Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Nobody knows anything.

No. Stop. Not true.

Everybody knows a lot.

Nobody knows enough.

Nobody knows the way out of this mess. [Update, Sunday morning, clarification below.] [AND THEN 2nd thoughts.]

[AND THEN further elaborations late Sunday night.]

[EVEN MORE elaborations below, this time in defense of Adorno, late Monday night. I have considered never writing another blog post, confining myself to the continual expansion of this one. I rejected such considerations. I will have a new blog post fairly soon, and then back to a slower pace, as other plans and duties beckon.]

Every time somebody thinks up a nice utopia, here comes somebody else disagreeing vehemently.

A lot of bookish people flatter themselves that they know more than the proles. (Carl Wilson’s book about Celine Dion tackles this question.) When the snobbish bookish fancy themselves lefty, the irony reeks ugly.

But bookish people have no better idea about how to get us out of this mess than anybody else.

Oh, sure, you may have an idea. You may have a vision, a plan -- but how to get that plan enacted, good luck. Or, maybe you do have a plan to enact the plan, and you’re working on implementing it, and you’ve got a long-term path and patience. If so, here’s to you. Drop me a line. If I think you’re right, I’ll sign up.

The political options in our declining empire are severely limited. I’ve met a lot of people who refuse to sully themselves by validating the choices presented. They must be very delicate, snobbish people, since the choices -- limited as they are -- have intense consequences in people’s lives.

If bookish people think book smarts are the most important smarts, they’ve read the wrong books. A lot of books murmur to the reader, “You’re very smart to be reading me, and aren’t people not in the know to be pitied?” When such books purport to be lefty, they reek ugly -- or worse. But such a message will always find a happy audience -- happy to be flattered, happy to be included among the elite that the book implies or declares.
Hey! I like being flattered too. The pitiful thing is -- the snobbery is unwarranted.

Because those books have no clue either. They may have acute diagnoses of the problems -- but everybody knows the problems. The rich use every lever of power at their disposal to press their advantage against everybody else. War is horrible. The anxiety of the job market grinds souls down. We may be killing our species’ long-term viability by our monstrous, out-of-control transformation of the environment. You know this. I know this. Millions of people know this. Reading a book about it makes me feel less alone. Talking to my co-worker (who is not bookish) does too.

Ben Jonson:

Then, as all the actions of mankind
Are but a labyrinth or maze . . .

* * *

Spike Jones and Doodles Weaver make me laugh.

* * *

[Sunday morning clarification.] People have ideas for specific improvements; many plans are being implemented. Bookish quasi-leftist scoffers point out -- accurately -- that the specific improvements are partial; they treat symptoms and not diseases. For example, low-income housing programs provide housing for impoverished people. Meanwhile, condo conversions and the out-stripping of wages by profits drive more people out of their homes than the housing programs can provide for. Bookish quasi-leftist scoffers would scorn the housing programs for not solving the problem. The housing programs make vast material improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of specific individuals. "
Nobody knows the way out of this mess." Making vast material improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of specific individuals is worthwhile until a more thorough solution comes along.

People scorn Obama's rhetoric for its emptiness and historical simplicity. I am sympathetic to the complaint, but, again, his election would result in material improvements for millions of people's lives. Results matter.

* * *

[Sunday morning later 2nd thoughts.] I don't mean to disparage book-learning. My point is: Nobody has a solution, and the self-flattery of the book-learned had been getting on my nerves. Certain strains of European philosophy, in particular -- I'll name names: Adorno, Baudrillard -- strike me as often worse than useless when they bring not much fresh understanding and inculcate a sense of superiority in their readers. And the funny thing is, they both occasionally state this intention explicitly, Adorno with his belief that liberated thought is impossible under capitalism (except, ahem, for the elite, wink wink); and Baudrillard with his occasional asides that yes, of course, he's being obscure on purpose. And do they have a solution? No. So they console themselves with their snobbery. Congratulations.

* * *

[Late Sunday night elaborations.]

This crazy-ass comments thread to a post on subcultural taxonomies in the poetry world is what got me thinking about Adorno, and one of his admirers dropped the following quote there:

the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves.

Leave aside the old-fashioned idealism of thinking that anybody has ever "grasped the universal." What grates here is the appeal to the reader -- yes, dear reader, maybe you can be one of those autonomous subjects! I'm not at all sure that Adorno is deliberately trying to seduce and flatter his reader; my guess is that he would be dire on the prospects for autonomy and freedom among most of his readership. Nevertheless, the seduction is there. And it's bogus. "Autonomy" is a highly subjective abstraction. Everybody has autonomy to one degree or another, and everybody lacks it similarly.
(Someone on that crazy-ass comments thread admonished us not to quote Adorno to argue that autonomy is possible -- but this quote explicitly states that it is -- but only -- Calvinisticly -- and this is not the only trait Adorno shares with Calvin -- for the elect.) (No, not the comic-strip Calvin, the Puritan Calvin.) On popular music, Adorno's stuff mostly enacts his ignorant, anti-intellectual, a-historical prejudice. Not worth going into.

Now, about Baudrillard. It's been many many years since I tried to read his stuff on simulation, so it might seem unfair to say that "Hyper-reality" struck me as a useless concept for understanding anything existent, but that's how it strikes me. I recently read his essay "The Ecstasy of Communication" in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Hal Foster, ed.). My main take-away was an image of a snickering smirker who delighted in re-defining words for no good purpose other than to create a sense of initiation with his acolytes. The concept of "obscenity" figures in the essay, but it's not the moral obscenity of war he's talking about, or the newspaper sense that naked-people-are-obscene; he has a new definition, the effect of which seemed to be to inculcate a sense of snickering superiority in his disciples, who understand the new definitions, vis-a-vis the rest of us, who don't.

I looked it up. He's talking about the "forced extroversion of all interiority" and the "forced injection of all exteriority" -- that's what's obscene, in his para-neo-logism. Now, even humorless me realizes that it may look funny for a blogger to be calling bullshit on the notion that all interiority has been forced into extroversion, but there it is. It's baloney. Just so you know, there are whole realms of interiority that don't -- and won't -- make it into this blog. And ain't nobody forcing me to exteriorize that which I have or may.

In a footnote, Baudrillard lets down his guard.

[I]t is often problematic and useless to want to verify (statistically, objectively) these hypotheses, as one ought to be able to do as a good sociologist. As we know, the language of advertising is first for the use of the advertisers themselves. Nothing says that contemporary discourse on computer science and communication is not for the use alone of professionals in these fields. (As for the discourse of intellectuals and sociologists themselves . . . ) [Ellipses in original.]

Ah -- I'm not a professional. He's not talking to me. And he's not proposing anything verifiable or testable. He's just riffin' with his buds. Cool, dude. Enjoy your gig.

* * *

[Late Monday night elaborations.]

A few words in defense of Adorno, urged on me by his defenders, which ring true.

First, his descriptions were not recommendations. Indeed, he hoped for -- and worked toward -- a transformed society.

Second, obviously, he wasn’t anti-intellectual in general: He knew a lot and had acute things to say about classical music. His opinions on pop were stick-in-the-mud and, in my view, anti-intellectual -- sometimes hilariously so -- “anthropophagous collectivists” was his insult against fans of dance music. “Fascist cannibals,” in other words. Now that’s funny! But his idea that the pop music form, once it was set and settled, wouldn’t change at all, proved wildly wrong.

Third, scholars and serious students of the classical tradition, which Adorno championed, find his analyses useful. Kyle Gann, in the introduction to his terrific book Music Downtown, makes a persuasive case that Adorno predicted the social place of the downtown music scene, and even the split between what Kyle calls the "uptown" academic composers, the "midtown" neo-Romantic and audience-friendly pastiche-style composers, and the "downtown" experimental composers. In a later essay, Kyle shows how other critics and theorists have made attractive use of Adorno. It makes sense that the only critic I’ve read who has ever made Adorno seem worthwhile to me is a critic (and composer) who grew up with no attraction to pop music himself.

This discussion -- and Kyle’s advocacy -- has made me want to read Adorno more. And I will.

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