” of “the historical past” in the hands of the postmodernists. One may suppose that his use of the expression “potentially entertaining” may suggest a degrading of “the historical past” – Updike may wish to suggest that postmodern historiography has flippantly reduced the past to a series of trifles. If that be so, “the historical past” has been reduced to a nothingness of trivialities, something which could point to a cancellation of what the “Western world” has thus far understood of history and historical fact. This seems to be further confirmed by his choice of the word “trinkets”, again suggesting that history – for the postmodernists – is a toy or plaything utterly pliable in their hands. Since the writing of history is pliable, it is also highly subjective – by implication, therefore, it is selective in what it wishes to focus on. The “attic”, finally, is that space wherein all those selected “trinkets” are stored.
This rough interpretation of Updike’s presentation of postmodernist historiography would more or less confirm our observation that postmodern humanism has been highly adjustive and as highly selective in its wish to defend certain “social types” in the present-day world. It would be all too natural [and as absolutely necessary] for the postmodern humanist to wish to defend the history of these particular “social types”. To the extent that postmodern humanism wishes to abide by a particular moral system – and thereby wishes to deconstruct and expose all “social structures” that are said to be characteristic of an immoral “oppression” of certain “social types” – it can only but wish to rewrite all of “Western” history [and the related impact of the “West” on the rest of the world] in terms of such deconstruction. It would have to be an altogether new history “defensive” of all the “oppressed social types” and defensive of the phenomenon of “diversity”. And thus it would certainly wish to cancel whatever history had thus far been written by professional historians who had either suppressed the facts of “oppression” or had simply accepted them as a natural given.
It may be argued that this highly selective presentation of historical events – for Nietzsche, certainly, this would amount to a narrative of “slave morality” and its “revolt” – would have the effect of denuding historiography of its intention to record both the might of the conqueror [or “master”] and the subjugation of the conquered [or “slave”] in neutral terms. On the other hand, of course, it would be as easy to argue that no such “neutral” historiography truly exists, and that all of history is written in terms of the “climate” of the age. Insofar as that is the case, it may be said that there has always been a process of cancellation in the construction of “Western” historical narratives. We may here remind ourselves of how the writer Hilaire Belloc would evaluate Edward Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire – he would famously say that that historian “so hated the Christian religion that he did, not once, but a hundred times, suppress essential facts, willfully distorting and willfully overemphasizing” [cf. Imlac’s Journal, 24.06.2017]. We should not forget, however, that the historical narrative produced by someone like Gibbon is characterized by what has been called a “brilliant bias” [ibid.]. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire presents us with such a vast array of facts, often further verified or ultimately qualified by a superposition of other interconnected facts, that the reader has the capacity to pick and choose the facts that he wishes and thereby form his own interpretation of what happened in the past – even Gibbon’s “hatred” of the organized Christian religion does not prevent him from acknowledging its various historical “merits” [ibid.] in various parts of the text. The immediate question that arises here is whether we can speak in similar terms as regards the quality of present-day postmodernist historiography. It is not for us to say whether or not it is mediocrity that has come to dominate the historical studies of the postmodern humanist. One has seen, however, that even serious and highly experienced professional historians seem to have given up the writing of history per se. A case in point here is that of the much celebrated professional historian, Charles van Onselen [who would commence his career in the 1970’s and be recognized for his contributions to South African historiography by the great Eric Hobsbawm]. Van Onselen’s writing seems to have finally fizzled out into a presentation of what Updike calls “potentially entertaining trinkets”. Quite remarkably, the respected historian would devote much effort in his 672-page book, The Fox and the Flies, 2007, to try and convince the world that he had finally discovered who Jack the Ripper really was [that surely being a thoroughly “entertaining trinket”]. This may or may not be taken as symptomatic of the paradoxes of postmodern research work – but Updike would probably see here a confirmation of the new, impoverished “attic” of historiography.
In any case, we may simply observe that the present-day “strident climate of defensive diversity” – as Updike has put it – is such as to manufacture its own absolute moral truths and thus the absolute truth of its own historiography. For the postmodern historian, that “attic” full of “trinkets” is in fact an interpretation of the past through the prism of an eclectic accretion of truths pertaining to “oppressed” sub-cultures and sub-groupings of people who, while having being “excluded” from the world of their “masters”, had nonetheless often “resisted” their circumstances of “social injustice” and had thereby even “made their own world” [to remember Eugene Genovese]. We shall have to come back to this emergence of a “new history” in the postmodern “Western world”.
Now, our consideration of all of Updike’s central observations on postmodernist thinking and postmodernist humanism allows us to draw the general conclusion that there is nothing truly relativistic in the inner ideological workings of the postmodernist paradigm. And further, and to the extent that a certain philosophical relativism does seem to persist in the more abstract theoretical writings of certain present-day postmodern thinkers, such relativism is only an apparent or an illusional relativism. Being illusional, it serves to legitimize the new absolutes as the core of a new type of moral system [and which is itself reflective of a new religiosity]. Put otherwise, one may say that an apparently secular relativism – which may exist in certain academic texts of high theory though very rarely at the level of popularized discourse – has come to operate as an ideological covering of a quasi-religious absolutism delivering daily judgment on the morality or immorality of a variety of human actions and attitudes. That, however, amounts to a solid secular religiosity.
Any action, attitude or discourse that finds itself outside the system of this secular religiosity is disparaged or ostracized. As we well know, the practice of such blacklisting has come to be labeled “political correctness”, though it can be and is activated as an ideological/legal mechanism of disapproval on issues that may not at first sight appear to be clearly “political” – as such, it should perhaps be rebaptized as “socio-cultural correctness”. Again, while this may sound as a critique of the practice, this is not our intention at all: both Christianity and Marxism had clearly demarcated their spaces of “correctness” and “incorrectness” – as a continuity of both these paradigms, postmodern humanism has had no choice but to engage in a similar morally-instigated demarcation of its own space. And it further had to do so given the needs of the specific socio-cultural conjuncture of the “Western world” in the postmodern so-called “multicultural” era. Somewhat paradoxically, even Karl Popper’s “Open Society” could be mobilized in such manner as to defend the uprightness of “political correctness” – for the postmodern humanists, it would all come down to a matter of “protecting” the “liberal value system” from “illiberal truth-claims”, something with which Popper would agree [cf., for instance, S. Dzenis and F. Nobre Faria, “Political Correctness: The Twofold Protection of Liberalism”, Philosophia, 48, 2020, pp. 95-114]. One should nonetheless add here that this hypothetical convergence between classical Liberalism and the postmodern humanists would probably be vehemently rejected by many thinkers originating from the former school of thought [one example here being the likes of a Helen Pluckrose].
Now, and as we have already pointed out, while “political correctness” is meant to be protective of multicultural “diversity”, the purpose of such mechanism – and which has by now become the dominant and definitely official ideology of the “West” – is to ultimately effect an assimilation of all diverse identities into a single, coherent cultural totality more or less across the “Western world” [if not potentially across the globe]. Such assimilation would gradually lead to the emergence of a relatively “peaceful” or “sustainable” world that would make effective and “clever” usage of all shared technology and which would get rid of all bigotry and “hate speech” [terms such as “sustainable”, “clever” and “hate speech” have by now become household words on a near-global level]. Both academic papers and the mass media testify to this in an almost endless number of ways. The standard thinking, albeit at times seemingly chaotic, can take the following form: [i] Diverse human identities shall [or should] undergo a certain degree of socio-economic assimilation within a particular country of the “advanced Western world”; [ii] the socio-economic assimilation would function as a base leading to a certain degree of cultural integration; [iii] the process would be consummated in a state of near-total “structural assimilation”, this time encompassing an assimilation in all the social, economic and cultural [and therefore also ethical] structures of the country, and which would imply an inclusive participation in such structures and practices; [iv] there would therefore be an all-encompassing identification with the cultural and ethical “universals” of the particular country; [v] to the extent that that country is not a “pariah state” [or “global pariah”], and to the extent that that country complies with the ethical “universals” of the “global community”, then the assimilated citizen of that country would automatically become a natural member of that “global community”; and, very importantly, [vi] he or she would thereby meet the standards of a fully-fledged “global citizen”. [It is of the utmost importance to simply note here that such type of “global citizen” – albeit within specific social strata and concomitant professions – already exists within the “Western world”, as also within the rest of the countries it has in some form penetrated].
It may therefore be argued that one would see a movement from Updike’s “defensive diversity” to an all-encompassing “monoculturalist group-think”, and which would be based on an all-encompassing secular religiosity of “universal” humanism. The present-day ideology of multiculturalist “diversity” may therefore be seen as the vehicle leading to what we may call the “New Postmodernist Type” of human being, and whose “ecosystem” would more or less be of an essentially “monocultural” nature. The almost linear movement from multiculturalism, to assimilation, and then on to “monoculture” would at the same time imply a change of strategy in the “protective” philosophy of postmodern humanism – now, it would no longer only be a matter of defending or fighting for the “equality”, “justice” and “freedom” of various “oppressed social types”: to the extent that such “types” continue to exist [as they would in “pariah states”], such fight for “social justice” would of course continue unabated. Above all, however, the postmodern humanist operating in an ideal “global community” would wish to defend and help multiply an altogether new “ideal type” embodying a new Enlightenment – the “global citizen”. One ought not be at all surprised if all such thinking yields exactly what Updike had to say with respect to the Communist worldview itself – viz. the vision of a “static future paradise” [but which surely must not be taken to imply that the world of the postmodern “global citizen” would in any way approximate Marx’s abstract understanding of what he took to be the future]. Likewise, one ought not be surprised if all such thinking is somewhat reminiscent of Christianity’s Second Coming [again, this would obviously not imply that the thinking of the postmodern humanists is in any way “metaphysical”].
It may further be argued that Christianity, Communism and the postmodernist ideal all share a common thread of thinking, and which should be seen as primarily expressive of the needs and inexorable problems of “the human condition”: they all seem to dream of some “total system” spread across the globe. In the case of the postmodern humanists, their own ideal of a “total system” cannot be reduced – as is often done – to some sinister “plan” or “plot” on the part of the so-called “elites” [the latter term, in any case, has always remained crude and simplistic unless rigorously defined]. It may tentatively be argued that, in the common interest of peace, security and “sustainability”, the “monoculture” of the “global community” would be somewhat reflective of some form of an Enlightened type of world governance. Of course, some writers have adopted a rather critical stance regarding such postmodernist ideal – they choose to see a certain form of lurking “totalitarianism” in such morally-instigated “total system” [consider here, for instance, the insinuations of someone like Douglas Murray, in his The Madness of Crowds, 2019]. On the other hand, Updike is himself fairly certain that “Westerners” [including presumably a majority of “non-Westerners”] have acquired sufficient historical knowledge of what it means to live in “totalitarian” regimes to be able to reject such mode of life both now and in the future. In his discussion of Giovanni Piranesi’s etchings of Roman monuments, Updike writes as follows: “It is easy for the modern mind, accustomed to the totalitarian atrocities and Orwellian dystopias of the twentieth century, to read political protest into these images of dungeons” [p. 603]. Yet still, it remains an open question as to whether or not the ultimate establishment of some form of world governance would lead to what Gibbon has described as “the most absolute power” [p. 339] of Roman emperors in the Pax Romana.
Part 2: The emergence of a socio-cultural “ressentiment” within the “Western world”
Having made an attempt at tracing the historical roots of what we have presented as the postmodern humanists, we shall now focus on the gradual but concomitant emergence of a socio-cultural “ressentiment” within the very core of the present-day “Western milieu”. We have already made a number of references to this reality by pointing to signs of what we have called intra-conflictual tendencies and/or deep political cleavages or even self-cancelling contradictions within many countries of the “advanced Western world”. It is of importance to note at the outset that we shall attempt to argue that all or most such conflictual cleavages [at least those worth taking at all seriously] are to be located within the ideological parameters of the general ideology of “Western” humanism itself.
Many writers and commentators who have come to more or less express certain popular sentiments of “ressentiment” vis-à-vis the dominant discourse of postmodern humanism have often argued that it is the role of the “Humanities” in the typical 21st century “Western” university that has caused the socio-cultural cleavage. We believe that such argumentation is helplessly oversimplistic: at best, the discourse of academia should rather be viewed as one symptom of the generalized ideological prevalence of the dominant form of humanist discourse. In the first part of this paper, in attempting to understand the emergence of postmodern humanism, we traced its deep historical roots in “Western” civilization – and it is in terms of such roots that we need to also understand the type of discourse produced by the 21st century “Humanities” disciplines. On the other hand, the identification of the historical roots of whatever discourse cannot in itself constitute the “cause” of the persistence of such discourse. The persistence of the dominant ideology of humanism within “Western” society as a whole needs to be understood in terms of a multiplicity of so-called “causes” – and thus the proliferation of such ideology within “Western” universities should also be understood in terms of such multiple forces. [The identification of such multiplicity of forces operating in the current “Western” conjuncture lies well beyond our objectives in this paper].
To put it simply, one cannot put the blame on the “Western” university for whatever intra-conflictual tendencies that have arisen within the “Western world”. And yet, and simply because much has been written about the manner in which ideological paradigms are produced within such institutions, we shall commence our investigations by focusing on these bodies [20th century Marxists, as we well know, would have the audacity to call such institutions “Ideological State Apparatuses”].
In discussing Peter J. Conradi’s 2001 literary biography, Iris Murdoch: A Life, Updike writes as follows with respect to both Murdoch herself and the style of life within Oxford University generally: “… Oxford became her professional and imaginative base of operations – a sheltered theatre of philosophical and erotic venturing, an island of dreaming towers wherein men and women flitted and form-shifted with the freedom of bodiless spirits, in an ether of intelligent self-regard and benign androgyny” [p. 561]. In his own way, Updike is telling us that Oxford – an institution that is typical of the best of “Western” universities and which constitutes the “base of operations” for the “Western” intellectual – is in fact cut off from the realities of everyday life. The language he uses certainly testifies to that – consider phrases such as “sheltered theatre”, “island of dreaming towers” or even “the freedom of bodiless spirits”. To the extent that “Western” academia is cut off from the realities of the “Western world”, one may draw a number of conclusions as to its mode of production of “knowledge” within the division of the “Humanities”. We may here discover a domain of self-serving academic functionaries deliberately operating within a vicious circle of self-confirmation. Interestingly, one may say that this is rather reminiscent of the well-known positions articulated by Roger Scruton on the autonomous world of postmodern academia. Very briefly, Scruton has generally argued that the postmodern “Humanities” have come to concentrate on objects of research that are constructed around a specific ideology. Thus, it is not the pursuit of “truth” that interests present-day “social scientists” but mere “political conformity”. And so a long list of “subjects” has emerged where a particular “orthodoxy” takes precedence. Ultimately, for Scruton, we have seen the growth and “invasion” of what he had often called a “fake scholarly industry”, and which would include fields of research such as gender studies, queer studies, Critical Race Theory and the various forms of Social Justice studies. In other words, Scruton dismisses whatever “subjects” focus on what the postmodern humanist considers to be historically “oppressed social types”. As we shall further see below, Updike is himself highly critical of what he calls “the absurd curricula that politically hip faculties offer the student body” [p. 656].
One can already observe here an emergent contrarianism even within the walls of that “sheltered theatre” or “island of dreaming towers” – of course, and as we shall be further investigating below, such contrarianism could only but be replicated in a variety of different forms within segments of civil society at large. Scruton’s understanding of “truth” seems to be completely unlike that of the dominant ideology of academia – the point here is not that Scruton’s “truth” is now up for grabs: it is the absolutely conflictual understanding of reality [or of “truth” itself] within the “Western milieu” that is of major historical significance. It is of importance to note in this context that such emergent contrarianism within academia has even permeated the field of the natural sciences – we may simply refer here to the well-known case of the Princeton theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, and how he would articulate his serious scientific objections to the so-called “Climate Establishment”. And it should be underlined that this particular “scientific cleavage” would be located right within the ideological parameters of the general ideology of “Western” humanism: Dyson’s deeply “iconoclastic” intervention would be articulated within the framework of his own “humanist ethics”. Of course, such contrarianism within the scientific community would also go on to be reflected amongst segments of civil society, and which would lead to a certain degree of mass-based skepticism on a number of scientific “truths” – yet again, therefore, the general question of “objective truth” would recur in a conflictual context within the “Western world”.
It would certainly be absurd to assert that the contrarian thinking of either Scruton or Dyson [or of whichever so-called “iconoclastic” academic] can be reduced to whatever sense of “ressentiment” on their part. It would be as absurd to suggest that the likes of Scruton or Dyson actually provoked or even inflamed the socio-cultural “ressentiment” amongst large segments of “Western” civil society. It would be the specific research undertakings of the academic postmodern humanists in the “Humanities” in particular – and especially how their findings would be presented in the mass media – that would be symptomatic of the socio-cultural cleavages besetting the “Western milieu”, and which would thereby create a series of ideological crises within the parameters of the general ideology of “Western” humanism as understood by the masses of civil society. It would be specifically within the ranks of the latter that one would locate the symptoms of “ressentiment”.
We have already made a number of observations regarding the “Western” university. Before we proceed any further, we shall need to reiterate some of these observations, though this time with one objective in mind: how would the research work of academia be such as to indirectly [via the mass media] compound the problem of social “ressentiment”?
One may argue that the realities of “the human condition” [as manifested in the “Western world”] stand in a certain contradistinction to the abstract reality of “social structures” as articulated or “manufactured” by the postmodern humanists prevailing in the universities. The latter, of course, cannot fully ignore the nitty-gritty materiality of “the human condition” and all of its irreconcilable contradictions, and this is evident in their endless empirical studies. And yet, all empirical findings have to be necessarily mobilized so as to conform to and confirm an abstract sociological and value-laden framework founded on often well-defined concepts of “social structure”. This imbalanced amalgamation of hard fact and theoretical fancy [we may here reiterate Penrose’s “fashion”, “faith” and “fantasy”] would yield, and as already argued in the first part of this paper, a so-called theoretical bias tending to “protect” specific “social types”.
Such “social types”, and in their capacity as “manufactured” ideological entities within the “sheltered theatre” of academia, would necessarily be accompanied by an ideologically-based “group-think” with a clear-cut bias “protective” of groups that need to assert their “equality” in an “unjust” social system [for such social groupings, the “bias” would be an altogether “fair” correction]. On the other hand, and from the perspective of those segments of civil society considered relatively “privileged” or “powerful” within the network of “Western” social structures, the alleged “bias” would be nothing more than an ideologically “protective” mechanism of illusions meant to solidify the discourse of particular “social types” within a tightly closed and cohesive “group-think”. For those outside such “group-think”, therefore, one would see the potentiality of an emergent “ressentiment” at grassroots level – as we shall see, one important manifestation of such “ressentiment” would be a rejection of all “group-think”. This “ressentiment”, further, would be targeting the new secular religiosity on the basis of its own particular understanding of “humanist ethics” [but which would of course be rejected as overly “biased” by those defensive of the “oppressed” groupings]. The intra-conflictual relationship within the “Western milieu” would be such as to raise questions of a possibly mutual self-cancellation within that milieu. To put it otherwise, one could say that, as the Christian Church had once selected its own “chosen people” with its accompanying “group-think”, so would academia – and the mass media in general – select its own “social types” with its own accompanying “group-think”. Both Christianity and the postmodern humanist would be defensive of “slaves” [at least metaphorically speaking] wishing to assert their “equality”, “justice” and “freedom”.
We shall need to further dwell on this conflictual relationship between the dominant form of postmodern humanism as articulated within the “Western” university and the often anti-academic “ressentiment” as expressed by segments of “Western” civil society – here, we shall focus on how these two social forces have come to regard the question of their own historical past.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, who would live and write in a period of time constituting a threshold between the pre-modern and the modern, would soon become aware that the historical past was something that could be reinterpreted [or rewritten] so as to express the needs of that threshold period. A historical past that had heretofore seemed to be a fixed and solid universal constant now seemed to him to be a series of “stories” that could be used at will to suit the needs of changing times. And thus he writes of “the storied Past … used within the Present” [cf. The Collected Poems, p. 106]. We know that all or most of “Western” historiography has never really escaped such “usage”, depending on the particular conjuncture. There has always been a set of elementary questions that has deeply disturbed the production of that “storied Past”. Such questions would include the following: [i] how is that past used in the present?; [ii] why is it so used?; [iii] who is it who uses the past in the way that he does? Such basic questions, aware to all and sundry, question the “objectivity” and/or “scientificity” of the field of historiography.
For our narrower purposes at this point, such types of questions shall have to be considered in the context of postmodern historiography, and thus of the historical research of the present-day “Western” university and how this has come to be related to the phenomenon of “ressentiment”. The reality of such public phenomenon would not mean, however, that this particular historiography is in any way more “guilty” of “subjectivity” or “bias” than the historiography of earlier times. And yet, and as we have seen in discussing Updike’s observations on postmodernism’s “potentially entertaining trinkets”, the relative quality of postmodern historiography may remain questionable. One may here consider the “how” question: while Tennyson would fully accept that “the storied Past … [is] used within the Present”, he may nonetheless object to a particular manner of such usage. And thus he at the same time warns his own contemporaries: “Nor feed [the Past] with crude imaginings” [ibid.]. The question of “crudity” certainly relates to the important matter of quality or rigour in historical research – as regards postmodern historiography, such criteria are definitely not always met – consider, for instance, some of the unforgivably puerile papers published in W.Z. Goldman & J.W. Trotter [eds.], The Ghetto in Global History: 1500 to the Present, Routledge, 2017.
But Tennyson’s “crude imaginings” can go much further – the question we need to pose is, firstly, the extent to which postmodern historiography is “crude” in its selectivity of historical facts. And secondly, we shall need to consider the extent to which such selectivity is such as to wish to “poison” – in some particularly “crude” manner – what Tennyson refers to as “the storied Past” of “Western civilization”. Obviously, when historical research chooses to be “crudely” selective and/or “crudely” poisonous with respect to the historical past of at least certain segments of “Western” society – and especially when such historical “findings” are popularized via the mass media – it could only but generate a certain “ressentiment” within those segments of civil society.
Let us fist deal with the question of “selectivity”. One may generally consider “selectivity” as the inventory of eclectic memory of one’s past events. In the case of “selectivity” pertaining to individual memory, one may argue that it involves the blotting out of certain traumatic events [or perhaps the persisting remembrance of such events, but from a different perspective]. Alternatively, “selectivity” in the case of individual memory may simply mean the forgetting of trivial events [or perhaps of events that are no longer of any use to the person].
Such an understanding of individual memory is most probably an oversimplistic layman’s presentation of the matter – and yet, it helps us contrast such presentation to the issue of “selectivity” in collective memory. The latter may be said to take at least two basic forms – that of grassroots popular memory [informal] and that of the memory of historiography or of historical memory [formal]. Popular memory may be spontaneously conscious, semiconscious, subconscious or even unconscious in its particular “selectivity” [one may tentatively refer here to Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious” and/or “collective archetypes”]. As is obvious, formal historical memory is the product of an altogether different human practice: the professional historian considers his primary data, historical records and the finished products of past historiography and deliberately selects what he finds useful to his project – the question of usefulness cannot much be disentangled here from the historian’s personal adherence to the ideological framework of a certain academic “group-think”.
Now, there is an important sense in which individual memory, informal grassroots popular memory and formal historical memory all share a common attribute: their perspective of the past – or their “selectivity” pertaining to it – can only but undergo radical changes in the course of time. The force of time in itself – and the fruits that it brings along with it for a particular “present” – is such so as to effect a significant alteration of perspectives. With respect to this phenomenon of changing perspectives in time, Updike chooses to present us with his own interpretation of the work of none other than Marcel Proust, who of course has so much to tell us on the “remembrance of things past”. Proust, according to Updike, “speaks of changing perspectives, as time’s railroad journey rounds a curve” [p. 645]. And he continues that one “cannot but notice how the events [one] keeps remembering change over time, generating new stories …” [ibid.].
What should be underlined here is Updike’s note regarding the generation of what he calls “new stories”: one may argue that whether or not the memory of events is spontaneously or deliberately “selective” [and whoever it is that does the selecting], such memory will change significantly in terms of current events, and in so changing it shall generate something new. Updike writes of “new stories” – we may speak of “new narratives” and may go even further and speak of “new ideologies”.
The postmodernist historian’s memory of events – and the new ideological narratives that such memory produces – may or may not coincide with the changing perspectives of society as a whole [in any case, societal perspectives of both the past and the present can never be homogeneous in themselves, quite the opposite] To the extent that the postmodernist historian is deliberately “selective” in his work, his memory of past events – and the ideology that informs such memory – can only be primarily or even exclusively “representative” of those segments of society that he chooses to “defend” in terms of the moral dictates of “equality”, “justice” and “freedom”. The content of his ideological narrative can only but revolve around a series of struggles between the “oppressor” and the “oppressed”, or between the “powerful” and the “underdog”.
The deliberate “selectivity” and new ideological narrative of the postmodernist humanist historian must therefore be said to be based on solid moral grounds [and which date back to Christian-like morality]. His historical discourse cannot possibly be representative of all the segments of what is said to be a hierarchically structured “Western” society. And, in any case, it goes without saying that the academic historian is not in any way morally obliged to be representative of society as a whole – academics, of course, are not elected by society [we need remember Updike’s reference to “sheltered theatre” or “island of dreaming towers”]. The postmodern historian’s ideological “selectivity” is therefore, by definition, “undemocratic” [but that could surely not possibly be otherwise, as it simply secures the “independence” of the academic mind].
Now, theoretically speaking, this would suggest a head-on clash between the perspectives of the postmodern historian and the spontaneous ideological perspectives of particular segments of people within the “Western world” who would be “stigmatized” as historically “privileged”. But the theoretical clash can ultimately become a real one – and it can assume political dimensions – to the extent that the perspectives of the postmodern historian are systematically popularized, propagated and validated by the dominant mass media.
The question of historical “selectivity” may now be summarized as follows. Firstly, the altogether changed or changing perspectives of the past [and therefore of the present] in the postmodern “Western world” have had an impact on the worldviews of most of civil society – and yet, all such new perspectives insist on preserving certain primary residual moral values. The postmodern historian abides by the primordial values of “equality”, “justice” and “freedom” – the newness in his ideological narrative lies in the new choice of the various “social types” that are the quintessential “carriers” of these old values. Those social segments of the “Western world” that have been deliberately excluded by the postmodern historian as “carriers” of such values have themselves come to uphold certain primordial values of the past that are posited as an alternative to – or even in direct opposition to – the dominant discourse of the postmodernist humanist [the newness of this perspective, to be further discussed below, is usually presented as a form of “conservative populism” pitted against both the State and the so-called “elites”, and may therefore be said to be “revolutionary” in some sense].
Secondly, one may observe that the new ideological narratives that have emerged in the postmodern “Western world” are perspectives that have come to constitute an at least tripartite fragmentation of the ideological landscape of the “Western milieu” in toto. As noted, one may observe the grassroots popular memories of the past expressive of certain segments of “Western” civil society; and one may further observe the postmodernist “group-think” expressive of the “Humanities”; but one may also observe the typically “Western” individual [or individualistic] eclectic memories of the past [these may ally themselves with one or the other of the two major blocs of ideological perspectives, or may identify with none at all]. We have here a conflicting orrery of ideological and cultural milieus suggesting a significant degree of fragmentation – the important implication here is that the ideology of humanism per se has become deeply fragmented. It is within such context that one should therefore attempt to grasp the phenomenon of “ressentiment” within, and almost throughout, the “Western world”. For those segments of “Western” society that feel such “ressentiment”, the new narratives produced by the postmodern historian and promulgated by the mass media are reducible to “crude imaginings” in their “selectivity” of historical facts – and herein lie the present-day intra-conflictual tendencies and self-cancelling contradictions within the “Western” ideology of humanism in general.
The popular or populist “ressentiment” may further be explained in terms of yet another, though clearly very closely interrelated, set of “crude imaginings” – these are the so-called “imaginings” of the postmodern historian that are said to have one central intention in mind, that of “poisoning” people’s memory of “the storied Past” and thereby “poisoning” much of “Western civilization”.
Now, this question of purportedly wishing to “poison” the past remains a highly complex issue, and cannot simply be reduced to the “biased” intentions of whatever historiography. The “poisoning” may in fact occur almost automatically following a series of current events that tend to prejudice the past in some way or another. To understand this process, we may here briefly consider the case of Alfred Lord Tennyson himself, and especially what had [or thus far has] happened to the appreciation of his own massive production of poetry and the reasons behind his present-day degraded status as a poet. Dr. Helen Heineman, President Emerita of Framingham State University and whose work has focused on Victorian literature, has tried to identify the specific reasons why Tennyson’s work is no longer much readable. It was above all the occurrence of the Great War that would “poison” people’s appreciation of, and taste for, Tennyson’s poetry. The “poison” would be inevitably injected in the minds of intellectuals [and others] following the traumatic experiences of war across much of Europe – Tennyson’s Victorian aestheticism, moralism and themes of repentance would be rendered completely out of place. We thereby had a total displacement of what may be called Tennyson’s Romantic Idealism. While such an explanation of the poet’s veritable cancellation cannot only be put down to the events of the war, these events would certainly be such as to overdetermine the cancellation of someone who had only recently been the Poet Laureate during much of the reign of Queen Victoria.
Tennyson’s displacement was almost automatic – the particular past that he had presented in his poetry had been “poisoned” once and for all in the “Western” mind. In fact, what really had been “poisoned” was, not only the type of lifestyle that Tennyson had been presenting in his work, but rather people’s memory of the European past as a whole. Now, it is precisely that type of generalized “poisoning” that may be said to have occurred in the mindset of the postmodern humanist and in the historiography that he has been producing. It is not our intention here to examine the various types of events in the postmodern “Western world” that may have yielded such “poisoning” – all we need point to is, yet again, the fact of the emergence of different perspectives of the past [and therefore also of the present] that would conflict with one another. The obvious implication is that the “poisoning” would only concern or express specific segments of “Western” society – not all of its so-called “social strata” would yield to such deliberate “poisoning” and certainly not so in the case of society as a whole [and which is a reality that has already been discussed above in considering historical “selectivity”].
The point here is that different and conflictual perspectives of “the storied Past” of the “Western world” would be underpinned by altogether different interpretations of the ideology of humanism in the postmodern era – the conflicting humanisms would be expressive of different memories of the past, be it the distant or recent one [as for the latter, one may refer to especially conflictual evaluations of the “Golden Years” of the 1960’s in the “Western world”]. In the last instance, one may say that the different memories of the past would come to be translated into a conflict between those who upheld the “canonical” and/or “classical Western culture” and those who wished to cancel all or most of that culture. It is not for nothing that the postmodern world has been said to be characterized by “culture wars”. Such “wars”, however, are not only [or at least not primarily] between racial or ethnic groupings residing in the “West” – they are above all what we have referred to as “intra-conflictual” clashes within the very kernel of “Western” society.
For those who are intent on cancelling all or most of the “canonical” culture of the “Western world”, the project has been one of deconstruction – in fact, one may argue that the history of ideas amongst “Western” intellectuals has been marked by alternating waves of construction and deconstruction. This movement has never been linear; and further, the positive affirmations of the former and the negative nihilisms of the latter have almost never been absolute in terms of practical political implications [while it is true that nihilists such as Nechayev or anarchists such as Bakunin would have wished the total destruction of the State, a statesman such as Lenin would come to fully espouse the tenets of Scientific Management and/or Taylorism]. And yet, the compromises of the past – such as the Italian “Historic Compromise” of the 1970’s – do not seem to apply much to the present postmodern era. According to Updike, “The will to construct pushes deeper and deeper into formlessness” [p. 604], suggesting that the constructive “will” soon yields its direct opposite in the “Western world”, that of the “formlessness” of deconstruction. For those who happen to be opposed to the “global citizen” as discussed above, “the will to construct” is seen as something being negated by those who are deliberately pushing deeper into the formlessness of “monoculture”. They would see such “monocultural” formlessness in the almost nihilistic deconstruction of some of the primordial foundations that have come to constitute their “Western world” – viz. a deconstruction of the meaning of “nature”, of “culture” and “art”, and thus of the whole of “Western” history and identity.
The postmodern humanist who undertakes the deconstruction of “Western” history and identity does not, however, view himself as a nihilist. He wishes to deconstruct people’s memory of the “Western” past so as to serve the ideological and even practical needs of the community [or of what he decides to define as “community”]. It may even be suggested that, precisely because such a historian wishes to serve the community, he operates as an academic wishing to escape Updike’s “sheltered theatre” or “island of dreaming towers”. And he thereby writes a history [or rewrites history] in ways that respond to the needs of the “real” world as he understands it.
Thus, and in conscious opposition to all of official/conventional “Western” historiography as it has been produced thus far, the postmodern humanist traces a memory of the past as determined by what has often been called a “public-facing” historiography. We may here consider, by way of an example, what Jacqueline Jones of the University of Texas, Austin, had to say in her address to the American Historical Association. Her address, very tellingly entitled “Historians and Their Publics, Then and Now”, was summarized as follows by Perspectives on History [March 2022], the newspaper of the AHA: “she captures silences around questions of gender, ethnicity, and race and the ways in which they have distorted our understanding of the past. Jones concludes with a discussion of the public-facing turn in history practice today and the role of historians’ advocacy in it”.
One can see from what Jones is saying – and which is something that is fully endorsed by the oldest professional association of historians in the United States and the largest of its kind in the world – that the purpose of postmodern historiography is to cancel the “distortions” of the past. Such “distortions”, further, have to be cancelled so as to serve the needs of the “public” that the historian “faces”. Thus, while historians are not – as we have noted above – elected by society as a whole, they nonetheless do feel a strong moral accountability to “their public” [and thus we have seen the emergence of historians-cum-community activists or of historians-cum-“digital humanists”]. Jones is absolutely lucid in delimiting what constitutes “the public” in the eyes of the historian, and such delimitation is as absolutely selective. The favoured “social types” are well-known to all of us – they are of course related to “gender, ethnicity, and race”. The very title of Jones’s address, “Historians and Their Publics, Then and Now” clearly suggests that the postmodern historian has chosen to fully abandon the type of “public” that had once served as the “subject” or “agent” of “Western” historiography – to the extent that such abandoned “public” is dealt with at all, its status would henceforth be that of the “oppressor”.
The general conclusion that one may draw here is rather obvious: the criterion of postmodern historiography is decidedly moral and humanistic, though in a highly selective manner as to the particular “public” it chooses to “face” and write for. This, however, would spell the dawn of a selective humanism – and this would be so at least in the eyes of that other particular “public” that would not belong to any of the special “social types” as enumerated by postmodern historiography.
The ideological clash between those who espouse such historiography and those who have come to “resent” it [or, rather, “resent” it as they have got to know it in its more popularized form] may be put otherwise: while the former wish to cancel present-day Rome [so to speak], the latter would wish to celebrate it, or at least celebrate some of its grander historical achievements in the fields of culture, architecture, technology and the like. Those who feel a deep “ressentiment” for the new perspectives expressed by postmodern historiography often point to the loss of what we may call [and which Updike himself calls] the “celebrant” [p. 599] tradition in such historiography. They allegedly detect a stubbornly nihilistic cancellation of a “Western” culture that they see as their own creation. While the postmodern humanist demands of them to feel “guilty” for such creation, they insist on celebrating the fruits of its civilization. And since the contrarians would wish to further the construction of such civilization, the postmodern humanist is, in their eyes, a political activist bent on deconstructing it to the point of a formless “monoculture”. The intra-conflictual “ressentiment” becomes routine when such alleged loss of the “celebrant” tradition is promoted, not only by the mass media, but even more systematically by – what the Marxists of the 1960’s would call – a country’s local and central “Ideological State Apparatuses”. Of course, and again making use of the Marxian terminology of the 1960’s, one may say that even a country’s “Repressive State Apparatuses” – such as the FBI – could be allegedly activated to impose the will of the postmodern humanist [as in the case of “hate speech” or “hate crime”].
The sentiment of grassroots “ressentiment” targeting the postmodern humanist ideology has taken a variety of forms across the “Western world”. Such “ressentiment” has not always constituted a merely negative reaction to the dominant ideology – and it could not have been mere denial, keeping in mind that many of those who “resent” such ideology do so out of a wish to consistently and all too positively affirm [or celebrate] the “Western” so-called “tradition”. The “ressentiment”, therefore can have a certain positive content [though, of course, this has not always been the case for all oppositional groupings]. We shall at this point turn to an examination of a particular case of ideological and cultural opposition to postmodern humanism. As we shall see, the starting point of such oppositional thinking is itself of the humanist variety – its own humanism, however, is based on a radically different worldview [or, perhaps more accurately, it is based on a radically different “self-view”].
In discussing the question of the “selectivity” of memory, we had noted that one can observe a strain of informal “Western” grassroots – or popular – memory of the past which is spontaneously conscious or unconscious or somewhere in-between [and we had made reference to Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious” in such context]. We had also noted a more or less closely related strain of memory, that of the specifically “Western” individualistic eclectic memory of the past. It may be argued that, at least for certain segments of “Western” society – and, in this case, with perhaps exclusive reference to American society – one may locate within such popular memory a particular worldview [or “self-view”] that stands in stark contradistinction to the “group-think” of the postmodern humanist. For want of a better term – and despite the unintended metaphysical connotations – one may tentatively describe such popular memory as “the historical American soul”. While it is absolutely possible that such very particular memory [or particular existential identity] may have been shared – or is still shared – by Americans across racial, ethnic and gender groupings, it is nonetheless precisely that particular identity of the “historical American soul” that the postmodern historian would reject outright as a misrepresentation of the histories of his own chosen “social types” [in fact, these “types” would be presented as the direct “victims” of that type of existential identity].
In his discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson and what he calls “the hard-pressed American soul”, Updike makes an important observation – he writes as follows: “This [viz. Emerson’s understanding of the “American soul”] very well suits our native bent. In this country, the self is not dissolved in Oriental group-think, or subordinated within medieval hierarchy. Our spiritual essence, it may be, is selfishness; certainly our art, from Whitman to the Abstract Expressionists, flaunts the naked self with a boldness rarely seen in other national cultures” [pp. 204-205]. One may interestingly add here that this particular “native bent” had been most aptly celebrated in the 20th century by the Frank Sinatra 1969 song, “My Way” [or “I did it my way”].
It is of absolute importance to stress here that the particular humanism of such worldview lies in “the naked self” and in its proud unwillingness to “dissolve” into whatever “group-think” or hierarchical structure. Updike goes even further: the “American soul”, he suggests, is most probably composed of a “spiritual essence” that may be called “selfishness”. Naturally, this type of moral system – and which is deeply embedded in the historical memory of segments of the American psyche – cannot possibly be reconciled with the moral values [classically quasi-Christian and/or quasi-Marxian] that invariably inform the “group-think” of postmodern humanist ideology. The humanism of “selfishness” is a declaration of independence emanating from – or that should emanate from – each and every separate individual [an individual perhaps mildly reminiscent of the Nietzschean “Übermensch”]. That, of course, is a love for one’s self that would probably stand in opposition to Saint Matthew’s “love thy neighbor as thyself” or to the postmodern humanist’s concern for the “equality” of others. The content of the ideology of “selfishness” is complex, multifarious and – as with all ideological worldviews – often ambiguous. It is well beyond both our purpose and competence to thrash out the inner workings of such worldview, and which of course amounts to some form of “individualistic anarchism” – here, we intend to merely point to a couple of important elements constituting the ethos it has expressed or still expresses within the United States [and some rudiments of which may also have percolated across the “Western world” through, say, the mass medium of the silver screen – one may here refer to Eric Hobsbawm’s presentation of “cowboy culture” in his Fractured Times, 2013].
Updike wishes to present the “selfishness” of the all-American “naked self” as a virtue “rarely seen in other national cultures”, and he sees such virtue as an element that had also defined Emerson’s own understanding of the “American soul”. Despite such all-American exclusivity, Updike nonetheless goes on to compare the thinking of Emerson to that of Europe’s Montaigne – he writes as follows: “On this score Emerson is matched only by his hero Montaigne, who confessed, ‘The world always looks outward, I turn my gaze inward; there I fix it, and there I keep it busy. Everyone looks before him; I look within. I have no business but with myself’…” [p. 205].
Updike’s Due Considerations provides us with a variety of samples testifying to Emerson’s faith in that very particular “American soul” – we are told that Emerson has been credited as at least one of the fathers of the “philosophy of American individualism”, or of “American self-absorption”, or of the “gospel of self-reliance” [p. 197]. Further, and which again confirms that attribute of “selfishness”, Updike informs us that Emerson “expresses a brusque impatience with charity and the clamor of worthy causes” [p. 204].
Of course, this ethos of what may be called a form of “individualistic anarchism” is not only evident in the thinking of someone like Emerson. There is an almost inexhaustible list of American thinkers whose work is expressive of the “American soul” as rooted [consciously or otherwise] in the historical memory of segments of civil society in the United States. Henry Thoreau is yet another such thinker – Updike informs us that this legendary “hermit saint” [p. 131] would insist on valuing one’s private world above all other public worlds. Thoreau would thereby reject “the media’s substitution of ‘the news’ for private reality” – since the former constitute mere “shams and delusions”, we should only “crave” the latter [p. 141].
The “individualistic anarchism” is of course as much evident in Walt Whitman, who has been rightly regarded as the par excellence poet of the American “common man”, and whose thinking is thus said to be expressive of the “American soul” as rooted in popular memory. The individualistic and thoroughly libertarian philosophy that dominates the thinking of Whitman certainly verifies what Updike has to say about the morality of a “selfishness” that refuses to “dissolve” itself in whatever “group-think” or in whatever State-imposed hierarchy. In his “A Backward Glance”, Whitman explains his work as follows: “I have allowed the stress of my poems from beginning to end to bear upon American individuality and assist it”. And further, in his 1842 Aurora editorials, he would assert the perennial beliefs of an American individualism that had always wished to restrict – and restrict as much as practically possible – whatever forms of State interventionism in societal affairs [and which was often meant to be a State interventionism specifically aimed at “protecting” the weak, at least ideologically; the latter practice becoming near-dominant in the postmodern era]. Whitman writes: “The best government is that which governs least”. Governance, for Whitman, is essentially or even literally a practice of self-governance – again in the Aurora editorials, he notes: “[We] desire our experiment of man’s capacity for self-government carried to its extreme verge”.
Whitman’s understanding of the “American soul” is of a type that places the individual right at the centre of all of existence. In his tellingly entitled “Song of Myself”, it is the individual that constitutes the central agent of life. And yet, he celebrates his own self in relation to all that surrounds him, which he goes on to celebrate as well. That seems to be Whitman’s “surface” humanism [here, the term “surface” is used in the precise sense as discussed by Updike, p. 546, op. cit.]. While his humanism is all-inclusive, it does not wish to reduce [or “dissolve”] the individual agent to a “type” – a “social” or “collective type” – determined by the “social structures” of its surroundings [and which is obviously something that stands in stark contradistinction to the “group-think” of the postmodern humanist].
As regards Whitman’s individualism – and which is definitely an ideological individualism very much expressive of the present-day contrarians pitting themselves against postmodern humanist ideology – one may draw one or two basic conclusions, and which could also more or less apply to postmodern contrarian ideological tendencies themselves [bar the fringe groupings attached to these]. One may say that, while the Whitman-type thinking would not espouse the classical Christian and/or Marxian humanism of a “love” that “dissolves” itself into either the Christian community or the community of the proletarian class [or that of certain “oppressed” social groupings], it nonetheless does not “hate” the world. On the contrary, it actually celebrates it – for the present-day contrarian individualist, of course, that which he celebrates is what he perceives to be the “Western world”. If there be any room for “hatred” – as there is – it is a “hatred” for those that refuse to celebrate the fruits of that “Western world” in the manner of a Whitman [these being the postmodern humanists, who aim at cancellation]. This, of course, brings us back to our discussion of the loss of what Updike has referred to as the “celebrant” tradition in postmodern historiography.
Finally, and again based on our brief presentation of the Whitman-like worldview, one may say that neither Whitman nor the present-day contrarians are necessarily or one-sidedly solipsistic in their understanding of life. While they would not wish to see their self “dissolve” within whatever external “collective” entity, they would not in any case be anti-social. Their purpose would be to above all assert their individual freedom through their self-willed “republicanism”, it being seen as a political practice that recognizes the supremacy of the individual vis-à-vis the “tyranny of the majority”. It should be noted here, by the way, that Walt Whitman’s thinking has often been defended as that of a “democratic solipsist” – it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of both him and of the present-day contrarians as “republican solipsists” [the use of the terms “republican” or “democratic” is in this case meant in a strictly philosophical sense – it should not at all be related to the present-day party politics of the United States].
We have thus far suggested that the “republican solipsists” of both the past and the present would not wish to espouse the “collectivist” understanding of “love” as expressed by either classical Christian or Marxian humanism, and their respective dissipative effects on individual liberty [and which in any case would turn out to be a highly “selective” type of humanism in the postmodern “Western world”, as has been discussed above]. Of course, the individualistic rejection of such particular type of humanism would not necessarily mean that the upholders of the “American soul” would themselves all be irreligious or anti-Christian – we would in fact see the emergence of an all-American Christianity based on radically different lines vis-à-vis the values of the “collectivist” humanists, and which would be a religiosity practiced amongst important segments of those espousing what we have called “individualistic anarchism”. As for the present-day “republican solipsists”, one may add that, precisely because they would wish to celebrate the fruits of the “Western tradition”, they would maintain a deep sense of religiosity that would be practiced on the basis of a residual culture traced back to the old “American soul”, and that would often pit itself against the secular religiosity of the “collectivist” [and at the same time socially “selective”] postmodern humanists.
Any attempt at describing the type of Christianity [or, perhaps more accurately, Christianities or Christian denominations and sects] espoused by American “individualistic anarchism” or by past and present “republican solipsists” remains a highly complex exercise. Here, we merely intend to point to certain root elements of such types of belief-systems by referring to the thinking of someone like William James and the manner in which he understood religious practice. By the way, the case of William James is of special interest here as it allows us to trace some type of connection between American and European philosophical-cum-theological thought – we know that James would come to share certain important aspects of the thought of Søren Kierkegaard.
In his discussion of Joakim Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, transl. 2005, Updike summarizes Kierkegaard’s contribution to the “West” as follows: “Kierkegaard’s great contribution to Western philosophy was to assert, or to reassert with Romantic urgency, that, subjectively speaking, each existence is the center of the universe” [p. 512]. It seems that the type of individualistic thinking that would attract Emerson to Montaigne would likewise attract James to Kierkegaard. The latter’s philosophical-cum-theological assertion that each individual existence constituted “the center of the universe” would suggest – at least for an American thinker such as James – that the dissolution of whatever individual existence into a “collectivity” should be unconditionally rejected as deterministic, and that there should rather be a positive affirmation of each individual as “the center” of all that there is in the world. There is evidence that James would thereby espouse Kierkegaard’s “individualism” and/or “subjectivism”, at least with respect to the matter of religious faith and practice. Jonathan Chipp, in his study entitled “A critical comparison of William James and Søren Kierkegaard on religious belief”, University of Southampton, School of Humanities, Doctoral Thesis, 2009, would argue that “Both James and Kierkegaard greatly emphasize the subjective aspects of religious belief”. While, as Chipp points out, this may not necessarily suggest that James’s account of faith – as set out in his The Will To Believe – is a reproduction of Kierkegaardian theology, both thinkers are nonetheless essentially “pragmatists” and “individualists” in their mode of thinking [as regards Kierkegaard’s own “pragmatism”, cf. Steven M. Emmanuel, “Kierkegaard’s Pragmatist Faith”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 51, No. 2, June 1991].
One may in any case suggest that both Kierkegaard and James would introduce the “Western world” to a form of Christian faith that, standing outside the phenomenon of Christendom as a social [or “collective”] entity, focused on the existence of the individual as the epicenter of life. Specifically as regards James, his own thinking would equate individualism with, inter alia, the subjective experience of individualistic religious faith – of course, such a particular understanding of “the will to believe” would consolidate [at the level of ideas] the individualistic thinking of what we have referred to as the “American soul”. To give us some rough idea of the importance of the “individualistic element” in James’s thought and the implications of this with respect to individualistic religiosity, we may here briefly quote David Rondel’s paper, “William James and the Metaphilosophy of Individualism” – he writes as follows: “This paper argues that an individualist perspective is a crucial element of William James’s metaphilosophical outlook … William James once described himself as a ‘rabid individualist’, and it is admittedly difficult to disagree … A strong ‘individualist’ current runs through virtually every aspect of James’s thought. From his ‘introspective’ psychology to his sense of what makes a human life significant, from his ruminations on the freedom of the will to his opposition of U.S. imperial meddling in the Philippines, the emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual – ‘the person in the singular number’ as he put it … – is always clearly in view [and which inevitably leads to] the individualistic elements in James’s … religious thinking” [cf. “William James and the Metaphilosophy of Individualism”, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 52, No. 2, April 2021, pp. 1-2, as uploaded on Academia.edu].
Perhaps the single most important commonality between William James and Søren Kierkegaard – and which would certainly endear them to the present-day more or less “individualistic anarchists” standing firmly against the “group-think” of the postmodern humanists – may be put as follows: both James and Kierkegaard stood contra to and outside “the crowd”. We need to remind ourselves here that, for the latter at least, “the crowd is untruth”, and it is only the individual who is not lost in such crowd – and in fact stands at odds with it – that is capable of arriving at free and authentic decisions about both religion and life itself. It is of some interest to further note here that, yet another American writer-philosopher who would also be influenced by Kierkegaard and who would himself concentrate on “the individual man”, would be Walker Percy [of the “Southern imagination” tradition].
Such mode of thinking – both at the level of ideas and in the manner in which they would be propagated – would yield a wide variety of religious “sects” in the United States that would come to defy, in their own way, both State organs and the formal institutions of religion [we should remind ourselves here, as already noted, that Updike would himself be sympathetic towards a certain antinomian Christianity]. This particularly all-American contrarian tradition in the field of religion has a long and winding history and would assume a variety of forms expressive of the particular socio-cultural conjuncture within which it would sprout. We shall here merely refer to just one case which is of some historical interest, not only because it is representative of the highly individualistic contrarian tradition in American quasi-religious practices, but also because of its almost bizarre teachings befitting the “counterculture” atmosphere of the 1960’s. The case is that of the League for Spiritual Discovery, inspired by Timothy Leary in the course of that decade. On the one hand, Leary and his followers would organize their all too extreme “religious” practices around the consumption of LSD – this substance would be seen as something akin to a holy sacrament. On the other hand, this quasi-religious grouping would at the same time and above all be a movement in defense of the individual – it would express a philosophy of conservative libertarian individualism. It is of interest to note that someone like Leary would, by the 1980’s, appear to be a natural supporter of Ron Paul and his libertarian-conservative ideological discourse.
The libertarian conservatism of the likes of a Leary and his movement would defend the sanctity of the individual by relating it directly to the inviolable sanctity of the family unit that surrounds it – such unit would be seen as the individual’s “shelter” from the “social structures” and State organs that besiege it. It was in keeping with such philosophy of life that the communities of the League for Spiritual Discovery would renounce State-controlled schooling and opt for homeschooling instead. We know, of course, that even present-day “republican solipsists” and other contrarians standing against the postmodern humanist ideology would themselves place much emphasis on the family as “shelter” and would likewise encourage homeschooling for their offspring. It would be of some interest to note here how Updike himself views the question of an individual’s family – he writes of “the magic … secrecy of family life, as we each revolve with our separate needs in the transient, loving shelter of the house we all share” [p. 646].
One may argue that it is precisely such “secrecy” that protects the individual [and his sense of independent individualism] from the intrusions of “collectivist” interventionism, whether this stems from the practices and policies of State institutions or from the so-called “virtue signaling” or the “political correctness” of public discourse.
We shall end this rather sketchy presentation of what Updike calls the essential “selfishness” of the historical, “hard-pressed American soul” by – as sketchily – presenting a number of more or less representative samples of present-day individualistic contrarianism as retrieved from the social media. Most such samples seem to be “carriers” of a conscious or semi-conscious memory of a particular understanding of American history [and which is a history that – as we have noted – urgently needs to be rewritten from the point of view of the postmodern humanist historian]. The type of historical memory embedded in all such contrarian samples is perhaps best encapsulated in the words of Updike himself – he simply tells us that “A country imposed on a wilderness needs strong selves” [p. 205].
The samples to be listed here are, as indicated, more or less expressive of populist contrarian thinking in the first quarter of the 21st century. Before we consider them – which shall be done in the absence of whatever discussion regarding the ideas expressed therein, and that given the complexity of such an undertaking – we shall need to make some preliminary remarks. First, some of the samples have not been posted by people residing in the United States – yet still, samples originating from the UK or the European continent or from elsewhere in the “West” do share much of the sentiments and thoughts of their American counterparts [and which is founded on a more or less common historical memory of the “Western world”, its mores and its “traditions”]. We in any case know that populist contrarianism has morphed into a global phenomenon. Second, we should say that some of the issues raised in such samples do not directly address the particular themes that we have dealt with above – and yet, each of these issues constitutes part of a mosaic of the general populist contrarian discourse both in the United States and in the rest of the “Western world”. All the issues raised thus compose a network of undercurrent ideological artifacts that are consciously or unconsciously related to one another, and are thereby also directly related to our own presentation of present-day contrarian thinking. Third, it shall become obvious that much of what is stated is often rather “extreme” in its content, implications and tone [and therefore necessarily crude in its oversimplification of reality]. Nonetheless, it so happens that it is the “extremists” of all particular currents that are ever so often the most vocal, at least in the terrain of the social media. The content and tone of the samples presented may yet still be said to be somewhat representative of the general contrarian discourse, though only if watered down in a manner that is somewhat less so-called “toxic” [and yet, there are intellectuals of the contrarian current – such as the controversial Jordan Peterson – who would go so far as to speak of a “civil war” in the “West”, it being an alleged state of affairs that could explain some of the rampant “toxicity”]. Finally, it should also be noted that some of the samples are based on [or are mere replicas of] quotes borrowed from various public personalities – this type of duplication remains of interest as it reveals the ideological alignments of the social media users.
The first sample may be said to be de facto “anti-state” in its ideological intentions – we read as follows: “When government suggests it uses your tax money more efficiently than you would: [it is] not just a thief, but a liar as well”.
The second set of samples expresses a deep skepticism about the “Western” masses, though all such samples at the same time imply – or openly assert – the need for “disobedience” [or even for “revolution”, whatever that may mean]. Consider the following six cases:
- “We’re surrounded by cowards, which is why we’re ruled by criminals”.
- “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt”. [The term “circuses” refers to football or other athletic stadiums].
- “Slaves vs. Slaves … coming to your street soon”.
- “Because nobody should have to squeal like a pig. Scream from the mountain tops”.
- “According to my watch, it’s about time for a little civil disobedience”.
- “… stay pureblooded and ungovernable!”
The third set of samples places a great emphasis on the free, bold individual [and the question of how to handle mass media so-called “manipulation”] – consider the following three cases:
- “Small minds can’t comprehend critical thinkers – to be great you have to be willing to be mocked, hated and misunderstood. Stay strong free thinkers!”
- “I choose … to live by choice, not chance; to be motivated, not manipulated; to be useful, not used; to make changes, not excuses; to excel, not compete. I choose self-esteem, not self-pity. I choose to listen to my inner voice, not to the random opinions of others”. [Quoting Miranda Marrot].
- “Never argue with someone whose TV is bigger than their bookshelf”. [Quoting Emilia Clarke].
The fourth set of samples addresses the issue of censorship and/or the related issue of “political correctness” – consider the following two cases:
- “Banned words just morph into new words. Any social media app that blanket bans words is dumping fuel on the fire of global dialogue. They aren’t creating safe spaces, they are creating fake spaces devoid of context and social commentary. That is more dangerous than bad words”.
- “The world needs more internet freedom, not less. The call for censorship is based on flawed analysis and ideology. It is a fact that an open, encrypted and decentralized internet liberates humanity from authoritarianism and enables mass education and literacy”.
The fifth set of samples expresses a serious skepticism regarding the academic/scientific community and the university students – consider the following two cases:
- “Of course ‘all scientists agree’ when you censor the ones who don’t”. [The “agreement” referred to here is that of the alleged unanimity of the scientific community on the phenomenon of “climate change” and on the COVID-19 epidemic].
- “People cry ‘My body my choice’ – well I say ‘Your student loan, your payments’. Remember, it’s your choice, not mine”.
The sixth set of samples is characteristic of the “celebrant” sentiments regarding the “Western” past – consider the following two cases:
- “The only way forward is the way back”.
- “Modernity: the end of architecture?”
The seventh and final set of samples concerns the related questions of “patriotism”, “racism” and “diversity” – consider the following four cases:
- “Patriotism is not racism”.
- “I’m not British. I’m English. There’s a difference”.
- “Diversity isn’t your strength. It lowers your wages, marginalizes your culture, increases your crime, fills your hospitals, occupies your housing, ruins your schools, consumes your taxes, tightens your laws, restricts your freedoms, endangers your children, and calls you racist”.
- “Race is a business – don’t you ever forget that. People like Al Sharpton, Maxine Waters, and Jesse Jackson are the top execs. They live in million dollar mansions to ensure that the rest of black America never gets the chance to”. [Quoting Candace Owens].
Such types of quotes, more or less expressive of the populist contrarian current [or currents] in the “Western world”, constitute an object of sociological research that awaits its serious and – as much as that be possible – objective analysis. All samples as presented above need to be seen as specimens to be carefully examined as would a medical doctor examine his patient [this would not, however, exempt the opposing side from undergoing a similar examination]. But the truly pertinent question that is raised here is apparently quite simple: do such sentiments and thoughts amount to a “civil war” within the “West”, as the likes of a Peterson would wish to assert?
Henceforth, we shall attempt to deal with just such question, but without providing any final answers. The apparent clash of ideologies and cultures within the “Western world” – this split between what we have identified as the “historical American soul” and the dominant ideology of postmodern humanism – may be approached from a wide variety of directions. We simply intend to entertain some of these.
In his discussion of the “American soul”, Updike makes what we believe to be a highly acute observation, the implications of which may be foreboding. This is what he states: “Whether American self-assertiveness fits into today’s crammed and touchy world can be doubted” [p. 205]. We need to carefully dwell on the key words “crammed” and “touchy”, and, having reflected on what they could imply about “today’s” world, contrast these two characteristics with the “self-assertiveness” [or, even, “selfishness”] of the primordial and/or historical American “native bent”.
Our interpretation of the words “crammed” and “touchy” shall have to be somewhat subjective. Updike’s metaphorical usage of these words can only be given a palpable appraisal of what they were meant to imply if transposed directly to the present. Such transposition, we believe, is justifiable given Updike’s mode of “political” thinking, which has been said to be “prophetic” or “predictive” – in fact, Updike is often considered as one of America’s “great prescient writers” [cf. Yoav Fromer, The Moderate Imagination: The Political Thought of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism, University Press of Kansas, 2020]. One may say that, writing in the early-2000’s, Updike could instinctually foresee the issues that would come to haunt the postmodern “Western world”, and it is thus in the context of such postmodern reality that terms such as “crammed” and “touchy” may be understood, and understood as descriptive terms of this present-day “Western world”.
Having said that, we may now begin by reflecting on Updike’s word, “crammed”. As a first impression, one could say that the word suggests a certain physical density, perhaps pointing to the overpopulation of urban areas. How such density would bear on a person’s “self-assertiveness” is difficult but not impossible to imagine – one could somehow argue that an individual would be “lost” in the crowd and thereby have difficulty in asserting his existential uniqueness. It seems most probable that the word “crammed” is primarily used in a psychological sense [as is the word “touchy”] – Updike seems to be concerned with the impact of a “crammed” world on a person’s mental state. Living in a “crammed” world would suggest that a person’s psyche is somewhat compressed or squashed – and one might therefore go so far as to say that a person’s psyche is crushed within the compression.
The state of being crushed within the compression of a “crammed” world would point to a constriction and thereby a restriction of a person’s psyche. This would mean that a person’s mental state would be circumscribed and delimited by external socio-political forces. Such circumscription and delimitation would need to be evaluated in terms of one’s mode of living, and hence in terms of one’s immersion within a certain cultural regime [or within a structurally imposed network of cultural ideologies and practices]. To the extent that such cultural milieu crushes the psyche of people into a pulp of global uniformity [and thereby gradually swallows up all remnants of so-called “diversity”], it would ultimately yield what we have described above as some form of “monoculture”, something which – as noted above – “frightened” Updike himself. The general implication here is obvious: the “self-assertive” or “selfishly” independent individual would simply not “fit in” within such set of circumstances, which is precisely what Updike is telling us with respect to the “historical American soul”. To the extent, further, that such contrarian non-conformity is inescapable, it can only but lead to a clash of cultures within the “Western world”. This would not, however, necessarily lead to what the likes of a Peterson persistently wish to describe as a “civil war” [the term itself is vague and can be interpreted in a near-endless number of ways].
We may now reflect on Updike’s second word, that of “touchy”. To begin with, one may assume that a world that is “crammed” in the sense of tensing towards a certain cultural uniformity can only but be a “touchy” world with respect to its own moral values and the need to protect such values from the infringements or disobedience of contrarians. By describing the world as “touchy”, one is suggesting that the present-day cultural milieu of the “Western world” is such as to be oversensitive and thin-skinned – above all, it may be said to be easily offended whenever confronted by cultural adversaries.
In describing the world as being “touchy”, Updike was being especially prescient insofar as he would be able to predict the manner in which present-day contrarians would choose to label the postmodern humanists [whether fairly or not is not our present concern]. We are all very much aware of the popularity of the present-day derogatory slang term “snowflake”, and how such term is used as a political insult against the upholders of so-called “political correctness”. The latter are said to take offense at whatever forms of language or ideas are perceived to exclude, marginalize or in some way insult certain selected “social groupings” or “social types” deemed to be “oppressed” or “discriminated” against – as we also well know, populist contrarians have come to use the word “triggered” in describing the “touchy” reactions of their adversaries.
The point here is that the “touchy” world of “political correctness” is a world that views itself as morally righteous, and is thus expressive of a group-moralism that wishes to pursue the group values of social justice and “equality”. On the other hand, the contrarians perceive such group-moralism as a postmodern humanist “group-think” that is anathema to their own “self-assertive” or even “selfish” individualism. They would further object to whatever moral delimitation is placed on the usage of language and ideas – and thus they can be fierce upholders of all forms of free speech, itself seen as the right of the free and independent individual. And thus, yet again, those who may be said to be “carriers” of the “historical American soul” – and who remain suspicious of all “Oriental group-think”, as Updike has put it – find themselves incapable of “fitting into” today’s “touchy world”. The postmodern humanist persistence on so-called “virtue-signaling” leaves little room for any empathy on the part of the populist contrarians, who tend to see such persistence as symptomatic of a new secular religiosity blinded by its own ideological fanaticism. Given that it is the ideology of the postmodern humanists that remains socially and intellectually dominant, the “self-assertive” individualist finds it increasingly difficult to comply with the discourse of a string of semi-private, public and/or State institutions.
It is of some interest to note here that, in his own troubled times, Tennyson had himself identified this momentous clash between “group-think” and individual freedom within the “Western world”, and which seems to be symptomatic of the contradictory orrery of cultural paradigms composing all of “Western civilization”. Tennyson would express this as follows: “Should banded unions persecute … Opinion, and induce a time … When single thought is civil crime … And individual freedom mute … [?]” One can obviously perceive here a somewhat uncanny parallel with events in the present-day postmodern world.
We may in any case draw the general conclusion that “today’s crammed and touchy world” – and the “banded unions” that prevail upon this “Western world” – is such as to give rise to different degrees of “ressentiment” amongst certain segments of “Western” society. The “ressentiment” can become especially acute when the so-called “banded unions” possess the power to define what constitutes a “civil crime” in the form of “political incorrectness” and/or “hate speech”. By the way, we choose to deliberately speak of degrees of social “ressentiment” so that we may not fall into the oversimplistic suggestion that the “Western world” is now necessarily beset with a “civil war” of sorts.
The “ressentiment”, however, is certainly not limited to the so-called popular masses that may be said to have espoused an anti-establishment, contrarian position. The general degree of “ressentiment” may somehow be further measured by the extent to which even certain important “Western intellectuals” would come to articulate their own critique of the dominant ideology of postmodern humanism, or at least as regards very specific dimensions of that ideology in its various stages of development. But their own thinking cannot obviously be reduced to an emotion-based “ressentiment”; and they have not in any way been willing to surrender their own [more traditional] notion of “humanism” to that of the postmodern humanists. Further, many such intellectuals may be said to be of the politically “moderate” type, but who have come to experience what Yoav Fromer has described as “the decline of New Deal Liberalism” – one such intellectual is of course Updike himself, a native of the rust-belt state of Pennsylvania who would sense what Fromer describes as “the disappointments and alienation of rural white working- and middle-class Americans”.
Apart from American intellectuals such as Updike, others would emerge in the UK and the European continent that would sense – at least what they took to be – the nihilistic “devaluations” and “absurdities” of the early deconstruction theorists and the probable future consequences of their theoretical understanding of the “Western world” as a whole. In his Due Considerations, Updike refers to one of the earliest and most significant critics of such deconstruction thinking, this being the well-known and much respected British literary critic, Frank Kermode. Capturing the acute crisis in “Western” academic discussion, Updike presents the work of Kermode as follows: “One of the first critics in the English-speaking world to grasp the import and worth of structuralism and its successor French modes of thought [such as the work of Saussure], he found himself compelled, in his long prologue to An Appetite for Poetry , to defend the continuing humanistic value of the canonical classics and literary studies against deconstruction’s radical devaluations and the absurd curricula that politically hip faculties offer the student body instead. Even in defense of what is most precious to him, however, so surprisingly and drastically undermined in recent decades by those ostensibly enlisted to preserve and expound it, Kermode’s tone is level, respectful of the need for theory and renovation, and only incidentally wry” [p. 656].
By the late-1980’s, then, an intellectual such as Kermode would feel “compelled” to “defend” a “Western” mode of thought and “canonical” tradition that was being threatened via a series of “devaluations” systematically pursued by academics initially assigned to preserve and expand on such “Western” intellectual values. Kermode was most probably able to discern the early signs of a looming culture war that would ultimately come to spread from the lecture theatres to the streets [so to speak] of “Western” cities. What was looming was the intra-conflictual reality of the postmodern world. We may here briefly refer to what Kermode had to say regarding the theoreticians of deconstruction in an article he wrote for the London Review of Books [Vol. 11, No. 20] in 1989.
To begin with, and as implied, Kermode would be able to see that “Western” universities would soon become veritable ideological battlefields between deconstructionists and those wishing to salvage the “canonical” thought of the “West”. The question that had yet to be answered at the time would be which of the two adversaries would ultimately come to “take over” the academic institutions. Kermode writes as follows: “Opinions differ as to whether Deconstruction will take over the academy, or be ‘co-opted’ by it, so dwindling into a slicker version of the old New Criticism”.
The conflict would not at all be over some marginal side issue – what was at stake would be the very nature of a basic “Western” institution as was the university: the deconstructionists were bent on its radical ideological “catharsis”. Kermode expresses such urgency as follows: “The intemperateness of its propagandists [viz. those of deconstruction] seems to be increasing; large claims are made for its beneficially cathartic effect on the institutions which house it, and this could be construed as a sign of desperation”. Here, Kermode’s tone is such as to suggest the nascent signs of an intellectual war over “Western” values [and which could, presumably, spill over to other institutions and social practices – which, as we by now know, actually did so].
The spilling over to other dimensions of life in the “Western world” [as in the case of the mass media] would be manifested in a number of important ways – the literary style of the deconstructionists would have a major impact on the use of language, and especially so as regards the English language itself [this would also be evident in the language used in many academic dissertations]. While Kermode’s critical review of deconstruction literature would usually be “level” and “respectful” [as Updike informs us], he could nonetheless be especially resentful – as in this London Review of Books article – about the way in which deconstructionist “propagandists” would come to abuse the very norms of the English language, itself surely a bastion of the “canonical” tradition of the “Western world”. In fact, very many theorists of the ideology of deconstruction [though certainly not all] would almost deliberately debase the very quality of that language, causing one to suspect that that was their apparent manner of attempting to deconstruct the dominant medium of “Western” communication [English here seen as some form of “linguistic imperialism” undermining the rights of minority groups]. Kermode is in any case rather harsh in his evaluation of deconstruction prose – he warns us that if we are to undertake a study of such work, we “must expect to be depressed by an encounter with large quantities of deformed prose … What begins as servile mimicry [in emulating various “models” of writing] soon becomes a pathological condition”. Elsewhere in the article, Kermode notes that most deconstruction academics theorize “often in prose that has taken on that self-important semi-illiteracy of which I have already complained”.
Their style of theorizing in the 1980’s, however, would have even further implications, some symptoms of which Kermode was capable of identifying at the time. Deconstruction would operate as a closed-in theoretical/ideological system that would simply not allow itself to engage with its adversaries; and it would likewise “ban” whatever attempts on the part of its adversaries to criticize it. In his London Review of Books article, Kermode considers the work of John Ellis [Against Deconstruction, Princeton, 1989] and his attempt to grapple with the thinking of the deconstructionists. It seems that Ellis was above all struck by what we may call the censorial righteousness of the deconstructionists. Kermode presents Ellis’s impressions as follows: “Ellis thinks there is something very odd about accompanying announcements of a major intellectual development [viz. that of deconstruction] with a ban on attempts to state what it is, or to evaluate it”. It would perhaps be an unwarranted intellectual leap forward to wish to link such censorial mindset of the 1980’s with present-day censorship practices around matters of “political correctness” both in academia and in the media. And yet, it must remain an open field of empirical research to test the premise that the censorial style of the deconstructionists in the 20th century has operated as a progenitor of 21st century “regulatory” practices around issues of “hate speech”. The matter remains an open and highly controversial question – but that type of premise needs to be either validated or falsified through academic work that itself takes no cognizance of whatever so-called censorial righteousness. What would further need to be researched is the extent to which the apparently closed-in narcissism of deconstruction theory in the 1980’s – what Kermode would call “the new self-admiring rhetoric” – would rub off onto later generations of academics, and which would again reinforce a certain censorial righteousness impervious to [or even cancelling] external criticism.
The 1980’s academic conflict between the deconstructionists and the upholders of a certain academic tradition would not be – as we have noted – an ephemeral clash over marginal side issues. We have briefly examined the deconstruction call for institutional “catharsis”, its essentially deconstructionist usage of the English language, and its closed-in censorial mode of thinking – these would all be underpinned by a deeper theoretical rupture vis-à-vis the mode of thinking of their adversaries, and which would be a rupture that seemed quite unbridgeable. Kermode describes this split simply as follows: “Deconstruction is not a theory but a ‘project’, and has a different ‘logic’ [to that of all the pre-deconstructionists]”. Its radically different “logic” would be manifested in a variety of ways – perhaps above all one could perceive an altogether new and radically different understanding of history as such. Kermode introduces us to what would come to be known as the “presentist” mode of historical writing, and which is of course very much reminiscent of the “public-facing” historiography of the postmodern humanists as we have discussed above [and which thereby clearly links the 1980’s deconstructionist-historicist thinking to the present-day postmodern humanist historiography]. “Presentist” history would be concerned with the needs of its “public” in the present conjuncture and would need to rewrite the past in terms of such present needs – Kermode informs us that the deconstructionists “do to the past what it could not do for itself”. Naturally, such “presentist” type of historiography would stand in opposition to – as Kermode puts it – “an unhappily pastist bias” in history. We should add that at this point Kermode expresses his rare wryness towards such type of deconstructionist dichotomy – he simply notes that this supposed “presentist” versus “pastist” contradiction in historiography constitutes a “deeply abstract point”.
And yet, one may by now argue – in hindsight – that the long-term “project” of deconstruction was not at all an “abstract” game of intellectuality. By wishing to “do to the past what it could not do for itself”, the deconstructionists – and especially their intellectual successors in the postmodern world – intended to rewrite that past so as to serve the historical interests of a particular “public” that had been “wronged” in the course of “Western civilization” and which was in fact still being “wronged”. If it is strictly true – as Kermode wishes us to believe – that deconstruction was not a theory as such but a new “logic”, that “logic” was of a deeply moral nature. And the morally-informed “logic” of the deconstructionists was to deconstruct a system of so-called “civilization” that was ipso facto “unjust”, “oppressive”, and “inhuman” towards significant segments of “Western” society [and towards the peoples of all “Western”-controlled colonies] that had always been marginalized by power-centers organized around what Michel Foucault had already identified as “regimes of truth”.
Simply put, and which is a basic premise of this paper, the intra-conflictual symptoms of “Western” academia would be evident amongst intellectuals that stood either for or against “Western” moral values, and especially in accordance with the manner in which such values would be interpreted. It goes without saying that the discourse of deconstruction in the 1980’s intended to cancel much of “Western civilization”, and such intention would be carried over to the 21st century. This intellectual linkage between the two centuries may be said to be evident in the thinking of an endless list of “Western” academics – Kermode himself presents us with the case of Jerome J. McGann, who is of course a major American intellectual and whose theoretical work commenced in the 1960’s and continues through to the present. Kermode’s London Review of Books article discusses McGann’s contribution to a collection of essays entitled Rethinking Historicism, Blackwell, 1989 – he notes the following: “[he] starts from Franz Fanon and argues that the works of the past must be freed from the ‘imperial imagination’ or, if you prefer, ‘the burden of the past’; a re-imagining of the past, illustrated here by re-imaginings of Aeschylus and Blake, Byron and Pound, gives us poems containing more history than they themselves were aware of, and affords us a chance … to see poetry as concerned with knowledge and with present and also future history, and to call into question ‘all that is privileged, understood and given’ …”
Kermode sums up the basic “logic” of intellectuals such as McGann by telling us how the latter evaluates the Cantos written by Ezra Pound – we read that, in terms of his particular mode of thinking, “The Cantos … illustrate [Walter] Benjamin’s dictum, that the documents of [“Western”] civilization are also documents of barbarism”.
A school of thought that wishes to free the “Western world” from “the burden of [its] past” or that wishes to view the fruits of “Western civilization” as the fruits of “barbarism”, and so on, cannot possibly be said to be relativistic, at least from a moral point of view. We have already spoken above of a merely illusional relativism with specific reference to present-day postmodern thinking. And yet, one may go further and argue that even the earlier versions of deconstruction hid an essentially moralistic – and therefore even “absolutist” – understanding of the world [and which is something that a public intellectual such as Jordan Peterson has failed to understand]. Despite the accusations of its critics as to its alleged nihilistic relativism, the deconstructionist “logic” would certainly be concerned with the question of justice as a central issue in its discourse and therefore also with the so-called political “problematic” that would arise from such concern. Before we briefly consider what Kermode has to say on this matter, it would be useful to present the thoughts of a present-day deconstructionist regarding the issue of justice and the “ethical” – as also “political” – implications of the deconstruction “logic”. In a text entitled “Deconstruction and re-thinking education” [cf. South African Journal of Education, Vol. 22 (3), 2002], Philip Higgs informs us that the “logic” of deconstruction as articulated by Derrida himself sees “justice as a concern for the otherness of the other” [p. 172]. In fact, we are told, deconstruction per se is justice itself [ibid.]. And so Higgs goes on to correct the wrong impression that people have of the deconstructionists and their project – he writes: “This ethical emphasis in deconstruction has been ignored or overlooked by Derrida’s critics …” And further: “… Derrida’s critics seriously miss the point of deconstruction when they accuse it of adopting an extremely relativistic position. Deconstruction is not a sceptical or relativistic position, but rather, it has a distinct ethico-political motivation …” [ibid].
Kermode’s critique of deconstruction, of course, neither ignores nor overlooks the specific ethics of the deconstructionists and the as specific political implications of their “project”. Citing John Ellis, Kermode suggests that the work of Derrida is characterized by “a kind of gratuitously revolutionary fervor – a ‘rhetorical absolutism’ …” One may observe that the so-called gratuity of the deconstructionist “project” cannot be said to at all apply to the present-day postmodern conjuncture – as shall be further noted, the deconstructionist “project” would ultimately yield a series of social movements in the streets of United States cities or in the streets of London and elsewhere. On the other hand, one may argue that the “rhetorical absolutism” would ultimately come to be exacerbated, if only given the corresponding populist contrarian “absolutism” standing passionately against the postmodern offspring of the deconstructionists [be these students or members of the wider public]. With respect to both ideological camps, we need say, one could observe – as one may still observe – the emergence of near-absolutist secular religiosities steeped in their own “rhetorical absolutism”. The camps would come to be locked in a moral, cultural and ultimately political struggle.
It goes without saying that the deconstructionist “project” would play a major – albeit perhaps not exclusive – intellectual role in its contribution to both academic and social practices [or movements] that would characterize much of postmodern “Western” society. We may here cite the important case of present-day Critical Race Theory, a mode of thinking steeped – in its very own postmodernist way – in the old deconstruction “logic”. This has also taken the form of a popular ideology amongst various segments of “Western” society and is thereby linked to various “activist” social movements across the “Western world”.
We do not intend to analyze either the premises of Critical Race Theory or its ideological manifestations at a wider social level. We shall here simply refer to parts of a text by Rachel Alicia Griffin, who in 2010 was an Assistant Professor at the Southern Illinois University. She seems to be a fairly well-known scholar-activist. The text is very tellingly entitled as follows: “Critical Race Theory as a Means to Deconstruct, Recover and Evolve in Communication Studies” [cf. Communication Law Review, Vol. 10, Issue 1, 2010]. She explains to us that “… CRT [Critical Race Theory] scholarship deconstructs race and racism by positioning the interests of people of color at the center of inquiry to advance racial equality in general and equal treatment under the law in particular” [p. 2]. Quite in keeping with the title of her paper, she adds that “CRT can be implemented in communication research to deconstruct ideologies of whiteness, recover marginalized perspectives and fuel progressive research” [p. 5]. Griffin summarizes the basic “logic” of Critical Race Theory as follows: “Two overarching premises unite CRT scholarship: (1) to reveal the roots and perpetuation of white supremacy and (2) to engage in social justice” [p.2].
There are a number of important observations that one can make with respect to these short but highly representative quotes: [i] One can obviously observe the direct influence that the “logic” of deconstruction has had on Critical Race Theory – we read that the purpose of this crystal-clear political “project” is to deconstruct what is seen as a hostile ideology, that of “whiteness” and its concomitant ideology of racism; [ii] There is here no sign whatsoever of any relativistic thought – in fact, one can clearly detect both Higgs’s “ethico-political motivation” as also Ellis’s or Kermode’s reference to “rhetorical absolutism” [we do not mean to be critical of either, both being symptoms of a pervasive secular religiosity that has come to define most ideological camps of the “Western world”]; [iii] It is all too obvious that this deconstructionist discourse is openly targeting very specific segments of “Western” society – it may therefore be said to be a symptom of the intra-conflictual tendencies that we have been describing all along, and can be seen as a major ideological force against many populist contrarian sentiments expressive of the “historical American soul” [in the case of the United States at least – although we know that very similar conflictual tendencies have spread throughout most of the “Western world”].
It may be held that the average “Western” university would by and large come to espouse the deconstruction “logic” [implying that Kermode’s hopes for “co-optation” were not ever to be fulfilled], as it may also be held that the concomitant ideology of Critical Race Theory would ultimately come to prevail as relatively dominant in many “Western” liberal institutions – such relative prevalence would naturally further exacerbate the “ressentiment” of the populist contrarians, many of whom would come to embrace a generally anti-academic stance [some academic contrarians would even entertain the utopian idea of establishing their own, “independent” universities].
The matter of such relative dominance or prevalence of either the deconstruction “logic” or of Critical Race Theory still remains to be verified and/or measured empirically. And yet, it seems that McGann’s need to call into question “all that is privileged, understood and given” is being more or less satisfied in the lecture theatres of most “Western” universities. By now, in fact, that which is much “understood and given” is the plight and history of the “underprivileged”. So much so, that even when an academic wishes to undertake a critical analysis of “identity politics”, he or she nonetheless feels ethically obliged to show a certain solidarity towards movements such as Black Lives Matter, [which can be taken to be one important social manifestation of the premises of Critical Race Theory]. To illustrate such feelings of ethical obligation, we may here consider a text written by an academic historian, Penelope J. Corfield, of Royal Holloway, University of London. It should be emphasized that this text, entitled “Being Assessed as a Whole Person: A Critique of Identity Politics” [cf. Academia Letters, 2021], articulates a clear position against what the writer calls “separatist identity politics”. And yet, right at the beginning of the paper, Corfield writes – or feels sincerely obliged to write – as follows: “Social groups who have been marginalized – victims of an oppressive history – obviously gain a great deal by asserting their claims to general appreciation. Black Lives Matter. Of course they do: unequivocally and absolutely. It’s a proposition that draws strength from its utter truth”.
Such a sincere ethical obligation, however, is worded in a manner that both reveals and fully upholds the implicit truths of the movement that has come to be known as Black Lives Matter [and that, as mentioned, from a critic of “Identity Politics”]. One need focus on the choice of the writer’s three key words: “unequivocally”, “absolutely” and “utter truth”. All three are clearly expressive of what Ellis or Kermode refer to as “rhetorical absolutism”, and which we would categorize as the rhetoric of a secular religiosity. Corfield simply feels the need to respect the root values of such secular religiosity – and she feels this need because she has to acknowledge the end-results of a deconstructionist “public-facing” or “presentist” historiography: it is that academic discipline that has brought to light what she herself can only but describe as an “oppressive history” of “victims”.
Now, strictly speaking, the assertion that it is black lives that matter may be said to be socially or politically problematic in that it expresses a “selective” or narrow understanding of the general ideology of humanism – it can be taken to imply that it is only a particular type of life that truly matters [viz. the “victims” belonging to a particular skin pigmentation]. On the other hand, and despite its obvious “selectivity”, it may be argued that it remains a legitimate assertion as it has prevailed throughout the “Western world”, having been embraced by both State and semi-State institutions as also, importantly, by large sections of “Western” populations.
It is a verifiable fact that not all sections of the “Western” populace have come to embrace that particular humanism underpinning the ideology of Black Lives Matter. For some segments of “Western” society, the “unequivocal”, “absolute” and “utter truth” that it is Black lives that matter would need to be countered by its directly opposite assertion that White Lives Matter, itself seen as an “unequivocal”, “absolute” and “utter truth”. Those asserting that it is White lives that matter could be said to be espousing a specifically “pastist” understanding of their history and identity.
The stage would thereby be set for two diametrically opposite “absolute truths” to clash with one other, at least at the level of ideology. From a political perspective, it would seem that the ideology of Black Lives Matter and that of White Lives Matter would constitute two absolutely irreconcilable rivals. It may nonetheless be argued that both rival ideologies are expressive – in their own peculiar way – of the general ideology of humanism: for both, it is lives that matter. To the extent that both would be rooted in a certain understanding of humanism, and to the extent that the contention would be over which lives matter, the clash would point to a crisis of the ideology of humanism as a whole.
Of course, the particular form that this clash would take could in no way compromise the prevailing legitimacy of either Critical Race Theory or of a movement such as Black Lives Matter. Since the ideological stance of White Lives Matter may be taken to imply definite elements of “White Supremacy”, it would find itself in a strictly minority position within “Western” societies. We know that it would only be fringe groupings amongst the populist contrarians that would openly profess the “supremacy” of the “White race” – their position would therefore in no way jeopardize the moral superiority of Black Lives Matter. The very notion of whatever “supremacy”, in any case, would be generally equated to “power”, “authoritarianism”, “inequality”, “oppression”, and so on, all of which would be anathema to the majority of “Western” populations and their historically acquired understanding of humanism per se [starting from the moral teachings of Saint Matthew].
Distancing themselves from the ideological assertions of minority or fringe groupings, the vast majority of populist contrarians would often respond to the Black Lives Matter ideology by simply asserting that All Lives Matter. From a purely ideological point of view, such sloganistic discourse could be said to constitute a “smart” ideological manoeuvre suggesting that the position of the populist contrarians was more inclusivist and therefore much more humanistic than that of the Black Lives Matter camp [the sloganistic discourse would also be accompanied by more articulate analyses of the conjuncture reflective of such position, thereby attempting to go beyond mere sloganeering – it may be said that that type of political analysis would be undertaken by writers associated with platforms such as the Breitbart News Network, though the precise ideological orientation of such platform still remains highly controversial].
Now, densely concentrated within the populist contrarian ideology of the All Lives Matter camp, one would clearly identify virile grassroots elements espousing Updike’s “selfishness” as manifested in the “historical American soul”. Being fierce individualists opposed to all form of “group-think”, they would further assert that My Life Matters. Here too, however – and as already discussed above – such a position would be a particular form of humanism wishing to protect the independent individuality of the single person [remember James’s “person in the singular number”].
The basic point here is, not simply that the ideological camp centered around Black Lives Matter would come to be locked in a conflictual relationship with the ideological camp centered around All Lives Matter [that much is surely obvious to all], but that both camps would be locked in a clash of absolutist secular religiosities. Using their own peculiar discourse of “rhetorical absolutism”, both camps would wish to assert the hegemony of their own and discrete understanding of humanism.
Both camps, we have been arguing, would take the question of “life” as a matter of primary importance. We have further been suggesting that, precisely in so doing, both camps would be articulating nothing other than what must be seen as an ideological discourse [and which would be emanating from a variety of disparate but at the same time essentially “Western” ideological traditions].
Now, the suggestion that a concern for “life” is part and parcel of some ideology must sound quite absurd – surely all living human beings would ipso facto be concerned with “life” and how the “lives” of people “mattered”? Such concern, to put it otherwise, seems to be simply obvious. And yet, even an intellectual such as Louis Althusser – who has by now perhaps understandably fallen by the wayside – had consistently “lampooned the ‘obviousness’ of common sense”, the latter being a definition of the popular ideological nous [cf. Joel Reed, “Althusser and Hume: A Materialist Encounter”, in Stephen Daniel, Current Continental Theory and Modern Philosophy, Northwestern University Press, 2005, p. 210]. It may be argued that the so-called “obviousness” of a popular worldview that sees the question of “life” as a matter of primary importance belongs to that generic type of “obviousness” that functions as an organizer of all ideologies, whatever their specific tenets. In the absence – or eventual loss – of a certain mechanism of “obviousness”, the discourse of any ideology would ultimately collapse.
The possible loss of the “obviousness” regarding the value of “human life” in a milieu’s ideological configuration is not, for us, merely a matter of theoretical interest. It may be argued that the clash between the humanist ideology of Black Lives Matter and that of the populist contrarians has been compounded by yet still another adversarial ideological tendency that could be pointing to such relative loss. We are here referring to “Westerners” voicing the assertion that No Lives Matter [an assertion that in itself nullifies the “obviousness”]. Of course, one would immediately point out that such a category of people [which we may tentatively call “anti-humanists”] is absolutely miniscule in both numbers and influence. It cannot be overemphasized that those asserting that No Lives Matter are either being irreverently flippant [but which is itself symptomatic of an anti-social nihilism] or belong to smallish clusters espousing rabidly ultra-Right and/or Nazi positions. Alternatively, they could be said to belong to as smallish clusters of the ultra-Left that insist on maintaining violently anti-“Western” values [the Red Army Faction being one of their forefathers].
The numerical insignificance of such category of “anti-humanist” nihilists would not allow us to argue that the general ideology of “Western” humanism is in any way thrown off balance by their presence – and yet, their assertion that No Lives Matter has often been reproduced by the discourse and practices of “Western” State apparatuses themselves [in fact, by those selfsame institutions of governance that have come to espouse the humanism of a movement such as Black Lives Matter]. We are here referring to recurring initiatives on the part of certain “Western” States to engage in war – in such cases, the question of the value of “human life” definitely loses its primary importance. While State functionaries have often attempted to salvage the ideology of “Western” humanism by couching their various war policies in religious terms [“God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”], that fact remains that – in the minds of the “Western” populace at least – the “obviousness” of the primacy of “life” tends to be seriously corrupted, at least circumstantially. The postmodern “Western” citizen has therefore had a full exposure to the assertion that No Lives Matter, and as that has been perpetrated by the State – it is precisely at this point that the conflictual state of affairs of the “Western” postmodern world is compounded by a certain sense of nihilism.
Both the ephemeral circumstantiality of this sense of nihilism, as also the checked influence of extremists avowing that No Lives Matter, has meant that the ideology of “Western” humanism has remained dominant. And yet, and as we have tried to show, such “Western” humanism has come to be beset by an almost irremediable conflict between two mutually incompatible approaches regarding the moral values that are supposed to define so-called “Western civilization”. We have tried to argue that both camps are immersed in the rhetoric of their own absolutist secular religiosity – in some sense, the “Western world” has found itself trapped in an ideological war over conflictual moral systems, and all that in the absence of a Christian God [given that “God is Dead”].
The general picture that may be said to be descriptive of the “Western world” may therefore be put as follows: its postmodern milieu is characterized by a deeply splintered humanism, and which has yielded splinters of different and often incompatible humanisms. The crisis of the “West” may thus be equated to the crisis of its humanist ideology, an ideology which has been cumulatively deconstructing its very own self over a lengthy period of time, starting from the previous century.
It remains extremely difficult to assess whether or not such a process of self-deconstruction has thrown – or could at some time throw – the “Western world” into some type of civil war, whatever that term might mean. In the third and final section of this paper, and without having at all resolved the degree of intensity of the intra-conflictual symptoms that we have been discussing, we shall nonetheless attempt to examine the extent to which the splintering of the “Western” humanist ideology [and therefore the emergence of some level of ideological anarchy] points to a decline of the “Western milieu” as a whole. That type of question is itself highly complex as it cannot really be entertained with some degree of seriousness without also considering the sphere of international relations, which is of course a discipline in itself [and which we do not intend to touch on]. But further, when one speaks of a possible decline, one would also need to clarify whether such decline is a gradual or a precipitous one. Either way, one would also need to reflect on whether a supposed decline would ultimately lead to the fall of “Western civilization” or, alternatively, whether it would simply mean that such milieu could gradually morph into a new type of civilization [the question of a possibly “monocultural” milieu yet again raises its head]. Such types of questions can only be considered in a highly abstract manner, rather indirectly and obviously bar whatever “predictive” claims [the “predictive” capacity of all social theorizing has proven quite notorious, and which is a matter we shall return to by considering Updike’s own thinking of it].
Part 3: The social and/or material consequences of the intra-conflictual symptoms in the “Western world”
One possible measure of a civilization’s decline would be the degree of cultural and/or ideological anarchy that besets that civilization. “The most absolute power”, Gibbon has observed, “is a weak defence against the effects of despair” [p. 339]. The implication is that however powerful the apparatuses of State might be, these would not be able to withstand the effects of a cultural and moral disunity engulfing society. The State could discover that its exercise of power is ineffective when its own citizens are in “despair”, suggesting a social demoralization reflective of that cultural and moral disunity.
Further, in his discussion of the Roman Empire’s third century crisis, Gibbon informs us that Emperor Aurelian would attempt to overcome the social turmoil and chaos by introducing a series of reforms – and yet, the period would continue to be characterized by what Gibbon describes as a “tranquil anarchy” [p. 342].
Now, Gibbon’s history and observations should definitely not be taken as holy writ. It is also important to note that we need to reject the infantile cliché that history repeats itself – it could perhaps do so if it operated as a closed system [statistical mechanics has shown us that much], but it is not and cannot at all be such a type of system given the numerous volitional factors at play. We need to make such observations at this point because we do not intend to identify whatever parallels between the decline [and fall] of the Roman Empire and the possible decline [and fall] of the postmodern “Western empire” [so to speak].
Having said this, we can nonetheless add that both civilizations may be said to share certain common features [for one, the major phenomenon of migration] – but such commonalities cannot be presented as arguments in support of the idea that history will somehow repeat itself, and that the present-day “Western world” shall suffer the same fate as did the Roman Empire. We may, however, use Gibbon to raise a number of key questions pertinent to the plight of the “Western world”.
To begin with, and as we have seen, Gibbon has spoken of “absolute power” – we need to ask ourselves whether or not the postmodern “Western” State apparatuses are capable of exercising a certain degree of power so as to be able to absorb the intra-conflictual symptoms that we have been exploring above. Secondly, Gibbon has also pointed to the social phenomenon of “despair” – with respect to the present conjuncture, we need to consider the extent to which the phenomenon of social demoralization in the “Western world” is such as to also infect those that man the various State apparatuses, amongst other positions of power [the infectiousness of social demoralization may here be related to Anthony Klotz’s “Great Resignation” or “Big Quit” syndrome]. Thirdly, Gibbons had chosen to use the term “tranquil anarchy” in describing the Roman Empire’s third century – we need to understand exactly how “tranquil” [if at all] such anarchy is in the postmodern “Western world”, and what could a possibly “simmering” anarchy mean for the stability and sustainability of “Western” institutions. We shall argue that such types of questions are closely entangled with the degree of trust [or lack of trust] that describes the relations between “Western” civil society [itself divided and mutually distrustful] and its State apparatuses. Further entangled with such types of questions is of course the role of the social media.
We do not intend to deal with such questions in any systematic manner – our purpose is to merely engage in some brainstorming of ideas. On the vital question of trust, Updike would write the following in 2005: “I also believe, instinctively if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be at bottom a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and vote their own interests” [p. 670]. It may be argued that, at least as regards the present state of affairs, the so-called “elites” are inclined to mistrust citizens [or, at least, segments of these]. It may further be argued that citizens [again, segments of these] mistrust the so-called “elites”. Perhaps much more importantly, it may be said that citizens mistrust citizens [both in a general sense but also with respect to concrete individuals such as colleagues, neighbours or even partners]. Now, these types of observations could be simply waved aside or rejected as sweeping statements originating from the camp of the populist contrarians. And yet, much has been written on the question of present-day mistrust by social researchers who cannot be said to belong to whatever contrarian thinking. Regarding European citizens in particular, and their sentiments of mistrust towards institutions, we may simply refer to the following three sample sources:
- The European Foundation [Eurofound] has written as follows: “In the European context, the erosion of trust in institutions has given rise to questions about the potential impact on political and social stability” [04.02.2019].
- The Washington Post has itself reported that “Europeans have lost faith in their governments and institutions” [22.09.2017].
- According to The Conversation, “Distrust of the political system, not the far right, is the real threat to our European future” [14.05.2014].
As regards the case of American citizens, and their sentiments towards institutions, we may present the following three sample sources:
- The Pew Research Center would introduce its recent findings on the issue of trust in the United States as follows: “Americans remain deeply distrustful of and dissatisfied with their government. Just 20% say they trust the government in Washington …” [06.06.2022].
- Part of a USA Today article reads as follows: “Why Americans’ growing distrust in civic institutions is a warning … All the while, trust in government and media has eroded – fewer than 1 in 3 Americans … express any real trust in these entities …” [15.05.2021].
- The American news website Axios has noted that “… Most Americans don’t trust the government … Distrust in institutions is widespread, but there are also stark partisan differences. Three out of five Democrats say they trust the government to do the right thing, compared to fewer than three in 10 Republicans” [23.05.2022].
With respect to different dimensions of intra-social mistrust in “Western” countries, we may consider the following three samples:
- Maureen Guirdman and Oliver Guirdman, in a well-known book entitled Communicating Across Cultures at Work, Bloomsbury Publishing, May 2017, 4th edition, describe the “stressful internal conflict” within the British workplace and especially amongst employees themselves [p. 175].
- George Gao, writing for the Pew Research Center, informs us that “Americans [are] divided on how much they trust their neighbors” [13.04.2016].
- Writing for HuffPost, Damon Young tells us that “Men just don’t trust women – and it’s a huge problem” [16.03.2015].
Of course, the issue of trust is far too complex a matter to be appreciated by simply relying on the headlines and articles of mainstream media platforms. These can, however, point to a definite tendency in society as their information is usually based on more in-depth research projects undertaken by various fact tanks. On the other hand, one has to admit that mistrust is a sentiment that can be extremely difficult to measure accurately – it can mean rather different states of mind. For instance, it can be a solid mistrust of institutions and authorities based on what one perceives to be authentic rational grounds – and which could come down to a certain form of dogmatic thinking [often politically motivated, as the Axios article points out]. Alternatively, it can be expressive of a fluid state of mind, rendering that type of mistrust a circumstantial phenomenon and therefore almost always in flux. Further, mistrust can be of the holistic type, expressing a lack of confidence towards what is sometimes referred to as “the system” – such a type of mistrust can come from elements of both the Left and the Right, and could therefore emanate from the dogmatic form of thinking already mentioned. In contrast, a citizen’s mistrust can be targeting particular institutions [such as the Department of Taxation or that of Public Works], and can be based on very specific and personal complaints. One may go even further and suggest that mistrust can be fully conscious, semi-conscious or even unconscious [and can be the outcome of various methods of gaslighting on the part of the media].
It is precisely such complexities that can make the public sentiment of mistrust a factor that is difficult to measure. That does not mean, however, that we ought to shy away from a possible reality of mistrust in “Western” societies – unless we somehow approximated such a reality, we would be incapable of identifying levels of demoralization and/or levels of ideological anarchy within such societies. This is not meant to imply that social researchers do shy away from the issue of mistrust – and yet they can handle it in a manner that serves to obfuscate the issue to the point of rendering it quite meaningless. Alternatively, they can approach the issue by focusing on ways that those charged with governance can somehow deal with the problem.
One may here refer to a research project on mistrust undertaken under the auspices of the European Commission, and which seems to both obfuscate the issue while at the same time wishing to table various recommendations on how to handle the matter [offering “foresight” to the Commission on what needs to be done]. Entitled “Trust at Risk: Implications for EU Policies and Institutions” [European Commission, Horizon 2020 Policy], it obscures the issue of mistrust by introducing us to apparently more fine-grained concepts such as “strong thick trust” versus “strong thin trust”, or “weak thick trust” versus “weak thin trust”. While such forms of trust may be somewhat definable and even identifiable, one wonders how these are to be measured with at least some degree of accuracy [we should remember that, in the case of statistical mechanics, experts use “coarse graining” to simplify a complex system so that its behaviour be better understood – they do not proceed to make an already complex system even more complex, which is what the European Commission researchers seem to be doing].
One may of course suspect that the theoretical obfuscation may here be intended to serve an ideological function: by adding further confusion to an already complex matter – as is that of public mistrust – one may wish to undervalue the phenomenon of possibly contrarian currents in “Western” society. Ideological intentions aside [and these remain to be verified], the European Commission’s “Expert Group” seems to have one practical objective in mind – viz. “The aim of re-gaining citizens’ trust in the European project”.
One could make a number of further comments both with respect to the tendency for academic overcomplication as also regarding the present-day academic practice of tabling recommendations to governing authorities. We can really see no valid reason in deliberately overburdening an investigation on the matter of trust by defining and redefining the term to the point where all meaning and measure is lost – it can both discourage further research and can even be self-defeating when it comes to making recommendations.
But the practice of making recommendations to those charged with governance can itself be highly problematic. Firstly, one would have thought that the very raison d’être of academic research is, not to directly recommend whatever to whoever, but to try to understand the world and the social phenomena – such as public mistrust – that typify it. Secondly, and which is a highly controversial issue closely related to the first point, one would have thought that the most reliable type of academic research is that undertaken independently of the State and its various organs. It is absolutely clear to anyone who merely peruses through the “Trust at Risk” document that the work does not constitute an independent project – it is a report to the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, and – presumably – it is beholden to its grants. It would be quite paradoxical for us to state – in terms of what has been argued in other parts of this paper – that one would prefer a university akin to Updike’s “sheltered theatre” or “island of dreamy towers” rather than a body functioning as an instrument of politicians. Nonetheless, given the sheer complexity of this issue – there are those who would wish to see academia not only as “public facing” but as willful enhancers of good governance – we would say that the issue of academia independence must remain an open question.
The “Trust at Risk” project does, in any case, speak of a “collapsing trust” regarding a whole range of issues of concern to the European public [and does especially so in the first chapter of the document]. Perhaps it all comes down to whether or not the sentiment of trust is functional or dysfunctional to the structural stability of a society. We have long been witnesses to signs of functional mistrust in the “Western world”: this has taken the healthy form of “checks” imposed on possibly malign political activity through a whole range of democratic procedures, and which can serve to stabilize such procedures. In direct contrast, dysfunctional mistrust on the part of segments of society is the type that refuses to see whatever legitimacy in the political activity of the so-called “elites”, or refuses to see whatever legitimacy in the structures within which such activity takes place.
It is of course the latter type of mistrust that is of interest to us – areas that call for further research, and as has already been implied above, would therefore include the following: [i] The extent to which a widespread lack of trust hinders attempts on the part of State organs to absorb the intra-conflictual symptoms of “Western” society; [ii] The extent to which the sentiment of mistrust is infectious and for that reason can even demoralize the various functionaries of State apparatuses, perhaps leading – as mentioned – to a cumulative “Great Resignation” within power structures [the resignation may also, and more ominously, take the form of feelings of administrative resignation on the part of such State functionaries]; [iii] The extent to which that lack of public trust is itself the principal manifestation of a “simmering” anarchy.
Such issues almost automatically raise the question of the role of the social media and their possibly dissipative function in society. In fact, if one wishes to investigate the matter of mistrust and of public “ressentiment”, one would have to above all focus on the social media and their anarchic discourse in the “Western world”. In his discussion of Günter Grass’s book entitled Crabwalk [2003, English translation] – and which deals, inter alia, with the surfing of the Internet in its so-called “darker”, far-Right corners – Updike describes the world of the Internet in a highly perspicacious manner. He writes of “the contemporary Babel of the Internet, which seethes like a global subconscious, spreading information and misinformation, and what Nietzsche called ressentiment” [p. 415]. Encapsulated within – what we consider to be – this jewel of a sentence are most of the vital truths describing this global network and its profound impact on masses of people [for our purposes, of course, it is the “Western” masses that concern us]. What is Updike telling us with respect to the Internet and its function [or dysfunction] within the postmodern “Western milieu”?
Our first observation concerns Updike’s choice of word in describing the Internet – he refers to it as a veritable “Babel”, obviously suggesting that it is characterized by a confusion of voices. We may go a little bit further and, using Freeman Dyson’s famous description of the computer age, we may say that the Internet has created “islands of meaning in the sea of information”. But given the Babel-like confusion of voices, each island stands in a conflictual relationship vis-à-vis other islands. Each island resents and mistrusts all or most other islands.
Secondly, in describing the atmosphere [or “temper”] of this Babel, Updike tells us that it is “seething” – in other words, it is being suggested that each island-voice expresses its rage and repulsion towards all other island-voices that it cannot understand and does not wish to do so.
But thirdly, that which “seethes” is akin to “subconscious” impulses – the voice of an island does not necessarily emanate from a well-formed and well-informed rational system of thinking. Alternatively, whatever trace of rational meaning in the voice of the Internet user may itself be buried in layers of subconscious impulses that have come to constitute that user’s profile. It can be very personal whims, prejudices and especially the vindictive element that could help inform – or, more accurately, deform – whatever apparent rational meaning.
Of course, this preponderance of the subconscious impulses may not necessarily apply to all users of the Internet’s social media – one may argue that it does not usually apply to either the more circumspect supporters of the postmodern humanists or to those whom we have described as contrarians. Here again, however, one could point to the “gluttonous” nature of all worldviews and especially of all ideologies expressive of a secular religiosity – these naturally seek to “feed” themselves with whatever suits their ideological “digestive system” and they thereby opt to reject whatever is ideologically “indigestible”. Thus, one may observe a consciously partisan user of the social media deliberately surfing the Internet so as to identify and isolate all facts/ideas verifying or boosting his pre-given mode of thinking, while rejecting all others [that act of deliberation, however, may itself be generated by “absent” or subconscious forces, despite protestations to the contrary].
Fourthly, Updike tells us that the Internet is “spreading information and misinformation”. An inevitable conflict usually arises over what is real “information” and what is mere fabrication – again, the Babel-like confusion of voices yields a “seething” of mistrust, rage and repulsion. Alternatively, there can be a dissemination of verifiably real “information” that ever so often happens to “expose” the so-called malign activities of the so-called “elites” – there again, the Internet shall “seethe” with an exacerbated tone of mistrust, rage and repulsion. The dissemination of “misinformation”, of course, can itself function as agitprop further fanning the impulses of the enraged from whichever camp.
Finally, and surely most significantly, Updike wishes to relate such sentiments of mistrust, rage and repulsion to Nietzsche’s understanding of “ressentiment” – it is via the Internet, Updike suggests, that such type of “ressentiment” is subconsciously spread across the “Western world”. And it is not merely a “ressentiment” between the masses of the governed and those who are in governance – it is also [and perhaps above all] a “ressentiment” within grassroots society itself, it being a sentiment of profound distrust amongst conflictual islands of meaning or amongst sub-cultural segments of “Western” society. We of course well know the specific type of “ressentiment” that Nietzsche had in mind – he would describe it as a symptom of the “slave morality”. To the extent that there is “ressentiment” between and within segments of civil society itself, one may therefore speak of a clash of “seething” and diverging “slave moralities”.
Updike has chosen the key word “Babel” to describe the state of the Internet – based on his further suggestion that this “Babel” is “seething”, we have also used the term “repulsion” to describe the mood of that state as manifested in the “Western world”. The atmosphere of rampant repulsion is the sentiment of unrestrained “ressentiment” per se – but, we have supported, this is above all an intra-social “ressentiment”. It is an internal “ressentiment” between different segments of the “Western” popular masses carrying different understandings of the ideology of humanism – it is therefore a clash between diverging humanisms.
The intensity of this clash is such as to yield a potential collective psychosis or collective hysteria amongst those groupings of the “Western world” directly involved in the clash [we observe it as that recurrent state of being “offended”]. There are of course millions of “Westerners” that remain indifferent to whatever clash – although many of these can also be “infected” from a distance, and be so affected in a subconscious manner.
The general impression, therefore, is that the syndrome of public or collective repulsion prevails within the postmodern “Western milieu”, and which is a state of mind that to a large extent has come to characterize that milieu. This syndrome may be contrasted to the type of repulsion explored in Roman Polanski’s 1965 motion picture, Repulsion. There, the syndrome is only symptomatic of isolated cases of psychosis – in the present-day context, it is a collective syndrome affecting largish segments of society [and which are the most vocal in terms of public discourse].
The collective repulsion reveals a failed compromise between two central antagonistic cultural and ideological paradigms, each of which espouses a secular religiosity of its own and which is expressive of a specific understanding of humanism – we have therefore spoken of at least two deeply antagonistic understandings of “Western” humanism. The failed compromise amounts to an unwillingness on both sides to in any way adjust their positions in a manner that would somehow accommodate the sentiments of their opponents. A populist contrarian, for instance, might wish to adjust to at least certain dimensions of “Western” postmodernity and its surge towards “globalization” – but he would certainly refuse to bend to the “political correctness” dictated by his rivals. There is a sense in which the latter might be obstructing adjustment by wishing to impose their own “group-think” on members of society that do not abide by whatever “group-think”. On the other hand, the fierce individualism of many populist contrarians does not allow much space for whatever tolerance of rival worldviews.
The lack of such tolerance on the part of contrarians – and their repulsion for the so-called “progressive” postmodern humanists – seems to rest on a certain outrage pertaining to the plight of what they see as “Western civilization”. Many American and European populist contrarians usually focus on the immediate post-War years – they celebrate this period as a time when there had been a consolidation of “Western” consumer society within the protective ambit of the “nation-state” [in the experience of Europeans, the immediate post-War years had been a period of reconstruction based on the Marshall Plan and the European Recovery Program]. And they usually go on to juxtapose such “Golden Years” against what they see as a cancellation of the cultural values and moral systems of the “nation-state” within the unprotective ambit of a globalized economy. For many populist contrarians, therefore, the tendency towards cancellation – either as discourse or as practice – amounts to a fragmentation and eventual destruction of the ideological concept of the “West”, and its traditional understandings of humanism [which had once focused on the rights of the White working class through its old New Deal Liberalism in the United States or through the support of the White working class on the part of Britain’s old Labour Party]. Contrarians, finally, often view the present-day “Western” State and its various institutions as weak entities [this would apply to both “coercive” organs such as the Police Force, as also to various cultural/ideological organizations]. Like Tennyson, they would warn those in governance to “Deliver not the tasks of might … to weakness” [p. 106].
The intra-conflictual state of affairs within the “Western milieu” have certainly left traces of a certain decadence and relative decline – there are essays in Updike’s Due Considerations that explore various aspects of life in the “West” and which compare periods such as the immediate post-War years with the realities of the present-day world. Based on what he observes, one could say that there is some truth in the contrarian position that the “Western milieu” has gradually moved from a period of self-consolidation [the 1940’s and through to the 1960’s] to a period of intense self-doubt [on the other hand, this has been accompanied by the phenomenon of the “global citizen” and the concomitant traces of a global “monoculture”, and which is of course an irreversible reality in itself with its own pros and cons].
For Updike, the America of the 1940’s had been able to create a “machine” that could successfully generate a mood of merriment or of high spirits across social strata and which would also have a major impact on the rest of the “Western world”. This “machine” was of course an ideological and/or cultural mechanism – it was precisely what we have described in the first part of this paper as a mechanism of manufactured illusions. Such mechanism need be seen, inter alia, as a necessary and self-protective tool meant to deal with the inevitable exigencies of the “human condition”. While such ideological tool could also be said to be informed by a certain “political” or “class” content, its functionality can only be judged in terms of the degree of the effectiveness of the illusion it creates, or of the degree to which it engages [or captures] the popular masses. Updike celebrates the illusion that had been produced by such “machine” in the 1940’s, and which is none other than the “golden age” of Disney animations.
This is what he tells us in his Personal Considerations [constituting the final section of his Due Considerations], most probably written in 2006: “I wanted to be an animator – to live in Hollywood and make imaginary mice and crickets and crows and dwarfs and big-eared elephants come to life. Had I been informed that the Disney studio was a sweatshop, and the products of its golden age – Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo – were made possible in all their splendidly worked-out detail by masses on low Depression wages, I still would have been pleased to be part of a machine that generated such spectacular and mirth-giving illusions. ‘Life’s really worth living’, a contemporary song asserted, ‘when you are mirth-giving’ …” [p. 618].
The “mirth-giving” illusions of the 1940’s Disney studio were at the same time a process of “making” mirth-illusions – by manufacturing such illusions, the “machine” was a force for positive creativity, and which made life “really worth living”. The positive creativity enabled the popular masses to engage, not only in a pervading positive disposition [and that, despite whatever material hardships], but also in a process of reimagining and remaking their own world. With respect to the creativity of the Disney “machine” as such, Updike writes as follows: “Those early animators had the opportunity to remake the world from scratch, along lines of surreal lightness and polymorphus animism” [ibid.]. It was this world that was being remade “from scratch” that would immerse the popular masses “in the Disney experience, including its very real and often valuable pleasures” [cf. a study edited by Jennifer A. Sandlin and Julie C. Garlen, Disney, Culture, and Curriculum, Routledge, 2019, p. 17]. By being immersed in such experience, the popular masses would themselves remake their own world “from scratch” [in their capacity as “agents”, as Marxist academics would prefer to put it].
When Updike has to select his “favorite year of the disappearing [20th] century” [p. 661], he chooses the year 1946, and does so for a good number of reasons. He informs us, inter alia, that the year would be marked by an important motion picture directed by William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives, and which would dominate the Academy Awards. Apart from the fact that this epic drama is an indisputable masterpiece, Updike has to refer to this particular movie because it very accurately depicts the social atmosphere of the period [and how returning World War II veterans would have to adjust to the changing times]. The motion picture clearly portrays an American society that is experiencing a post-war boom. One of the main characters is Al Stephenson – he is one of the returning veterans and, quite designative of the period, himself a banker. Al tells his wife that “Last year it was kill Japs and this year it’s make money”. We see the operation of various glamorous chain stores, these being indicative of the rise of the mass market merchandisers in the post World War II period. It was then that mass consumption amongst various social strata would be firmly established as an everyday ritual – the motion picture depicts a department store selling, for instance, perfume for ladies [at 29 cents]; toothpaste [at 19 cents]; face powder [at 29 cents]; baby oil and powder [at 79 cents]; and cream [at 69 cents]. Lady customers – especially – are shown to merrily indulge in a rampant consumption of luxury goods [and which were being manufactured for the sole purpose of beautifying their feminine image].
The motion picture also tells us about the small loans that were being offered to ex-servicemen at the time [with or perhaps without the necessary collateral] – the movie is referring of course to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill, created specifically so as to help those that had fought in the war. Low-interest mortgages were being made available to them. The same G.I. Bill would also provide for an unemployment compensation program – the movie appropriately depicts ex-servicemen standing in line for their unemployment compensation. We know that between 1944 and 1949 almost 9 million veterans would receive close to $4 billion from the Bill’s program.
The United States was gearing up and consolidating itself as the bastion of free enterprise offering all its citizens the opportunity to “make money”. The movie shows us the President of Cornbelt Trust & Loan Company saying words that certainly do epitomize the “American Dream” of the period – he speaks of America as “the citadel of individual initiative” and as “the land of unlimited opportunity for all” [all the main characters in the movie storyline end up as “winners” and with an optimistic disposition]. Of course, the United States would also be consolidating itself as the global hegemon – mention is made in the motion picture of the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement which would, as we know, entail the establishment of the dollar standard, the IMF and the World Bank Group. American hegemony would also mean a more generalized “Western” hegemony right across the globe, at least in a cultural and/or ideological sense [and bar, of course, the so-called “communist” world at the time].
This is precisely one of the periods of American history that present-day populist contrarians hearken back to – and it is the selfsame era that Updike himself focuses on with a deep sense of nostalgia as also with an as deep sense of pride. In his presentation of the year 1946, he writes of “the euphoria of the first full postwar year”, when the birth rate would jump twenty percent [ibid.]. His general description of that year – and with implications as to what would follow thereafter – goes as follows: “But postwar would not be pre-war. In 1946, RCA began to sell television sets, with ten-inch screens. United Airlines announced the purchase of jets for commercial use. At Harvard, a giant electronic computer, ENIAC, computed a thousand times faster than humans could. In Paris, a bathing suit called the bikini debuted. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo. Big bands broke up. Skirts went down. The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell in a Howard Hughes-designed uplift bra, was released in defiance of the production code. In Mississippi, blacks for the first time voted in the Democratic primary” [p. 662].
Updike continues on a more personal note, though again points to the grand period that would shape his youth – he writes: “As for me, I was all of fourteen, and my family for the first time since my early childhood owned an automobile. There were brand-new cars on the road, with wooden sides and Jeeplike frames. Butter and sugar were back on the shelves; ration tokens and coupons were gone. Nineteen forty-six was a year after everything had happened, and also the year before everything that would follow. It felt triumphant, to be an American” [ibid.].
The key word here is of course that of “triumphant” – Updike simply celebrates the reality and the ideological concept of being a citizen of America. By implication, this would also mean that one could celebrate the idea of being a “Westerner”. We know that present-day populist contrarian tendencies have tended to dwell on this pride of belonging to the “Western civilization” – they would therefore come to resent whatever ideological tendencies wished, not only to cancel such pride, but to speak of the moral obligation of feeling “guilty” with respect to that civilization. The contrarians would in the last instance resent the “guilt” that, it was said, one ought to feel as a specifically White American – they would feel that White Americans had played an important [if not major] role in making the “best years” of America, and as is evident in the William Wyler motion picture.
Without at all wishing to reduce the thinking of Updike to that of the present-day populist contrarians [that would be quite laughable], we may nonetheless say that both the writer and those now opposed to “cancel culture” would feel that what was to follow the year 1946 should also be celebrated – and it should be celebrated at least from the vantage point of the present postmodern world. We are here referring to the 1950’s and 1960’s period, and as that would unfold both in the United States and in the rest of the “West”. Updike writes as follows: “The decade of 1955-64 did not think of itself as a halcyon time, but in retrospect it seems so” [p. 615]. It should not surprise us that those who had lived in that decade would not always fully recognize that theirs was a “halcyon time”: many historians – from Edward Gibbon to Jules Michelet, and from Eric Hobsbawm to Paul Freedman – would acknowledge that the people who live in a particular historical period are not fully aware of the implications of that period. On the other hand, an expression such as the “swinging sixties” – and which was used at the time – does suggest a certain degree of such self-awareness. But what Updike wishes to emphasize is that the 1950’s and 1960’s constitutes an idyllic period of the past that is clearly remembered as much better than the life one lives in the postmodern world of today.
What was it that made it better and which deserves to be celebrated? Updike paints a rather complex picture of the period spanning the 1950’s and 1960’s – this is what he writes: “… at home in America consumerism and industrial production struck a balance which produced, for masses, a greater ease of living. As one of these captions [with reference to certain The New Yorker cartoons] has it: ‘You know how it is. You have a little more, you live a little better’ … The suburbs were the arena of the new plenty, at the expense of cities and farms. Not that the men in gray flannel suits were altogether happy with their split-level lives. One child says to another [in some other cartoon caption], ‘I don’t know what my father does all day. All I know is it makes him sick at his stomach’. There were rebellious stirrings, even under the anodyne Eisenhower. In popular culture, early rock drowned out the mellow remnants of the big bands; in painting, the stern and heroic canvases of Abstract Expressionism morphed into the cheerful junk art of Pop and the deadpan quiddity of Minimalism; in writing, baroque mandarins such as Bellow and Nabokov added new, lighter notes to the sonorities of our native naturalism. A certain lightness and gaiety, indeed, permeated the décor and mind-set of a hard-working land” [p. 616].
Updike’s picture of the period is certainly complex – and yet a number of features do stand out, and from which one may draw certain significant conclusions. Firstly, one would see the continuous spread and further consolidation of “the arena of the new plenty”, improving the quality of life for great masses of American citizens – and which would thereby effect a more or less general consensus amongst the different social strata and groupings of civil society [and which would also come to incorporate Black Americans with the Civil Rights Act of 1964]. Secondly, and as importantly, one may say that although those “men in gray flannel suits” were not always “happy”, they nonetheless expressed a homogeneity in middle class American culture. This homogeneity would constitute a vital link in the backbone of an all-American cultural paradigm to which most would, in the last instance, aspire – and which would be a state of affairs that must be directly contrasted to the deep cultural fragmentation of the present-day postmodern American era. Thirdly, the combination of these three salient factors – viz. “the arena of the new plenty”, the new social consensus, and the cultural homogeneity – would yield what Updike describes as “a certain lightness and gaiety” permeating the psyche of “a hard-working land”. This, apparently, would be a cause for celebration.
Updike was neither a historian nor a Marxist – and yet, his understanding of the 1950’s and 1960’s period as a “halcyon time” in the “Western world” would be fully corroborated by someone who was both a historian and a Marxist: we refer of course to none other than that great “Western” intellectual, Eric Hobsbawm. We know that, in his The Age of Extremes, 1994, Hobsbawm would describe the 1945-1973 period in the “Western” capitalist world as the “Golden Age”. It was a time when the “Western” mode of life would show an unprecedented expansion, and it would be an expansion based on a material well-being and on a cultural virility encompassing [or, as we would nowadays put it, “including”] vast masses of people. There is an important sense in which both a non-Marxist such as Updike and a Marxist such as Hobsbawm would wish to celebrate such “halcyon time” or such “Golden Age” [as would also the present-day populist contrarians; but which the present-day postmodern humanists would certainly not]. In fact, this period in the “West” could be said to have been more or less subconsciously celebrated even by those who were not fully aware of the implications of the conjuncture they were traversing. Such celebration at a grassroots level would take a variety of forms – one basic form would be that “simple belief” in “Western” culture per se. Paradoxically, the material fruits of such “Western” culture would also be fully appreciated by the vast majority of “Western” communists – they too would inevitably be indulging in “the arena of the new plenty” and in the consumerist culture engulfing the whole of the “Western world”, and which would naturally lead to the demise of all “Western” Communist Parties [a historical reality recorded in some detail by Hobsbawm in his The Age of Extremes].
This “simple belief” in one’s “Western” culture would therefore be an all-pervasive ideological infrastructure cementing the essential consensus that was being reproduced at grassroots level – the consensus would be such as to fully allow for whatever alternative and/or oppositional ideology, and it would be such extreme toleration that would define the very sustainability and virility of the “Western world” at the time. The reproduction of the ideological infrastructure of “Western” capitalism [or “Western” welfare capitalism], and its numerous cultural manifestations, would therefore be almost automatic – and it would be in such context that the children of the “West” would be groomed to live such “Western” culture by both the schooling environment and by the parents themselves. They would be groomed in a “simple belief” in such cultural paradigm [but which was itself a complex paradigm in terms of its multifarious socio-economic manifestations]. Updike dwells briefly on this question of “simple belief” and how it was instilled in the children of the period by discussing the work of William Steig, an American cartoonist and writer of children’s books who made his debut in the 1930’s and continued his work through to the 1950’s, the 1960’s, and on. Updike writes as follows with respect to Steig’s cartoons: “There is no overt satire in these depictions, but, rather, a bliss of simple belief, a seeing as if for the first time the narrative images with which children, at least in Steig’s childhood, were primed for existence in Western culture” [p. 613]. As we know, a key grievance on the part of the present-day populist contrarians is that their children are not at all “primed for existence in Western culture” – for them, the “narrative images” with which their children are allegedly fed [by both public schooling and the mass media] are such as to project an anti-Western paradigm. The present-day humanists would of course fully espouse such anti-Western paradigm – it would be expressive of their deconstructionist “project” and their morally-based wish to free the “Western world” from the “imperial imagination” and “the burden of the past” [as discussed above]. For them, it would be an absolutely moral stance to “prime” the children of the “West” in a manner that would avoid a repetition of such “burden of the past”. The basic implication here is self-evident: while intellectuals such as Updike and Hobsbawm would wish to celebrate and reproduce the values of the post-War “Western world”, the postmodern humanists would wish to deconstruct most such values – and such deconstruction could not be implemented unless the children of the “West” underwent a certain reeducation as to what it really means – or has meant – to belong to the “Western” capitalist [and/or imperialist] world.
The collective repulsion or “ressentiment” – or the failed compromise that would come to characterize the present-day postmodern world – would therefore revolve around conflictual assessments regarding the historical past of the “West”, and would revolve around similarly conflictual understandings regarding the overall plight of such “Western civilization”. The period of the post-War years, however, would also be contrasted to the postmodern world in a number of other – albeit related – ways. We may here consider the matter of art.
In his Personal Considerations, Updike briefly introduces us to the art of the German-born American painter, Wolf Kahn [1927-2020]. What he writes tells us much both about the painting of Kahn as also about the practice of art per se – in some sense, Updike presents us with his own “definition” of what it means to create a work of authentic artistic value. As we shall see further below, it would be precisely such understanding of the Updikeian artistic “standard” that would come to be lost to the postmodern world, and which would point to the cultural degeneration of that world, at least in the “West”. There is some truth in saying that it would not only be the populist contrarians that would scoff at the artistic products of 21st century postmodernism – both the educated public and the not so well educated citizens of the “West” would be bewildered [or even at times thoroughly embarrassed] by many artistic artifacts exhibited in prestigious art galleries.
How does Updike himself understand the practice of artistic creativity? This is what he writes: “I was here: the impulse to send postcards is widespread [as it of course was prior to the Internet], as is the desire to make a record of one’s transient life. Art builds upon such common impulses a structure of exceptional skill and, we might say, informed wonder – the celebrative instinct informed by tradition and the innovations that bestow continuing vitality on an art form” [p. 629].
Based on such Updikeian “standards”, one may argue that the 21st century postmodern artist [albeit with some important exceptions] has deliberately forgotten certain essential ingredients that are required to compose any work of art – and he has systematically omitted such ingredients to the point of bringing the practice of artistic creativity to a dead-end, thus killing the field of art per se – and which amounts to yet another form of deconstruction vis-à-vis the traditional concept of “Western” art. To verify [or falsify] this process of a certain destructive deconstruction in the field of art, one perhaps needs to reiterate the Updikeian “standards” recorded above, this time in the form of open-ended questions pertaining to the present-day practice of artistic creativity. Depending on how one answers such questions, one would be able to draw a number of conclusions regarding the state of present-day “Western” art [and therefore regarding the state of present-day “Western” culture as a whole]. The questions may be put as follows:
- To what extent – if at all – does the present-day postmodern painter “build upon” the “common impulses” of the “Western” citizen? Is it not true to say that his artistic creations have been reduced to mere financial assets circulating within an internal art market that remains absolutely indifferent either to the content or to the artistic quality of such assets? [consider, for instance, the manner in which the products of “Fine Art” are dealt with in a paper by Burak Dagkus, “Art as a Financial Asset: Fine Art Market, Risk and Insurance”, Academia.edu]. If there is such indifference to both content and quality, how may a work of art “build upon” whatever “common impulse”?
- To what extent does the present-day postmodern painter exhibit a certain “exceptional skill” in his work? Given the state of affairs of the internal art market, does the painter even need to make use of whatever skills at all? How often do members of the public, on viewing a present-day painting, tell themselves that they would be able to do so much better in improving on the blank canvas? Is it true to say that postmodern art is a field that has become absolutely “de-skilled” [and as art historian Benjamin Buchloh has himself argued]?
- To what extent does a present-day postmodern painting “build upon” and artistically sublimate the “common impulses” of the “Western world” through a “celebrative instinct” pertaining to such “impulses”?
- Perhaps more concretely, to what extent does a present-day postmodern artist make use of a “celebrative instinct” that is “informed by tradition”?
- Further, to what extent does a present-day postmodern artist make use of a “celebrative instinct” that is informed by genuine innovation?
- And thus, one may ask the following fundamental question: to what extent is a present-day postmodern artist informed by a combination of both traditionality and newness that would enable his work to be part of a continuum in the history of “Western” artistic creativity? To what extent, in other words, does his particular work “bestow continuing vitality on an art form” [as Updike puts it]?
- By extension, one could further ask the following: to what extent is the present-day postmodern artist prone to promoting, not the vitality of the artistic continuum, but rather a lethargy and inertia – a creative “laziness”, so to speak – with respect to the elements of both traditionality and newness? Could it be said that his work is somehow prone to a lifelessness reminiscent of nihilistic ennui?
Updike’s “standards” are especially strict – he expects of an artist, not only to “build upon” what he senses around him in the world, but to do that with a skill that is “exceptional” and at the same time “informed”. Now, it is quite obvious that such exacting Updikeian “standards” are hardly ever met by the average postmodern painter or sculptor – and they would certainly be vehemently rejected by the present-day dominant practitioners in the field. This, apparently, would point to that possible cultural degeneration of the “Western world” that we have been discussing above. And yet, we all know that the Updikeian “standards” pertaining to art have been rejected for a very long time in the “West” – one may simply refer here to early-20th century artistic movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, Fauvism, or to Pollock’s “drip technique”, and so on and so forth. Such “Western” reality in the field of art could suggest that the seeds of cultural degeneration had already been sown way back then, and given the destructive realities of the First and Second World Wars [both of which had, by the way, been the products of “Western civilization”].
While there is a certain truth in the latter statement, one should also say that it remains extremely oversimplistic – while such types of seeds had certainly been sown, they were not all of the seeds that would come to consolidate the “Western world”, whether at the social, economic or cultural level [we may here remind ourselves of either Updike’s “halcyon time” or of Hobsbawm’s “Golden Age” following the Second World War]. The fact is that the art of a psychologically traumatized Europe, following the long periods of war, could be said to be understandably nihilistic – and yet that particular form of nihilism would come to autonomize itself with respect to the immediate implications of the two World Wars, and would reproduce itself ad infinitum through the years. It would do so for reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion [Hobsbawm, for instance, has related this phenomenon to the rise of new technologies and the concomitant peripheralization of the artist]. Now, it would be that particular vein of autonomized artistic expression that would be adopted and reproduced by the 21st century postmodern artist, this time usually protesting the “injustices” and “alienation” of “Western” late capitalism – it may be argued that it would be such strand of autonomized nihilism that would come to dominate in the course of the early-21st century. In the meantime, other artistic genres would themselves become marginalized [major artists such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon would try to save the day during the 20th century].
The manner in which we have posed and commented on the Updikeian-type questions above could be said to insinuate that the postmodern artist is guilty of destroying the field of art in the “Western world”. This would not be much of an accurate reading – we would rather have such questions remain open, and they would have to remain so for two basic reasons: [i] The Updikeian “standards” may be said to be antiquated, and there is no reason why one should insist on all – or even some – of these rigid principles; [ii] We well know that, throughout the history of art in the “Western world”, it has been “contemporary art” that has always been the most critiqued and the most misunderstood.
Keeping these two points in mind, we may now counterpose the Updikeian “standards” to those of a typical postmodern artist – we may here very briefly consider the work of someone like Professor Callum Morton, who is said to create “installations” and/or sculptural constructions. Living and working in Melbourne, Victoria, Morton is said to have exhibited his work nationally and internationally since 1990.
In a March 2011 GoMA [Gallery of Modern Art] panel discussion on the issue of 21st century art, Morton would explain that the “grand narrative” of postmodern art is centered around “the language of inclusion” and is directly related to “the rise of cultural studies” in the academies. Another participant in the discussion was Juliana Engberg, Programme Director of Aarhus 2017 – she would attempt to define “the postmodern sublime” in terms of what she called “the wow-factor” [it being the desired response on the part of people viewing a work of art].
It is in the context of such an intellectual environment that one would need to assess one of Morton’s most interesting works of art [or “installations”] – viz. his Monument #32: Helter Shelter, 2018. The work depicts Donald Trump’s head – or half of it – as it protrudes from the ground.
Before we attempt to tentatively assess this work of postmodern art in terms of the Updikeian “standards”, it would be useful to present a few observations that have been made in response to Morton’s 2018 work – such observations, albeit highly subjective, nonetheless give us some idea of what that construction is all about. Rex Butler, writing in MeMo [memoreview.net, 28.03.2020], has this to say: “There it sits in Alfred Deakin Place off the main street of Ballarat [Victoria’s important “cultural site” for protests and rallies], just as confronting, divisive and aesthetically repugnant as the original on which it’s based. It’s Callum Morton’s Monument #32: Helter Shelter (2018), a huge papier mâché reproduction of the top half of American President Donald Trump’s head. It’s all there as we so unwillingly remember: the fake yellow suntan, the thinning white teased pompadour, the narcissistically slitted eyes … It’s enormous … And you’re meant to sit in it because behind the façade on the other side is a hidden bench in an alcove with room for several people … The idea? To put yourself in Trump’s head for a while, whatever that would mean … Of course, in an obvious sense, it’s an astonishingly provocative gesture to stick this sexist, racist, anti-immigrant American triumphalist in a humble country square”.
Such data may now allow us to apply the “Updikeian” criteria to Morton’s artistic creation – very roughly one may make the following comments:
- Morton’s “installation” cannot be seen as merely a potential financial asset – it is a work of art informed by a content that wishes to bypass the usual indifference of the internal art market to whatever content. Its content is of course clearly political in nature. Being political, it certainly intends to express the “common impulses” of the “Western” citizen. On the other hand, it wishes to express the “impulses” of a very particular political camp, and do so in a manner that is extremely hostile to the opposing political camp – we therefore have here a work of art that is symptomatic of a certain “ressentiment”. Morton’s “installation” may therefore be said to “build upon” the intra-conflictual tendencies which, as we have argued, have come to characterize the “Western world”. It also remains an open question as to whether Morton’s work “builds upon” whatever “common impulses” through an artistic sublimation of such “impulses” – a simple caricature-like “reproduction” of the top half of anyone’s head would not necessarily exemplify artistic creativity. Or would it? One would here have to consider the implications of, say, Andy Warhol’s cartoon art, and what this has meant for the historical development of “Western” art. Such types of questions must remain open to further investigation on the part of future historians [or, better, of art historians living in a very distant future].
- In terms of the Updikeian criteria, a work of art has to be the product, not only of skill, but of “exceptional skill” – could one possibly say that Morton’s “installation” required any “exceptional skill” for its creation? It is quite obvious that no such skill was required – in fact, one could say that almost anyone could have produced such “installation”, given a certain technical infrastructure for its construction [there is more technical skill in the work than there is any artistic skill, let alone of the “exceptional” type].
- Is there any “celebrative instinct” in Morton’s “installation”? One may say that there certainly is such “instinct” – but what is it that is being celebrated? It goes without saying that Morton wishes to celebrate the “impulse” of “ressentiment” directed against the populist contrarians. And it is, for him, an absolutely justifiable “ressentiment” targeting a political leader that is deemed to be a “sexist, racist, anti-immigrant American triumphalist”. The “ressentiment” is further justifiable given that that type of American leader is said to be a “divisive” force within “Western” society. According to Rex Butler, the “installation” is “an astonishingly provocative gesture” – the provocation is itself an instance of a show of “ressentiment”, and which constitutes “the wow-factor” [or the desired viewer response] in terms of the postmodernist art paradigm of the “sublime”.
- Morton’s work may be said to be “informed by tradition” in that it is roughly related to styles of art that are rooted in the history of “Western” art. For one thing, his “monuments” [as in the case of Monument #32] are themselves a clear manifestation of the long history of “Western” sculpture, and how that has developed from “object” to “installation”. Further, it may be said that at least one of the “traditional” genres that inform his work is that of pop art.
- There is a sense in which Morton’s Monument #32 is informed by a certain innovation. Apart from the combination of materials that he uses to construct Trump’s head [we are told that these include polyurethane, fast coat, timber and acrylic lacquer], Morton’s work is a construction that combines art with architecture.
- The fact that Morton’s Monument #32 is informed by both a certain artistic tradition and a certain innovation would mean that his work is in some way an expression of a particular continuum in the history of “Western” art.
- Finally, could one say that Monument #32 is symptomatic of what we have described above as the paradox of creative “laziness” [or perhaps lifelessness]? This is of course a highly subjective issue, and it is also a matter best left to serious art critics. Our humble impression is that the rendering of Trump’s head is just a bit too crude and unrefined – this does seem to suggest a certain “laziness” on the part of its creator. One may of course counter such an observation by asserting that such crudeness is deliberate – but this again raises the more general question regarding the present-day state of postmodern art. To the extent that a piece of art is crude in its craftsmanship, it may also be transient – could then one say that all or most of present-day postmodern art is historically ephemeral? And if that be so, can one not also go on to support that the postmodern artist is prone to killing the field of art per se?
The point is that our rough attempt at applying the Updikeian “standards” to Morton’s work yielded rather contradictory results – while it is true that Morton’s Monument #32 did not meet certain of these rather rigid “standards”, it is as true that it did so in the case of other such “standards”, and did so in its own special postmodern way. Morton’s work is certainly representative of postmodern art and thus one could perhaps draw some general conclusions as to the state of present-day art based on an assessment of his work [which – as already noted above – dates back to the 1990’s]. Our admittedly rough appraisal of his Monument #32 “installation” in terms of Updike’s criteria allows us to suggest that any declarations mourning the present-day “decadence” or “nihilism” of art must be taken with a pinch of salt. The matter has to remain an open question.
And yet, there is another extremely important [and as importantly defining] dimension in the representative work of someone like Morton that could raise further serious questions pertaining to the quality of present-day art and thus also touch on the question of the possible demise of the field of art itself. What is this defining and representative dimension? Morton’s work is highly representative of the postmodern artist in that it is a work of art informed by political activism – as we have seen, his Monument #32 is a direct political act.
We know that “activism” in the era of the postmodern humanists is ubiquitous, and which is a phenomenon already much alluded to elsewhere in this paper. One finds it proliferating in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, and so on – and, naturally so, one sees “activist art” dominating in the field of all artistic practices. We use the term “dominating” in a very literal sense – “activism” in art is a theme for university dissertations and a topic for an endless stream of academic lectures in the best institutions that the “Western world” can offer. We may here refer to a very typical lecture on art that took place recently – viz. the 2022 Arnheim Public Lecture at the Stiftung Brandenburger Tor, in Berlin. The speaker was Professor Dr. Marina Vishmidt, a Faculty Member at Goldsmiths, University of London. All too tellingly, the title of this lecture went as follows: “Speculation to Infrastructure: Material and Method in the Politics of Contemporary Art” [cf. Academia.edu].
One may make a number of observations with respect to this lecture:
- The professor showed no interest whatsoever as to the quality of present-day art. Criteria on the basis of which a work of art may be assessed – accepted or rejected in terms of sheer artistic value – were simply not discussed at all.
- The entire lecture evinced an absolute and exclusive interest in political activism and how that may be promoted through art.
- The professor lectured on very down to earth strategies and tactics as to how art galleries, museums and various other institutions – viz. the “infrastructure” established by State and Capital – may be taken over so that their resources be used in furthering the struggles of both the “labour movement” as a whole and of the various intersecting oppositional movements in “Western” capitalist society [there was much reference to the work of Karl Marx].
- The entire content of the lecture [as also the discussions with the audience that followed later] was very much reminiscent of far-Left revolutionary activism. It was said that there had to be an “occupation”, “sabotage”, “hijacking”, “blockage” and “dismantling” of the existing “infrastructure” – such type of activity would constitute an “infrastructural critique” on the part of artists. Given the nature of such type of activity, artists would thereby be engaging in what was termed “practical critiques”. The purpose of artists would be to establish “counter-infrastructures in the process of resistance” and/or to engage in “developing undergrounds of various kinds”.
- The general implication of such type of thinking was obvious throughout the lecture: art must necessarily be seen as part and parcel of the social struggles and social movements of the present-day “Western world”. The practice of art would be of little – if any – value were it to be posited outside the context of such struggles and movements. Throughout the lecture, one had to keep reminding oneself that this was a talk on the matter art – and yet, it was Lenin’s What Is To Be Done that kept springing to mind.
Now, in a short 2005 “Statement” regarding the question of ethics vis-à-vis literature and theory [and which is included in his Personal Considerations], Updike would examine the practice of what he called “preachment” in the art of writing fiction [and which, of course, is a statement that could also be said to apply to the field of art in general]. To the extent that “preachment” is a central dimension of “activism” [in fact, the one can be comfortably reduced to the other], it would be interesting to consider Updike’s thinking on the matter, and especially the manner in which the “preachment” of an engaged “activism” can affect the quality of any artistic practice. This is what he has to say: “His [viz. the creator’s] ‘responsibilities to the work of art’ are those of any craftsman to his product, polishing and shaping it to the point where it gives aesthetic delight. Such an endeavor is, to me, so self-evidently moral that posing the author as a preacher or his work as preachment fatally sullies something intrinsically pure. The author is a citizen and a social creature, and undoubtedly social impulses will figure in his fiction or poetry; the very act of self-expression indicates a wish to communicate, to share, to please, to influence. But his raison d’être is religious – homage to what is and gratitude for being alive, offered up with the directness and innocence of a child’s crayon drawing” [p. 670].
Updike’s approach to the issue of engaged “preachment” in artistic endeavour may summarily be put as follows:
- The artist’s sole responsibility is to his artistic creation – he is above all a craftsman who must see to it that what he produces has been “polished” and “shaped” in such manner that it offers us a definite “aesthetic delight” [it is this that constitutes the artist’s own “morality”]. In the absence of such evoked “delight”, the artist-craftsman has failed, and he has failed whatever the message he wishes to convey. It is his wish to “communicate” that has fallen flat.
- But Updike is not simply telling us that an artist’s responsibility should not be “preachment” – he is also telling us that whenever “preachment” does take place in a work of art, it has the effect of ruining or besmirching that artistic creation [the ruin, he suggests, would be “fatal” to a work’s “intrinsic purity”].
- Updike then goes one step further – it is not only a matter of to whom or to what an artist is responsible; much more than that, it is above all a matter of identifying and realizing the artist’s very raison d’être. And his reason for operating as an artist is to pay “homage to what is” and not to what should be. For Updike, it is the “preacher” who is obsessed with the latter – as are all self-proclaimed “activists” like Marina Vishmidt [her almost existential obsession with “what should be” is expressed by her own interpretation of the term “speculation”, which is seen as the artist’s “vector of change” in society – the artist, that is, need “speculate” on what society should be].
Were one to accept Updike’s understanding of an artist’s responsibility and raison d’être in the field of art, then one is forced to raise the following vital question: what is it that happens – or could happen – to the field of “Western” art when such field comes to be dominated by the “preachment” of “activist”-academicians like Callum Morton or Marina Vishmidt? Could the general field of the arts be – as Updike has warned – “fatally sullied” in the “Western world”? Again, this has to remain an open question. And it must remain an open question given that the dominance of the “activist” artist has not been such as to fully marginalize other artists that would – yet still – insist on honouring the type of artistic criteria articulated by Updike. Just one example of such type of painter would be – for Updike at least – Wolf Kahn, whose work is said to have been [he died in 2020] a blending of, inter alia, realism, modern abstract painting and American impressionism.
The question of present-day “Western” art is closely related to the postmodern world’s general – or, rather, dominant – sense of what is appreciated as that which is “beautiful” and what is deprecated as that which is considered “ugly”. In what way, in other words, does the present-day “Western” literati class understand “beauty” and “ugliness” both in arts and letters as also in everyday practices [and which is an understanding that often percolates into various segments of the popular masses]? For Updike, “our sense of the beautiful” is that which “becomes a kind of awed applause” [p. 664]. To grasp the sense of both “beauty” and “awe”, one need simply watch David Lean’s 1955 motion picture, Summertime, which is an excellent visual portrayal and aesthetic celebration of the sheer beauty of Venetian Gothic-cum-Renaissance architecture.
Can it be said that the literati class of the “Western” postmodern world has simply lost its sense of “beauty” and “ugliness”, at least in the sense that Updike means it? And, if so, what would the implications of this be as regards the health and vitality of “Western civilization”? By 2005, Updike would be making an observation on the question of aesthetic “beauty” which could be said to be pointing to a cultural [or aesthetic] rupture that had taken place within the “West”, and especially in the United States. He simply tells us that issues of “beauty” and “ugliness” would henceforth be “a matter of fashion” [p. 580]. Much more crucially, he goes on to add the following momentous statement: “the ugly becomes beautiful if it attracts attention” [ibid.].
We may here present just one simple example of how the “ugly” would automatically become “beautiful” as well – it would in fact be presented as a “creative treasure” – simply because of the attention it had attracted [or simply because of the manner in which the mass media and/or the literati had presented it so as to attract attention]. We may all agree that there is an intrinsic “ugliness” in trash – and yet this 1998 instance of a “creative treasure” was a collection of just such trash. The reference here is to Tim Nobel’s and Sue Webster’s work entitled Dirty White Trash. Collecting trash from the streets of London, they would position the garbage in such manner that a particular image would appear on a screen as light was projected in front of this “sculptural installation”. Whatever the message this assemblage of garbage was meant to convey – presumably related to the “toxicity” of “consumer society” – it is nonetheless simply ugly, and yet it was automatically accepted as a piece of contemporary art. The matter of “ugliness” is further evident in another piece created by Nobel and Webster – this work is entitled Real Life is Rubbish .
Of course, to create a piece of contemporary art asserting that life is rubbish is a clear-cut expression of extreme nihilism. Even more importantly, when the “Western” literati would choose to accept that type of assemblage as “art”, they would at the same time be blurring the margins between what is “beautiful” and what is “ugly” – and they would thereby ultimately come to lose Updike’s sense of “awed applause”. Such blurring of the margins is clearly evident in what Jeffrey Deitch – who was director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art from 2010 to 2013 – had to say in assessing the Nobel and Webster garbage shadow sculptures. He would see these as “a confluence of beauty and filth” [cf. “Black Magic”, in Wasted Youth, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 2009]. The key word here is that of “confluence” – it suggests that “beauty” and “filth” have come to converge. May one therefore not draw the general conclusion that the dominant milieu of the postmodern “Western world” is defined by a cultural moment wherein “beauty” and “ugliness” have come to meet? And what would be the implications of such meeting as regards the cultural sustainability of the “Western world”?
Updike presents us with yet another case in present-day “Western” society where “the ugly becomes beautiful if it attracts attention” – the reference here is specifically to the field of music, and especially as regards the quality of rap songs. This genre of popular music that has spread right across the “Western world” is critically assessed by referring to the thinking of Stanley Crouch, an influential Afro-American poet, music and cultural critic, and who was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences [he died in 2020]. This is what Updike writes: “He [Crouch] … expresses distaste for today’s popular black music – ‘gangster rappers’, purveying ‘anger and disruption … not to mention the exceedingly low level of the musicianship’ …” [p. 256]. One may say that it is precisely this “exceedingly low level” of knowledge, skill and artistic sensitivity in the performance of songs that renders such music especially “ugly”.
It would be useful at this point to briefly dwell on the thinking of an important critic such as Stanley Crouch. This may allow us to raise a number of questions on the extent to which rap music [or hip hop] constitutes yet another symptom of decadence in “Western” culture. To what extent, in other words, is this type of popular music – often entangled with a form of vulgar and/or nihilistic “activism” – indicative, not only of a loss of [aesthetic] “beauty”, but also of meaning itself? Our purpose here is to merely raise critical questions on the phenomenon of this type of music – more in-depth research would definitely be required to come up with any definitive answers.
The Wikipedia entry on Crouch informs us that he had been a “fierce critic” of “gangsta rap” in particular, asserting that this was a type of music that promoted violence, a criminal lifestyle, and a degrading attitude towards women. We know of course that, while Crouch would be fiercely critical of this particular genre of rap music, he would also be – as shall be further indicated below – generally dismissive of all forms of rap. He would simply refuse to see whatever musicianship in the genre as a whole.
Crouch, we are told, was also scathing towards American rapper Tupac Shakur, who would sell more than 75 million records worldwide – the young man, killed in 1996 at the age of 25, is said to have been one of the most influential rappers of all time and is “considered a symbol of activism against inequality”. With regard to Shakur, however, Crouch has written as follows: “what dredged-up scum you are willing to pay for is what scum you get, on or off stage” [cf. Wikipedia; also, inter alia, Stanley Crouch, “Fatal Attraction: Rappers & Violence”, New York Daily News, 12.03.1997].
In an article entitled “Four-Letter Words: Rap & Fusion” and published in Jazz Times [01.03. 2002], Crouch argues that the genre of rap music generally does not constitute a form of art. It is also related to a decadent sub-culture. We may present the following quotes from his text:
- As regards whatever artistic claims made by rappers: “We should not care if some rapper claims to be influenced by jazz. We should laugh at those who make artistic claims for fusion”.
- Rappers are said to be “Whorish tramps”.
- Rappers are described as “those jungle bunnies hip-hopping along”.
- On the question of cultural decadence: “What rap most importantly proves is that Negro American youth culture … is as vulnerable to decadence and hollow materialism as anything else”.
In a panel discussion on hip hop hosted by Charlie Rose [08.04.1997], Crouch would yet again wish to emphasize that this type of music has nothing at all to do with art – rappers, he would assert, know nothing about music per se. They all have no idea as to “what makes a chord a major chord or a minor chord”, and so what they produce is “vulgar”. He would also argue that hip hop is “nihilistic” in content and, even worse, it is expressive of a “commercialized nihilism” [whereby nihilism itself is being commoditized]. Interestingly, but also rather controversially, Crouch would suggest that the nihilistic side of hip hop music “comes from European decadence” itself. He would support this latter point by referring to Martha Bayles’s book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
In fact, both Crouch and Bayles would support that rap music is symptomatic of a “Western” decadence precisely because it is indicative of both a loss of “beauty” [suggesting an anti-aestheticism or some sort of “ugliness”] as also a loss of meaning. Bayles’s study on postmodern popular music – of which hip hop has turned out to be a major genre – finds that “something has gone seriously wrong, both with the sound of popular music and the sensibility it expresses” [cf. the Goodreads presentation of the book].
To say that hip hop has emerged as a major genre in the field of postmodern music is most probably an understatement. One should rather state that hip hop is a ubiquitous phenomenon that has spread right across the “Western world”, and even beyond it – one may even encounter it in the cultural peripheries of countries such as China or Russia. The degree of its global diffusion is such that one might even say that the genre is a symptom of a looming globalized “monoculture” [cf. our discussion of this Updikeian term above], and especially so amongst the younger generations.
Explaining this phenomenon is no easy task. One could argue that its diffusion may be put down to its incessant and deliberate propagation by the globalized mass media. This of course raises the perennial paradox with respect to any issue of propagation: is the genre so popular amongst youngsters due to its deliberate promotion by an external agent, or is it promoted incessantly by such agent given its popularity amongst that age group? And how is one to then explain the particular taste for hip hop amongst the younger generations? We may in any case simply observe here that MTV – or, more specifically, Yo! MTV Raps – would certainly play a major role in bringing hip hop to the masses around the world. Now, were one to agree with the stance taken by writers such as Crouch and Bayles, one would be obliged to argue that channels such as MTV have been promoting a decadent form of music culture that is both aesthetically “ugly” and “meaningless”. We shall have to yet again allow this to remain an open question. Updike, nonetheless, has himself written that “MTV’s don’t need to make sense, any more than dreams do” [p. 620].
Very generally speaking – and now well beyond the narrow issue of rap music itself – one could postulate that the “Western world” has come to be characterized by a dominant ideology of postmodern humanism that is dismissive of both the aesthetics and the logic [or meaningfulness] of a historical conjuncture that had once been described as either “halcyon” [by Updike] or “golden” [by Hobsbawm]. This deconstructionist rejection, one may also postulate, would be based on the needs of a secular religiosity fighting for a new understanding of social justice. And thus one could speak of a certain type of rejuvenation of the deliberate anti-aestheticism and irrationality of the Dadaist mentality, itself a movement against unjust “bourgeois” society – this time, however, revitalized in its new, postmodernist variety. In his “Tribute to Saul Steinberg”, written in 1999, Updike tells us the following about this Romanian-born artist: “He made little of his Romanian origins; ‘pure Dada’, he called his native land” [p. 607]. One simply wonders whether one could not state something similar with respect to the present-day “Western world” as a whole.
Apart from the question of present-day aesthetics, specific socio-political developments in the postmodern “Western world” may also be said to have had a series of material repercussions – and it is the term “ruination” that seems to most accurately describe such latter-day nadir. Updike here makes use of Salman Rushdie’s 2005 novel, Shalimar the Clown, to consider what has happened to a natural “paradise” like California. Quoting Rushdie, Updike tells us that this state has been “ruined by ‘human bloat’ in the shape of trailer parks and ‘the new pleasantvilles being built in the firetrap canyons to house the middle-class arrivistes’, as well as ‘the less-pleasantvilles in the thick of the urban sprawl … the dirty underbelly of paradise’ …” [p. 382].
In his discussion of the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi – the frustrated architect who nonetheless celebrated the monuments of Imperial Rome – Updike focuses on the ruins that had been left behind by that great Empire. And he ruminates on these as follows: “Europe’s ruins posed in the midst of its population the problem of time, the shudder of the grave” [p. 603]. One may say that a similar “problem of time” and “the shudder of the grave” is posed by the obvious symptoms of ruination manifested in very many parts of the present-day “Western world”. This raises the question of the “West’s” possible decline – but yet again we would have to say that such a type of question has to remain open to discussion.
In closing this paper, we wish to suggest that whatever discussion regarding the fate of the “Western world” would have to consider at least two critical issues, both of which have been briefly addressed by Updike in his Due Considerations. These two issues may be set forth as follows:
- Throughout our study, we have been referring to the gradual ideological domination of various secular religiosities within the “Western world” – these have attempted to both explain and change that world in some form or other [and which have, at least as of late, led to a near-endless series of intra-conflictual circumstances short-circuiting many “Western” societies]. One issue that needs to be considered is whether or not the “West” can continue sustaining itself merely on the basis of unequivocal secular ideologies – or, in other words, on the basis of secular worldviews that wish to explain the “human condition” across the board. While “God is dead” [but which would certainly not apply to all of the populations composing the “Western world”], there nonetheless remain grave existential issues pertaining to the “human condition” that yet still raise non-secular types of questions. The matter is of course highly controversial – all we can do here is merely entertain the thinking of Updike himself. He would write as follows in 2005: “Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything, from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms, and their submicroscopic components, can scarcely be doubted. Such science forms the principal achievement of the modern mind; its manifold technical and medical benefits are ours to enjoy. On the other hand, subjective sensations, desires, and, may we even say, illusions compose the substance of our daily existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address and placate these. We are part of nature, and natural necessity compels and in the end dissolves us; yet to renounce all and any supernature, any appeal or judgment beyond the claims of matter and private appetite, leaves in the dust too much of our humanity, as through the millennia it has manifested itself in art and altruism, idealism, and the joie de vivre” [p. 671].
- Any discussion regarding the fate of the “West” is – by its very nature – bound to be highly problematic, and this is the case because the very act of predicting has itself always been notoriously problematic. That which shall ensue – the “new” – is simply too difficult to “locate” at this stage. In the year 2000, Updike wrote of this difficulty as follows: “Untrue often means outmoded – the pieties of your fathers, foremost. These pieties may be a Presbyterian faith, or a socialist atheism, or a loyalty to this or the other established political party, or to labor unions or to laissez-faire economics or to the American flag or the planet Earth: to the bearer of the new truth the old issues are not even worth debating, they are beside the point. The new point is not easy to locate” [p. 73]. We may here add that while the “pieties” of the present-day postmodern world have yielded a new dominant type of humanism as also a series of alternative/oppositional versions, all these are bound to become “outmoded” in the future – and therefore ultimately “untrue”. The new truth [or, rather, truths] is almost impossible to “locate” because it is difficult to determine what “scraps” of ideology shall be selected or rejected in the formation of the new ideological paradigms. And it is as difficult to determine how the selected “scraps” shall be combined in the forging of these new worldviews.
Nikos Vlachos [né Paul N. Tourikis]