Overweening Generalist

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Intellectuals in the (late?) Anthropocene

Why "late?": Global warming, antibiotic resistance, global terror, income inequality, acceleration of AI, rapidly ephemeralized synthetic biological techniques, nuke proliferation. I'm not all that worried about an errant asteroid. I'm worried about sociopaths in power, and a species-wide inequality in knowledge and empathy towards The Other...

Three articles caught my eye in the past week. I'll link to them, give my idio-precis and comments. Why? Because I care about both of us.

1. ) L.D. Burnett in Chronicle of Higher Education: "Holding On To What Makes Us Human," an Adjunct who writes books about academia; Burnett implores us to defend the Humanities in the face of runaway "transferrable skills" and the cost/benefit reality of universities now. Screw "critical thinking" (although that's valuable, of course): we must find a way of articulating why knowledge of literature/history/philosophy etc is inherently valuable, despite all that's transpired in the epoch of NeoLiberalism. She wants arguments that set aside money and jobs issues. And I say: good luck with that, although I'm with you in spirit, Ms. Burnett.

Her keynote (fair warning: I do not have perfect pitch) seems to be that we must resist perishing, but if we must perish, we should go down resisting. At first I thought she meant "we" adjuncts. Then I realized she seemed a tad more cosmopolitan: we humans. I bet you're on board with her here with me, no?

If I sound like a dick here, I apologize. I'm just as caught up in the morass of being a Knower and struggling to pay the bills as she is, probably more so. I know Adjunct jobs suck ass as far as pay goes (usually), but I don't even get to do that. I'm a freelancer. There's a really heavy downside to that, apart from making your own hours and staying up all night taking notes in your books. Weed helps. It certainly helps.

2.) Michael Lind, a prolific and fairly heavyweight intellectual who notes he's been "accused" of being a "public intellectual," claims that his own in-group of intellectuals are "freaks." Lind is not doing the Chomsky thing of calling out his fellow intellectuals for facilitating and sucking up to State power. He's merely saying he and his kind: academics, think tank experts, opinion journalists, and downwardly-mobile free-spirited bohemians? They really are "freaks" and out of touch with ordinary values. This last sub-class of Bohemians constitute a group who are living off (largely) inherited bourgeois-begotten capital in order to be revolutionaries, avant-garde writers, or artists.

Lind asserts that "populists" who've always argued intellectuals are out of touch are basically correct. He notes that non-intellectuals are/were wrong about the gold standard, the single tax and "other issues" (I wish he'd have gone into much greater detail here, as I think it's very many other issues, but that's just me), but populists are right: intellectuals are freaks and weirdoes who are out of touch with mainstream values.

Intellectuals live in large cities and their judgment is distorted by their borderlessness (because scholarship is inherently borderless). Proles finish high school and go into manual labor in what's now the "service sector." They work within 18 miles of where their mothers live and depend on family networks for economic support and child care. Intellectuals often defer marriage and children in order to further their career goals, and they move all over the place, as academia is found throughout the continent. Their notions about a borderless world as a moral and political ideal are, says Lind, "stupid and lazy" because there's no world-wide infrastructure to keep a welfare state equitably distributed throughout the world. (I see this as a worthy utopian goal, but Lind keeps mum about this: "stupid and lazy.") Their childlessness and deferred marriages make them "unusually individualistic"...Lind would like to see that studied more and so would I.

Talk about unrestricted immigration feeds nationalist and neo-fascist and right-wing populist political movements, and we're seeing that as I type, in many places. Also, it feeds the well-entrenched meme among the unwashed that the UN is taking over their lives, incipient fears of "lost sovereignty" (a classic divide-and-conquer/misdirection move by the Ruling Class), not to mention the Bilderbergers-bugaboo. (Enough food and clean water for Burundi? Tyranny!)

Here's another major problem with intellectuals: they see the problem of inequality and their solution is...be more like me!: More and better education is the mantra. (As long as Obama has been Prez he's repeated this old workhorse. And I'm embarrassed to admit that on more than one occasion I've yelled at him through the teevee screen, "For what?")

Lind says this idea of more education is natural, but "stupid and lazy." He's a conscience for his own class of freaks! How come "more education" isn't a good idea? Automation and the service sector job market is really all there is. He doesn't mention Adjuncts, and it's easy to conjure reasons why. Janitors with Master's degrees? Sad. He does say unionization might be a good idea for service-sector workers. A restriction of low-wage immigration (I don't see this happening). A higher minimum-wage is mentioned.

I read Lind's short piece three times and I still can't discern the level of wryness in it. If you read the piece he exempts those intellectuals in the "hard sciences." Gee, I wonder why?

A final idea: it's often floated out that one or two years of national service could be  a moral and social balancer. Lind says: stupid idea, because the proles already have it hard enough without doing two years of unpaid work. But then he gets off his best riff: But: "it might not hurt" for professional intellectuals to face "a year or two working in a shopping mall, hotel, hospital, or warehouse."

My Wry-o-Meter was sparking and giving off noxious fumes on that last bit. That Michael Lind!

As a general comment on Lind, some dialectical sparks from Alvin Gouldner, who is writing about the history and alienation of intellectuals, first from the Old Regime of inherited landed aristocracy, and then the bourgeoisie, this latter group being at first allied with the intellectuals against the Old Regime and helped by their cultural capital...until the bourgeoisie came into ascendancy. Gouldner refers to both the technical intelligentsia and humanistic intellectuals as The New Class:

The New Class believes its high culture represents the greatest achievement of the human race, the deepest ancient wisdom and the most advanced modern scientific knowledge. It believes that these contribute to the welfare and wealth of the race, and that they should receive correspondingly greater rewards. The New Class believes that the world should be governed by those possessing superior competence, wisdom and science - that is, themselves. The Platonic Complex, the dream of the philosopher king with which Western philosophy begins, is the deepest wish-fulfillment fantasy of the New Class. But they look around and see that the men who employ them do not begin to understand the simplest aspects of their technical specialties, and the politicians who rule them are, in Edmund Wilson's words, "unique in having managed to be corrupt, uncultivated, and incompetent all at once."
-p.65, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (1979), Alvin Gouldner, PhD
3.) "Power, Powerlessness, Thinking and Future," by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, from about 10 months ago. Stiegler notes that intellectuals have been steeped in the analysis of power relations since M. Foucault, but that thinking about this should also highlight powerlessness too, and maybe more now than ever, since intellectuals seem to not understand that techne has accelerated faster than they could conceptualize, and they are now proles themselves. He attacks those intellectuals who claim the term "right wing intellectual" is an impossibility or oxymoron, because, well, Freud, Heidegger, Niklas Luhmann, Maurice Blanchot, and many others. And deeper: there was thinking before the French Revolution and "Left" vs. "Right" and we now need to reconceptualize what it means to think, now that almost all of us are proles.

Stiegler thinks it's unfortunate that the term "intellectual" was ever used as a noun, when it's an adjective. Further, the term activates neurological opposition between "manual workers" and the types Gouldner is talking about, above. And yet throughout the article you notice Stiegler uses "intellectuals" as a term for their class. That's because it's ensconced in culture. And Michael Lind's presuppositions about his own class seem to hold sway, eh?

Here's where it gets interesting for me: Stiegler claims, based on Marx and Engels, that "proletarianism" now effects not only most of us, but all forms of knowledge. Futhermore, it's a "widespread generalization of entropic behavior" since the Anthropocene commenced and we began to time-bind like mad. Proletarianization destructs knowledge: how to live, do and conceptualize. And intellectuals seem oblivious that this is what has happened to them. They are now much closer to Lind's janitors than any sort of Gouldner's Platonic philosopher kings, no doubt.

Stiegler wants to clarify: Marx and Engels thought that proletarians denote not a state of poverty so much as a loss of knowledge...knowledge about how to harness negentropy to conceptualize our way out of this mess. Rather than doing this, they "adopt attitudes and poses." A culture of knowledge construction and new ideas has been run out of town by consumer capitalism, based on "behavioral prescriptions produced by marketing." In the weakest part of his fascinating article, Stiegler uses Alan Greenspan's testimony about why he didn't see the 2008 crash coming. It seems there were a few hundred better examples, but perhaps this one suffices...

So, let's stop with labeling "left"and "right" thinking and replace it with thinking, which he seems to align with negentropy, the notion that, though entropy is The Law, its negative reciprocal is creating novel order and structure amidst chaos. (What Korzybski called "time-binding'.) The acceleration of technology has lapped our social systems of law, education, political organizations and forms of knowledge. We will always be late, it seems. Our only hope is realizing we're all proles now, begin thinking from within casino economies and marketing and short-term R&D "disruptions." We need not become Luddites and reject technology, and Stiegler cites Evgeny Morozov's article (presumably HERE although Stiegler merely claims this "evokes") as a way into a new politics, in which it's essential to re-think "value."

Morozov seems like a start to me, too, but I'd also cite John Dewey's 1920 book Reconstruction in Philosophy as a text that argued the Platonic ideal of the "spectatorial view" of knowledge had it backwards: no intellectual need fool herself into believing that just because she doesn't get her hands dirty that she truly knows, and that those who do things with their hands (mechanics, plumbers, craftspeople of every stripe) don't "know" anything. Workers know quite a lot, and so the fuck what if it's not Hegel or organic chemistry: it's knowledge that produces immediate material results in the sensory/sensual world. Dewey's book disabused me of these notions about the primacy of spectatorial/armchair views of knowledge long ago, and this text seems woefully underrated to me.

Earlier, Marx had expressed a dislike for the opposition of Techne and Logos. Bernard Stiegler reminds us here that, "Knowledge is always constituted by technics, which in so doing always constitutes a social relation." (italics in original)

Also, and more practically, look at contemporaries like Douglas Rushkoff and his marvelous recent book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, and Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots. Here are thinkers who can get us started thinking ourselves...out of our proletarian situation. There are many, many more...

Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred 71 years ago this past week or so. Soon after that Dark Moment, a very smart individual noted that everything had changed...save for our "way of thinking."

                                             Tueuses graphiques par Bobby Campbell


Anonymous said...

Leaving this comment as a word of encouragement, as I haven't commented in a while, love you, and want you to keep writing. It just occurred to me that I have read your blog for probably 5+ years now. Thank you so much for all you have written. And, you did it for free! Go you!

A lot o bite on here, and I haven't even read the articles. As a lower-middle-class townie, and the trailer court wunderkind from the wrong side of the tracks in a MT college town, I've always made my argument for the working man's knowledge, as opposed to those neat things I learn from books. As a drop out who got his GED ASAP, and has worked in truckstops and mental healthcare facilities ever since, I kind of have to.

This seems especially pertinent now that we middle-class-white-hetero dudes (perhaps deservedly) get lectures on our privilege from the educated class. All fine and good, except it usually comes from other white-hetero dudes? I wish I had a $200 textbook to absolve me of white guilt, or whatever crime these people think I have committed.

Not to say I have not inherited certain privileges. Even making less than $20k a year, I live like a king. Perhaps I live in the great concavity, but I live in the greatest section of the great concavity. Middle-class America: the most luxurious garbage heap in the entire landfill.

Speaking of the eschaton, I often wonder if my generation - Millennial - has any meaning as a biblical entendre; The Great Concavity in the Sky. Gen X-ers and Boomers outlived the Cold War and had to ask themselves: what do you do after you outlive a death sentence? I think my generation thinks yours has lost its hearing - you look at us and see the future, but we were born humming to the chimes of midnight.

Anyway, I have digressed from your blogspew into deeply personal territory...

End of the world or not, I'd like to reclaim the word salad from the Olympians and give it back to the ass wipers, mop holders and burger flippers. Like Montaigne, John Dewey, or one of those. I think Alain de Botton has done some of the work, but the opus has a long way to go.

These things have circled around my mind for the last few weeks, since I decided to reread DFW with a group, and everyone in it (except for me) has a humanities major. Sure, I think, what you said about Heidegger and Brothers K and Ulysses and how they all relate to Infinite Jest seems fine, but what does this makes us better neighbors? I thought we read literature to enhance neighborliness, but these days, I see lot of reading for reading's sake.

So, how do we turn people away from the narcissus of intellect, or the narcotic of television, and persuade them to read for compassion's sake? If the humanities can't answer this question, then perhaps you should have named us the Armageddons.

Eric Wagner said...

Nice piece. What then should we do? Or more precisely, what should I do? Find a new job, read Homer, trust God, and/or learn French? II suppose so.

michael said...


You made my day! I love you too, whoever you are. Reading lit to make us better neighbors is one of your values, and mine. It is not usually taught that way, and the people I've encountered who value the felicitous social fallout from reading great literature seem to be peculiarly thoughtful people.

As for your last Q, all I can think of is Morris Berman's books, which are a downer: keep doing what you're doing, preserving the culture, because we're going into another type of "Dark Age." You'd be doing work in preserving what's worthwhile for people who will live long after you're gone. (I said it was a downer! But he might be right? I read Berman and on every page it feels like he's saying the tough stuff that others are afraid to say, and I keep muttering under my breath, "I hope you're wrong, Morris!")

To not end on a bummer: I bet you have influenced a lot of people toward thinking more about, I dunno, "the bigger picture." I'd bet on it.

@Eric: You can do it all! And: find your own ways to resist, protest, engage. As a person who grew up and adopted engaged "hippie" values, there was a pretty good band in the 1960s who once sang that "Love is the answer." I'm dreamy enough to continue to stand by that. I do get pissed off more and more though, I must confess.

This blog hardly gets any hits, but I really love my commenters. You add a lot of value to this spot, methinks. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

You made my day too. I dreaded rereading my comment, and your response to it, as I thought it a bit narrow minded, pessimistic, and embarrassing, but everything turned out for the best. I have commented many times before. I'll try to comment twice as much from now on. One of these days, I'll read your blog from the beginning, and look back on all that I missed, as you've impacted my thinking in some big ways. Wouldn't have pureed Carolina Reaper in my cooking arsenal if not for your blogspew on hotsauces.

hilaryous said...

Excellent post! Yes, a big part of our current ethos!

Here is an investigation into the flaws in our systems - Ethos - a film that should be mandatory for every citizen of this world to watch, if we want to understand the global workings of capitalism:


Corrupted regards,

From the country where the election became an auction

Eric Wagner said...

Michael, thanks for your kind words. A friend of mine just remarked that for the next seventeen Sundays we'll have football and then either "Fear the Walking Dead" or "The Walking Dead", followed by "Talking Dead". Life does have some positives.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I don't know where the economy is going, so I don't know what to think of the pessimistic take taken by the writers you cite. Maybe everything is going to hell in a handbasket, or maybe things will pick up. I think Anonymous is on to something when he says he can live pretty well without a lot of money, and I think perhaps the Internet has something to do with that. I also like the idea of reading as a way to become a better neighbor.