“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

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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)


Everybody Knows What Just Ain’t So

Jean Meslier (1664 - 1733): Priest, Materialist, Atheist

Michel Onfray: Atheism & Philosophy for the Masses

Adorno vs. Benjamin on Brecht

Heine . . . Ellington . . . Zamenhof!

The Dead End of African Philosophy: Which Way Out?

The Tao of Brecht

Masturbate for Peace

Two Reviews: Secularism & Science, Subject & Object

Putting Descartes Before the Horse

November 2006

October 2006

September 2006
August 2006

July 2006


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

25 December 2006

Everybody Knows What Just Ain’t So

“The trouble with most folks ain't so much their ignorance as knowing so many things that ain't so.”

— Josh Billings

“It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us in trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so.”

— Artemus Ward

“Faith is believing what you know ain't so.”

— Mark Twain, Following the Equator, Chapter XII

Ironically, I have not been able to verify all these quotes from primary sources. There are several versions of the Billings quote. Note this version and its explanation:

“The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations

There's also a book on the subject:

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.

25 December 2006

Jean Meslier (1664 - 1733): Priest, Materialist, Atheist

Meslier is a hero of the Enlightenment. You could celebrate his birthday on January 15 along with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s.

This inspiring quote has been attributed to Meslier, Voltaire, and Diderot, but I have not traced it to a primary source:

“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

25 December 2006

Michel Onfray: Atheism & Philosophy for the Masses

Onfray, Michel. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt. New York: Arcade Pub., distributed by Hackette Book Group, 2007.

Shine: Wishful Fantasies and Visions of the Future in Contemporary Art, by Wilma Sütö, Bas Heijne, Michel Onfray. Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, NAi Publishers, 2003.

Michel Onfray is a philosopher, atheist, anarchist, and founder of the Université populaire de Caen for the teaching of high-level philosophy to the masses free of charge. Author of at least 30 books in French, Onfray's first book translated into English, Atheist Manifesto, is just being published. He is working on a multi-volume Counter-history of Philosophy.

25 December 2006

Adorno vs. Benjamin on Brecht

Theodor Adorno takes a completely opposite position from Walter Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht:

Adorno on Brecht

Compare to:

Walter Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht's Lao Tzu

For reference and review:

Brecht on Theatre: Entertainment, Instruction, Science, Dialectics

. . . and my previous entry on Bertolt Brecht's Dialectical Aesthetics, with further references.

While I have only sampled a small portion of Brecht's oeuvre, I'm inclined to agree with Adorno. I've disliked almost every play of his I've read or seen, including the most prestigious. The exception is "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"—in this case, the heart of the play, the story within the story, not the Stalinist shell in which it is unconvincingly framed. In this play there is a keen sense of irony, of the deviousness necessary to attain some kind of justice in an impossible situation.

The larger lesson of the Adorno piece is the question of whether the truth of society is representable, in popularly consumable images and narratives. Remember that Brecht addressed this question and posited his dialectical theater as a remedy. Adorno claims that Brecht failed.

I've been wrestling with this problem since sometime in the '90s, using Hegel's "end of art" thesis as a point of reference. The one area of culture I saw as usable was comedy, which was improving while everything else was degenerating, and which is the most suitable form for playing off appearance against reality.

But I was also aware of the increasing levelling of the comedic effect by the culture of cynicism, codified as cynical reason by Peter Sloterdijk: we can't say people know not what they do, they know and do it anyway. And the younger generation raised on cynicism, knows things from childhood we baby-boomers never knew, but guess what, at the end of the day, they're more stupid and conformist than we ever were, the difference being that there were more opportunities for them to get laid as teenagers than I ever had, and they can see twisted shit on TV we could only find in underground comix. Sitcoms and adult cartoon shows have evolved to the level of unbridled cynicism and sadism.

Then there is the political satire of upper middle class liberalism. Anyone who thinks that Al Franken, Jon Stewart, or Colbert means anything except as a device for blue state middle class professionals to jerk one another off, is sadly deluded.

So these problems that Brecht, Adorno, and others wrestled with in an earlier time, reappear in a vastly different political, economic, technological, and media-saturated environment.

15 December 2006

Heine . . . Ellington . . . Zamenhof!

Today is the birthday of L. L. Zamenhof (15 December 1859 – 14 April 1917), creator of Esperanto. Running up to this date, I prepared a number of web pages in Esperanto.

13 December was the birthdate of the epoch-making German-Jewish poet, essayist, and satirist Heinrich (n. Chaim Harry) Heine (13 December 1797 - 17 February 1856). For many years I've been captivated by a very simple but poignant poem of his and made it the flagship poem for my web site:

Heinrich Heine: “Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam” (The Lonely Fir Tree), with links

I find a natural complement to Heine's poem in a program note from Duke Ellington's 1965 Sacred Concert:

Duke Ellington Communicates Beyond Category

To me, these two pieces are symbiotic, distilling the essence of the poignancy, aspiration, despair, and triumph of the human condition.

So, on Heine's birthday, I translated Ellington into Esperanto, probably a first for Esperanto. Ellington, I think, would appreciate this. According to Wynton Marsalis, Ellington wrote more compositions dedicated to more locales in the world than any composer in history. An ambassador for the universal aspirations of the human spirit, Ellington's spirit was kindred to the creative geniuses of another oppressed people who would not be confined—instructing us in the essential human condition, beyond category.

11 December 2006

The Dead End of African Philosophy: Which Way Out?

Scattered in my various writings I've claimed that African Philosophy is less than the sum of its parts. There are individual studies of considerable interest, but as a collective intellectual tradition, the field is bankrupt. By now there must be dozens of readers in African Philosophy in English alone, all of them overlapping considerably and repeating the same tiresome themes. Even those who reject the notion of a philosophy categorically African (ethnophilosophical) in content—an essentially obscurantist ideological project—are caught within a tedious identity crisis which has long outlived its time.

I am reading and will soon review this book:

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)

Souzu begins with a salutary conception of philosophy as universalistic and self-critical in spirit, also striving if never quite succeeding in rising above the provincialism of the societies and the individuals who generate it. While his conception of complementarity—which I'll discuss at length at a later time—has its moments, its not that big or conceptually deep a concept to serve as a comprehensive basis for a new philosophy; at best it articulates a normative principle of openness to the best intuitive strivings towards betterment of our common humanity. There appears to be a clerical connection, and later on in this 533-page work, an acceptance of religion and rejection of materialism, which makes me wonder where Asouzu got a name like "Innocent." One can only wonder what these demented European missionaries have wrought in Africa.

To acquire a more compact account of Asouzu's preoccupations, you can consult his essay online:

Science and African Metaphysics: A Search for Direction (Paper presented at the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, 10-16 August 1998)

Abstract: If one takes the African situation as a case study, one finds that serious efforts are made for the sake of scientific progress and exploration. However, the results attained are not comparable to the energy expended. Lack of progress is often attributed to faulty policy formation and execution on the part of African leaders and governments. This essay attempts to shed light on the source of this problem. The heuristic principle I follow holds that the metaphysical preconditioning of consciousness leads us to approach sensory data in particular ways and, furthermore, influences both our formulation of problems and possible solutions. I note the lapses in African metaphysics and sketch an alternate metaphysics which I hope will inaugurate a new African system of thought.

Metaphysics has two models—science-oriented and mythological. The mythological model dominates in Africa and is justified by various African theologians and philosophers, on what appear to me to be spurious mystical and communitarian grounds. Asouzu acknowledges shortcomings of mythological metaphysics, but finds significant ethical content in the notion of living in harmony with the world, not recognizing that this—especially the conflation of the natural/metaphysical and social order—is the very essence of reactionary ideology. To his credit, though, he recognizes the inadequacy of occult thinking and the consequences of the paucity of scientific thinking, and indict's Africa's backwardness.

The question then tackled is the role of metaphysics.

The metaphysical preconditioning of our consciousness disposes us to approaching the data of our remote and immediate world in peculiar ways and even influences our formulation of problems and problem solving methods and techniques. Such metaphysical preconditionings are archetypes taken for granted and are the conditions of possibility of meaningful community life. It is important to highlight that although they precondition us, they do not always offer the best methods and techniques of approaching issues. They could subjectively offer correct solutions to problems. In so far as they dogmatically dominate our consciousness their engaging us in persistently doing the "wrong" thing in good faith could be resistant to transformation or change. Metaphysical preconditioning makes a lot of difference with regard to theoretical and practical formulations of questions and is as such a very crucial factor in determining the rate of changes within a society - technologically or otherwise. A metaphysics grounded in myths and systematically or otherwise unfolded as such is very likely to raise questions and answers founded in myths. But the question is to what extent such answers are relevant to tackling, adequately issues that deserve attention. Surely not every answer regarded as adequate is in the true sense of the word so, even if it turns out to serve a missing link of reality within a given historical context. Metaphysically speaking anything that exists serves a missing link of reality. (7) In this capacity any answer that can be given within any historical context has something to contribute to determining the ultimate nature of reality. It is however one thing for a thing to serve a missing link of reality and another thing for it be identified as the very missing link of reality being sought at a given historical moment.

Asouzu calls for metaphysical self-criticism. He advocates a scientific temper. What a non-mythological metaphysics should look like eludes me, but here is his conclusion:

In this regard it is important to state that the level of development within a given system is relative to the level of commitment brought by a strong proportion of those who have the insight towards the necessary conditions on which such a system is founded. Such necessary conditions transcend the contractual bonds existing among members of the community, they are founded on compelling imperatives ingrained in the notion of these bonds themselves. Wherever such compelling imperatives are not consciously and explicitly relevant in the actions of people, the system tends to be muddled up in confusion, disorientation and stagnation. The attempt at realising the most fundamental and compelling spirit that keeps history in place is something metaphysical. In the face of much confusion within the African socio economic and scientific arena one wonders the level at which this compelling imperative is present. This imperative is basic to the spirit of all forms of progress and exploration in religion, economics, science, technology etc.

See also my review essays:

11 December 2006

The Tao of Brecht

Tatlow, Antony. Peasant Dialectics: Reflections on Brecht's Sketch of a Dilemma.

The essay opens with a passage from the Tao Te Ching, ch. 78: "In the world there is nothing so submissive and weak as water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it." This is the springboard for Tatlow's treatment of Taoism as the peasant dialectics of passive resistance, that endures but in the long run wins while pursuing pure survivalism. "In rejecting the 'virtues' required of them in a feudal society, the Taoists here align their concept of social cohesion with the direction of natural process." Tatlow is aware of the charge of reactionary nostalgia for agrarian peasant society. He also distinguishes between different Marxist approaches, between Marx's anti-peasant orientation and Mao's peasant orientation with a millenia-old intellectual tradition behind it. Brecht, unlike Adorno, was aware of this Chinese tradition, and made political use of it. Brecht made a much different use of Asian philosophies than other Europeans in search of eternal spiritual values as an escape from Western alienation (Kablund, Hesse). Brecht studied Mo Tzu's writings and used them as a cover for his own anti-fascist (and according to Tatlow, anti-Stalinist) wirting, e.g. in Me-ti, The Book of Experiences. Brecht criticizes the politics of Europe under the guise of Chinese parables, using the Taoist concept of wu wei (to do without doing).

While non-contention or Tolstoyanism is acceptable from a Marxist standpoint, but for Brecht the Taoist critique of "virtue" expresses a peasant dialectics skeptical of an oppressive social order. This can be seen in Mother Courage, in Schweyk in the Second World War, and in:

Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tsu's Road into Exile (1938)

And now we come to the crux of Brecht's historic problem:

What interests us in the context of the present discussion is the manner with which Brecht fuses the strategy of survival and an image of process with its connotation of naturality. And here we reach the center of our problem. We can understand Brecht's texts as specific signals in a particular historical context, as psychological weapons, sources of comfort and encouragement at moments of great weakness and frustration. Or we may say that they represent perhaps a strategically limited and ultimately inefficacious peasant dialectic which no serious Marxist could ever think of applying to modem problems. Or we can say that they illustrate Utopian hope, open to similar objections. Or we can consider whether there is not contained in such a dialectic a core of valuable experience which may offer something more substantial than a sense of nostalgia for an agrarian past or an inaccessible future.

Tatlow sees signs of changes in contemporary sensibility, in a rebellion against "mechanical materialism" and with ecological concerns, casting around for a new philosophical orientation, which he dubs radical organicism, which need not imply the political conservatism with which it is allied in the West but not always in Chinese tradition. Instead, it is anti-hierarchical. Joseph Needham is cited.

Tatlow is dead wrong here, and, with what seems to be an implicit endorsement of Mao, downright disgusting. His objectionable conclusions notwithstanding, his treatment of peasant dialectics and Brecht's alternative appropriation of Eastern philosophy remains intriguing.

I'm definitely putting Tatlow's book on my reading list:

Tatlow, Antony. The Mask of Evil: Brecht's Response to the Poetry, Theatre and Thought of China and Japan: A Comparative and Critical Evaluation. Bern; Las Vegas: P. Lang, 1977. (Literaturwissenschaften; Bd. 12. Variant Series: European university papers: Series 18, Comparative literature; v. 12)

This book may be of interest also:

Berg-Pan, Renata. Bertolt Brecht and China. Bonn: Bouvier, 1979. (Studien zur Germanistik, Anglistik und Komparatistik ; Bd. 88)

I can't find any other mention of this play but here:

Brecht's Way (Brecht between Taoism and Marxism) Adapted and Directed Murdoch Undercroft Theatre, 1979.

Note this interesting essay on Waltern Benjamin, the flaneur, and Western appropriations of non-Western cultures:

Lao Tzu and the Apaches by Ioan Davies. July 1997.

Historical understanding is of necessity a mediation between subject and object, which mandates self-consciousness of this relation.

Benjamin's ultimate rejection of Judaism, Marxism and conventional liberal practices and approaches, as well as Adorno's Negative Dialectics was surely based on this sensibility that, if we are to survive in any meaningful way as political, social and cultural beings in a world which is becoming increasingly international, we have to construct a language which tries to make sense of the appropriation of the experiences of others through time and down to the present. If, as Rob Sheilds argues, "Flaneurie is the psychotic appropriation of space and time," the alienation-effect in Brecht's plays was an attempt at providing a code by which we can crack the meaning over space and time.

Benjamin's interpretation of Brecht's poem on Lao Tzu is summarized. Reference:

Benjamin, Walter. (trans. Anna Bostock, Introd. Stanley Mitchell) Understanding Brecht. London: New Left Books, 1973.

See also:

Dumain, Ralph. Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West). 23 May 2005.

Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography

[—> Bertolt Brecht's Dialectical Aesthetics]
[—> Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)]

10 December 2006

Masturbate for Peace

“Let there be peace on earth
    and let it begin with me . . . ”
      — What we sang in grade school

“Intercourse with human beings seduces one to self-contemplation.”
      — Franz Kafka

If you have a hand free, you might consider signing up to Masturbate for Peace. There is no peace on earth, no goodwill toward men, so find peace within and squirt it into the world. ‘Tis the Season, so however you handle the Winter Solstice, fantasize about these words of wisdom and act with erectitude. War is shit, rub your clit; peace is spiffy, stroke your stiffy; cream your khakis, not Iraqis!

6 December 2006

Two Reviews: Secularism & Science, Subject & Object

Two book reviews by R. Dumain (me!) have just been published:

Secularism, science and the Right
[Review: Nanda, Meera. The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva. Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Three Essays Collective, July 2005. 118 pp. ISBN paper 81-88789-30-5.],
Frontline [India], Volume 23, Issue 24, Dec. 02-15, 2006.

See also Meera Nanda Online.

Book Review: Georg Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic,
Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 19, no. 1, 2006, pp. 109-114.

At first glance, the subject matters and approaches of these books could not be more disparate. Lukács' Hegelian-inflected Marxism has characteristically been seen in conflict with the natural sciences. This book, however, gives us a different perspective. Lukács' focus on the subject-object relation embodies a concern over praxis when the natural-scientific perspective is imported into sociopolitical analysis. Lukács' actual views on science herein are obscure and require further scrutiny.

In the year since I wrote my review of Nanda's book, I've come to appreciate certain statements that did not resonate with me at the time. She tends to rank Hindu ideology as more reactionary and essentially inegalitarian and chauvinistic than the ideologies related to the monotheistic religions that issued from the Middle East. After more exposure to the history of Indian mysticism, religion, and social practices (including the fascistic proclivities of the 20th century) and once again to the pernicious New Age thought of the West, I can see more clearly what she was getting at.

[—> Swami Agehananda Bharati (1923-1991)]

6 December 2006

Putting Descartes Before the Horse

Isn't it interesting which images and memories stick in your memory a whole lifetime, regardless of their relative importance? I read and collected Mad Magazine in my childhood and into my teen years. Mad, like everything else in American society, had to adapt to the fever-pitched politicization of American society in the late '60s, attempting to carry on its mainstream liberalism under radically altered conditions.

By the mid-'70s, Mad was seen as a dinosaur by the younger and hipper elements of society, as expressed in a satire of Mad in the humor magazine National Lampoon. I remember only two details from the National Lampoon piece. One is a validation of the original Mad comic book under Harvey Kurtzman, which was displaced in the mid-'50s by the format we know today. The other is a vicious send-up of Mad cartoonist Dave Berg. Berg attempts to mediate between a militant radical and a rabid right-winger, pleading, "Can't you two find some common ground and agree on something?" Whereupon the other two simultaneously punch Berg in the gut and exclaim, "Wishy-washy liberal fink!"

Recently, while researching Berg, I came across this revealing article:

How MAD's Dave Berg and Roger Kaputnik Introduced Me To Post-Modernity by Terre Thaemlitz

There are a number of insights in this article that I wished I had acquired at an earlier age.

See also:

Dave Berg (cartoonist) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

When I was an avid Mad reader, I had yet to undergo the subsequent stages of development registered by National Lampoon and Terre Thaemlitz. Even then Dave Berg was a bit extreme in his old-fashioned ways. I actually attended a talk by him, in which he propounded solutions to all the problems of the world, of which I remember only that he recommended pouring money into taking care of the Palestinian Arabs. I had him sign one of his paperbacks, and I recall him referring to his young son as a ‘bum’, apparently because the lad's hair had grown beyond the brush-cut stage (he looked nowhere near like a hippie).

Berg later descended into the pit of philistinism with his book My Friend God.

Poor guy.

While I still remember a smattering of his comic strips ("The Lighter Side of . . . " in Mad Magazine and "MAD's Dave Berg Looks at . . . " paperbacks), there's one that keeps popping up in my mind at relevant moments, though I hadn't actually seen it for three and a half decades until finally hunting it down (voilà!):

"Putting Descartes Before the Horse"

Perhaps Berg is depicting a common adolescent experience? At the age of 14 or 15 I struggled with the problem of Cartesian doubt. I think I read Descartes' Discourse on the Method when I was 15. I remember my exasperation in debating skepticism with a friend, who was unrelenting in circumventing my efforts to circumvent skepticism.

At some point I grew tired of this philosophical dilemma and retired to resume my favorite pastime while fantasizing about Lt. Uhura.

Many years later I concluded that skepticism (and existentialism, though not directly related) is a necessary adolescent stage that one should go through quickly and then outgrow. At the age of 18 I was deeply into David Hume and never touched him again (not until the last month or so). Whatever else you can say about Dave Berg, he composed an unforgettable comic strip that epitomizes teenage metaphysical angst.

“We're just a biological speculation, sittin' here vibratin',
and we don't know what we're vibratin' about.”
    — George Clinton


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Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography

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The Frankfurt School: Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory, Cultural Theory, Science, and Interdisciplinary Research.
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Ideology Study Guide

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