“Fire of Troy” by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck), 17th cent. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
NOTE: This post was originally published in January 2007 in a different form. Based on various circumstances — including the publication just yesterday of a post titled “Collective Brainwashing & Modern Concentration Camps” over at Daily Grail, which calls out the below-transcribed portion of My Dinner with Andre — now seems like a good time to re-present this in a slightly revised and enhanced form.
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One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.
Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes (as Robert Anton Wilson liked to put it), it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.
With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things, which, based on my own experience, I recommend you ingest, digest, memorize, and keep mentally handy for reciting to yourself on a rainy day. There are no solutions offered here. There’s just the satisfaction of being confronted by grim realities and looking them full in the face. Read the rest of this entry
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.
Berman 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 Berman’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
In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, examines the way in which America’s liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally been based on “a uniquely American higher education ideal” embodied in “small classes led by professors devoted to teaching and mentoring, in a community dedicated to learning,” and which “produce a stunningly large percentage of America’s leaders in virtually every field of endeavor,” have come under assault by the culture-wide shift toward vocational education. Here’s the official description of the book and its argument by its publisher, Harvard University Press:
A former college president trained in law and economics, Ferrall shows how a spiraling demand for career-related education has pressured liberal arts colleges to become vocational, distorting their mission and core values. The relentless competition among them to attract the “best” students has driven down tuition revenues while driving up operating expenses to levels the colleges cannot cover. The weakest are being forced to sell out to vocational for-profit universities or close their doors. The handful of wealthy elite colleges risk becoming mere dispensers of employment and professional school credentials. The rest face the prospect of moving away from liberal arts and toward vocational education in order to survive.
Yesterday in a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Dr. Ferrall argued — compellingly, I think — that this trend has dire implications for an American polity already afflicted by a raging pathology: Read the rest of this entry
Morris Berman may not have been the first person to offer simultaneous commentary on American culture and Fahrenheit 451 by observing that the former has basically transformed itself into the dystopian society depicted by the latter. Many people have noted in the decades since Fahrenheit was first published in 1953 that things have been moving eerily and strikingly in the direction Bradbury foresaw (or rather, the direction he tried to forestall; “I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he famously said in a 2003 interview. “I was trying to prevent it.”) But it was Berman who most forcefully affected me with this line of thought when he laid it out in The Twilight of American Culture:
In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data [on the collapse of American intelligence] suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year
. . . [T]he society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 has banned books and immerses itself instead in video entertainment, a kind of “electronic Zen,” in which history has been forgotten and only the present moment counts . . . [The novel] is extraordinarily prescient. Leaving aside the issue of direct censorship of books — rendered unnecessary by McWorld, as it turns out, because most people don’t read anymore — most of the features of this futuristic society are virtually upon us, or perhaps no more than twenty years away. 
Morris Berman — author of The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed, and a frequently mentioned source of trenchant (and apocalyptic) cultural criticism here at The Teeming Brain — has offered a characteristically perceptive and incisive review/critique of the new documentary Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? by filmmakers Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher.
Here’s the film’s trailer:
Morris’s critique is built on ideas he has put forth in his books, including, especially, Why America Failed. He argues that although Causey and Goldmacher do an excellent job of providing “an alternative narrative to what’s been going on in this country since 1981” by thoroughly exploring and exploding the reigning master-myth of trickle-down economics and thus giving us all “an exercise in counter-brainwashing,” they show a lack of historical perspective by dating the dawn of the era of greed unbound to Reagan’s ascendency in 1980. In fact, says Morris — and this is his basic thesis in Why America Failed — America was founded on greed and hucksterism. “Greed,” he writes,
showed up on the American continent in the late sixteenth century, when what would later become the United States started to be colonized by a particularly aggressive and entrepreneurial segment of the English middle class … One might argue that Reagan represented a “quantum leap” in this ideology, but he hardly invented it; from Day One, it is what America has been about. Credit-default swaps are merely the inevitable culmination of a process that has been going on for more than four hundred years.
The Internet’s corrosive mental effects: A growing problem requiring a deliberate defensive response
For those of you who, like me, have been interested to hear the background drumbeat of warnings about the mental and neurological effects of the Internet revolution over the past several years — think Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and The Shallows, just for starters — a recent, in-depth article about this very subject from Newsweek will make for compelling reading. It’s not exactly a pleasant read, though, because the conclusion it draws from mountains of evidence is deeply disturbing.
Here’s the gist:
Teaser: Tweets, texts, emails, posts. New research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed — and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness, Tony Dokoupil reports.
Questions about the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind are at least as old as hyperlinks. But even among Web skeptics, the idea that a new technology might influence how we think and feel — let alone contribute to a great American crack-up — was considered silly and naive, like waving a cane at electric light or blaming the television for kids these days. Instead, the Internet was seen as just another medium, a delivery system, not a diabolical machine. It made people happier and more productive. And where was the proof otherwise?