Jerome Bruner On Cultures That ‘Breakdown’

In Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990, pp. 96-97), Jerome Bruner writes

When there is a breakdown in a culture…it can usually be traced to one of several things. The first is a deep disagreement about what constitutes the ordinary and canonical in life and what the exceptional and divergent….this we know in our time from what one might call the “battle of the life-styles.” exacerbated by intergenerational conflict. A second threat inheres in the rhetorical overspecialization of narrative, when stories become so ideologically or self-servingly motivated that distrust displaces interpretation, and “what happened” is discounted as fabrication. On the large scale, this is what happens under a totalitarian regime, and contemporary novelists of Central Europe have documented it with painful exquisiteness–Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and many others. The same phenomenon  expresses itself in modern bureaucracy, where all except the official story of what is happening is silenced or stonewalled…finally, there is breakdown that results from sheer impoverishment of narrative resources–in the permanent underclass of the ghetto, in the second and third generation of the Palestinian refugee compound, in the hunger-preoccupied villages of semipermanently drought-stricken villages in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not that there is a total loss in putting story form to experience, but that the worse scenario story comes to to dominate daily life that variation no longer seems to be possible. [links added]

My reasons for posting this passage, at this time should be clear enough.

The first state of affairs that Bruner lists above has been a feature of American life for as long as I can remember it, and indeed, has been from the birth of the nation; it constitutes a  dynamic and creative tension in American culture. It has led to many species of politics and political engagement, not all of them conducive to the continuance of the American polity. The third condition too, has been realized in ample measure in American life; it is what makes the ‘voices of the downtrodden’ especially worth listening to–as rappers like Public Enemy were fond of saying, by listening to them you learned something about a world most American citizens did not need or want to interact with; that music offered affirmation that despite the ‘impoverishment of narrative resources’ powerful, creative voices still spoke loudly and clearly. The second condition is the one that will seem especially familiar to us now in this era of ‘fake news–the relentless, seemingly unstoppable lying, the bald-faced denial of ‘what is in front of our nose.’

The crucial mistake, a self-congratulatory one, would be to imagine that this state of affairs is entirely new; bald-faced, persistent, and systematic liars have long worked their trade. What is new is the materiality of our information exchanges, their speed and ubiquity, their all-pervasiveness. They make possible the ‘breakdown’ in communication many experience today; the so-called ‘echo chambers,’ the sense that some divides cannot be bridged by discourse. The central irony in all of this, as media scholars have not tired of pointing out, that it is our civilization’s most pervasive, most efficient, most democratic communication system ever that has facilitated this state of affairs.

Breakdowns in cultures are not trivial affairs, and there is no sign that the current political and cultural tensions in American life will lead to anything like an irreparable rift; but complacency is no substitute for thinking about what changes in material conditions can induce a different social and personal consciousness that could help heal the present schisms.

The Republican Base’s Malevolent Algorithm

An entirely unsurprising poll shows that sixty-seven percent of the registered Republicans in the US support the current administration’s policy of separating children from their undocumented immigrant (or asylum seeking) parents at the border. (Those children are then imprisoned in cages in concentration camps with no plans for their release or reunification with their parents.) This poll supplements an essay on Stephen Miller whose headline reads ‘The Outrage Over Family Separation Is Exactly What Stephen Miller Wants.”

It will ‘fire up the base,’ you see, and bring them out in numbers for 2018.

The ‘base’ is, of course, why Trump will never be impeached by the Republican Party; it brought Trump to power; it will keep him in it. This is democracy in action; at its ‘best.’ The ‘people’ have spoken–through an electoral system of sorts–and we know what they want. The ‘base’–the ‘fuck your feelings’ crowd–reliably dislikes its Other: the libtards, the bleeding hearts, the snowflakes, the gays, the blacks, the Spanish-speaking, the feminists, the social justice warriors, the Marxists, the postmodernists, the coastal elites, the teachers, the unions, the gun control freaks, the atheists, the campus radicals, the brown, the immigrants (undocumented or otherwise.) The list goes on.

The reason for cashing out the content of the vox populi as a long list of dislikes and resentments is quite simple: this animosity toward its Other animates the ‘base’; apparently, it is the only policy justification it requires. A simple mechanical test for policy evaluation emerges: Does policy X cause fear, anger, dismay among members of the list above? Does it cause them to issue denunciations and condemnations of the Great Leader? Then it must be Good; if not, it must be Bad. Legal academics and concerned philosophers of technology spend a great deal of time pondering the problem of how to regulate automated decision-making; this is one algorithm for political decision-making that seems to have slipped under their radar. The perversity of this politics might make some parents recall the days of using the infamous ‘reverse psychology’ on a recalcitrant toddler; if you want them to do X, you must suggest that they do Y; the immature toddler, unable to realize he or she is being played, does instead. But comparisons and analogies with toddlers are ultimately unsatisfying; toddlers are also quite cute and entertaining and cuddly at times, and the Republican ‘base’ is anything but. Toddlers grow and mature; the ‘base’ appears to prefer curdling.

The presence of the ‘base’ and its frightening acquiescence to any moral atrocity as long as it meets the requirements noted above render wholly ineffective any political strategy that aims to change the Republican Party’s course by shaming it or pointing out its hypocrisies or inconsistencies. (On Twitter, a whole phalanx of tweeters is dedicated to racking up high RT counts by indulging in precisely such activity.)

Fortunately for the US, not all of its citizens are members of the base. Unfortunately for the US, all too many are. Trump will serve at most till 2024; the ‘base’ will be around much longer.

Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

Suicide And Our Many Personas

Over a decade ago, a friend of mine killed himself. As we, his many shocked and grieving friends, exchanged notes of commiseration and regret and nostalgic remembrance of a life we had all drawn pleasure from, one refrain made the rounds: “I guess I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did.” Indeed. None of us did. None of us know each other, our lovers and friends and parents and children, as well as we imagine we do. We have many, many personas; to ‘know’ someone is to have some measure of acquaintance–emotional, intellectual, physical–with some subset of these. These personas equip us to play the multiple roles we are required to play in the course of our daily lives; there is no one ‘real person’ lurking underneath all of these; the sum total–if such a concept can ever be meaningful–of these personas is, for better or worse, us. (As such, the most common complaint made against the online life, that we are not our ‘real selves’ online, that our ‘real selves’ emerges only in face to face encounters, makes little sense–for these supposedly authentic interactions, require the careful deployment of yet another persona, the one we use for social, in-the-flesh encounters. The immigrant, a master of many personalities, knows this all too well.)

A suicide reminds us, all too often, of this fact. (So does, on a much less tragic scale, the demise of a long-standing romantic relationship.) From the ‘outside’ we saw a life adorned with the usual indications of success or happiness, many of which we desire for ourselves and as such, may even envy; and then, abruptly, we receive the intimation that besides the personas we had been exposed to, there was yet another one that lurked alongside, not beneath, them, that of the suicidal person, the one determined to take their lives. Those external markers? Flags flown by one of the many personas that made up our friend; they are lowered to half-mast on other occasions, by other personas.

In the face of this fact, we often take recourse in claims like ‘mental illness can be so well hidden’ or ‘mental illness is a silent killer.’ But in point of fact, the suicidal person is more close to ‘normal’ than we want to believe. Many of us have entertained thoughts of wanting to bring everything to an end; some of us act on those impulses. The suicide is not a mystery; we would be more honest in our assessment of its supposed inexplicability if we would just ‘fess up the fact that you don’t have to be mentally ill to want to, or actually, kill yourself. You just have to be human, as perplexed as any of us about whether of any of this is worth it, about whether the effort required to move back and forth between our many personas can be sustained.

Many philosophers have held that a singular question that confronts a being like us–if we let it–is whether this life is worth living. Many of us, like us in all the relevant regards, take this question on, and answer it in their own way.

Jordan Peterson Is A Sexist Tool

Jordan Peterson gets quite upset when he is accused of being sexist and misogynist. Unfortunately, his latest response in the ongoing series of debates over whether he is the reincarnation of Nietzsche or merely the latest in a long line of privileged provocateurs claiming the mantle of ‘radical’ while committing themselves to defending conservative social orders suggests that he is definitely a sexist.¹

My evidence for this claim is exceedingly simple. Consider the following two brief excerpts, which bookend his response to Kate Manne‘s thoughtful critique of his work:

First,

On June 6, journalist Sean Illing…interviewed Assistant Professor of Philosophy (Cornell Philosophy Department) Dr. Kate Manne (the “feminist philosopher”) (Dr Kate Manne’s Website) about me and my work.

And then:

There is nothing the least bit controversial about any of this, unless you are a doctrinaire radical of the sort likely to characterize your ideological indoctrination and lack of familiarity with the relevant psychological and anthropological literature as “feminist philosophy.”

Here is a textbook definition of sexism in action, revealed quite simply, by the use of scare quotes above.

We use scare quotes around terms to indicate suspicion, skepticism, mockery, dismissal, and the like; to use a pair of these is to indicate that the term in question lacks validity or legitimacy of a certain kind–for instance, were I to want to puncture Peterson’s pretensions to be a serious thinker or an intellectual, I would write the following sentence: “The Canadian academic Jordan Peterson imagines he is a ‘serious thinker’; unfortunately, ‘intellectuals’ like him are frequently confused in such self-assessments.”

What has Peterson placed scare quotes around? Around a title that is quite clearly Manne’s to own: feminist philosopher, and around a field of study she has engaged with: feminist philosophy. Manne is a PhD from MIT, and is a tenured (or tenure-track) assistant professor of philosophy at a reputable institution; she has the professional qualifications in academia–of which Peterson is a member, and whose standards he is well aware of, and indeed acknowledges them above–to be called a philosopher. Moreover, she works in a well-established area of political and ethical philosophy; feminist philosophy is an academic field with practitioners, journals, conferences, and ongoing internal debates and external engagements. There is, in short, precisely no good reason to place scare quotes around either of the two terms above.

Now, the charge of sexism: Peterson does not even place scare quotes around the academic fields and academics he despises: Marxism, postmodernists, doctrinaire radicals. He does not place scare quotes around Sean Illing’s title above. He does not place scare quotes around titles and fields when referring to male academics or the fields they work in. His special animus is reserved for a woman philosopher, working in feminist philosophy (a field of study mostly by, about, and for, women.)

This is textbook sexism. Jordan Peterson is a sexist tool.

Note #1: The charge of misogyny will be far more ably laid by Kate Manne herself; but Peterson’s sneering mannerisms, his self-pity, his anger, all indicate to me this man is a misogynist, and a dangerous one at that.

Ayer On Wittgenstein As Pragmatist

In Wittgenstein (Random House, New York, 1985), A. J. Ayer writes:

[Wittgenstein] never adopted the phenomenalist thesis that physical theories can be translated into the set of propositions describing the observable states of affairs that would confirm them…he declared the confirmation of a hypothesis is never completed. In the same set of remarks he characterized a hypothesis as ‘a law for forming propositions’ or alternatively as ‘a law for forming expectations.’ I think he can most fairly be said to have treated the experiences which would fulfil these expectations as constituting the ‘cash-value’ of the hypothesis. ‘Cash-value’ is a term employed for this purpose by William James, a philosopher whom I believe Wittgenstein respected. At any rate, his dicta of this period fit easily into the pragmatist tradition….The pragmatic tenor of Wittgenstein’s thinking at this period is again in evidence in the early part of The Blue Book. We are advised at the outset to substitute for the question ‘What is the meaning of the word?’, the question ‘What is an explanation of the meaning of the word?’ or ‘What does the explanation of a word look like?’ One immediate benefit of this approach is that it diminishes the temptation to think of meanings as a special category of objects, or that of being satisfied with any general set of answers conforming to the pattern of the assertion that predicates stand for properties. Wittgenstein sees that the fundamental problem is that of explaining how a series of noises or written marks acquires what he calls a life. His own general answer is that ‘if we had to name anything as the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.’ [pp. 41-43; link added]

The relationship between Wittgenstein’s writings and those of the pragmatists are now quite well established. (A quick google of ‘Wittgenstein pragmatist’ or ‘Wittgenstein pragmatism’ shows this quite easily.) So is his supposed affinity with Williams James (as noted by Ayer above.) For my part, long before I had read any formal or theoretical analyses of Wittgenstein’s relationship to pragmatism it had seemed to me that someone committed to a use theory of meaning would find the pragmatist criterion of meaning and truth quite amenable. When I began drawing up my syllabus for my graduate seminar on pragmatism a few years ago at the CUNY Graduate Center, I pushed a bit further in the direction of this supposed connection and was immediately gratified to find the extensive literature above; I went on to draw on sections of Russell Goodman‘s Wittgenstein and William James

My students’ reactions then, to finding Wittgenstein on their pragmatism syllabus is not an uncommon response to the claim that Wittgenstein can be considered a pragmatist of sorts; in large part, this is a reaction to writing styles. The classical pragmatists–Dewey, Pierce, and James–are all generally acknowledged to be clear writers (even if Dewey is regarded correctly as excessively verbose.) Wittgenstein, of course, is famously cryptic on all too many occasions; Ayer notes, as have many others, that he was better at providing suggestive and provocative examples than he was at providing trains of rigorous arguments. (A similar reaction of surprise is expressed by some when told that Nietzsche and the pragmatists are often in sympathy with each other.) The discovery of these resonances and others like them further help establish the claim that the pragmatists are not a sui generis phenomenon but rather, represent a recurring strain and orientation in philosophy.

Science And The Provision Of Existential Comfort

Stephen Asma offers a well-worn and reasonable defense of religious belief in The Stone–but ironically enough, in a plea for more tolerance, strikes a rather dogmatic note himself. The defense of religious belief and ritual is a familiar one: religion may be an opiate but it is an effective painkiller as a result. Asma offers us a story of a bereaved student and his family to illustrate the kind of tragic personal situation whose attendant pain can be palliated by religion:

Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and mutilated….My student, his mother and his sister were shattered. His mother…would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife….These bolstering beliefs, along with the church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow….

Asma goes on:

[R]eligion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder at the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation….Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue….we need religion because it is a road-tested form of emotional management….No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy…..the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her….we can see why religion persists.

The italicized sections above are in tension with the overall tenor of Asma’s claims: they insist, seemingly as a matter of principle, of conceptual definition, that ‘scientific alleviation’ and ‘scientific explanation’ can provide no consoling, no comfort, whatsoever, in the face of this world’s relentless capacity to dish out inexplicable suffering to humans. But how can Asma claim, in the face of the diversity of the human condition, that scientific claims will provide no comfort at all to the afflicted, the bereaved, the suffering? Sometimes understanding the workings of disease may calm a terminally ill patient and those who love them; understanding the physical composition of the body and its relationship with the world of material forces may comfort both those who die and those who grieve for them; sometimes understanding the molecular basis of bodily pathology may ease the feeling of having being struck down by a malevolent curse. We need religion and science both to accommodate the diversity of the human condition; the knowledge science provides may too repel, in part, that terrible anxiety which underwrites our deepest fears.

Asma is right to try to make room for religion; but the catholic attitude he is calling for requires him to be open-minded about the role that science and scientific knowledge can play in providing humans existential and spiritual comfort. Not exclusively, of course. We are many; so are our solutions.