Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Popular Catastrophes

Purple Prologue
Of late I'd been reading scads and scores of articles and sections of books on "declinism," both in Unistat and for humanity, versus a much more upbeat and optimistic literature of forecasts and futurology, when my mind was drawn - strangely attracted - to a basin of philosophical thought that felt so wonderfully odd I thought I had to share it with someone. But my comments on the current viruses that carry the catastrophic deep into our amygdalas will take up too much space, and I'll get to this Weird Basin of thought tomorrow. Still, I think this blogspew ends on a funnier note, which was required, lest I end up throwing another wet blanket on our already cold and sopping selves.

But first I had to extricate myself from the situation, and with the aid of WD-40, a hacksaw, some twine, and some well-chosen neurochemicals, I broke loose and here I am, somewhat scathed but with a fortified imagination. On with it.

Popular Catastrophe, or: The Timeless Secular Jeremiad
Are you an adrenaline junky? Do you love nothing more than a good melodrama, with yourself in the middle of it? Are you one loathe to easily dismiss the Mayan prophecies, or the risk of being Left Behind? Would you describe the planet Earth as both "late" and "great"? Are you still scarred from 1989 worries that the Japanese rising sun will crush you economically? Do you suspect radical Islamic "sleeper cells" are biding their time pretty much "in every damned burgh in the country"? When you get into a political discussion, do you usually use the phrase "tentacles around our necks" within the first two minutes? Do you like to pretend either you or others, despite the dizzying complexities, can predict the future? Then the literature of Catastrophe is your thing (I confess it's often mine, too), and there is no end of it. It's inexhaustible. Some of my favorite articles from the past 48 hours include:

Jed Perl's article on declinism in the Arts, from The New Republic. It's "pernicious" to talk this way about Art, Perl declares. He leans wisely on Isaiah Berlin's long essay "Historical Inevitability," which I highly recommend to all conspiriologists, and I use that term in as much of a neutral sense as you can possibly imagine. Perl drops Oswald Spengler's name, seen on his parents' bookshelf, seemingly for weight. He observes that there's an odd comfort in the notion of decline, that it's "almost cathartic." Perl also asserts that decline is about inevitability, of which I'm not completely sold, not in the context that Perl's writing about, at any rate, Isaiah Berlin notwithstanding. Near the end he gets off a good line about flirting with "dystopian hyperbole" which seems to feed the authoritarian imagination. Yes!


What's funny about Perl's essay is that he skirts the entire issue of valuation in Art, which is to me the story of Art since the end of what we like to call "World War II." Recently the Unistat TV show 60 Minutes did a piece on money and the valuation of modern art. Watch it and then talk about "decline," Perl. If you watch the Morley Safer bit - wry-eyed codger Safer seems to think most recent Art that goes for millions is a sham - make sure you note the chart comparing the Art Market vs. the Stock Market. It's like tulipmania or something.

In the Winter 2012 ish of The City Journal, endorsed by such heavyweight intellects as Rudy Giuliani, Clarence Thomas, George Will, Gambling addict and chain smoker and former Drug Czar and Mr. Virtue William Bennett, Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, and Mona Charen, we are encouraged to find that Unistat's economic decline has been greatly exaggerated. Joel Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar admit the feelings of decline are "stark" in what they tellingly call the Anglosphere. Folks 'round here be gettin' all worked up 'cuz "we" ain't "dominant" anymore. Well, Kotkin and Parulekar have some numbers and pie charts and graphs to show we're still in the game. Sure, it looks bad. But first: the Anglosphere.

It's made up of Unistat, Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, and tack on The Philippines and Singapore, who speak a lot of English and seem to have tagged along with Australia; they speak English there and, help the Anglos keep an eye on China.

The Sinosphere (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau) makes up 15.1% of global GDP
India makes up 5.4%
"Other" (how convenient!) makes up 53.4%
But the Anglosphere makes up 26.1% and has overwhelming military superiority, and we're - sez Kotkin and Parulekar - numero uno in biotech, software, aerospace...and they even stoop to entertainment, mentioning how great Hollywood is, and Lady Gaga's name comes up, among others. I have nothing against Lady Gaga, but this seems like a "reach."

Sorry, but the olde timey conservative Superior White Race crap I've seen from these people my whole life hasn't changed. Just think of how they conceive of economic "reality" and humans in general. I do not share their values. They say our "fundamental assets" are political, demographic, and cultural. I need more specifics. "The Anglosphere future is brighter than commonly believed." If you guys say so...

In one of those pieces that really bum me out, Morris Berman is interviewed by Nomi Prins for Alternet about his new book, Why America Failed, and, while I consider Berman to deliver consistently the best of the secular jeremiads (although that rubric probably doesn't fit because it's been Game Over as far as Berman's concerned since, oh, around 2000, as I read him...a Doom-Sayer?), he's also my kryptonite; I read every Berman book and find it hard to dismiss him. (I've riffed on, mentioned, written about Berman HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.)

Confession: after reading this one, I took an intellectual standing eight count, but I will note he mentions John Ruskin's ideas about wealth and that the basic problem in Unistat history has been ontological, which I have found I agree with - that we have an ontological problem - more and more over the last 13 years or so. I don't know: read the interview for yourself.

Many authors of articles on declinism (the word supposedly coined by Mr. Clash of Civilizations Samuel Ellsworth Huntington in an article in Foreign Policy from Winter 1988-89?) remind us that these books and articles play on the basic chord progressions laid down by the Old Testament and the prophet Jeremiah, and to the New Testament's book of Revelation: You/We/They have fucked up royally, but it's not too late to reform or repent!

(But maybe the better-selling books assert it's too late to reform or repent? Sometimes I think I oughtta just collect a brooding welter of factoids about How Bad Things Are and then write a book with a title like The Unavoidable Coming Collapse and the Demise of Hope; history has shown folks tend to go for that stuff...but I consider it immoral, which I hope to explain later.)

We can live in smaller self-contained communities, get much-needed banking regulations, drive smart cars, go all-out for solar, live in eco-friendly architecture, and scale back our military budget and we'd still probably be overwhelmed by the historical epoch we find ourselves in. Morris Berman has been saying for a long time: it's too late. Become a New Monastic Individual and keep the torch burning for the next renaissance, because it's Dark Ages now, folks! Talk about ruining my buzz! But he's a serious intellectual, very astute, and I challenge any reader of the OG to grapple with him.

At the same time, my epistemology says that the "future"is far, far too complex to be so sure about any outcome. It looks bleak now, but let's not lose our senses of humor. And besides, the difficulty of prophecies, you may have noticed, is that they're often wrong. Almost always wrong. Why is that? I think the fractal nature suggested by the mathematics of complexity is a compelling answer. We may be in a historical bottleneck right now, and by 2050 we'll all be laffing at the Doomsday predictions from 1970-2015. Or we'll be dead. Or Unistat or (Name Your Country Here) has gone from First to Third World in but 20 years. Or things could be really great, surprisingly good in some areas, and horrible on others. I stand in awe at the cajones of the endless line of writers who wrote fat books proving we'd be dead by now, or wishing we were. To contemplate the single-minded negative mental and emotional energies required to turn in 400 pages seeking to prove Why We're All Doomed! I call that determination!

The best - or my favorite - analysis of the stack of articles I read on declinism recently was Daniel Baird's article, "Apocalypse Soon," from The Walrus. See for yourself?

Finally: The Poetic Dark Humor of Artists and the Apocalyptic Imagination
It seems like an odd idea to want to go to a horror film to "enjoy" ourselves, but many of us do. Why? Because it addresses something we feel - there are some things that could possibly happen, but we'd rather not think of them. It's safe to watch it on a screen, happening to other people. We don't want the hellaciously awful things to happen to those people, because they're a lot like us, but the stuff does go down, and we're...purged? Aristotle thought so. Maybe it just fucks us up even more, I'm not sure. It probably depends on who's watching.

I admit I'm pretty much with guys like Morris Berman (or Chris Hedges, there are many more) at odd hours throughout any given week. However, because of my obstinate and remedial doubt about nailing the future, I think there's something to be said for looking the harsh facts (as best as we can tell) square in the face and saying "non servium" to the moody brooding. A viral memetic optimism might be as potent as its mirror image, and I'm with Robert Anton Wilson, who thought foreclosing on hope was immoral, especially if you're involved with younger people's lives. That makes sense to me. I may be a damned fool. But most of the time I choose to think we can make it.

Another way to deal with fear and anger of apocalyptic horror, catastrophic accidents, human error on a monumental scale, and other Delightful Things is to poeticize your imagery (William Burroughs, with the music, IIRC, from the vaults of the NBC Radio Orchestra? Anyway, I have it on my CD, Dead City Radio), or to make your fears into a hilariously overblown cosmic apocalypse (the 6 plus minute clip of George Carlin, memory of a true bard in old age).

Here's Professor Carlin's darkly humorous take on the end humanity while we're trying to be environmentalists:

Relax and listen to Old Bill Burroughs and the action when Pan is let loose upon the world:


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Another fine post. The other day I found myself hoping you'd write about various views on how science progresses, particularly Karl Popper vs. Thomas Kuhn. You blog today made me think of Popper's hostility towards those like Plato and Kant (let alone Marx) who talked about historical inevitability.

Annabel Lee said...

As you know, I'm far beneath your intellectual level when it comes to these types of things, but you really hit on something that I've been noticing for years. In the early 2000s, the movie "Idiocracy" came out as a comedy. If you are familiar with the movie, it really revolves around people being completely stupid, consumer based, and out of touch with science and reason.

When I first saw the movie, I thought it was funny. There was no way that people could ever become that stupid. Fast forward to 2012, and now I'm starting to see a lot of what the movie talks about coming true. Fights over science versus religion are still flaring. You can people championing stupidity over reason and progress. You have people encouraging people to believe in prayer rather than medicine.

A lot of the declining outlooks for the USA and other nations can be related to three core elements - education, planning, and understanding. The USA has fallen behind on these key segments of preparing for the future. The movie, while a comedy, is appearing more like reality than I would ever have imagined.

Also, long time no talk man ^.^

michael said...

@Royal Academy Prof. Eric: I've been planning on doing a piece on Feyerabend's friend Imre Lakatos, who sought to carry Popper's to some next steps, who addressed Kuhn, deflected criticisms of anti-realism, exposed Milton Friedman yet no one seemed to notice, etc.

I read Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, RAW, Sagan-Marvin Gardens, Lyotard, D. Hofstadter, Hume, Bruno Latour,and a few others on the philosophy of science, and it's the usual story: I learn more and more, including how much more ignorant I was than the previous day.

Any one of us could write an entire blog dedicated to the philosophy of science, write every other day, and never exhaust things.

I recently wrote about Seth Roberts in that (far, far too long) post on Self-Experimentation. I think that's an incredibly fascinating return of an olde idea about scientific method. Seth Roberts is my new main squeeze when it comes to the topic, in fact.

I always appreciate your supportive energies, Prof. Eric. Thanks!

michael said...

@Annabel Lee: The black humor of Idiocracy has haunted me ever since I saw it.

Stupidity can be and probably ought to be thought of as a valuable spur to creativity and innovation. Like the poor, it is always with us. We may as well use it. Mike Judge - the brains behind Idiocracy - has a surreal and bleak satirical bend in his style, and I think he identifies himself as a throwback to smart conservatism. (I think I read that in an interview.) Beavis and Office Space show this veiled disgust too.

The mainstream media tends to amplify Idiocy. Supposedly the media reflects statistically the ordinary "realities" "out there," but I doubt this, for many reasons: programmers will do anything to NOT alienate what the numbers show is their demographic, so they tend to pander by showing people stupider than their audience. Think of your own circle of friends and acquaintances: are they even close to the mediated "reality" we see out there?

Polling is also suspect, as polls are more often than we'd think paid for by groups that pay to find what they want to find, and sure enough: it works. And then it's mindlessly parroted by corporate "news."

All that said, the right wing think tanks have been tirelessly working on behalf of the Owners of the country since the early 1970s, using advanced techniques of PR, confusion, appeals to our baser instincts, sophisticated shell games, buying up media...all to get economically struggling people to vote for the party that supports the billionaire class. And they've had spectacular success.

I'm basically with you on the Idiocracy fear. It's at time palpable for me. The very existence of these idiots just making shit up and spewing it on TV (like Palin, who is strictly nails/chalkboard to me), and the idea there are non-readers/non-critical thinkers "out there" on their couches lapping up these inanities...very disconcerting, to put it mildly.

Politics has ALWAYS been a set-up for frustration for me, and I'm still engaged. But in defense of my own sanity, I limit my exposure to the Dumb Game.

I'll see if I can find the time to write about this ish in a blog post.

Thanks for the thoughtful and heartfelt comments.

PS: I realized I didn't write something satirical for Double Dip Politics last month. Maybe I can get one in for April?

Annabel Lee said...

You're more than welcome to write for DDP anytime you desire. I always love having your commentary on my site and exposing your genius to a completely new group of readers.