Through a strange set of circumstances involving Chicken John Rinaldi – and are there ever any other sorts of circumstances involving Chicken John? – I have tracked down the 1992 volume “Voltaire’s Bastards,” by John Saul, a book sadly both out of print and not available in ebook form.
It’s terrific reading so far: intriguingly, Saul’s thesis about the rise of “Reason” and the technocrats feels both incredibly fresh and germane and completely out of touch with modern reality. The internet would become a fact of life for elite America just five years after Voltaire’s Bastards was published, and 10 years after that it would be a nearly ubiquitous fact of life. And we’re still 10 years past that, well into the world of Uber and Facebook.
This is a series of events which Saul’s thesis has everything to say about, but on which it is utterly silent owing to its year of publication. Its silence on these critical issues is deeply frustrating: to my mind Saul’s thesis is enhanced by the development of online technology, but the examples he actually uses are dated and almost quaint. This matters in a way that it does not in a book like Walden or Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, because Voltaire’s Bastards is speaking to a very specific set of historical contingencies rather than to the timeless nature of the human self.
Continue reading Education in the technocratic age (notes from Voltaire’s Bastards)
I can’t tell you how delighted I was to read this statement by bell hooks in a recent interview:
“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail. Humor is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community.”
The value of humor is completely overlooked in both revolutionary pedagogy and critical theory – one suspects because revolutionaries and critical theorists don’t like to admit how funny they are. Another reason: and revolutions are often pursued by the kind of people who like to think that if they just explain things hard enough everything will fall in line. But humor is a pure demonstration of the fact that not all things in life are reducible to reason or amenable to politics – and that therefore revolution and theory have their limits.
Continue reading The Revolution will not be humorous
“Like literary theory at a later time, analytical philosophy was a game hard to get out of after you had started drawing the salary.”
– Clive James, “Cultural Amnesia,” discussing the impact of Ludwig Wittgenstein on philosophy and culture.
Okay, maybe this one only amuses me. But I still wish I’d said it first.
This wonderful story (“Life as the wrong kind of Muslim“) brings home just how complicated global identity gets. A post-racial world? Not hardly, and not just because of Paula Deen.
If anything, Deen’s failure was to understand the simplest side of race – the kind with well worn (one might say endlessly worn) grooves, wherein the inability to even fake the right response is a clear indictment that you just haven’t been paying attention. The issue was never that Deen, who grew up in the segregated south, used an offensive word when she grew up. It’s that today, with the aid of a team of PR professionals, she still can’t adequately explain why the word is a problem.
It’s not like that issue hasn’t come up before: the subject she’s trying to so hard to explain has been explored, charted, mapped, discussed, and written up in children’s books. Some of them are good children’s books.
The situation Qasim Rashid faced, by contrast, was as fucked up as it was stunningly original. Must read.
I have a hard time with John Gray, not because I think he’s wrong – though I do – but because I think he’s right.
(Anyone who can’t hold more than one contradictory thought in his head at a time has no business reading Gray.)
Our foremost chronicler of the stark cliff that what passes for modern thought comes to when taken far enough, his work is a necessary, even joyful, antidote to the easy delusions that come pre-packaged in a comfortable 21st century Western life, like so much salt in a Happy Meal.
But while the philosophical chemotherapy he offers is a tasty butterscotch, one can’t help but wonder if in some ways the cure is worse than the disease.
I’m not going to settle this question. But I’m reminded to ask it because of a wonderful review of Gray’s latest work in the L.A. Review of Books, which you should read right now.
Oh man … I can feel the impact from the other coast.
Evgeny Morozov’s review of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s new book is a truly epic takedown. A key point:
But more than semantics is at stake here. The fake novelty is invoked not only to make wild predictions but also to suggest that we all need to make sacrifices—a message that is very much in line with Google’s rhetoric on matters such as privacy. “How much will we have to give up to be part of the new digital age?” ask Cohen and Schmidt. Well, if this age is neither new nor digital, we don’t need to give up very much at all.
Read the whole thing.
If all I ever did was to use this blog to record the insightful things Clive James wrote in his book “Cultural Amnesia,” it would still be a better thing than most of the ways I spend my time.
Today’s quotes, one from a profiles of German writer (and disillusioned communist) Manes Sperber, the other from a profile of Margret Thatcher (both well worth reading in their entirety) highlight dangerous territories in politics. The first, feeling too much – the second thinking too much.
There is no excuse, either passionate or intellectualized, for denying each other our common humanity.
As always with James, every word is good – but it’s the last line that kills. Enjoy.
Continue reading More amazing things Clive James said
There’s a lot to like about David Rieff’s critique of techno-utopianism in this month issue of Foreign Policy. It addresses a number of the same topics I’ve been covering here on this blog, and is well worth a look.
All that said, the thing that really sticks with me is his opening riff:
“Good books transcend their times; bad books reflect them. One reads Madame Bovary for its sublime writing and exploration of the human condition in all its tortuous complexity. But if you really want to understand 19th-century bourgeois France, you would be far better served by plowing through the literaly mediocre but historically informative novels of Gustave Flaubert’s journeyman contemporary, Eugene Sue.”
I can’t pretend to have heard of Eugene Sue, but as a principle that sounds right.
Cultural Amnesia has long been on my shelf of books to re-read over and over again for the rest of my life. Here’s one reason:
“In whichever way a democratic system might be sick, terrorism does not heal it, it kills it. Democracy is healed with democracy.” – Virginio Rognoni (quoted in Cultural Amnesia, page 616)
Such words may seen carved in stone for our time, but Rognoni spoke them for the ages. As per Clive James:
“As the minister of the interior between 1978 and 1983, Rognoni was the man on the spot in the period the Italians still call gli anni di piombo – the years of lead. It was a period in which the extreme right and the extreme left staged a period of shooting and bombing competitions when held the spectators on tenterhooks, because they were among the targets. As the death toll mounted, Rognini was under tremendous pressure to arrogate emergency powers to himself” … “Rognoni resisted the temptation and settled in for a long battle. The blessed day when a full thirty-two leaders of the Red Brigades were sent to goal – it was Monday, January 24, 1983 – happened on his watch. Terrorism in Italy wasn’t over, but its back was broken.”
The calls at that time and place were far louder than ours for an extra-judicial force to emerge: to say that civil society was incapable of rendering justice against those who attacked civil society. But this is a sickness – one that has been caught and cured before. We forget because it is easy to forget; it is convenient.
Neither law nor history is convenient. Laws that are too convenient for the powerful are indistinguishable from tyranny. History is what allows us to remember this fact … and the fact that men like Rognoni have already done the hard work, showing us the lesson we must, inevitably, no matter how much blood we spill in righteous indignation, learn again.
If only we weren’t so inclined to forget – if only we were willing to do a little of the hard work up front, to prevent much bigger tragedies tomorrow.
“Cultural Amnesia” indeed.
“(T)he failure to follow the letter of the Constitution … is something that began almost as soon as the U.S. Constitution was adopted, and is not (primarily) a symptom of bad faith but, rather, an inevitable consequence of the fact that no such rationalist design can ever dictate subsequent practice in the way that it is meant to do.” – Gene Callahan, “Oakeshott On Rome and America”
I’d never heard of English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott until I came across a review of Gene Callahan’s book about his work. Now I’m intrigued.
Oakeshott (to the extent I can be familiar with his work after reading a friendly review – a qualification that has to apply to this entire post) has put his fingers on one of the things that most troubles me about our approach to constitutional democracy: the assumption that the rules for office holders are more important than the people in office. Continue reading Michael Oakeshott’s problem with “Rational” politics