June 29, 2013
In Praise of Shadows
Dear Wafers and Waferettes:
On June 22 the Media Ecology Association presented me with their Neil Postman Award for Public Intellectual Activity at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, MI. They asked me to talk on any topic of my choice as the acceptance speech, and also said they would provide me, post-lecture, with a link to the video of the talk. As it turns out, it's going to take them several months to knock that link into shape. Now I know that most of you are sitting on the edge of your seats, waiting to see the video; so in lieu of that, at least for now, I decided to post the text of the talk. Hope you enjoy it.
I want to thank the Media Ecology Association for naming me as the recipient of this year’s Neil Postman Award, and for making it possible for me to be here with you today. It’s quite an honor for me, and I’m very grateful to you for it. Postman was a hero of mine, in the sense of being an honest and unsparing critic of American society, and I cite him a number of times in my own work. He had a natural talent for telling it like it is, and I’m hoping that I’ve been able to do something similar in the following talk. That was my intent, in any case.
In Praise of Shadows is the title of a little book by the celebrated Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, which he wrote in 1933. Tanizaki’s particular focus in that book is how the West tends to emphasize things such as concrete objects and bright light, whereas the East is more interested in empty space and shadows. It is a brilliant, if somewhat idiosyncratic, essay, and Tanizaki’s East-West dichotomy stayed with me years after I first read the work. I should add that his intuitive take on this issue was subsequently confirmed by a number of empirical, sociological studies, but that would be the subject of a separate lecture.
In any case I also want to talk about shadows today, but in a somewhat different context: not in terms of East vs. West, but rather in terms of depth vs. surfaces; although it turns that this latter distinction does overlap a bit with Tanizaki’s, as will become apparent later on. The conflict I am talking about occurred most sharply in the life of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who spent the first half of his life as a Platonist, and the second half as an anti-Platonist. I explored this curious contradiction in my book Wandering God, and also in a poem I wrote a few years ago called “Philosophical Investigations,” which was published in a collection entitled Counting Blessings. Allow me to test your patience for a moment by reading it.
Wandering through Wittgenstein’s house in Vienna
the one he built for his sister, Margarethe,
you can’t help thinking:
this is the Tractatus,
in the form of a building.
I mean, it’s so austere–
the masculine, Platonic lines
and the purely functional doorknobs.
Everything perfectly aligned, down to the last millimeter.
Wittgenstein did a complete flip in mid-life, of course,
deciding that the truth had to reside here on earth,
not in heaven.
Suddenly, it was all about context.
I wonder what that house would look like.
Couches with the stuffing coming out, maybe;
pigeons roosting on a window ledge
or even in the corner.
A few friends sleeping on the floor, perhaps,
clothes piled in a heap.
And lots of sex going on, too–
Platonists need not apply.
The first was a world without friction;
the second had nothing but.
Wittgenstein felt more at home in the second,
often entertaining his philosophy class at Cambridge
with examples from American detective stories.
But the first world refused to let him go;
there is, after all, something uncannily erotic about asceticism.
“The sense of the world must lie outside the world,”
he told a colleague the year before he died;
“in it there is no value,
it must lie outside all happening and being-so.
It must lie outside the world.”
He died in 1951,
declaring that he had had a wonderful life.
Sometimes I picture him as a pure spirit
floating above the world
shyly wondering if he is, in fact, the meaning of it.
The dichotomy is something like this: In Book 7 of the Republic, Plato imagines a scenario in which people are sitting around in a cave, staring at shadows on the wall in front of them. They take these shadows to be reality. But at some point, one member of the group leaves the cave and discovers a brilliant light located behind the shadow-watchers, which is the source of what they see on the wall. They are, he realizes, mistaking the shadows for reality. Our task, says Plato, is to leave the cave and become acquainted with the light; to sort out the real from the unreal. Unfortunately, he goes on, very few human beings are capable of doing this.
What might be examples of this phenomenon, a phenomenon I like to call “vertical”? We believe that the objects around us, with their physical properties of density, color, texture, and so on, are real; but read a few pages of any contemporary physics textbook and you will discover that the true reality is atomic particles and empty space, as Democritus asserted a long time ago. Or, we believe that human beings are basically rational, that they make decisions based on objective information. But read a few pages of any contemporary psychology text and you’ll discover that a good part of the time we are in the grip of drives, instincts, and unconscious forces that have their origins in early childhood. Third example: Most Americans believe that the two major political parties in the United States are poles apart, offering very different conceptions of the good life. But a serious examination of their respective histories reveals differences only in terms of style, not substance: Empire vs. Empire Lite, as the Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff once put it. (Franklin Roosevelt’s historical role, for example, was to save capitalism, not to destroy it, as his enemies still believe. Virtually all American historians agree with this assessment.)
That, in any case, is the light-behind-the-shadows approach, the “vertical” argument, and it does illuminate quite a lot, it seems to me; it is a powerful methodology. But the approach of the “horizontal” school, as exemplified by the later Wittgenstein and phenomenologists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is rather different. What it says is that there is no light; it’s all shadows, and the shadows happen to be fully real. “Depths are on the surface,” as Wittgenstein put it; what you see is what you get. The gross physical body, said Merleau-Ponty, is the reality; it’s much more than a collection of atoms. It suffers, it experiences sexual desire, and it sends subliminal messages to other bodies. It is hardly a mechanical assemblage of parts.
To take the example of politics once again: In terms of vertical analysis, it seems clear enough by now who the real Mr. Obama is. He is the man who appointed as his economic advisers individuals who were espousing the very neoliberal ideology that led to the crash of 2008; and the man who ignored the plight of the poor and the unemployed after that crash, and instead funneled upwards of $19 trillion into the hands of Wall Street bankers—who subsequently gave themselves huge bonuses that he publicly approved of. He is the man who decried the senseless slaughter of children in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, while sending predator drones to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which just happen to murder children on a regular basis. According to the New York Times, the president holds “Terror Tuesdays” meetings with his national security advisors every week, during which they discuss which suspected terrorists should be assassinated by drones. In one-third of these cases, says the Times, Mr. Obama selects the targets himself—targets that have included American citizens. He talks of the great freedom enjoyed by citizens of our democracy, and at the same time aggressively persecutes whistleblowers and has his intelligence agencies collecting information on practically every man, woman, and child in the United States, as recent revelations have shown. An analysis of this year’s State of the Union Address by Shamus Cooke (on Counter Punch, 19 February 2013) showed how that speech was coded so that the corporate elite would understand that they would be increasingly in control of American society. To conclude that the president is basically a corporate and military shill, despite the veneer of faint liberal rhetoric that he occasionally comes out with, is hardly rocket science at this point. This is what a vertical analysis tells us.
However, if we look at Obama horizontally, as a “real shadow,” so to speak, we discover a much subtler reality. Who is Barack Obama, in fact? If you look into his eyes, through the medium of television or newspaper photographs, you see a certain type of vacancy there. Rhetoric, after all, is just rhetoric; beneath it lies an empty person. He’s chic, he’s poised, and in a spiritual sense he stands for nothing at all. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat captured this quite accurately when he wrote, last month, that Obama is basically a performance. The man is a shell; he lacks an inner moral compass, which is why Wall Street and the Pentagon and the National Security Agency were able to seduce him so easily. Since he is an empty vessel, he was quickly filled up with the agendas of the wealthy and the powerful, such that even genocide is now part of his own agenda. Of course, the type of vacancy I’m talking about can also be seen in the eyes of Mr. Clinton, Bush Jr. and Sr., or Mitt Romney—remember him?—who was little more than a walking haircut, and one of the emptiest individuals to have ever graced the American political stage. But what does it mean, that the American people want “hollow men,” as T.S. Eliot once put it, to represent them? (Romney, after all, garnered 47% of the popular vote.) As the comedian George Carlin once put it, “Where do you think our leaders come from? Mars?
This finally takes us into media ecology, the larger picture, because horizontal analysis goes way beyond merely identifying these individuals as the mouthpieces of the rich and powerful. They are; but they are also the mouthpieces of nearly everyone else in the United States, which is why they get elected to office, and why the choice always boils down to Tweedledum vs. Tweedledee. What American, for example, doesn’t buy into the American Dream? Why do soup kitchens and tent cities across the United States fly the American flag above them, in a strange parody of patriotism? As John Steinbeck put it many years ago, in the U.S. the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And as I argue in Why America Failed, the goal of the settlers on the North American continent, as far back as the late sixteenth century, has been capital accumulation—“the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson subsequently called it. In March of last year, the Pew Charitable Trust released the results of a poll that revealed that most Americans have no objection to the existence of a small, wealthy elite—the famous 1%. Not at all. Their goal is to become part of that elite, and they are deluded enough to think that they can. This is one reason why the Occupy Wall Street movement had such a short lease on life, and why social inequality was a nonissue in the last presidential election, not even mentioned in the pre-election debates. Rich or poor, nearly every American wants to be rich, and in fact sees this as the purpose of life. In this sense, we have the purest democracy in the history of the world, because ideologically speaking, the American government and the American people are on the same page. To quote Calvin Coolidge, “The business of America is business.” Hustling is what America has always been about.
This is why our elected leaders have a vacant quality about them. After all, the American Dream is about a world without limits, about always having More. But More is not a spiritual path, nor is it a philosophy of life. It has no content at all, and this why, when you look into the eyes of an Obama or a Clinton or a Hillary Clinton—probably our next president—you see not merely nothing, but a kind of terrifying nothingness. Unfortunately, this vacant look characterizes a lot of the American population as well: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, as the medieval alchemists were fond of saying. Once again, this is evidence of a pure democracy: nobodies elect nobodies to office, and then everyone wonders “what went wrong.” All of this reflects the power of horizontal understanding: what you see is what you get.
Let me dwell just a moment on this business of the emptiness of American life, because I really think it goes to the heart of the matter. I first became aware of the reality of this phenomenon in the late seventies, when I was living in San Francisco and some art gallery mounted a collection of photographs of anonymous European faces from the twenties and thirties. What struck me was the depth and complexity of those faces, and how different they were from American faces, which tend to be rather bland. I began to notice this more and more as the years went on. Then last month I happened to be in Barcelona, and the Museum of Modern European Art hosted an exhibition of twentieth-century Catalan sculpture—most of it consisting of busts of ordinary people—and again, one sees a real presence in these faces, a real self-awareness; there is no mistaking it. Finally, the very next day I went to MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and discovered that there was a collection of portraits on display by the English photographer Craigie Horsfield, of people in Barcelona in 1996, for which Horsfield was nominated for the Turner Prize. Once again, the sense of an interior life was so dramatically present in the eyes and expressions of these folks, and someone—perhaps the curator of the exhibition—wrote of Horsfield’s work: “His individual portraits remind us of the configuration of a civil society in which dissent remains as alive as ever.” I immediately flashed on the film Compliance, which was released last year, a fictional reconstruction of an event that took place more than seventy times in more than thirty states, in which someone impersonated a police officer over the phone and got his fellow Americans to unquestioningly do whatever he asked, no matter how outrageous or degrading. This is a sad X-ray of the American psyche, revealing the complete absence of an inner voice. At the end of the movie, the woman who caused the most damage as a result of her blind obedience is interviewed on television, and all she wants to discuss is the weather in New Orleans. What else would one expect, however, in a nation in which the cultural icons are not Garcia Lorca or Picasso, but Tony Robbins and Donald Trump? A nation that, to quote Barbara Ehrenreich, is vapidly “Bright-Sided,” thinks Oprah is a sage, and has literally no understanding of the tragic dimensions of life. A nation whose people wear smiley buttons and constantly tell each other to “Have a nice day!” No vertical analysis is required here: the reality of our situation is staring us in the face. Tomas Young, a dying Iraq War veteran, put it this way in a letter he wrote to Bush and Cheney: “Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and power cannot mask the hollowness of your character.”
The problem with the philosophy of More is that More, as already noted, doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning. After all, once you have it, you then want—More! That’s the American Dream. But the awareness of this dynamic—assuming we ever get to that point—puts us in a particular bind, at least as far as serious social change is concerned. We are finally talking about a kind of conversion experience; and beyond the individual level, which is itself no small achievement, that can only happen when history presents us with a no-win situation. The bald fact is that we cannot maintain the American Dream—now foolishly being pursued by the Chinese—because we are running out of resources, oil in particular. The American Dream cannot survive without energy, and lots of it. Our conversion to a different mental outlook will thus come in the form of a crunch, in which the subdued lights and the quiet shadows—I mean this in Tanizaki’s sense, i.e. a kind of austerity, or Zen restraint—will get praised because we can no longer afford to have the bright lights burning 24/7. The Russian-American sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, called this the shift from a “sensate” culture to an “ideational” one, and it is this shift that we are now caught up in. If history is any guide, it won’t be a whole lot of fun, because when you’ve been doing something for a long time it becomes very hard to shift gears. It’s a little like detoxing from heroin, I suspect. But there could be a few benefits as well. Let me conclude by suggesting what they might be.
1. Under the American Dream, people waste their lives by never being present in them. (To quote George Carlin once again, “They call it the American Dream because you’ve got to be asleep to believe it.”) Since the goal is More, real life is seen as always on the horizon, always about to start at some future point. It’s an absurd way to live, when you think about it. One reason I moved to Mexico several years ago is that despite the heavy Americanization of Mexican society, there still remains the vestige, the ambience, of a traditional culture, one not constantly trying to get somewhere. Americans tend to laugh at this “mañana” culture, but I doubt they are going to have the last laugh. The truth is that they don’t know what they are missing, and it should come as no surprise that the U.S. consistently ranks below Mexico in world happiness polls. Most days for me begin by getting up, making myself a cup of tea, and sitting on the couch and staring into space for an hour, thinking of nothing in particular. I can’t really describe the pleasure of this wu wei, as it is called in ancient Chinese philosophy—this nondoing—except to say that I wish it for all of us. The freedom from an agenda may be one of the greatest freedoms around.
2. As the consumer society, and the American Dream, continue to disintegrate, many will experience a severe crisis of meaning, inasmuch as prior to the crunch, meaning was to be found in the latest technological gadget or piece of software or brand of lip gloss. I see lots of nervous breakdowns on the horizon. But as one droll observer once put it, the trick is to convert a nervous breakdown into a nervous breakthrough. After all, twentieth-century life offeredhuman beings in the West, at least, a set number of master narratives—communism, fascism, and consumerism, primarily—so that they might be able to avoid that most terrifying of all questions: Who am I? As the I Ching tells us, crisis means danger plus opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great to discover that one was more than one’s career, for example, or one’s car? That opportunity is going to present itself, sooner or later. For many, it already has.
3. Along with all this there might be a shift in the definition of happiness. Now there’s an interesting thought. The damage that the American Way of Life has done to community, friendship, sexual relations, daily social interaction, the family, the workplace, and the nature of work itself, is colossal. This loss has been documented in volume after volume of studies of contemporary American society; most famously, I suppose, in Robert Putnam’s book of 2000, Bowling Alone; although in a qualitative sense, Neil Postman anticipated Professor Putnam’s statistical findings by quite a few years. In any case, we now have many such studies at our disposal, including novels, such as Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, a depressing book that shows that we have no real freedom at all. There are also a number of stunning films on the costs of this way of life, such as Margin Call, with Jeremy Irons, or Up in the Air, with George Clooney, or Compliance, which I already referred to. “A good deal of modern American culture,” writes Thomas Lewis in A General Theory of Love, “is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most.” That the systematic destruction of all these things—community, friendship, and so on—might come to an end, is in my view a cause for celebration. In fact, for some Americans, at least, it might mean the return of what it means to be human. Typically, neighbors in the U.S. have no relationship with each other and don’t even know each other’s names. Children barely see their parents, who throw money at them—if they have money to throw—in lieu of loving them or even talking to them. None of this, I wish to point out, requires vertical analysis; these things speak for themselves, as, for example, Franzen’s novel makes abundantly clear. They say asmuch about the vapidity of American life as the vacant look in the president’s eyes, or the empty rhetoric of his speeches. You get my point.
In any case, these are some of the benefits that we might receive if and when the current way of life can no longer be maintained. Taken as a whole, they add up to the remark made 150 years ago by the Victorian art critic and social reformer, John Ruskin, whom Mahatma Gandhi called the single greatest influence on his way of thinking: “There is no wealth but life.” (Gandhi’s version of this was, “I have no message; my life is my message.”) Ruskin would have agreed with both Wittgenstein and Tanizaki, I suspect, that it’s the shadows that have the most to teach us.
©Morris Berman, 2013