“Studies in a Dying Culture”


by Ralph Dumain
“The escort service of the intellect”

Dedicated to Christopher Caudwell (1907-1937)
(Pseudonym of Christopher St. John Sprigg)
Martyr of the Spanish Civil War

Proceed directly to latest entry

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads
against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the
Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could,
forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.

— William Blake, Preface to Milton


“Everybody wants to get into the act!” Even the culture of critique is overloaded, as the dumbing down of America gets more lowdown than anyone imagined possible, and American culture scrapes the dirt way below the bottom of the barrel. Yet no one manages to dig deep enough to undermine this process. The benumbed and demoralized general populace remains uncritical as ever, but what of critical culture? Can critique be reduced to an algorithm? Can critique mystify as well as reveal? Is it possible to escape being overwhelmed by the propaganda environment? How does one climb out from under layers piled upon ideological layers? How to think one’s way out of this morass? How to escape the confines of popular, middlebrow, and academic culture? How to avoid entrapment and stasis, and creatively surmount the limitations of the age? With these thoughts as well as reservations I approach the already bloated blog culture. This cultural crisis is not just a replay of the 1930s, but aside from taking note of discomfiting historical parallels, we can pay tribute to the courageous resistance of the past. Christopher Caudwell’s Studies in a Dying Culture (1938) and Further Studies in a Dying Culture (1949) were my inspiration when I first publicly spoke on this crisis in December 1988, a year that was a turning point for me. My framework has since grown more sophisticated, but the political decline of the USA has now reached crisis proportions. Hence again I borrow Caudwell’s title for my own. (RD—10 July 2006)


October Reading Review (2)

Richard Hofstadter on American Fascism & Anti-Intellectualism

Irrationalism in Modern Thought Culminating in Overpriced French Philosophy

50th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution

Half-Baked Half Nelson: Dialectics Interruptus

October Reading Review (1)

September Reading Review

September 2006
August 2006

July 2006


“I labour upwards into futurity.”
— William Blake?, 1796
[Keynes, 262]

31 October 2006

October Reading Review (2)

Agehananda Bharati, Swami. The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1976.

Almost finished. More on the book and the Swami to come.

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited and translated by John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

Skimming for key philosophical content.

Levi, Albert William. Philosophy as Social Expression. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.

See esp. Introduction and Conclusion. Intermediate chapters profile Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Moore. This was written when analytical philosophy reigned unchallenged. The Introduction provides some useful information on historical approaches. Levi mentions Lukàcs, but the book falls below the theoretical standard of good Marxism, though there is much that is usable in it. Alvin Gouldner's analysis of Plato is the most compelling.

New in the queue:

Durer, Christopher S. Herman Melville, Romantic and Prophet: A Study of His Romantic Sensibility and His Relationship to European Romantics. Toronto: York P, 1996.

Journal articles:

Michael Kosok, Dialectics of Nature, Telos, No 6, Fall 1970.

I think this is bogus, man, but I will present a fuller treatment elsewhere.

[—> October Reading Review (1)]
[—> November Reading Review]

29 October 2006

Richard Hofstadter on American Fascism & Anti-Intellectualism

Brown, David S. Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 291 pp. Table of contents. Publisher description.

Wiener, Jon. "America, Through a Glass Darkly," The Nation, October 23, 2006.

Apparently, I'm not the only who thinks that a new look at Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and other works by Hofstadter is in order.

29 October 2006

Irrationalism in Modern Thought Culminating in Overpriced French Philosophy

Lears, Jackson. "Keeping It Real," The Nation, June 12, 2006. Review of Martin Jay's Songs of Experience.

Wolin, Richard. "Heidegger Made Kosher," The Nation, February 20, 2006. On Levinas vs. Sartre, and the general trends of Franco-Germanic 20th century philosophy.

Compare with:

Badiou, Alain. "The Adventure of French Philosophy," New Left Review, new series, no. 35, September-October 2005.

And, as usual, see my Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide.

[—> Annotation to "Irrationalism and Marxism" by Étienne Balibar]
[—> Bergson's Vitalism & French Philosophy]
[—> Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals]

23 October 2006

50th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution

A week ago I spoke with and shook the hand of the one of two surviving leaders of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, who escaped execution only because he was late for a meeting.

Otherwise, in other commemorative documentary contributions, in the USA at any rate, I suspect the historical details are being eclipsed in favor of American Cold War triumphalism, as if no other perspective has a claim on the Hungarian Revolution. But the anti-Stalinist left has something to say about it, too.

C.L.R. James et al, Introduction to Facing Reality (1958). Lessons of the Hungarian Revolution.

15 October 2006

Half-Baked Half Nelson: Dialectics Interruptus

The film Half Nelson (see also the film's own web site Half Nelson - the film) is about dialectics and history taught by a cocaine/crack-addicted teacher to inner city black kids. The web site Dialectics for Kids is cited in the credits.

See also:

In ‘Half Nelson,’ Opposing Forces Are Bound by Political Faith by DENNIS LIM, New York Times, July 30, 2006.

In ‘Half Nelson,’ a Student Knows a Teacher’s Secret by MANOHLA DARGIS, New York Times, August 11, 2006.

I distinctly remember concluding last winter after seeing Jim Jarmusch's half-assed Broken Flowers at the E Street Cinema, prefaced by trailers to a half-dozen tedious art films, that independent filmmakers can pretty much get away with anything—thematic confusion, disjointed narratives, underdefined characters, plots that go nowhere, stories that don't add up (usually described by the euphemism "open-ended")—and that their pseudo-sophisticated audiences will swallow it all just as they are expected to do, because at the end of the day they are no more sophisticated than the audience for Freddy vs. Jason at Union Station.

If you follow the reviews and discussion boards, perhaps you may notice that the gullibility of white liberals and radicals know no bounds. Reviewers are hardly more perspicacious that lay viewers. Occasionally someone offers an insightful dissent.

I had my reservations about seeing this film, suspecting in advance that it would be another white-boy-goes-slumming story. It wasn't the standard fare, but its premise was somehow off, and I was not the only one who left the theater dissatisfied.

Teacher Dan's affinity for black and Latin culture is unfeigned and unromanticized, but his dysfunctional cocaine addiction is not sufficiently motivated and in any case doesn't convincingly match the plight of the inner city poor who give in to drug using or dealing. A heroic savior, Dan is not, but his self-destructive behavior doesn't convince me he is the peer of his aquaintances in the inner city, either, and in this respect I differ from reviewers who find the film refreshing. Dan is a radical who is committed to teaching his students the history of struggle against oppression. Though irresponsible and suffering from burnout, he is able to develop a rapport with his students and get across some basic principles, while disregarding the standard civil rights curriculum. At a gathering of his middle class family late in the film, we discover that his parents were activists in the '60s, but are apparently as demoralized as Dan. We assume that the political climate has driven Dan to despair, yet we don't have enough of his history to motivate his drug addiction. Dan must have been brought up with this legacy, for we discover in his library '60s "classics" such as Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Yet, while dedicated in his individual manner to history teaching, he is disconnected from others in every other way. A beautiful Latina fellow teacher takes a liking to him, but after spending the night with him (and inquiring about his library), he sloughs off a real connection as a mere sex romp, permanently alienating the woman. Dan becomes quite an unsympathetic character, even though his drug problem is the apparent cause of his withdrawal from others. Politically helpless and demoralized as he is, we want Dan at least to be able to function as a friend, mentor, and educator, yet Dan sabotages himself even in this restricted field of action.

After showing a clip of Mario Savio's famous speech during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, in which Davio passionately agitates his audience to throw themselves on the 'gears of the machine', Dan explains the machine. One student pipes up: but you're white, you're a teacher, you're part of the machine, too. Dan responds: that's right, and so are all of you. I am part of the machine even while I oppose its policies. This is the one genuine dialectical lesson of the film, though it's not taken to a satisfactory conclusion.

Dan teaches history via an explication of dialectics, which he defines as the struggle of opposing forces. His approach is presumably congruent to that of Dialectics for Kids. This is not really an adequate characterization of the concept, but it is serviceable for his presentation of political struggle. (Though this is not mentioned, it bears resemblance to Martin Luther King Jr.'s conception of dialectics.) Dan refers to the spiral of change. At some point a history of dialectics is outlined—the yin-yang principle, Aristotle, loss of dialectics in the West, and so on. At one point Dan is asked: "how's diametrics going?" At another, his book in progress, Dialectics for Kids, which attempts to explain how change works, is mentioned. But that project is stalled like the rest of Dan's life.

As I suggested, the one truly dialectical principle to be found in all this is embedded in the notion that we too are a very part of the machine against which we struggle; it is not just us vs. them as separate unrelated entities, but one pole of the opposition can only be defined in terms of its opposite. Presumably, the film aims to show how we are all caught up in this machinery, no matter at what level of society we operate. The quick cutting between two family scenes—Dan's and an inner city black family—is presumably one illustration of this point, as is the enmeshing of Dan, his black dealer, and his befriended student, a black girl named Drey, in the drug trade. And while all this may well be so, Dan's relationship to all the others and the source of his drug addiction needs to be examined more acutely.

Dan certainly does not put himself above anyone in this inner city environment, nor do we. But there are some problems here. First, were it not for his self-destructive behavior, however presumably motivated by burnout and political despair (alluded to, never really convincingly explained), Dan would certainly have more options than anyone in this environment. Dan might be able to hang with anyone in this milieu, denying any sense of superiority he might be accused of, but then, on what basis, especially as he supports the drug trade as an addict? Dan doesn't seem to grasp the implications of this differential. The fact is, because he is a teacher, others look up to him. A grateful parent of a former student of Dan who has made good enthusiastically greets Dan in a bar, only to be brushed off because Dan cannot remember the student's name. As with his Latina would-be girlfriend, Dan isolates himself from others. The student he now mentors and befriends, Drey, is shocked to find him strung out in the ladies' room after hours. While she keeps his secret and they remain friends, his addiction is a rather questionable social equalizer. All of these people may in some sense be victims of the same system, but we cannot sympathize with Dan's victimage on the data presented because we are unsettled about the inevitability of his particular role in the scheme of things. So while this is not exactly a white hero or a slumming movie, there is something slippery about its conception.

The filmmakers' and some (re)viewers apparently take what they would call the 'open-endedness' the film as a virtue, whereas I take it as sloppy thinking. Dan and Drey end up sitting on a couch together at the end of the film after a particularly bad binge on his part. Meaning that they have a bond and mutual understanding, whatever happens, I suppose. And so what are we to conclude from this? The ending is as indeterminate as the unseen and unknown beginning of Dan's addiction. This fragmented, slice-of-life approach to 'independent film' may be chic but it doesn't do much for me, and I don't like to see resources and opportunities squandered. The film doesn't even teach us much about history or the dialectical approach to history—here, too, all we get is a random assortment of fragments. The didactic dimension of the film is as 'open-ended'—i.e. disconnected and incoherent—as the narrative. Leave it to the left to screw things up.

15 October 2006

October Reading Review (1)

Grossman, Neal. Healing the Mind: The Philosophy of Spinoza Adapted for a New Age. Selinsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2003. 253 p.

To say that a New Age book is dishonest, escapist, delusional, and idiotic would be a redundancy, but each twist on this tired old theme stimulates fresh irritations. One of the most disgusting aspects of New Age drivel is how it sucks everything it touches into a perennial philosophy drained of history, and hence of reality. It begins with abstracting the esoteric lore of India out of the social filth which produced it—the caste system, oppression, ignorance and superstition—and polishing it up for upper middle class consumption in the West. To rob Spinoza of his history is especially egregious, for such an approach robs the self-effacing properties of Spinoza's text of the social subtext that reveals its underlying political motivation. Just as western middle class historical amnesia spreads a fog of forgetfulness over the Indian caste system, so does it induce forgetfulness about the political context of the Radical Enlightenment, of its fight for secular political liberalism against feudal absolutism, and of the especially poignant struggle of Spinoza, a Marrano, a Jew, a member of an oppressed and terrorized people rejected by his own community, the most rebellious of intellectual rebels, a lonely crusader for a future he could only see the bare beginnings of. Spinoza had to use stealth where we can speak freely; for us to remain silent about the true nature of his historical context and rebellion is to compound the crimes of history and stifle its victims all over again. The vapid political neutrality of New Age holism obscures the ineluctable reality that to be human is not to merge into an impersonal whole but to be a specific being and take sides, for one thing and against something else. The ostensible impersonality and quasi-pantheism of Spinoza, in the context of a theistic and theocratic society just emerging from feudalism, carries with it a political motive that takes sides; it's not about an impersonal purging and merging of self within a whole that is wonderful and perfect just as it is.

[—> My Yiddishe Spinoza]
[—> Constantin Brunner (1)]

Bronner, Stephen Eric. A Rumor about the Jews: Antisemitism, Conspiracy, and the Protocols of Zion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. (1st ed., 2000) Publisher description. Table of contents.

H-Net review: Linda Maizels. "Review of Stephen Eric Bronner, A Rumor about the Jews: Antisemitism, Conspiracy, and the Protocols of Zion," H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews, March, 2004.

Chapter 2 reproduces selections of the infamous anti-Semitic forgery are reproduced. It is immediately evident that this tract could only be a product of an illiberal society attempting to stifle the democratic tendencies of modernization—hence the slurs not only against the Jews, but in association with condemnation of all anti-clerical, anti-aristocratic, anti-hierarchical, democratic and liberal tendencies. Not surprising, as it is a czarist forgery. Some of this content would not pass in liberal democracies, but quite a bit of it is still live within the fascist currents of societies like ours, not to mention others.

When I have finished this book I hope to say more beyond what is said in the H-Net review cited. Sophisticated models of how religious ideology interacts with sociological factors need to be popularized, especially in the philosophically challenged Anglo-American sphere (including, alas, the otherwise salutary secular humanist movement). That is, we need a more philosophically and sociologically sophisticated defense of liberal and secular values than the philosophical mediocrities who dominate such discourse—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, etc.—are giving us. We also need a counterweight to the fascistic conception of the "clash of civilizations" not only bequeathed to us by right-wrong ideologues but adopted by scared liberals like Harris who is part of the current foaming at the mouth over Islam. We have to know how to condemn religious superstition unequivocally without predicating everything that happens in society as a product of "belief" in the abstract, or for that matter, on sociologically illiterate metaphorical extensions of neo-Darwinism (memetics, etc.).

Thomson, Alex. Adorno: A Guide for the Perplexed. London; New York: Continuum, 2006. (Guides for the Perplexed)

This book is one in a series of new guides to difficult philosophers. Adorno is the most difficult of the Frankfurters to assimilate and to popularize for beginners, so I'm always on the lookout for introductions to Adorno. None is likely to work for the totally naive reader, but whatever can be done is most needed, since, as the author recognizes, Adorno is one of the most important and underappreciated philosophers of the 20th century. I recommend this book as a companion to Adorno, but I'm not sure about it as an introduction per se; then again, it's almost impossible to explain Adorno from scratch without presupposing some background from the reader. Chapter 2, on aesthetics and culture, is an excellent clarification of Adorno's approach to the culture industry. Chapter 3, on freedom and society, is also a superior introduction to Adorno's ethical and political thought. Chapter 4, on philosophy per se, seems to me the weakest of the book. However, there are some choice passages on philosophical developments in the late 19th and early 20th century contextualizing the situation in which Adorno intervened.

Farber, Marvin. Phenomenology and Existence: Toward a Philosophy Within Nature. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

As in Farber's other books, Farber attacks the subjective idealist foundations of Husserl; in this book, he explains how phenonemonology can be used productively to treat existence within a naturalistic framework. I am just beginning this one.

In the reading queue:

Agehananda Bharati, Swami. The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1976.

Burrow, J. W. The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Christopher Mack . "Review of J. W. Burrow, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914," H-Ideas, H-Net Reviews, June, 2001.

Asouzu, Innocent I. The Method and Principles of Complementary Reflection in and beyond African Philosophy. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2005. (Studies in African Philosophy; v. 4)

Articles read:

Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy by Matt Lawrence. Review by Joel Parthemore, Sept. 19, 2006.

A review comparing two of several books on philosophical issues related to The Matrix movies. The only one I've looked at is the first book on the subject in Open Court's Philosophy and Popular Culture Series. My observation in this case is what I have seen in many of these philosophy books on popular culture: that these philosophers are as stupid and clueless as the pop culture vapidities they analyze. There are exceptions: the volumes on Woody Allen and Monty Python were pretty good. The Matrix series is especially infuriating because it seems to engage in real philosophical issues but is in actuality unbelievably shallow and reactionary. Its easily consumable fare is explainable: virtual reality is so established a cultural phenomenon, the concept is readily assimilable by millions. It is real reality they have trouble working with.

Balibar, Étienne. "Irrationalism and Marxism," New Left Review, I/107, January-February 1978, pp. 3-18. Introduction.

Though it now reflects to some extent an earlier time, and to a larger extent particularly French conditions, and most irritatingly, the connection to Althusser and Communist politics, this article is quite rich and profound, and its ideological analysis remains pertinent, especially now to (Anglo-)American ideological conditions. (Consider the limitations of the likes of Sam Harris, Dawkins, Wilson, Dennett, etc.) Much of Balibar's critique of rationalism is geared to the specifically French intellectual heritage (from Descartes on down), but it applies with a few tweaks more generally, and quite pointedly to the highly restricted intellectual discourse of the United States.

There is one passage, though, which is rather startling (though redolent of Marcuse, whom Balibar dismisses as an irrationalist, and reminiscent of András Gedö), to the effect that positivism is the main philosophical enemy, because it also the basis of its irrationalist nemesis. Positivism has been largely displaced by irrationalism in the United States (the article was written in the 1970s, with an eye to French conditions), but when one looks at the ideologues of the scientific community, one can see that its feeble defense of scientific rationality while yielding concessions to religion as long as it doesn't interfere with the scientific establishment (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is predicated on narrow positivist (or its inverse, Popperian) grounds.

[—> Irrationalism in Modern Thought Culminating in Overpriced French Philosophy]

Stern, J. P. "Heine: History and Prophecy," New Left Review, I/20, Summer 1963, pp. 37-53. Introduction.

Breathtaking. Stern analyzes the epochal significance of Heine's Religion and Philosophy in Germany and the basis of German nationalism and volkisch ideology in the 19th century.

Holcomb III, H. R. (2005). Buller does to Evolutionary Psychology what Kitcher did to Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, 3: 392-401.

A noteworthy review of the field, from the standpoint of specialized research rather than cheesy popularizations and pandering.

Sam Harris in Wikipedia: Note Meera Nanda's trenchant criticism of Harris. See also my new webliography: Meera Nanda Online.

A second article on Sam Harris in Wikipedia: The End of Faith.

Note Harris' self-defense: "Rational Mysticism" by Sam Harris, Free Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 6.

Harris defends himself against prior criticism in this magazine. While much of his commentary is eminently rational, his reasoning is subject to severe breakdown. His knowledge claims regarding meditation and the self are dubious. The locution "contemplative scientist" is suspect. The argument supporting his contention that "the happiest person on this earth at this moment might have spent the last twenty years living alone in a cave" is not only New Age mumbo jumbo, it totally elides the issue of the good life and one's relation to objective reality. Sickening! In a footnote Harris dubiously asserts the possible independence of consciousness from the brain.

Note other critiques of Harris:

David Boulton, 2005. "Faith kills," New Humanist, volume 120 number 2.

Note Boulton's questioning of Harris' naive notions of religious causality of political conflicts.

Johann Hari, 2005. "The sea of faith and violence," The Independent, 9 October 2006

Hari appropriately tears Harris a new one for Harris' views on politics and mysticism.

Naturalism.Org is a curious web site. On the one hand it promotes a naturalistic world view, on the other, it devotes significant attention to spirituality. This in itself is not a bad thing depending on exactly what claims are being made. Personally, the word "spirituality" makes me break out in hives, while the word "spiritual" only does so in certain contexts, not in others (music, for example).

I am beginning to explore this web site and its linkages. The first article I checked out is this book review:

Debunking Enlightenment. Book Review by Thomas W. Clark. Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality, by John Horgan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, ISBN 0-618-06027-8) 292 pp. Cloth $25.00. Review in Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2.

I haven't read Horgan's book, though I've been referred to it. The review is eminently reasonable; however, I would take it in a slightly different direction. As with Sam Harris, the argument for mysticism/spirituality is linked to the experience of or claims about oneness with the universe, and by implication the argument against it is linked to the issue of hallucinations and the like. I see no value in the concept or experience of oneness per se. On the contrary, I see spiritual exaltation as a distinctively human phenomenon, apart from mindless, amoral nature and less intelligent life forms. Knowledge claims about the oneness of the universe are an illusion stemming from an exalted cognitive/affective state with which I won't quarrel as long as it refrains from making binding claims that obscure questions of reality, morality, and justice, as all New Age garbage does. Since I value individuality and distinction and not unity, I dissent from the reviewer only in this one sentence:

The organism, its self, its consciousness—the works—all arise out of the physical world, so the mystical intuition of unity, albeit noncognitive, reflects this empirical truth about ourselves.

I see no value in this alleged empirical truth. Our human destiny is to be somebody and something in particular, not everything in general, to be for something and against something else, not neutral, not impartial, not nondiscriminating—i.e. not the New Age filth imported from feudal India, China, and Japan and retooled for the smug, overprivileged goody-two-shoes upper middle class spiritual masturbators of the modern West.

The flying spaghetti monster. Salon.com interview with Richard Dawkins, by Steve Paulson.

Dawkins states his case eloquently and I agree completely. I don't hold with the cowards who criticize his stridency. My problem is not with this interview but with the prefatory matter which reminds us that Dawkins introduced the concepts of pseudo-scientific concept of memes and selfish genes. The very term 'selfish gene', whatever the scientific content of this research programme, is suspiciously teleological, and reveals something of what is awry. I'll return to this momentarily, but I'll add that something else happens when specialists in a given field turn to popularization and make larger world view claims, fighting them out in the public sphere outside the realm of academic journals. But first . . .

It is very unfortunate that so much time and intellectual energy has to be diverted from fighting these fundamentalist Christian imbeciles and that the issue could not have been disposed of as it should have been by the end of the 19th century, and that the redneck Right has forced us to fight the 19th century's battles all over again. It's especially an indictment of Americans, the most ignorant people in the Western world. The problem, though, of investing so much energy in fighting the people holding you back is that you never get to advance very far yourself. I don't salivate every time Dawkins or Dennett or Wilson or Schermer makes an appearance or publish a book. I find the secular humanist intellectual culture quite tedious, necessary though it is. If the centerpiece of one's intellectual life is Darwin vs. the Bible, one is going to be diverted from exploring other areas of inquiry just as important. Those of us who dismissed the Bible as a piece of tawdry pulp literature from early childhood just don't feel the burn to devote much energy to arguments over it, and don't even want to waste our time debating ignorant Bible-humpers, though we are eager to remove the obstacle to human progress they represent.

The problem here is the limited intellectual culture of the Anglo-American sphere. Scientists make good liberals, but few advance a jot farther. Consider even the concept of the progress of knowledge. All scientific knowledge has experienced growth over the past 30 years, including these people's own specialty, evolutionary theory. But what else have Dawkins and company learned in this period? They've been saying the same old shit for 30 years and have not learned one new thing outside of their specialties. They learned zip from the sociobiology wars of the 1970s. When queried about it, Dawkins and Wilson are quite smug. Wilson made an appearance recently with James Watson on the Charlie Rose show, and when the discussion advanced to the point of discussing human affairs, Watson and Wilson made the most ridiculous assertions with smug assurance.

I've been stewing over this since reading Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Then, when reviewing various other material, and then some of the essays on naturalism.org, I was thunderstruck by the severely limited range of the secular humanist contingent. None of these people have any conception of radical politics, critique, ideology, or social science. It's all about Darwinism vs. spiritualism and nothing else. The social science/political dimension is entirely missing. They have no conception of social theory. They have no understanding of ideology and little of history. They are completely fixated on Darwinism and its relationship to spirituality, they have nothing else to say about anything. Nor do they have a clue how limited their range is, how small a piece of the philosophical/theoretical pie they're biting off. And because of this, they are unable to account for the ascendancy of fascism in America.

I was stunned by Sam Harris' ignorance. I am not the only one to be taken aback by his advocacy of New Age spirituality (paranormal phenomena and reincarnation not excepted). It is consistent in a basic sense, however, with the premise of the book, which should have been subtitled "Buddhism vs. Islam." All that exists in Harris' universe is "belief"; all of human activity is the causal output of belief systems, so it's only natural for him to oppose one belief system with his para-belief system (mysticism, which he denies is a belief system). Much worse than this, however, is that, traumatized by 9-11-01, Harris book is built around Islamophobia, and is in actuality if not intent tailored to the warmongering of the Bush administration and the Nazi Pope against the Islamic world. Harris even borrows Huntington's notion of the 'clash of civilizations', a concept which is fascist down to its toenails. But Harris is no right-winger, he's a good liberal. I remember, however, the good liberals who napalmed Vietnamese peasants in the '60s. It's positively macabre that just before praising Indian mysticism to the skies for its nondualism (Q: What did the guru say to the hot dog vendor? A: Make me one with everything.) he presents an argument for torture. Harris is so scared by Islam—much more than he's alarmed by Bush, whom he's unwilling to put in the same category with Bin Laden—he makes the most ridiculous claims about the motivations of hundreds of millions of Muslims, treating them all as potential suicide bombers. Which is not to say that Islam doesn't deserve to be denounced in the harshest of terms or Muslim cultures should not be severely upbraided for their backwardness. Harris has no concept, not even a clue, of of how religious ideology interacts with sociological factors. Harris can only see faith as a cause and other social factors as a cause separately; he has zero sense of their combination.

Save for reservations about Harris' New Age drivel, American secularists are ejaculating gallons over his war on faith. But craven liberals like Harris are the first to cave to fascism. And he's not even smart like Hitchens.

Returning to my main point, lacking the necessary intellectual sophistication to grapple with the full range of social and ideological phenomena, the atheist and secular humanist community is as hamstrung as the Democratic Party; it has to scale back its prospectives just to keep liberal democracy from being swallowed up by irrational, theocratic fascism, but its scope of discourse and action is so limited it can't approach the root causes of our social problems, though of necessity it's driven to be more political the closer this society is driven to fascism and the closer the world to oblivion. A person who has nothing more to offer than memes is ill-equipped to face down this threat.

[—> October Reading Review (2)]
[—> David Hume vs. ‘Intelligent Design’]
[—> Darwinism, Creationism, Naturalism, Philosophy of Science & Pseudoscience]

3 October 2006

September Reading Review

Books partly or completely read in September:

Myers, Henry Alonzo. The Spinoza-Hegel Paradox: A Study of the Choice Between Traditional Idealism and Systematic Pluralism. 1944.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Philosophical Papers and Letters, selection translated and edited with an introduction by Leroy E. Loemker, 2nd ed. Dordrecht, Holland; Boston: D. Reidel Pub. Co., 1976 [1969, 1st ed. 1956]). xii, 736 pp. (Synthese Historical Library; v. 2) See my review.

Weisman, Karen A. Imageless Truths: Shelley's Poetic Fictions.

Goldstein, by Rebecca. Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.

I also attended her book talk in Washington, which should be broadcast on C-SPAN. She was extraordinarily eloquent in stating the thesis of her book.

Adorno, Theodor W. Metaphysics: Concept and Problems.

Adorno was quite interesting: on Aristotle (viz. Plato) seen through the spectrum of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Scheler, and Heidegger; and on metaphysical experience today. For a couple of quotes see my web page: Adorno on Philosophy, Sociology & History.

Matthews, Michael R. The Marxist Theory of Schooling: A Study of Epistemology and Education. Humanities Press, 1980.

Matthews is not terribly exciting, and probably dated, but it is interesting in that it takes a philosophy of science approach to combat the then-dominant Analytic Philosophy of Education (in Britain and/or Australia). Interesting in that Matthews takes the best of Popper, Lakatos, Dewey, and even a dash of Althusser in combination with Marx to combat the dominant inductivism and empiricism.

Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Harris presents stretches of lucid argument against faith and religion, even against relativism and pragmatism; but from a social and political standpoint, the author is a reactionary liberal and a moron. The final chapter in fact reveals what is wrong with the whole book: everything is about consciousness, detached from material reality. There is plenty of philosophy, cognitive science and neurobiology, history, ethical discussion in the book, but no interconnected conception of social organization and ideology, no social theory, and of course, no Marx. Because consciousness is detached from material reality, the book comes down to a war between Buddhist mysticism and Islam, with intervening criticisms of the history of Catholicism, the Christian Right's interference in government, etc. And the final chapter, containing flimsy arguments for nondualistic mysticism, comes right after an argument advocating torture in the war on terrorism. The man is schizoid, a petty bourgeois liberal freaked out by 9-11. And this is about the best that the intellectual life of the USA is capable of producing, apparently. It's sickening. I need to review this book in detail.

Harris shows his true craven colors in "Head-in-the-Sand Liberals" in the Los Angeles Times.

My reading of the fiction and essays of Jorge Luis Borges in English translation can be found in the September archive, as can mention of journal and periodical articles and other cultural matters.

[—> October Reading Review (1)]


On this site:

Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography

Emergence Blog

The Frankfurt School: Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory, Cultural Theory, Science, and Interdisciplinary Research.
Phase 1: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s.
Study Group Syllabus

Ideology Study Guide

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Links to Philosophical & Related Web Sites
(also critical thinking links)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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