The lens of insanity

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Perhaps there’s a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. … equality is a great goal, [but] we’ve interpreted it to mean cultural conformity … The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. Ignorance is cool.

There’s also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. … Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.

Social media doesn’t democratise debate. … Snark triumphs over insight, and commentary is reserved for those with voluminous folds of scar-tissue.

Alecia Simmonds (14 May 2013), ‘Why Australia hates thinkers’, UNSW Sydney Newsroom.

Originally written as a rebuttal for social media demands that comment be short, simple-minded, and devoid of erudition, my editorial examines why such demands are in fact anti-intellectualism that aims at the progressive infantilization of people and subject matters.

In light of how such simple-mindedness plays to right wing extremism, conspiracy theories, and disinformation in the contemporary world, I have edited the piece to make the case for rejecting any dogmatic requirement for simple language or concepts.

Simmonds has a point in the opening quote.  In some small way I have experienced this personally, with friends and strangers sometimes mocking me for ‘reading meanings into things that don’t exist’, or ‘talking like a ponce’, rather than in the grunts and murmurs she mentioned.

Simple language is often not capable of conveying complex meanings, or requiring so many more words that simplicity is obliterated in a tidal wave of loquaciousness. The reason the English dictionary contains many more words than are in common use is that many of these words are very precise terms that denote meanings which would take whole sentences to explain in more simple language.

Man looking at painting.

An inflexible demand for simple language is in effect a demand to patronize readers as if they were incapable of sophisticated thought, by flattening depth of meaning and removing nuance.

In some ways we can trace such doctrinaire demands to journalism schools and government style guides that urge us to write as if all people are no older or better educated than a 12-year-old child.

In that context, ignorance of the Western canon is forgivable for children, but hardly for adults, and yet, combined with an inflexible pursuit of depthless language, that ignorance gives us a patronizing demand that all people should actually think, speak, and write only like children.  A convenient strategy for social control, but not for understanding culture, politics, and society.  And not for active, meaningful civic participation in a democracy.

The implied aim of education used to be to learn what we did not yet understand, rather than demand that we be spoon-fed simplifications.  That ethic seems to have been extinguished by a rush to turn education solely into vocational training.

There is only one rule in the new doctrine of public writing that still makes sense: consider your audience. If the approach is ‘I am writing for credulous, ignorant, naïve children’, we can recognize in it a contemptuous conception of the audience as permanently inferior.  Conversely, if the approach is ‘I am writing for an audience of educated, engaged, interested adults’, is that not an egalitarian conception of the audience as a peer group, striving for depth and substance in their understandings?

In striving for depth and substance, it seems logical to build on the work of others rather than throwing out all human thinking to re-invent the wheel.  In that light, any inflexible demand to reject all or parts of the Western canon in critique is revealed as an intensely patronizing authoritarianism.

To reject such authoritarian motives, I offer a consideration of some of the pervasive ideas relevant to contemporary Western critique.

Entrée: empiricism’s stiff upper lip

In the late 19th century, British and American philosophy seemed entrenched in what has been called empiricism: the idea that all knowledge can be derived only by sensory experience.  Today that is often taken to mean we must have empirical evidence for our propositions, where such evidence is the observation and documentation of patterns capable of being universally applicable.

There is a great deal of utility in such an approach in the sciences, but not when applied to concerns about human ends and cultural endeavours.  Anyone who tells you that we can understand art by throwing a statistical curve over common opinion is a fool.  All we can understand by such methods is what common opinions are.

Empiricism, when applied to social and cultural aspects of being human, has become a reductionism, demanding that in a clockwork universe, which we understand through the sciences, people and their concerns can be understood if we just think of people as no more than complex machines.  That human experience is only valid if it can be replicated across all humankind.

What twaddle.

In continental Europe, other ways of thinking about human qualities and social dynamics were being explored as separate from self-contained and autocratic ‘scientific’ models.

It might be argued that the absence of native non-empirical philosophical schools in the US and Britain explains the strong attachment in both societies to determinist models for political economy and social control, purged of ethics and æsthetics.

Luckily Anglo-American thought is sometimes influenced by external thinkers.

The Germans, …

Sigismund Schlomo Freud is best known today for his assertions that human actions are underpinned by psycho-sexual urges, and that these urges include many common ‘deviances’ or abnormalities. In men these are said to be caused by the Œdipal complex of sexually desiring the mother, and substitutes for her after infancy.

Sigmund Freud photo.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

Freud argued there are distinct stages of psycho-sexual development, moving from the oral, to the anal, to the phallic, with unnatural or handicapped development causing relapse to the initial stages via oral fixations (smoking, alcoholism, excessive eating), anal fixations (OCD, anxiety disorders), and aberrations of the normal phallic (which is said to be conventional heterosexuality) to hedonistic, excessive, or deviant levels. In that conception there was little room for homosexuality or women, except as addenda about anal fixation, licentiousness, and penis envy. Post-Freudians developed more inclusive theories.

Freud proposed another very pervasive theory: that we are animated as people by the primitive and impulse-driven ‘id’ of instinct and desire, which is mediated by a stern and rule-driven ‘ego’, possibly created via socialization and upbringing, and that the battle between the unprincipled urges, and the sternly rule driven self-repression is mediated by the ‘superego’, which invokes education, reasoning and the ability to interpose social contexts for impulses and self-denial.

An adjunct to Freudianism is psychoanalysis-the process of talking through issues to expose subconscious problems. The tools of psychoanalysis have become deeply embedded in Westerns societies through the manipulation of subconscious desires via propaganda and advertising, pioneered most notably in the USA by Freud’s nephew, Edward Louis Bernays (1891-1995).

Carl Jung photo.
Carl Jung (1865-1961).

Carl Gustav Jung was at first Freud’s disciple, and then his rival. He adds to critical literary theory the concepts of meaningful dream symbolism, or human archetypes, from which was developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and of metaphysical elements to psychological makeup, like complexes associated with arrested development or trauma. He conceived of a ‘collective’ unconsciousness of common symbolism and impulses, and the notion of ‘acausal synchronicity’ (coincidence) that acquire or already have meaning through completely unrelated insights.

In film, for example, we can see the adaptation of the Freudian id to stories about psychopaths, as in the Hannibal Lecter films and television series.  Alfred Hitchcock made use of dream sequences and psychological triggers in his thrillers.  And the idea of synchronicity drives many comedies and dramas that turn on unexpected events or human reactions.

… the French, …

Ferdinand de Saussure photo.
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed that linguistic units should be evaluated on the basis of their relationship to the social, political, and economic circumstances creating or valuing them. That is, what is the culture-specific significance of communicating something in a specific way rather than another? He also suggested that ‘signs’, such as words and idiom in written language, or images, lighting, and colour palettes in film scenes, are composed of ‘signifiers’ (words, images) and ‘signifieds’ (an intended or fixed meaning), but that the signs used to do that are related to signifiers and signifieds only abstractly.

This theme is important to later assumptions that meaning is constructed not entirely by intention, but also by the subjectivity brought to signs by their interpreters. In other words, you and I might interpret the words in the same scene of a television episode quite differently because we bring different subjectivities to the story, even if the words and images of the episode do not change, and the writers, directors, and actors might have had intentions different from both our interpretations.

The concept denies that there is only ever one true and fixed meaning to any fixed set of words or actions. Many artists and writers count on the fact that their audiences will bring many different perspectives to the work, and therefore derive many different meanings from that work, expanding its cultural significance beyond time and place.

De Saussure’s linguistic theories are today regarded as quaint and superseded, but their influence remains in the works of others, such as French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who proposed that understanding the significance of people in their social contexts relies on an understanding of their relationships to other people.

Claude Lévi-Strauss photo.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009).

This concept can be highly important to interpreting and understanding otherwise unexplained relationships in fictions, because we can compare these to relationships more fully explained in the fiction, other fictions, or through personal life experience. For example, a fictional, ambiguous motif of marriage breakdown becomes much more meaningful when we compare it with other, more explicit explanations, or even directly personal experiences. Even if my personal experiences differ from yours, the method of comparing something not quite understood with something that seems more clear creates a common ground that helps us to understand each other despite our differences.

Lévi-Strauss proposed that myths are startlingly common across cultures, and function with pairs of binary oppositions that appear to cancel each other out to create some harmonious equilibrium.  This idea would explain some very common themes in narratives, like the hero’s quest, the redemption tale, or good vs bad oppositions in morality tales, and so on. This idea would certainly support a contemporary habit of proposing that all conflict is a binary opposition, as opposed to a pluralism not conceived of as necessarily leading to or resolving conflict.

Jaqcues Lacan photo.
Jaqcues Lacan (1901-1981).

French psychotherapist Jaqcues Lacan described himself as a Freudian, but was and remains definitely something else altogether.

He split the initially Freudian and incomplete theory of ‘otherness’ into two distinct phenomena. One is the ‘specular’ (mirror image) recognition of self as holding potential for desired traits and attributes, but also as a reservoir of hidden realities not visible to others. The second otherness is the alien, external ‘other’ that is represented by actual other people. That latter otherness is morphed into something more complex by friends as much as by strangers, who may seem at times impenetrable to our understandings, even by the Levi-Straussian method of social comparison.

The idea of otherness is a frequent theme in literary fictions dealing with outsiders, or using odd characters and unusual circumstances to gradually reveal a new or novel way of thinking and behaving.

Michel Foucault photo.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984).

Michel Foucault added complexity rather than new or adapted theory to the existing schools of thought, proposing that ‘history’ and ‘progress’ are in fact representations of ideologies of power, striving to maintain power relationships by normalizing their descriptions of history as progress rather than maintenance of a status quo.  This is a device often used in war films, and superhero fictions, where protagonists claim to be defending freedom, truth, or justice, rather than supporting a status quo in political economy or social control.

Another layer of complexity is added to all of this by Jacques Derrida, who proposed quite boldly that Hegel and Marx were wrong to argue that there is a constant dialectic reconciling conflicting ideas via a synthesis, thus creating new, better ideas. Instead, he said, we can understand human artifacts and motivations only by ‘deconstructing’ them into component parts, and by keeping the deconstructed elements separate and void of the meanings they had in combination. Many people use Derrida’s work to justify all sorts of nonsense, but he made no claim as to what the product of deconstruction should be, instead posing that question to us.

Jacques Derrida photo.
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004).

We can see this idea in every fiction with a plot twist no one expected, and in detective fictions that strip away appearances to get at the ‘truth’.  We can use this idea to examine ideological messages in fictions by separating them out from characters and plot.

Derrida’s greatest value to any critic is his demand that we think earnestly and hard to pursue our own conclusions and judgements, based on our own reasoning and observations.

Louis Althusser gave us the concept of ‘interpellation’ or being ‘called on’ by ideology as its subject, meaning as a loyal and faithful servant of that ideology. In proposing that various institutions and organs of state perpetuate an ideology that ensures their own survival, Althusser suggested that this ideology reduces individuals to ‘always already’ its subjects, being hailed by repetitive propaganda that reinforces a message stating that the aims of the ideology have always existed, have always been legitimate, and require us to behave as subjects as if we have always been only that.

Louis Althusser photo.
Louis Althusser (1918-1990).

Althusser suggested this is a lie, and that a currently dominant ideology arises from social and economic power relations.  The dominant ideology is maintained by the uncritical collaboration of people in its narratives, no matter that it works against their own interests.

In fictions this is often illustrated by characters and themes that seek to make us pick sides: the ‘decent’ people against criminals; the grateful public in superhero fictions; the underdog success story through hard work and humility. In its inverted form, it gives us the anti-hero, and ‘respectable’ people exposed as the ‘real’ bad guys.

Cultural critic Roland Barthes offers some complementary thoughts on ‘authors’, or creators of original work, who stimulate thought and reaction in audiences. He suggested they have been largely supplanted by ‘scriptors’ who merely re-arrange old ‘texts’ or pre-existing meanings to create variations on themes.  Hence we see some old myths re-worked endlessly, as per the hero’s quest, the redemption story, and so on.

Roland Barthes photo.
Roland Barthes (1915-1980).

It should be noted that the term ‘text’, as used by Barthes, refers to any method of creating meaning, not just written works.

Barthes also introduced into the language of critics the parallel notion of ‘writerly’ texts that demand some participation by the audience to interpret and create meaning, and ‘readerly’ texts that ask only passive consumption of pre-determined meanings and notionally fixed interpretations. Writerly texts include, for example, most cinema described as ‘art house’, while readerly texts can be seen in advertising and marketing, propaganda, and some morality tales.

… and the Germans, again

Herbert Marcuse photo.
Herbert Marcuse (1889- 1979).

Herbert Marcuse was a leading figure of the Frankfurt School, which decamped to Columbia University after the rise of Hitler in Germany.  In 1955 he published the utopian thesis Eros and Civilization, in which he argued the case for sexual liberation, and for a kind of sensual hedonism.

There is no shortage of messaging about sexual liberation in contemporary culture, Marcusian and otherwise.

In Marcuse’s 1964 critique, One Dimensional Man, he argued that contemporary social formation is dominated by the bureaucratic, administrative processes of institutions and organizations, like universities, state bureaucracies, and corporations. These influences work both to normalize the logics of having such structures in the first place, and to preserve them, but also to impose a deadening surrender to their hierarchies and internal bureaucratic processes.  Similar to, but not the same as Althusser’s interpellation.

From Kafka to television sit-coms, we see a never-ending use of fictional bureaucratic madness and stultification as a device to explain frustration or gain amusement about such absurdities.

In addition, Marcuse argued, a ‘false consciousness’ was being created and perpetuated in people’s minds by the influences promoting consumerism, leading people to confuse their identities with qualities derived from the products they buy (for example, a car or house as status symbol). In acquiring and pursuing this false consciousness, people lose the power of ‘negative thought’, which is closely aligned to my conception of critical analysis, but also to Derrida’s deconstruction, in that it works only by disassembling into the component elements of any argument or message in order to recognise how it functions, and, most importantly, for what purpose. Who is served by any argument or proposition?

That concept has been employed in many fictions about conspiracies and the emptiness of ‘normal’ lives.  David Fincher’s Fight Club is a notable fictional treatment of false consciousness.

Some critics accuse the USA of cultural imperialism, through its ubiquitous export of film and television, suggesting a deliberate attempt to normalize American ideology, practices, and conventions in societies where they may not fit, or are resented as a corrosive and alien false consciousness.

Jürgen Habermas photo.
Jürgen Habermas (1929-).

Jürgen Habermas offers many powerful ideas, including the assertion that everything must be open to critique, closely allied to a pluralism that admits all intellectual disciplines into the sphere of any critique; any critique may borrow from the separate, sometimes artificially segregated academic disciplines of history, art, anthropology, the sciences, linguistics, politics, and anything else that seems appropriate.  That may seem obvious, but undercut extant academic claims to expertise only through specialization, and demarcation of topics validly addressed only by a corresponding expertise.  For example, what business is it of a fine artist to talk political economy, or an economist to talk film critique?

Pluralism also admits that in all circumstances there may be a variety of conclusions, or options.  They may appear to be mutually exclusive, but are not rendered invalid because of it. In other words, there are no right or wrong answers, only a range of options from which to choose, and there is no rule that says choosing one means negating another, or that elements of more than one option cannot be chosen simultaneously, even if that seems to be denied by our cultural habit of reducing our debates to binary oppositions.

In some senses, Habermas punctuates a stream of thought flowing from Saussure to Barthes to Derrida, which implies the creation of meaning to transcend any one intention or outcome.

Habermas proposes that thought is hard work, that critique is difficult, and that the cheap, easy option is to condemn ideas and options not favoured rather than looking to them for useful features. He appeals to my instinct to pillage all ideas for what I find useful rather than abandoning whole tranches of them because some features are odious, or binding myself wholesale to appealing ones despite their flaws, like people do with religions and ideology.

The most direct influence of Habermas on critique is his meta-critique, meaning his thinking on what a critique reveals about the critic.  But also, about what is not discussed in fictions.  For example, how many innocent people die in the carnage created by superhero battles?  For every underdog rising to the top through hard work, how many fail?  In the patriotic war film, do the enemy not have emotions, families, and loved ones, or are they just empty vessels of ‘badness’?

Moreover, Habermas’s ideas draw attention to ourselves as audiences, and how we participate in fictions, not as passive sponges absorbing intended meanings in isolation from the factors that gave rise to the fiction in the first place.  We are reminded that art and culture are influenced, encouraged, and limited by political economy.

Independence of thought

Both simple-minded cultural studies scholars, and their simple-minded conservative critics, appear curiously hostile and dismissive of people who adopt ideas eclectically, and without commitment to any one school of thought or thinker.

Both seem to demand a literalist interpretation, reducing complexity to simple-minded slogans, and turning speculation into ideology. It is rather like a fundamentalist Christian demand that selected parts of the Old Testament be seen as literal truth, and therefore as an inflexible, authoritarian doctrine.

That attitude strikes me as the attempt to reduce the subjects of critique to a more tractable quantity, so that human perspectives and their contradictions can occur and succeed without the effort of independent and creative thinking in itself. As a means of avoiding personal judgement in deference to some monolithic and overpowering authority, which is not open to critique in itself.

Insisting on infantilizing ideas, or demanding a doctrinaire approach, is both lazy and cowardly. It negates the idea of personal freedom to assess and discuss, and eliminates the inconvenience of judging individual arguments on rationality and merit.

In that way, ‘cultural warriors’ reduce all ideas to one-dimensional cyphers, with most people conceived of as incapable of critical analysis or creative thought.

The discipline in applying the ideas mentioned here, and many more that are not mentioned, is not in being a faithful interpreter of someone else’s thinking, but about the nimbleness with which the ideas of others can be adapted and applied to contexts not contemplated by their original authors, or by subsequent elaborators.

If it is not immediately clear, I should stress that attempting to apply every and all ideas touched on here to all critique every time would be an exercise in insanity, like putting on a pair of spectacles that tints all things a shade of madness. Instead, the ideas should sit in the subconscious mind like a diverse and unspecialized intellectual toolkit, ready to be used only if and when a specific job appears to call for a specific tool.

Writing for an audience

Library photo.

Using some of the intellectual tools discussed here, we can see that the edict to write for 12-year-olds is not as altruistic as it seems. 

In journalism there is room for informed discussion and learned debate, not just simplification of message and language.  It’s just that Australia’s media landscape is so heavily dominated by the propaganda platforms of Rupert Murdoch and Nine Entertainment that we no longer have insightful commentary rather than ideological cant.

In government it may be wise to carry very simple messages most people can understand, regardless of literacy barriers, but when that occurs without also making available more detailed and complex information, what we get is ambiguity, not clarity, and an attitude favouring untoward secrecy and disinformation by public servants who think they don’t need to, or cannot, explain what they do and how, or who prefer not to reveal such details.

Both these examples of anti-intellectualism undermine liberal democracy, infantilize people, withhold meaningful information, and dumb down our society generally.

The purpose of critique has always been to illuminate ideas and opinions, to inform and spark discussion.  To aspire to more sophisticated perspectives on important issues than the ones peddled by politicians.  In literary critique, this effort turns to highlighting ideas and meanings which are more sophisticated than literal interpretations and throwaway clichés. To make this work, the writing has to be literate enough to draw on and explain ideas drawn from the Western canon.  If this were not the case, why bother with education and culture at all?  Why not just let bureaucrats and politicians tell us what to think and say?

I can think of few more horrifying thoughts.

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