(I.-III.) Anthropology, "the science of custom," takes seriously what may appear to be mere custom as depending on a particular culture, and it presupposes a certain acceptance of alternatives to one's own cultural situation, i.e. it relativises (cf. Copernicus, Darwin) customs. Having been brought up, of course, in a particular culture, makes this difficult – the members of some societies even call themselves "human beings" (= "Kiowa", "Zuni".) Especially for us, belonging to present-day Western civilization, the historical accident of it spreading throughout the world makes it tempting to mistake local custom for human nature, the more so since racial prejudice of a particular kind happens to be part of that culture; whereas, in fact culture, unlike race, is clearly not biologically transmitted but must be learnt, and that which binds people is their shared culture and not, as the racist myth of certain cultures will have it, their common race. So we must do anthropology and study primitive societies, and ones as different from our own as possible, so as to learn to cope with diversity; to discover what is inevitable in human – e.g. aggressive – behaviour and what due to cultural adjustments; and to understand the cultural processes at work in our own civilization as well, which is too close and too complex to allow such insight; but not to reconstruct historical developments, or to return romantically to a better way of life. – Now, there can often be found a pattern to a society's customs and attitudes, so that it is as a whole oriented in some direction, though such integration may be lacking, esp. for historical reasons, be obscure to us, or hide disharmonious elements.
(IV.) Thus, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico lead a very sober and formal life, which revolves around ceremonial – rather than economic or social – activities: dances and observances, which are effective by making the gods do their part; all personal initiative and individual authority are distrusted and avoided in favour of the – esp. religious – group, and the culture is Apollonian, in contrast to the Dionysian emphasis on visions and heroism of other North American Indians; crises are therefore downplayed, and in the case of a death the bereaved are helped to cope by formal means.
(V.) On Dobu, which participates in the semi-annual trading around the Kula ring of Melanesian islands, brutal competitiveness, jealousy, suspicion and fierce exclusiveness of ownership – of wealth, which must be kept secret, of the magical incantations necessary to succeed, and of harmful spells – are characteristic: all success is due to treachery; distrust, esp. of one's closest associates, (except within the maternal family, the 'susu',) including one's spouse, and hostility of all degrees, between individuals and between villages, are formalised in customs and institutions; in the case of a death, a person close to the deceased is held responsible and punished.
(VI.) To the Kwakiutl of the North-West coast of America, whose religious life was based on Dionysian experiences and took place in various dancing societies, all their abundant wealth (apart from their means of livelihood) was involved in an all-out, economically meaningless competition for status, titles and privileges, between individuals (excluding slaves) and esp. between the chiefs of families: there were feasts of formal competition, 'potlatches', when large quantities of possessions were given away – though double the gifts had to be returned on the next occasion to avoid being shamed – or destroyed; every activity expressed the will to superiority, the emotions mainly ranged only from triumph to shame; so any misfortune was an insult and the shame had to be cleared by a distribution of property, or passed on – in the case of a death often by killing a member of some other family.
(VII.-VIII.) Each of these patterns of culture is a more or less coherent, historically determined selection from the whole range of – psychologically possible – modes of behaviour; the dominant purpose then finds expression in a variety of situations: notably marriage, death, etc. The actual behaviour of individuals and what counts as abnormal – e.g. kindness on Dobu – must be understood in terms of the surrounding culture, (rather than being determined biologically.) And such relativization is necessary for us to be able to critically appraise the value of the dominant purpose in Western civilization: the amassing and display of private possessions, which finds expression in all aspects of our lives, even in relations within a family.
The book is a defence of – or perhaps an elegy for – a canon of Western literature, that is a body of authoritative, essential works; but by arguing for this particular canon, it is also a defence of the idea of aesthetic canons in general. Other canons – in music or the visual arts, say, which tend to be less explicit in their expression of ideas than literature – are less in need of defending, because they are not under the same threat from critics or academics of the 'School of Resentment': cultural materialism (Neo-Marxist,) new historicism (Foucault) and feminism are repeatedly mentioned as branches. Disallowing anything like aesthetic value, which they consider a bourgeois criterion used by white males to perpetuate their dominance, these modern critics select works to be read for their ideological 'rightness' – a situation, which is very obvious when one looks at the courses offered nowadays even by the literature departments at major universities: great works either are subjected to an ideological critique or, more often, clearly inferior works are studied instead because they are by a woman writer, say, or by a writer from a country's oppressed minority.
Bloom is a long-time professor at Yale; his criticism has been required reading for many university students of English, who often find him difficult and his style dense. Here he is being polemical, and the book suffers a little from repetitiveness in argument, so that it is perhaps best read over a long time. He discusses 26 authors, belonging to three different ages, (according to a distinction borrowed from Vico's cyclical view of history): omitting the first Theocratic Age, there are the Aristocratic Age, from Dante to Goethe, the Democratic Age, from Wordsworth and Jane Austen to Ibsen, and the present Chaotic Age, from Freud to Beckett; next will be a new Theocratic Age, different in kind from the past ages – it will be almost wholly an oral and visual culture, and when the ages of reading come to an end, so will our literary canon.
Rather than trying to give a brief critical overview of each of the 26 authors' work, Bloom in each case concentrates on a few of their works, or even on only one part or an aspect; and the only thing he tries to do is to explain what in his view makes these works, and their author, canonical. (Despite this I found the chapters on authors with whom I am not familiar no less rewarding, as a kind of introduction, than those on authors who I know too and appreciate.) There are two general characteristics, or requirements, of canonical works that he refers to, which together make the canon a coherent body, with its own development, rather than just a collection. One characteristic is that canonical works exhibit the 'anxiety of influence,' or 'of contamination.' This concept, which Bloom has worked on throughout his career, is not a description of the mental state of the authors, although each author does have to respond, more or less consciously, to what has gone before; rather it concerns a relation between the works themselves: a canonical work is the achieved anxiety of influence. The other, related characteristic is a certain kind of originality, which he calls "strangeness", which can be either such that the work will always remain strange, or such that its strangeness is completely assimilated by the canonical tradition, to the point of becoming the norm for subsequent readers, as well as writers.
Shakespeare is central to the Western canon, and all works either have to be viewed as precursors, or have to deal with him – Bloom even puts forward a Shakespearean reading of Freud instead of a Freudian reading of Shakespeare. While the choice of who to include in the canon is personal – and I don't think the book gains at all from Bloom's long catalogue, in an Appendix, of works worth reading –, it is sufficient for the argument that one understand the reasons for his choices. And one does, I think.
In the end, what the book is a defence – and an expression – of is the love of reading: "Rereading is a lonely activity and does not teach anyone to become a better citizen. ... Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness." This is an elitist view, in the sense of denying the demands for a culture of universal access: "The strongest poetry [and presumably other literature, if to a lesser extent] is cognitively and imaginatively too difficult to be read deeply by more than a relative few of any social class, gender, race, or ethnic origin." But it is precisely this difficult aesthetic value that allows the canon its universality.
The first chapter is an outline of the position of postmodernism, by the ironical device of hypothesising what kind of reaction one might expect when a radical movement finds itself confronted with the wholesale 'victory' – as far, that is, as 'the real world' is concerned – of the system which it was its purpose to oppose:
(Some of these facets only become explicit in the subsequent arguments against.) – The situation is not hypothetical of course, in that in most people's view the collapse, largely due to internal contradictions, of the political and economic system of the Soviet block means that the capitalist system has 'won' – to the point that we have reached (pace Fukuyama) "the end of history" –, and that a large part of the radical movement has indeed not been able to stick to its moral and intellectual principles in confronting that system, and has instead retreated into the ineffective particularism of a postmodernist critique at its margins.
- an interest in epistemology, in the question of how we can know about the world, would conveniently replace the will to act on the world;
- faced with a totality which is both all-pervasive and – hence – invisible, the distrust and/or denial of all universals would become common;
- since issues essential to the system – such as modes of production and social formations – are out of bounds, the emphasis would shift to marginal matters: either to ones that are in the crevices of the system – such as the body and its sexuality, and language and our discourses –, or to acceptable topics, like prisons and patriarchy;
- and essentialism itself, the view that such things as a political system and human beings have an essence, which one can criticise or respect, would become suspect;
- having lost their purpose, the members would deny that purposive action is feasible, and having cut themselves off from their history, they would reduce history to 'histories', to accident and story telling;
- in the attempt to cope with being overwhelmed by the system, some would see in it, hopefully, the seeds of its own subversion, while others would make believe that the end they had been aspiring to, or at least some end, had been reached.
Terry Eagleton, professor of English at Oxford, here raises a spirited, colourful, often entertaining defence of a 'good old-fashioned' Marx-leaning socialism, unashamedly reasserting the values of an hierarchical, essentialistic, teleological, metahistorical, universalist humanism, against the lures of the lately popular postmodernist school of thought, and at the same time manages to get in a few digs at the now prevailing system. (Postmodernism is of course also a movement in the arts and in criticism, with corresponding values – such as "a sense of artifice, a suspicion of absolute truth" in literature, "an allusive, eclectic mode, which refers in a ... parodic pastiche to earlier styles" in architecture, and in general an inclusive, perhaps irresponsible playfulness which may be contributing to a dissolution of the subject [Microsoft, Encarta, 1996] –, but the author says at the outset that this is not what he will be concerned with.)
In very condensed form, his arguments against postmodernism – which apply equally in different areas, such as history, politics and morality – seem to run as follows: (i) by denying such notions as totality, essence and purpose, by particularising and reducing all differences to a non-evaluative otherness, postmodernism introduces a new, levelling universalism, and is therefore guilty of a logical contradiction; (ii) more seriously, by thus treating everything and everybody as of equal value, it empties the very notion of value of meaning, and so deprives political action of purpose; (iii) and in thus levelling all values, postmodernism, far from being a critical movement, is actually in collusion with capitalism's spirit of the marketplace, where the value of everything is determined by nothing else than supply and demand, and a person is nothing else than a producer and/or a consumer; (iv) most importantly, an impotent movement of this kind is not in a position to resist the fascist trends that an unchallenged capitalism may increasingly develop. – However, the author gives credit to postmodernism where it is due – for drawing attention to the cases of minorities, say, or habits of speech and thought, that had not been on any agenda; his expressed purpose is less to refute than to convince a reader who thought she was a postmodernist that really she couldn't be.
What brings the argument, and the book, to life are the many concrete cases discussed – such as what consequences postmodernism's uncritical cultural relativism might have –, but to this aspect of the book an abstract can regrettably not do justice. [– Read a few brief passages from the book, mostly concerned with morality. –]
In Western societies it is appropriate to distinguish between the private realm and the public or political realm, which do however have a common moral foundation. In modern African societies the public realm is divided: "the primordial public is moral and operates on the same moral imperatives as the private realm; ... the civic public in Africa is amoral and lacks the generalised moral imperatives operative in the private realm and in the primordial public" – but "any politics without morality is destructive."
The emergence of this unique political configuration is the result of the attempt by two bourgeois groups, the cadre of colonial administrators and the African bourgeois class born out of the colonial experience itself, to legitimate their rule of the ordinary African. It is an indication of the absence of true legitimacy, and of the resulting insecurity, that these attempts have been ideological – an ideology here being a distorting, interest-begotten theory (Werner Stark, 1958,) rather than, neutrally, the set of beliefs by which a society orders reality to render it intelligible (Mannheim.) 'Imperial ideologies' were addressed to the citizens of the colonising nations, but of interest here (and anatomised in some detail) are 'colonial ideologies,' advanced by the Europeans to persuade Africans that colonisation is in their interest, and 'African bourgeois ideologies,' advanced by the new bourgeois class in Africa.
These ideologies of legitimation having given credence to the myth that the civic public can never be impoverished, citizenship, which in the West involves balancing rights and duties, in Africa means quite different things in the two publics: a good citizen of the primordial public feels the duty to give to it materially and support it, and gains benefits in the form of identity and security; a lucky citizen of the civic public gains from it materially but manages to escape giving anything in return. The dialectic of the two publics, "that it is legitimate to rob the civic public in order to strengthen the primordial public," shows itself in the ubiquitous tribalism, in the ethnic 'voluntary organizations,' and most concretely in corruption, both embezzlement and the taking of bribes.
In this second of four volumes (though the first one to be published,) written over a period of 34 years, and covering between them the history primarily of Europe from 1789 to 1991 (see Age of Extremes, 1994) – but with sideways glances at other parts of the world in the first volumes, shifting to full discussions of global developments by the last –, the author deals with the third quarter of the last century. If an abstract of a book of history is not just to be a synopsis – so brief that it would be meaningless – of the history of the period covered, it must instead focus on the approach of the historian to that period, so that is what I have here chosen to do.
Throughout, Hobsbawm is concerned with the large-scale issues, with what in retrospect have turned out to be the big trends of his period, including social conditions and the changes in them; thus he more typically refers to statistics about the growth of trade, the extension of the railway network, the increase of urban populations, the long-term shifts in voting patterns, etc., than to particular events like treaties, or wars, or new geographical discoveries, except in so far as these give rise to, or are examples of, general tendencies. In his approach, Hobsbawm is a 'lumper' rather than a 'splitter'; that he is a Marxist is well-known, and also obvious from this text, in at least three ways.
- His analysis of the developments, apart from being very broad, also tends to be predominantly economic: many of his arguments explain events and developments in terms of underlying material changes; so when he discusses the abolition of slavery during this period, for instance, it is mostly in terms of it not being a cost-efficient mode of using labour.
- While small quotes from a variety of sources introduce each chapter, sometimes ironically, and novels of the period are cited as evidence about living conditions, and so on, the only contemporary analysis that Hobsbawm seems to take seriously is that of Karl Marx, whose views on a wide range of topics are included, and of his collaborator Friedrich Engels.
- Relatedly, much is made of the incipient labour movement, especially Britain's, of the period, such as the First International, and of the anarchist factions, and there are references throughout not only to the revolutions, and subsequent reactions, of the previous period, but also to developments to come, such as events in Russia in our century.
Since this was 'the age of capital' (in the Marxist sense,) in which Western societies increasingly divided into classes, the bourgeoisie – the descriptions of whose life occasionally have a slightly mocking tone – and the working class, with both the aristocracy and the rural population beginning to become less relevant, and slavery and serfdom being abolished, it is not surprising that the author is not in sympathy with his period – as he does make explicit in the Introduction [– Read that passage. –] already: he is not attracted by the (primarily bourgeois) feeling of certainty and confidence in progress, which soon turned out to have been an illusion in any case, and he throughout denounces the excesses of the time, such as the 'robber barons' – whom he distinguishes from merely very successful businessmen – in the United States, and the enormous social inequalities the age gave rise to, which are of a different nature from those of the preceding aristocratic ages. However, just as Marx viewed his time, with all its injustices, as providing the conditions for the eventual and necessary socialist revolution that would result in a better society, so Hobsbawm is in fact ambivalent about the period, and one keeps catching him being thrilled by the extraordinary transformations of the time, the progress made in material conditions, and so on.
It also was the period in which the concept of a nation state, as opposed to monarchies, dukedoms etc. defined in terms of the ruling sovereign, and of a national identity first emerged, and this is one of the themes that Hobsbawm elaborates throughout, including how it interacted with the other major trends of the time, such as the spreading of democratic ideas and practices, both geographically and in terms of who is represented (– women's suffrage, for instance, was still a long way off in most places.)
As already suggested, the book is not organised in chronological order: after a "Revolutionary Prelude", which 'joins' this period to the one before it, it is divided into two parts, headed "Developments" and "Results". In the former – which includes a chapter called "Winners" and another called "Losers" – the broad issues and changes are outlined, while in the latter the particular consequences for societies, and for the people that lived in them, are described: thus there are chapters on life on the land and in the cities, and on science, religion, ideology, and on the arts.
Prozac, a drug which was developed as an anti-depressant but has since been found to produce a range of desirable changes in many patients, and has been taken by more than 5 million Americans, is the focus of this discussion of the effects of certain kinds of drugs, including ones not yet developed, and their implications.
These effects include the specific ones for which the drug is prescribed: unlike earlier anti-depressants, whose chemistry, history and action are reviewed in one chapter, Prozac has hardly any negative side-effects, (the origins of allegations that it makes some people more violent or obsessed with suicide are reviewed in an Appendix, and the charge is rejected,) and changes not only the mood but also the personality of many people who take it, making them more active, less fearful of loss and rejection, more confident and less awkward, generally better able to function in society, and so on. Patients often report feeling 'more themselves', or something like it, when they are on Prozac. This clearly raises moral issues, both for the individual doctor and for society at large, although these may partly arise from what could be called our "pharmacologic Calvinism (or puritanism)". Should we adjust the chemical balance of an individual who would have been well adapted in another society, to make or enable him or her to conform better to ours? Certain kinds of compulsive behaviour in a relationships, for instance, or a long period of mourning, which are no longer esteemed in our modern society, are highly valued in other societies, and were in ours. Once specific 'mood-brighteners' with no side-effects are available, won't we lose the freedom not to use them? And may we not be losing touch with something essential about our human condition, even the ability to empathise, take rigid moral positions, and create or understand certain works of art, if we can avoid certain feelings, such as loneliness? Of course, effective psychotherapy or being in a caring relationship, too, might affect the balance of neurotransmitters and other chemicals, but it does take the individual seriously as an individual. Whereas with those drugs, instead of hearing the individual's voice, might we not just be "listening to Prozac"?
But we are also "listening to Prozac" in other ways, for like some other drugs Prozac has had an effect beyond that on individual patients: on the way of thinking in various disciplines. In outlining these effects, the author (a practising psychiatrist, but apparently much in sympathy with psychotherapy) draws on a wide range of literature, including a number of interesting animal studies, concerning the different neurotransmitters – especially serotonin, the levels of which Prozac specifically affects – and their particular roles in different kinds of affective states and behaviour. Thus, there is apparently a high correlation in monkeys, and it is not just due to a one-way causal relationship, between serotonin levels and group dominance (as opposed to simple aggression.)
The effects of Prozac, like those of earlier drugs, have suggested the need to redraw some of the diagnostic distinctions, based on symptoms, used in psychiatry: if different cases respond to the same drug, there is presumably a common underlying condition; and conversely, if apparently similar cases respond differently to the same drug, there presumably isn't. In discussing these categories, different models are explored of how mental illness – and to some extent our personality, too: the distinction being not as obvious now as it may have been – originates and what it consists of. The view that personality, and not just mood, is largely biochemically determined, and may therefore have a large innate component, has certainly become more acceptable than it was in the hopeful early days of psychoanalysis, when all problems were thought to result from experience, and therefore to be curable at that level. It may be, for instance, that different neurotransmitters correspond to different dimensions of our personality, that mental problems result from extreme positions along one of the dimensions, and that our outward behaviour may incorporate ways of coping in those positions or compensating. One model for how chemical imbalances in the brain may originate is 'kindling': this is when a site, instead of becoming less responsive to a repeated stimulus instead becomes sensitised, so that repeated small experiences can result in large scale imbalances.
In philosophical terms, what makes the book interesting is that it is evidence that the identity of mental events and physical events in the brain, which one has for some time supposed there must be, has become closer to being made concrete and specific.
In this very readable book, subtitled "Economic Sense and Nonsense in the Age of Diminished Expectations", the author – a professor at MIT, and according to his own distinction an academic rather than one of those 'policy entrepreneurs' who satisfy the need of politicians of all shades for policies that promise a 'quick fix' – gives a brief account of the economic development of (mostly) the USA, specially in the period since 1979. On the way he manages to explain some of the fundamental concepts of economic theory and to discuss some recent developments.
In brief, his story is that when the very strong economic growth of the post-war period came to a still not properly understood end in the late 60ies and the 70ies, the traditional liberal, Keynesian school, advocating strong government intervention when necessary to support growth, came under attack from a more conservative school arguing for government restraint. The central question was how to explain the business cycle, the fact that there are ups and downs in the economy: on the Keynesian account, they were the result of a general desire for greater security and a consequent decrease in spending, which could be 'cured' by the government injecting some money into the economy; according to the conservatives, the markets should take care of things, and recessions were the result of confusion, especially due to government-medddling, whether it be in the form of taxes or of regulations. The serious theoretical points put forward by the conservatives at the universities ended up being offered, in an over-simplified and distorted form as 'supply-side economics', by a group of journalists, (notably the editor of the Wall Street Journal,) and fringe-academics to the Reagan camp – and it became his administration's official policy: 'Voodoo-economics', according to Bush at the time he was running against Reagan. If the Federal Reserve Bank aimed for a constant supply of money (according to one of the measures ...) and taxes were cut, then the increase in economic activity, it was thought, would more than compensate for the reduction in government income. That was however not what happened, and while in Krugman's judgement the policies did not affect long-term growth – which according to him is the most important measure – too much, they did saddle the country with its massive debt and did result in a great increase in the inequality of income distribution, due partly to an actual decrease in the real income of the poor. One of the chapters is a serious indictment of the Reagan administration's policies fo their social consequences, and the conservative denials seem downright callous. The Federal Reserve Bank, though, being independent, did not subscribe to the supply-side economics, but was able to use it as a cover for some painful policies to control the money supply, so as to control inflation.
After having been on the defensive for more than a decade, liberal economic ideas made a comeback: according to a neo-Keynesian school at the universities, what had been neglected in the earlier account was that the markets are not perfect, and so something like the original account does explain the business cycle, and so there is a need for government intervention to smooth it out and support long-term growth. However, this theoretical development too has been 'hijacked' by a group of policy-entrepreneurs, the 'strategic traders', who offered it to the Clinton camp when they in turn needed a policy that would promise a quick fix for the economy's woes. At this point, Krugman seems to feel implicated, in having contributed to the theoretical development of the new liberalism that in a distorted form has become the official policy of this administration, and to want to set the record straight: thus he demonstrates persuasively that the analogy the strategic traders draw between a country trading with other countries and a business competing with other businesses is fallacious, and that the policy suggestions – such as trade barriers and a concentration on the country's greatest value-added areas – derived from the analogy are dangerous.
Krugman enjoys interspersing his arguments with little anecdotes, for instance when he describes supply-side economics as the result of over-lunch conversations of a small coterie, and he makes good use of numerical examples to make his points. On the positive side he argues that while economics is not as 'exact' a science as physics is, (or is thought to be, because of the possibility of isolating phenomena,) it does enable us to gain an understanding – recently for instance of the QWERTY-principle, that once we have got caught at a local optimum, market forces cannot move us on – which can help us to formulate useful policies. [– Read two brief passages from the Preface of the book. –]
RATES OF GROWTH OF FAMILY INCOME
1947-73 1973-79 1979-89 20 2.5 -0.2 -0.5 40 2.6 -0.2 0.2 60 2.7 0.0 0.4 80 2.6 0.0 1.0 95 2.4 0.3 1.4 This table shows the average annual rates at which US incomes have changed, in three different periods, for families at different points on the income distribution, showing that whereas growth used to be quite evenly distributed, it has in more recent years been benefiting mostly the better off, while those who are worst off have actually seen a decline in their income.
(The table is derived from a graph in Krugman's book but seems clearer to me.)
African agriculture, the early accounts of which by explorers, colonial administrators and missionaries could not but be tendentious, is still largely viewed as having originally been static – though following a progressive evolutionary path, from hunting and gathering, to pastoralism, to farming – and in ecological equilibrium, until it was disturbed from that delicate fine-tuned state by colonialism; as a result, it is thought that present interventions directed at the lack of productivity should try to restore a static state, based either on indigenous knowledge or on modern techniques. Contrary to this dominant paradigm, which is supported by a narrowly synchronic approach, this article, reviewing recent research and referring to a variety of case studies, argues that if a more appropriate diachronic approach is taken, African agriculture can be seen to have all along been flexible and adaptable.
Thus it has always been broad-based, in that different modes of agricultural production have coexisted, and even the distinction between mobile and sedentary life-styles is far from rigid. It has also been dynamic: even within recent history, agriculturalists have responded rapidly to altered circumstances, whether they be due to the harsh and unstable natural environment, or to social changes, like the dislocations of the slave-trade, political unrest and war, large-scale migrations, and new economic opportunities: to supply passing caravans, or to temporarily employ pilgrims to Mecca. And while recent tragedies demonstrate the rigidity and persistence of ethnic boundaries, there have always also been mechanisms which have made these fluid and allowed individuals or groups to modify their identity and transgress those boundaries.
Viewing African agriculture as a non-equilibrial system has consequences not only for research – like requiring a less narrow concept of sustainability – but also for development policies, which have for too long themselves been one more source of instability for the agriculturalists. Having been able in the past to develop and use a range of intricate systems exploiting diverse ecological and socioeconomic environments, they can be expected to find ways out of the current malaise, if freed from the restrictive intrusions typical of many current development interventions.
In this series of meditations, the author uses his 'professional skills' as a philosopher to discuss, without reaching very definite conclusions most of the time, topics of general interest and relevant to how we lead our lives; he provides no 'recipes' but invites the reader to join him in considering the issues, (and specifically requests that no summary be attempted, etc.)
Some of the meditations seem to stand largely on their own, such as the one on "Parents and Children," or the one on "The Zigzag of Politics," but for much of the book a continuous development is maintained, and there are certain main themes.
The main direction comes from an investigation of what it means – for me, an experience, a relation to something or with somebody, or an object or person – to be real; and why we find being real desirable. The examples of most real characters in this sense are Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, and Gandhi, but also someone like Hamlet; however, these are considered special cases and not for all of us to follow. A range of other things we might value – such as creativity, pleasure, happiness – are considered, but they all turn out (on our shared view) ingredients or concomitants of the one concept, and to be not independently worth pursuing. The number of elements of reality, or rather separate dimensions along which reality is measured, – such as value, meaning, weight and importance – keeps increasing; and eventually the concept is represented by a 3-dimensional construction organising 48 aspects, or dimensions, of being real! – here, as elsewhere throughout the book, the desire to make concepts form a coherent pattern, to deal with things as capable of being measured, numerically proportional or maximised, does rather seem to take over.
Starting from Freud's pleasure and reality principles, a whole series of further 'reality principles' is formulated in the process; the eighth and last one, in a meditation on "Giving Everything Its Due," being: "If life is to be lived so as to be fully responsive to all of reality ... then the nature of this responding, taking account of our limitations ..., is specified by the second principle of proportionality" – that the extent of the response should be proportional (not to the reality itself but) to the reality of the response.
[The main criticism one could make of reality as the criterion for how to live one's life is the same as has often been made of utility as the criterion for moral action: by making the concept wider and wider to encompass more and more cases, one makes it inapplicable as a criterion in any particular choice – and this is more than a practical drawback.]
Religious questions, not restricted to any particular faith, concerning such things as the nature of God (or a hierarchy of Gods?), the problem of evil, and so on, are an important part of the book. There is a delightful speculation about whether it would even have been possible for God to leave an unmistakable sign of his existence in his creation for all to believe – with the sun in the end fulfilling all the requirements. And there is a discussion of the role the holocaust should play both in Jewish and in Christian theology: the holocaust is so serious an event that it must implicate the God of the Jews, in some sense it must reflect God being in trouble; and while Christ may have died for our sins, according to the Christians, he cannot have died for that one, and our relationship with God must have changed as a consequence. Particular attempts are made to come to terms with the kinds of experiences reported by Christian visionaries, Buddhist meditators, and so on; and with what it would mean to have an afterlife.
In the course of the meditations, a number of concepts do become clearer and some illuminating observations are made. Thus an emotion is described as having three aspects: a belief, an evaluation and a feeling, where for the emotion to be appropriate, the belief has to be true, the evaluation right, and the feeling proportionate to the evaluation. And it is pointed out about ideals that one tends to compare one's own as it would look under the best possible conditions with those of others as they are actually realised. [– Read a brief passage from the book. –]
The pejorative treatment of ethnic groups and ethnicity in Africa – in terms of tribes and tribalism – having been largely overcome, there is now a danger of losing sight of the peculiarities of African ethnicity, which the author tries to establish by considering dimensions of continuity and change.
On the standard definition, an ethnic group has both objective aspects, like a common language and territory, and the subjective one of an ethnic consciousness. As to the genesis of ethnicity, there are two types of perspectives – (i) involuntary/ irrational ones, that it is autonomous, a natural 'given', and (ii) voluntary/ instrumentalist ones, that it is a response to socio-economic and political pressures and the basis of group action –, but these are not mutually exclusive.
There were ethnic groups in Africa before the slave trade and colonialism, but colonialism must not be misunderstood as just a – now ended – episode in African history: it was 'epochal', and if the social formations that resulted from it are divided into (i) transformed indigenous ones, (ii) migrant ones imported wholesale from the colonial power, and (iii) emergent ones that evolved from colonialism itself (Peter Ekeh,) then contemporary ethnic groups and ethnicity are both transformed and emergent formations, though only partly because of the colonial powers' policy of 'divide and rule'. Regional differences are due to different colonial policies, the number and sizes of ethnic groups, their different degree of access to resources, etc.
Historically, ethnic groups not only had to take on many new functions, such as welfare, but have increasingly become the social groups – like Marxist classes – struggling with each other for political and economic power. Sociologically, the imposition of migrant social structures has led to a division between the 'civic public' of the state and the 'primordial public' rooted in one's ethnic group, and to the general abuse of the former – in the form of corruption, nepotism, etc. – justified by benefits to the latter (Ekeh.)
However, the author has the hope that ethnic groups might in future become the focus of state-supported local development, without today's 'zero-sum' competition for central power.
Using a wide range of often amusing evidence, mostly drawn from ordinary language, such as that we say "mice-infested" and "men-bashing" but not "rats-infested" and "gays-bashing", the book argues, often in an amusing way – such as when some linguists' view of language is compared to the view elephant-scientists might take of their trunk, as something that could not have arisen by evolution, being too complex a tool and too distinctive – that "language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way learn to tell the time. Instead it is a distinct piece of the biological make-up of our brains. Language is a complex, specialised skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of the underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. It is an instinct; people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs." In the course of the argument, a large number of myths are debunked: that language "is man's most important cultural invention, the quintessential example of his capacity to use symbols, and a biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals; ... that language pervades thought, with different languages causing their speakers to construe reality in different ways; ... that children learn to talk from role models; ... that grammatical sophistication used to be nurtured in schools, but sagging educational standards and the debasement of popular culture have led to a frightening decline in the ability of the average person to construct a grammatical sentence; ... that English is a zany, logic-defying tongue, that English spelling takes such wackiness to even greater heights and that only institutional inertia prevents the adoption of a more rational system. ... Thinking of language as an instinct inverts the popular wisdom, especially as it has been passed down in the popular canon of the humanities and social sciences. Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols: a three-year-old is a grammatical genius, but is quite incompetent at the visual arts, religious iconography, traffic signs and the other staples of the semiotics curriculum. Though language is a magnificent ability unique to homo sapiens among living species, it does not call for sequestering the study of humans from the domain of biology, for magnificent abilities unique to particular species are far from unique in the animal kingdom. We are simply a species of primate with our own act in nature's talent show, a knack for communicating information about who did what to whom by modulating the sounds we make when we exhale." – The author clearly not only shares Chomsky's rationalism and his rejection of empiricism, but presents, in outline, much the same theory of language: not only the mental grammar, but the mental dictionary and the phonological rules are subject to layers of rules and are lawful even at their quirkiest – and this is no less true for versions of a language, such as street argot, that are often considered inferior or more limited than it is for the 'high' language. Every language, 'high' or 'low', will be found to have such a rigid set of rules if one is willing to accept the speech and judgements of its 'native' speakers as evidence. So the attempts of the "language mavens" to defend a 'proper', standard form of a language is both futile and misguided. – Of particular interest in discovering the nature of the rules of language is of course evidence from (i) the development of speech in children, (ii) the progress from the crude pigeon to which a group of immigrants, say, without a shared language will be reduced to the linguistically fully developed creole that their children will speak, and (iii) studies of the strategies we have, which computers may not be capable of, for understanding sentences, requiring both an efficient 'parser' – though it might find a sentence like "The horse raced past the barn fell." difficult at first – and presumably some knowledge of the world which the sentences are about. – In the final chapters of the book the discussion moves to the biological arena, and such things as the 'hardware implementation' of language in the brain and our vocal apparatus, and how these could have resulted from Darwinian evolution of the species are examined. And whatever has been said about language may of course be true about the functioning of the mind in general: it may well be that rather more of our shared abilities, such as that to parse our perceptions into separate objects, are innate than is usually supposed.
[ See the same author's How the Mind Works, 1997, and Words and Rules, 1999. ]
There has been a trend to view certain issues, notably environmental and health issues, as economic rather than political. Thus, the Reagan-administration introduced a requirement that all new regulations, e.g. relating to worker safety, should be conditional on a cost-benefit analysis; and for many economists the reduction of political questions to market preferences – so that the value of a thing is measured by people's willingness to pay for it – guarantees their impartiality and hence legitimates their role as policy makers.
However, (i) there clearly is a distinction between consumer and citizen preferences, for we may collectively strive for and achieve not only those items which we publicly compete for and consume: e.g. I can both want cheap gas for myself and vote for higher gas taxes for everyone.
And (ii) while using an efficiency criterion to determine public policy appears to treat everyone as equal, by according each person's preferences the same respect, the assumption that the goals of our society are contained in the preferences that are or would be revealed in markets in fact denies the individual the status of a cognitive being capable of responding intelligently to reasons, and reduces him or her to a bundle of affective states.
And (iii) while the market or quasi-market approach applies adequately to certain questions, it does not to ones involving moral and aesthetic principles (or to arithmetic ...) This normative version of welfare economics based on efficiency as the only criterion is like the therapist's 'neutral' approach in Carl Rogers's client-centered therapy, and contrasts with a Kantian approach, that many policy recommendations may be justified or refuted on objective grounds.
Finally, (iv) the impartiality of those taking an economic approach to political questions is only apparent, for that approach itself needs justification – which can of course not consist of another cost-benefit analysis – and seems even to serve an underhand purpose: "once the affective self is made the source of all value, the public self cannot participate in the exercise of power" – the citizen as Josef K.
[Putting this picture here may be illegal: I downloaded the .gif-file some time ago, but don't remember from where. Is this so different from putting a link to the original site? De minimis non curat lex, I hope ...]
"... at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you is – is it not? – that it confronts man with a possibility of choice. ... What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. ... Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. ... To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. ... Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. ... The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows – When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. ... What is at the very heart and centre of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realises himself in realising a type of humanity – a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch – and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment. ... Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality, such is the pressure of circumstances upon him. We define man only in relation to his commitments; it is therefore absurd to reproach us [existentialists] for irresponsibility in our choice. ... let us say that the moral choice is comparable to the construction of a work of art. ... in both we have to do with creation and invention. ... to say that we invent values means neither more nor less than this; that there is no sense in life a priori. Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose. ..."
In this generally entertaining, if occasionally laboured and sometimes repetitive survey, the author, a sociologist at MIT with an earlier book on "computers and the human spirit" (The Second Self, 1984) to her credit, discusses the ways in which computers and the Internet – and especially the text-based multi-user domains (MUDs) on it – have come both to reflect, as 'objects to think with', aspects of ourselves and society, and to affect our understanding of our own nature. Using as evidence excerpts from transcripts of computer sessions, interviews with computer users and observations of children, as well as every-day experiences of computing, she places her ethnographic observations of this aspect of modern life into the context of recent philosophical and of psychoanalytic thought. There are three main topics.
She distinguishes two 'aesthetics' of the computer interface, that of DOS and its command line and that of the graphical interface of the Apple Mac or of Windows. The distinction between the reductionist, analytical approach on the one hand, and the acceptance of surface and simulation – like the desktop – on the other, is a concrete version of the philosophical one between modernism and post-modernism, (and shares the implication of a development from one to the other,) which it may therefore help us to understand. Associated with the two aesthetics are two incompatible styles of programming, top-down planning and tinkering, (Levi-Strauss's bricolage;) where the long-standing insistence on the former, more 'male' style, may have put women, to whom 'soft mastery' comes more naturally, at a disadvantage in the past.
In the development of artificial intelligence and artificial life, the two main strands have been towards rule-driven expert systems and towards emergent systems; in the latter, programmed local procedures lead to global behaviour that is not planned and may appear spontaneous(ly). These two approaches are analogous to the two aesthetics and styles of programming, above, but also to two fundamentally different models in psychoanalysis, that of ego-psychology and the de-centered one of the object-relations school. – Just as children, on Piaget's account of their development, progressively narrow their conception of 'being alive', from an early stage where it is attributed to anything that moves, these advances in computing require adjustments in some of our adult conceptions, such as what it means to have a mind and to be alive. If computers can beat grandmasters at chess and are coming close to passing the Turing-test, i.e. to be indistinguishable from humans in every-day (text-only) 'conversations', (although Searle's counter-example of the 'Chinese Room' makes the significance of this test less clear;) if 'organisms' on screen seem to behave with purpose and to grow and evolve before our eyes, and programs and robots can learn from experience, then our conception of ourselves has to shift: from being able to think to being capable also of feelings, and to being 'natural' not just constructed. While a few people may be eager to jump to a utopian embrace of AI and A-life, a certain ambivalence, in which acceptance – mediated perhaps by such films as 2001 and SF-series like Star Trek – alternates with denial, seems to be most common. – The changed conceptions over the past decade and the ambivalence are both apparent in people's attitudes to therapy programs, (mostly for depression): while many patients now take them seriously enough to "give it a try" – they may be able to express themselves more freely to the computer, or be helped by suggestions of alternative ways of looking at things or more appropriate ways of behaving –, this reflects changed views of computers and perhaps also of therapists, but not a blurring of the line between them.
But not only is our conception of ourselves shifting, but our conceptions of relationships and our ways of conducting them are, due to the experiences "on the screen". On MUDs, people relate – and even have 'TinySex' – as characters that may be unlike them, even of a different gender, or like only one aspect of them, or like an ideal self; some people spend much of their time on MUDs, often cycling through different such characters. The cases described show that MUDs can be used as an escape from frustrations of 'RL' (real life) – a player who in RL feels uncertain and out of control, for instance, may be successful as a 'wizard' (organiser) on a MUD – but may also be useful as a way of coping; that while MUDding may be only play, the playing can raise serious issues as well, and sometimes life on the MUD even spills over into RL; and that while playing is often just an unconstructive form of 'acting out', it can also enable one to work through a problem and to safely try – as during Erikson's 'adolescent moratorium' – alternative ways of behaving, from which one's RL-identity may benefit.
To the usual view – that the developments towards a contractual society, and of the law into a law of contracts which applies equally to all, mean a real decrease in dependence and increase in individual freedom – is here opposed the insight that the ability to benefit from that kind of law depends on the relative positions of power of the individuals concerned. Thus, in a capitalist society, the conditions on the labour market are usually such that the workers, although according to the law they are of course free to refuse them, do in actuality (for economic reasons) have to accept the contracts offered to them by those who own the means of production – and who are, precisely by the law, free to write the contracts to their own advantage. Compared with a socialist society, the decrease in the degree of coercion and in the authoritarian character of the agencies of enforcement is therefore only apparent. Only the state is in a position, by means of certain authoritarian measures, to ensure some degree of de facto rather than just de jure freedom for the economically weaker elements of society: this situation, and the form of legal protection associated with it, constitutes the unavoidable paradox of freedom and coercion in a community of law.