The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

weegee_coney blaise philosophers

I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.

By the numbers…

May 20, 2009

pile_of_axles

214,753 bloggers, 211,733 new posts, 51,364,877 words today.

That’s the news at the WordPress dashboard today.  Now, I like the Internet, and blogging…obviously, but a dyspeptic critic might look at that line and say, echoing Gustave Flaubert’s apocryphal remark,

 “The Internet allows lots of people to meet and be stupid together!”

Could you ask for a better statement of the essence of mass society?  Nothing matters but numbers.  Quality?  Only numbers.  See how many words we have!


Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

January 2, 2009

When I am old, I shall write criticism; that will console me, for I often choke with suppressed opinions.

-Gustave Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, 1868

garden-gnome-pipe-9r pompier gerome-femmes-au-bain1179060145

I am a kitsch-man! Thirty years on, and it’s time to finally wrestle with the demon.  Sorry in advance, but those of you with an interest in kitsch are used to long-winded posts, I’m sure.

As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on “Kitsch in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.”  My advisor loved it; my second reader said “I should just go and be angry,” and that it wasn’t enough of an art history thesis.  The chairman, following protocol when thesis reviewers disagreed strongly, knowing I was a refugee from the philosophy department, and trying to be helpful, gave it to the only philosopher in that coven of Anglo-American Empiricists who was interested in aesthetics, and he said it wasn’t enough of a philosophy thesis.  So much for inter-disciplinary thinking.  Well, I’m embarrassed to read it now anyway…

gillodorfles

My interest in this topic was spurred by my encounter with the English version of this book by Gillo Dorfles while in high school.  It’s an anthology of materials on the topic of kitsch – I was fascinated to find that the stuff had a name!  I was particularly taken by the weighty Germanic metaphysical arguments of Herman Broch, especially when he posited kitsch as the anti-system to art.  I love rhetorical absolutes!  Seeing junk as part of an apocalyptic metaphysical wave, “vomiting over the entire world,” as one writer put it, I recall, appealed to my love of abstruse analytical reasoning and over-the-top ranting.  I adopted this point of view with gusto in my thesis, arguing that kitsch was not just a consequence of mass production society, but embodied its inner metaphysical principle.  Marx, Benjamin (obviously), Hegel, Adorno, Marcuse, Hauser, etc. etc…all grist for the mill.

At one point, I toyed with the idea of making the entire piece a philosophical meditation on the archetypal souvenir, the snow globe.  As Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man wrote…apropos of the falling snow…  Why do those things fascinate so?  The wonder of the miniature – a world in a world – a mini stage – the God-like perspective they confer on us – the urge to collect them?  What is it!

The dominant position on kitsch for much of the intelligentsia was for a long time Clement Greenburg’s essay, Kitsch and the Avant Garde.  He did soften his position against Academic Art in the end, but only a little.  (Academic art, art of the establishment against which the avant garde, e.g. the Impressionists, rebelled was often referred to as l’art pompier, or pompier art.  A pompier is a fireman, the late 19th century equivalent of our contemporary American Joe Sixpack, or the Hardhats of the 1970′s  I guess.)

Greenburg’s position is about as absolute as they come: He knows art, and so he knows what kitsch is. It’s the opposite of art.  Why did he get to decide on what is art?  Tom Wolfe asked the same question in The Painted Word written during the 70′s.  It’s a silly book, and Wolfe seems to think that whatever Greenburg wouldn’t have liked must be great art – a sort of anti-avant-gardism – so it really doesn’t clarify things.  Greenburg’s view leads to conceptualism in many ways, although he was foreshadowed by Marcel Duchamp who uttered the remark in the early 20th century that “retinal art” was on the way out.  (Was it he who said that the history of art was that of postage stamps?)

Sure, craft is important, I think, but that doesn’t mean that  someone who can draw well is a great artist anymore than a calligrapher is a great author.  Which leads me to my point, sort of…Why argue about what is ART and what isn’t?  Let’s just agree that art is what artists make, and artists are those whom society regards as makers of art.  Nicely circular – we’re not talking mathematics here.  The question to ask is, “Is this art interesting in any way?”  Thus, when I hear people in museums guffaw in front of stark white canvases and say, “This is art?” I think, “Yes, dear people, it is art, but it is very, very, boring art and I don’t blame you a bit for not wasting another second on it…”

Which leads us back to kitsch, which would never evoke that response.  It always seems to be art.  I would say, it is art, kitsch_cheesecakebut not very good art.  Why seek to cast it from the select club of Art – is it insecurity about the membership of those things we secretly admire?  (This is what some call “guilty pleasures” , I think.)  The critics of mass-cult from the 50′s and 60′s, e.g. Dwight McDonald seem to be simultaneously elitist snobs, weak-kneed inhabitants of the citadel of culture under siege by barbarians, and fanatic partisans issuing a frantic call to arms.  To agree with them is to feel a member of a noble but doomed fighting band of brothers, bound to go down fighting the armies kitsch.

Of course, this sort of highfalutin criticism pertains only to work that is shown in fancy galleries and museums.kitsch_jesus_king Nobody seems to entertain much doubt about works like this  masterpiece on velvet.  We all love to sneer at them.  Of course, if your seven year old child said he or she wanted it in their room would you tell them, “No, no, dear, nice people don’t have such things on their walls!”  “But Daddy,  I LIKE it..! ”  (Ah yes, “doesn’t know much about art, but knows what she likes”…Why is that taken as the acme of philistinism?  Isn’t the first step in appreciating art to know what you like?)  Another course would be to sigh and say yes, and hope that eventually the child’s tastes will develop and change.  And if they don’t, is there a moral stigma associated with it?  For avant-gardists, there is always.

This moralism in aesthetics of the anti-kitsch avant garde comes through in many ways.  Often it is deeply connected to sociological ideologies, such as the Marxist “false consciousness.”  How does one have false consciousness?  Isn’t one simply conscious…we hope?  One can be in error, but false consciousness implies a sort of drugged state of deception in which simple-minded people or superficially educated ones are lulled into averting their eyes from the nasty realities of economic exploitation by cultural manipulation.  There IS exploitation to be sure, but I’m not sure that people have a false consciousness about it as opposed to simply feeling that they can’t change it and therefore have no interest in the question…The highbrow avant-garde point of view is actually a variant on the eternal conspiracy theory mode of explanation, otherwise, of course, wouldn’t everyone just agree with us critics who see through it all?

And really, it’s hard for me to look at these classic pieces of kitsch and get all worked up about capitalist hegemony, culture of the dominant discourse, and the society of the spectacle.

kitsch_figurines snowglobe 03souvenir

I mean, it’s pretty harmless, and stupid at bottom, isn’t it?  And do we really care how people decorate their living rooms?  Must the personal always be political?  Maybe David Hume was right, taste is just a matter of experience and education.  We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist; we don’t have to surrender and say that everyone’s opinion is equal, but it is all relative in the end.  People who just don’t care about aesthetic sophistication just don’t care – let them like what they like and let’s not get snooty about it.  The world won’t end!

alma_tadema_a_favourite_custom

As for this sort of academic art,  this piece by the curator of the Dahesh museum in NYC quite nicely   kitsch_bougcupidpunctures the pretensions of the oh-so-pure critics of academic kitsch.  The discourse of kitsch critics is filled with assertions that kitsch does not present “real ideas,” or “genuine sentiments,” and that it is false, sentimental, too easy, too eager to please, too dependent on consumerism or the market, etc.  These vague criticisms simply reveal the prejudices of the writers and just about all of them could be leveled against revered works of art in all or part.  We paint with a pretty broad brush when we take this approach.

With the wall between art and mass-culture reduced to rubble long before the Berlin Wall, some people took umbrage against the puritan intellectualism, the cult of art, preached by the Greenburg-ites and his crew at The Partisan Review. Susan Sontag is among them, and her Notes on Camp was one of the early salvos in the internecine culture war of the intellectuals.  She has been followed by the avalanche of material culture studies. Let me go on the record:  I dislike Sontag, and I think her Notes is a piece of self-indulgent drivel.  There, I said it.  I am a snob as well as a kitschman!

Having trouble figuring out what I really think?  This kitsch business opens up so many cans of worms!  Let state it simply:

  • I believe we create rational hierarchies of values based on our ideas of value, but these hierarchies are relative.  If you reject my values, you reject my judgments.
  • There is no way around this.  The problem of taste and value is, at bottom, one variant on the question, “What is knowledge.”  I do not believe that absolute definitions exist, but neither do I think astrology is as good as astronomy!
  • The only way forward is to discuss, exchange ideas, argue, and test our ideas against one another’s.  To say, “Well, that’s just my taste,” is to end the discussion.  To assert that there is no way to build a bridge of common values between two differing critical systems.  Most of the time, this is just bunk.  On the other hand, in extreme cases, it may be just so.
  • Cross-genre judgments are hazardous.  Arguing that Goya is brilliant while Batman is junk is just stupid.  The aesthetic arenas within which these two exist are different.  First try and agree on whether or not Goya is a good painter, and Batman is a good comic.  Then evaluate the aims of comics vs. Romantic painting.  You may find out that it is pointless to try and compare the two.
  • Intellectuals and normal people should be open minded enough to enjoy “good” work from all sorts of genres.  Some call this “no-brow.”  To me it’s just the mark of an educated and liberal-minded person.

My rant is done…for now.


Editorial Statement

February 4, 2008

quilhand

Sorry to intrude myself so personally here – not that I am not present everywhere in this blog – but I feel the need to unburden myself in a particularly intimate way just now. No, I will not reveal the nature of my sexual, dining, or foot care product preferences. I do feel like making an editorial statement after having spent a fair amount of time in the past weeks looking at other blogs around.

Well, I promise that I will not post long lists of favorite this’s or that’s. Why do people do that? Would you be interested in seeing a list of my favorite books and films? I know there are plenty of better review sites.

How about putting video clips of favorite films here? I thought of that, but you can go to Youtube for that. Music…ditto. And who cares what I think about music anyway, I can’t even play an instrument.

Alas, this blog remains nothing but a running tally of what ideas are on my mind from day to day. I think that’s why it gets so few readers. That is, who cares about ideas anymore?   And who cares about my ideas?

I have realized that the best ways to increase the traffic to my blog would be to post lots of sexy (I should say, pornograhic) pictures of women in various states of undress and arousal; to discuss sex a lot; to engage in vitriolic ranting and raving about political subjects in an obnoxious and insulting way; and to go out of my way to provoke people everywhere. But that would be to become part of mass society at its worst – another voice in the wilderness of the mass-net, with a wide and shallow readership – contributing to the deafening roar of nonsense in our world. Instead, I remain the sole village idiot of my own little intellectual hamlet.


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