Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
10. LABYRINTHS OF THE ORDERED MIND: A REPLY TO FRED BUTZEN
Letter #1, The Comics Journal #137, September 1990
I read with interest Mr. Kenneth Smith's column in the February 1990 issue of The Comics Journal [#134]. In that issue, reader Lon Nease complained that Mr. Smith uses too much "jargon," and requested that he (1) write "without the jargon," (2) write "with the jargon but explaining it as he goes along," or (3) take "his articles to scientific journals where they currently belong."
In his reply, Mr. Smith equated Mr. Nease's request for less "jargon" with "dumbing down" his work, which would be a disservice to the reader; in his words, "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."
Well, that is true for some writers; after all, "Ulysses" would not be what it is if James Joyce had had the limitations of the average reader foremost in his mind. However, I think Mr. Nease has a point that is well-taken, however poorly he expressed it: that in a medium like The Comics Journal, Mr. Smith would be serving his reader well if he eschewed some of his more filigreed language in favor of plain expression and solid argument. Mr. Nease is asking Mr. Smith to teach him — and what true student of philosophy could resist an appeal like that?
The root of the problem, however, lies not in Mr. Smith's being too subtle or highfalutin'; rather, it lies in the fact that Mr. Smith simply does not write very well. Consider, for example, the following passage from his response to Mr. Nease:
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 arrogance1 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?
The following gives the same passage, except that I have removed most unnecessary adjectives and adverbs:
There is no right of a mind to make itself as obtuse as it likes: that is a kind of solipsism that weaves into one strand the egotism and provincialism that makes our land disadvantaged when compared with societies whose religions and traditions work to subtilize their people, not stupefy them. Know-nothingism is a perennial arrogance in American society, truly a terminal derangement in a democracy decaying into tyranny. Our philistinism and provincialism are handicap enough without having arrogance superimposed upon them: such self-retardation blights our nation with self-obscurity and irreality. What narcotic or virus could be half as lethal as this complacency?
Why did I judge some words to be unnecessary? Some are redundant, e.g. "prideful arrogance," "superimpose on top"; most are merely silly, e.g., "devastating provincialism," "frighteningly perennial," "radical self-retardation," "visceral complacency," "willful irreality."
When some of the bangles and ribbons are removed, Mr. Smith's ideas become clearer and more accessible. However, clarity is not always flattering to them. For example, he writes that "Know-nothingism is a perennial arrogance" that is a "terminal derangement in a democracy decaying into tyranny." Bracketing the question of whether our democracy is in fact decaying into tyranny — or whether we even have a democracy — how can know-nothingism be both a perennial disorder and a terminal one? This sort of incoherence occurs again and again in Mr. Smith's column.
It may be argued that although Mr. Smith's wording is not the best, his ideas are true and worth pondering. Well, what, in fact, does Mr. Smith say in the above passage? We find the following:
- — No one has the right to be stupid
- — That willful stupidity combines egotism and provincialism
- — That willful stupidity makes our "hapless native land" "fatally" disadvantaged versus other (unnamed) societies of superior virtue
- — That our religion and tradition stupefy us
- — That know-nothingism is perennial in America
- — That Americans are philistines
- — And provincial
- — And arrogant
- — That "radical self-retardation blights our whole nation"
- — That the above disorder causes "self-obscurity and willful irreality"
This litany of offenses is backed not by argument, or analysis, or even by example: it's simply shouted at the reader. At the beginning of his reply to Mr. Nease, Mr. Smith eschewed "concern for the hypothetical reader" because it produces "rhetoric...not truth." Unfortunately, a close reading of Mr. Smith's work shows that it is nothing but rhetoric; what truth resides in his writings is there by accident, certainly not as a result of reasoned discourse.
I agree with Mr. Smith's assertion that much in America is ignorance and arrogance. As Exhibit A I offer the spectacle of a writer who spends thousands of words defending himself against two brief letters and accuses his correspondents of solipsism; who openly eschews the needs and desires of his readers and condemns arrogance; who refuses to defend his positions with discourse or analysis and condemns his culture as being superficial. If a foreigner were to ask me for the worst example of American intellectual vice, I would tell him to put aside that Time magazine and turn off that television: it's time to meet Mr. Kenneth Smith.
One suggestion: Mr. Smith entitles his column "Dramas of the Mind." Drama, to my mind, means a structured dialogue of speech and events, leading to catharsis. Mr. Smith's work, however, is not dramatic because it begins nowhere, leads no place, and generates no catharsis but merely runs about shouting and waving its arms. Truth in advertising should compel him to retitle his column "Soap Operas of the Mind."
I guess these opinions damn me as being a rationalist or, God forbid, a modernist. So be it.
Kenneth Smith replies: I take issues raised by Mr. Butzen — including quite a few he didn't mean to raise — seriously enough to deal with them at length in my column elsewhere this issue. Straightforward as his complaints may seem, they have everything to do with the ways an ideology can subliminally and apodictically parasitize one's intelligence. In this letter column I want to treat just a few broad issues.
(a) Intelligence is not an individual's private property, even though modern canons (Cartesian/Kantian rationalism) have made it seem that it is: the assumption that intelligence and its expressions can be captured and understood in abstracto is the very core of the individualistic posture, a posture dominant not just in our standards of clear and accessible writing but also throughout the whole enterprise of scientific research. Conciseness — as the reduction of expressions to the regular format of simple and singularly apt phrases — may seem to be a virtue in the immediate possession and control of the individual exercising it, but in actuality it is a reflex of a much larger network of consensus which guarantees the commensurability of view-points and the communicability of contents. Conciseness has its virtues, but only in an effective context of orthodoxy; this is the price paid for the efficient and economic forms of expression that intellectualism at its best demands and makes possible. Where minds no longer converge in their presuppositions, or where those presuppositions misconstrue profound structures in reality, then conciseness becomes primarily a way of purveying old prejudices, a way of insulating against serious puncture the circular reasoning — the "vindication" of axioms by their own implications, or vice versa — which is ideology in essence.
The underlying apparatus of norms, presuppositions, and their root-system in our recent historical culture is increasingly implicated in our various self-made problems: no major social or moral disorder today is just happening — it is a reflex of how we live, what we want, what we cannot come to grips with in ourselves. Our deepest problems threaten to be insoluble because they are ourselves, the deepest constraints on and conflicts in human nature that our scientifically deforested moral culture has left us inept to comprehend. Not conciseness — which panders to established presuppositions — but rather more massive and revolutionary acts of the mind and conscience are what is required to liberate one's intelligence from ideological miasma and delusion. For this kind of work, conciseness and its attendant rules for thinking — definition, clarity, etc. — are methodologically inept.
(b) Intellectualism fosters a delusion of mastery over the content of experience which is in reality a tactic of reductionism. This mentality treats everything dismissively and formulaically, as nothing-but this or nothing-but that. By contracting the complex potential of experience down to "concise" terms, this intellectual device encourages its adherents to see themselves as stringent and disciplined: they dismiss as incoherence the resistance others may have to this methodology, and by the dictates of the methodology they cannot conceive that reality might require less one-sided forms of description and explanation. Our educational system sadly replicates this potent but narrow intellectualism as its utmost accomplishment and as the most formidable champion of its imperatives. Because such stringency is indeed difficult for most people, students — especially the brightest — are all too liable to accept it as the ultimate and holistic principle for the conduct of intelligence. It is hardly that, as more traditional, competitive forms of intelligence will show; but it is indeed the most potent and concentrated form of modern abstractionism our institutions and professions have managed to produce. Patently it has a death-grip on higher education in our times.
Contrary to what that reductionist mentality demands, all realities — objective and subjective, historical and individual — are overdetermined, perspectivally and dimensionally complex, and thus require an ample not a spare vocabulary for their expression. What is needed is the utmost perspectival agility, not the rigidity to which our educational system and popular media condition us. The kind of superficial neutrality achieved through disinfected expressions is a specious objectivity, one that gulls certitude out of an abstracted mind but captures little or nothing of either the valuational charge or concreteness of actual human conditions. To master the media of expression or capture the cohesion of phenomena — however far either may be possible — demands that one should observe, conceptualize, and articulate with versatility, like a virtuoso not an ascetic who has renounced all but a thin gruel of terms. The structure in thinking must be made not of its own self-narrowing proclivities but of the way phenomena themselves tend to hang together. I must contravene both Fred Butzen and Lon Nease's certitudes: diversity of vocabulary — largesse of perspectival alternatives, interpretive options, and indeed moral/political implications — is not just a legitimate but even an indispensable factor in philosophical competence no less than in true open-mindedness generally. It is virtually the only reliable way that intelligence can achieve transcendence over the conventions and biases with which all language is shot through. And in this same regard, I write at length responding to questions or accusations because I see that many implications compressed into them.
(c) As part of their regimen of abstractionism, rationalism and intellectualism have promulgated a simplistic idea of the relation between psychology and rationality. That idea is that, for rationality to be possible, emotion and passion must be neutralized. By this assumption such thinkers show that they do not understand just what the "abstractability" of rationality really means. If I were to rant and rave but say, in essence, "All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal," how I delivered it reflects not one way or the other on the rationality of the content. Abstractability enables us to penetrate to rational structure and implication even embedded in profoundly irrational media. Rationality does not demand that there be no ad hominem components or moral/emotional coloration in the things that we claim; it demands only that we should be competent in discriminating between structure and the media.
From its abstractionist posture, intellectualism typically conveys the impression that it is chiefly or only from passion that rationality can suffer: the folk-wisdom among rationalists is that emotion is the primary pollutant obstructing rational processes. But is it also, and far more pertinently in our age, from apathy that rationality suffers: when people do not care enough to think about received opinions, when they have no inherent drive to dissociate themselves from the dogmas and biases of their age, when their own freedom and the transcendence of the truth mean so little to them that they will not endure the painful task of self-reflection, when the very scale or profundity of problems the modern age has generated invite a defeatist attitude, then indeed it is truer than ever what Kierkegaard wrote a century and a half ago: "What the age needs is passion," not barbaric but sublimated energy. Hegel's truism about history — that "nothing great is ever accomplished without passion" — explains a great deal about our effete culture, our sterile education and stagnant politics. Like Marx and Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Hegel wrote out of a prodigious reservoir of passion that did not in the least prevent them from being critical and rational. In our present era — wracked by a morbid boredom and an unshakeable conviction that there is nothing worth learning and preserving — I believe the lesson is clear. Difficult and risky as it may be, heat as well as light is called for.
I would be delighted to find a readership as scrupulous and attentive as Mr. Butzen; but then it would only have different interpretive difficulties from those that most readers have.
As a champion of "plain expression and solid argument" and a critic of obscurantist "filigreed language," Mr. Butzen writes from a point of view that ought to command the respect of most intelligent readers. He writes from the standpoint of common sense as well as Strunk and White: economize; clarify; simplify. What the sharper and more diligent English teachers in the land have tried to teach their wards is well-exemplified by his letter. For, after all, what earthly purpose can be served by redundancy and verbiage except slovenly thinking and a malignant desire to tax the patience and judgment of readers? It is the sanitary and orderly norms of the best contemporary standards of composition that speak through him, and God and editors know they are norms more honored in the breach than in the observance. By those standards (I am aware), I am judged a writer who "simply does not write very well." There is no merit otherwise in his assumption that my column, just because it appears in The Comics Journal, is therefore obliged to be orthodox journalism. But I appreciate Mr. Butzen's attentions and am glad for the chance to explain why I deviate so willfully and so fervently from these guidelines for style and composition.
(a) Socratic criteria of self-consistency and Cartesian criteria of clarity and distinctness are not the ultimates that analytical-minded critics think them to be: those criteria have the effect, compounded over generations, of narrowing down the focus of understanding to a finite, over-precious level. Individuals preoccupied with the exact and clean juncture of one element in thought with another are thus fallaciously encouraged to believe that they are thinking when they are merely performing a regularized algorithmic operation. The presuppositional matrix behind that focal point, nebulous and incomprehensible as it may be by Socratic/Cartesian standards and methods is far more significant and far more authoritative over the way we actually live and think than those standards and methods will ever be. The tightening-down of the beam of thinking, in our institutional cadres no less than in individual minds, certainly intensifies intelligence but conditions it to myopia by the same process that enhances critical power. If we want to grasp those structures that are the transcendent terms for our moral powers and our thinking, it will have to be by extraordinary measures: philosophers from Heraclitus to Heidegger have either accepted this turn as inevitable, or else have been consigned to trafficking in trivia. That is what makes "profundity" so indispensable to the task of self-understanding, because we must penetrate beyond the ordinary and conventional thinking-apparatus that walls us in.
Those analytical norms may be ultimate dogmas to a well-educated, critically-minded individual determined to think for himself, but historically, culturally, and philosophically, they are only provisional virtues, instrumental goods valid within a context that may be broad but is hardly the whole scope of thinking. Tragically and ironically enough, as Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions or any similar treatment will show, the most prodigious issues in any era will necessarily fall outside that zone of utmost intellectual control: foundational questions about ultimate values and presuppositions, about civilizational order or objective reality, transcend the dominion of rational-analytical consciousness and its forms of "normal" or ordinary discourse (structured around the delusions of egologism, the idolatries of rationalism — what James Stephens called the "Demon of Order" — that have risen to ascendancy in modern times). Mr. Butzen is indeed damned to such rationalism — ipse dixit — and trying hard to make his problems mine. So be it indeed.
(b) It is a commonplace that words that are denotatively identical may be connotatively diverse: "arrogance" has an objective tenor and describes in an abstracted way the act of overstepping bounds; "prideful" is predominantly subjective, summons to mind the motivation for the arrogance, and of course morally prejudges the act. All of that is not overt in the term "arrogance" itself. "Provincialism" is commonly regarded as a vice of omission, an inert and presumably innocuous failing; in the real order of things, none of these assumptions is so — hence I call that banal defect "devastating," and it is far from "silly" to do so. The other characterizations whose rationale eludes Mr. Butzen could likewise be unpacked. But what is that to him and his fastidiousness?
(c) The perspective on language which is borne within that clean, economical stylistic outlook is something I profoundly dispute: language can certainly be contrived on such a model, and some readers can certainly be counted on, like Mr. Butzen, to demand and be receptive to it. But it is demonstrably not the way human beings naturally tend to think, and I regard this as significant: the real world of human discourse is full of perspectival differences that no longer resonate within the "simplified" (that is, reduced and politically/morally inert) language Mr. Butzen finds preferable. Actual discourse (philosophical as well as political, religious, literary, etc.) that engages and challenges individuals' profoundest beliefs demands morally charged and rhetorically colorful content — a presentation that can have an impact on what people care about — but that nonetheless does not succumb to the preexisting prejudices of the marketplace. This connotatively charged — florid, if you like — way of writing is acceptable in literature, sermons, political speeches, etc., but it is distinctly unwelcome today in intellectual or academic circles where quite different norms rule.
Our intellectual life is dominated by the norms of value-neutralized, amoral modern objectivity, peculiarly abstract and contemptuous of our more concrete and morally engaged subjectivity as "naive," "sentimental," "emotive," "inflammatory," "seductive," etc. Such a chaste and hygienic way of writing and thinking is intellectually de rigueur, and unmistakably it has its virtues — it is conducive to sober and methodical analysis (i.e., it permits the abstracted reader to manipulate it according to his own untrammeled prejudices), it respects the discrete territoriality of another person's judgment and conscience (i.e., does not claim to assert intersubjectively valid norms), etc. In short it falls exactly into place in the ideology of atomistic individualism and the morally neutered culture of calculation that Western/modern civilization has spun out. It is a mode of discourse laden with an implicit metaphysics of reality and subjectivity; it prejudices questions in a broad, modal way, and I mean to bring it under accusation as a cultural bias. We are not, and should not believe we can be, the abstracted egos as which it encourages us to conceptualize ourselves.
I well recognize that such moderative and stringent methods of presentation are demanded by intellectuals as the minimal base for civilized discourse, no less than as the badge of clinical detachment that sets them apart from the vulgar. But that ideological and institutional matrix, and the "normality" of rationalized language and ideas it breeds, for good reason have come under increasing suspicion of substantive insanities (see, for instance, the iconoclastic work of Ivan Illich, Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals, or Charles Sykes' Profscam); insanities which these procedural or methodological strictures have done not a damn thing to mitigate. On the contrary: that sanitized and neutralized way of thinking and writing has helped to proliferate a euphemistic order of corrupt life, a corpus of dependents up and down the range of classes who have to have their individual noses rubbed in the atrocities of toxic waste, routine venality, educational incompetence, fiscal malfeasance, atmospheric disequilibrations, etc., before they can recognize the malignancy of our banal dementias.
Where the civilization "works," it does not cure these or other pathologies but only succeeds in isolating privileged and abstracted individuals from their effects. It secures delusionary minds in their academic-, consumer- or executive-cocoons in order that they can remain aloof from a reality that their own values and lifestyle have made ever-more unhealthy and vicious. I write in order to prick that self-righteousness, and am well aware that just such abstracted and myopic minds will turn on me and tell me to go prick my own self-righteousness. That they resent anyone telling them what they ought to think, however, is not just an idealistic reflex of their autonomous egos; it is an effect of the anomic norms that reinforce a morally neutralized public space — including written language, spoken discourse, public institutions, etc. — which (as Philip Rieff has well argued) our historically peculiar mode of civilization has generated. By their reactions against my writing, the resentful prove it is more than possible for individuals to become critical (resistant to moral or rhetorical suasion) without necessarily becoming reflexive and aware of the superordinate determinants affecting their supposedly individuated subjectivity.
(d) Mr. Butzen takes as a singular bit of inanity my claim that "know-nothingism is a perennial arrogance" which at the same time is a "terminal derangement in a democracy decaying into tyranny." How can a perennial disorder also be terminal? he complains. How can sweet pork also be sour? Well, first, the way Mr. Butzen likes it — in terms of the terminology abstractly taken: "perennial" of course is not the equivalent of "eternal." Those species of trees that are perennial are not eo ipso immortal — on the contrary, "perennial" typically applies to things in the order of nature which carry no guarantee of indefinite continuation. Those entire species of trees could well become extinct; what was perennial in the past might not extend into the future. But more aptly: what I actually meant, and wrote well enough (though not well enough to be fortified against Mr. Butzen's misconstruction), is that know-nothingism plainly can be a perennial vice in a people which may well prove fatal to a specific governmental form. If one should rise above the planar thinking of individualism and understand the kinds of concreta to which these terms apply, this is a perfectly unexceptionable predication. The incoherence is not of my making but implicit in Mr. Butzen's determination to take "disorder" as a reified abstraction instead of an affliction relative to whatever system of order it qualifies. His misconstruction is an example instar omnium of the kind of superficial connections this shallow intellectualism typically makes.
(e) An analytically regimented mind can certainly carry out the reductive simplifications by means of which Mr. Butzen claims to "summarize" my argument for me. I take it as obvious that an abstractive mind — one for which privileged and canonical formulations have become substitutes for reality — does not regard its reductions as reductions; and no less obvious that those who want to make their language and thinking responsive to the nuances and complexities of concrete life will judge for themselves whether this list of particulars is the functional equivalent of my attempt at an organic presentation. I quite agree with Hegel that isolable propositions are the small change of philosophy, not at all the proper medium for distinctively philosophical understanding; it is the web of connectedness, the whole, that is the truth, not the particles into which analytical mind can decompose whatever it wants. Academics and social theorists have yielded up fat tomes, using Mr. Butzen's regimen of stylistics, of far less substance than my columns or responses. I do confess right readily that the task of capturing the dimensions of our lives and institutions with all their significances intact is as daunting to me as to most others who try it. But we will be waiting a hell of a long time for the issues to be formulated if we rely on Mr. Butzen and his analytical brethren to do it.
Behind every attempt I make at an exposition, there remains an intuitive or presuppositional background which is naturally there for any thinker attempting to articulate something — in the narrow space of a few pages I cannot refer in detail to my library of interpretive books or my voluminous file-system of articles and clippings that I take for granted as prima facie evidence of our forms of existence. I also draw implicitly on extensive conversations and observations I have had over decades with students, colleagues, and other thinkers. My writings are not meant to substitute for an articulated grasp on issues that took manifold geniuses to elaborate; in a column damned little can be done to suture together insights into structures difficult to encompass even in books. I do not expect to convert those who are determined to think otherwise, whether for reasons of content or of style or format (or both, as in Mr. Butzen's case). I write solely in order to help galvanize some synoptic resources, to precipitate some articulate convictions, in those who are so inclined and ripe for those questions. I feel no obligation to pour new wine into old wineskins, to convert those who have been indelibly marked by the fixations of consensual normality. No philosophy or religion — or even scientific movement! — has ever been able to do more by spiritual or rational means.
(f) That my writing is "nothing but rhetoric," that it "begins nowhere, leads no place, and generates no catharsis, but merely runs about shouting and waving its arms," is Mr. Butzen's subjective conviction: is this charge argued according to the strictures of his own vaunted analytical method, or is it intuitive and generalizing? Is it a claim purged of the rhetorical hyperbole he finds so offensive in my writing? By what standard do these self-indulgent dismissals pass muster — evidential (others not of Mr. Butzen's mindset think otherwise)? rational (and then, deduced from what premises)? If my writings are utterly insubstantial and unfounded, then I believe so will be the thinkers whose conceptual patrimony I have tried to incorporate into my work: I dread to think what arrant dismissals Mr. Butzen would utter against the major philosophers in our lineage of civilizational interpreters. Virtually none of the major thinkers in our past was able to construct a philosophical order without neologisms, technical terms, and even a bit of ironic wordplay (as in Heraclitus, Hegel, Nietzsche, or Heidegger) as if to show that the truth is the very inverse of what common sense expects. Few philosophers, rigorous as their methodology might have been, have even tried to live up to Spinoza's deductive rationality; philosophy conducted more geometrico apparently seemed to them the absurdity that Aristotle took it to be, cautioning that we should seek only as much exactitude in a subject as the subject itself will permit.
For what it's worth, I chose the title "Dramas of the Mind" in reaction against those insular thinkers whose analytical methods or Realpolitik induce them to believe that all ideas are necessarily insignificant and impotent, that all thinking is inevitably an irreal, subjunctive pursuit disengaged from worldly and historical consequences and influences — an exercise in weightlessness. Rather ideas, to my understanding, are by necessity and in whatever degree ab homine products, evidence (as Nietzsche phrased it) for the "backward inference from the work to the maker, from the deed to the doer, from the ideal to him who needs it, from every way of thinking and valuing to the want that prompts it." My work is liable to being interpreted and criticized on the grounds of my personal blindspots and deformities of judgment, and so is Mr. Butzen's: simply because he has put forward nothing of substantive conviction is no sign he is as mute and guarded as he thinks he is.
He writes I am sure as one who is fed up with my shrill philosophical diatribes; but I and perhaps the greater part of humanity may well be fed up with the moral solipsism of the microcephalic cultural order he is symptomatic of, the scientifico-Republican mentality so thoroughly disinfected of human values. Over the decades I have argued with scores of individuals whose linguistic finesse and methodological stratagems, like Mr. Butzen's, subserved a Weltanschauung of just about zero focal length. His precisionism unfortunately carries the traces of a mentality bound in by an ideological order more insane — more viciously deluded and narcotized — than I, obstreperous fool that I may be, could ever hope to become. His sort of fastidious retail-lucidity, typically philosophically pennywise and pound-foolish — as the history of Stalinist and fascist intellectuals in the 20th century alone readily illustrates — tends to be more than compatible with viscous and sophistic ideologies that are violently repulsive against the reflection that keeps us sane and responsible.
I can understand that my writing will certainly seem uninformative to the kind of mentality that seeks nothing but information; I can understand that it will look wild to a sedate academic, slack to a pointillistic analyst, tornadic to a literal-minded scholar, reactionary to a revolutionary, and revolutionary to a reactionary. But if one wants to investigate norms — moral and valuational imperatives — amid the factual evidence is not where one will find them: they bind the minds of their subjects a priori, they act as irreal limitations on what is thinkable, even for positivists who deny the validity of anything but facts. And if one wants to criticize norms, the micromethods of analyticism could not possibly be more inappropriate: those Socratic/Cartesian "norms" are ultimately nothing but techniques, tools of minds that will have to get their teleology elsewhere. Which is not to say that those techniques are perfectly neutral and objective, as Mr. Butzen may suppose: they have their own circularity of implication with a conception of what we are, what we ought to want, how we ought to be able to act and think; and this circularity in toto makes up an ideology, a worldview with its own closure. To make an issue out of such matters, to call into question such subjective phenomena as perspectives and norms, is — true enough — to some kinds of minds going to look like nugatory rhetoric, like massaging smoke. Nothing that I can write is going to restructure the fundamental precepts of someone else's intellect; those precepts themselves (and the normative demands of his place in the economy, his religious and other commitments) militate against that person's possibly understanding it. Such is the frustration of ideological circumstances, of minds that have been closed by doctrines and assumptions that do not seem, internally, to be doctrines or assumptions at all.
By the end of his letter, Mr. Butzen's particular criticisms show themselves as advance-guards for a wholesale abomination of my entire way of thinking, an execration not bound by his facade of finely tempered ratiocination. I am pleased to have won his contempt; for his self-satisfied immunity to the larger issues of our times, he can have mine. He writes as the epitome of egological consciousness, symptom of an order that is grinding and suffocating the imagination, piety, and love of life out of the inhabitants of the planet — an atrocity too diffuse and monstrous to be grasped by his factical-particular methods. He should sink his critical canines perhaps into Bill McKibben's "The End of Nature," in the New Yorker for September 11, 1989; and then, with his like-minded fellows, continue sucking in their bourgeois pleasures down to the bitter end. A population of middle-class and professionalized minds, cocksure about their own unimpeachable rationality, is riding the empire of none-too-stable modern order down into chaos.
Indeed what he suspects I am so lunatic as to do — call into question the very methodology in which he has placed his utmost confidence, the strategy of abstraction and condensation —is exactly what I am determined to do. That unprepossessing demand for definition, distinctness, and clarity is the essence of intellectualism and analyticism, the application of modernist self-certitudes in the form of a mundane tool for everyday decisions of the mind: it militates against all holistic forms of order and understanding, makes its own blanket presuppositions inaccessible to analysis and criticism, and reduces the ideologically licit action of the mind down to a finite scale where wholes are necessarily condemned to a destructive dissection. After a century of analytic domination, not one work of general significance has been produced by this school of philosophy: wherever it occurs, it is a sterile and paralyzing phenomenon. New order among the principles in our values and ideas always comes into being through myths, metaphor, and other attempts to leverage our minds out of the labyrinths that finite intellect is so insectivally happy to construct.
I set off to the end this consideration: Mr. Butzen is quite right to resent any dogmatic tone or posture, as I would: I am not comfortable in conscience having to philosophize assertorically, by means of what seems to others "an internal oracle." I agree still with Hegel who said it clearly and succinctly enough for anyone: "...It is the nature of humanity to seek agreement with others, and humanity exists only in the accomplished community of consciousness" (Preface to the Phenomenology, tr. Kaufmann). But if Americans in the polity at large can't produce a consensus about goodness, justice, or even truth — if there doesn't even exist among us a forum where such issues can be dealt with categorically — certainly neither can I, on my own. That community Hegel took for granted as accomplished is today a tattered web, undone by processes and norms integral to modernity itself: the micromethods of analyticism have patently contributed to the dissolution, and if the analytically minded (by the conventions of thought they have been conditioned to) are unable to see the disintegration their worldview has wrought throughout the university and its curriculum, so much the worse for them.
In spite of the many aspects in my writing that look intuitive — to me, compressed accounts of news analyses, characterizations of social structures and their functioning, philosophies of history about the mutating ethos of civilizations — I am impelled by conscience to offer what coherence I can for those who want to raise their minds to a more circumspect level. I would be delighted to see others doing the same — perhaps Mr. Butzen will oblige us with some substantive interpretations of his own, so we can be enlightened by the handiwork of his astute delicatesse. What I actually observe is the eclipse of publicly significant issues (which is to say, the dissolution of the public) under the tide of special interests, myopic specialization of intelligence, and business-as-usual. A patent decline into self-obscurity has thus far not been offset by Mr. Butzen's actinic mind and its severe criteriology: but that mind is, I will grant, probably representative of about the best our ordinary educational system manages to yield. I delight in the surgical reductiones ad absurdum that a grammarian like Richard Mitchell can work on administrative, bureaucratic, or scientific bilge: but the larger reality is that when Mitchell turns to positive pronouncements, like Socrates he gives out nothing but a shambles. It is a defect ingrained in the method, the worldview.
I can well understand that from Mr. Butzen's perspective my alarmism is flatulence and irrationality itself: Mr. Butzen runs a tight personal ship. We all have vernacular for such personality-types. From their point of view, there cannot possibly be crises in the world, humanly dysfunctional institutions and professions, moral monstrosities, or spiritual dissolution become epidemic. But far from being a diamond-hard ideal and the salvation of our messy world, his rationalism is no more than fallacious and symptomatic of the world that formed it. Philosophy has no choice but to take risks; the "secure" ground of Cartesian method is not the truth of what our world and our lives are, and neither is the scientific enterprise that institutionalized that method.
I know there are others who see aspects of what I see and have not been able to join them together — over the years I have talked with insightful people disturbed by the drifts and unmet crises I have tried to characterize. All of them have considered it not only futile but outright imprudent to say so publicly — our society and its structure of power and privilege are not half so generous toward contrary (truly anomalous or menacing) perspectives as we free citizens like to think we are. The ultimate constraint in a democracy is demagogic rhetoric, flattery of the public's vices: that is a narcotic that precludes simple utterance of the truth. We are not at all a social order without constraints on what is permitted to be thought and said. In our society, fewer and fewer conduits remain for independent perspectives, and yet, because this constriction does not affect our consumption or entertainment, most of us feel it hardly at all. Indeed, because of the lapse of these unruly perspectives and contrary values from our lives, most of us are likely to feel more secure, complacent, and orderly. But the orderly life is far, far from being the examined life; and the examined life far from being the whole life, the free and creative life that is paradigmatic of what human beings can be.
It is more the place of the editor or publisher to respond to this final point, but I mark it anyway. If majoritarian standards of intelligence and vocabulary — I take it that is what Mr. Butzen's third paragraph implies by the inappropriateness of my style "in a medium like The Comics Journal" — ought to govern what is licit in my column, why should the entire Journal not be obliged also to be a pandering servant of the dominant tastes, instead of the candid and autonomous organ that it is? And Mr. Butzen himself, in whatever profession or trade he practices — what right has he to decide for himself what he wants to and ought to do? Shouldn't he feel obliged to be subservient to the majority and its self-estimated needs? I write as an individual, sans official position and credentials; I impose on my readers no authority but the cogency and urgency of my words themselves. No one has to like it; no one in particular has to read it. Those who inflict it on themselves have only themselves to blame. Indeed, I don't believe that readers — Mr. Butzen included — would vex themselves to read this material at all if they thought it utterly hallucinatory. If what I wrote was pure fatuity, how fatuous is Mr. Butzen for taking the time to critique and then declaim against it? Something in what I said — I presume a lot in it — must have cut into a nerve; some lines of argument must indeed have struck him not as vapid but rather as unsettling and dangerous. As Chapman remarked, "No explosion follows a lie."
Letter #2, The Comics Journal #142, June 1991
I read with interest issue 137 of The Comics Journal in which Mr. Kenneth Smith replied twice to my letter of last March. I apologize for the delay, but I do not read the Journal regularly, and so had not seen his replies until now. I looked at Mr. Smith's replies not because I expected reason or even common sense, but out of morbid curiosity — much as I would look at someone who is talking loudly to himself on the street. Mr. Smith's rantings, unfortunately, fell short of even my modest expectation for his work.
As dialogue with Mr. Smith is impossible, I will simply restate my point. One necessary attribute of a writer is that he write clearly enough to be understood by the rational reader. The reader may have to work in order to understand, but the writing must, sooner or later, resolve itself into clarity in the reader's mind. There are some exceptions, like Coleridge's Kubla Khan, which tantalize the reader with a clarity that never quite comes into focus, but these are few.
How does a writer achieve clarity? He must master some technical skills: he must know the rules of grammar, and know when to follow them and when to break them; he must know how to construct a syllogism; and so on. Beyond that, clarity is the product of a writer's attitude, of his desire as a craftsman to do his best by his reader and by the English language. George Orwell, in his essay "Politics and the English Language," gave the best summary of this that I have seen:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
If a writer follows Mr. Orwell's prescription and thinks about what he writes, he will have made a great stride toward achieving clarity. However, when I read Mr. Smith's work — with its fragments of speech crashing into each other like cars in a demolition derby — I cannot believe that he thought as he wrote. I cannot see him writing one of his careening sentences, then sitting back, reflecting on what he wrote, and concluding that it exactly says what he has in mind. Mr. Smith's absence of clarity must be attributed to the absence of thought: as Ben Johnson put it, "Neither can his mind be in tune whose words do jarre, nor his reason in frame whose sentence is preposterous."
Why, then, did I bother to criticize Mr. Smith? What lit my fuse was when he advised one of his readers to "kill yourself now, and avoid the rush" (The Comics Journal, February 1990 [#134]; I quote from memory, so the exact wording may be slightly different). It was almost tolerable that this braying ass should pose as the judge of nations and civilizations; but when he abused a man who had written to him in good faith, I decided that he need a spanking. My folly was in believing that someone incapable of thought was somehow capable of change.
Kenneth Smith replies: By how much is a philosophically active mind superior to one that is not? Aristotle was blunt — "as much as the living are to the dead." Defunct mentality is very much to the point: see if you can decipher any of this, Mr. Butzen.
Butzen acknowledges not one thing out of the voluminous considerations I responded with; if he has understood any of it, there is not a smidgeon of evidence to that effect. He sounds off again like a kicked pig, untouched in his simple verities and cocksure that his ineptitude at understanding absolutely must be my fault because, surely, someone who seems as acute and educated to himself as he does must be omnicompetent. He is still at square one, undisturbed by any complications or modulations in understanding; and yet I am the one said to make dialogue "impossible." He stands as a measure of how much more is required for philosophical aptitude than a mere grammarian's precisian virtues and anal preoccupation with the surface-definition of words.
What I write has plenty of content for those who have ears to hear; if to Fred Butzen it all sounds like braying, perhaps his own impenetrable self-complacency figures somehow. In over four decades of reading every conceivable kind of writing — from mystics to anarchists, from comics to poets, from primitives to philosophers — I have never encountered writing of which I could make no sense the way Butzen finds my writings to be full of surds. Even lunatics and mystics make a kind of sense to a sufficiently cultured mind. My writing makes no sense to him because he is a proud specimen of ideological afflictions I have tried to make an issue of. If he had not written, some of my readers might have imagined it impossible for modernly "educated" individuals to be both "clarified" and irretrievably obtuse at the same time.
Anyone with sufficient breadth of experience will have observed the peculiar bent of modern abstracted/academic intellect with its literalizing and particularizing demands: it is a form of intellect not able to perceive that its own mentality is its own impediment to an understanding of not just traditional concepts and principles, but also ways of thinking of the entire rest of the world outside the Western/WASP orbit. Modern minimalist intellect will always trap its proponents on the level of individual experiences, customary ideas, and amoral-technical issues. Precisely what is central and explosive in any kind of controversy — values, norms, transcendent ideas — will always be elusive to this obsessively methodical kind of mentality. Just as there are individuals for whom the theocratic authority of the Middle Ages has waned only in fact, not in principle; just as there are those for whom the Newtonian paradigm of deterministic science remains cogent beyond doubt; and just as there are free-market ideologues on whose idealized preconceptions the actual vices and malignancies of late-20th-century capitalism do not register at all — so too there are zealots galore of Enlightenment rationalism, dogmatic in their Socratic/Cartesian/Kantian criteria. These mentalities, like true believers in every age, have been indelibly marked by a cultural paradigm; they will take their certainties to the grave, and chief among those certainties is the axiom that they have mastered the ultimate format of rationality and objectivity. It is always generations after a civilizational order dies in fact that it dies in the dim minds of the majority, like light from a distant star that perished centuries ago.
Mr. Butzen is in fact a poseur: claiming modesty, in reality he installs himself and his acknowledged intellectual limitations in a position of authority as "the rational reader," defender of the faith of analytical rationality. What is beyond his de facto comprehension is in principle incomprehensible. This is not modesty but egocentric arrogance, no matter how impersonal its format, that puts my "rantings" to shame. Mr. Butzen has unwittingly intercepted a communication meant for those amenable to having their minds stretched: it is he who brays without content, and he who is the ass unwilling to be budged. There is a primitive philosophical fallacy known as ontologizing one's embarrassment: anyone's failure to comprehend is not ipso facto proof of incomprehensibility.
I do indeed make Orwell's tests — the essay Butzen cites was a formative influence on me — but I am determined to communicate something other than bite-sized information, and I am determined to make changes not in the reader's surface-consciousness but in the fabric of his presuppositions, in the matrix of what is ultimately taken for granted. I dealt for three decades, nearly, with tunnel-vision, myopic/analytical minds such as Butzen's, academics whose very ingrained scruples make their minds keen, shallow, and narrow. Such a tribe currently chokes the faculties of our schools and universities with "professionals" crippled by their own education and marked, still, by what Veblen called "trained incapacity." What I am trying to delimit and accuse is hardly a vice of merely private scope: it is the white mindset, the bourgeois philistinism, the suicide of academic philosophy (there's an oxymoron) at the hands of hostile barbarians — it is the cancer of respectable, conformist, perfunctory mentality. It is a banal cultural and spiritual genocide against which creative and cosmopolitan minds have been futilely trying to stem the tide and awaken some sentience of the enormity of what our society is doing, to nature, to values, to conscience, to culture, to the entire bleeding earth. In Mr. Butzen's sensibility all these issues are vapors, utter nugatory inanity. If he doesn't want to understand, let him serve some other purpose in the controversy, as a specimen-host for ideological parasites.
Orwell is ultimately a proponent of a severely limited, optimistic, and simplistic prophylaxis for ideology: be simple, be clear, be direct. The virtues of analytical mind will sear their way through any sort of ideological fog; or so it is supposed. But ideologies are far more subtly structured than that, and the most scrupulous methodologies of acute intellectuals are certainly not proof against them. Every one of the Stalinoid or Falangist ideologues Orwell thought he was filleting no doubt equally considered himself clarified to the nth degree: so every ideology appears in its own eyes, as eminently simple and cogent. Orwell by contrast — a socialist contaminated by bourgeois individualism, an intellectual champion of the highest virtues of truth and justice out of a self-righteous imperialistic and racist society — would seem to those ideologues a patently confused and conflicted mentality. Clarity is that sort of ultimately subjective canon of self-approbation which permits individuals to nest comfortably in their bed of assumptions without ever eliciting those assumptions into critical consciousness. Abstractive clarity summarily dismisses the network of presuppositions that actually define the living function and meaning of whatever we are trying to think about; abstractive clarity can no more see its own context than it can see the larger skein of issues behind its objects.
Whoever orients himself by means of nothing more than Orwell's little intellectual survival-kit will never understand all those countless points-of-view that for moderns have become heterodox and obscure. The very critics we require in order to understand the abstractionism and fixity of the dominant occidental mentality are, of course, massively discredited as obscurantist and paradoxical by this very mentality: Heraclitus, Greek myth and tragedy, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Blake, Kafka, Yeats, and other challengers to modernist intellectualism are hardly going to be tractable to Mr. Butzen's insectival mandibles. His tweezer-like mind pinces nothing larger than a point; it pries away little grains of intelligibility, and when it fails — before a boulder, a monolith, or an Andes — why then it can always define that problem out of existence, as imperfectly pointy. There's something pointy here, all right.
Mr. Butzen's last point illustrates so well his specious objectivity; it is such a splendid specimen of the heedless warpage of mind that steers his writing. It was Lon Nease who proposed, clearly in a jesting tone, that he would "croak" if I did not reform my forbidding vocabulary. My response to him, "Croak now," borrows its tone and its terms from his context; and for anyone with a mind sensitized to nuance, there is all the difference in the world between banter and crass dismissal, between "croak" (=give up the ghost) and "kill yourself" (a far more cruel, less comical term). The abstractionism Butzen believes is himself thinking induces him to seize on whatever aspects of an exchange he likes, whatever reinforces what he wants to believe; he can exercise the point out of context like a good worker-ant, retreat to his hole and continue to regard himself as an exemplar of clarity. Was there humor in a situation that he missed? Impossible.
To be done with this interminable prospect of talking past someone who is profoundly confident he is talking past me, let me make up a parable — but a modern parable, a pseudo-scientific account. There is a neuropathological condition called agnosia, usually an effect of right-brain trauma or atrophy; Oliver Sacks discusses the disorder on pp. 79-80 of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. "For such patients, typically, the expressive qualities of voices disappear — their tone, their timbre, their feeling, their entire character — while words (and grammatical constructions) are perfectly understood." One such patient "could less and less follow loose speech and slang — speech of an allusive or emotional kind — and more and more required of her interlocutors that they speak prose — 'proper words in proper places.' "
Imagine that the syndrome of the agnosiac — as a left-brain dominance effected through trauma — can also be produced by moral, cultural, and educational means, i.e., as the kind of systemic perspective I call an ideology. For those encumbered with the personality- or culture-deficiency, tasks of understanding which are tribulations for others become literally impossible for the agnosiac. Like many neuroses that significantly coincide with the profile of modernist culture — amorality, nihilism, acquisitiveness, racism, etc. — agnosia passes for normal. After all, such agnosiacs can hold a job and communicate effectively, at least for most economic and organizational purposes. But such mentalities cannot perceive nuance in emotional tone (recall my response to Lon Nease, and Butzen's reaction to it). And they cannot comprehend accounts of their own limitations, incapacities, and delusions (recall Butzen's obtuseness about my critiques, his projection of incomprehension onto others). And they reiterate their impregnable fixations as ultimate articles of faith, as desperate little scruples that help them preserve clarity in the midst of a chaotic world that seems always to be talking about things they cannot precisely grasp. Modern abstractionism has legitimized the neuropathological format of agnosia as a pseudo-virtue — precisianism, analyticism, what I have criticized as abstractionism. Such a mentality will be pleased to think of itself as "disciplined" rather than monochromatic and imprisoned. Trying to explain philosophical issues to such a granitic mentality — devoid of spirit, soul, culture, creative insight, philosophical wonder — is like trying to teach a pig to sing. About the most music you will get out of a pig is with a kick. My leg is tired. I try, as always, to get people to think beyond the limits of what they have been acculturated to understand; with most of them it is not quite this hard a job.
1 Kenneth wrote "ignorance" in the original.