“In Praise of Shadows”: Morris Berman’s acceptance speech for the 2013 Neil Postman Award

Last month the Media Ecology Association presented this year’s Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity to Morris Berman, whose work I have referenced so many times here at The Teeming Brain that he’s practically an honorary member of the Teem at this point.

Morris was invited to give an acceptance speech at the MEA’s annual convention on June 22, and he was told that he could speak on any topic of his choice. He ended up delivering a talk that effectively summarizes the overall present shape and tone of his well-known dire but, at root, deeply hopeful diagnosis of America’s malaise, decline, and death. (That’s “hopeful” in the very long view, mind you, not in any sense of holding out a hope that we might forestall or reverse America’s Spenglerian, Roman Empire-esque march into wholesale cultural collapse.)

The talk is titled “In Praise of Shadows,” and Morris’s delivery of it at the MEA convention was recorded. Here’s the video, which in addition to the speech itself includes a half-hour Q & A. It’s all wonderful stuff, and I highly recommend it. Below the video are a couple of choice excerpts that are well worth a few minutes’ quiet reading and meditation.

What American . . . doesn’t buy into the American Dream? Why do soup kitchens and tent cities across the United States fly the American flag above them, in a strange parody of patriotism? As John Steinbeck put it many years ago, in the U.S. the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And as I argue in Why America Failed, the goal of the settlers on the North American continent, as far back as the late sixteenth century, has been capital accumulation — “the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson subsequently called it. . . . Rich or poor, nearly every American wants to be rich, and in fact sees this as the purpose of life. In this sense, we have the purest democracy in the history of the world, because ideologically speaking, the American government and the American people are on the same page. To quote Calvin Coolidge, “The business of America is business.” Hustling is what America has always been about.

This is why our elected leaders have a vacant quality about them. After all, the American Dream is about a world without limits, about always having More. But More is not a spiritual path, nor is it a philosophy of life. It has no content at all, and this why, when you look into the eyes of an Obama or a Clinton or a Hillary Clinton — probably our next president — you see not merely nothing, but a kind of terrifying nothingness. Unfortunately, this vacant look characterizes a lot of the American population as well: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, as the medieval alchemists were fond of saying. Once again, this is evidence of a pure democracy: nobodies elect nobodies to office, and then everyone wonders “what went wrong.”

. . . As the consumer society, and the American Dream, continue to disintegrate, many will experience a severe crisis of meaning, inasmuch as prior to the crunch, meaning was to be found in the latest technological gadget or piece of software or brand of lip gloss. I see lots of nervous breakdowns on the horizon. But as one droll observer once put it, the trick is to convert a nervous breakdown into a nervous breakthrough. After all, twentieth-century life offered human beings in the West, at least, a set number of master narratives — communism, fascism, and consumerism, primarily — so that they might be able to avoid that most terrifying of all questions: Who am I? As the I Ching tells us, crisis means danger plus opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great to discover that one was more than one’s career, for example, or one’s car? That opportunity is going to present itself, sooner or later. For many, it already has.

FULL TEXT OF SPEECH: “In Praise of Shadows” by Morris Berman

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He writes about the apocalyptic intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture.

Posted on July 17, 2013, in Economy, Government & Politics, Society & Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I agree with his sentiments.. the U.S. is democracy, wants no head, has no head, it is just a mindless collective body.

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_ZzgWeZtUs

    Voivod performing Nothingface @ Musique Plus in Montreal ’89

    May I? May I?
    Valves plugs pump to erase
    Rictus from my face
    Lapse of time
    Synchro freeze
    Loop rewind
    Forward speed
    Will to walk
    Crossed out feet
    Fingers tall
    Far from reach
    Mind to talk
    Still words bleed
    Optic box
    Melted through
    Sonic shock
    Silent clue
    Drop by drop
    Drain-out tube

    I hope, I need
    I want to dream
    Cold choke choke cold
    I float unseen
    Outside the screen
    Cold choke choke cold
    A wish, extreme
    Awaiting the stream

  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itHcrRaZhXs

    Voivod just released this video and single for their latest album titled Target Earth. Their work pretty much defines the spiritual vacuum of technological modern society, comes out of the nihilistic feelings of the 1990s and yet has a numinous quality behind their work. The artwork by Denis Belanger the drummer is really iconic.

    • fuck I meant Michel Langevin . is the drummer and artist.

      Michel “Away” Langevin (born May 30, 1963[1]) is a founding member and drummer for the Canadian heavy metal band Voivod. He has been a constant member of the band since its formation in 1982. Langevin is credited with the creation of the mythology of the post-apocalyptic vampire lord Voivod, about which the band originally coalesced, and is largely responsible for its continuing science fiction themes.

    • Chilling lyrics too,

      Auto-creation crash
      Viruses spreading fast
      Cyber-protection failed
      All safety shields disengaged

      Corporate dissolutions
      Institute disillusions
      Toxic assets, unstable
      All system trust disabled

      Cannot save, cannot trade
      Be afraid, you could die!
      Cannot search, cannot trace
      File erased, you will die!

      Crushing down firewalls
      All basic structures fall
      World’s info disappeared
      No more access, it’s been cleared

      No more power, the world’s on fire
      A few more hours, our time is over

      One by one
      Leaders gone
      One by one
      Countries done

      I am the space avenger
      I execute my orders
      A satellite controller
      A judgement day creator
      Monitoring from my room
      Hacking this world that I rule
      I am the god eraser
      I am a planet killer

      One sacrifice, no god, no sign
      This sacrifice, for good, for life
      One sacrifice, no gold, no harm
      This sacrifice, new games, new lives

      A few more hours…

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