24 December 2021

Lasch—To Postpone a Reckoning

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. XVIII, "Birth, Death, and Technology: The Limits of Cultural Laissez-Faire"
The prevailing image of technological utopia begets the counter-image of technological nightmare—the appalling vision of a scientific totalitarianism, embodied in such anti-utopian novels as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. On the one hand we have a greatly exaggerated faith in the ability of science to solve all the material problems of life, and an exagger-
ated idea of the autonomy of science and technology as determining forces in history; on the other hand, these inflated estimates of the power of science give rise to a hysterical fear of scientific dictatorship. This fear, precisely because it is cast in the form of an anti-utopian vision of the future, serves to postpone a reckoning with science, while the sweeping quality of the scientific control it envisions serves to paralyze our will to act in the present. At the same time it gives the illusion that the destructive possibilities of science are at least being squarely confronted. The anti-utopian and the utopian myths of science have a common root in the assumption that science is an autonomous force, rather than an instrument of the will of the human community, and that its development is inevitable and irresistable.

(pp. 300-301)

23 December 2021

Lasch—On Ellul

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. XVII, "The Social Thought of Jacques Ellul"
According to The Technological Society, the last chance of revolution disappeared in the nineteenth century, when the revolutionary movement ceased to oppose technology with "spiritual forces" and adopted the materialist perspective as its own, thereby hastening the final triumph of economic man. "Proudhon and Bakunin had placed spiritual forces in rivalry with the economic order. Against them, Marx upheld the bourgeois order of the primacy of the economic. . . ." Unfortunately for this analysis, Marx never propounded any such thing as "dialectical materialism"—that was the contribution of Engels, who sought to establish the scientific credentials of Marxism according to the positivist standard of scientific truth that had come to prevail at the end of the nineteenth century. Marx was not a determinist; he did not deny the element of human will in history; he made no easy assumptions about the inevitability of progress; nor did he equate social progress with technology.

(p. 271 footnote)

[Ellul's] The Presence of the Kingdom is addressed to Christians, but it raises questions that all radical intellectuals have to confront, whether or not they approach them from a Christian perspective. The crisis of the faith is one aspect of the cultural crisis of our time, and Ellul's plea that the church speak directly and critically to social issues springs from the same concerns that have led other intellectuals, working from secular premises, to insist that culture must no longer be regarded as an activity having no relation to politics, that artists and scholars must abandon the pretense of neutrality, and that a new humanism, in short, is likely to take shape only if it makes connection with the struggles of exploited classes to change the world. In the years since The Presence of the Kingdom first appeared, pleas for culture to be "relevant" have once again become common and even fashionable; but as the level of political militancy rises, the advocates of cultural "commitment" have more and more reiterated the position they held in the United States in the thirties and which they have never ceased to hold on the European left—namely, that cultural radicalism means that intellectuals should enlist in the proletarian revolution (now seen as a global uprising of the non-white, colonized peoples). Ellul's work, taken as a whole, constitutes a sustained critique of this position...

(p. 272)

Well, is it necessarily emblematic of the pretense of neutrality to paint abstracts? What about painting abstracts in the epoch of reality tv, deep fakes, VR, and the social media echo chamber?

By reading the artistic surface for explicit political content or commentary, the meaning of the larger gesture and all that necessarily attaches to it vis-a-vis process, curation, criticism, distribution, etc., all of this is ignored. At our peril. A justice issue again, I would say...the quotidian kind of injustice that no one notices until a more total, cosmic variety has engulfed them.
Neither science nor art provide any alternative to the prevailing chaos. On the contrary, science and art contribute to it: science, by divorcing itself from philosophy and becoming
merely a higher branch of technology; art, by giving up any pretense to make statements about objective reality, thereby dissolving itself in "self-expression." Neither science nor art any longer communicate anything except, in the one case, information required to solve technical problems—and even this is conveyed in symbols accessible only to specialists—and in the other case, inner experiences incommunicable by definition. Modern art, by opposing to technological domination a cult of the irrational, "guides us in the direction of madness." Faced with rampant disorder, men take refuge in the great "explanatory myths" of our time: "the bourgeois myth of the Hand of Moscow, the socialist myth of the Two Hundred Families, the Fascist myth of the Jews, the communist myth of the anti-revolutionary saboteur." These provide the only "means of intellectual coherence" in a world made meaningless by loss of continuity, loss of memory.

(pp. 274-275)

Well, when did art ever have anything more than

to show for itself when it comes to
mak[ing] statements about objective reality
inner experiences incommunicable by definition,





And why is
the only other option?

At least the younger Lasch here seems more amenable than the elder to the notion that expression too is a mere

The turn away from these imperatives has an obvious justification if the imperative itself is shown to be merely
a cult of the irrational

What is left for art to do, then? To make its statements on the level of the artist's conduct of life rather than on the level of surface content. Surface content is too easily misinterpreted, and even more easily properly interpreted for the purpose of using or abusing its underlying intent. Sontag: "Sometimes a writer will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself—albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony—the clear and explicit interpretation of it." In "life" as opposed to "art" we have other names for such "uneasy" people, names which are even less flattering than specialist or irrational.

Treating art as a form of "speech" in the First Amendment sense entails the fringe benefit of placing it more accurately in the well-worn distinction between word and deed. And therein lies the need for "art" entirely apart from its potential bearing on "politics." The need is in the deed.

If the communicative imperative can be dispensed with, the landscape of rationality and irrationality shifts. Much art may then be "pointless," but not necessarily "irrational." At this particular historical juncture I'm quite at peace wallowing in "pointlessness" rather than being railroaded into making a statement, one way or another, with any type of artwork or "cultural" activity I might undertake. On the other hand, if I do in fact use a tuba where others use an iDevice, is that distinction simply to be disregarded on the grounds that my weird tuba music says nothing explicit about "technological domination"? How much more explicit does one need to be about it?

Endnotes to Ch. XXI. "The "Counter-Culture""
Seeing in these books [of Charles Reich, Theodore Roszak, Philip Slater] symptoms of a much deeper cultural malaise and appalled by the anti-intellectualism often associated with the new left—and more generally by a flood of irrationalism in modern society as a whole—those who still believed that a radical politics without critical reason was a monstrosity attempted, in effect, to construct an ad hoc defense of liberal culture, as in the manifesto on the "cultural crisis," that would still be distinguishable from a defense of liberalism as a political ideology. [sic] What is really required, however, is a more penetrating understanding of the "counter-culture" itself and of its social and cultural antecedents. Does the "new culture" represent merely the culmination of cultural modernism, as some have claimed—a democratization of the avant-garde? Or does it portend a regression to a more primitive consciousness? Increasingly events seem to point to the conclusion that it is precisely the premises of modernism that are being rejected in, say, rock music and street theater. If art traditionally has been an interplay between tension and its resolution, the new art banishes tension and seeks to dissolve all oppositions in direct, unmediated experience, non-verbal states of being, trancelike euphoria. Performers alternately assault their audiences, whipping up moods of subdued violence, and make "love" to them, in both cases hoping to merge the performance with "life" and to put both art and life safely "beyond interpretation."
..and therefore, the countervailing "cultural" tendency would be to land dangerously short of interpretation, no?
The audience is offended or, worse, titillated; it enjoys being verbally assaulted; it imagines itself instantaneously released from "bourgeois inhibitions." Relieved of the need to perform and act of imaginative identification, it is more passive than ever, while its lingering reservations about the new art are silenced by the fear that what is new must
be necessarily significant. "Great art is always ahead of its time." The rhetoric of the avant-garde is pressed into the service of an esthetic with which it has little else in common, in order to clothe the contemporary artist in an inscrutable authority that he claims to reject but uses in many ways to intimidate his audience and critics.

(pp. 334-335)

Part of the job of criticism today would seem to be to insist on the difference between attempting to give popular themes more lasting form and surrendering to the utter formlessness of the moment.

(p. 335)

22 December 2021

Mumford—Art and Technics (postlude)

Once we have achieved the right form for a type-object, it should keep that form for the next generation, or for the next thousand years. Indeed, we should be ready to accept further variations only when some radical advance in scientific knowledge, or some radical change in the conditions of life has come about... This interpretation of the path of technics, as leading to a series of flat plateaus rather than as a steady climb upward is, I know, a baffling contradiction to the popular one. ...The animus of the last three centuries has been toward improvement, innovation, invention without end; and the chief duty of man, according to the utilitarian catechism, is to adapt himself to such mechanical changes as rapidly as is necessary to make them profitable. But this stale view assumes that we are capable of learning nothing, that we are incapable of mastering the machine we have created and putting it in its place; that we shall not emancipate ourselves from the manias and compulsions that our preoccupation with the machine has brought into existence; that philosophy and religion and art will never again open up to man the vision of a whole human life. ...But once we arrive at a fuller degree of self-understanding, we shall render unto the machine only that which belongs to the machine; and we shall give back to life the things that belong to life: initiative, power of choice, self-government—in short, freedom and creativeness. Because man must grow, we shall be content that the machine, once it has achieved the power and economy of a good type, should stand still—at least until the creator again places himself above the level of his mechanical creature.
(pp. 83-84)
This is Mumford at his most Situationist, making a connection which the Situationists themselves were too self-absorbed and self-important to make. This is the case for Functionalism itself as a weapon against wasteful consumption and alienated expression, for an ascetic rather than a hedonistic resistance to entrenched power. This is how technology can free us from the burdens of mere survival now rather than at some yet-to-be-determined time in the future.

[December 2019. Like most concluding remarks, this was originally written first rather than last.]

21 December 2021

Mumford—Art and Technics (xvi)

[Prefatory note: I struggled mightily with this final installment of the series, so much so that what should have been a centerpiece became an afterthought. It remains both incomplete and overlong. It is at least completed somewhat by recent posts, at the cost of adding verbiage rather than paring it. Such is the content-rich, editor-poor world we live in. Enjoy, if you can.]

Lewis Mumford
Art and Technics (1952)
The general effect of this multiplication of graphic symbols has been to lessen the impact of art itself. ... In order to survive in this image-glutted world, it is necessary for us to devaluate the symbol and to reject every aspect of it but the purely sensational one. For note, the very repetition of the stimulus would make it necessary for us in self-defense to empty it of meaning if the process of repetition did not, quite automatically, produce this result. Then, by a reciprocal twist, the emptier a symbol is of meaning, the more must its user depend upon mere repetition and mere sensationalism to achieve his purpose. This is a vicious circle, if there ever was one. ...people must, to retain any degree of autonomy and self-direction, achieve a certain opacity, a certain insensitiveness, a certain protective thickening of the hide, in order not to be overwhelmed and confused by the multitude of demands that are made upon their attention.
(p. 98)
...we only half-see, half-understand what is going on; for we should be neurotic wrecks if we tried to give all the extraneous mechanical stimuli that impinge upon us anything like our full attention. That habit perhaps protects us from an early nevous breakdown; but it also protects us from the powerful impact of genuine works of art, for such works demand our fullest attention, our fullest participation, our most individualized and re-creative response. What we settle for, since we must close our minds, are the bare sensations; and that is perhaps one of the reasons that the modern artist, defensively, has less and less to say. In order to make sensations seem more important than meanings, he is compelled to use processes of magnification and distortion, similar to the stunts used by the big advertiser to attract attention. So the doctine of quantification, Faster and Faster, leads to the sensationalism of Louder and Louder; and that in turn, as it affects the meaning of the symbols used by the artist, means Emptier and Emptier. This is a heavy price to pay for mass production and the artist's need to compete with mass production.
(pp. 98-99)

20 December 2021

Lasch—Consulting the Principle of Competence

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. X, "After the New Left"
The mystique of participation has had a profoundly misleading influence on recent American radicalism. It is a symptom of the general malaise of modern culture that watching a play, reading a poem, or getting an education are defined as passive and spectatorial, inherently inferior in the quality of their emo-
tional satisfaction to acting in a play, writing a poem, or simply "living." The notion that education and "life," art and "reality," understanding and action are radically opposed derives ultimately from the opaqueness of the structures in which we live and from a despair of understanding them. Official propaganda encourages this belief as assiduously as the so-called counterculture, which in this respect (as in many others) merely reflects prevailing values—or, more accurately, takes them more literally than they are taken by the ruling class. Thus, although the cult of participation encourages among other things a distrust of professionalism, the institutions of American society continue to be operated by professionals. It is only the left which, both in its politics and in its culture, clings to the illusion that competence is equally distributed among people of good intentions and regards any attempt to uphold professional standards as a betrayal of democracy.

... Its distrust of professionalism does not rest merely on a healthy disrespect for "experts" or on an awareness of the ways in which the concept of professionalism has been progressively debased... It reflects an intellectual orientation which, pushed to its furthest extreme, scorns not only professionalism but the "work ethic" itself, on the grounds that spontaneous and sensuous enjoyment of life is the only genuine form of participation in its pleasures, while submission to a discipline is inherently "alienating."

(pp. 149-150)

It is useful to be reminded...that "participatory democracy" in the strict sense works, if it works at all, only in very small communities; and that because the complexity of industrial society makes it impossible for such communties to achieve complete autonomy, those who advocate direct democracy as a general program are advocating, in effect, a return to a simpler stage of social and economic organization. One might add that decentralization, a measure of which is undoubtedly desirable, does not automatically lead to democratic results. Unless it is accompanied by a shift in political power, the decentralization of certain administrative functions may serve merely to reduce friction and to placate dissatisfaction with existing practices. ("The organizing principle of the new model [corporate or academic] institution," writes Michael Miles, "will be centralized control through decentralized structures.")


It is obvious that all institutions in American life are not equally democratic. "Private" corporations, academic or industrial, are not even formally democratic in their organization, unlike the state. Before arguing that they should be, according to [Robert A.] Dahl [After the Revolution?], one must consult the "principle of competence," according to which authority should be exercised by those who are best qualified to exercise it and who understand the consequences of their decisions. To insist on democracy in the operating room or on the bridge of an ocean liner would be madness for patients and passengers. The argument for democracy in the state therefore depends on the proposition that "the ordinary man is more
competent than anyone else to decide when and how much he shall intervene on decisions he feels are important to him." In order for this argument to apply also to the university or the private corporation, it must be shown that these institutions, although in most cases nominally private, actually embody political power, are intertwined with the state, and are public in everything but name.

Dahl rather uneasily skirts the issue of the university. If we were to apply his categories to this particular case, we should have to distinguish at the outset between democratizing the corporate structure of the university, so as to give the entire university community access to corporate decisions..., and democratizing the classroom itself, as many cultural radicals are demanding. In the former case, the principle of competence would favor the institution of democratic procedures; in the latter, their adoption would quickly complete the wreckage of an already debased higher education.

(pp. 151-152)

19 December 2021

Lasch—Student Activism

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. VIII, "Is Revolution Obsolete?"
The issue of "law and order" has recently become prominent in national and local elections. Instead of seeking to understand its origin, many radicals—along with most of the liberals—interpret the need for order as incipient fascism. They argue that productive workers are so strongly committed to the existing industrial system that they will gladly opt for fascism to preserve it. Not only does this view confuse a commitment to order and economic security with a commitment to capitalism as such, but it seems to imply, when coupled with an analysis that insists on the revolutionary potential of blacks and students, that economic expendability alone can serve as a basis for revolutionary discontent. From this we can only conclude that any revolution likely to occur in advanced countries will be, by definition, a minority revolution imposed on the rest of society by a self-appointed vanguard whose economic superfluity liberates it from "false consciousness."

In the face of such an analysis it is necessary to insist that unless a movement for change enlists the active support of the great majority, it is unlikely to accomplish anything that would be recognizable as democratic socialism. This means, among other things, that the student movement will have to transcend its character as a student movement and forge links with those who work in the main institutions of industrial society. Whether it does this has become one of the most important political questions of our day.

(p. 114)

Ch. X, "After the New Left"
The absence of continuity in American radicalism—in American life generally—made it possible for the radicals of the sixties to discover all over again the existence of oppression and exploitation, the power of the ruling class, and the connection between capitalism and foreign wars. In their excitement, they quickly proceeded from reformist to revolutionary ideas, not only leaving most of their followers behind but glossing over a host of difficulties—both tactical and theoretical—that were inherent in the adoption of revolutionary goals. It should at least have been treated as an open question whether classical conceptions of revolution, deriving from a conjunction of historical circumstances not likely to recur, have any meaning in an advanced industrial society. A major theoretical problem for the new left was precisely to work out a new conception of social reconstruction, in other words to reformulate new ideas about revolution itself instead of being content with unanalyzed images from the past. In the absence of any real analysis of the concept or its applicability to contemporary American life, "revolution" quickly became the emptiest of clichés and was used indiscriminately by radicals, liberals, conservatives, advertising men, and the media, usually to describe changes that were nonexistent.

Useless as the word soon became, it had important effects on those who continued to take it seriously. Consider its influence on the antiwar movement. As soon as the leaders of the movement realized that the Indochina war could not be attributed simply to diplomatic bungling but had roots in the social structure of advanced capitalism (roots which have yet, however, to be fully explained), they began to insist that this recognition be immediately embodied in the movement's practice. This at least seemed to be the intention of the much-publicized transition "from dissent to resistance," announced in 1966-67, although it was not always clear whether this slogan implied an escalation of strategy or merely more militant forms of civil disobedience. (Even in the latter case, however, the almost unavoidable ten-
dency was to justify new sacrifices by the announcement of revolutionary objectives.) In any case, "from dissent to resistance" was a misleading slogan for a movement that would continue to depend on "dissenters" for much of its effectiveness. Even as a tactic, "resistance" led the antiwar movement into attacks not only against the war but, increasingly, against the entire apparatus of military-corporate domination both at home and abroad, while at the same time the adoption of an "anti-imperialist" perspective unavoidably narrowed the movement's ideological appeal and its base of support. A dangerous dispersion of energies followed from decisions made by the antiwar movement in 1966 and 1967—decisions that arose not so much from calculation of their political consequences as from the need to make an adequate response to the rising militancy of the young, to the agony of the choices confronting men eligible for the draft, and to the atrocity of the war.

The history of the student movement in many ways paralleled that of the antiwar movement, if indeed their histories can be disentangled. After the student left discovered the university's links to the war machine and the corporations, it needed to develop an analysis of higher education that would simultaneously explain why the university had become the center of opposition to the war. An analysis that treated the university simply as an agency of oppression could not explain why so many students had apparently resisted brainwashing and consistently took positions more critical of American society than those taken by other citizens. The problem confronting the student movement was to expose and attack the university's "complicity" in war and exploitation without forgetting that it was precisely the relative independence of the universities (or, more accurately, of the colleges of arts and science), together with the fact that they were at least formally committed to values directly counter to those of industrial capitalism, that made them a good ground on which to fight.

The adoption of revolutionary points of view did nothing to clarify those issues. It encouraged on the one hand a misplaced class analysis of the university itself, in which student "prole-
tarians" confront a ruling class made up of administators and faculty, and on the other hand a preoccupation with the "real" problems outside academic life, especially those of the working class, which led student activists to abandon the attempt to reform the university and in many cases to leave academic life altogether. These positions, however much they differed from one another, shared an unwillingness to confront the difficulty of explaining the university's relation to society or the relation of students to the class structure as a whole. Were students to be regarded as future members of an oppressive bourgeoisie, whose defection from this class and rejection of "bourgeois life styles" therefore constituted the first stage of the "cultural revolution" called for by Abbie Hoffman? Or were they apprentices to a new kind of technical intelligencia, in which case student rebellion might be considered, in Norman Birnbaum's phrase, as an anticipatory strike of the workforce? These questions concealed an even more fundamental issue: Had the class structure of industrial society changed in such important ways as to render much of traditional Marxism obsolete? The inability of the "Marxist" left to answer these questions helps to explain the rapid growth of a left based on youth culture, on "liberated life styles," which at least takes a clear position in favor of the first of these hypotheses, and which is prepared to interpret even a change of costume as a "revolutionary act"—thereby reducing the complexities of revolutionary action to an absolute minimum.

(pp. 126-128)

Whether the student movement becomes the basis of a new labor movement depends in considerable part, according to [Michael] Miles [The Radical Probe], on whether student radicalism overcomes the influences that have recently crippled it—dogmatic Marxism, infatuation with the traditional working class, terrorism, chic cultural protest. Deploring dogmatism and posturing, Miles nevertheless insists on the "ideological dimension" of student protest—an aspect of the movement that many of its friends have tried to
minimize. One of the signs of current political exhaustion is a renewed distrust of ideology. ... Many observers would regard the ideological element in student protest as regrettable and unnecessary; Miles regards it as central. In his judgment, the underlying seriousness of the student rebellion reveals itself nowhere more clearly than in the conflict between a technocratic and managerial ideology on the one hand and the ideology of the radical intelligentsia on the other—mutually exclusive views of the world which, indeed, postulate the historical extinction of the adversary. Just as Brzezinski regards the intellectuals as "historical irrelevants," so the left-wing intellectuals hope to eliminate the technocrats as a class. It is just because it has an ideological dimension, in Miles view, that student rebellion may portend a larger movement, "since there is not the slightest possibility of the left organizing these social forces [the new middle class, new working class, etc.] without a systematic alternative vision which first identifies these progressive social forces in its analysis and then appeals to them in its social content." An ideology in this sense is inseparable from the search for a constituency and serves not to encourage but to check the left's propensity for fantasy.

(pp. 137-138)

18 December 2021

Lasch—on education, from early essays

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. I, "Origins of the Asylum"
The humanitarian reformers [e.g. Samuel Tuke's York Retreat, founded 1796] consciously or unwittingly took over from the cloister the principle that withdrawal from the world is a necessary condition of spiritual cleansing. The results, however, were unexpected: a principle that served very well the needs of an institution into which entrance was voluntary and residence expected to be permanent took on quite different meanings when transferred to places people were forced to enter for a time in the expectation that they would emerge once again into the world, fully prepared for the burdens of citizenship. Whereas the purpose of the monastery was to teach one to live as a monk, the asylum could not very well claim that its ideal product was the ideal inmate of an asylum, tractable, amenable to arbitrary discipline imposed from above, and unable to function outside systems of total control; yet such was in fact the person asylums tended to create.
(p. 8-9)

17 December 2021

Bibliographilia—Lasch's LeWitt

Here is the Sol LeWitt article referred to by Lasch in Chapter IV of The Minimal Self.

Some choice cuts:

16 December 2021

Bibliographilia—Lasch's Roth

Here is the article by Philip Roth which launches Chapter IV of The Minimal Self.

Several passages are of interest despite (in some cases because of) not having been referenced by Lasch.

15 December 2021

Tensions, Releases, Unities

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
The fundamental importance of the distinction between self and not-self—the source of all other distinctions, it has rightly been said—might suggest that it serves as the first principle of mental life, the axiomatic premise without which mental life cannot even begin. In fact, however, it is a distinction that is accepted, in the infancy of life, only with the greatest reluctance, after fierce inner struggles to deny it; and it remains the source of our existential uneasiness, as well as the source of our intellectual mastery of the world around us.
(p. 163)

[it] presents itself, at first, as a painful separation from the surrounding environment, and this original experience of overwhelming loss becomes the basis of all subsequent experiences of alienation, of historical myths of a lost golden age, and of the myth of the primary fall from grace, which finds its way into so many religions. Religion, like art at its best, seeks precisely to restore the original sense of union with the world, but only after first acknowleding the fact of alienation, conceived as original sin, as hubris followed by divine retribution, as existential loneliness and separation, or in the arts (especially in music, which conveys these experiences at their deepest level), as the rhythm of tension and release followed by inner peace.
(p. 164)

14 December 2021

Individualism and Nonconformity


Most everything Lasch has to say in The Revolt of the Elites about the dangers of "refer[ring] everything to a plurality of ethical commitments," about the way this leads to "double-standards" which a democracy cannot afford, and about "tolerance becom[ing] indifference," most all of this could be neatly transfered over to the realm of art and made to sound equally convincing. I would venture that much of it is quite often applied in this way, and that within a narrow subculture of professional specialism or fanatical connoisseurship this is unproblematic, maybe even necessary. But it does not work, I want to argue, on any broader level of discourse about art, and it becomes more oppressive the broader any such discursive pretensions become.

13 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
Total institutions—the death camps above all—have made us aware of the banality of evil, in Hannah Arendt's famous phrase; but they have also taught us something about the banality of survival. A growing belief that heroes don't survive informs the disenchantment with conventional codes of masculinity... It is not only masculinity that has lost its survival value, however, but the entire stock of allegedly outworn ideals of honor, heroic defiance of circumstances, and self-transcendence. As Vincent Canby noted in reviewing Lina Wertmüller's movie Seven Beauties, the survivor has discovered that "idealism is self-defeating."
(p. 73)

"A number of things give us hope," write Ehrlich and Harriman in the conclusion to [How to Be a Survivor]... "The first is that survival itself is the issue. Once people understand that, they will fight like hell for it." On the contrary, people committed only to survival are more likely to head for the hills. If survival is the overriding issue, people will take more interest in their personal safety than in the survival of humanity as a whole. Those who base the case for conservation and peace on survival not only appeal to a debased system of values, they defeat their own purpose.
(p. 78)

12 December 2021

Lasch—A Refusal To Find Patterns

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
In the visual arts at least, the celebration of selfhood, as exemplified by abstract expressionism in the late forties and early fifties—the assertion of the artist as a heroic rebel and witness to contemporary despair—had already come under critical attack by the time Roth published his diagnosis of the literary malaise in 1961.
(p. 132)

11 December 2021

The Radical Restriction of Perspective?

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
Philip Roth once observed, before this kind of observation became a cliché, that the writer's imagination falters in the face of contemporary "actuality," which "is continually outdoing our talents." ... Our culture "tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.". ... In their bafflement and disgust, many writers turn away from the "grander social and political phenomena of our times"...and "take the self as their subject": the "sheer fact of self, the vision of the self as inviolate, powerful, and nervy, self as the only real thing in an unreal environment.
(p. 130)

When social reality becomes imaginatively unmanageable, the imagination takes refuge, as we have seen, in self-defensive survival strategies: exactly the kind of strategies also adopted by the contemporary writer and artist, according to Roth, in their attempt to keep the artistic enterprise alive in an age of extremity. Overwhelmed by the cruelty, disorder, and sheer complexity of modern history, the artist retreats into a solipsistic mode of discourse that represents "not so much an attempt to understand the self," in Roth's words, as an attempt "to assert it." He conducts his own struggle for survival as an artist, under conditions that have made it more and more difficult to transcribe any shared experience or common perceptions of the world, undermined the conventions of artistic realism, and given rise to a type of art that no longer seems to refer to anything outside itself.
(p. 131)

10 December 2021

Artists, Agitators, Introspectors

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
Socialism, as [Oscar] Wilde understood it, was simply another name...for the elimination of drudgery by machines. Wilde had no patience with those who proclaimed the dignity of labor. ... The collectivization of production would liberate the poor from want, but it would also liberate the rich from the burden of managing and defending their property. ... No less than manual labor, the administration of property distracted people from the real business of life.
(p. 231)

Socialism, in Wilde's conception, would not come about through the action of the masses. The masses were too stupefied by drudgery to be capable of emancipating themselves. ... Agitators were the political equivalent of artists: disturbers of the peace, enemies of conformity, rebels against custom. They shared with artists a hatred of authority, a contempt for tradition, and a refusal to court popular favor. Agitators and artists were the supreme embodiment of individualism, wishing only to please themselves.
(p. 232)

This kind of message [Christ as "artist"]...appealed to intellectuals in search of a substitute for religious faiths by then widely regarded as offensive to the modern mind. ... It confirmed artists and intellectuals in their sense of superiority to the common herd. It sanctioned their revolt against convention... By equating social justice with artistic freedom, the religion of art made socialism palatable to intellectuals who might otherwise have been repelled by its materialism. In the heyday of the socialist movement its attraction for intellectuals cannot be adequately explained without considering the way it overlapped with the bohemian critique of the bourgeoisie.
(p. 233)

In the 1960s revolutionary students adopted slogans much closer in spirit to Wilde than to Marx: "All power to the imagination"; "It is forbidden to forbid." The continuing appeal of such ideas, thirty years later, should be obvious to anyone who casts an eye over the academic scene and the media. The postmodern mood, so-called, is defined on the one hand by a disillusionment with grand historical theories or "metanarratives," including Marxism, and by an ideal of personal freedom, on the other hand, that derives in large part from the aesthetic revolt against middle-class culture. The postmodern sensibility rejects much of modernism as well, but it is rooted in the modernist ideal of individuals emancipated from convention, constructing identities for themselves as they choose, leading their own lives (as Oscar Wilde would have said) as if life itself were a work of art.
(p. 234)

09 December 2021

Lasch—The Scale-Victimry Nexus

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
Everyday life has come to present itself as a succession of crises not necessarily because it is more risky and competitive than it used to be but because it confronts people with manageable stresses, whereas the hope of preventing public disaster appears so remote, for most people, that it enters their thoughts only in the form of a wistful prayer for peace and brotherhood.
(p. 64)

Our perception not only of the past and the future but of the present has been colored by a new awareness of extremes. We think of ourselves both as survivors and as victims or potential victims. The growing belief that we are all victimized, in one way or another, by events beyond our control owes much of its power not just to the general feeling that we live in a dangerous world dominated by large organizations but to the memory of specific events in twentieth-century history that have victimized people on a mass scale. Like the idea of survival, the idea of victimization, inappropriately applied to everyday misfortunes, keeps this memory alive and at the same time deadens its emotional impact. Indiscriminate usage broadens the idea of victimization until it loses its meaning.
(p. 66)

...the victim has come to enjoy a certain moral superiority in our society; this moral elevation of the victim helps to account for the inflation of political rhetoric that characterizes the discourse of survivalism. Many writers have adopted a "posture of accusatory public testimony," as Werner Berthoff notes in his study of post-war poetry and fiction. Identifying themselves with the underdog, straining to speak in the voice of victims or survivors...angry young men and angry women have exposed the injustices inflicted on oppressed and exploited minorities. Political spokesmen for these groups have assumed the same role. As they vie for the privileged status of victims, they appeal not to the universal rights of citizenship but to a special experience of persecution, said to qualify their people to speak about injustice with special authority and to demand not merely their rights but reparation for past wrongs. They claim—with good reason, in some cases—to be the victims, or survivors, of genocide. Rhetorical escalation transforms the meaning of injustice; it transforms the cause of oppressed minorities into a struggle for sheer survival. In the sixties, the shift from civil rights to "black power" announced the abandonment of efforts to create a multiracial society in favor of a strategy of black survival. Spokesmen for black power accused whites of plotting the destruction of the black race through birth control and racial intermarriage. In the seventies, radical feminists took up the cry of "gynocide." Instead of seeing the distinctive features of black culture or the distinctive pattern of historically conditioned femininity as "marks of oppression," in the manner of an earlier radicalism, or on the other hand as potential sources of a flourishing new cultural pluralism, spokesmen for disenfranchised minorities have reinterpreted their history in the light of the novel experience of genocide.
(pp. 67-68)

A stray thought: this of course suggests the faux-remedy of denying/refusing victimhood, which would be justified via the same consequentialist argumentation as so many other comparable maneuvers: if we allow there to be victims, people will exploit this; if you feed the stray cat (or stray homeless human), he'll be back at your door the next evening; if you give into your kid once, you'll give in again and again; if you have unemployment insurance in your state, people won't work; etc., etc.

Whatever logical or explanatory power these suppositions might have in their respective arenas, it can still be said that they are blunt-force/blanket solutions, i.e. in most if not all cases, they are overcorrections which achieve expediency at the direct expense of precision; the OVER- part of "overcorrection" lying specifically in the consequentialism of thinking (with whatever justification) that you know exactly how the cat or the kid or the homeless person will react to a certain intervention or stimulus, and that you don't need to consider any other possibilities or any other instances of cat, kid, homeless person, etc. which might respond differently from the baseline expectation.

Lasch is a fan of rootedness in a small community, and while this doesn't solve the problem outright, it does allow us to make better predictions, i.e. to know with somewhat greater certainty how specific people might respond to intervention. It is in this sense, perhaps, that the dreaded Victim Mentality, such a hot-button issue then and still now, is itself very much a product of so-called "mass" society, the mass being at present ca. 8 billion.


I certainly am inclined toward seeing the distinctive features of historically oppressed cultural groups as marks of oppression, not so much because this is what they look like on the surface as because of the particular contradictions which emerge when their advocates attempt to rationalize them. Instead, on the other hand, we are indeed being treated to a new cultural pluralism, which is flourishing only in the sense of successful self-propagation across many areas of mass culture. No one really flourishes, however, as long as this pluralism is based on superficial traits rather than deep ones.

08 December 2021

Lasch—Instrumental and Practical Reason

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
The antidote to instrumental reason is practical reason, not mysticism, spirituality, or the power of "personhood." In the Aristotelian tradition of political theory, phronesis or practical reason describes the development of character, the moral perfection of life, and the virtues specific to various forms of practical activity. Technique, on the other hand, concerns itself exclusively with the means appropriate to a given end. The highest form of practice, for Aristotle and his followers, is politics, which seeks to promote the good life by conferring equal rights on all citizens and by establishing rules and conventions designed not so much to solve the problems of social living as to encourage citizens to test themselves against demanding standards of moral excellence... The Aristotelian conception of practice has more in common with play than with activities defined as practical in the modern sense. Practices in the Aristotelian sense have nothing to do, as such, with the production of useful objects or with satisfying material needs. ...

The classical conception carries with it a certain contempt for the production of material comforts and useful objects...; but it nevertheless enables us to identify one of the disinctive features of the industrial worldview: its instrumentalization and debasement of practical activity. Instrumentalism regards the relation of ends and means as purely external, whereas the older tradition, now almost forgotten, holds that the choice of the means appropriate to a given end has to be considered as it contributes to internal goods as well. In other words, the choice of means has to be governed by their conformity to standards of excellence designed to extend human capacities for self-understanding and self-mastery. Industrial societies conceive of the extension of human powers only as the replacement of human labor by machinery. As work and politics lose their educative content and degenerate into pure technique, the very distinction between technique and practice becomes incomprehensible. Industrial societies have almost completely lost sight of the possibility that work and politics can serve as character-forming disciplines. These activities are now understood strictly as means of satisfying material needs. Moral ideas, meanwhile, lose their connection with practical life and with the virtues specific to particular practices and become confused instead with the exercise of purely personal choices and the expression of personal prejudices and tastes, which can be neither justified nor explained and which should therefore not be regarded as binding on anyone else.

(pp. 253-255)

As regards the extrinsic benefits of music education, there are at least two ways to parse this
degenerat[ion] into pure technique

There is the

pure technique
of the
soulless technician


pure technique
of the
postindustrial worker


These twin degenerations have very different ramifications, but they come from the same place: the desire for control; which incidentally, for Lasch, also underlies the elite desire to escape the common lot and to divest from civic enagagement and public services.

It is my experience of music educators (and of my own younger self) that the throttle of control is, in the sphere of education, much more delicate than we would like it to be.

Precisely because
the choice of the means appropriate to a given end has to be considered
it follows that when the "end" itself has simply been dictated to the student rather than arising from their own inclinations, the search for "means" can never be all that it could and should be.

The Aristotelian conception of practice has more in common with play than with activities defined as practical in the modern sense
and there is precious little play in running scales and arpeggios unless you yourself have decided that this is what you really, dearly want to be doing.

This is not a new idea. It is not imcompatible, I don't think, with a traditional, technique-centric music pedagogy. What it is fully imcompatible with, rather, is the desire for control, for accountability, for measurable outcomes, for teacher sets clear expectations for students. It ceases to be possible after the instrumentalization and debasement of practical activity which attaches to the doctrine that music makes kids smart.

At this point in history, it is essential to question the boundless confidence in human powers that acknowledges no limits, which finds its ultimate expression in the technology of nuclear warfare. But this cannot be done by disavowing all forms of purposive intelligence or by dissolving the subject-object distinction that allegedly underlies it... Selfhood—an obsolete idea, according to Bateson and other proponents of the "new consciousness"—is precisely the inescapble awareness of man's contradictory place in the natural order of things.
This "awareness" of inescapble contradiction seems to me to lead unavoidably to at least some of the central conceits of postmodernism, the same conceits which Lasch quite vehemently rejects in his discussion of art. This I find puzzling.
Advocates of a cultural revolution echo the dominant culture not only in their confusion of practice with technique but in their equation of selfhood with the rational ego. Like their opponents, they see rationality as the essence of selfhood. Accordingly, they argue for a "resurrection of the body," for "feminine" intuition and feeling against the instrumental reason of the male, for the alleged aimlessness of play, and for the "poetic imagination," as Bateson puts it, as a corrective to "false reifications of the 'self.'" The distinguishing characteristic of selfhood, however, is not rationality but the critical awareness of man's divided nature. Selfhood expresses itself in the form of a guilty conscience, the painful awareness of the gulf between human aspirations and human limitations. "Bad conscience is inseparable from freedom," Jacques Ellul reminds us. "There is no freedom without an accompanying critical attitude to the self," and this "excess of freedom and the critical turning back upon the self that freedom begets," he adds, "are at the source of dialectical thinking and the dialectical interpretation of history."
(pp. 257-258)

As for the party of the superego, it equates conscience not with an awareness of the dialectical relationships between freedom and the capacity for destruction but with adherance to a received body of authoritative moral law. It hankers for the restoration of punitive sanctions against disobedience, above all for the restoration of fear.
A perfect capsule rejoinder here of the view that an armed society is a polite society.
It forgets that conscience (as distinguished from the superego) originates not so much in the "fear of God" as in the urge to make amends. Conscience arises not so much from the dread of reprisals by those we have injured or wish to injure as in the capacity for mourning and remorse.

(pp. 258-259)

07 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
Psychoanalysis and religion were even more deeply at odds than Freud's explicit rejection of religion would imply. ... Sickness and health replaced guilt, sin, and atonement as the dominant concerns guiding those who struggled to make sense of the buried life of the mind. Psychiatrists found that their practice required a suspension of moral judgment. At the very least they found it necessary to establish a permissive atmosphere in which patients could speak freely without fear of condemnation. What was appropriate in the consulting room, of course, was not necessarily appropriate in the everyday world outside... A "nonjudgmental" habit of mind, easily confused with the liberal virtue of tolerance, came to be regarded as the sine qua non of sociability.

It did not take people long to see that a therapeutic point of view could be put to social and political uses. It served to lift the burden of moral failure once associated with poverty and unemployment, to shift the blame from the individual to "society"... During the Great Depression, members of the health, education, and welfare professions were horrified to discover that many Americans, even victims of large-scale unemployment, still clung to the ethic of self-help and refused to acknowledge the individual's right to relief. Partisans of the welfare state had to persuade the public [otherwise]... [Lawrence] Frank's statement [the essay "Society as the Patient"] of the alternatives—individual accountability or "group life"—was profoundly misleading since group life itself presupposes the trust that can prevail only when individuals are held accountable for their actions. But for humanitarians shocked by mass suffering and the passivity with which Americans seemed to accept it, the first step toward recovery was to "absolve the individual from guilt," as Frank put it. The debates touched off by the Depression and the New Deal appeared to confirm the wisdom of therapeutic as opposed to ethical insights into social problems.

(pp. 217-219)

All points well taken. But if we are indeed committed to "ethical insights" rather than to "nonjudgmental" thinking, then what can be our judgment of these particular "victims of large-scale unemployment" but that they had, on the whole, not in fact been responsible for the desperateness of their own situation? This is a jeremiad against elites. What about their role in the Great Depression?

As Lasch is certainly aware, the real question is, What creates the right balance between autonomy and accountability such that citizens may legitimately judge and be judged? He tends to find the answer to such in questions more in "character" and less in "structure." This is not convincing, if only because such concepts as "character" and "individual initiative" are basically tautological in such cases; they merely reiterate (or perhaps beg) the question. He explicitly warns against lumping religion in with "culture," and it seems he does not see it as part of "structure" either. It's just out there, somewhere. The reasons he gives for this are convincing, actually. The implications, however, are bleak. Not just a belief in "progress" or "welfare" is dispensed with this way, but, it would seem, any possibility at all of secular or urban life.

I am an idealist to whom compromise does not come easily. I am also attached enough to secular and urban life that, for one, I certainly do see the problems Lasch is getting at here, but for another, I find it not such a radical or unsettling notion that secular urbanites may just have to accept some degree of compromise re: this issue of judgment as it is manifested in whatever Welfare provisions are made; and I would think it obvious that most human groups do make some such provisions, even if these provisions are minimal, and even if they are accompanied by severe stigma attaching to failure and dependence. (Don't call it in-tolerance, I guess.)

All of which is to say that
refus[ing] to acknowledge the individual's right to relief
in the midst of force majeure is, in fact, as good an example as any of our reluctance to make demands on one another, a reluctance which Lasch elsewhere sees as very much part of the problem rather than the solution.

06 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
The therapeutic discovery of shame finds its political expression in remedial programs administered by caretakers professing to speak on behalf of the downtrodden but concerned, above all, to expand their professional jurisdiction. Steinem's "revolution from within" does not signal a flight from politics, only a continuation of politics by other means.

Her therapeutic assault on shame requires political action for its completion. As a salutary example, she recommends California's Statewide Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem. ... Self-contempt, the task force discovered, was a "primary causal factor" in "crime and violence, alcohol abuse, [etc., etc.]..."—the "very problems," Steinem adds, that "Americans fear most."

She does not bother to explain how the California task force arrived at this finding—that is, by ignoring the reservations that were advanced by the experts on whose testimony its report was based. ...[the chairman] dismissed these reservations on the grounds that they came from "those who live only in their heads, in the intellectual." The importance of self-esteem, he said, was confirmed by our "intuitive knowledge."
(p. 209)
Curious not only for the anti-positivist appeal to intuitive knowledge but also, for me, on a personal level being one who grew up as part of this forcibly self-esteeming generation.

The professionalization of compassion has not made us a kinder, gentler nation. Instead it institutionalizes inequality, under the pretense that everyone is "special" in his own way. Since the pretense is transparent, the attempt to make people feel good about themselves only makes them cynical instead. "Caring" is no substitute for candor.
(p. 210)
This is pretty devastating and hard to argue with. It evinces less a conservative or realist appeal to ruggedness than an assertion that liberal ends have not been well served by the means with which liberals have mostly pursued them.

The difficulty, for me at least, with Lasch's assault on the "helping professions" is that I personally can't blame anyone for finding fault in the more rugged styles of child-rearing and self-help. I wonder, here as elsewhere, if the issues of centralization and "professionalization" have not become conflated.

05 December 2021

Lasch—Education and Politics

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
The great weakness in [Horace] Mann's educational philosophy was the assumption that education takes place only in schools. Perhaps it is unfair to say that Mann bequeathed this fatal assumption to subsequent generations of educators... An inability to see beyond the school after all—a tendency to speak as if schooling and education were synonymous terms—should probably be regarded as an occupational hazard of professional educators, a form of blindness that is built into the job. Still, Mann was one of the first to give it official sanction.
(pp. 151-152)

one begins to see that Mann wanted to keep politics out of the school not only because he was afraid that his system would be torn apart by those who wished to use it for partisan purposes but because he distrusted political activity as such. It produced an "inflammation of the passions." It generated controversy—a necessary part of education, it might be argued, but in Mann's eyes, a waste of time and energy. It divided men instead of bringing them together. For these reasons Mann sought not only to insulate the school from political pressures but to keep political history out of the curriculum.
(p. 153)

History has given way to an infantilized version of sociology, in obedience to the misconceived principle that the quickest way to engage children's attention is to dwell on what is closest to home: their families, their neighborhoods; the local industries; the technologies on which they depend. A more sensible assumption would be that children need to learn about faraway places and olden times before they can make sense of their immediate surroundings.
I feel very much this way as an adult. Unfortunately the issue of engag[ing] children's attention is not so easily dispensed with. Not for lack of trying nor for lack of opportunities to experiment, I certainly have not yet figured out how to do it; and I have not forgotten (I cannot forget) how difficult-to-engage I was as a child.

There is something of the ancient conflict between rationalism and empiricism here, but considered through the lens of development rather than epistemology itself...which is pretty interesting.

Since most children have no opportunity for extended travel, and since travel in our world is not very broadening anyway, the school can provide a substitute—but not if it clings to the notion that the only way to "motivate" them is to expose them to nothing not already familiar, nothing not immediately applicable to themselves.
(p. 159)

04 December 2021

Lasch—Of Valor, Chivalry, and Brains

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
The upper middle class, the heart of the new professional and managerial elites, is defined, apart from its rapidly rising income, not so much by its ideology as by a way of life that distinguishes it, more and more unmistakably, from the rest of the population. Even its feminism—that is, its commitment to the two-career family—is a matter more of practical necessity than of political conviction. Efforts to define a "new class" composed of public administrators and policy makers, relentlessly pushing a program of liberal reforms, ignore the range of political opinions among the professional and managerial elites. These groups constitute a new class only in the sense that their livelihoods rest not so much on the ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise. Their investment in education and information, as opposed to property, distinguishes them from the rich bourgeoisie..., and from the old proprietary class—the middle class in the strict sense of the term—that once made up the bulk of the population.

Since they embrace a wide variety of occupations...and since they lack a common political outlook, it is also inappropriate to characterize managerial and professional elites as a new ruling class. Alvin Gouldner...found the unifying element in their "culture of critical discourse," but even though this formulation captures an essential feature..., it exaggerates the intellectual component in the culture of the new elites and their interest in the rationalization of life, just as it minimizes their continuing fascination with the capitalist market and their frenzied search for profits.

A more salient fact is that the market in which the new elites operate is now international in scope. Their fortunes are tied to enterprises that operate across national boundaries. They are more concerned with the smooth functioning of the system as a whole than with any of its parts. Their loyalties—if the term is not itself anachronistic in this context—are international rather than regional, national, or local. They have more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of Americans not yet plugged into the network of global communications.

Robert Reich's category of "symbolic analysts" serves, apart from its syntactical incoherence, as a useful, empirical, and rather unpretentious description of the new class. These are people, as Reich describes them, who live in a world of abstract concepts and symbols, ranging from stock market quotations to the visual images produced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and who specialize in the interpretation and deployment of symbolic information.

(pp. 33-35)

So, here is precisely the thing (or one of them) which Lasch misses in his earlier attack on postmodern art in The Minimal Self: much postmodernism (and modernism, and several other scattered radicalisms and avant-gardisms here and there) is in fact a no-holds-barred Counterelite Revolt against precisely this regime of
interpretation and deployment of symbolic information
Certainly this alone does not gain these artists any extra moral capital, but it does show, I think, a sort of dialectical antithesis arising out of the knowledge economy itself. Unfortunately Lasch, like many others, is so attached to the
dimension of art, and takes such joy in
it, that monochrome paintings and static music are simply beyond the pale. That seems to me like a pretty severe misjudgment, not necessarily of taste, but certainly of motive and utility.

Incidentally, the beleaguered, embattled, fallen-from-grace sense of
bequeathed to us by Sontag's famous essay

and also her likening of interpreters to "leeches"

and also the overtones of militarism and conquest inherent in
all of these are, I think, very good hints as to some of the reasons artists have staged such a Revolt. And the defense of this Revolt is laid out beautifully by Lasch himself in this final work of his.

A more serious objection than imprecision is Reich's extravagantly flattering portrait of the "symbolic analysts." In his eyes, they represent the best and brightest in American life. Educated at "elite private schools" and "high-quality suburban schools...", they enjoy every advantage their doting parents can provide. ... These privileged young people acquire advanced degrees at the "best [universities] in the world," the superiority of which is proved by their ability to attract foreign students in great numbers. In this cosmopolitan atmosphere they overcome the provincial folkways that impede creative thought... Unlike those who engage in mind-numbing routines, they love their work...

Unlike old-fashioned intellectuals, who tend to work by themselves and to be jealous and possessive about their ideas, the new brain workers...operate best in teams. Their "capacity to collaborate" promotes "system thinking"—the ability to see problems in their totality, to absorb the fruits of collective experimentation, and to "discern larger causes, consequences, and relationships. Since their work depends so heavily on "networking," they settle in "specialized geographical pockets" populated by people like them. ...

(pp. 35-37)

But here the Pomos are very much Collabos too, and this is both symptom and cause of the desperation (often enough material and spiritual desperation alike) with which so many of us now confront the flaming ruins of industrialism. It is in this co-optation of collaboration, its conscious weaponization against the time-honored ways of old-fashioned intellectuals, where I would anchor any broad polemic against various "postmodern" developments in art. By insisting on the symbolic orientation instead, Lasch's "survivalist" dragnet (in The Minimal Self) snares too many artists who properly belong, in fact, to the very craft morality he seeks to recover.

Universal admission to the class of "creative" people would best meet Reich's ideal of a democratic society, but since this goal is clearly unattainable, the next best thing, presumably, is a society composed of "symbolic analysts" and their hangers-on. The latter are themselves consumed with dreams of stardom but are content, in the meantime, to live in the shadow of the stars waiting to be discovered and are symbiotically united with their betters in a continuous search for marketable talent that can be compared, as Reich's imagery makes clear, only with the rites of courtship. One might add the more jaundiced observation that the circles of power—finance, government, art, entertainment—overlap and become increasingly interchangeable. It is significant that Reich turns to Hollywood for a particularly compelling example of the "wondrously resilient" communities that spring up wherever there is a concentration of "creative" people. ...

Only in a world in which words and images bear less and less resemblance to the things they appear to describe would it be possible for a man like Reich to refer to himself, without irony, as secretary of labor or to write so glowingly of a society governed by the best and brightest. The last time the "best and brightest" got control of the country, they dragged it into a protracted, demoralizing war in Southeast Asia, from which the country still has not fully recovered. ...

This arrogance should not be confused with the pride characteristic of aristocratic classes, which rests on the inheritance of an ancient lineage and on the obligation to defend its honor. Neither valor and chivalry nor the code of courtly, romantic love, with which these values are associated, has any place in the worldview of the best and brightest. A meritocracy has no more use for chivalry and valor than a hereditary aristocracy has for brains.

(pp. 37-39)

03 December 2021

Lasch—Crises of Competence

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)

[84] Dewey's exchange with Lippman raises the disturbing question of whether democracy implies high standards of personal conduct. Unlike many contemporary liberals, Dewey clearly thought it did. ... Like other progressive thinkers...Dewey was bent on refuting critics of democracy who claimed that it fostered mediocrity, self-indulgence, an excess love of comfort, sloppy workmanship, and a timid conformity to prevailing opinion. The idea that democracy is incompatible with excellence, that high standards are inherently elitist (or, as we would say today, sexist, racist, and so on) has always been the best argument against it. Unfortunately many democrats secretly (or not so secretly) share this belief and are therefore unable to answer it. Instead they fall back on the claim that democratic men and women make up in tolerance what they lack in the way of character.

The latest variation on this familiar theme, its reductio ad absurdum, is that a respect for cultural diversity forbids us


to impose the standards of privileged groups on the victims of oppression. This is so clearly a recipe for universal incompetence (or at least for a disastrous split between the competent classes and the incompetent) that it is rapidly losing whatever credibility it may have had when our society (because of its abundance of land and other natural resources, combined with its chronic shortage of labor) offered a more generous margin for incompetence. The mounting evidence of widespread inefficiency and corruption, [etc., etc....a very long list of contemporary ills]...—these developments, the ominous import of which can no longer be ignored or concealed, have reopened the historic debate about democracy. ... Formally democratic institutions do not guarantee a workable social order... As conditions in American cities begin to approach those of the Third World, democracy will have to prove itself all over again.

Liberals have always taken the position that democracy can dispense with civic virtue. According to this way of thinking, it is liberal institutions, not the character of citizens, that make democracy work. Democracy is a legal system that makes it possible for people to live with their differences. The impending crisis of competence and civic trust, however, casts a heavy pall of doubt over the agree-


able assumption that institutions, as opposed to character, provide all the virtue democracy needs. The crisis of competence suggests the need for a revisionist interpretation of American history, one that stresses the degree to which liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism.


For all its intrinsic attractions, democracy is not an end in itself. It has to be judged by its success in producing superior goods, superior works of art and learning, a superior type of character.


[87] The call for models of heroism "common to all" seems to threaten the pluralism of ethical commitments that democracy is obliged to protect. In the absence of common standards, however, tolerance becomes indifference, and cultural pluralism degenerates into an aesthetic spectacle in which the curious folkways of our neighbors are savored with the relish of a connoisseur. However, our neighbors themselves, as individuals, are never held up to any kind of judgment. ... The questions that allegedly divide us beyond hope of compromise turn out to be lifestyle questions, in the jargon of the day. ... In this context, the question that really matters—How should I live?—also becomes a matter of taste... But this deeper and more difficult question, rightly understood, requires us to speak of impersonal virtues... If we believe in these things, moreover, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone, as the moral preconditions of a good life. To refer everything to a "plurality of ethical commitments" means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no


one's right to make any demands on ourselves. The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude. Unless we are prepared to make demands on each other, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life.

So, regarding
mak[ing] no demands on anyone
along with
acknowledg[ing] no one's right to make any demands on ourselves

chicken or egg?

Asking for a friend

(perhaps a friend who lives in a certain Upper Midwestern semi-metropolis where

tolerance becomes indifference


who attended a certain a boho finishing school where a

workable social order

was not



[88] Without these ["minimal standards of workmanship, literacy, and general competence"], we have no basis on which either to demand respect or to grant it. Common standards are absolutely indispensable to a democratic society. Societies organized around a hierarchy of privilege can afford multiple standards, but a democracy cannot. Double-standards mean second-class citizenship.

[107] When the authors of The Good Society say that "democracy means paying attention," they seek to recall us to a sense of the common good and to combat the selfish individualism that blinds us to the needs of others. But it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of personal conduct. ... Democracy in our time is more likely die of indifference than of intolerance.

02 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)

Meritocracy is a parody of democracy. It offers opportunities for advancement, in theory at least, to anyone with the talent to seize them, but "opportunities to rise," as R.H. Tawney points out in Equality, "are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization," of the "dignity and culture" that are needed by all "whether they rise or not." Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. It merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead. Their lack of gratitude disqualifies meritocratic elites from the burden of leadership, and in any case, they are less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot—the very definition of meritocratic success.
(p. 41)

The educational reforms of the twentieth century "enabled the clever child to leave the lower class . . . and to enter into a higher class into which he was fitted to climb." Those who were left behind, knowing that "they have had every chance," cannot legitimately complain about their lot. "For the first time in human history, the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard."
(quotes from Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033)

If memory serves, Richard Sennett has said something very similar.
It should not surprise us, then, that meritocracy also generates an obsessive concern with "self-esteem." The new therapies...seek to counter the oppressive sense of failure..while leaving the existing structure of elite recruitment...intact. ... As Young observes, people on the left (like their opponents on the right) are happiest when attacking hereditary privilege. They ignore the real objection to meritocracy—that it drains talent away from the lower classes and thus deprives them of effective leadership—and content themselves with dubious arguments to the effect that education does not live up to its promise of fostering social mobility. If it did, they seem to imply, no one would presumably have any reason to complain.
(pp. 43-44)

[For James Bryant Conant,] Democracy did not require a "uniform distribution of the world's goods," a "radical equalization of wealth." What it required was a "continuous process by which power and privilege may be automatically redistributed at the end of each generation.


The only way of "restoring social mobility" was to make the school system a substitute for the frontier.


It would be hard to find a better example than Conant's essay ["Education for a Classless Society: The Jeffersonian Tradition"] of the paltry view of democracy that has come to prevail in our time. In the name of the "Jeffersonian tradition," which envisioned a community of intelligent, resourceful, responsible, and self-governing citizens, Conant proposed merely to ensure the circulation of elites. ... His program...contained the additional irony that although it presupposed a rigorous separation of manual and mental labor and a hierarchy of social status in which those who worked with their hands ranked at the bottom, it was conceived as a way of achieving a classless society. ...

Historically the concept of social mobility was clearly articulated only when people could no longer deny the existence of a degraded class of wage earners tied to that condition for life—only when the possibility of a classless society, in other words, was decisevely abandoned. The notion that egalitarian purposes could be served by the "restoration" of upward mobility betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding. High rates of mobility are by no means inconsistent with a system of stratification that concentrates power and privilege in a ruling elite. Indeed, the circulation of elites strengthens the principle of hierarchy, furnishing elites with fresh talent and legitimating their ascendancy as a function of merit rather than birth.

The truth is that our society is at once "highly stratified and highly mobile," in the words of Wendell Berry. There is little evidence that rates of vertical mobility have declined. On the contrary, a vast body of social research points fairly consistently to the conclusion that rates of mobility have remained more or less constant ever since the Civil War. ...
(pp. 75-77)

Berry's interrogation of [Justin Smith] Morrill defines the most important choice a democratic society has to make: whether to raise the general level of competence, energy, and devotion...or merely to promote a broader recruitment of elites. Our society has clearly chosen the second course. It has identified opportunity with upward mobility and made upward mobility the overriding goal of social policy. The debate about affirmative action shows how deeply this pathetically restricted notion of opportunity has entered public discourse. A policy designed to recruit minorities into the professional and managerial class is opposed not on the grounds that it strengthens the dominant position of this class but that it weakens the principle of meritocracy. Both sides argue on the same grounds. Both see careers open to talent as the be-all and end-all of democracy
Earth to Hanna Rosin...
when in fact, careerism tends to undermine democracy by divorcing knowledge from practical experience,
devaluing the kind of knowledge that is gained from experience,
...but be careful here, anti-positivists, because no one's "experience" is comprehensive. Of course it would be great to have BOTH both book- and street-smarts, in whatever proportion depending on the field. What's stopping us?

Anyway, earth to both the positivists and the anti-positivists.
and generating social conditions in which ordinary people are not expected to know anything at all. The reign of specialized expertise—the logical result [of all this]...—is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the "last, best hope on earth."
(pp. 78-79)

Racial integration might have been conceived as a policy designed to give everyone equal access to a common civic culture. Instead it has come to be conceived largely as a strategy for assuring educational mobility. ... The misplaced emphasis on professional careers, as opposed to jobs and participation in a common culture, helps to explain the curious coexistence, in the postsixties politics of race, of a virulent form of cultural particularism with strategies having the practical effect of undermining particularism in its concrete expression in neighborhoods.
(p. 135)

01 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)

According to Walter Lippman...the "omnicompetent citizen" was an anachronism in the age of specialization. In any case, most citizens, he thought, cared very little about the substance of public policy. The purpose of journalism was not to encourage public debate but to provide experts with the information on which to base intelligent decisions.
(p. 10)

(This "in opposition to John Dewey and other veterans of the progressive movement.")

Lippman's argument rested on a sharp distinction between opinion and science. Only the latter, he thought, could claim to be objective. ... This cult of professionalism had a decisive influence on the development of modern journalism. Newspapers might have served as extensions of the town meeting. Instead they embraced a misguided ideal of objectivity and defined their goal as the circulation of reliable information—the kind of information, that is, that tends not to promote debate but circumvent it. The most curious feature in all this, of course, is that although Americans are now drowning in information...surveys regularly report a steady decline in their knowledge of public affairs. In the "age of information" the American people are notoriously ill informed. ... They have become almost as incompetent as their critics have always claimed—a reminder that it is debate itself, and debate alone, that gives rise to the desire for usable information. In the absence of democratic exchange, most people have no incentive to master the knowledge that would make them capable citizens.
(pp. 11-12)

a misguided ideal of objectivity

the kind of information, that is, that tends not to promote debate but circumvent it

it is debate itself, and debate alone, that gives rise to the desire for usable information

All brilliant points.

The misguided ideal of objectivity also prevails, I think, in certain academic milieux. To be sure, academia is the place for it. There should always be some of this kind of academic work being done as a necessary safeguard against the total unmooring of discourse from its empirical foundations. But there are, nonetheless, many academic projects where the conceit to objectivity is counterproductive for precisely the reasons laid out by Lasch above; if many of these are one-off projects, nonetheless they collectively comprise a sizable chunk of academic turf. Further, it is always worth asking whether the rigidly objective academic posture has emerged organically from the task at hand or if it is a merely calculated piece of theater designed to give a certain impression to a certain audience for a certain self-interested reason.

The circumvent[ion] of debate by appealing to hard facts (which usually are just hard to verify) has a history worthy of its own book. Interestingly, Lasch begs an exemption for religion here, precisely where some of us (as he is aware) would think of it first.

Priding themselves ["devoutly open-minded intellectuals"] on their emancipation from religion, they misunderstand religion as a set of definitive, absolute dogmas resistant to any kind of intelligent appraisal. They miss the discipline against fanaticism in religion itself. The "quest for certainty," as Dewey called it, is nowhere condemned with such relentless passion as in the prophetic tradition common to Judaism and Christianity, which warns again and again against idolatry, the idolatry of the church included. Many intellectuals assume that religion satisfies the need for moral and emotional security—a notion that even a passing knowledge of religion would dispel.
(p. 90)
These are beautiful thoughts, but I can't help but think we have passed through incomplete evidence here, i.e. merely the worst of the "intellectuals" and the best of the "religious."

As for debate itself, this is so brilliant and so important, but damned if it is not also extremely unpleasant nowadays. Because we live in the age of information I have often found myself simply unable to engage (whether to agree or disagree hardly matters) with much of anyone too far outside my own political orientation, because their arguments, whether well-crafted or ill-constructed on the rhetorical level, so often invoke supporting evidence which I am entirely unable to evaluate for sheer lack of familiarity. Regular competence is elusive enough; omnicompetence feels unattainable. Human beings cannot become "omnicompetent" on any larger scale than the village. By affinity I am a big-city person to the bone, but on a purely rational level it is becoming ever more difficult to ignore this problem.

We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its byproduct. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of relevant information. Otherwise we take in information passively—if we take it in at all.
(p. 163)

The attempt to bring others around to our own point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents' arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it (as Lippman thought of it) as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents' minds—something that can happen only if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.

If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment. As Lippman noted, small communities are the classic locus of democracy—not because they are "self-contained," however, but simply because they allow everyone to take part in public debates.
(pp. 170-171)
We lose sight of this nowadays because we seem veritably surrounded by others' "views," hemmed in on all sides by them as it were. But perhaps the real story is how many people don't articulate anything in particular, perhaps because they have nothing to articulate, and moreover (as Lasch would have it here) because they don't have to.

23 November 2021

Representationalism as Certainty

Evidently this has been making the rounds:


When I look at this image, I see a concept made perfectly transparent and rendered powerfully with a high degree of technical and aesthetic skill alike. I see a devastating and pessimistic statement made pleasing to look at. Like a "beautiful" but "sad" piece of music, this makes for a particulary powerful combination.

All of this is familiar, though it is not to be taken for granted. It is unusual to find the technical skill and the powerful conceptual sense merged in the same artist. (This in itself is no dig at conceptual art; it's just simple math.) But backing up a step, another thing this image makes clear is that the artist has total confidence and total certainty vis-a-vis his "message." A mere unconscious twinge of doubt would make the creation of this particular image impossible. Artists customarily are praised for such displays of fortitude, for "really going for it." But this is far more admirable in the realms of abstraction and aesthetics than it is regarding concrete politics. When political actors assume this degree of certainty, bad things tend to happen. And history is littered with artists whose certainty about individual political figures later turned to equally intense regret. If all it takes for us to lose sight of this is for us to agree with the "message" we are receiving in a particular moment, then we will not get very far (and we won't deserve to).

Images are uniquely powerful vehicles for any "message." That power is a responsibility. It is not a toy. McLuhan's hypothetical piece of cloth with "American Flag" printed on it has, as he indeed argued, nowhere near the power of the genuine imagistic article. There is much more to this aspect of images than their being worth "a thousand words," or any number of words. The point is, they are totally different than words. And as powerfully as the above image conveys its "message," and as strongly as I am inclined to agree with that message, all of this nonetheless reinforces for me a deep uneasiness with this kind of political art. I am not certain enough of anything in the world, not even of the beliefs I've spent the last 15 years writing about in this space, that I would be comfortable making this kind of statement against another person using a caricature of their own image as its basis.

The poverty of words as against images is precisely what makes words suitable (and images unsuitable) vehicles for political dialogue. That entire line of argument is summed up concisely and profoundly in this image, as it is also by many of the images of George Floyd which have been installed on sides of buildings and freeway underpasses over the last year and a half. In seeking to put an individual human face on issues which remain too abstract to too many of us, these images also, perhaps unwittingly, signal a retreat from decades of hard-won intellectual and legislative momentum toward understanding racism as a structural problem. Instead, we are treated to, alternately, the beatification or the condemnation of individual social actors who cannot possibly be, not even in these two cases I don't think, reducible to such either/or judgments. If you think that anyone is so reducible, then I question your fitness for political participation (and I urge you to stick to words in any case).

These are images which obfuscate and mystify the underlying structural factors as viciously and totally as any piece of government or media propaganda ever could. I can only hope this is because these artists take that awareness for granted, not because they are woefully ignorant and/or incapacitated (far too easily) by rage, and not because their identification or contra-identification with the skin-deep traits of any given person is as deep of a political analysis as they are capable of making or understanding.

The transparency of "concept" here is a double-edged sword. It ensures that the "message" cannot be lost in aesthetic translation, but it also traps the artist on a level of crudity which is totally unbecoming of the issues at stake here. What is this work, really, but a very sophisticated piece of name-calling? Rather than modulating legitimate anger into a mature and nuanced political statement, aesthetics and technique in this case serve merely to amplify the visceral sentiment while leaving its infantile quality intact. A pencil-drawn moustache-and-glasses overlay involves far less craft but operates, conceptually, on the same level of (im)maturity, the same level of historical and political understanding. This is the trap that conceptual brute force lays for all political artists.

(This post was written in an hour (i.e. tonight) after germinating for many months.)