Thursday, December 13, 2007

Our Impoverished Culture

While trying to follow one of Eschaton's links, I suddenly found myself reading a column by Camille Paglia, in which she weighs in on Mitt Romney and atheism (picture a hummingbird's feather settling onto a truck scale, minus the sense of cosmic drama).

Without getting sidetracked by her miserable prose and appalling personality, it's worth looking at a couple of her assertions in (relative) depth...not because they're hers, but because she's plucked them whole from the thicket of essentially bourgeois received wisdom that she routinely mistakes for her own hard-won insight.

[L]iberals must start acknowledging the impoverished culture that my 1960s generation has left to the young. Atheism alone is a rotting corpse. I substitute art and nature for God -- the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe.
One could argue that replacing religious faith with some vague aesthetic sense of the numinous is a way to enjoy sanctimony without the distractions of commitment and responsibility. One could possibly even argue that this, rather than "atheism alone," is the aspect of our impoverished culture for which Paglia's 1960s generation, with its mix-and-match approach to "hip" (i.e., exotic) religions, might be blamed. (That said, I have to give her some credit: this is the first time I've ever seen it implied that the hippies were insufficiently Spinozan.)

She goes on to say that "without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs." Which is a bit like claiming that spirituality, in whatever form, will ultimately lead people to torture or even kill their children. (Hey, it's happened before!)

This perfectly superficial notion of "spirituality" - which bathes everything from (talking about) reading Proust to (talking about) experimenting with the Kama Sutra in the same holy light that Thomas Kinkade manufactures by the metric assload - has nothing to do with ethics, and a great deal to do with competitive consumption and what Adorno called "the jargon of authenticity." As such, it's the opposite of serious philosophy, atheistic or otherwise, which John Caputo eloquently defines as "a work of ceaseless critique of our capacity to deceive ourselves."

Our alleged deafness to the clarion call of "spirituality in some form" is linked, somehow, to the alleged decline of Great Art after (post!) modernism:
Europe, which has settled into a comfortable secularism, is no model for the future. The great era of European achievement in arts and letters seems to be over. There are local luminaries but no towering figures any longer of the stature of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Ingmar Bergman.
The curious process by which a figure manages to "tower" isn't addressed, which is yet another example of Paglia's slavish subjection to received wisdom. Picasso towers because he's great, and he's great because he towers. He innovated, he shocked people, he painted Guernica, he liked to fuck, he paid for meals by doodling on bills. His like will not be here again!

There may've been a few "luminaries" around the European art scene in recent years...W.G. Sebald, perhaps, or Anselm Kiefer or Bela Tarr. But are they equal to towering immortals like Mann, Picasso and Bergman? They're not, because asserting that they are would require a leap of faith - a commitment - much like the one Paglia refuses to make in the spiritual realm (which is pretty sad, given that she'd hoped to replace God with art). It could also require giving up her safe position - safe now, thanks to years of antlike labor by thinkers almost as unimaginative, stolid and resentful as Paglia herself - as the arbiter and defender of "meaningful" (i.e., polemically useful) art and spirituality.

I'm not really a fan of Sinclair Lewis, but I think this quote sums up Paglia's intellectual tradition pretty well:
The men leaned back on their heels, put their hands in their trouser-pockets, and proclaimed their views with the booming profundity of a prosperous male repeating a thoroughly hackneyed statement about a matter of which he knows nothing whatever.
(Illustration: "Nigredo" by Anselm Kiefer, 1984.)


Anonymous said...

I discovered this blog only recently. Bouphoniaji, I think I'm in love.

How often do you find prose on the Internets in which the metaphors are unmixed and original? How many bloggers seems to post from within a well-ordered library, flitting nimbly to the shelves now and then to adorn their musings with florets of Timeless Wisdom®? How many internauts mock garbage prose with rough 'n ready felicities like "metric assload"? And finally, how many humans can retain hope after reading Adorno?

Plus, the nudibranchs are real purty.

I don't have much to add to the deft filleting of La Paglia, except to say that the fingers that bumfumble "Bumbling and fumbling even more than usual in his inability to finesse the embarrassing release..." into this world have received the Mother-Superior-quality ruler-rapping they have so long deserved.

As to technique, one question. What does TSAIEWDNBIFSWHTUTAAWTTTSTCOTFW stand for?

KUTGW, C w/o Q.

Phila said...

Thanks, Cw/oQ. I don't know what to say, except that you're very kind!

I have to warn you, though, that I'll only disappoint you in the end...

how many humans can retain hope after reading Adorno?

It's a simple matter of contemplating all things as they'd present themselves from the standpoint of redemption!

Nothing to it.


The Struggle Against Ideological Extremists Who Do Not Believe In Free Societies, Who Happen To Use Terror As A Weapon To Try To Shake The Conscience Of The Free World.


olvlzl said...

One of signal achievements of Paglia is the one you identify, her ability to snow people into thinking that her repetition of prefab aesthetic judgment is somehow an original thought. Has she ever gone out on the limb and praised someone who hasn't been praised either by academia or by the marketplace? On first reading this it reminded me of Catherine Anne Porter's "The Wooden Umbrella", a critique of Gertrude Stein. But Stein actually did go out on a limb, praising the genius of some rather minor figures who the world has yet to see genius in and she bought the others new while the market hadn't spoken.

While I've criticized neo-atheism for its scientism and its bigotry I'd never say that atheism in itself is sterile, though much of it is and many atheists are the same can be said for any identifiable group of people. Paglia's replacement of the received wisdom on art and a concept of "nature" that comes straight out of 1960s copies of Argosy magazine would lead to sterility. Ego is the starting point of sterility, it's only when it is surpassed in generosity and humility that sterility is surpassed. Paglia might be able to repeat words like those if someone impressive had written them for her to crib but I doubt she'll ever make them true through experience.

Phila said...

While I've criticized neo-atheism for its scientism and its bigotry I'd never say that atheism in itself is sterile,

Of course not. Which is why it suffices to say that you've criticized scientism and bigotry.

Anonymous said...

I would like to make Camille Paglia come.

Looks like you got a fan of your own, boy.

Phila said...

Jesus, Toby. Keep that to yourself, can't you?

Anonymous said...

One could argue that replacing religious faith with some vague aesthetic sense of the numinous is a way to enjoy sanctimony without the distractions of commitment and responsibility.

Outstanding, Phila!


Anonymous said...

She's a moron, how do James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann & Ingmar Bergman owe their towering status to spirituality?
If she was alive 200 years ago, she would have been bitching that Europe's contributions to the arts are over, we'll never see the like of Mozart and Beethoven again.

olvlzl said...

Well, if this is the real Toby, I'd never thought of him as an over achiever to begin with. Not exactly shooting for the stars, are you.

Here's a hint bound to make it with the object of your affection, wear a Camile Paglia mask.