On Being An Educated Philistine

I’m an uncultured bumpkin with little taste for the finer things in life. My list of failures is long and undistinguished. I do not like opera: God knows, I’ve tried; I’ve attended a few performances–thanks to some free tickets sent my way by discerning friends and culture consumers–but no dice, it didn’t catch. I cannot abide ballet: I’ve attended one performance, that of Don Quixote, right here in New York City at a beautiful recital hall, and despite admiring the athleticism of the performers found their choreographed pyrotechnics did not touch me emotionally; indeed, I do not like most dance, have never attended a modern dance recital, and have only briefly viewed a few performances of classical Indian variants like Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam or Kathakali, and as a result never developed a taste for them, despite the fact that one of my paternal uncles was a distinguished choreographer in that tradition. My tastes in poetry are restricted to the usual suspects like Yeats, Bishop, Rilke, Auden (and some of the older romantics) et al–the stuff that almost any educated layperson can lay claim to. Like your true denuded post-colonial I have not developed any taste in Hindi poetry and have not read a  novel in Hindi since my high school days. I do not like reading reviews of poetry–indeed, I find these almost impossible to get through, despite gamely struggling with Helen Vendler‘s essays in the New York Review of Books. I’ve discovered recently that I do not like reading the standard literary review of a novel either. In fiction, I struggle to read short stories, and prefer novels when I can get to them.

Perhaps, most embarrassingly, I do not like spending time in museums–and oh, dear Lord, believe me, I’ve tried and tried to summon up enthusiasm for this excruciating social and cultural ritual but I’ve been found wanting. There are certainly times when I’ve played the part of a connoisseur of art reasonably well in these settings but it’s not an easy appearance to keep up. I’ve visited cities in foreign lands and dutifully trooped off to the Famous Museum Which Houses An Amazing Repository of Famous Art by Famous Artists, the one I’ve been told is a must-visit, but no dice. Most of it didn’t catch–perhaps because of the venue, as trooping around, popping my head into one room after another to gaze at art wrenched out of its context failed to do it for me.

I consider myself interested in art and music and culture and literature but my tastes have not developed or become more refined over the years; they seem to have become narrower despite my game attempts to push them further. Though this state of affairs has often caused me some embarrassment–especially because I’m an academic in the humanities–it has also started to offer me some reassurance. Life is short, time is limited; I will never read the all the books on my shelves (and in my digital stores); better to have fewer things to serve as diversions. More airily, I’ve come to know myself better; I’ve tried to like the things I was ‘supposed’ to, and I couldn’t. That’s me, for better and worse.

Note: In a future post, I will make note of the many philosophical and literary classics which I have not read and seem unlikely to read.

Peter Thiel Should Attempt the Anatomically Impossible

A few years ago, I made note of Peter Thiel’s showboating program to give young folks a cool hundred grand if they dropped out of college to pursue their dreams. This scheme, cooked up by a Stanford graduate, a venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager, was in transparent alignment with various neoliberal schemes cooked up to denigrate and weaken and ultimately destroy higher education by the simplest of strategies: under the guise of reform, simply gut the system in question–all the better to pick at its scraps. (c.f. charter schools, which aim to reform the public school system by getting rid of it.) From that stance, a straight line can be drawn to Thiel’s donation of 1.25 million dollars to the Donald Trump campaign; one of the hallmarks of fascism, after all, is disdain for education. Or rather, for anything that could possibly generate critical inquiry of any sort. As the New York Times’ source said, “the investor feels the country needs fixing, and Mr. Trump can do it.” That’s certainly one way to ‘fix’ a problem; you get rid of the entity afflicted by the problem. In this case, the American republic.

We should keep Thiel in mind whenever we evaluate an anti-public education stance. The undermining of public education is not an innocent bid to ‘restore’ quality; it is a malignant bid to replace public education with a horde of shrieking rent-seekers: the armies of educational consultants and charter operators lurk among them. Folks like Thiel are common in the business world; they attain success in one narrow field, and then they imagine that the tool they have acquired–the corporate vision, with its particular incentive schemes, its understanding of human relations and their monetizations–can then be successfully exported to all domains. In Thiel’s case, first it was public education, then it was the country. Soon he will have a scheme for curing cancer and for bringing peace to our troubled world. Corporate ‘leaders’ and ‘innovators’ imagine they are sneering at the conventional niceties which up prop hidebound domains of human endeavor and infusing them with radically new paradigms–in the form of their own conventionally acquired, cliché ridden, wisdom. Unsurprisingly most of these corporate-to-country-to-world schemes are cooked up by the graduates of private schools, which have provided a comfortable insulating layer from the realities of most folks’ lives.

Thiel embodies the worst kind of educated philistine, the kind Nietzsche worried about and warned against: they possess education in the formal sense–Thiel does have a pair of degrees in engineering and law–but they show little cultural or intellectual sophistication, and their thin patina of education equips them with a dangerous assurance that they could clean up any mess, solve any problem, so long as quaint notions such as the collective interest or social constraints like civil liberties were shoved out of their way. They have grown up imagining they have bent the world to their will; they now seek new territories to conquer. As part of a fascist brigade, if necessary.

Melville On ‘The Most Dangerous Sort’: The Outwardly Rational Madman

In Billy Budd, Sailor (Barnes and Noble Classic Edition, New York, p. 40) Herman Melville writes:

[T]he thing which in eminent instances signalizes so exceptional a nature is this: though the man’s even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgement sagacious and sound. These men are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional, evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive, which is as much to say it is self-contained, so that when moreover, most active, it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason above suggested that whatever its aims may be–and the aim is never declared–the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational.

This is an acute observation by Melville, for the personality type he describes here is indeed ‘the most dangerous sort.’ Its tokens conform outwardly to social and moral expectations at all times even as they reserve their malignancy for occasional and pointed demonstrations, which continue to don the cover of ostensibly reasonable behavior. (Indeed, their general conformance to normative standards earns them the indulgence of others, who are then ready to forgive what may come to seem like only an occasional aberration; the pattern in these aberrations may not be visible unless it is too late. ) These agents know how to commit unpardonable acts under the cover of legality; they are adept at picking and choosing among the offerings of the reasonable and civilized, looking for those rhetorical and argumentative maneuvers that will give their actions the best veneer of respectability. (Perhaps they should remind us–via an inexact analogy–of Nietzsche’s ‘educated philistines;’ outwardly sophisticated but lacking in inner culture.)

Unfortunately for this world, Melville’s ‘most dangerous sort’ is a little too common. Its most devastating and dangerous exemplars are found in the political sphere–like those who commit war crimes while proceeding according to some impeccable logic of statescraft–but the skepticism of their opponents may ensure that their cover is easily blown. Matters are far harder in the domain of personal relationships, especially abusive ones. There, in the private sphere, away from prying eyes, the abuser can concentrate on his ‘special object,’ the abused. Their ‘sanity’ may bring the abused to the edge of insanity; their weapon of choice is very often the questioning of the mental competence of their partner. Their long and intimate relationship with their target has granted them access to weaknesses, secrets, chinks in the armor; these are now mercilessly and ruthlessly exploited by language and action which is artfully cloaked by reason and respectability.

Beware the superficial moral and intellectual education; for its most dangerous effect is to produce precisely the type Melville warns us against.

Gramsci And Nietzsche As Philosophers Of Culture

In ‘Socialism and Culture’ (reprinted in The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935, David Forgacs ed., New York University Press, 2000) Antonio Gramsci writes:

We need to free ourselves from the habit of seeing culture as encyclopaedic knowledge, and men as mere receptacles to be stuffed full of empirical data and a mass of unconnected raw facts, which have to be filed in the brain as in the columns of a dictionary, enabling their owner to respond to the various stimuli from the outside world. This form of culture really is harmful….It serves only to create maladjusted people, people who believe they are superior to the rest of humanity because they have memorized a certain number of facts and dates and who rattle them off at every opportunity….It serves to create the kind of weak and colourless intellectualism…which has given birth to a mass of pretentious babblers….The young student who knows a little Latin and history, the young lawyer who has been successful in wringing a scrap of paper called a degree out of the laziness and lackadaisical attitude of his professors, they end up seeing themselves as different from and superior to even the best skilled workman…But this is not culture, but pedantry, not intelligence, but intellect, and it is absolutely right to react against it.

Gramsci’s critique here resonates with the kind that Nietzsche offered of the ‘educated philistine,’ the superficially educated man who runs about collecting ideas and consuming the cultural products that are considered the ‘trophies’ of his ‘culture,’ but who never learns their value, nor masters their relationships and interconnections so as to raise himself to a higher state of being (where a ‘unity of style’ may be manifest.) This pedant remains hopelessly confined to accepted and dominant modes of thinking and acting, unable to summon up a genuine critical, reflective viewpoint on his place in this world. As such, he is all too susceptible to becoming a reactionary, a defender of the established status quo, a hopeless decadent. These attitudes would be benign if they were not also affected with a fatal arrogance that breeds a dangerous politics.

Gramsci goes on to claim that:

Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.

The invocation of ‘organization’ and ‘a coming to terms of one’s own personality’ also strikes a Nietzschean note here. The truly cultured person, one possessing a ‘unity of style,’ has brought together his disparate drives and energies and inclinations into a unified whole, an act requiring a ‘discipline of one’s inner self.’ He has also, as Nietzsche suggested, recognized his own self for what it is, and ‘joyfully’ accepted it.

The concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven at night in their offices were philistines in this view; they were mere consumers of ‘culture’; they lacked ‘discipline’ and remained susceptible to their atavistic urges. Their ‘pedantry,’ their philistinism, and the lack of intelligence it implies were an integral component of their moral failures.

Peter Gay On Bourgeois Insecurities (And Mine)

In Pleasure Wars: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, (WW Norton, New York, 1998) Peter Gay writes:

Only the most determined could gather up the leisure and the energy after a hard week’s toil, or for that matter the money, to haunt museums, or follow compositions in the concert hall with a score, let alone travel to improve their hazy acquaintance with what they had long prized from a distance. Their perpetual fear of social descent haunted them. Those who saved their meager assets for culture, then, were making a distinct choice of how they wanted to live, favoring beauty over beer, self-improvement over self-indulgence….To appreciate the finest in art and music is a trial for human nature; it calls for the hard work of breaking the cake of custom for the sake of discriminating pleasures running counter to the pressure for simplicity and mere relaxation in rare leisure hours.

Matters have changed little since the nineteenth century. I live in New York City, which is bursting to the seams with art, music of all stripes, opera, ballet, museums, theaters, live performances, film festivals, libraries, world-class universities–among many other sites of cultural production. And yet, thanks to my duties as a parent and a professor and the cost of living on some of the world’s most expensive real estate, I find myself, at most times, unable and unwilling to sample the pleasures of this gigantic smorgasbord of cultural offerings. Of course, I flirt with philistinism in not particularly caring for ballet, opera, or long days in museums, but you catch my drift.

Instead, on most occasions, I have to console myself that reading a book on the subway, reading an essay or two from the New York Review of Books at night in bed, or watching the products of this New Golden Age of Television i.e., an episode of a television series, is all the immersion in culture that I’m going to get. When the stars align, I watch a movie–or two!–on the weekends. At home.

The fear of “social descent” or worse, ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ descent stalks me too: Surely, I should do more to pursue my cultural edification and be capable of the hard yards required to edge myself up the totem pole of “discriminating pleasure”? (Just to prove, you know, that I’m not an impostor?) That old clash between the willing spirit and the enervated flesh gets in the way: the choice of watching avant-garde cinema or a Netflix original series late at night, after my wife and I have put our daughter to bed, is rather easily settled in favor of the latter; the cost of theater tickets quickly stay the hand reaching for a wallet when thoughts of daycare expenses cross my mind.

Ironically, as a graduate student, I worked harder to ‘consume’ culture. I often  disdained ‘narrative cinema’; I worked harder to find discounts in this rapacious city; I more often preferred “self-improvement over self-indulgence.” Perhaps I was more uncomfortable in my skin then; perhaps, now, more familiar with myself, I’m content to be pushed in directions that do not call for such heroic effort.