Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
—William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793)
By default or by design, modern societies have evolved systems in which reason — concrete, practical, individual, value-positive, creative/critical reason — is impotent. The largest questions about the significance of violence inevitably are political questions, questions about accountability of organizations and authorities, about the adequacy of our civilization's structural purposes to the concrete needs of human beings. The undialectical or unilateral imposition of policy — social and political "engineering," transposing politics from an art into an ostensible "science" — was a Platonic folly when first proposed in The Republic. In human beings who grow accommodated volens nolens to being ordered and provided for, the intellectual, moral, and rhetorical organs of reasoning atrophy: a system apolitical in its architectonic bears fruit of even more radically apolitical character, as technocratic structure begets an even more pathetic populace. Regardless of how well and how benevolently managed, no social order can remain stable and dynamic that does not permit the expression of the highest potential and sense of purpose that human beings contain: this is the wisdom of Greek political democracy against the spiritual torpor of despotism. It is the wisdom compressed into Aristotelian eudaimonia or fullness of soul, the synthesis of interactive/rhetorical practice with the highest excellence of judgment and insight — the synthesis of persuasiveness and truth that John of Salisbury termed eloquence.
The Greeks evolved a paradigm of philosophical/autonomous individualism, of wisdom conscripted to communal service, where intellect and rationality would be encouraged to pursue the highest and most important values. In modern circumstances, the concept, values, and metaphysics of political individuality have lapsed so perfectly from view, in academic no less than in popular culture, that indeed it seems an eclipse, a delusionary exclusion of alternative perspectives. Self-forming and self-disciplining subjectivity is virtually an oxymoron in the modern view, because to us subjectivism is by definition unruly, licentious, amoral, anomic, directionless: our very essential concept of human nature and personality is intimately allied with nihilism, with the radical decay of objectively valid principles of authority or normativity. Anarchic, apolitical mentality corroborates itself by means of the ideology of nihilism, makes its peculiar vices seem to be universal and fated human nature. Our concept of abstracted individuality — "bourgeois" egocentric, social atomism — has made incredible the very idea of political or communal bonds, that is, ligaments that would bridge one morally solipsistic ego to another.
And ultimately the very epidemic of ideology itself — idea-systems legitimizing closed-mindedness, encysting the regularized intellect within its own prison of preconceptions — is one of the most powerful forces eviscerating political life: it imposes monologue on each mind, a stifling idiom into which independent insights cannot be translated. The reciprocity of civic intelligence, the indeterminacy of serendipitous discussion, the stringency of intellectual self-discipline that ethical/moral insight requires — all these show ideological minds to be stony ground indeed for the implantation of new ideas.
From the standpoint of the original warrant for political life as the Greeks expressed it, modern society offers, unrecognized by itself, the prospect of a bleak landscape: privatized interests in positions of authority, the frozen or rigidified lines of ideological camps (what the Greeks called stasis, the death of the energy that drives the centripetal sense of purpose of the commonwealth), the poverty of substantive oratory, and the futility of assailing scientifically enforced (Kafkaesque) institutions with commonsense human needs and criticisms. What to the Greeks was the only possible medium in which human freedom could mature and flourish has increasingly become for moderns what Weber called it at the beginning of this century, a cage: "Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved."
Whatever has to be said about violence must be projected against that larger background of unfreedom, frustration, the constraint of natural and spiritual potential — the hypocritical pretensions of our Crystal Palace that it has ultimately fulfilled the needs of human nature, when indeed the myopia and superficiality of our rationalistic order prevent it from even imagining what those needs truly are. Naturally and spiritually — humanly — dysfunctional modern civilization works a wholesale violence on its finitely preoccupied individual participants; it denies the ingrained teleologies of human nature that it was the genius of the ancient Greeks to ferret out and institutionalize, to harmonize with both conscious Apollonian order and turbulent Dionysian energy. The centuries of Western civilization since the acme of the Greek polis have described a gradual foreclosure on the fruits of such genius — there have been singular and incandescent exceptions, occasional eruptions of Hellenism: in St. Thomas, for example, in the Renaissance, in 19th century German thought, in masterful pagans such as Goethe and Nietzsche. But the growth of Western civilization has meant overall the advance of a narrowminded rationalistic Juggernaut, the scientistic/capitalistic order that ultimately threatens to process all the intuitive-naturalistic intelligence out of our educational system, all the culture out of our society at large.
On the one hand, the system of modern culture and education leaves us devoid of the normative checks — the traditional controls, the norms ingrained within individual conscience — that hold appetitive and criminal excess in bounds; that is, we live within a de facto regime of license that reflects the vacuity of scruples and norms at a specific stratum in personality formerly called character. On the other hand, an ideological apparatus has arisen — sanctioned by scientific/academic value-neutrality, by an economics of self-indulgence, by an amoral scheme of legal order that proscribes nothing in the way of values and purposes, and by a utilitarian psychology of self-gratification — that legitimizes that regime of license. The ideology of nihilism thus attempts to argue that it is natural, normal, and inevitable for such anomie to prevail — it is a perverse Moebius-ideology determined to interpret vices as virtues, pathologies as forms of cultural vigor, formlessness as purposeful experimentalism, etc. Cloaking the structural cancers of our social order in euphemism, nihilistic ideology reassures us that the modern enterprise of economy, society, policy, etc., as we know them and take them for granted will eternally remain viable and self-sustaining. This claim grows less tenable decade by decade, as we find it more and more difficult to acclimatize ourselves to the depletion of morale and acuity, the evisceration of our schemes of authority, the rising tides of criminality, complacency, narcosis, and mediocrity.
Nothing in this miasmal state of affairs is as it naturally ought to be: the order of nature is, indeed, as violated in our human personalities as in rapine of the ecological world at large. In macroscopic view, it is the normative order implicit in nature itself — most perspicuously, our own human nature — that suffers premier violence from our scheme of civilization, our institutional strait-jackets. Much of what seems to be gratuitous or wanton individual violence — violence appetitively motivated, the result of deficient moral self-constraints — is the reaction, among inarticulate and uncomprehending but nonetheless rebellious individuals, against the normalized oppression, utility, and indignity — the purposelessness and unfreedom — that an ethically malignant order exacts from its subjects. A criminal is not an inherently sociopathic miscreant; rather he is a personality pathologically bereft of the moral resources that make individuated life feasible: the consolidated competence to form and direct oneself, the complex of insights that make autonomy and self-constraint possible, are in the case of a criminal vestigial — as also in the case of others who happen not to have become overt criminals. Our peculiar ethos of self-interest curiously makes it possible for individuals to find a constructive economic application of their energies, and satisfaction of their appetites, without ever radically curing their ultimate lack of scruple.
Culture, as the Greeks first proved, is a prodigious moderative or mediational force: as we cultivate our values, intelligence, and conscience, we both unleash potential for individual fulfillment and also harmonize our needs, perspectives, and abilities with those of our fellow citizens and of our whole society. Culture is the middle term between individual-psychological and social-political orders: it makes possible a harmonics rather than a destructive conflict of interest, the difference between "good Eris" (strife) and "bad," as Hesiod called it. Culture is, in the original sense of the term, the presiding genius of a society, the guardian or tutelary deity whose very presence facilitates synoptic vision, the wisdom to weave divisiveness into a whole. Without its ameliorating influence, self-interest spurs factionalism and myopic rapine, and social order can only be imposed oppressively and despotically. Culture is that virtue, intangible to a materialistic-appetitive society, through which authority and freedom, nature and rationality, social order and individuality, become conjugal forces: culture is a catalyst for the metaphysics of whole human beings, the fulfillment of that complex teleology in man that very few peoples have perceived as perspicuously as the Greeks did. But culture is the dimension in our lives that the institutions of modern economy and modern science — in their dynamics of amoral order — have by design attempted to shunt aside and supplant with objective techniques and criteria. Culture is that creative and revolutionary energy — the quick of any civilization's intelligence — that our educational system has waged obtuse and prolonged war against, as an inducement to unruly imagination and anomalous forms of intelligence: for culture is by no means simple pacification of controversy; it requires moral contest and confrontation, that is, political risk, which value-neutralized bureaucracy cannot tolerate. Culture, as the most essential component determining quality of individual life and of civilization, has unmistakably been disparaged by utilitarian-banausic modern society: "mass culture" and the various value-complexes and ideologies typical of our civilization are media of an utterly different character, profoundly incompetent to perform the mediational functions distinctive of true culture.
Violence, in whatever form or context, is symptomatic of that failed harmonics by definition: whether it is violence of individual against individual, individual against social order, or social order against individual (not to speak of war, as the violence of social order against social order), violence expresses not just conflicting appetitive claims but also incommensurable values and incompatible schemes of obligation. Violence is ultimately the dissonance or turbulence among perspectives, for normative expectations clash long before actions or weapons do: the subjective preconditions of violence are, of course, where the seeds of violence are originally sown, and the social structures that shape those preconditions are thus crucial influences.
To illustrate the point: in polite society, among one's colleagues, there is mutual respect of rights — civil order is conceded to be of mutual benefit, an undisputed good. That your jewelry, the contents of your wallet, your body, are indeed yours is an assumption free and clear. The mugger or rapist does not share in this unanimity, and most often the reasons are not a reflection of mere individual deviance: they reflect structural dysfunctions, the exclusion of individuals from that pacific and benign world of civil order. To the criminal, civil order is not a neutral but a partisan consideration, conserving relations that benefit others but not himself. Conflicting expectations of what each party is entitled to are what make the disruptions — the violence — possible and (from the perspective of the criminal) necessary in the first place. But such conflicts also mark clashes not considered criminal — between developers and homeowners, between special interests and the public, etc. Discrepancies in conceptions of one's rights will indeed be commonplace in societies deficient in culture, that is, in the coordinating web of norms and beliefs; and those discrepancies will be aggravated by ideologies that nurture hybris, such as nihilism, self-interested individualism, materialism, etc. Culture is far indeed from being the kind of effete luxury that utilitarian mentalities assume it to be: it holds in check obscure but virulently deforming forces, chaotic disorientations of conscience and judgment.
Without culture, human beings do not become morally and ethically individuated: they merely become sophisticated and clever about their idiosyncratic self-interest, which is to say the core of their personality remains untempered by higher norms, remains that much closer to feral or bestial existence. In a society as little cultured as ours, most people will lack terms as well as concepts for distinguishing these radically and substantively different forms of mentality: "individuality," "will," "freedom," etc., are made to apply as well to the privative as to the fulfilled forms of personality. By this kind of philosophically structureless terminology — uninformed by Aristotelian ethics, by any concept of the natural teleology through which human beings mature and evaluate themselves — not only are the original pathogenic flaws in moral strategy hidden from understanding, but the evidential-behavioral symptoms of the vices are likewise obscured, and the status quo is made to seem normal no matter how pathological it may become. Without the moderative middle term of culture, the privative human being becomes at the same time an uninflected symptom of social disorder: there is no real contradiction in this overlap of status, but rationalistic or intellectualized rules of conception make it appear that there is. The accoutrements of civilization — law, economics, mores, etc. — all have a radically different meaning and value for those whose personalities have not been saturated with the norms of culture: barbarian mentality understands that there are ways of evading and manipulating every kind of stricture, but that mentality is nonetheless still subject to social influences, in the form of envy, resentment, desire for privilege and preference, etc. And those social influences readily override the feeble impulse-controls of the uncultured.
The preconditions that make moral/ethical individuation actually possible are not metaphysically or theologically guaranteed to human beings: they are not a de facto or an a priori birthright. Rather, fulfilled human personality is a work of culture, of living historical forces and values that may well lapse. A well-turned-out human being is the fruit of individualizing efforts, by no stretch of the imagination something that will just happen on its own (in spite of the negligence or apathy of parents and educators, in spite of the amorality of peers). Our core-principle as most moderns imagine it to be — conscious ego — is not absolutely self-validating private property: even in its innermost privacy, it is a collaborative effort, the confluence of examples and exhortations, a blend of the standards and forms of acuity that have actually influenced us. It is the same obtuse abstractionism — the moral isolationism — that makes moderns believe their conscious self is something that accounts for its own existence, and that also makes moderns fatuously oblivious to the deforming conditions that yield vicious and unconstrained personalities. The individualistic virtues of bourgeois civilization are what make it have the coherent energy it has, and that also blind it to its failures, the human derelicts precluded from a free and productive life.
The structural significance of violence is one thing, its concrete meanings something else. Abstractionist or scientific thinking has made us rather blind to the variant interpretations human phenomena and actions are susceptible to: human reality is a plastic field of concepts and values laden with different subjective strategies, and this diversity that subjectivity is capable of is just what our "objective" forms of knowing are most oblivious to. Humanly, this diversity of meaning is crucial to the cultural order.
What is "violence," what does it mean as part of the symbology of culture, part of the repertory of forms of self-expression — as, indeed, part of the palette of purposes out of which we contrive our lifeforms? Violence is imposition of one will on another as a continuing subordination: domination. It is the overriding of another's freedom or independence for the sake of a particular act or effect: dictation. It is an attempt to make physical pain have the reforming moral effect that guilt should have: rehabilitation. It is delight in pain for its own sake, in power as an end in itself: sadism. It is an attempt to communicate felt outrage, to make a malefactor feel the same as his victim: vengeance. It is a determination to eradicate another existence, to execute one who has forfeited the right to be endured by others: rectification of a primal wrong. It is denial of the externality between one will or conscience and another, a violation of the sanctity of isolated ego: abrogation of individuality. It is emotionally an evocation of involuntary sensibility, the denudation of controlled artifice in an extremized circumstance, the epiphany of ingenious self: torture. It is a revolt against degradation and frustration, against impotency: indignation. It is a rupture with complicity: defiance. It is the implications and significance of actions exploding into hyperbole, into extremest expression: melodrama. It is a reciprocal proof of vulnerability, assertion of the lex talionis: retribution. It is the radical assault on order, the elevation of willfulness above authority: anarchic abolition. It is the individual arrogation of police and judicial power in circumstances where civil authority has become incompetent to secure rights, peace, justice, freedom, etc.: vigilantism. It is profound and acute dissatisfaction with one's limited place in the natural scheme of things, with one's finite repertory of prowess and influences: hybris.
Violence is a sustained program meant to demoralize one's enemy, to politicize individual victims by making them aware of being representatives of an exploitative, coercive regime: terrorism. It is audacity, the rupture of prohibitions and release of what has been pent-up, expression of the repressed: catharsis. It is the repression of deviant points-of-view, the enforcement of totalitarian uniformity: fascism. Violence is behavioral conditioning, reinforcement of a preference by means of intimidative sanctions: training. It is the failure of moral or political authority, a coercive alternative to impotent command: official coercion. And violence is, of course, the unaesthetic disclosure of what is ordinarily hidden, both biologically and behaviorally — the disruption of appearances by the unsightly: spectacle.
Concretely taken, violence can mean as many different things as there are qualitatively different purposes it can serve: whether in the service of right or wrong, of higher or lower forces, violence is a violation of subjective integrity. It must be obvious thus that verbal abuse or economic/psychological extortion would then qualify as violence, but consensual surgery would not.
Out of these diverse meanings, three themes are perhaps especially significant. The first is the patent pluralization in forms of conscience, will, judgment, or understanding — what has been termed anomie by Durkheim. The Babel of value-perspectives up to a point reflects the tolerance of amoral or value-neutral structures of law, economics, education, etc.; but it also reflects, beyond that cultural liberalism, an incoherence and incommensurability, the decay of public or mutual structures into fracturing idiosyncratic subsystems, a nihilistic dynamic that warrants nothing other than radical disintegration. In such a morally and politically polyglot-order, it becomes less and less feasible to persuade and convince others, even to communicate the content of one's own beliefs. Cultural anarchy, which is to say the lack of the harmonic principle that is culture, in short order makes not only argumentation but also language itself futile: the whole purpose of politics as an institution for mediating differences is aborted. In extremis, violence will seem the only kind of measure immediately available to individuals for the enforcement of unanimity: whether undertaken as individual coercion or as totalitarian oppression, violence has a powerful appeal as an apparent corrective against deviance and diversity. In a sense, this sort of resort to violence — evident in the rising incidence of racist and neo-Nazi actions — reflects on the structural folly of a value-neutral or amoral pluralism: the legal or political order is without substantive and normative resources to affirm pluralism as a value, not just a fact or necessity, and thus that kind of pluralized social order has no authority to bind the consciences of its subjects to accept tolerance as a virtue.
Without such normative resources, an apparent liberalism decays into a nihilism in which any mentality, no matter how sociopathic, is entitled to feel not just vindicated but even authoritative over others. In the value-neutral public media, there is no licit way to discredit pathologies or vices for what they are, or indeed to make any kind of judgmental diagnosis. Only value-neutral description (to the extent even this remains practically possible) seems rational and objective: the enfeebled residues of normative culture thus lose their bite, their authority or proscriptive power. As Philip Rieff so tersely put it: "Authority untaught is the condition in which a culture commits suicide." The power of the society to restrain the least rational and conscientious among its members thus ebbs away, enervated in the media and educational institutions by an ethos of value-neutrality — for the primary and most deepset restraints in any social order are normative, part of the subjective regimen determining what is conceivable and conscionable. This licentiousness — as a deliberate or an inadvertent ideology of nihilism, giving carte blanche for every appetite to indulge itself and every presumption to regard itself as absolute truth — shows us at a glance the triumph of intellectualism, scientism, abstractionism, etc., over the far more crucial norms that make culture possible. Under the solvents of modern ideologies, culture is no longer a firmament: anything is permissible, justifiable, desirable, conceivable. In the subjective realm of beliefs, feelings, norms, etc., the social order has renounced any rights to police itself, to discriminate between healthy and pathological, sane and insane, etc. Nietzsche's proclamation that nihilism signifies that our highest values are in process of self-destruction has grown more cogent with the decades; but the consequences of this dynamic are not spent even now. Traumatic and unsettling as it is, violence may not even be the most destructive effect of this regime of license: non-violent crime — fraud, stock-manipulation, political corruption, etc. — has far wider-ranging potential to destabilize social order, because any act of violence is always local and of limited duration. The effects of financial and political criminality are contagious and self-compounding.
As a second theme, the issue of egocentric self-interest obviously looms large. Like other forms of criminality, violence is a tool in the service of some kind of self-indulgence: implicit in most acts of criminal violence is the grotesque disparity in importance that a felon perceives in his own self-interest. Americans are frequently astonished to find what a low level of criminal violence is normal for societies other than ours, and the ethnic mix in the U.S. does not ultimately explain our volatility. Far more significant is the fact that in more traditional societies, there is a stronger residue of altruistic or impersonal ethos: countervailing against the potential of criminal intent is a moral/ethical order that unequivocally identifies selfishness as a vice and psychological malady. In the United States, that system of normative constraints is largely impotent, and self-interest passes unchallenged as a virtue and a value. In this way, on top of the idiosyncratic or directly egocentric inducements to criminality, there is overlaid in our society a generic and impersonal approbation, a societal imprimatur. The criminal's arrogated self-exemption from external rules is not an aberration amid the encompassing ethos of bourgeois ideology: criminality is merely modern-abstract individualism radicalized, taken untrammeled to its extreme of self-serving, self-interested rapine. Not too surprisingly, we find more or less the same patterns of coercive or extortionary competition, egocentric amorality, contempt for the rights and needs of the public, etc., in corporate boardrooms as in the underworld of drug lords or organized crime, which indeed has been legitimizing itself increasingly into a format structurally indiscriminable from straight business.
Within the business and financial communities, the very concept of ethics is commonly regarded as naivete, so frequently does mundane practice skirt the edge of illegality: as toxic waste disposal abuses and heinous deceptions about quality control at our nuclear energy plants grow more tangled and outrageous, and as the arrogant malfeasance of privateers in the Savings & Loan industry come to light, we have to acknowledge just how banal rapine and how callous evil can become in a modern economic format. The unwholeness of mind, the insanity of self-interest — of solipsistic will — in practice exceeds by far the hyperbolic imaginings of critics. Our materialistic consumer-culture, our plutocratic caste-system, indeed may make the majority of Americans complicitous in spirit with the very pirates who have managed to pass the bill for their pillaging onto taxpayers. Is this a great country in which to loot, or what?
The two themes just discussed portray aspects of a kind of moral/political impotency, an inability to reach and affect others. Recourse to violence as a morally rationalized act, an act of desperation, evinces the profound frustration of appeals to common values or to a sense of transcendent duty — the first thwarted by cultural anomie, the second stymied by isolationist ego. We take for granted that kind of political and moral impotency as a fact of life in mass society, where by definition there is a radical scalar disparity between any individual and the organizations that confront him. Our employers, representatives, media, etc., respond only to mass-scale pressures, which is to say, to blind or myopic forces. To be an individual is to be as nothing: the unorganized individual knows himself bound into a system that is determined to reform him into a function of its needs, and accordingly it defines responsibility, sanity, objectivity, maturity, rationality, etc., wholly in terms of that kind of subjugation. What governs the life of an individual is utterly incapable of reciprocity with him — it is implacable, unfeeling, a Juggernaut that exercises its own Kafkaesque rationales for acting and thinking as it does. These forms of impotency — the idiotization of ideas and privatization of personalities, the mass-format of our lives — are confluent with an even more profound form, which is our third theme: resentment.
Resentment, thoroughly understood, is not a trivial topic of social psychology but a reflection of some of the most fundamental differences between modern and pre-modern civilizations. As a materialistic or economistic social order, we well understand the role of envy — the cupidity we have for other people's material privileges, and the whole infinitely comparativist mentality that makes us orient ourselves toward what we haven't got. In this comparativist perspective, intrinsic value has been ideologically neutralized, rendered incapable of being appreciated, and what we have already acquired is, of course, by definition boring and taken for granted. Envy is a socio-economic ideology that tantalizes us with possibilities, that makes us lust for the fresh act of acquisition, that radically subverts any prospect for contentment with an interminable drive for novelty, for conspicuous consumption, for success in a competitive/comparativist format. It is an ideology that makes us imagine, ludicrously enough, that this Sisyphean chase can ever amount to a form of happiness. But it does generate a mentality fixated on something the modern economy can indeed supply, material goods: these goods are affordable, mass-producible, alienable (legally dissociable) property, and therefore envy finds them tractable to its desires, even though it can never be ultimately satiable.
Resentment is a psychological force of an altogether different complexion: it is not directed toward the possessions that another person has, but toward the properties of personality that another person is — the talents, virtues, values, insights, morale, potentialities, etc., that are utterly immaterial and inalienable. It is only an illusion that those kinds of naturally ingrained moral/psychological properties can be "transferred" or "taught" — only where the immanent potential is already there can they be "communicated." The sort of cultural medium in which those kinds of virtues could be "exchanged" — in mutual animation or inspiration of perspectives, in modeling one's self-formation after great examples, in literature and drama that are overtly and profoundly didactic — was just what the ancient Greeks accomplished with their vision of the polity as a moral community, a many-dimensional agon by which all participants in the public order might be challenged to excellence. This form of political culture presupposes a social order committed to the life of self-cultivation as the highest possible activity, a spiritual energeia that has made Athens an immortal paradigm of the very principle of culture. In modern contexts, there is no general consensus about the criteria for excellence, there is no public space set aside for the life of the mind; our education does not hone our minds to become connoisseurs of excellence, much less to become craftsman in the self-shaping of our own taste, judgment, conscience, and understanding. The concrete art of articulating and making our values convincing, the art of altering minds by our extremest acuity — rhetoric as praxis and not just as amoral manipulation — is utterly untaught. The metabolism among points of view, the urgency to share and convince, to navigate together the currents of self-understanding instead of suffering a wanton drift — these are the profoundest political and ethical needs human beings have: it was to service these needs that the very concept of democratic polity was birthed, as a novel collaborative aristocracy.
That is the ethos, the concept of human nature, that our divisive order of civilization has lost its grip on; that is the vision for lack of which a people not only perishes as a people, but does so obscurely, unaware of what is happening to it. The energies the Greeks harnessed, we squander: the powers and acuity they used to divine and nurture what was essential, in our society diffuse and defeat our values. With our impoverished repertory of skills for interpretation and self-cultivation, we cannot see what is sound and valuable in alien views; we cannot reform our own conscience and intelligence to assimilate the virtue of others. The moral and psychological goods it was the whole purpose of Greek democracy to make shareable, we have little tolerance for: their challenge to our ingrained ways of thinking, we despise.
The objects of resentment, unlike the objects of envy, we can only obliterate, not appropriate. In an ever more differentiated and fractionated society, the core-values that make tolerance and communication into virtues are frighteningly shriveled, the subtleties of what we need and why we are doing what we are doing are frighteningly opaque to us.