Category Archives: Philosophy

an appropriately unheroic spirit

Nice chewy essay by John Farrell at LARB, on the long-running philosophical ding-dong between utopianism and what he calls the “literary-heroic worldview”.

… the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.

[…]

The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.

[…]

The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us.

I have a lot of thoughts in response to this piece, but I lack the time to develop them fully at the moment. The main thing is that Farrell’s take here seems to confirm, or at least support, my own ongoing argument that the classic (and/or technological) modes of utopian thinking are as much a trap as the heroic/hierarchical worldview to which they set themselves in opposition; therefore a path to futurity must be found between those two points, a path that refuses to relinquish the possibility of societal betterment while also refusing to believe that perfection is achievable, while further acknowledging the inevitable failure of any such project without taking that as an excuse not to try. Those of you following along at home will recognise that formulation as my own reading of the critical utopian mode, building from Moylan and Levitas and others.

Also interesting is his observation that dystopia has “swallowed utopia whole”, which, following the implicit mapping of utopianism as a leftist (or at least leftish?) project and the literary-heroic as rightist, approaches the ongoing muddling of political valences from an interesting new angle: as Levitas has observed, while the right ostensibly scorns utopianism, it is in fact engaged in utopian speculation all the time; meanwhile the left struggles to find a utopia it can bring itself to believe in, and increasingly resorts to borrowing the tropes of the technological utopia to patch the holes (cf: Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining, solarpunk &c — all well-intended and admirable, yet all completely dependent on one or more unexamined externalisations and/or sf-nal moments of pure handwavium). The problem in both cases is the assumption that utopia is a blueprint — a destination, rather than a direction of travel. A noun, rather than a verb.

I’m reminded also of Rebecca Solnit and Donna Haraway’s channeling of Le Guin’s quiet, determined insistence on the rejection of the heroic narrative, which we erroneously assume to be a sort of gold standard in storytelling primarily because a powerful and influential man once told us it was.

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(I would note that I reject any suggestion that the critical utopia is a centrist compromise. Centrism is the doctrine of doubling down on the status quo, doing nothing which has not already been done. In this sense it’s the mildest form of the conservative utopia, which is distinguished by locating its “good place” in the past rather than in the future: centrism locates its utopia last Tuesday, just after lunch. The critical utopia, by contrast, locates utopia as being perpetually beyond the temporal horizon — it will not, cannot be reached. But it can be approached, one step at a time. It can be oriented and re-oriented toward.)

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Finally, and only in passing as a note-to-self: as part of a small reading group, I’m about 3/5ths through Spinoza’s Ethics, and this passage in Farrell’s piece has allowed me to situate that work in the larger philosophical schema.

The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.

Spinoza was, whether he realised it or not, rehabilitating a Hellenic ethics for the early Enlightenment. (This may well be an extremely banal observation to anyone with a formal education in philosophy, but to this bootstrapper, it’s something of a lightbulb moment.)

Organ projection

Kapp’s arguments also represent an important forerunner in theories of media and culture. In the 20th century, German sociological discourse was shaped by two canonical arguments about the prosthesis, one posed by Sigmund Freud, the other by Arnold Gehlen. Freud’s definition of man as a prosthetic god appears in his 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents. Gehlen presents his Mängelwesen (literally: a being defined by lack) in the 1940 Man, His Nature and Place in the World. In both cases, the theory of prosthesis argues that human organs can and need to be strengthened in their function, protected or outright substituted by the prosthesis. The prosthesis compensates an inherently under-equipped human. (The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan belongs in this tradition, too, with his notion of media as “extensions of man.”) What unites Freud and Gehlen, however, is the way that their theories drive a hard distinction between nature and culture. The natural body must be superseded in its shortcomings by the assistance of culture in the form of the technical prosthesis. Kapp’s notion of organ projection precedes both Freud and Gehlen and belongs to neither. For Kapp, the prosthesis cannot be cleanly distinguished from the human and its body, to which it always fundamentally relates as an instance of organ projection. If the prosthesis stands in relation to the body like culture stands in relation to nature, then for Kapp the very nature/culture distinction dissolves into the insignificance of a tautology.

From a review by William Stewart at the Los Angeles Review of Books of the newly-translated Elements of a Philosophy of Technology by Ernst Kapp, originally published 1877. That’s another one for the accessions list, then… I seem to be acquiring a lot of U-of-Minnesota Press books lately.

Event horizon

The modern world, cultural theorists tell us, has been characterized by the disenchantment of the natural world. In fact, this disenchantment was accompanied by a Romantic enchantment of the social word. Mimesis gave way to poiesis. We can see this more readily when we recognize, following Charles Taylor for example, that enchantment is a matter of meaning as much as it is a matter of magic.

[…]

Modern technology disenchanted the natural world and enchanted the social world. Meaning was no longer a feature of the world to be merely perceived and inhabited by human beings. It became a subjective reality imposed and fabricated by human beings. We necessarily became artists of the self.

Digital technology disenchants the social world and enchants the technological world. Meaning is no longer subjectively experienced. Claude Shannon’s divorce of meaning from information in digital communication is recapitulated in the human experience of digital technology; it is the founding myth that contains the truth that illuminates the world. Meaning is kicked out of the human realm and displaced onto the technological, from whence it is imposed upon us. We can no longer believe in the romantic project of self-making and self-fulfillment. Poiesis gives way to an inverted mimesis. We no longer imitate, we are the imitated, sculpted in data by algorithmically powered “intelligent” machines. 

L. M. Sacasas

Self-fulfilling mythology

It is not chaos, but our fear and visceral disgust toward the idea of chaos undermining civilization—often stemming from a lack of familiarity with what we fear—that drives us to build prisons, wage wars, and develop weapons that are the embodiment of all-consuming fire. Because we do not conceptualize the earth and its natural cycles as sacred, we disregard treaties made with the Indigenous peoples whose lands we have colonized and arrest those who designate themselves “water protectors.” Peterson’s philosophy, while it may inspire motivation at the individual level, is a deadly engine of status quo maintenance and self-justification at the cultural level. It is an ideology that denies it is ideology, hissing insults and flinging lawsuits at those who challenge its god-like powers of complacency.

Emily Pothast.