Thought Possible

notes & magnifications, by J.E. Robertson
OCTOBER 21, 2008 10:12AM

On Laze & Malaise in Mass Culture, Part 1

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With or Without Ideas

We are each an amalgam of failings, incapacities and cosmic incompletion. We often define ourselves by confrontation with our most serious limitations. But this is no reason to keep from pursuing a vigorous exploration of our existence. Every instant is a new universe in Time. Every element of reality is passed from one moment to the next through its effects or its stasis, which will also generate effects. The whole of reality is ever-evolving, ever-changing, in a sense unknowable. It is not so much that everyone accepts this, but that it is now demonstrable, whether by the social sciences, by biological research, systems ecology, or by quantum physics. What persists, what is constant, exists in the world of ideas, and even there, our ideals are subject to challenges emanating from all corners of the human experience.

The 'postmodern' has often been described as being immersed in this pandemic unknowability, and so afflicted by the assertion that all values are equal. Not so. No serious postmodern thinker or scientist maintains this assertion, or wants to. What can be asserted, however, is that with the knowledge we have of unknowability, we can forbid discrimination against individuals as being essentially inferior. We can understand the real peril of presumptuous or prejudicial thinking. By engaging in an open study of each case as it comes, we are able to overcome strict categorizations that lead to bias, thus confirming the most enlightened modern propositions.

Due to the difficulty of interpreting our multifaceted (postmodern, democratic, 'globalized', diverse [however naturally so], developing / developed, natural / artificial) world, many people simply opt for the false position which states that all the details of fact in today's society (social policy, politics, ecology, diplomacy, crime and punishment, etc.) aren't their 'kind of thing'… as if one could opt out of society, opt out of intellect… as if silence within democracy weren't a subtle danger to oneself, as if the use of 'legal tender', (as of the goods, services and processes to which it provides access), weren't a contract to interact with (be thoughtful about, critical of, vital to) the system around us, which dictates all of our choices and possibilities.

A culture of detachment evolves from this tendency, a widespread if diffuse effort to affirm the right to stay 'clean' of unpleasant subjects and/or tense 'examination' anxieties (an academic manifestation of performance anxiety). We refer to psychologically healthy adults, especially those with traumatic pasts, as 'well-adjusted', but we don't make an effort (at all levels of government, education and payscale) to instill a sense of pertinence to each individual. Popular culture encourages the limiting of one's knowledge of the real world, through an accumulation of entertainment-oriented psychological commitment and spiritual bargaining.

A feeling of tentative alienation natural in children ('this is not my world'), which also leads to the power structures appropriate to childhood, is cultivated in the adult world through a system of alienation and degradation, creating among despondent adults a culture of general social malaise that paints almost any level of 'extracurricular' (or specifically curricular, i.e. academic) involvement in the function and progress of society as a hassle best left to 'professional politicians', so-called 'opinion-makers', and 'captains of industry'.

The conversation pours forth, but without the necessary consideration for the meaning of life at the individual level. The problem is then worsened by the perception that so little of this conversation is 'my kind of thing' that anyone who engages in discussing such unpleasantries is therefore also equally unpleasant, alien, uninteresting, to be fled, trusted or not trusted, and never engaged.

It is the tragic disaffection of a culture that refers to itself as privileged that underscores this problem. Privilege, in the broadest sense, is often interpreted as meaning that any personal preference is deserved by right of privilege, and that any aspect of human existence is openly subject to such categorizations and such preference. While one may choose among hot-dogs, tofu and pineapples, this is not so of thought, and those who believe it is do so at their own peril.

There is no human world without ideas. Abstract ideas are not alien to the simplest, most basic human reality. Conscious perception of the world does not exist without ideas. There cannot be a distinction between people who care about ideas and people who don't. This common rhetorical separation is a lie. Without sound humanitarian, enlightened and learned ideas, there are only other, less useful, less accurate, more destructive ones.

A note of relevance to the 2008 presidential election contest: We are a culture of ideas, and in the 2008 election, we are seeing an historic moment of struggle between a renewal of inspiration to grapple with issue of real civic import and socio-cultural philosophy ("I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper", Sen. Obama called out when he announced his campaign on a cold day in Springfield, in February of 2007) on the one hand, and a disengaged, remote demand for ideological purity, exclusive of difference and unwilling to consider long-term collaborative aims, on the other.

This is vitally important for the future direction of mass culture in the United States of America, not the message of one candidate or another, but the call to awareness, to think in civic terms, to participate, to have a mind that applies its learning and its thirst for learning to the work of living wisely in a free society, to not exclude arbitrarily, whether by origin or for ideas or their complexity.

Going forward, we know that going forward is bound up with our grasp of the ideas that make us relevant, that make our worldview viable, that make it possible to work together to improve our common condition; this is the beginning of a process of awakening to the real meaning of our nation's foundational values. One person's humanity is relevant to another's humanity; in this we find the shared need to locate and roll out the best of our ideas.

[from Cave Painting, at Casavaria]

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