The Religious Attitude
April 21, 2012

The above clip comes from Adam Curtis’ four-part BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, in which he tries to show how the modern West came to be ruled by (in his eyes) an ideology of radical individualism. Politics, he argues, is no longer about communal interests or the promise of a different world; it is instead about administering to the present state of affairs, and satisfying the individual’s self-interested needs and desires.

Curtis returned to that theme, one of his favorites, in a talk he delivered last weekend in New York City’s e-flux gallery. There, he expressed frustration with Occupy Wall Street and the left in general, saying that both had failed to come up with a workable alternative to the cult of the individual. Horizontalism, in Curtis’ dim view, is little more than an anarchified twist on the old fallacy of the market’s invisible hand: both posit that a mass of people all expressing their own individual preferences can somehow yield a coherent, dynamic, and mutually beneficial ecosystem.

You can quibble with that take on horizontalism, if you like — it is, to be sure, more than a little reductive to equate heavily structured General Assembly discussions with the Hobbesian chaos of a laissez-faire market. But Curtis’ broader indictment of the contemporary left is both harder to swallow and harder to dismiss. Those elements of the left that have denounced the ideology of the self (and they are fewer than you think) leave a conceptual vacuum in its wake. (more…)

Some Supposedly Fun Links
February 22, 2012

English: David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Mu...

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Yesterday would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday. I’m not quite the DFW superfan I once was (I haven’t even read The Pale King yet), but I still feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the man. As much as his writing gets accused of being solipsistic or self-involved (often by his old friend and rival Jon Franzen), I’ve always read it as an antidote to solipsism. Okay, so comparing his legacy to that of Dostoevsky is a little hyperbolic, but the two did have similar projects: both were obsessed with finding a way out of the compulsive self-abuse of everydayness and into something approaching real grace and compassion.

Some recommended DFW reading:

The famous “This is Water” speech he delivered at Kenyon University’s 2005 commencement ceremony:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

Jon Baskin on Wallace v. Franzen:

The episode indicates what really united Wallace and Kierkegaard—not, as Franzen implies in “Farther Away,” their narcissism, but rather their profound appreciation of its death grip on the modern self. Central to both was the conviction that narcissism was a matter predominantly of belief, less a defect of personality than a symptom of spiritual vacancy. It was not something that could be addressed by smart social policy, abstract argument or higher-quality news. Perhaps only organized religion had ever checked the narcissism of the contemporary person, for whom the difficulty was not to be sophisticated, cynical and “free,” but to invest herself in some definite course of action. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard had introduced the “knight of faith”—his version of a modern hero—who, he said, would look from the outside “just like a tax collector.” In Pale King, Wallace encourages his sophisticated modern reader to acknowledge the glory of the tax collector, a job that is “truly heroic” because “a priori incompatible with audience or applause”—that is, with narcissism.

Such a definition of heroism may seem sentimental or silly; it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that Wallace meant it.

Big Red Son, one of DFW’s most darkly hilarious nonfiction essays. It also has one hell of an opening:

THE AMERICAN ACADEMY of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult US males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves. With kitchen tools, usually, sometimes wire cutters. In answer to the obvious question, surviving patients most often report that their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety. The desire for perfect release and the real-world impossibility of perfect, whenever-you-want-it release had together produced a tension they could no longer stand.

It is to the 30+ testosteronically afflicted males whose cases have been documented in the past two years that your correspondents wish to dedicate this article. And to those tormented souls considering autocastration in 1998, we wish to say: “Stop! Stay your hand! Hold off with those kitchen utensils and/or wire cutters!” Because we believe we may have found an alternative.

Every spring, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents awards for outstanding achievement in all aspects of mainstream cinema. These are the Academy Awards. Mainstream cinema is a major industry in the United States, and so are the Academy Awards. The AAs’ notorious commercialism and hypocrisy disgust many of the millions and millions and millions of viewers who tune in during prime time to watch the presentations. It is not a coincidence that the Oscars ceremony is held during TV’s Sweeps Week. We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it’s still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush clichés of surprise and humility scripted by publicists, etc.—the whole cynical postmodern deal—but we all still seem to watch. To care. Even though the hypocrisy hurts, even though opening grosses and marketing strategies are now bigger news than the movies themselves, even though Cannes and Sundance have become nothing more than enterprise zones. But the truth is that there’s no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there’s still joy. That we think it’s funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.

Your correspondents humbly offer an alternative.

A review from The Canadian Review of Books that includes a quote DFW loved (and which is often misattributed to him):

Irony, we’re all coming to discover in the Age of Irony, is the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

And lastly, here’s a review I wrote of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, his book-length conversation with DFW.

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Art Finds a Way to Take Care Of You
February 16, 2012

And these country musics that are just so—you know, “Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.” And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? “Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.” That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable… But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?… That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.

— David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

No True Neoliberal
December 15, 2011

At the beginning of his famous 2005 graduation speech to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tells a joke that goes like this:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

In DFW’s speech, “water” is a metaphor for the ineffable mystery and wonder of being alive. My intention in telling the same joke — with apologies to fellow DFW fans — is not quite so lovely. Instead, I would ask you to think of the two young fish as members of America’s political elite, and the water as neoliberalism.

Thinking in those terms might help clarify the reasoning between the perennial progressive assertion that there’s not really any such thing as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, the argument goes, is just a label that unreconstructed lefties stick to any policy with which they disagree. And when you ask those lefties to define it, they articulate a philosophical position that nobody anywhere on the political spectrum actually believes.

I was thinking about that argument when I read Elias Isquith’s pithy explanation of the logic undergirding Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden’s bipartisan Medicare plan:

It’s rare that you hear a politician or a respectable wonk or a think tank spokesperson discuss these kinds of plans in terms that aren’t loaded-up with jargon, for one; but even if the conversation is being carried out with plain language, there’s rarely if ever a focus on how the actual plan would work for real human beings, rather than abstract Consumers.

The disconnect Digby’s pointing out here is born from a larger ideological blind-spot of this era’s political class: they cannot see the world without the language and logic of the market. The wide swathes of the population who may not be able — or may not want— to adopt the mindset of the holy Rational Consumer might as well not exist; they’re square circles. To say that people can be quite real and quite valuable while, at the same time, not really being Consumers? Imagine telling a Medieval monk that the world can’t be divided between saints and sinners. It just doesn’t register.

See, nobody actually believes that all levels of society should be ordered around consumer-producer market relationships. It’s just that whenever we get to debating matters of public policy, the implicit framing of the debate assumes that we’re trying to determine the optimal form of a particular consumer-producer arrangement. But hey, how else would you engineer state and society? That’s not neoliberalism — it’s just the way the world is. What the hell is water?

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Matters of Utmost Seriousness
October 9, 2010

All the legitimate bloggers these days have end-of-the-day link roundups. And as it so happens, feigning legitimacy is one of my hobbies, which is why I’m starting a new semi-regular feature: MATTERS OF UTMOST SERIOUSNESS. I say “semi-regular” because I don’t have the time or inclination to post link roundups each day, much less assemble enough links on a daily basis to make for a decent roundup.

I do, however, have things I want to highlight but don’t feel I can construct a full post around. Here are some of the recent ones:

  • Julian Sanchez takes the question of whether or not a god could prove its omnipotence quite a bit further than I did. I stopped at what it would be like to experience omnipotence because it seemed inconceivable to me; but that’s sort of handwave-y, and Julian does a good job of puzzling through the concept of omnipotence. Also, the comments thread is glorious.
  • Philosopher Neil Sinhababu, who I interviewed for my column on personhood, thinks cognitive neuroscience has a solution to the philosophical zombie problem.
  • Massimo Piglucci on the limits of reasonable discourse.
  • Columbia University Press is going to publish David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis, in which the future novelist tried to rebutt fatalism. The New York Times Magazine had an article about the thesis awhile back.
  • Via Leiter, a blog about what it’s like to be a woman in academic philosophy.
  • Also via Leiter: an excellent essay on the nature of political conservatism.

David Foster Wallace and Nietzschean Nihilism
September 5, 2010

Taken from
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The further I’ve dug into Nietzsche, the more puzzled I’ve become when reading other philosophers discuss “Nietzschean nihilism.” All I’ve read so far suggests that Nietzsche had very strong moral intuitions, although perhaps in pointing this out I’m missing what is meant by the word “nihilist.” We’re used to talking about “nihilists” as people with no moral intuitions (or at least no moral intuitions that don’t conveniently work to their advantage), but perhaps it would be more accurate to call Nietzsche a nihilist who does not view his moral intuitions as corresponding to intrinsic, mind-independent properties of the universe. If that’s nihilism, then there’s nothing inherently amoral about it—just anti-moral realism.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about this concept of Nietzschean nihilism in direct relation to Nietzsche himself, but of course its influence extends far beyond his own work alone. For example, last week, philosopher Sean Kelly wrote of David Foster Wallace’s philosophical project that “the saving possibility for the culture that Wallace proposes is ultimately predicated on a kind of unlivable Nietzschean nihilism.”

Wallace (pictured) is, as regular readers of the blog know, among the most significant influences on my own philosophical project; so my immediate response to Kelly’s post was knee-jerk dismissal. But once I started thinking about nihilism in this light, and what it might mean to be not just a nihilist but a Nietzschean nihilist, I started to understand what his argument for that position might be (or at least, how I would put the argument; I’m going to have to wait to read Kelly’s book to find out if we’re truly talking about the same thing).

One clue to why Wallace might be called a Nietzschean nihilist lies in another post from last week, this one by Matt Feeney at The American Scene. A chunk of the post is dedicated to discussing this DFW quote:

If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.

(Aside: The quote comes to us from David Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace, published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I reviewed for Wunderkammer.)

Feeney says that the above passage “sounds like the sort of apotheosis of the self as a therapeutic object that is widely and mostly well-derided around these parts,” and goes on to exonerate Wallace on the grounds that he was clinically depressed. But I think he fundamentally misunderstands what Wallace—who was, after all, as sharp a critic of self-involved pop-psychology and shallow self-validation as anyone. The kind of self-love he advocates here doesn’t necessarily require self-indulgence. After all, one tries not to be overly indulgent to a small child one loves, because it isn’t healthy for him. Instead, we try to instill the child with a sense of how to remain healthy and well-adjusted throughout his whole life—and we consider the teaching of strong moral principles to be an essential part of that instruction.

If this love of the self as a path to the good is nihilism, then I think Kelly is accurate in describing it as Nietzschean nihilism. It is, in other words, glorification of the will to create, and to create one’s own kind of virtue, but in a way that, if done properly, leads to familiar moral intuitions about how to treat others. As Nietzsche himself writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s Part Two (which I started earlier today): “Learning better to feel joy, we learn best not to hurt others or to plan hurts for them.”

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In Which Markos Moulitsas Becomes Bad For the Left
September 1, 2010

Markos Moulitsas
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

I have a paleoconservative friend who, when I’m berating the modern right, will often respond with something like: “Well, don’t get too comfortable. Give your leftist friends a couple more years in power, and they’ll turn into rabid animals too.”

I begged to differ, instead reiterating some version of Jon Chait’s thoughts on the topic:

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy—more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition—than conservatism.

I still believe this to be true, in some sense, for the moment—though I would again caution that a governing philosophy can’t be pragmatic on the level of first principles because first principles can’t be pragmatic. But to pretend that it’s not possible for any ideological movement to slide into epistemic closure is to practice exactly the sort of self-deception that makes one so vulnerable to that very phenomenon.

My friend considers that process inevitable, and I would like to disagree—sadly, one of the giants of left-wing activism seems firmly committed to proving my friend’s point.

In Jamelle’s excellent review, he points out that Moulitsas is primarily an activist, not a journalist, and that this book is likely more about rallying the troops than painting an accurate portrait of the modern right. Fair enough. But Jamelle’s review also does a pretty thorough job of demonstrating why that’s no excuse. Once the loudest voices among the liberal base start showing a Jonah Goldberg-style willingness to sacrifice honesty for pom-pom shaking, Chait’s defense no longer works at all. I hate to go all “a pox on both your houses,” since Kos is still correct on a number of policy issues—but if the process by which he reaches those conclusions is this thoroughly corrupted, then the conclusions themselves are largely a happy coincidence.

In my book, that doesn’t count for a great deal. Not considering how bad this style of argumentation is in the long run, both for the left and the country as a whole. If liberals embrace American Taliban-style thinking, then we’re bound for a conservative resurgence and a liberal meltdown that will leave us much in the same position as the modern right: intellectually bankrupt, blindly emotive, and capable only of making noise and obstructing policy. In the shorter term, the left will have completely alienated those conservatives who we could actually make common cause with.

I can understand the impulse for this kind of rhetoric. My theory is that Kos is trying to gin up enough enthusiasm in the netroots to blunt conservative enthusiasm going into 2010. It’s a wise short-term play if you consider the goal to be simply subverting conservatism whenever you can—and, if at all possible, crushing it for good. But we’re not going to get rid of conservatives, nor should we want to. Instead, the goal should be a two-party system in which both sides show at least some appreciation for what David Foster Wallace called the Democratic Spirit. If Kos and his right-wing counterparts have their way, then the American D.S. will be dead in a generation.

Lucky for us, there’s hope. The proof: a prominent left-wing publication (the Prospect) publishing a review (Jamelle’s, see above) that rips American Taliban to shreds. As long we still have room for that sort of intra-movement dissent, we’re doing significantly better than the right.

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The Pseudo-Intellectual Placebo Effect
August 9, 2010

To take my critique on the sorry state of pop culture criticism a little further, it’s worth noting that this checklist-crit and surface skimming undermines one of art’s great gifts. I’ve written much before about the decline of deep introspection, and the cost of that decline; art is another avenue back into introspection. Developing a robust understanding of a true masterwork requires burrowing deep into yourself and confronting that which we purposefully keep hidden from ourselves for 95% of our waking moments. Art makes looking at this stuff more palatable because you’re doing it hand-in-hand with the artist. This is what David Foster Wallace called the “conversation around loneliness” that drew him to literature.

Art makes it easier, but this sort of thing is difficult and scary under even the best of circumstances. Which is why checklist-crit offers an alternative: the illusion of deeper understanding without any of challenge. Sometimes I find myself wondering if this streak of pseudo-intellectualism is more anti-intellectual and pernicious than mere stupidity.

Incidentally, this is why I find the work of public pseudo-intellectuals like Katie Roiphe, Simon Critchley and Alain de Botton so offensive. They provide an opportunity for the educated and relatively well-off—those with the free time, the tools, and the luxury to spend many hours going deep within themselves—to marvel at their own erudition without accomplishing anything at all. It’s like Vitamin Water; we drink it for the taste and the image it projects of a health-conscious yuppie, when in reality we’re just consuming another overpriced sugar drink.

Meanwhile, Tony Judt is dead.

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People Are Bad at Happiness
June 28, 2010

infinite jest
Image by dorywithserifs via Flickr

Earlier I argued that it’s a fool’s errand to make your life-long project a quest for personal satisfaction for its own sake. If you want to understand why, all you have to do is try and conceive of what such a project would look like.

By definition, we’re not talking about a project that seeks to directly better the lives of others. Nor is it one that aims towards any higher moral ends. This is a project that is either purely hedonistic or projects towards some other kind of self-affirmation: say, a carefully cultivated self-image or career goal.

So a goal like that is necessarily materialistic. A non-materialistic endeavor projects itself towards something larger than, and outside of, ourselves. If we’re not going to find fulfillment in moral virtue, religion, idealism, compassion or anything else, where does that leave us?

A lot of you probably share my belief that narcissism is morally monstrous, but that’s not really the argument here. I think the more salient point is that it is necessarily self-defeating, for the simple reason that it is impossible to satisfy. That’s because, when it comes to satisfying our own happiness, we’re notoriously bad at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The things we think will raise our overall happiness in the long-term, usually don’t; after the initial endorphin rush dissipates, we’re just left with a higher threshold for maintaining our current happiness level.

David Foster Wallace’s great insight was making the link between a lot of the wildly disparate way in which we pursue happiness through material things: in Infinite Jest, he juxtaposes the pursuit of entertainment, career advancement, fame, and chemically altered states, suggesting that they all operate on more or less the same principle. A small measure of that book’s genius lies in how he demonstrates, with humor and compassion, that all of these things can dull our anxiety and suffering in the short term while really just crippling our ability to function normally without them in the long term.

A lot of self-help pop philosophy is focused on the question, “How do I find happiness?” But reflecting on this stuff has led me to reject the premise. I’m not so sure that happiness qua happiness is a reasonable or worthwhile lifelong goal. If you’re lucky, it’s the byproduct of pursuing a different, worthier project.

(I’m going to try and make this my last Infinite Jest/DFW-related post for a little while. For one thing, I don’t want this blog to become too one-note. But I’m also running out of non-repeated pictures to run at the top of these things.)

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The Life-Long Project
June 27, 2010

So I know a lot of you crazy kids with your RSS feeds and Tumblr main page and the hippity-hoppity and bippity-boppity might not have noticed, but we have a new URL here and a snazzy new template, keeping in line with my desire to expand this blog’s focus. But that doesn’t mean we’re abandoning philosophy entirely, and philosophy is what I want to talk about today.*

About a month ago, I and several other past and present NYU Local editors fell into a bout of collective navel gazing on the nature of romantic love. One line from the whole discussion stuck out to me, in Annie’s entry:

With this post-feminist (I suppose?) kind of psyche, a lot of girls my age want relationships, but they also don’t want to seem needy. What results is a lot of cold quasi-relationships, and they forget that maybe there is something to be said, something strong, about a life-long project that isn’t entirely self-centered.

My own thinking and reading on the subject has led me to a stronger thesis: a life-long project focused, in part, on something other than, and larger than yourself is a prerequisite for being a fully developed person.

There are two reasons for this, and only one of them has to do with the expected references to moral necessity. One way in which I suppose you could say I’m sort of Ancient Greek in my thinking is that I do believe that we all share certain communitarian obligations, and an obligation to strive for some form of public virtue (especially in a democratic society).

But there is another argument for this thesis, one which I’ve seen made most eloquently by two people you’ve seen mentioned here a lot before: Simone de Beauvoir and David Foster Wallace. One of Wallace’s greatest insights is, I think, also one of Beauvoir’s: that we must have non-self-absorbed life-long goals not just out of moral necessity, but also personal necessity.

That may seem an obvious point to a lot of people, but I don’t believe in obvious points. There are the things you can argue for, and the the things you can’t. In this case, I think it’s crucial to get the argument out there as much as possible, and so I’m making it a project of mine for the foreseeable future.

(As to why it’s so important to talk about this now, it goes back to what I was talking about in that God Is Dead post: because of the new order I identified, a large chunk of my generation was raised without being given the tools to assemble an internally coherent set of values beyond themselves. Keep that in mind when you read yet another brow-furrowing, lip-pursing boomer’s article about the “Me Generation’s” overweening narcissism. I don’t think these concerns are without merit, but the root causes—the fundamental moral and philosophical failings of prior generations—are usually ignored. And ignored at our peril.)

*I’m consciously avoiding Weigelgate because it’s already been over-commented-on, and my main thing about how this whole debacle is a far greater embarrassment to the Washington Post than Weigel himself has already been pretty well covered elsewhere.

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