07 March 2021

The Genetic Fallacy in Art and Life (i)


(2016, rev. 2020-21)
(Previously: Author's Disclaimer/Preface)
(a part ii may or may not be forthcoming, perhaps before, during or after another massive series)



It is always tempting to assign blame for unsavory social or scholarly trends to partisans of particularly visible brand name thinkers: to the Damned Freudians, the Fucking Marxists, the Obstinate Foucauldians. If not for Fanon, there would be no political violence on the Left! Blame the white male descent into anarcho-capitalism on Milton Friedman and his 10 Quotes to Make Liberal Heads Explode! The strongest appeal of such genetic explanations lies in their parsimony. They are simple and tractable in comparison to the actual complexity of the phenomena for which they purport to account. But as complex as human society actually is, so rarely are such simple, gratifying explanations justified.

Just ask an artist. In artmaking itself as well as in the scholarship surrounding it, those who most noisily fly the flag of a brand name, by name, are to be trusted the least, most of all by their own brand-name standards. How ironic is it that the ever-quotable Friedman himself said something precisely to this effect? Flag-waving is first and foremost an attention-getting maneuver. In the case of books which almost no one actually takes the time to read, the boisterousness of true believers most often belies their miniscule numbers and great vulnerability. Much like the autonomic puffing of furry animals caught in conflict situations, the point is to make themselves appear bigger than they actually are. The attention the rest of us can't help but pay reinforces the overall impression of a discernible ideological paper trail. (We are mammals too, after all.) Perhaps there are indeed a few exceptional individuals and microcommunities where such a trail can be established and followed back to its source; but how trustworthy, really, are their self-reported narratives of the "Aha!" moment?


Breadth and depth of learning are the best medicine. They are highly destructive of certainty rather than constitutive of it. Certainty is the badge of an uncultivated mind.


From the semblance of direct intellectual paths arises the first, best set of questions towards testing genetic hypotheses: How many of us on the Left have actually surveyed a representative sampling of Freud? Marx? Foucault? How many of our Rightist foils can quote Milton Friedman from books rather than from clickbait? How could such bodies of work, in all their complexity and internal contradictoriness, possibly lead to the drawing of common conclusions on a mass scale? Fromm defined ideology as "socially patterned rationalizations," and reading is not much of a social activity, eh? How many of us are both constitutionally and materially equipped to understand this work literally, let alone with any nuance whatsoever? And to pursue a personal synthesis? I would say not too many at all. This factor alone (not to mention the general problems of willfully putting "theory" rather directly into "practice") severely limits the possible impact of scholarship on mass politics, even as it clearly can have momentous impacts on the trajectories of individuals and their achievments, and even as it is customary for such individuals to deflect forthcoming accolades toward payment of these intellectual debts, in word if not always in deed.


"Individual initiative" is never an answer but merely a restatement of the question. It is tautological. It is a fallacy of parsimony.


When it comes to the problematization of individual subjectivity, the death of the author, the dethroning of high art, and so many other canonical art-theory tropes which challenge essentialism's hitherto unchallenged assumptions, it is important to keep in mind that questions of reading and misreading nonetheless pale in comparison to those of non-reading, non-engaging, non-struggling as socially-patterned antiphenomena, the massive cold spots on any given intellectual heat map. I'll bet lunch that the "Marxist" heat map in particular is actually pretty frigid, and that cold is the absence of something rather than the presence of something else. And if I am wrong about this, then the expansion of the epithet "Marxist" to include everything left of center still wins me the bet on a technicality. The actual Marxists, bless their bleeding hearts, need not enter into it at all.

If simply correcting literal misreadings or encouraging creative ones, if establishing baseline empirical facts or reinterrogating the ones we (think we) already had, if any of these were the path to salvation, we would have arrived long ago. In fact we have rightly learned to be suspicious of those flag-wavers who posit just such tasks as Final Solutions rather than the trifling preparatory obligations they are. Another MF periodically reminds us that even the most seemingly radical thinkers are "merely conduits for the zeitgeist," at least in the colloquial sense of cause and effect. To be sure, genetic logic is cause-and-effect logic, i.e. it is uniquely well-suited to the task of mistaking one for the other. Conduit Theory, to the contrary, cannot be fooled by this primitive trap, no matter the social scale. Thought which issues from a particular cultural milieu cannot help but find corroboration therein. There is nothing mystical or prophetic about this dynamic, not even in the hands of mystical or prophetic writers. Further, as the Freudian brand admonishes us, the particular ways in which writers are wrong are also supremely informative. Too bad Freud's method of analyzing "fortuitous actions" has found its most amenable habitat in the GOTCHA culture of the Twitterverse. That is a flesh-eating waste of a promising idea.


It is galling to find so many online user reviews opining that a given book is both worth reading and "outdated." Pick one motherfuckers.


Psychoanalysis provides useful cover for any schlub who wants to claim, for any reason, that their rhetorical opponent is actually self-loathing, self-deceiving, that they literally don't believe what they themselves are saying...because who else ever could believe it? Psychoanalysis, the field of inquiry taken collectively, indeed furnishes such tools lovingly and in abundance; and yet psychoanalysis, the field of inquiry taken collectively, can only ever be equal parts cause and effect. It represents the crest of a larger wave of skepticism which has since overtaken Western intellectual life and would have done so just as readily even without constructs such as the Freudian unconscious to help it along. GOTCHA culture just happened to wash up on the beach in its wake.

I am of course wary of condemning and exalting vulgar relativism in the same breath; of implying that it doesn't matter what we read, just that we read. On a personal level I must mention that I absolutely am becoming less and not more certain the more I learn. But I would also say that the Author is only Dead if we Leave Him Be; that is, if time or ignorance leaves us utterly lacking in context for His ideas. (Hell, the way things are going we'll be lucky if people can still read well enough to parse Him literally.) Yes, (re)building context under such circumstances can be quite the pain in the ass; and yes, postmodernists, institutional-level med[dl]iation in that process is quite often more ideological than altruistic, more destructive than constructive, and more contrived than inevitable. But if we can humor the notion of individual initiative for just a moment, every one of us must individually be capable of establishing which authors are worth the trouble, for us; and if, for whatever reason, we don't take the initiative to build context that enables us to make some educated guesses as to who these authors might be, then we might as well not bother either with art or with life. Certainly we may not accuse our political opponents of being dupes. To make that accusation, you damn well better have done your homework.

For me at least, there is a middle phase of discovery about a new topic during which writers become interchangeable, but also a later critical mass of understanding beyond which the particular value of individual contributions reemerges into view. The sample rate must nonetheless always remain sufficient to capture the full spectrum of the issue. True consensus belongs only to extremes which are logical impossibilities: total ignorance and total knowledge. In practice we all are doomed to inhabit incommensurable positions across the vast middle ground which lies between these two extremes. It is a region which inexorably defies genetic logic, confluences of chance notwithstanding. No one actually lives in a poleplace where genetic logic comports with the intellectual environment. If they say they do then they are lying. I just said certainty is hard to come by, but I am certain about this.

As a result, and also because we are, it must be said, exceedingly weak and simple creatures relative to the social edifices which we unwittingly help to construct, we do seek facile comforts in times of distress and later rationalize them as Parsimonious Solutions, as if to appoint ourselves lead scientists conducting cutting edge research on the culture in which we ourselves are subsumed. Hence we blame Frantz Fanon for Eco-Terrorism and Milton Friedman for Paleo-Conservatism even as the vast majority of Eco-Terrorists and Paleo-Conservatives remain variously but powerfully under-educated, no matter what the wide circulation of reductionist glosses might seem to indicate. After all, causation just feels better than correlation. The thrill of the hunt is most intoxicating when our prey is just elusive enough to keep us entertained but not so elusive as to be unattainable; and so we distort its image in our own heads until our ideational porridge is just the right temperature. This is, incidentally, one of just a few psychic maneuvers that orthodox psychoanalysis, itself an infamous bastion of overreliance upon genetic reasoning, has had pinned down from the start, so blatant and endemic is it to human social life. It is just too unsettling a proposition for too many people to leave the answers to pressing existential questions permanently floating in the ether; and yet the effort at spearing, skinning, cleaning, and curating them is obviously the greater of the two evils.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Stuart Ewen
Captains of Consciousness (1977)
(preface to 2001 edition)

"what I presented in Captains of Consciousness was not the story of a conspiracy. Rather, it was a review of business thinking during the time that mass production was taking hold and modern advertising was being developed, and it revealed the extent to which a broad number of business leaders were harboring similar thoughts. This is not conspiracy; it is the history of ideas. ... That their conceits dovetailed is not because they were plotted in some Ministry of Truth. It indicates only that they faced common problems and that, using available tools, they were conceiving congruous responses to their world. The innovations of individuals seldom occur in a vacuum."
(p. 12)