Ideas on Modernity – Nietzsche, Marcuse and Post-Modernism.

This essay encapsulates my understanding of the historical evolution of modernity. As always, my philosophical hero – Nietzsche dominates, but I do find some time for Herbert Marcuse and Post-Modernism.

(at the person who corrected my inexcusable ignorance of Marcuse — gratitude and hi! ūüôā ¬†.. ¬†)

Romanticism has lamented the loss of meaning in the modern world and to fill this void¬†they turned to nature, religion and tradition. ¬†But even after accepting the spiritual wasteland in which the¬†modern man walks alone, I maintain that neither proximity to nature nor religion¬†can provide the free man with peace, joy or certainty. The barbarism of all ages possessed more¬†happiness than we do ‚Äď let us not deceive ourselves on this point! ‚Äď but our impulse¬†towards knowledge is too widely developed to allow us to value happiness without¬†knowledge, or the happiness of a strong and fixed delusion: it is painful to us even to¬†imagine such a state of things! Our restless pursuit of discoveries has¬†become for us as attractive and as indispensable as the hapless love of a lover.¬†Knowledge within us has developed into a passion, which does not shrink from any¬†sacrifice and fears nothing but its own extinction. It may be that mankind¬†will perish eventually from this passion for knowledge! But will that daunt us ? I don’t think so.

For Nietzsche there was another reason why man could no longer rely on custom¬†and tradition. Tradition oppresses- it appeals to a higher authority, an authority that is¬†obeyed not because ‚Äúit commands what is useful to us but merely because it¬†commands‚ÄĚ . The free man cannot therefore depend upon it. He is an individual,¬†defying custom and norms of received morality. It is his will to depend on nothing¬†but himself. Since the free man of the modern age cannot find solace either in religion¬†or tradition, there are just two options before him;

a) he may abandon the search for an ultimate meaning; and

b) he may create meaning by his own will and action.
In exploring these alternatives Nietzsche did not merely reject the Enlightenment and its Romantic alternative, he questioned the entire tradition of western rationalist thought, beginning with Plato.

For Nietzsche all schools of thought had one thing in¬†common: they had firm belief in themselves and their knowledge. They believed that¬†they had arrived at the truth. ¬†In the Athenian world of ancient Greek city-states¬†Plato claimed that reason could give man access to the ultimate reality ‚Äď the world of¬†forms. In recent times, the Enlightenment claimed that the application of scientific¬†method has yielded the truth about the world. Each in its own way thus claims that it¬†has discovered the truth about the external world that exists independently of us.¬†Further, that this truth has been arrived at impersonally and objectively; i.e., in terms¬†of qualities that inhere in the objects themselves.

Men have, lived in this state of ‚Äútheoretical innocence‚ÄĚ for¬†centuries believing that they possess the right method for discovering the nature of¬†ultimate reality, and for determining what is good and valuable. Working under the¬†influence of these childish presuppositions they have failed to realize that the external¬†world is in itself devoid of all meanings and values.

Whatever has value in the present enlightenment¬†world ‚Äúhas it not in itself by its nature‚ÄĚ. Rather a value was ‚Äúgiven to it, bestowed¬†upon it, it was we who gave and bestowed! We ourselves have created the world which¬†is of any account to man‚ÄĚ.

In making this argument and suggesting that man is a ‚Äúcreator, a continuous poet of¬†life‚ÄĚ, Nietzsche was not undermining the significance of cognition. For Nietzsche¬†knowledge remains a supreme value, but if pure knowledge as revealed by reason¬†or experiments is the only end then we would have to follow whatever direction¬†these faculties take us in. We have to be prepared, for instance, to follow the path¬†that experimental reason leads us towards, be that of nuclear energy or genetic¬†engineering. However, this would be complete ‚Äúmadness‚ÄĚ. Knowledge has to be¬†mediated by values that we regard to be worth affirming, values by which we may¬†wish to construct the world.

The role of the artist is therefore of the utmost importance.

For it is the work of an¬†artist that creates and unravels for us alternative worlds. While men of science aim¬†to discover what is already there, the artist gives shape to a world, expressing human¬†ideals. For this reason Nietzsche maintained that poetry and myths were a valuable¬†source of knowledge for us. In Nietzsche‚Äôs works the artist was not just the ‚Äėother‚Äô¬†of the modern rational scientist. He was, first and foremost, a creator; and as a¬†creator he embodied the ability to transcend the boundaries of the social and what is¬†designated as the rational. The artist as such stood alone, challenging the moralism¬†implicit in western philosophical traditions.¬†Thus it was through Nietzsche and the Romanticists that some of the basic tenets of¬†the Enlightenment came to be questioned in a fundamental way. In particular the¬†view that the present was the most advanced and civilized era in the history of¬†humankind became subject to scrutiny.

These themes were revived in the second half of the 20th century¬†by the New Left, most notably in the writings of Herbert Marcuse. In his book, One¬†Dimensional Man, Marcuse characterized the post-enlightenment industrial society¬†as ‚Äúirrational‚ÄĚ and “repressive‚ÄĚ. Despite the apparent progress and increase in¬†productivity, this society, in his view, was ‚Äúdestructive of the free development of
human needs and faculties‚ÄĚ.

To many it may appear that political freedom is protected¬†in this society and there has been an expansion in the liberties enjoyed by men.¬†Today there is more to choose from: many different newspapers, radio stations, TV¬†channels and a whole gamut of commodities in the market ‚Äď from different varieties¬†of potato chips to motor cars and washing machines. Yet, men have no real capacity¬†to make choices of their own.¬†Men‚Äôs needs are constantly shaped and manipulated by the media industry that¬†furthers the interests of a few. It moulds and constructs images that determine the¬†choices we make at home, in the market place and in social interactions. In a world¬†where ‚Äúfalse‚ÄĚ needs are fashioned by the media there is no effective intellectual¬†freedom or liberation of man. Men act and participate as ‚Äúpre-conditioned receptacles¬†of long standing‚ÄĚ. Indeed through their actions they reinforce the instruments of¬†socio-economic control and their oppression. According to Marcuse, the modern¬†industrialized world constituted a ‚Äúmore progressive stage of alienation‚ÄĚ. Its seeming¬†progress, ‚Äúthe means of mass transportation and communication, the commodities¬†of lodging, food and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and¬†information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual¬†and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the¬†producers, and through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and¬†manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood.

And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social¬†classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life.¬†It is a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern¬†of one-dimensional thought and behaviour. More importantly, as men and women¬†share in the same images and ideas there is less and less the possibility of challenging¬†the present and seeking alternatives to it.¬†In a world where images, presentation and appearance count more than even the¬†content, these theorists felt there could be no real freedom, or for that matter, the¬†possibility of ‚Äúcommunicative rationality‚ÄĚ asserting itself in the ‚Äúlife-world‚ÄĚ.

For Marcuse as well as for other members of the Frankfurt School the Enlightenment had transformed what was once liberating reason, engaged in the fight against religious dogma and superstition, into a repressive orthodoxy. It had done this by visualizing reason as an instrument of control; and, as a tool for gaining mastery over the world rather than critical reflection and reconstruction. Instrumental reason that was concerned primarily with efficiency, economy and utility could not be expected to liberate man or construct a better world.

Postmodernism, taking its cue from Nietzsche, problematizes not just science but also philosophy and religion.

Each of these intellectual engagements, in its view, seeks foundations; that is, they look for absolute and unconditional basis of reality and claim to arrive at the truth. The only difference being that while religion locates the absolute in the world beyond, science points to the laws of nature as constituting the foundations of the world and philosophy places its faith in the capacity of reason to unearth that absolute truth. What remains unaltered is that each of them looks for, and seeks to discover the truth that is already there. Against this worldview, postmodernism asks us to abandon the search for foundations and universal truth.

Like Nietzsche, the postmodernist thinkers assert that knowledge does not involve¬†discovering a meaning that is already there, pre-contained in the text. For the¬†postmodernists, the task of every inquiry is, and must be, to deconstruct the text: to¬†read it in a way that allows new meanings to emerge from it. Nietzsche had argued¬†that the history of the west, from the time of Plato onwards, reveals a ‚Äútyranny of the¬†mind‚ÄĚ.

Plato claimed that philosophers armed with the power of reason would penetrate the world of appearances and arrive at the truth. He therefore banished the poets from the Republic. In recent times, the Enlightenment bestows the same faith in systematic observation and experience. Both are convinced that they possess the absolute truth and the perfect method to arrive at it. Countless people have, over the years, sacrificed themselves to these convictions. Believing that they knew best they imposed their ways upon others.

The idea that we know the truth, that we and we alone have access to it, has been a source of fanaticism in the world. Postmodernists add to this Nietzschean sentiment to say that it has also been the source of totalitarianism. To protect freedom that the modern man so deeply cherishes we must therefore abandon this search for absolute truth. And realize instead that others also believe that they know the truth and are acting in accordance with it.

Intellectual arrogance must therefore give way to a sense of deeper humility: that is, to a framework wherein meta-narratives give way to particular histories of people living in a specific time and place, and space is created for the co-presence of multiple projects and knowledge systems.


Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

The ink-well of poetic inspiration runs dry. I thought it would be remiss of me to attempt some half-baked atrocity on the beautiful medium of verse, while on this uninspired, cynical island that I find myself ship-wrecked in. It is often true for me, far too much for my liking, that I seem to derive all the energy that I need – from my reading. How I wish there will come a time when I finally have one “original” thought. Just a stupid, little insight would also do!

But I am too comfortably nestled in the familiar worn-out ruts of my brain to be jolted by life whizzing past, to be shocked into “creative insight”, as it were. It is a pitiable state, when you have to resort to the reservoir of other’s cogitations to conjure up something. I am not just standing on the shoulders of giants, it seems I have constructed a nice little tent there — idling away on those mighty shoulder-blades! The view is great though!

But enough self-loathing.

Let me talk about the issue that I have encountered recently, and I shall make no attempts at coherence here.

1. Is the world a better place today than it was say 30-40 years ago ?

Before I begin to answer this – let me qualify – by saying that “better” is invitation to questions like “for whom”, “what does better mean” ? ¬†I shall not attempt to answer these questions, because it is too broad for a puny blog-post. I shall try and list out certain areas where humanity has shown remarkable resilience and transformative ability. One of them is the sanctity of “free speech”. The internet and the whole host of inter-related technologies have meant a far, more democratic and level-playing field for citizens today. The culture of dissent is picking up and thankfully, it is not just the intellectual elites, who have realized it.

No one would have envisioned a Mohd. Bouazizi and the spark he set off, immolating himself and the entire facade of Arab dicatorships, a few decades back. There are a lot of dawns happening right now, in different parts of the world – the Malalas, the Venezuelan public majority that voted Chavez back (inspite of stringent US acrimony), the Mohd. Morsis of Egypt, the Julia Gillards (who delightfully put down chauvinistic politicians in media’s full glare), even Myanmar’s generals are reforming — in favour of free speech and democracy. ¬†Some of these may turn out to be false dawns, as it often happens, whenever human nature is in play. But change is in vogue!

There are trenchant issues that still give cause for pessimism. The total lack of conviction from world leaders towards grappling with serious political, environmental issues. Witness the lip-service to Environmental Conservation that our PM Manmohan Singh dishes out at the recently concluded COP-11 Conference on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad. He promises a high-sounding $50 million “Hyderabad Pledge”, which is just pocket change — while at the same time, insidiously backing a draconian National Investment Board, to expedite and gloss over environmental concerns whenever serious business interests are in play. Going more global, the crisis is never-ending. the issues that need to be discussed are not. Pakistan – a far bigger threat to the stability of the world – than Iran or North Korea, keeps piling up the nuclear weapons like an avaricious banker! Israel and the US continue diplomatic calisthenics over Iran, carefully avoiding the stench from the Palestinian morass. Europe never seems to agree on a consensus on how to tackle its financial woes, flipping from austerity to populism at the drop of a hat. Japan and China are having another one of those days … their historic, and time-dilated menstrual cycles never ever seem to align. Now it is about the islands in Senkaku. Tomorrow, it will probably be about Nanjing war-crimes. Day after, it will just be about how both of them look too alike for each other’s comfort! I don’t talk about Africa because it is just too sad. And ignorance is better for my health sometimes.

But all in all, as long as the progressive left keeps making pro-active use of freedoms that technology gives us – I think there is still hope. The Vietnam War was not protested against until the US was 5-6 years in the conflict. On the contrary, massive public opinion and outcry prevented the US from intervening militarily in Libya or now in Syria (which is sad!) ¬†— but all good things come with a bad after-taste, I guess. We have the tools now to weigh in and punch above our weight. Hierarchies can be defeated. Power structures can be unravelled. ¬†It is up to us.

The left side of  Humanity.  (or should I say, the left morsels of our Humanity)

The cogent portion of the blog is over. Now for the headlines for this past day or so —

2. I hate stupid people. It’s true. I am surrounded by all these ignoramuses and I find that there is, actually, no point to their existence. ¬† (Why am I so elitist? I am sure I will regret feeling this way some day.) ¬†But these people do seem to be as evolutionarily useful as a mosquito is ecologically.

3. Stupid people can be understood and pitied. Which is something that I hold in their favour. But intelligent hypocrites are the worst — they are the dregs of humanity. Alan Dershowitz has recently been added to the rather short list of people – whom I would prefer to be a bit shorter (by a head maybe). Thomas Friedman, of course, leads the pack, grinning wildly like a typical moustache-host-organism. These educated “intellectuals” poison the lives of millions and shape their opinions and dogmas, all the while, maintaining their thin veneer of moral high-ground, which can be seen through so easily. I was watching Dershowitz debate Chomsky and all he could muster was lies, deceit, rhetoric and moral grand-standing. The sheer hypocrisy should have made the universe recoil in horror and swallow him up in the black hole where he belongs! These are the times when I wish there was a mighty Smiter up in the heavens, raining thunder-bolts.

4. “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will” ¬†is the latest mantra for me. Wonderful, because it combines Russell’s Skepticism with Nietzsche’s Will! ¬† (you can have others, of course– Moore, Strawson, Hume for skepticism and Schopenhauer, more Nietzsche! for the will … pick your favourites)

5. I am finally beginning to understand a lot of the emotions that used to confuse me before. Distance is needed. And time. Memory and forgetting do the rest. The past is always beautiful, idyllic and tranquil. The future no longer looks as bleak. There is hope.

And I will survive.

Until I eventually die, of course.  Alone.  (but i will still be surviving right up to the last fucking moment. promise.)

P.S. on a happy note, this is something that everyone should watch. (well, every adult human being and no nuns/priests) ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†French awesomeness — ¬†

The deafening silence of the Crowd.

Sometimes, and this is one of those times, I feel most alone in a crowd. There is this cheerful cacophony, this noise and bustle about everyone here — and there is this silence, the seven solitudes that Nietzsche talks about, the deafening silence of “not belonging”.

I am going to sound pretentious and snobbish, but I do not care. I am dismayed at the quality of conversation that I am forced to indulge in. Where is the spark, the intensity of a discussion, the reasoned, deliberate and gradual laying-bare of a problem and deciphering the complexity of its solution ? Intent is not enough. Emotion, surely isn’t. But that is all that people seem to be relying on here.

And there are certain things that just piss me off. Double standards and hypocrisy is one of those things. When an organization professes to adhere to strict notions of punctuality and expects everyone to follow it, when it makes a brouhaha over someone being a minute late, it is in no position to ¬†let its own standards sag. The bus was 45 minutes late the other day. No one gave a damn. Today I was forced to miss a lecture because I was a minute late. It is all too easy to apologize and take responsibility for the entire team in public — it even feels good, in a morbid way, when you take the moral high-ground and pretend to “take responsibility for thoughts, words and deeds” . But it is quite a different feeling altogether when you get a talking to from several staff members on the need to be professional and on-time. I don’t know how an organization with such a strong sense of values can fail to notice and correct such cancerous tendencies. Hypocrisy manifests itself in numerous ways. You are asked to voice your opinions in a free environment and then you are fed subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle derision and condescension, in return.

Some people are not comfortable with living in mock/fake simulated poverty. The reasons can be numerous — personal, to psychological or otherwise. But just the fact that they are here to work against educational inequality as fellows shows that one thing that they do not lack is concern. They have empathy, if not anything else. Why would you question that sense of empathy in public, by treating them as second-class fellows, if they are not in cahoots with the whims of some naive idealist who came up with this idea, in the first place ? Does everyone here need to have a shared set of beliefs ? Is it 1984 yet ?

Something else bugs me. How are so many people here having transformative experiences everyday ? Is it just that their “comprehension” of a transformative experience is screwed up or have they seriously never contemplated on the kinds of mundane issues that are being discussed here ? Any middle-class upbringing will provide you with a very strong set of ideas on Seva, Excellence, Perseverance, Inequality (which is a daily sight anywhere in India) et al.. Were these fellows so clueless before ? If so, why were they selected ? Has something really novel happened here ? I do not think so. What has happened here is that people have been given a stage to speak about what they feel in usual situations, and as it often happens in a large group, everyone is out to prove that he/she has the most profound insights on a daily basis. There is so much duplicity, so much hypocrisy, it makes me nauseous. But maybe the problem is that the fellows have not had a middle-class upbringing. Elitism abounds in the fellowship cohort. I don’t mind a “certain kind of elitism”, I am guilty of it — the kind that sometimes wrongly scoffs at proletarian tastes, aspires for the higher, cultured pleasures , but there is also this accented – “Oh-I’ve just come back and I’m so cool” elitism that disdains the broken English that some of the other fellows use (well, I’m guilty of that too). For that crowd, the metamorphosis from “unaware”-to-“really connected to the roots” makes sense. But it is still sickening that these people are the vanguard of a movement that aims to end educational inequity.

But sometimes this place still springs a pleasant surprise. Discovering the few pearls among this maddening crowd is almost like an adventure. The other day, we were discussing the validity of deriving motivation from emotions. In the context of the Israel-Palestine crisis, we were discussing personal reactions to this video …¬† , where a young girl laments her predicament. This video can get you pretty riled up, emotional and make you feel like you want to do anything to solve the problem. But if you watch this video again and again, to remember that feeling, relive that painful feeling, that tightness in your chest as the girl talks about her clothes, aren’t you exploiting her situation for an emotional high that does not do anything to solve the problem. Feeling and doing need to be detached. The logical solution of a complex problem needs a mind unsoiled by emotions. Let them drive you and you run the risk of careening off a cliff of despair, if the initial effort doesn’t pay off. Logic and rationality is the only refuge of the idealist. ¬†(I agree with you, jackass – other readers can ignore this parenthesis)

Sadly, TFI seems to miss this point entirely.

A final point. Is experience essential for intelligent expression ? When I see Orwell write about his experiences as an anarchist in the mud-stained battlefields of Catalonia, I see the value of experience, when I read Fisk comment on the insanity of Western foreign policy and duplicity as he writes from Beirut, I can again appreciate the wisdom of an immersive writing experience. But what would happen, if people stop commenting and criticising people and events and people-in-events, that they have not personally experienced ? How stifling would that be ? Where would Einstein’s gedanken experiments go, when would Kafka’s Metamorphosis see the light of day, who would listen to Dostoevsky’s Underground man and his travails ? So let us be open to people voicing opinions, even if we sometimes risk the naivete that comes with a person who has not experienced the things he is talking about. In the ceaseless blather, may lie the one aphorism, the one idea that really changes the world.

I have not given up hope on finding interesting people yet. And my personal goals seem even more important to me now. TFI has been a tiresome expedition where the organization desperately tries to paddle me away from the shore, while gale-force winds of my omnipotent self, my omniscient consciousness (hyperbole, how I love you ! ) keep buffeting me back to the same place, again and again.

And amidst all this pandemonium, this melange of voices, this shrieking smorgasbord of “reflections”, ¬†I am resigned to my personal silence.

The silence of the crowd, the solitude of “Not Belonging”.

Nietzsche on Knowledge.

In some remote corner of the universe, bathed in the fires of innumerable solar systems, there once was a planet where clever animals invented knowledge. That was the grandest and most mendacious minute of universal history. ” — ¬† ¬† ¬†Friedrich W. Nietzsche

What does he mean ? Is knowledge an invention ? And why is this mendacious ? Schopenhauer, before him, made the mistake of assuming that religious sprung from a metaphysical sentiment inherent in all men. Nietzsche denies this. He claims that Gods were invented. Art was a particularly creative invention — poetry, for instance, by somebody who had the rather curious idea of using a certain number of rhythmic or musical properties of language to impose his words over others. Similarly, knowledge too.

Knowledge does not have a basis in man’s natural instincts. It cannot be one of the primary urges of mankind. It is simply the outcome of the interplay, the encounter between instincts. Several instincts war with each other and reach a compromise at the end, which we call knowledge. It expresses a certain state of tension or appeasement between instincts. It is not really a part of human nature. Conflict, combat and the outcome of the combat, which depends a lot on chance, give rise to knowledge. As Nietzsche puts it poetically, Knowledge is like a “spark between two swords” , but not a thing of the metal.

The Nietzschean ideal of knowledge is that it is something that is not even closely connected to the world itself. The character of the world is chaos. Knowledge is order. Physics has come to obey Nietzsche’s decree — entropy always increases. Nature abhors knowledge. It is not natural for nature to be known. Therefore, between our instincts and knowledge, there can be only a relation of domination, struggle, of violence. Knowledge can only be a violation of the things to be known, and not a mere perception, a recognition, an identification with those things. If it is just that, it is not really Knowledge.

Several philosophers have opined that to truly understand things, one needs to “calm one’s passions”, take care not to “laugh at, lament or detest them” (words of Spinoza). Nietzsche states that the converse is true. We understand only because of the struggle between these passions. Laughing, lamenting or detesting are all ways of keeping the object “away” from oneself, differentiating it from our own selves — by protecting oneself from it through laughter, devaluing it through complaint or destroying it through hatred — and not ways of identifying oneself with the object. Consequently, all such drives, which are at the root of knowledge, have a will to destroy, differentiate and place ourselves in a position of hatred, contempt or fear before things that are threatening. Knowledge arises when this war of the passions reaches a truce — as a “spark between the swords” .

At the center of knowledge, Nietzsche places hatred, struggle and power relations. Hence, it is the philosopher, who is most likely to misunderstand knowledge, since he thinks in terms of unity of ideas, congruences and pacification. In order to truly know knowledge, to apprehend it at its root, how it is created, we need only look at our politicians — how relations of power and struggle are created.

Or we might read Noam Chomsky ! (Manufacturing Consent, The Fateful Triangle and innumerable articles)