Overweening Generalist

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Religious Function of Intellectuals: A Jabber

I was talking to a friend last night and talking too much, as I often do.

I get excited about ideas and they begin to multiply exponentially in my mind as I'm trying to deliver sentences, the excitement combines with adrenaline and its popular accomplices, my pulse quickens, and I continue to speak, evermore quickly. I begin to question in my mind what I just said while I'm suddenly veering off on a tangent, my speech becomes quicker and, as a psychoanalyst might say, "pressured," and soon: a 93 idea pile-up occurs inside my mind.

I halt, take a breath and look upwards and to the right, suddenly.

"Whoa! Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?," my friend asks, no doubt half-exasperated at yet another of my spiels.

"A really nasty-sounding idea trainwreck just happened on the outskirts of Frontal-Lobe-ville," as I point to my noggin.

"I see."

I apologize and ask him to continue with his previous line of reasoning. On Unity and God, I think it was. Probably. Quantum mechanics and the Whorf Hypothesis were shoehorned in there, too, and I certainly appreciated the attempt, another of our forays, our essais. (Much of it is a blur the day after, so infused with ideas were we. I may has well have been speaking "in tongues" just before my Crash. What sort of madness is this?)

Moments later I cite a book's title in yet another ramble and he interrupts me and asks, "How many books do you think you've read in your life? Ten thousand? Fifteen thousand?"

This rapidly becomes uncomfortable, I'm not sure why, but I'll hazard this: I feel like a book-idiot more and more as I get older. Leary and Wilson cited this as a problem with "Third Circuit" types. NB: While I noted endogenous chemicals in my nervous system that act as stimulants - adrenaline, etc - I was also on two very rich pints of craft beer; the sort that's over 8% alcohol by volume, so I may have had a bit of 2nd circuit territoriality going on there, although I would swear I was just trying to be "interesting." Back to the Book Idiocy: I confessed aloud I thought I'd made myself stupid through too much reading. I'm drunk on books. As Philip Seymour Hoffman may have thought for a few moments last week before he died, "I wonder if I'm letting this heroin stuff get a little out of hand? Maybe I should dial it back a bit. Something about this seems a little crazy. Yea: tomorrow I'll start to move toward more integrity..."

There's a long history of quotes by famous writers about this. I fear I fit the sort of chap Milton's writing about here:

Who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and a judgment equal or superior
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep versed in books and shallow in himself.
-Paradise Regained 

(Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot? The OG quotes friggin' Milton now? Apparently: yes! Oy...)

Indeed, I enjoy re-rehearsing one of my many Favorite Bits when the opportunity presents itself (Oh! Such True Confessions of what a bore you're reading now!): that Gutenberg Man is strung out in the narcosis of books, deeply brainwashed into believing that 26 letters, arranged appropriately, seasoned with punctuations here and there, when properly trained, can be deciphered by the Reader, eyes moving in silence left to right, left to right, left to right, left to right - a tad overly Euclidean, eh? - left to right, left to right, silently, left to right, left to right, look up what time is it?, left to right, left to right, you may be doing this now as we "speak," left to right, left to right. Pause new paragraph...

That this (please move your head back the normal six inches and look at this page of text, characters in a white field)...that these symbols are supposed to map very accurately some sort of "reality"? The very idea! It's absurd.

[You read it here, first!]

Or so says the Book-Stupid Dude.

What's with the "religious function of intellectuals," you ask, wondering why I repeatedly, insipidly bury the lede? Just this: it may be some sort of lifelong Lotus-Eating narcosis book-trip I've been on, but it occurs to me there may be a religious function to it all, and I am not exactly a religious character in any conventional sense. As Isaiah Berlin defined the character of the intellectual (or one aspect of It), "Intellectuals are people who want ideas to be as interesting as possible."

I get high off ideas. Even bad ones. Like quarter-baked conspiracy theories, or imagining phrenology in its heyday. Or some mind-bending thinker's model of the major and minor parts of social reality, as it boils down to the phenomenology of face-to-face social interaction rituals up to what constitutes the Superstructure. And when I choose to believe it, I'm aware I'm choosing to "believe" this model, knowing it's only a model, knowing I chose to believe it, making it ironic, knowing I will entertain quite different competing models manana, knowing that I know all of this seems all-too-true because of...wait for it...: books.

The multitude of books is making us ignorant. - Voltaire

I read this Voltaire quote while amongst my books of quotes; there are too many apt ones for my purposes here, so why not Voltaire? It's legit: I'm not only quoting him to seem "smart" (although I hope you don't take the "book stupid" stuff too seriously!); for I have read Candide. Twice. I've read Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary piecemeal many times over. I read the Voltaire quote after a consultation in Edward Shils's The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays. Shils - contra M. Chomsky - sees intellectuals as a priestly class, and he oughtta know with his drenched-in-Max-Weber extrapolations. Shils - one of the most accomplished intellectuals of the 20th c. who didn't have a PhD and never wrote a Fat Book - saw his class as providing ideas about the sacred to the highly educated who are Modernists, and so can't take God all that seriously. Where Chomsky has chosen to concentrate on members of his fellow intellectuals who act as legitimators of State power - "mandarins" or "the commissar class" - Shils saw his fellow intellectuals as legitimators of the rational, bureaucratic state and other forms of Authority...but they don't like it. They sorta pretend to like it, because it's a good job (or was), but with all of their book knowledge they were steeped in Utopian visions, always thwarted by their bosses the oligarchs.

                          Edward Shils, most important to me because he, with Louis Wirth,
                          translated Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, which appeared
                          in English in 1936.

I like what Alvin Gouldner wrote about Shils, that he was "exceptionally emphatic in stressing the alienative disposition of intellectuals which he derives from their special culture. He sees his culture as differing from the others - the 'laity' he calls them - for they are not limited to the at-hand immediacies of everyday life. Intellectuals are more concerned than the 'laity' with the remote, with ultimate values, being disposed to go beyond direct, first-hand experience with the concrete and to live in a 'wider universe.' They are also more rule, value, pattern-oriented, or have more theoreticity than others who are more person-oriented, more situationally-sensitive, and more responsive to differences in contexts."
-p.32, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class

Now: how better to describe the role of the modern intellectual class as a sort of secular priesthood than that?

I recently caught the 2013 documentary, Hawking, directed by Stephen Finnigan. At around the 60-65 minute mark Hawking talks about the totally surprising Guinness-book success of his A Brief History of Time. It sold over 10 million copies. This seems like a very good example of a religious work to have around the household of steeped-in-rationality educated classes. A totem, a talisman, a book. A book that was probably mostly incomprehensible to most of its owners, but that wasn't the point: it's filled with our sorts of awesome mystery, not your Bronze Age-to-first century of the Common Era stuff that now functions as a prop for plutocrats.

Hey, I gave it a pretty good shot, but yea: I own it. (I know, I know: the recent black hole thing. Feel free to weigh in in the comments.)

                                    Here's a half-selfie half-"shelfie" of D. Hofstadter!

Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach seemed to serve a similar function with younger, cooler intellectuals for the first ten years after it came out. You go to a party, everyone's smart, you (meaning I) steal away to peruse their bookshelves: Yep, there's GEB. It's my Tribe! But: why did I feel like I needed to confirm that? Anyway...GEB: Another book I've read mostly piecemeal and over and over. I read in it. I once read it cover-to-cover, with faith that it's okay to not know what's going on now, because...that's what these books do. The mere grapple will re-wire the circuitry and you'll come out smarter and with more ideas to talk about, so it's gotta be worth all this...impenetrability. I can always come back to that last part once I've put in some effort to understand Peano arithmetic...Oh! and look now! He's back to the dialogues like Bertrand Russell on acid trying to outdo Lewis Carroll, the iteration of fractal forms in Escher and Bach, and...wow! Intellectual rapture?

And isn't that the point? Wow?

We will take our religion in its most fine forms, abstruse, elegant, always filled with wonderment, especially the parts that we don't...quite... "get." And then: let's talk about this sacred object of wonder: the Truth. Yes, let us talk.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I think some Modernists took God very seriously (Eliot, Joyce, Pound in his own way). (Of course, I don't know if any of them considered themselves Modernists.) (I love the fact the Hugh Kenner called the chapter on Beckett in A Colder Eye "The Terminator" - i.e. the Terminator of Modernism, at least I took it that way.)

Years ago thinking of Bob Wilson rapping about the doubling of information I thought of Joyce, Pound and Eliot as the first generation who lived through information doubling. (Yeah, I know, I think I posted about this a while ago.)

I finished rereading Shelly Brivic's Joyce's Waking Women last night. I had forgotten that he mentioned Velikovsky and Ishmael Reed and suggested that the Wake makes reference to Conan the Barbarian. It struck me while reading it that, much as I admire scholarship, art interests me more right now. I find more interest in, say reading Musil and especially Proust and Joyce as opposed to reading scholarship about Joyce.

Brivic also suggested that Joyce considered beauty more powerful than power. I found this interesting thinking about power struggles at some jobs I have worked at. Also, my dance history class has begun reading Wilde's essay "The Truth of Masks," which has got me thinking about Wilde's ideas about the power of art and beauty.

Bolivar T. Shagnasty said...

Step away from the ledge. Put the book - sorry, Book - down. Take seven deep breaths. Close your eyes (if you're not driving yourself in some fashion). Let go. Move out. Look in. See the little Man, inside your head, looking at the stereo image, listening to the stereo image, smelling the stereo image, tasting the stereo image, feeling the stereo image? That's not You. Earth, Water, Air, Fire - they're not You. Got it? Okay, have Fun. You're welcome.

Bobby Campbell said...

@Eric - Very cool that you begin your post about Beckett as the end point of Modernism, and end your post with reference to Oscar Wilde's "The Truth of Masks," which RAW claimed as the beginning of Modernism.

(Though RAW remembered the title as "The Reality of Masks," but a quick google seems to clear up the confusion)

"After all, modernism really begins with Wilde's "The Reality of Masks" and Yeats's hermetic mystique the world we know emerging from interactions of Mask, Anti-Mask, Self, and Anti-Self: which may or may not fit all of us or all the world but certainly fits the world of spooks and snoops that Angleton created."


Great piece, OG!

I don't read much anymore, as I have very few eyeball hours to spare, and those that I do have tend to be scattered, but I ingest about 70 hours of audio books and informative podcasts per week.

I feel sure that a significant difference must exist between information processed via eyes/text & ears/speech, but as yet I have not discerned any significant pros/cons.

Though I will at least very enthusiastically recommend Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast.

michael said...

@Eric Wagner:

I tend to agree with Nietzsche that believers - esp of the calibre of Pound, Joyce and Eliot - knew they were choosing to believe and all three seemed hypercognizant and to have had an expansive view of "god" and even "goddess." Eliot's conversion, its hues and politics, seem closer to some idea of "conventional" xtianity in the Modern world. (Fascism too, but I doubt he'd like the Koch Bros.)

Those guys didn't call themselves "Modernists" there seems ample data that they were aware of their place in Art, its history, schools, and ideas about classicism and forging new forms. Of course the Critics make up these terms and then some reify them. Like lit crit virtuoso Frank Kermode, I find it helpful to conceptualize two broad categories of Modernists: the Paleo (use of myth, cosmopolitan outlook, use of the Tradition in new ways); and the Neo (locality and place, like Paterson) a relative ahistoric outlook, yet inventive: Gertrude Stein. For Kermode, Nietzsche, Joyce, Pound and Stravinsky were Paleo. Dadaists were Neo, IIRC.

I thought Scott Michaelson's book on Crowley was interesting along these lines. (RAW wrote Intro.) I find it useful to see Crowley as a Paleo, but his lines of "classicism" run back to almost the entire Arcane tradition in magick, coded alchemical texts and sex-writing, gnosticism, and borrowings from non-xtian world religious sources in a way that Joyce and Pound did in their own way, Uncle Al in his.

Your observation about these artists and the level of flow-through info in the Georges Anderla methodology that RAW picked up on and ran with: this seems what we need to do to flesh out our own ideas about History. When I read Montaigne and note how "modern" he seems to me I know a lot of that has to do with the hypnosis of translation and language from a late period, but I also see the source material Montaigne constantly cites and realize (born: 1533/died: 1592) that he's living in the earlier period: the Jesus had doubled to 2 in 1500 or so; it wouldn't double again (to 4) until around 1750.

How many Jesuses are we at today? 256? 512? 1024?

I'm usually fully aware that I'm doing some sort of "slumming" in my reading when I'm not sourcing the Primary Texts, which I interpret to mean as something close to your idea of Art versus "scholarship about" the Art. Indeed: we seem to risk a foreclosure of novel interpretations if we don't read The Werk first, or investigate what others have said only after we've come to some basic, personal interpretational schemes about the text, and maybe that requires a few readings rather than one. (I think Cantos, Ulysses and FW, for example, need secondary source readings fairly ASAP though.)

I read through most of the Jane Austen oeuvre a few years ago, and I still haven't consulted a secondary or tertiary source (some magazine articles though, like one from last year that argued she was a proto-Game Theorist). I really enjoyed her; she was like Mozart in the novel: formally perfect. I think I grokked her really well because her influence is so longlasting, subtle, vast.

Also, an added bonus: just as in baseball: "chicks dig the longball"? The hot young female Lit majors seem to warm up quickly and dig the "dudes who can talk Austen."

I'm very much interested in hearing more about Art v. Power struggles.

michael said...

Bolivar T. Shagnasty-

Thanks, but do you have a citation for that?


michael said...

Bob Campbell-

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast duly noted. Over the last 18 mos or so, when someone has brought up Zinn's A People's History, I've urged them to supplement with Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States. I love that one! Imagine some offspring of Chomsky and Jim Hogshire writing a history of Unistat.

Re: text v. audio and information environments: I've long paid attention to my own sensory ratios engaged in: reading, writing, listening, TV watching, film watching, face-to-face conversation, and being alone in the City and the forest. Each one seems like a mode that's not discrete: one seems to "bleed" into the next, but walking alone in the forest seems NOTHING like sitting alone in my room reading texts. Also: film watching is continuous, and even in the age of DVRs and fast-forwarding through commercials, TV seems quite different from film. (Exception: Turner Classics)

But, unlike McLuhan, I'm not ready to generalize that my experience and abstracted reflections on those experiences are valid for everyone else, let alone anyone else. It's far more interesting to hear a subjective take, like your "I feel sure that a significant difference must exist between information processed via eyes/text & ears/speech, but as yet I have not discerned any significant pros/cons."

Anonymous said...

Can't place the quote, maybe James,
about if you don't read the books
you decorate with you're no better
than your dog or cat.

I don't buy books I'm not going to
read and if I give them away they
are really good ones. GEB fits in
that category. There's a lot more
to Godel than fits in it, well worth
digging into. There aren't many who
have a grasp of what he did to math.

I've noticed that if I load up on
books and ideas then my friends
tend to cringe at the shotgun
blast of a coredump I use to get
them up to speed in a discussion.
At least that was my plan, how it
worked out only becomes clearer
to me later.

Someone had an interesting comment
on Snowden on Schneiers blog, to
the effect that if Snowden was a
selfless type being heroic that
his critics would be unable to
understand that mindset no matter
how it was explained to them. In
light of Shackleton it makes some
sense. People like that do what is
right to them in the face of any

It might be harder to find but I
liked 300 years of Gravitation
better than Hawkings popularized

I do think that once you have
read a lot getting out into the
woods and just being in the sense
of immersion in the here and now
is also quite useful, gives the
machinery a chance to come to a
sense of perspective about what
has been crammed in.

Reading Illuminatus seems like a
good plan too.

Great post.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

As I am currently struggling through "Ulysses," feeling like I am "getting it" in some portions and rather at sea in others, I am hoping that "The mere grapple will re-wire the circuitry and you'll come out smarter and with more ideas to talk about" applies in my case.

My book habit seems to consist partially of buying more books than I can get around to reading. At least when I buy another book for the Kindle, I'm not adding more clutter to the house.

michael said...

@ THE Anon-

Re: Yea, gives like Hayden who called for Snowden's head on a pike, even while polls showed growing understanding of Snowden as a patriot display the sort of ghoulish mentality of our "leaders." They learn NOTHING from history and anyone who seems against them is a complete enemy: that's their semantic frame. I understand frames. For example, I see the enemies of Snowden as borderline traitors to the citizens of Unistat and enemies of people all over the world. What part of the Constitution did they swear to NOT uphold?

re: the shotgun blast of mentation after reading and friends as bearing the brunt: I have long been wary of myself doing what I depict the OG as doing - and he does do that sort of crap every now and then - but I have been fairly successful at keeping that 3rd circuit OD stuff at bay.

My first reading of GEB really did send me off into my first real foray into number theory. I learned a lot, but came out of it feeling more uncertain about knowledge in general. It's my understanding that mathematicians grumble about the Incompleteness Theorem as being basically correct, but it's okay to pretend it doesn't really say anything of true consequence? Which, if true, I find cosmically hilarious.

I'd like to get to 300 Years of Gravitation.

michael said...

Tom- Yea, I think that quote still applies to my own Ulysses-reading and I've read it a lot. (I now tend to pick a chapter/time of day/series of episodes and not read the book in order.)

re: buying of too many books: I found a passage in an old blogspew of my own...to quote myself quoting Nassim Taleb:

"'Nassim Nicholas Taleb relates about the visitors to Umberto Eco's massive personal library. Eco has around 30,000 books in his home library, and guests, upon seeing the books, either say something like this: "Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?" Others, "a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool...'" - see Taleb's The Black Swan, pp.1-2.

So: a "research tool"?