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.

US Elections Invite External Intervention, As They Well Might

The Robert Mueller indictment of thirteen Russians for ‘interfering’ in the American elections of 2016 confirms the bad news: those elections were ‘influenced’–in some shape or form–by non-Americans. The extent of this ‘influence’ is unclear–whether they decisively swung the election to Donald Trump or not–but be that as it may, one fact remains established: among the various forces aiming to influence American voters minds as they exercised their electoral franchise were non-American ones. It is unclear whether the Russian Internet Agency coordinated with the Kremlin or with the Trump campaign, but they did ‘participate’ in the American electoral process.

One might well ask: why not? The entire world looks on with bated breath as an American president is elected; some wonder whether their country will benefit from US largess, yet others whether they will need to scurry for cover as cruise missiles, drones, and aircraft carriers are sent their way. Russians are not immune to such concern; they, like many of the world’s citizens, are as keen to see their national interests protected by the new US administration. They too have favorites: they would rather see one candidate elected than another. This is as true for American ‘friends’ as it is for ‘foes,’ precisely because those nations too, have varied interests and inclinations, which line up in varied and interesting ways behind different American candidates. Those ‘interests and inclinations’ too, jostle for representation in the American elections.

The US involves and implicates itself in the affairs of many sovereign nations; it places conditions on the aid it sends them; it too, is interested in who gets elected and where (or who comes to power through a coup); the American record of influencing elections and the choice of political leaders and administrations the world over is well known. (Consider just Iraq and Iran as examples.) The US cannot reasonably expect that such involvement and implication will remain unilateral; it especially cannot expect that the rest of the world will not express its interest in American elections by attempting to influence American voters’ choices. For instance, it is not at all unreasonable to expect that leading newspapers like the Guardian or Der Spiegel might write editorials endorsing particular American candidates and expressing sentiments like “We hope the American people will elect X; X‘s polices speak to the establishment of world peace, something that we here in country Y are most eager for.”

American elections have, by virtue of their increased prominence in the American political calendar, also become worldwide entertainment events; they invite punters to lay bets; they drive up television ratings of many television stations and websites–worldwide–on the night of the presidential debates and the election results. Americans are proud of this: look, the whole world is watching as we elect our leaders. Well, those folks want to participate too; they know the folks getting elected could make them lose their jobs, or worse, their lives. American election campaigns are conducted on the Internet; a global platform for communication and information transfer. This invites participation of a kind not possible in yesteryear, when non-Americans could only look on from afar as Americans debated among themselves on who to vote for; now, on Facebook and Twitter and many other internet forums those same folks can converse with Americans and participate in the American electoral process. Americans are used to this kind of participation and influencing on an informal basis: our European and South American and Asian and African friends often exclaim loudly how they hope we will elect X, not Y.

A global player, one as powerful and important as the US, one used to ‘participating’ in the affairs of the world, invites a corresponding participation in its policies; the world has long thought it would be nice if they got a say in electing the American president because of the reach and extent of American power. With American elections now ‘opened’ to the world–thanks to the Internet, that participation has begun.

The Bollywood War Movie And The Indian Popular Imagination  

In 1947, even as India attained independence from colonial subjugation, war broke out in Kashmir as guerrillas backed by Pakistan sought to bring it into the Pakistani fold. That war ended in stalemate after intervention by the UN. Since then, the fledgling nation of India has gone to war four more times: first, in 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru’s darkest hour, against China, a war that ended in a humiliating loss of territory and self-esteem, which left Nehru a broken man, and ultimately finished him off; then, in 1965, India and Pakistan fought their way to another inconclusive stalemate over Kashmir; in 1971, India fought a just war to bring freedom to the erstwhile East Pakistan, producing the new nation of Bangladesh in the process (war broke out on the western and eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly as the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later); finally, in 1999, India forced its old nemesis, Pakistan, back from the brink of nuclear war by pushing them off the occupied heights of Kargil. War is part of the story of the Indian nation; it continues to shape its present and the future. India, and its understanding of itself, has changed over the years; Bollywood has tried to keep track of these changes through its movies, in its own inimitable style. In a book project that I am working on, and for which I have just signed a contract with HarperCollins (India), I will examine how well it has succeeded in this task.  (I have begun making notes for this book and anticipate a completion date of May 31st 2018; the book will come to a compact sixty thousand words.)

In my book, I will take a close look at the depiction of war and Indian military history in Bollywood movies. I will do this by examining some selected ‘classics’ of the Bollywood war movie genre; by closely ‘reading’ these movies, I will inquire into what they say about the Indian cinematic imagination with regards to—among other things—patriotism, militarism, and nationalism, and how they act to reinforce supposed ‘Indian values’ in the process. Because Bollywood both reflects and constructs India and Indians’ self-image, this examination will reveal too the Indian popular imagination in these domains; how can Indians come to understand themselves and their nation through the Bollywood representation of war?

Surprisingly enough, despite India having waged these four wars in the space of merely fifty-one years, the Bollywood war movie genre is a relatively unpopulated one, and moreover, few of its movie have been commercial or critical successes. The Bollywood war movie is not necessarily an exemplary example of the Bollywood production; some of these movies did not rise to the level of cinematic or popular classics though their songs often did. This puzzling anomaly is matched correspondingly by the poor state of military history scholarship in India. My book aims to address this imbalance in two ways. First, by examining the Bollywood war movie itself as a movie critic might, it will show how these movies succeed or fail as movies qua movies and as war movies in particular. (Not all Bollywood war movies feature war as a central aspect, as opposed to offering a backdrop for the central character’s heroics, sometimes captured in typical Bollywood formulas of the romantic musical. This is in stark contrast to the specialized Hollywood war movie, of which there are many stellar examples in its history.) Second, by paying attention to the place of these wars in Indian popular culture, I will contribute to a broader history of these wars and their role in the construction of the idea of India. Nations are sustained by dreams and concrete achievement alike.

After a brief historical introduction to Bollywood, I will critically analyze selected movies–(Haqeeqat, 1971, Aakraman, Lalkaar, Border, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Hum Dono, Lakshya, LOC Kargil, Deewar (2004 version), Shaurya, Tango Charlie, and Vijeta)–beginning with post-WWII classics and chronologically moving on to more contemporary offerings. Along the way, I hope to uncover–in a non-academic idiom–changing ideas of the Indian nation, its peoples, and the Indian understanding of war and its relationship to Indian politics and culture as Bollywood has seen it. This book will blend cinematic and cultural criticism with military history; the wars depicted in these movies serve as factual backdrop for their critical analysis. I will read these movies like texts, examining their form and content to explore what they teach us about Bollywood’s attitudes about war, the effects of its violence on human beings, on the role of violence in human lives, on how romantic love finds expression in times of war, how bravery, cowardice, and loyalty are depicted on the screen. I will explore questions like: What does Bollywood (India) think war is? What does it think happens on a battlefield? Why is war important to India? What does Bollywood think India is, and why does it need defending from external enemies? Who are these ‘external enemies’ and why do they threaten India? How does Bollywood understand the military’s role in India and in the Indian imagination? And so on.

 

Prophecy And Propaganda As Compensatory Fantasy

In a footnote in his chapter on Herder in Three Critics of The Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p. 231), Isaiah Berlin writes:

Like other passionate propagandists, Herder pleaded for that which he himself conspicuously lacked. As sometimes happens, what the prophet saw  before him was a great compensatory fantasy. The vision of the unity of the human personality and its integration into the social organism by ‘natural’ means was the polar opposite of Herder’s own character and conduct….It has frequently been remarked that it is tormented and unbalanced personalities–Rousseau, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence–who celebrate with particular passion physical beauty, strength, generosity, spontaneity, above all unbroken unity, harmony and serenity, qualities for which they had an insatiable craving.

Great artists (writers) are very often ‘passionate propagandists’ and ‘prophets,’ and Berlin is right to note that their creative urges often manifest themselves in their theorizing–by the creation of alternative worlds that are decked out in the colors they find lacking in the ones they currently inhabit.

The prophet in particular, sustains his vision of the world he has seen by underwriting it with his own desires and imaginings; the world he describes is the world he would like realized; it is visible to him because  his longings make it come alive. The more acutely sensed the absence of a particular quality in the present world, the more vividly is its presence articulated in the dreamed of world, the more unambiguous the revelation. Berlin does not mention Freud here, but he might well have by his invocation of a ‘compensatory fantasy.’ The prophet’s visions and revelations are wish fulfillments; they make concrete, in relatively unambiguous form, his hitherto unconscious (or not) fantasies and desires and longings.

The propagandist, similarly, finds his pen and prose animated by these as yet unrequited longings; they bring his polemics to life; they make them stir and summon others to action. The successful propagandist is able to enlist and recruit others to help realize his desired for vision; the success of this task depends on how successfully he is able to transmute the force of his need into the clarity and beauty of his depiction of the desired state. Through his claims he can create a need where none had existed before; he is able to convince his ‘followers’ that his needs are theirs now; the desired for world is one whose absence they sense in their own lives.

Our theoretical frameworks are not just autobiographies, as Nietzsche had suggested, they are also fantasies of the way we would like the world to be. What we find lacking in our lives, we find instead in the theoretical claims we make, in the arguments we adduce in their favor. When we defend our theories and our arguments, we are not engaging in idle academic speculation (or should not be); we are (or should be) engaged in attempting to bring to life a hoped-for world whose presence we can dimly sense in thought and dream and fantasy.

A Modest Proposal To Cull The Human Herd

Feeding the elderly and the young i.e., the economically unproductive, is a terribly wasteful, irrational enterprise–programs like Meals on Wheels and after-school lunches are but the most glaring instances of this catastrophically misdirected act of charity; acts like these will never produce any tangible, meaningful results like an increase in the Gross Domestic Product or the Gross National Product, indeed, the Gross Product of anything whatsoever. The elderly and the young merely consume resources, among which is the most valuable of all, the time and attention of those who could be otherwise engaged in more useful and productive endeavors–all of which may be located in those zones of virtue and redemption, the workspace and the office of the corporation (not the public sector enterprise.) Parents all too often have to turn their eyes away from useful work to attend to the plaintive cries of their useless children, while on the other end of the age spectrum, those same workers have to minister to their useless parents, who continue to occupy space, drink drinking water, eat edible food, and contribute to this planet’s terrible climate change situation by increasing our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content. Children can at least be mildly amusing, while the elderly are anything but. Enough is enough; our civilization is at a genuine point of crisis.

Any strategy to ameliorate this state of affairs must begin with a recognition of our fundamental human nature: we are individuals, first and foremost. We are born free, radically independent of family and home and state; we die free, hopefully alone, all by ourselves. We take care of ourselves from the moment of our birth, tending to our needs with rugged solitary enterprise; we disdain the helping hand at every step. We feed ourselves, we clean ourselves, we clothe ourselves; we are pioneers of the spirit, heart, and mind. The company of other human beings is always an irritation, one only tolerated in our recognition of them as potential future consumers for the goods we will try to sell them at some point in the future.  The care of others is a burden; we need little care as we grow up, and indeed receive none, so why should we extend our care outwards? We were left by the wayside at birth; so must we do to others.

Faced with these incontrovertible facts about ourselves, a simple plan of action suggests itself for dealing with the problem of the too-young and the too-old: a gentle but firm shove over the edge. No more bleating for attention from the children; no more calls for assistance from the elderly. A population made up entirely of working-age adults is an economist’s delight; it should be our aspirational ideal, guiding our social and economic policies at every step; it should inform the moral instruction we provide to our child..er, each other. The qualms we might feel as we prepare to enact this policy are merely the vestiges of an archaic sensibility, one that must bow its head before the relentless logic of the economic enterprise, and the moral demands it places upon us.

The ‘Pundits’ Are Right: Exploiting War Widows Is Presidential

It’s a hoary tradition; it’s what you do. You fight a war; you send men and women to their deaths (after they’ve sent other men and women and children to their deaths); then, at home, you make plans to fight another war, and you beat the war drums and fill up the war chests by parading the widows and the orphans out in the open for all to see. Here they are, the mourners; let us look somberly and seriously upon their grief-stricken faces, the evidence of the devastation of war all too apparent, and let us–while acknowledging their sacrifice–make plans to wage more war, kill more men and women and children, here and elsewhere, so we can find ourselves here, perhaps in a cemetery, perhaps in a legislative chamber, doing this all again, preparing to fight another war.

All those who wage war do it. It’s how you keep war going. The war dead are gone, consigned to the flames, or lowered six feet under; their families live on, as props in a grotesque stage-managed farce. The dead’s bodies are gone; but other modes of existence are still available to be called upon. As are those they leave behind.

Last night, Donald Trump invoked a poorly planned and executed raid that resulted in the deaths of a US Navy Seal and–let us not forget–several civilians, including women and children, to pay homage to the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, then attending Trump’s speech to the US Congress. Rather predictably, American punditry hailed this moment as ‘presidential,’ a sign that Donald Trump had acquired some new-found gravitas.

The pundits are right. Trump was indeed presidential at that moment. Presidents declare war; they are the Commanders-in-Chief; they sign the orders that kill. And then, to keep fighting wars, they engage in public embraces of the families of the dead, clasping their hands tightly, delivering beautifully drafted and crafted speeches, calling for ovations, and invoking the notion of being ‘blessed.’ (Donald Trump was honest enough to make sure the spotlight swung back to him by making note of how the resultant standing ovation had been the longest ever, thus once again fueling intense speculation about whether his hands are the only small part of his body.)

These acts of exploitation are part of a long-standing tradition called ‘honoring the troops.’ They are ostensibly displays of patriotism and nationalism; they are how a ‘grateful nation’ shows its appreciation of the ‘ultimate sacrifice.’ Everyone stands up; everyone claps; the pundits watching sagely nod their heads and comment on how intensely moving the moment was, how the nation ‘comes together’ at times like these, putting aside their political differences, and preparing to move on.

Greater horse shit hath no man.

There is a simple, less mawkish, less exploitative, less expensive way to honor the war dead, to recognize their ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ to ‘support our troops’: stop fighting wars. Bring home mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Get soldiers’ families off the stage, and back home.

Trump Campaign Rallies And Presidential Imagery

Donald Trump kicked off the 2020 election season with a campaign rally in Florida last night. These campaign rallies enable Trump to keep lines of communication–besides his Twitter account–open to his faithful; they rejuvenate his ego, one presumably battered by the endless ridicule heaped on him by his political opponents; they enable him to switch from his usual self-pitying moaning to his preferred mode of narcissistic boasting; they allow him to send out a message that will be faithfully amplified by a media eager for ‘newsworthy events’; he is, after all, the President.

If the staging of these rallies is any indication, they will supply a stream of rhetorically powerful imagery–the awesome paraphernalia of the American Presidency is now Trump’s to command–that will animate his public presence over the next four years. Trump is not just any ordinary candidate now; he is an elected President running for reelection, supported by a party which controls both houses of the legislative branch.

The American polity should have thought long and hard about how it has, over the years, allowed the pomp and circumstance of the Presidency to continue to increase to levels that resemble those of the monarchs of days gone by. Servant of the people? I think not. Those who occupied the Oval Office before Trump have left many loaded weapons lying around for him to use: the disregard of the legislative branch in the declarations of war; disrespect of the judicial branch; and of course, a wallowing in the perks and privileges of residency in the White House.

During the 2012 election season–in response to Charles Blow criticizing Mitt Romney for speaking ‘rudely’ to Barack Obama during a presidential debate–I made note here of how we seemed to have become excessively reverential of the presidency, and by association, of presidents too:

Blow feels the need to remind us, in a tone of reverential, devotional awe: ‘the president of the united states!’  Is he hoping to make us fall on our knees? This is the president, the unitary executive, the person put in place to ensure a republic which would otherwise do just fine with a legislative branch also possesses an entity capable of making snap decisions. Why, then, the need for such excessive deference?

Blow is not alone in these constant provisions of reminders to respect and be suitably awed by the president and his office. The White House, the presidential galas, the gun salutes; these are archaic expressions of monarchical times gone by. But the president is a political leader; he has arisen from conflict; he presides over conflict. It’s acceptable to be in conflict with him and his office. The president can be disagreed with, he can be debated; he needs to explain himself and his actions like anyone else.  Disagreements with the president need not be confined to print, they can be verbal too. And when they are verbal, they can sound edgy (like most disagreements between adults are). ‘Déclassé and indecorous’? Dunno. Politics isn’t really the space for decorum.

Well, the indecorous are here, and they intend to use the presumption of respect to their fullest advantage.

Note: The perennial election season, a perpetual motion electoral machine, has long been staring the American polity in the face, nipping at its heels, breathing down its neck–pick your favorite metaphor, and it works–for many years now. It is finally here. Talk of opposing Democratic candidates began on November 10th, 2016, and it won’t stop till November 3rd, 2020. Talk of the 2024 election will, of course, begin on November 4th 2020. Trump filed papers as a candidate for the 2020 election on the day he was inaugurated. His filing was a deft political move:

Having filed…as a candidate, Trump would be able to coordinate with PACs and other similar organizations. More importantly, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations would no longer be able to engage in “political speech” which could theoretically affect the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election without running the risk of losing their nonprofit status. The move effectively bars interest groups from creating nonprofits which they could funnel money into for the purposes of opposing Trump’s initiatives. This will likely create chaos for political opponents of Trump such as George Soros, who has sunk significant amounts of money into various nonprofit groups with the intent of opposing Trump’s government.