Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
"Dramas" has become enough of a fixture that readers now respond more specifically to its content. They aren't simply outraged at the column taking up space.
In a subsequent column, I will argue that one of philosophy's most fundamental functions is reading implications — divining the overtones and undertones that are the full dynamics of thinking, the shaping bed that explains why the river of overt thought flows as it does. No thinking is "simple" — almost none of it is just what we think it is — but in all cases the formative forces under thought resist being converted into the explicitly thought-about contents of thought. Even for those who have become philosophical by academic standards, sophistication and technique do not necessarily amount to true self-reflection — the ideas one thinks about (deliberately chosen, formularized, defined, abstracted) are rarely the ideas one actually thinks with (the authoritative and ultimate, organic or systematically interrelated presuppositions that tone and pilot our whole mind).
In the gulf between this potent undermind and our superficially orderly ratiocination, there is a risk of massive and even institutionalized self-deception, systemic delusion, a hypocrisy not just of beliefs and conscious claims but of the whole fabric of understanding and living. That gulf measures the profound misconceiving of human nature, the misrepresentation of what subjective activity is under the pathetic impress of unacknowledged ideology or official orthodoxies. Heraclitus' ancient remark, that "Nature loves to hide," applies with even more force to our own human nature, which fabricates what it thinks is objectivity out of its own inner necessities. Nothing is more difficult than to know oneself, to grasp undistorted the deep structure that presides and disposes over our human constitution, that strange marriage of rationality and irrationality entangled in ways hardly suspected by our left-brained, linear-rationalist civilization.
The elements of thinking, the pure single notes isolable by analysis, are very different from the confused chords we mistake for simplicities. We always ask more than we think we are asking, and the format in which we expect a solution to be deliverable is often itself the problem that damns us to self-obscurity. The human mind lives amidst and constantly feeds a nest of prejudices, nebulous determinants of thought that are as protean and elusive as the heads of the Hydra. My responses are so much longer than the original challenges or accusations because I am trying to skewer those Hydras, trying to prismatize what has been mistaken for simple white light.
It would seem Kenneth Smith enjoys showing off his vocabulary, much to the expense of the readability of his column. Perhaps "Histrionics of the Cerebral" would be a better name.
I'm ignorant of exactly how many Ph.Ds of sociology read comics and The Comics Journal, but something tells me I could count them on my fingers. How out of place his jargon is in this magazine!
I wouldn't read Vogue and expect to see an article on comics written in the lingo of The Comics Journal.
I, as well as the vast majority of your readership, I'm sure, can understand any concepts Mr. Smith wants to throw at us, but it seems he wishes to keep us at bay by using babble that only few know. Why talk to an Englishman in Russian unless you're not really trying to communicate as much as impress everyone.
Mr. Smith can solve this problem by either writing without the jargon (as he tends to do in his introductions and summaries), writing with the jargon but explaining it as he goes along, or taking his articles to scientific journals where they currently belong (or would being among his peers frighten him too much?).
I enjoy many of the topics he's covered, so hope he elects to write with the lingo, but explaining it to us Neanderthal laymen. But I would also respect him if he did not want to change his writing style and chose to publish elsewhere.
Now, if Kenneth responds to this letter in sociological concepts and phrases, I'm going to croak!—Lon Nease
Kenneth Smith responds: Croak now, Lon, and avoid the rush.
Before anything substantive, something attitudinal: impressing people has never been high among my priorities ("Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you" impressed me at a formative age); likewise with playing to their prejudices, or dummying down when it costs intelligent content. When I craft a piece of writing, I write for the sake of the subject and in pursuit of what Socrates termed "the rights of the question." Concern for the Hypothetical Reader — how he will interpret X, what he wants or is willing to be told, how far he will allow his mind to be stretched — only produces rhetoric, which is pandering writing, flattery not truth. When I consult my understanding of what most readers will probably take for granted and want to believe, it is only for the sake of subverting those assumptions and bringing them to an enlightenment in spite of themselves. Long before I read Goethe's remark, I already believed it intuitively: "If we take people just as they are, we make them worse; if we treat them as though they were what they should be, we bring them where they ought to be." The art of creative expectation — understanding the authoritative power norms and ideals have over people — is the core of all authentic education, art, philosophy, and politics. Discomfort is a trivial price to pay.
I am enough of a contrarian and antiquarian to believe that the English language (like others) contains some marvelously nuanced terms, current or not, which can be exactly apt, strikingly iconic, judiciously free of contemporary ideological bias, or — laced as every word is with a nimbus of etymology — a revelatory way of gaining a new perspective. Those resources of language, not yet archaic but obviously at acute risk of being neglected to death by facile and perfunctory contemporary writing and reading, deserve to be reanimated and recirculated, even more desperately, perhaps, than animal species deserve to be saved from extinction: animals are a glory to behold and live with, but words — with their potencies and ligaments — are the very musculature of our souls, the fingers with which our minds pick up the delicacies in life.
At some point in the lives of lazy readers, someone — if not their teachers or an Edward Dahlberg or a John Simon, then alas myself — needs to provoke them to an understanding that languages are living systems that need care and effort or else they shrivel, and take our minds with them. As with our religion, politics, education, technology, and other outcroppings of modern "lifestyle," so with language: we are draining the energies from institutions and structures that we are not replenishing; like lichens or other parasites, we leave a leached-dead soil behind us. This is ultimately what the passivity of "consumer society" means: that we are not living up to our responsibilities to participate in the whole metabolism of the structures we ourselves depend on — which is to say, we understand neither the bonds of religion and community (which demand that we care for those things that are most important) nor the cares of culture. Necessarily we will be blindest to those injuries we do to the spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and moral structures we most intimately depend on: by an ironic self-action, we diminish our selves and obscure our own potentialities and needs by our negligence of the preconditions we require to be civilized and cultured. This reciprocity and diminution may be obvious enough in the case of ecology, but the principle is far more comprehensive than just its biological aspects.
Lon Nease omits from his practical suggestions a very patent alternative — that he could simply pass my column by — but, granting the importance of the issues it raises, he doesn't consider that. I would like to believe that an acute reader can perform some creative reading — adapting a dictionary definition, inferring from context, applying some etymology, making philological comparisons with other usages of a term — so that an imperfectly defined term is not fatal to the whole argument. The suggestion that I dummy down or else get out speaks volumes about the priority he places on simplicity and facility over substance. Is it a long walk to the dictionary these days? Is there a regal exemption from having to be exposed to new terms? Have we got a population for whom learning — the natural expansion of the mind, the life of inquiry — is that much of a torment?
"Dramas of the Mind" is being carried in The Comics Journal, I'm guessing, because the publisher and editor and others believe that its ultimate concerns are congruent with their own; because comics is a facet of a culture whose values and dynamics are the dog that wags the tail that is comics; because creative individuals, who daily endure or maneuver around the consequences of the issues I have raised, in particular and for their own sakes need to be able to rise to a synoptic perspective on these matters, and not just be myopic victims of them as most people are. "Dramas" would be as much out of place in almost any other periodical as it is here; and as much pertinent.
It is not a point original with me — Hegel first posed it, and through him the subsequent thinkers he invested his ideas in — but it bears insistence: there is an ironic disrelation between the dynamic institutional structures of our civilization (ever more complex and abstract) and the pathetic and heteronomous structures of our modern minds (ever more- diminished, simplistic, streamlined, minimized, ahistorical, with their culture and philosophical concepts displaced by the Spartan intellectual furniture of science). For good damn reason we feel "things are in the saddle and ride mankind"; for good reason generations of social critics have been warning that we are capitulating to our own contrived artifacts, our institutions and their agendas — that inhuman things, disembodied arrangements, have acquired the alienated powers and understanding that used to be our own intuitive capacity to think for ourselves.
To resist that tide of pathological specialization by which humans get mindlessly swallowed up — made into blinkered and blindered dependents — by the institutions others have made, those who understand the monstrous duty of being an individual today need to stretch their atrophied minds and make them both panoramic and microcosmic. To most people that would be a Herculean feat, because they expect whatever they read to be inert and neutered entertainment, pastime-matter with all the mind-altering significance discharged from it. They take it for granted that their education is over, that education is, indeed, what professional educators assured them it was; and so they take for granted that anything they read will already be duly accommodated to the limitations of the average mind. That whole ethos of specialization/indoctrination/entertainment strikes me as an abortion of the very spirit of humanity: it is the mildest yoke any tyranny has ever managed to produce, an airtight and invisible totalitarianism. I will not participate in it, and I will not placate those who do. It is not for pain for its own sake but to keep people awake that I play the gadfly (all the more ironically in a "liberal" culture that imagines itself to be an open society, a questioning civilization that has sanctified dear Socrates but asphyxiated his spirit).
I marvel at Lon Nease's self-assurance that he is equal to the presentation of any "concepts" whatsoever, and so is the vast majority of the Journal's readers. That is astonishing to me because, in my teaching experience as well as in the consensus of philosophers, concepts in their strict logic and purity are far more difficult matter than the mastery of a language. If language, which can be appropriated by so many different methods, is too daunting for Mr. Nease, what the hell does he imagine concepts are — pictures on a board? And by what medium other than language does he expect to get access to them? The bromide that anything that can be said can be said simply is nothing but salve for feeble or slothful minds: you can't draw with a bulldozer what you can limn with an etcher's needle; you can't do cabinetwork with a chain-saw; and you damn sure can't capture elusive and subtle thoughts with moronic Newspeak or with slang that is the structureless cancer of language. In traditional contexts, students would have mastered their languages far more thoroughly than we today master ours before they ever would have been deemed competent to go on to the more demanding work of criteriology, theology, or ontology. But we moderns — let us take Mr. Nease as an object-lesson — are abstractly self-assured that everything ultimately important has already been predigested and edited to fit our constitutional handicaps. Truth we believe to be as simple as we are — all the more prodigious a belief considering how rapidly the process of human simplification is accelerating. This state of intellectual poverty and cultural desolation is imagined by its victims to be a form of omnipotence and omniscience, because, by God, we are moderns: "Nothing like us ever was" (do read the rest of Sandburg's "Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind").
"Why talk to an Englishman in Russian?" Nease asks, confident that all this trying terminology is a malevolent conspiracy. A more literal account of what he is complaining about would not be so flattering: why talk to an American in English? This is his language, too, but by his way of thinking and reading, he has shut this vocabulary out. The difficulty or easiness of the language is a relative question, but regardless of how it is answered in a particular case, it is the minds that have to accommodate themselves to the challenge, not vice versa. There is no sovereign and sacred right of a mind to make itself as obtuse as it likes: that is a kind of cultural and intellectual solipsism that weaves into one strand the pathological egotism (self-indulgence, self-centeredness) and devastating provincialism (ahistoricism, ethnocentrism) that make our hapless native land fatally disadvantaged when compared with societies whose religions and traditions work to subtilize their people, not stupefy them. Know-nothingism is a frighteningly perennial arrogance in American society, truly a terminal derangement in a democracy decaying into tyranny. Our native philistinism and provincialism are surely handicap enough without having the perversity of prideful ignorance superimposed on top of them: such radical self-retardation blights our whole nation with self-obscurity and willful irreality. What narcotic or virus could be half as lethal as this visceral complacency?
Some incidental issues that may be revelatory: American sociologists do not deal with my column's range of issues. I am not a sociologist, although I have read widely in the classical sources of the field (as few academic sociologists do anymore), and I do not write for the benefit of sociologists. I write in the assumption that some readers may seek to cultivate a well-rounded intelligence, and it is just those laymen who set higher standards for themselves that I have in mind. They are a species as endangered now in academia as in the culture at large, I grant; that seems all the more reason for the urgency of the appeal.
Strictly speaking, the problem Lon Nease calls "jargon" is actually a horse of a different color: jargon is the technical terminology of a narrow subculture; academics are particularly prone to it, but it is rife throughout our technocratic society. I take my good where I find it, as the French proverb has it: in any given column will be terms from wide-ranging sources, from the sciences, from journalism, from politics or the arts, wherever a vivid and intellectually apt phrase can be found. I am guessing that a well-read individual can struggle through it. When I was teaching, I was careful to build up a continuity of terms and context because students would have in common at least a specific body of assigned readings (controlled references and interpretations, to that extent: although all philosophy and argument must begin "in the middle of things"). But the Journal is read by whomever, by academics, by fanboys, by professionals, by artisans, by people whose worlds hardly intersect at all. What can be taken for granted as a standard? Incongruously enough, we resent having standards of susceptibility to pornography set according to the lowest moral common denominator among us, but we seem not to mind having a ceiling put on our intellectual discourse that will accommodate only the midgets in our society. My choice of terms may be difficult or obscure, and what any given individual will require to be clarified will likely differ from what vexes another person. I can always legitimately be taken to task for presupposing too much — no one can set down absolutely everything that a given piece of writing takes for granted — but I vehemently refuse to be chastised with the very kind of armored poverty I have made an issue of.
I don't take my articles to "scientific" journals for the same reason the articles are not specimens of current sociology. I am a recalcitrant generalist: that contrarian attitude runs athwart the rampant specialization that has taken captive our institutions of higher learning, but, as in any age, that kind of exceptional thinking (Nietzsche called it "untimely" or "out of season") is the only way to reach beyond conventional mentality and its follies. Universities, as one of Murphy's Laws has it, are immune to their own knowledge: they realize, but ultimately do nothing about, the pernicious specialization that has Balkanized what was already a Babel.
I don't shun academic contexts because I fear a good scrap — if you take the trouble to investigate, you will find it is, rather, academics who anxiously avoid robust confrontations and candid exchange of differences ("pusillanimous" comes to mind, but that would be a showy piece of vocabulary). You are naive if not benighted to imagine that academics can be trusted to carry on the resources of tradition and culture for the best interests of society as a whole. More than ever, education is too important to be entrusted to professional educators. I write as much to prevent that cultural legacy from being ground into trivia as to disturb the narcolepsy of readers such as yourself.
And, finally: "Histrionics of the Cerebral" — not bad. But one person's witticism is another's show-off vocabulary. A pretty good venture into wordplay, but not everyone will understand your terms. Nonetheless they make their point and no substitutes will quite do. I only claim for myself the same right.
It was quite delightful to find Kenneth Smith's column in The Comics Journal #127. What an astonishing thing for a trade journal to be publishing! I could never imagine Publishers Weekly printing this, or even Commentary magazine. Enjoyable though it would be to respond to Mr. Smith's 26 theses individually, this would take much more space than the original article. Instead, I would like to provide an outline of what such a response might look like.
(A) In the interests of that concision, Smith has left out all specific example and citation that might support his argument. This has left generalizations so broad and unverifiable that one could assert the exact opposite without being any less (or more) true. Smith himself does this on a number of occasions (theses B and I, N and S, P with itself) and it does not clarify his argument.
(B) Apparently, there is something really awful about modern times that makes it very much worse than all previous times. It is hard to tell just what Smith means by Modern Times. It could mean ever since the election of Reagan, or ever since the Council of Trent. In any event, it is possible at almost every point to find counter-examples where what is claimed as unique to Modern Times was also true in times pre-modern (Thesis Q sounds like the Rule of St. Benedict, first formulated in the sixth century). Is modern life really worse than in the first industrial revolution, the 14th century, or the neolithic?
(C) A typical thesis (theses G, U, X) begins with a description of a current trend, immediately followed by a statement on some reprehensible current state of affairs. The inference is that the state is the result of the trend, although the connection is often wildly implausible. Furthermore, I would count many of the current trends as good things, and some of the current states as well. The negative, dissipative aspects of these things need to be elaborated on.
(D) It would be unreasonable in this context to expect Smith to be prescriptive as well as descriptive. Still, some indication of what he would like instead would clarify his intentions and add meaning to his argument. I suspect that his ideal form is something that has never existed and never could be given the inherent nature of humanity in all its decidedly un-ideal diversity.
Smith has appended a disclaimer acknowledging that his points overlap and contradict, but contends they may serve as perspectives triangulating onto a single world order. What they in fact triangulate is the mind of Kenneth Smith. Not a pretty sight, perhaps, but it should be understood that Smith is part of a long tradition of kvetchers going back through Nietzsche and St. Augustine to Ecclesiastes. I wish him well.—William Penfield
Kenneth Smith responds: Who could believe two such letters written, by chance simultaneously, to the same magazine? I may well be irritating just the spectrum of intellectual sloth I wanted.
(A) I credit my readers with having enough wit to recognize an argument grounded apparently on intuition (with no external supports evident in most cases, other than the reader's possibly confirmatory intuitions). The fact that, in these theses' given form, they will be more provocative or evocative than conclusive is all to the point; expansive tomes have been generated by academics that dealt with no more than one or two of the theses, and still little conclusive was accomplished. The theses obviously pose perspectives; they expose those who care to reflect about them to ways of articulating what may have been inchoate and latent. They make a range of issues explicit, whatever the eventual determination about them may be. Carping about the lack of a scholarly apparatus or a definitional schematic is perhaps a good index of our having here a letter from a closet academic, an analytically minded person who assumes argumentation can take only one specific form and serve only one kind of purpose. For what it's worth, every one of these theses is grounded not just in my own observations but also in the arguments of major analysts and critics of the modern order, from Hegel to Arendt and Rieff — hardly a triangulation on my own idiosyncratic mind. Contemporary education has been most pathetically trivialized by its own refusal to confront anything remotely confusable with a great mind: thus are our provincialism and myopia reinforced.
The bugbear of contradictability is indeed a telling fetish for contemporary academic philosophy: either discovering or posing a contradiction is believed to entitle the critic to be summarily dismissive. But this is a superficial philosophy of logic that makes the formalisms of abstract intellect autonomous and unaccountable to actual experience and concerns: it grasps nothing of the concrete interleaving of language, experience, and logic. A controvertible claim — and all claims are of course controvertible to a sophistic or an eristic mind — precludes intelligent discourse only for the kind of abstracted intellect that has no alternative resources for interpreting and adjudicating semantic conflicts: clarifying or resolving disparities in the senses in which terms are used is a more primordial and vital form of philosophy than is the empty manipulation of formalisms that remain self-contained within a realm of "purified" terminology. Controversy is only radically irrational to that kind of intellectualist thinking that has purged itself of more concrete interpretive resources; to a more fulsome philosophy, it is an invitation to explore an equivocation, the beginning not the end of discourse on other levels. Hegel's manifold critiques of abstract Verstand are wasted on our ahistorical professors of philosophy who do not see the dynamism implicit in contradictions but only the abstract-formal stalemate.
A primitive fact of human life is eluding academic philosophers in the process: human languages are not aseptic and artificial intellectual contrivances; they are not intellectual constructs, but neither are they rationally indeterminable surds. They are not and should not be reducible to the kinds of stringently defined relations of which mathematical systems are capable: it is because of natural languages' polymorphous and fluent potential that they can mediate politically and culturally among our diverse perspectives and can capture a pre-rationalized reality (as opposed to the conceptually straitened portraits that intellectual conventions yield). This again is a matter of the dynamism of growing, evolving intelligence that poses a task of reformation and rejuvenation for every new crop of minds — not thanks to but in spite of the constricting intellectual labyrinths that are consistently academicism's chief accomplishments.
I accepted the liability of controversion as a flaw not remediable in the precis-format the article was cast in. I wrote my inventory of aspects of modernization for several reasons: one, the most obvious, was to rescue from academic esotericism some reflections about the most potent and comprehensive traits of modern dynamism, to make these matters as accessible as their inherent difficulty would permit; another was simply to collect in one place assumptions scattered through the literature on modernization, not all of them current in our contemporary theorizing; another purpose was to offset the one-sidedness of many academic accounts that by their specialized treatments assume "modernity" to have a simple and abstractly specifiable meaning (when, demonstrably, it is as diversified a phenomenon as anything human and historical can be — the questionable consistency of the list is thus again all to the point); and a final purpose was to correct a narrowness of methodology that afflicts even the more fastidious theorists: my friend David Kolb's Critique of Pure Modernity, for instance, implicitly takes "modernity" to be an a priori issue, not requiring us to inspect its concrete phenomenology and morphology. Modernization may be a revolution in culture that has trained our minds and institutions to unprecedented degrees of abstractness, but it itself is a concrete reality, and like every concretum it is many-sided, a confluence of forces that may or may not be conceptually commensurable ("self-consistent"). Modernity is an ongoing reality with n-number of dimensions: it is what it is. It is not an issue to be absorbed without residue into the methodological hall-of-mirrors that academics like to contrive and mistake for substantive understanding.
(B) It is radically difficult to be a modern intellectual, because few among us are able in our circumstances to muster the values and scruples necessary to anchor the independent-mindedness that qualifies one as an intellectual rather than an ideologue. Most quasi-intellectuals among us are, whether they can bring themselves to acknowledge it or not, modernist intellectuals, that is to say apologists for an order of existence to which they are uncritically committed: that is to say, ideologues. To be an apologist for modernism is inherently difficult because its overt content consists in relativism, cultural licentiousness, or nihilism: how then can one criticize (preclude or invalidate) any alternative from such a porous point-of-view?
Let us illustrate from Mr. Penfield's letter how the rhetoric of the apologist for modernism works: he ridicules as presumably puerile or unthinkable the very idea of a wholesale criticism of modernity, reformulating any determinate criticism in such a vague and inflated way as to make a nebulous dismissal of it ("something really awful about modern times that makes it very much worse than all previous times"). Unfortunately, modernity has by now accumulated such a prodigious bill of negative charges that even elementary-school students have become cognizant of some of these dehumanizing civilizational vices: not just the demonstrably insane and profligate prospect of thermonuclear overkill, but also totalitarian formats of organization, ecocidally cumulative toxins and other pollutants, unmanageable mass-generation of municipal wastes, oppressive burdens of debt among all strata of world economy, mass-extinctions of species and habitats, exterminations of traditional cultures in our own as well as in primitive societies; all of these and other pathological developments are patently unprecedented, uniquely attributable to the dynamics and blindness of modernization. I can find virtues in modernity probably as well as Mr. Penfield can — I went through its educational system and have been exposed to its media just as he was — but none of these virtues amounts to a saving grace, and none of them is a force of comparable scalar significance to the vices of modernity. No matter how high the degree of obviousness of these vices, they seem to evaporate into nothing when an apologist launches his rhetoric: then an alternate form of confectionary-reality is invoked that makes disparagement seem only the work of kvetching malcontents. Truly, ideologizing of that sort manages to invert self-evident reality, making a nihilistic order appear benign and its critics appear the negativists in the situation.
What I mean by modern times is, for convenience's sake, the post-Renaissance. But nothing in history or nature comes into being out of nothing: the modern age has certainly woven together strands from pre-existing cultures, which it has melded and mutated in such a way as to impress its denizens with the illusion that it has no distinctive character of its own but is simply all-permissive and universalistic (as a previous particularistic institution claimed to be "catholic"). Major intellectual revolutionaries contributed to the long-range founding of modern formats of self-understanding: Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, and other thinkers in the rationalist tradition, by their most profound accomplishments bound subsequent minds to accept some and reject other resources for understanding and evaluation. There is obviously a countertradition, a subcurrent of naturalism ranging from Heraclitus to Aristotle, Cusanus, Aquinas, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Arendt, Rieff, and others: these thinkers defined their perspectives in opposition to the rationalism that has come to be the dominant academic and cultural point-of-view, and for this resistance they have all been consigned either to comparative obscurity or else outright misrepresentation. Ideological media and institutions, like psychological delusions, are structured to exclude the very realizations that would most directly explode their myths — but that monolithic dominance enables them to pass as a kind of objectivity.
"Is modern life really worse than in the first industrial revolution, the 14th century, or the neolithic?" The pathologies of those orders were local and historically finite, of such a scale that the environing order of nature could still work its curative effects on man's technological misadventures. Our pathologies are greater by magnitudes, and most of us are probably shocked at how rapidly the defenses of the natural order have broken down, how the extinctions and pollution accelerate. The fragility of living systems in the face of our relentless bulldozing economic engines is duly and futilely noted: I can imagine the same incredulity passing briefly through the uncomprehending minds of self-extinguishing civilizations on Mars. What hath Promethean man wrought? — Penfield's original question is, of course, rhetorical, and can only be made to look foolish by being taken seriously: it is a specimen of that witless, vacuous relativism that passes for sophistication among the modernly educated. We are moderns: no absolute judgments for us, thank you. The effect of his rhetorical question is, need it be said, noncommittal, euphemistic, and exculpatory: apologetics.
(C) I take it for granted that most educated individuals today would probably find a predominance of good things among the achievements of their civilization. The fact that our way of life has its apologists is, however, instructive in a way they likely do not intend: rationalism's own patron saint, Plato, could inform them of some basal psychology — by their very nature (psychological as well as social), all human beings approve of what is perceived as "their own." This is not an intellectual or a rational accomplishment on their part; it is the circular self-congratulation of a social order via the unscrutinized criteria it has installed in the compromised and complacent minds of its members. The ultimate criteriology, the rules of evidence, the ultimate concerns according to which our civilization is tried and found to be a cornucopia of good things: those evaluative standards are themselves the subjective impress of that civilization on us, the moral template by which the culture of modernity replicates its ways in stable, trans-generational patterns. In fact, the pantheon of modern values — more like addictions and appetites than true values — has increasingly been found to be a deforming yoke, a slave-necklace: a patent crisis in morale afflicts the replication-center of modern norms, that is, the family, school, and church. Even those who accept the norms increasingly require the ersatz-morale of pharmaceuticals to make their lives tolerable. But these materialistic pathologies look so similar to the "virtues" and "values" of the modern order, they have no problem passing as normality; and our expert social theorists, trained as they are in the monodimensional and morally incapacitated mentality of science, have likewise no professional problem at all overlooking what is happening to the moral core of personality and social structure in our historical time.
In the self-celebration of "positive-mindedness" toward the order of which oneself is a member is primitive and prerational conformism, not the exercise of independent resources of criticism: the only way individuals can truly take credit as individuals for the installations they employ is when those installations are contrarian, the work of independent minds of a sort our educational system decades ago ceased to produce. It is thus always going to be vastly easier for apologists to detect a mote of dust in a critic's eye than to remove the beam of lumber from their own. The reason is that social order in itself enforces orthodoxy — even licentious modern social order, whose ostensible content is a denial of orthodoxy but whose actual and effective format is that of an ideology, a systematized and (implicitly and explicitly) coercive political faith.
(D) It is a misuse of "prescriptive" and "descriptive" to think that criticism — negative prescription, an account of what ought not be — must be description because only positive prescription will qualify as prescription. Normative accounts, whether positive or negative, are prescriptive because they impose something other than factual order. My critiques certainly imply, in every case, the desirability and possibility of an alternate form of order, however much the modernist scheme militates against both the conceivability and the practicability of that alternative. I believe we can read the entire spectrum of pre-modern cultural formations as potential alternatives, both as whole social orders and as partial value-perspectives. Primitive cultures, non-Western religions, rogue-viewpoints within the modern order: we can readily find specimens to flesh out what the modern ideological monopoly wants to deny is feasible. In addition to the aforementioned naturalist strain in Western philosophy, I find particularly illumining the modes of political and religious values in ancient Athens, but Amer-Indian cultures, Zen and Taoist religions, Hasidic traditions, etc., are equally strong ways of structuring exceptions to core-assumptions of modern civilization. Since that rationalistic-scientistic civilization is profoundly value-neutral, amoral, and relativist, those among us who want to be healthy and autonomous are obliged to derive our values elsewhere anyway: most of us live unwittingly by the residues of premodern norms, moral "fossil fuels" that our sterile order cannot itself replenish. What is precisely tragic is that this modern order is aggressively hostile to those vestiges of traditional values in itself, and massively works to obliterate the human habitats in which they persist.
Why Penfield suspects that my ideal form "never existed" is a matter for him to substantiate, and apparently a clue to the mind of William Penfield (not a sightly prospect, the mind of the apologist). Without any inkling as to how I might specify that ideal form, he ventured a priori to assure us that it could never exist, "given the inherent nature of humanity in all its decidedly un-ideal diversity." Is there anything in my entire series of columns to match this piece of vapid and uncontrolled generalization? I will cherish it as a premier deliverance of fatuity and presumption: it is indeed the very modal diversity of human values and thinking that modern culture so menaces. My arguments are entirely directed against the modernist foreclosure on whatever assumptions are alien to our narrowing mores. Who then is the iconoclast? And who more blinded to the idolatries that flaw obtuse and uncritical human nature, in whatever age or technological circumstance?