He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Juvenile Anthropology: Euthanizing Truth

I've been considering over the past few months what I see as one of the major prevailing problems with contemporary cultural thought and political discourse, namely that many of my contemporaries (whether older or younger in age) have an understanding of what it is to be human that is profoundly impoverished and astoundingly incoherent with the facts available to us through scientific study specifically and empirical observation generally.

Today I was looking through the latest posts from bloggers I follow and stumbled upon a quite enjoyable and scathing critique of a film critic expressing his mixed feelings about what he describes as the Death of Adulthood in American Culture.  After reading A.O. Scott's article, I am left feeling that he has correctly identified a problem while misidentifying the evidence for it and diagnosing the cause incorrectly.

In particular, I tend to agree with the always entertaining author at The Belle Jar that the piece has the following problems:

  1. The author proposed no useful or coherent definition of adulthood.  His understanding of adulthood seems to be best exemplified by the most superficial aspects of human behavior like what styles of clothing we wear or whether or not we purchase books from the young adult fiction section of Barnes & Noble.  Despite the fact that my book purchases run heavily to the very philosophical and intellectual side and my clothing choices are well in line with plain old "adult" attire for a 50 year old man despite the fact that I've recently turned 30 years old, I have no sense that my choices in these areas are indicative of my adulthood so much as my practical desire to find clothing easily.  Or perhaps that my rebellious bent has typically been to change myself radically internally rather than in an external fashion.
  2. The author suggested that "the patriarchy" was dead, which I can only assume is predicated on an understanding of patriarchy that most contemporary feminist writers do not share.  From what I can glean from The Belle Jar and many other feminist publications, their understanding is that patriarchy will exist until there are no longer any disciplines or types of leadership roles in which alpha males are the majority and no longer any areas of life in which men on average have more power than women.  So once we have moved beyond our biology and stopped being a primate species in which males and females tend to employ very different risk management strategies, patriarchy as understood by many contemporary feminists might be rightly declared dead.  But we're a long way from that reality.
  3. The author asks us to look at cultural feminism as a cause of the death of adulthood and a move toward continuing our youthful hobbies and fandoms in spite of our increasing age, correlating this with the freer societies born of a rebellious spirit of the age that sought to tear down the old social structures with very little thought about how to replace those structures beyond, "Let's all be nice to each other, dude."  It's a disturbingly common move to blame current negative societal trends on feminism, and typically this move is a failure to properly distinguish correlation from causation aggravated by the fact that feminism is a convenient scapegoat because it is one of the rallying cries for those who imagine themselves to be radically in contradiction of the dominant culture, a culture that has not actually been dominant since the generation of their aged parents or grandparents.

As much as I sympathize with A.O. Scott's general sense that we are losing something important and useful in our grand American cultural shift while gaining other important things, I think that he has missed the mark entirely in understanding the cause of and evidence for the loss.  This is likely because he shares the values of those who propose a juvenile anthropology and seek to support us in living down to the standard of being man-babies who fill the space in our lives with leisure because advertising executives have thoroughly convinced us that it's the best thing for us, far better than that nonsense about creating a loving household or raising virtuous human beings into adulthood or selflessly doing good work for the poor and vulnerable.  He strongly sympathizes with a desire to tear down the old order and leave an unhealthy vacuum in its place, but recognizes the problems that inevitably result from doing just that when he writes:

"The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment."

The difficulty here is that he does not understand the connection between his own juvenile anthropology which proposes that social order does not require authority (as it does in fact for most individuals) and the inevitable result of applying it to human societies as described above.  And it's even worse than what he describes. Every individual's inarguable likes and dislikes are not simply elevated over formal critical discourse; they are taken to be valid as a form of critical discourse.  The two quite different things are conflated so that there is no longer any such thing as formal critical discourse.  The content of the phrase is supplanted by a mewling egotistical cry to not go around challenging the person so that they can wallow in their mediocrity.  Formal critical discourse is re-imagined as a process of validating the existing opinions and behaviors of everyone we engage in intellectual discussion; it becomes the vehicle by which we enforce the non-existence of the truth we had previously sought by using formal critical discourse as a method.

In a delicious bit of irony, our youth-obsessed commercialized culture of reckless agreeableness helps us quite compassionately put to death the very thing we so often claim to have an interest in finding: the truth that is out there waiting for us to find it with the help of our fellow human beings.

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