Overweening Generalist

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Haunting Frame For Generalist Intellectual Types in 2015

The optimist says, "The glass is half full."
The pessimist says, "The glass is half empty."
The rationalist says, "The glass is twice as big as it needs to be."

A general problem for insatiable readers and writers of journal articles, non-fiction books, novels, poetry, sociologies of science, histories of ideas, essays on arts, rants and diatribes by marginalized figures, economic ideologies, radical thinkers, etc: Let's let this dude sum it up for me:

"It requires in these times much more intellect to marshal so much greater a stock of ideas and observations...Those who should be guides for the rest, see too many sides to every question. They hear so much said, and find that so much can be said, about everything, that they feel no assurance about anything."

This is John Stuart Mill, in his diary, 1854. And for Robert Anton Wilson fans, how many Jesuses ago was this? 32? 64? 256? Oh wait: forgot to carry the three....several thousand J ago, arithmetically in fact.

                                         Emile Zola, apparently in self-portrait, trying to
                                         come off as a magician of some sort?

It's fairly well-known that, for a long time, intellectuals on the "humanities" side have wanted to foment revolution, and most-times a non-violent one. Some on the technical intelligentsia side have too. And the "intellectual" as well-known category traces only back, according to a popular intellectual riff, to the Dreyfus Affair. Emile Zola - a damned novelist so what the hell gives him the right to question?! - led the charge against the French military, and was hounded out of the country. But Zola and his fellow "Dreyfusards" were right: Dreyfus was innocent, and being persecuted largely for being a Jew. This story was resolved only 109 years ago.

And while the technical intelligentsia - specialist intellectuals in the physical sciences, to be brief - are a quite young group, maybe only 140 years old, the Humanist intellectuals go back perhaps 3000 years, if you include religious radicals, or just Old Men Who'd Read Everything.

The Haunting Frame
The dream of making a war-less, border-less and much more equitable and human political state of affairs perhaps had a window, briefly open, now closed. How so?

Well, for one thing, the class of State-supported scientific intellectuals have won. Oh sure, the economy is bad enough that even their newly minted PhDs are having trouble finding work, but it's nothing like what's going on for the Humanities PhDs. (Bing "adjunct professors") Moreover, another quote to suit my dire thesis:

"In this tremendous contrast with previous revolutions one fact is reflected. Before these latter years, counterrevolution usually depended on the support of reactionary powers, which were technically and intellectually inferior to the forces of revolution. This has changed with the advent of fascism. Now, every revolution is likely to meet the attack of the most modern, the most efficient, most ruthless machinery yet in existence. It means that the age of revolutions free to evolve according to their own laws is over."

That's Franz Borkenau, from his 1938 study of the Spanish Civil War. He's talking the military and police state apparatus, which will, it seems, always protect the interests of what's now called "the 1%." He had no idea about digital technology or the NSA, much less television. Even the Stasi were far in the offing.

What Were the Functions of Generalist Intellects?
I've seen a lot of answers, from the New York intellectuals themselves talking about their own powers and knowledges. I've read the lamentations in Russell Jacoby's book The Last Intellectuals. I've read just about everything Chomsky has to say about how his colleagues have used their knowledge and privilege to throw in their lot with the Owners of the country. (In this he's a lot like what Julien Benda said about his own class - in 1927! - in his The Treason of the Intellectuals. For those who see the irony here and like to savor it, please do so.) There is no end of books on intellectuals, if only because this "New Class" is so zealously protective of its own rights and privileges.

Whether from New York or London or Paris, or Hollywood's Hitler-inspired Jewish intellectual diaspora, or wherever else, a literate public saw how ideas hung together, how stylish sentences about important matters could revivify the mind, how discrimination among ideas could take place, how a writer could make something that you thought was not interesting was au contraire: quite a kick. Via wide-ranging intellect, the idea of a vibrant and informed popular culture was possible.

I think this may be all over. Not that there aren't still overweening weirdos who live for this stuff. But this one has to get All This off his chest. Possibly because I hope I'm wrong. Maybe because it's some sort of misery loving company thing. Or, you just like reading bookish jagoffs throw their erudite hissy fits; my misery loves your company. Could be I'm in a 30 Year Funk. Maybe I'm like the guy who just realized he got rooked by mega-unwisely investing in a chain of Foto-Mat booths, nationwide, in this year Our Lady of Eris, 2015.

It could be that, via some sort of magickal working, I confess my haunting frame here - many of you may be well ahead of me on this, I know, I know - so that it will ameliorate things and somehow cause them to go in the opposite direction. But this last "maybe"? I don't feel it. I know the words but not the tune. It feels flat. More's the pity.

Know Thy Enemy/Due Diligence
For me, it was a few solid years of feverish reading of the rise of Public Relations, and tangentially related areas. Such as the 1947 National Security State, which has never left us, only gets stronger, a Behemoth of untold proportions, one of its favorite moves being to make Itself invisible to almost everyone, all the while suctioning the sustenance from its own citizenry.

The signal fact about public relations experts - who Antonio Gramsci called "masters of legitimation" - is that they were so out in the open about what they did and why. Now? Not so much. But check out Harold Lasswell - or is it Edward Bernays? my notes are old and unclear; I had no idea I'd be blogging, and indeed, Internet wasn't really a Thing when I crashed on PR - anyway:

"The spread of schooling did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled a new technique of control, largely through propaganda..." He goes on to say this is the best means of controlling the proles because it's cheaper than bribery or outright violence.

It took a long time for me to not be struck by how arrogant these Mandarin intellectual officials were, or how gleefully subservient they were to the Captains of Industry and War. (And the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce, et.al) I was stunned by the disparity between what experts in legitimation for the Owners of the country think versus  all the patriotic "we're all Americans" "in this together" and "freedom" and "democracy"hokum I got in my own indoctrination camps (9AM to 3PM public schooling, minimum of 12 years served).

Some of these pricks just gave it all away. You think Lasswell (Bernays?) was crass, check out one of the fathers of the Neo Conservative movement, Irving Kristol:

"It has always been assumed that as the United States became more managerial, its power more imperial, and its population more sophisticated, the intellectuals would move inexorably closer to the seats of authority -- would, perhaps, even be incorporated en masse into a kind of 'power elite.'" (origin of quote unknown to me due to bad note-taking, but found again in George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For?, p.7)

If I had to pick two of the most egregious of these legitimators of State power today in Unistat, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman could easily lead the pacifist writer of this blogspew to punch either in the mouth, were I to come to within fist-shot of either. Talk about "treason"...

What intellectual on our side is seen talking about political ideas on the teevee in Unistat? Lemme see...Glenn Greenwald. (And you can only guess what multi-millionaire former head of the taxpayer-funded NSA Keith Alexander thinks about Greenwald: he ought not exist. Let's not even bring up Edward Snowden. Anyone got anyone I missed?)

Yea, But The Science Guys Can Come Around, Right?
Not likely. That's not to say there aren't physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers on the side of the huddled masses yearning to be free, or at least make their rent. Clearly there are many out there. But they still want their jobs. They're addicted to solving abstruse technical problems, then heading home to the spouse and kids. Compared to the average certified Humanities person, the physical science guys are apolitical. (In general.)

There's a heady literature (if you dig and have a library card) about the political commitments among the technical intelligentsia. Most of the best ones are about the morality of their commitments. My favorite among the minority of books that question those commitments from a libertarian position is a guerrilla ontological book, jocoserious, satirical and pissed: The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and The Citadel of Science, by Robert Anton Wilson. RAW has all the generalist chops of any New York intellectual, but rarely did one of that storied group take on the scientific elite. A golden passage here, and realize the book was published in 1986, but keep in mind Unistat's straddling of the globe with its military, and why Islamic militants are at such wit's end of desperation they're cutting off heads of journalists, knowing a drone could likely obliterate them with zero foreknowledge tomorrow afternoon, after having a piece of baklava:

"The late J.B. Priestly often animadverted among what he called The Citadel - the scientific-technologic elite which both supports and is supported by our military-industrial alpha males. The Citadel, in most countries, gets millions of pounds for every twopence doled out to the humanities, the social studies or the arts; it devotes most of its time and intellect to the task, as Bucky Fuller used to say, of delivering more and more explosive power over greater and greater distances over shorter and shorter times to kill more and more people. For this reason, The Citadel increasingly frightens most of us and there is a vast,  somewhat incoherent rebellion against it all around the world. The rebellion takes the form, most of the time, of return to some earlier philosophy or reality tunnel (hello ISIS and al-Qaeda! - OG), although within the scientific community there is also a rebellion which is seeking a new reality-tunnel, which is usually called The New Paradigm." - pp.20-21 of my tattered, pages-falling-out copy

RAW goes on to say Citadel personnel are intensely territorial, including in ideology, and they're proud of their atheism. He's appalled by death-centered nature of this well-educated group, but makes it clear his book is not an attack on the Citadel's moral grounds, but rather its violations of what he sees as the right of free speech and for every scientist to report any finding, even if it's in violation of the current paradigm(s). He particularly loathes the inquisitorial doings of the Citadel's ideological protectors in persecuting scientific heresy, as this simply should not take place in a supposed Free Society. Although RAW uses a rhetoric that at times seems outlandish in The New Inquisition, I think his thesis is very strong and ought be heeded. The academic version of his approach to the philosophy and history of science would be found in Paul Feyerabend, in a work such as Against Method, and possibly in Imre Lakatos's work. Bruno Latour's application of ethnomethodological-like inquiry to practices in actual scientific labs seems to bolster RAW's more Swiftian/Nietzschean/Fortean rhetorics. I also see a family resemblance in Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

However, I don't need a weatherman to know blah blah blah, and I guess we will just have to see if "Reality" can deal us a surprisingly good hand. Meanwhile, we do what we can.

Whither the University in General?
This deserves a few other blogspews of its own, but student debt is now well over $1,000,000,000,000 and mounting fast, and not only do young people "graduate" with a "degree" but they seem to not be able to think all that well for themselves. But then there aren't any jobs for them anyway. Meanwhile the highest paid public servant in most states is the head football coach, and that entire system stinks to high heaven. Go ahead, lift the lid and take a whiff. It's sulphurous-rotten and the older, comfy alumni say "Let's go all the way this year!" Their best players don't get educations and barely have enough to eat. If they're lucky they won't suffer brain damage by the age of 45 from too many violent blows to their inadequately helmeted heads. And undergraduate costs have vastly exceeded inflation (gee...why?), and your freshman is largely being taught by "adjunct" professors who make less take-home pay than a head manager at Burger King. Try to tell me how this is sustainable. Meanwhile, Obama seems to think  it's of the utmost importance to keep sausage-grinding-out "college graduates." So they can...monitor robots?

Well, The Citadel does need a plentiful supply of STEM students. Fuck the Humanities bastards, with their questioning of the political economy and values and all that.

It should get pretty interesting. I can't help but imagine the increasing numbers of very bright, hyper-educated Humanities types, and their degrees and their debt and the increasingly fucked job market. Will they get political knowing the NSA might be tracking their every move?

The entirety of scenario(s) above constitute a mere model, or frame. Since I'm not a modeltheist, I don't think I'm presenting "the Truth" here. I merely affirm it might have some weight and heft, and that I don't exactly consider the model as anything close to a felicitous state of affairs. I've tried working myself into a lather about the cup being twice as big as it needs to be, but it's not taking.

I will leave us there, to escape back into my comic books.

                                    image by Bobby Campbell    


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Well, in addition to Glenn Greenwald as a dissenter who gets quoted sometimes, there was also Dennis Kucinich. But he lost much of his microphone when he was redistricted out of Congress. Just a coincidence, of course.

Your critique of college is largely true, but it still also remains true that most people who have college degrees can still manage to get a job. You can argue about whether that's fair or right, but it's still largely true.

As for the general tenor of your observations, while there is little to disagree with here, there are also positive things about the present. Almost everyone can find food and shelter, and entertainment and education is available free for everyone. (College may be expensive, but there are free online courses and public libraries are everywhere.) The Internet gives everyone a platform and allows everyone to link up with like minded folks.

Not to go all Charles Dickens on you but:

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way--
in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of
its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for
evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

So yeah, things have always kind of sucked.

tony smyth said...

Bollox _ I wrote a long comment to this and then the whole lot got lost in the aether.
ah well, Michael keep the faith. Your work is always stimulating and worth reading.
The fear is coming in mostly through that exquisite trance machine the television. The answer is to take the Keith Moon approach - throw the fuckin thing out the window, preferably from a great height.
Sorry, cant now reproduce what I wrote earlier.

Keep the faith.

Eric Wagner said...

Another wonderful piece. The reference to Zola and Dreyfus made me think about how the Dreyfus affair rocked Europe. It comes to dominate parts of Proust, and it shows up prominently in Chekhov's letters. I remember reading a Philip Jose Farmer story with a character named Jacques Cuze (J'accuse). Phil also wrote a story about a man named Winnegan who pretends to die. When they open his casket a rocket goes off and banner goes across the sky saying "Winnegan's Fake".

Last week's "Better Call Saul" reveals a meaning of Saul Goodman's new name: "'s all good, man". I wonder if Wilson and Shea had that in mind.

michael said...

@Tom: I think you're spot on.

@ Tony Smyth: I wish I could read what you wrote that disappeared. THAT is one painful thing, eh? It's happened to me at least a dozen times since I've had a computer...I don't think I'm getting my (pessimistic, for this one blogspew) ideas from TV, although maybe I've let my guard down and the TV FNORDS have infiltrated? Also, when I'm frustrated I tend toward the hyperbolic, and it's not the best rhetoric.

I very much appreciate the kind words.

@Eric: Yea, the Dreyfus case reverberates for a long time after it was officially over, and not just in the reification of the idea of a class called "intellectuals."...I never considered "'s'all good, man" for Rebecca's lover in Ill Tri. It seems that "It's all good" came out of black culture not that long ago. Maybe it's been around for a longer time?

If "Better Call Saul" stays as good as I've heard it is - I've never seen it - I'll wait till it's run its course then do what I did with "Breaking Bad": watch the entire series in less than two months. They call it "binge watching" and I'm pretty sure THAT term is less than 10 yrs old?

Anonymous said...

Sorry Michael, I wasn't at all suggesting that YOU watch much TV, it was just a generalised comment based on your post.(I think its statistically the case that most Americans get their NEWS from TV though)
Wasnt Zola forced to take exile for while for defending Dreyfus, or did I imagine that?

Eric Wagner said...

I posted your wonderful article on Facebook, and it has gotten a number of positive responses. Rafi Zabor asked if you had read _The Charterhouse of Parma_ by Stendhal. I loved that book.

I like "Better Call Saul", but "The Walking Dead" has become my obsession at present.

Anonymous said...

I read your post along with the Alternet thats linked in the sidebar - the one on the Use of FEAR. Good site by the way. I think that was what was influencing me last night. Relates to your post too. This is a section of it:

Nearly half (43.9 percent) of U.S. households live on the edge of financial collapse with almost no savings to fall back on in the event of a job loss, health crisis or other income-eliminating emergency, according to a report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED).

Things are as bad or worse for those in retirement or on the brink. In December 2014, 42.9 million people received Social Security retirement benefits that averaged $1,328.58 a month, or roughly $15,943 annually before taxes. One third, or 14.3 million people, derive almost all of their income this way. For most of the other two-thirds, Social Security provides over half their income. That means more than 20 million additional people live on less than $32,000 a year.

Pretty shocking set of stats right there.
Know of a study by a Prof of Mathemetics in US called Mottesherai? He and his team looked at the collapses of previous civilisations and what they had in common. Turns out there were two things always present. A collapse of resources such that they couldn't support the population. The second factor was an elite that took much of the resources and were unresponsive to the distress of the commoners, until it finally caught them too. Just like now eh? Except this time it may be global. You're right, its hard to stay positive the way things are going.
Intellectuals just trying to save their fat asses maybe.

Bobby Campbell said...

Great meditation, OG!

I find my process includes a phase wherein I accept the validity of the narrow view. Seeing everything as totally fucked up seems like a reasonable interpretation of things to me.

Plus also an affirmation of life that is not informed by the pervasive deep darkness of dukkha ain't worth much of anything anyways.

So yes! The world is on fire and we're probably all going to die in misery and poverty! Good, we got that out of the way. But what should we do until then?

"All is impermanent, all is without a self"

I always liked Rick Strassman's mantra: "If so, so what?"

My interpretation of the half glass is that the glass started out as empty, and find it a miracle that there is any water in it at all.

Darkness sufficiently cursed, now to light some candles :)

michael said...

@Anonymous, who I take to be Tony Smyth: I think you're right about most Murrkins getting their "news" from TV, but I haven't kept up with those organizations that try to spot changes in demographics. I know people under 30 watch less mainstream TV - far less - and get their news from their friends and stuff they read on the Net. The demographic for the egregious Fox "News" is something like 50% are 68 and older; whether their lumpenprole fascist messaging can capture a younger audience over time, I don't know.

And yes: Zola had to bail out of France for awhile.

michael said...

@Eric: I've never seen The Walking Dead, but from clips it looks vaguely Lynchian?

I read Charterhouse of Parma long ago and I'm fairly certain when I do re-read it again I'll get much more from it. Same with Rouge et Noir.

Thanks for propagating my signals over FB. I've always gotten some hits from FB, but wasn't sure who or why or how. (I'm not on FB)

michael said...

@Anonymous: Yea, the corporate electronic news would rather not talk about any of those poverty stats you cited; or if they do mention anything along those lines, it's a 7 second tidbit sandwiched between celebrity crap and weather and how the Dumb Game in DC is going. Jefferson said we can't have a Democracy if we don't know what's really going on AND acting on our knowledge.

Moreover, Aristotle- who was an elitist and right winger who thought "democracy" was illusory: he did an extensive study of the constitutions of as many Greek city-states as he could find. The ones that were trying for democracy were laudable, but Aristotle thought they were doomed unless they could avoid vast income disparities.

The Tea Party, who seem to want MORE of what's fucked us so far? Did you see what former Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett said about them? Check it:

I'll have a look at Prof Mottesherai. Thanks for the info and for reading!

michael said...

@ Bobby-

I work at trying to get my head space for the day into something more like yours. And I appreciate your term for this article from the OG: "meditation": it was done in a way I don't usually do these things: I thought, "I should do a blog post." But I didn't know what I wanted to write about. I just started writing about how I really felt: I noticed I have constant, nagging thoughts that my ideals about being a free-floating, non-attached-to-an-institution thinker/reader/generalist? It's still my ideal, but I seem to have gone the way of the Dodo bird as far as thinking there's much currency for what I do, for my stance on intellect.

Clearly it's better to be really good at something this Kulch values and which pays well, THEN do lots of extraneous reading outside my "profession." But I didn't take that route. I know plenty of people who are "specialists" at make a very good living, but who are "generalists" in their free time.

And yet: I guess I'm tilting at windmills here. At the same time, I enjoy it. Go figure.

tony smyth said...

This should link you to the Motesharrei study. http://www.sesync.org/sites/default/files/resources/motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf
There's a good article by Nafeez
Ahmed that he wrote for the Guardian/Independent (I forget which) that first brought this study to many peoples attention.He doesn't write for them anymore as he dared write an article critical of Israel!! SIGH.

- Tony

Eric Wagner said...

Michael, I don't find "The Walking Dead" terribly Lynchian. I haven't read many of the comic books, but I adore the TV show. (I plan to read more of the comics.) I love the characters, the acting, the story. I want to find out what happens next.

Mister Meta said...

Enjoyed the piece. Had just been reading Harari's Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind where he covers much of this ground in what I can only describe as a pragmatic historical sense. A history that tries not to judge or moralize, although the author does seem to be on the humanistic side of the fence. Well worth it if you haven't already seen it. Lots of chutzpa.

michael said...

@ Mister Meta-

Oh this is one 'dem "coincidences": I've been aware of Harari for awhile, and just yesterday crashed on him after reading the piece done with Kahneman at The Edge. He was saying things about humans being "superfluous" when rich people start to merge with AI and the masses...well, maybe they can be kept mollified with drugs and shows. I was getting really angry...and after reading another 8 or so articles on him or by him or interviews with him, I realized he was trying to be ironic via provocation, but possibly his English tripped him up? He thinks Silicon Valley's "religion" is more of a threat than ISIS, and that what we do about networks and AI should not be subjected to "market forces."

Many of his ideas reminded me of Terence McKenna. No one has pointed that out yet, or not that I'd read. The neo-Roussean claim that "sapiens" was happier during the Upper Paleolithic, before agriculture, etc.

Dude's really interesting. Love the sound of your phrase, "Lots of chutzpah"!

Thanks for reading.

michael said...

@ Tony-

I read the paper - without really following the math - of Economics and ecology. Fantastic and horrifying. Quite plausible, I think. It seems Herman Daley is their guy. The idea of HANDY (Human and Nature DYnamics) being modeled on the math of "predator vs. prey", where humans are predators and Nature the prey: it's my Reality Sandwich for the week!

Tony Smyth said...

Hey, you are quick.There's another book The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A Tainter. He's an archeologist, and the book is a bit old but its kind of similar nad he only examines thre civilsations but in depth. By collapse he didnt mean 'crumble to dust', more that there is a return to a less complex state of organisation. I think thats what going to happen in few decades. In fact that will be major theme of my next book, a sequel to the one I'm doing now. Things in neoliberal-land look pretty predatory to me right now!! The amount of inequality is breathtaking.