“Alienated America”, Timothy Carney, reviewed by James Bradshaw, Position Papers

Found this review extremely interesting. Some highlights:

Carney begins his account of social alienation in an unusual location: Chevy Chase, Maryland. Far from being a depressed post-industrial town in the Midwest, Chevy Chase is one of the most affluent communities in the United States. And that wealth can be measured in more than just financial terms. Chevy Chase is a reservoir filled with social capital. As in other parts of affluent America, there is a wide range of community activities constantly afoot. Churches are well-attended, political participation is high, and married two-parent families are the norm.

Parents in such an environment can be confident that their children will grow up to have lives as happy and comfortable as theirs are, if not even more so. That sense of optimism and comfort within a community has important political implications, especially when voters are being encouraged to vote for a candidate who represents the antithesis of the status quo.

Candidate Trump campaigned across the United States by repeatedly delivering a fairly bleak message: “The American Dream is dead” (this was usually followed by a modest affirmation that he alone could fix this). Unsurprisingly, in the presidential election in 2016, Trump bombed in Chevy Chase. He performed abysmally in a huge number of other affluent communities across the nation, where people opted for Hillary Clinton by landslide margins.

This is not too surprising: the Democratic Party has long ruled the roost in America’s wealthiest metropolitan areas, which tend to be strongly socially liberal (in theory, if not in practice). What is noteworthy though is the extent to which Trump’s message was rejected in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries earlier in 2016. Even within the narrow Republican base in Chevy Chase, Trump was considered extremely unpalatable, gaining about 15% support.

It wasn’t just in richer communities where most Republican voters rejected him, either. Carney describes visiting the small town of Oostburg in rural Wisconsin. Most of Oostburg’s residents are ethnically Dutch, and affiliated to one of the town’s well-attended Dutch Reformed churches. While Oostburg’s denizens lack the financial status of their counterparts in Chevy Chase, the sense of togetherness is even stronger.

Locals look after each other, as Carney describes, and virtually everyone in the town is involved in its social and civic life.

This is where it gets interesting.

In spite (or perhaps because) of the little Dutch town’s conservatism, Oostburg was the site of one of Trump’s worst performances in the Republican primary in Wisconsin. As in Chevy Chase, grassroots Republicans preferred more traditional conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or more moderate alternatives such as Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Wherever church and community were strong, Trump underperformed. Wherever they were weak, he swept all before him.

People aren’t working together and many people aren’t working at all: preferring to get by on whatever unemployment assistance or disability benefits they can draw down. In the midst of such despair, addiction to illegal drugs or opioids has become common. And it is not just in the world of work where atomisation is more prevalent. Almost a generation after Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, levels of civic engagement have continued to plummet in those communities which can least afford to suffer further alienation.
The percentage of people who are married, and the percentage of children who are being raised by married parents, has also fallen dramatically. Most importantly of all, the decline of religion among America’s working class has resulted in many churches shutting their doors for the last time.
In large portions of America, these trends have created deserts where social capital is all but absent.
It was in these communities where Donald Trump gained the extra votes he needed to win both the primaries and the presidency in 2016.
A large amount of social science data exists which shows just how close the correlation was between growing anxiety and disillusionment and the desire of the American working-class for a change in direction. Carney cites one study of the difference between Trump’s performance in 2016 and the Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney in 2012, carried out by the statistician Ben Casselman, which is particularly clear.

“Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.” Casselman wrote, “The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support.”

Trump’s success in 2016 led to much analysis of these problems, and the publication of Hillbilly Elegy in that same year helped many to put a face – even an imaginary one – to what one kind of Trump voter looks like.
What sets Alienated America apart though is Carney’s strong focus on the role of religion in sustaining communities, and the role which the decline of religion has played in hollowing out the social support network which used to hold communities together. For Carney, this has been even more consequential than the economic upheavals.

“The unchurching of America is at the root of America’s economic and social problems,” he argues. “The woes of the white working class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.”


“The Best Lack All Conviction, while the Worst / Are Full Of Passionate Intensity”

According to this article from August 2016, lines from Yeats’ The Second Coming were quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than in any of the prior 30 years. I have a feeling the final score for 2016 eclipsed the first seven months comfortably. For what it’s worth, here is the text of a poem I once learned as a Speech And Drama recitation:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Since reading this passage from Alasdair MacIntyre, I can’t help thinking of Nietzsche when considering this poem. And it turns out this paper explores the relationship between the poet and the philosopher in this poem in great depth (I have excepted the paper here, omitting about half):

In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on “The Second Coming” of Yeats’s historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to evoke, and of the antithetical rhetoric of his dialectical view of history.

The text provides a striking example of the synthetic technique which produced some of Yeats’s finest poems, one which condenses into imagery as much of the poet’s thought as is possible but which also creates interpretative problems of which he was fully aware and which he attributed to the compressed, logical rigor of the ideas: “It is hard for a writer, who has spent much labor upon his style, to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical like that style, may be unintelligible to others” ( Variorum 853) . However, Yeats did not believe his philosophy to be either obscure or idiosyncratic; in fact he found confirmation of it in the work of Boehme, Heraclitus, Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Vico and in Neoplatonism and the Upanishads. More surprisingly, he considered the intellectual equivalent of his own imaginative richness of suggestion to be the “packed logic,” the “difficult scornful lucidity,” of Alfred North Whitehead, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and subsequently of Philosophy at Harvard, and Bertrand Russell’s collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (Letters 714). Russell’s “plebeian loquacity” infuriated Yeats who admire d “something aristocratic” in White head’s mind, a combination of terse clarity and suggestive complexity in thought and expression which he labored assiduously to attain, nowhere more so than in this poem.

Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” at the time he was collecting, from his wife’s automatic writing, the material from which he created the philosophical system later set out in A Vision, the “very profound, very exciting mystical philosophy” which was to change radically the nature of his verse, and make him feel that for the first time he understood human life: “I live with a strange sense of revelation. . . .You will be astonished at the change in my work, at its intricate passion” (Letters 643-44). In reality this philosophy was neither completely new nor entirely mystical in origin, but rather a crystallization of what Yeats had read, thought, experienced and written over many years, the result of the process whereby he had “pieced his thoughts into philosophy” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Variorum 429).

Despite Yeats’s own conviction that this had produced a striking change in his writing, many critics have demurred. There has often been a reluctance to take Yeats’s thinking seriously and, partly as a consequence of this, a refusal to accept that he successfully expressed his beliefs in his poetry, especially a skepticism regarding- what Graham Martin has called his “cryptic symbolism” (230). In fact the symbolism in “The Second Coming” is anything but cryptic, except in the limited sense that it embodies some of the most profound elements o his philosophy in a concentrated and complex form which he recognized might prove not immediately intelligible to the reader, but which is entirely logical and consistent. Moreover, it mines a deep and rich vein–literary, philosophical, historical, political and mythical–which has little, if anything, to do with the occult.

In the course of this discussion of “The Second Coming” I shall point to some remarkable resonances between the work of these two writers [Yeats and Nietzsche] in both language and meaning, while the critical emphasis will of course be on Yeats, not Nietzsche. Moreover, the question of literary influence is far too complex to be addressed here, and I am not in any way suggesting that either Yeats’s language or meaning is directly derived from his reading of Nietzsche.

From the outset the poet invites, indeed demands, reference to his philosophic system, the central symbol of which contains two interpenetrating gyres or cones, perpetually in conflict and alternately victorious.(4) Whatever mystical origins Yeats may have claimed for this idea, it is a recognizably dialectical, and not necessarily an occult, concept. Despite the importance of this symbolism in Yeats’s thought, it is rarely introduced into his poetry as explicitly as it is here; its use is thus a direct pointer to what he intended to be the poem’s specific philosophical and historical context:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer, (“The Second Coming” lines 1-2)

and throughout the poem bird imagery contributes to a coherent pattern, though not explicitly.


Successive drafts of the poem indicate that Yeats had in mind the First World War (“bloody frivolity”) , the Bolshevik Revolution (the most striking instance of the destruction of an aristocratic society by egalitarian forces), the threat of anarchy and widespread violence in Ireland, all of which seemed to confirm Nietzsche’s predictions, and the prophecies of Macgregor Mathers in the late 1890s, of immense wars accompanied by and followed by anarchy (Stallworthy 18-19).

Violence, which for Yeats was symptomatic of the end of one era and the birth of another, becomes widespread as the inverted cone reaches its point of greatest expansion: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” as the mass society promulgates its disruptive ideologies, a line that creates a singular effect from the inherent ambiguity of the word “mere” and its surprising juxtaposition with “anarchy.” Here it has a primary meaning as a superlative in the sense of “sheer anarchy,” suggestive of vastly destructive forces, and a secondary meaning as a scornful understatement, as in the phrase “a mere bagatelle.” In an early draft Yeats had written “vile anarchy,” which is more emphatic but which lacks the ambiguity and internal tension of the final version. The change was completely successful and provides for the first stanza a controlled center which does hold, and which allows the subsequent images of violence to intensify.

Yeats enjoyed the description of the Christian phenomenon as a “fabulous, formless darkness” which blotted out “every beautiful thing,” and “the darkness drops again” because the antithetical phases “are but, at the best, phases of a momentary illumination like that of a lightning flash” (A Vision 278, 284). They may even be embodied in some great man; when Yeats and his friends talked of Parnell’s pride and impassivity (shared by the sphinx symbol), “the proceeding epoch with its democratic bonhomie seemed to grin through a horse collar.” Parnell was the symbol that “made apparent, or made possible .. . that epoch’s contrary: contrary, not negation, not refutation…. I am Blake’s disciple, not Hegel’s; ‘contraries are positive. A negation is not a contrary” (Variorum 835).

Moreover, it is in the nature of the dialectic that one era must end, and the next begin, in violence and Yeats’s attitude to violence in his later years is unquestionably ambiguous. In terms of individual suffering he abhorred it; as an intrinsic element of historical necessity he accepted it, at times even welcomed it. Assuming the mask of Michael Robartes and employing a bird symbolism that illuminates the “shadows of the indignant desert birds,” he wrote: “Dear predatory birds, prepare for war. . . . Test art, morality, custom, thought, by Thermopylae. . . . Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilisation renewed” (A Vision 52-53). This reads like Nietzsche at his most provocative and raises the question of whether it should be interpreted literally or symbolically. Although in both Yeats and Nietzsche references to joyful or ecstatic destruction, or indeed to an apparent glorification of war, are deliberately ambiguous, they often suggest the destruction of outdated and outworn beliefs, a “transvaluation of values.” Such references are legion in Nietzsche’s work. A “definite joy even in destruction ” is one of the prime conditions of a “Dionysian life-task” and a prerequisite of creativity: “Change of values. . . .Always doth he destroy who hath to be a creator,” including self-destruction: “Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes]” (Ecce Homo 113. Zarathustra 74, 79). If anything, Yeats’s invocation to love war because its horror can have a regenerative effect is even more provocative than Nietzsche’s pronouncements, one of the more notorious of which reads: “Your enemy shall ye seek; your war shall ye wage, and for the sake of your thoughts] And if your thoughts succumb, your uprightness shall still shout triumph thereby] Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars–and the short peace more than the long” (Zarathustra 62). I think that in such an instance there is little doubt that what Nietzsche was alluding to was a philosophical “enemy” and a personal, intellectual “war.” Yet this does indicate how a philosophy which purports to be inspirational can become imprisoned in its own logical systematization. Those like Yeats who advocate a transvaluation of values do not create new values but substitute opposites in place of those they wish to destroy and Nietzsche was certainly aware of this:

The time has come when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the centre of gravity by virtue of which we have lived; we are lost for a while. Abruptly we plunge into the opposite valuations, with all the energy that such an extreme overvaluation of man has generated in man (Will to Power 20, section 30).

Apart from the fact that this could be read as a gloss on “The Second Coming,” consider how Yeats categorized his own transvaluation of values:

After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war (A Vision 52).

The substitutions are deliberate and great care has been taken in arranging the contrasting concepts. Compare this:

A primary dispensation looking beyond itself towards a transcendent power is dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end; an antithetical dispensation obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical (A Vision 263).

To Yeats these were statements of fact, but more significantly they were statements of preference. Accordingly we have these symbolic contraries: a rocking cradle and a monolithic sphinx, the Second Coming and the vast image with an impassive gaze, Bethlehem and beast, since the “new civilisation was
about to be born from all that our age had rejected” (Explorations 393), and the rough beast is bound for Bethlehem because “each age unwinds the thread another age had wound” (A Vision 270).(5)

The predictable response to these contraries is likely to be disgust because the emotive impact of the language is determined by the values of the dying era, values nevertheless which Yeats frequently repudiated, sometimes, as in “The Gyres,” with “tragic joy”:

When a civilisation ends … the whole turns bottom upwards, Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values.” . . .Yet we who have hated the age are joyous and happy. The new discipline wherever enforced or thought will recall forgotten beautiful faces. Whenever we or our forefathers have been most Christian-not the Christ of Byzantine mosaic but the soft, domesticated Christ of the painter’s brush . . . we have been haunted by those faces dark with mystery, cast up by that other power that has ever more and more wrestled with ours, each living the other’s death, dying the other’s life (Explorations 433-34).

Yeats was convinced that in two or three generations secular thought would have to accept that “mechanical theory” had no reality. Then it might be possible to recapture the sense that, in the words of the Syrian in The Resurrection, there is something human knowledge cannot explain, something of supreme importance that “lies outside knowledge, outside order”–the irrational, the supernatural, myth. Yeats’s Christ is a living part of a great tapestry, much older than “the child born in the cavern”; it is the embodiment of his belief that “the supernatural and the natural are knit together.” He was sure that this belief would become generally accepted and that it would regenerate European society: “To escape a dangerous fanaticism we must study a new science; at that moment Europeans may find something attractive in a Christ posed against a background not of Judaism but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete, phenomenal. I was born into this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it” (Essays and Introductions 518) . This is not a plea for irrationality, but a desire to redress the balance between mechanical theory and myth, to reach an acceptance of reality of which myth, the supernatural, that something which “lies outside knowledge, outside order,” are an integral part. Yeats’s critique of Christianity and what he considered its ramifications–humanitarianism, democracy, scientific rationalism-was not an attempt to destroy an old tradition so much as an attempt to revive an even older one, to reassert a morality which Christianity had destroyed, or at least had stood on its head, to recapture a world-view which existed before “the umbilical cord which united Christianity to the ancient world” was cut, in which nobody can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends.

Nietzsche conceived of Christianity as “hostile to life,” an attempt to deny “the doubt and terror of reality.” He thus invented a “fundamental counter-dogma,” an anti-Christian counter-evaluation of life: “I baptized it, not without some impertinence–for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?–with the name of a Greek God: I called it Dionysian ” (Ecce Homo 140, 156). In the Greek pantheon Dionysus, like Christ, was a God who died and was reborn; he was also a god of vegetation and animal life who took on different animal forms, one of which was the lion. (Cavendish 147).(8) We have already seen that the Egyptian sphinx–part man, part lion–was a physical manifestation of just such another God, Horus, also represented by the figure of the falcon and revered as the rising sun, born afresh daily, the symbol of renewed life. Such an intricate pattern of ideas, symbols and myths cannot be coincidental nor entirely unconscious. It is a part of that pattern of thought which seemed to the poet as “natural and logical” as his style, and which gives to the sphinx/rough beast symbol the “imaginative richness of suggestion” thatYeats intended it to have.

“The Second Coming” is emblematic of the astonishing effect Yeats claimed his philosophy was having on both the intellectual content and the style of his poetry, and of the “intricate passion” that was beginning to characterize his work at this time. More than any other poem it marks the change to a more idiomatic use of language, a terse complexity of thought and imagery, an energetic muscularity of rhythm, in a word the “masculinity” he sought to achieve. L. A. G. Strong in a letter to Yeats expressed admiration for his ability to conjure up “with one swift, wrought phrase, a landscape, a sky, a weather and a history” (qtd. in Henn 111), and I have discussed what might be called Yeats’s rhetoric of history. The idea of historical recurrence provided him with a consistent, even deterministic, interpretation of past and present and more importantly a prediction for the future. It helped him to come to terms with the violence of the contemporary world as an integral, necessary, even positive manifestation of a period of historical crisis. It also freed him from any suggestion of a revolutionary, or even a reformist, intention since the dialectical movement of history was itself in the process of engendering a civilization of which he could approve. This would be the antithesis of the two-thousand-year Christian era which he believed had culminated politically in a movement founded on Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, and which, having exhausted itself, was useless for centuries to come. However, in his preface to A Vision Yeats anticipated the predictable question and so asked it of himself: did he actually believe in his system, that history fixed from “our central date,” the first day of “our era” (the birth of Christ), can be divided into contrasting periods of equal length] His answer was that he regarded them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis, or the ovoids in Brancusi’s sculptures: “They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice” (25). They were thus the building blocks of his mature aesthetic, one which produced in his late poetry what is probably the finest body of work of any poet writing in English in the twentieth century.

I have attempted to divest the language and imagery of “The Second Coming” of the preconceptions that have been grafted onto it, preconceptions that were not Yeats’s, and to explore what he intended to be its suggestive complexity. The following quotation from Richard Ellmann may be taken as indicative of the interpretation o the poem which has gained widespread currency:

In spite of his promise . . . that the next era would be subjective and preferable to the present, the god of that era, who rises from the desert sands . . . is no beneficent Dionysus but a monster. The poet’s vision of horror surmounts his vision of the cycles. . . . Whatever the new dispensation can bring, it inspires only a sense of horrible helplessness to avert what no man can desire. . . .Yeats is not fond of Christianity . . . yet at the end of the poem he envisages something far worse. The final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes its brutishness particularly frightful (164-65, 259-60).

While this recognizes that Yeats had little veneration for Christianity, it invests the poem’s Christian allusions with a sense of reverence which not only did he not share, but towards which he was deeply antagonistic. Because of a failure, or an unwillingness, to respond to Yeats’s antithetical rhetoric in the way he intended, such an interpretation not only attributes to him value judgments he did not make, they are to all intents and purposes the opposite of those he did make. For Yeats, “all things are from antithesis” (A Vision 268) and his rhetorical juxtapositions produce a dialectical tension as in the text he confronts: the center with a centrifugal force it cannot control; a blood-dimmed tide and the ceremony of innocence; the best and the worst, a lack of conviction and a passionate intensity; a stony sleep vexed to nightmare and a rocking cradle; a slouching, rough beast and Bethlehem. These are reinforced elsewhere by terror and beauty, horror and renewal, love and war, massacre and salvation, an altar and a turbulent child. Compared with such dynamic antitheses, the idea of a “beneficent Dionysus” would have been to both Yeats and Nietzsche a simple, and meaningless, contradiction in terms.

For Nietzsche the dionysian attitude was a passionate affirmation of life, of all aspects of life, including tragedy and pessimism, the doubt and terror of reality, pain and suffering. It led him to what he believed was his supreme philosophical insight, Eternal Recurrence, which was not so much Yeats’s cyclical view of history as the recognition that this life is our eternal life, the willingness to affirm and relive each of life’s experiences, however painful, again and again throughout eternity”amor fati,” the apotheosis of the present moment. In a sense this was Nietzsche’s attempt to reclaim and reaffirm his own life, one which he believed had been unusually filled with pain and suffering. Yeats’s idea of historical recurrence was a fusion of the personal and the world-historical. On the one hand it justified his rejection of the values and beliefs of the age, an age he characterized as looking beyond humanity to a transcendent power, as democratic, leveling, egalitarian, anarchic, heterogeneous, feminine, humane–“tender” qualities symbolized here by a rocking cradle, Bethlehem and The Second Coming. On the other hand it made it possible for him to reclaim for a future age those values he cherished, a future that would obey imminent power, would be aristocratic, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh and surgical–“hard, astringent” qualities symbolized by a monolithic sphinx and a rough beast.

Thus the confrontation between the Second Coming and the rough beast occurs in Yeats’s work in numerous forms, many of them Nietzschean in tone. Also writing out of a profound contempt for his age and what he considered to be its predominant values, Nietzsche almost willfully invited his contemporaries to misunderstand his rhetoric, his “philosophizing with a hammer”: “Caesar Borgia as Pope] Do you understand me?” (Complete Works 16: 228). Not surprisingly most of them didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a provocative assertion of a consistent theme in Nietzsche’s work, the clash throughout human history of “Renaissance” and “Reformation” values–the confrontation between a “higher” order of values that are “hard” and “noble,” that “say yea to life,” that “assured a future,” and “the opposing values of degeneration,” which he characterized as the morality of decadence: “Have you understood me] Dionysus versus Christ” (Ecce Homo 24, 136, 145). What he was doing in fact was inviting his readers to be daring enough to understand him, and the same challenging themes and idioms are to be found in Yeats. In A Vision there is the same confrontation between Christianity and paganism, and between Christian and Renaissance values, which Yeats, like Nietzsche, loved to embody in representative mythological or historical figures; for example, the tender passivity of a Saint Catherine of Genoa and the hardness, the astringency of a Donatello or a Michelangelo (291).

Ultimately, however, despite their often contemptuous rhetoric, neither completely rejected Christian values. Nietzsche did believe that European culture in the second half of the nineteenth century needed a transfusion of those “hard,” “noble” qualities he admired, a radical injection of will:

Nowadays the taste and virtue of the age weaken and attenuate the will; . . . consequently, in the ideal of the philosopher, strength of will, sternness and capacity for prolonged resolution, must specially be included in the conception of “greatness”: with as good a right as the opposite doctrine, with its ideal of a silly, renouncing, humble, selfless humanity, was suited to an opposite age–such as the sixteenth century, which suffered from its accumulated energy of will, and from the wildest torrents and floods of selfishness (Beyond Good and Evil 137).

“The secret mimeticism beneath the surface of the assertion of autonomy”

From “God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love” by Gil Bailie, here is a passage on “the cul-de-sac of autonomous individualism.” I have been reading a lot of and about Rene Girard lately, and while there are aspects of the mimetic theory that seem simply too wide ranging (reminding me of Karl Popper’s objection to Marxism and Freudianism that they both explained too much, rather than too little), there is a power to this analysis of the superficiality of autonomy and the sheer power of mimetic envy:

The liberationist cast of modern thought has driven moderns and postmoderns into the cul-de-sac of autonomous individualism, where, as Manent asserts: “Men do not have any natural connections.” But there is more, and here the French philosopher is especially percipient: “Just as for Kierkegaard, to be a Christian is to become a Christian, for the modern man conscious of himself, to be an individual means to become an individual, and to become more and more an individual.”

This incessant demand that one become an individual requires not only that he eschew all affiliations or any associations that might limit his spontaneity, but also that he ceaselessly distinguish himself from other individuals whose examples he might otherwise be accused of mimicking. The unremitting pressure to demonstrate one’s independence from the social influence of others causes the self-styled individual to resort to more and more idiosyncratic social gestures in appearance and behavior, all of which will be traceable to a model who is being emulated but whose influence is unacknowledged or camouflaged to prevent both the imitator himself and his observers from recognizing the mimicry underlying his labored pantomime.

The secret mimeticism beneath the surface of the assertion of autonomy drives the process toward ever more desperate gesticulations of authenticity which in fact amount to an open declaration of its opposite. On the social level, the end result is a spiritual alienation from oneself and from a healthy social matrix, an alienation from which relief is often enough sought in crude and ultimately violent forms of social solidarity.

“someone who is abnormally normal” – Christopher Bollas, Adam deVille, social media, and the “normotic” self

Adam de Ville, who who I have linked to before, has a fascinating post on Christopher Bollas, and how he (deVille) came to an appreciation of the enduring insights of the psychoanalytic tradition.

An excerpt:

I begin at the beginning with Bollas, whose 1987 book The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known has just been republished in a 30th-anniversary edition. It reads, as many of his books do, like collections of essays only loosely stitched together usually around one theme. He begins with a chapter on the “transformational object,” and those who know psychoanalytic history will at once recognize that Bollas, born and educated in the US but practicing as an analyst in England for many years, is here indebted to the British independent school, especially D.W. Winnicott and his equally famous idea of the “transitional object.”

For Bollas, the “object” is not singular. Our life is a collection, largely unconscious, of memories of interactions with myriads and myriads of “objects,” most of them human, including, most powerfully, our parents and families. “There is no one unified mental phenomenon that we can term self,” Bollas argues, because “the person’s self is the history of many internal relations,” and those relations to various objects cast a shadow over the rest of our life. Many of those object relations will remain unconscious to us, but nonetheless powerful and directive of other relations. One way, Bollas says, we may discover some of these earlier object relations is by listening to “our own idiom of thinking about and talking to ourselves.”

But how many of us do that today? How can we do that today when we drown out the capacity for such thoughts, filling our days with electronic stimuli so much that we cannot part with our phones even at night when sleeping, as a huge majority of us now do? If the cell phone today is not a “transformational object” in every sense then nothing is. So too are social media in their various forms, which at least sometimes seem to collude, as it were, to keep us from deeper, more wide-ranging reflection and insight. Surely one of the main goals of these media is not to encourage genuine criticism of some depth in which the very systems of our time (political and economic) are put to the question, for, as MacIntyre has said (see ch. 9, here), we are all condemned to think and act in the terms of the modern nation-state and its capitalist handmaid. Thus social media largely seek homogenization in the service of advanced capitalism, which requires the production of standardized consumers deemed to be normal, a process of definition, Bollas says, that “is typified by the numbing and eventual erasure of subjectivity in favor of a self that is conceived as a material object among other man-made products in the object world.”

Such a self what Bollas calls “normotic,” that is,
someone who is abnormally normal. He is too stable, secure, comfortable, and socially extrovert. He is fundamentally disinterested in subjective life and he is inclined to reflect on the thingness of objects, on their material reality, or on ‘data’ that relates to material phenomena…..Such an individual is alive in a world of meaningless plenty.
(Erich Fromm argued something loosely similar many years ago in his The Pathology of Normalcy.)

The normotic individual “is interested in facts” but not to link them together, still less to see any kind of overarching pattern or to subject them to critical analysis: “facts are collected and stored because this activity is reassuring.” (That, alas, describes too many students today, and usually only around exam time.) This person loves being part of a team, thrives in institutions and corporations, enjoys committee work, and is frequently a workaholic who sees no utility at all in having a subjective interior life. This person, who sounds frightfully like Donald Trump–who is, as Jung might say, an archetype of many people today, not least political and business leaders–has managed to convince himself that the “mind itself, in particular the unconscious, is an archaism, a thing to be abandoned in the interests of human progress.”

Marie Thompson on noise, “the conservative politics of silence”, and soundscapes

Recently I posted a link to an interview with sound artist Lawrence English. Via Lawrence English’s twitter I came across this fascinating interview with Dr Marie Thompson, a Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln. She has recently published Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism.

Dr Thompson touches on a wide range of topics relating to noise and silence, as the interviewer writes, she references” a wide variety of ideas from Spinoza to Michel Serres’s cybernetic theory, acoustic ecology and the politics of silence to the transgressiveness of noise music, and many other concepts to show how we are affected by noise.”

Dr Thompson exhibits a sensitivity to the grandiosity and emotional reactions the topics of noise and silence evoke:

I felt compelled to write the book partly due to what I perceived as a gap between some of my ‘everyday’ experiences of noise and how noise was represented in discourse – particularly noise’s representation as an essentially negative phenomenon; or as a shocking, sublime, radical, overwhelming, transgressive force. Noise seems to be one of those topics that makes ordinarily quite progressive thinkers revert to quite uncritical and reactionary tropes – there’s something about it that ‘touches a nerve’. Consequently, much of the discourse around noise is underlined by an often-unacknowledged conservatism. I’ve always found the grandiose rhetoric of noise comparatively quite seductive but at the same time, more often than not, noise is quotidian and banal rather than overwhelming or sublime (which isn’t to say it can’t also be those things). Likewise, I felt like this grandiose rhetoric resulted in an amplification of certain sonic arts practices, while silencing others. I guess I was compelled by a desire to expand the (material and discursive) universe of noise while also trying to maintain some consistency in definition.

I found particularly interesting the sections on “the conservative politics of silence” and acoustic ecologist such as Murray Schafer:

To my mind, the conservative politics of silence informs a number of assumptions that are frequently made about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sonic environments; it relates to a preference for the simple over the complex, sameness over difference, past over present, predictability over unpredictability, the ‘synthetic’ over the ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) and, ultimately, quietude over noise. This ideological framework underlines much ‘common sense’ about auditory experience, however it frequently remains unacknowledged.

We might consider a liberal politics in opposition to this conservative politics of silence, which recognises responses to sonic environments as ‘personal’ and therefore refuses overarching moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sound. However, I’m also wary of endorsing a politics that treats the individual, autonomous subject as the primary site of the political. Indeed, the conservative politics of silence that we see in the work of figures such as R. Murray Schafer is often indebted to a liberalism that prioritises control and the freedoms and rights of the individual – I’m thinking here of Schafer’s complaint that you can rid your private property of a physical intruder but not an aural one: “A property-owner is permitted by law to restrict entry to his private garden or bedroom. What rights does he have against a sonic intruder?” (1993, 214)

I do wonder if there has been an accidental transposition of “natural” and “synthetic” in the first of the above two paragraphs (this was an email interview so clearly it is not a transcription error) – I have tried to post a comment on the blog to clarify this but I am not sure is it getting posted. I would have thought that Schafer and writers such as Gordon Hempton “privilege” (to use the quotation marks in Thompson’s fashion) the natural over the synthetic. Much of their writing is about loss, and about the loss of natural soundscapes in the relentless advance of industrial development.

Thompson points out that this loss is a symptom, not a disease:

It strikes me that when Schafer and other acoustic ecologists talk about fighting noise, they’re fighting a symptom rather than a cause. In these discourses, there is much talk of noise and environmental destruction but very little on how these processes relate to capitalism and settler-colonialism. In that regard, while I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile, I do maintain that there are still fights to be had against high levels of noise. While I am critical of liberal notions of privacy and control and the ‘right’ to silence, I do also recognise that noise can feel oppressive in some contexts. That said, more often than not high levels of noise is a symptom of bigger social and political problems – for example, of poor quality housing, and a lack of economic choice over where one lives.

Again, I wonder is the line “I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile” meant to be “I do think fighting about noise in absolute terms is futile” (contextually it would make more sense.

I have read other academic critiques of Schafer, which focus on his conceptualisation of noise as problematic and preference for the “natural” (or natural) over the recorded, amplified and industrial.

I find these arguments convincing in that Schafer can seem an absolutist, and absolutists are always going to be wrong in subtle ways. I can understand why Thompson, and others, will put quotes around “natural” and “synthetic.” And yet, and yet…

Like many environmental writers of his time, Schafer was preaching a message that, while not exactly new (complaints about the noise of urbanity had a history of centuries), was contextually within the wider countercultural thought of the Sixties and Seventies. In this case, the culture it was counter to was the industrial world of the mid-Century. Thompson is right to point out that noise was a symptom, rather than a cause, but Schafer was making the point forcefully.

I would also argue that there is a qualitative difference between the sounds of the non-human natural world, and the sounds which a human or a collection of humans can create via the efforts of their own bodies (which includes very very loud sounds like drumming and bell ringing) and recorded, amplified sound. Schafer identifies recorded and mechanically reproduced sound as a threshold in human experience. I can understand that from the point of view of many critical theorists suspicious of rhetoric around “nature” and suspicious of what can seem and at times can be an elitist rhetoric of silence, there are many many holes to pick in Schafer’s writing. But there is also something lost. I was going to write “the heart of Schafer’s message” but noticed that my use of the word “heart” may also be a metaphorical usage ripe for academic unpicking. B

I also wonder about “the conservative politics of sound.” Thompson is laudably wary of setting this up in opposition to a “liberal politics of noise.” I would observe that this is very much small-c conservatism. Indeed, the interviewer discusses the psychic noise (and “general bullshit”) generated by Donald Trump, to which Thompson responds:

As a concept, noise seems evocative of much about our current political climate: be it the ‘noise’ of ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ (how does one determine ‘signal’ from ‘noise’, and who gets to determine that distinction); be it the ‘white noise’ of the Trump campaign administration (I recently saw a performance lecture with Barby Asante which effectively performed the ‘tuning out’ the noise of recently-bolstered white supremacy); or be it the collective noise of protest against the brutality of borders, white supremacy and police-state violence.

I am unsure if “conservative” in the sense of conserving or preserving has much meaning in the political sphere anymore. The signal-to-noise issue Thompson identifies is increasingly dominating political discourse – indeed is  political discourse.