Friday, May 6, 2016

Good Enlightenment Gone Bad?

In The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman explores reasons why we ended up facing civilizational collapse now. Following the lead of the Frankfort School, especially theorists Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, Morris believes we got to where we are because the good Enlightenment went bad.

By 1600, amidst the savage civil war of Latin Christendom, leaders of church and state were failing to respond creatively to intellectual challenges. These challenges were made unavoidable by their wide dissemination through the printing press. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) successfully reintroduced the idea that the earth orbited the sun. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) correctly challenged ancient ideas about anatomy. The dominance of deductive reasoning, of beginning with a general principle and finishing with a particular truth, seemed harmfully limiting.
To creative thinkers everywhere, the beginning of what we now call the Enlightenment was truly exciting. One intellectual enthusiastic about its possibilities was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Francis expressed his excitement in a book entitled Novum Organum (New Method, 1620). He was sure that science should be pursued without hindrance because it would give humans greater power. To Francis, without hindrance meant without needing to remain consistent with ancient authorities but, instead, to be based on fresh sensate observations and inductive reasoning from particular observations to general truths. It meant, he explained in The Parasceve (The Preparation), expanding the complexity of human thought to match that of reality rather than reducing reality to our hopelessly simplistic understandings of it.
The good Enlightenment? Using the scientific method to sweep away monarchical control of society and church control of culture to gain “parliamentary democracy, the Western judicial system, and…our understanding of biological evolution and the physical world” (110). The dark side? Using the scientific method to support “an expanding industrial, technological, and now global corporate/commercial culture” (110).
The good Enlightenment? It is “the Age of Reason, the world of Hume and Voltaire, which gave us our notions of critical analysis” (114). The bad? “[T]he modern obsession with quantification, control, and the domination of the natural world…Underneath it all, say the Frankfurt writers, is…the dream of absolute power over everything” (114). Now we’re talking. The dark side means no place on Earth is to be free of corporate consumer goods and no peoples on Earth are to be free from corporate exploitation.
Why did we move from the good Enlightenment to the bad one? “The dialectical factor is, that we cannot live without rational knowledge; but historically speaking, rationality became rationalization” (119); or, again, science became scientism.
Why is that? Let me suggest three reasons. One, the six Olympian gods of power drive us—as individuals as well as societies—to change science as a method of inquiry into scientism as a method of control.
Two, today’s Global Technological System (GTS) destructures and restructures all societies, cultures, and personalities into its own image. Maintaining one’s Christian personality, let alone creating an alternative Christian society and culture, is extremely difficult. The bribes, punishments, and deceptions of the GTS are almost impossible to escape.
Three, we each have an Olympian personality that loves the gods, lusts for power, and finds scientism an excellent means of satisfying its desires.
What to do? Morris first suggests that we refrain from throwing out the baby of scientific method with the bathwater of scientism. He finds this to be a common mistake found in “antiscientific critiques of modern society” that “tend to be irrational/romantic” (120).
What to expect? What we were as a civilization, and wrongly think we still are, will be overwhelmed by what we are becoming—its opposite—as our civilization collapses. Romans believed that their collapsing empire still embodied the republican virtues and intellectual creativity of ancient Athens when, in reality, it repudiated both.
The same, says Morris, is becoming true of America. Rather than being the embodiment of democracy and freedom, corporate/governmental control disguised as democracy and freedom is being imposed abroad and at home. Ironically, the more threatening reality becomes, the more desperately we the people cling to the disguise. Our controllers, of course, encourage us to do this by persuading us, through the mass media they control, that democracy means nothing more than “the right to shop, or to choose between Wendy’s and Burger King, or to stare at CNN and think that this managed infotainment is actually the news” (121). This reality, and our confusion about it, is the civilizational collapse that’s got Morris all excited.
He sees this process of collapse disguised as victory, this movement from the good Enlightenment to the bad, as exemplified by universities. Universities were once a place where a nation’s leading thinkers maintained and developed a nation’s culture and taught students, of sufficient interest and ability, how to participate in this significant task. Faculty and students once studied the arts, humanities, and sciences in a shared search for truth, goodness, and beauty.
The reality of today’s university is quite different. Anyone, regardless of interest and ability, is admitted. The goal is not meaning but usefulness: getting the diploma needed for better jobs. Students, then, are not learners. They are consumers. They are not interested in doing the challenging work needed to gain a better understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty. They are buying a certificate. Teachers who require these consumers to “think hard about complex issues” (122), to develop essential skills in thinking critically, will receive poor ratings from their consumers and be replaced by more entertaining others.
Morris here quotes Adam Smith (from his Wealth of Nations [1776]) in support: “‘Another bad effect of commerce is that the minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected…’” (123).
Universities, rather than having a strong identity structured in terms of core values (like truth, freedom, love, and life), adopt the trendy ones most likely to improve enrollment and justify higher tuition. They abandon academic standards to avoid discouraging student consumers. Teachers must be likable rather than knowledgeable and demanding. Obviously they must reward students automatically with B’s and routinely with A’s.
Teachers must punish any colleague who clings to outmoded standards of quality. This includes any colleague guilty of reading or thinking outside the narrow range of conventionality, using uncommon words when speaking, having a nodding acquaintance with history, being unwilling to rage against Western Civilization, demonstrating any originality, insisting on being treated as a teacher and not a co-learner, or showing any fondness for objectivity, truth, evidence, or reason.
What constitutes trendy depends on whether a university is trying to appeal to corporate consumers who are progressive or “conservative.” Progressive corporate universities must be viewed as radical but that radicalism must never challenge the corporate powers behind our increasingly destructive GTS. It must keep itself and its students safe, and the GTS unexamined, by sticking with “radical feminism, deconstruction, postmodernism, systems theory…and radical relativism” (125). Multiculturalism is good too. Everything must be kept relative except, of course, “the various dogmas just mentioned, with [are] the Truth” (125).
A warning against distance learning. I understand that sometimes it is necessary. But it means the commodification of learning. Universities do it primarily to make money. But real learning is different. It takes place in a community. It’s a difficult apprenticeship in which students together hear the words of a master and then see how those words are lived out. Eventually students become able to know, speak, and live in a similar way and become capable of teaching that way to others. Biblical theology, for example, is not a packet of information one pays for. It is a demanding way of living one learns from others who have been practicing it longer and are better at it.
The subordination of universities to transnational corporations is not isolated. The same has happened to the press. In the past, there was some attempt to inform the public about issues of significance in an objective manner. One might think of Emile Zola’s objection to the false conviction of Alfred Dreyfus in his front-page article “J’accuse!” Now the purpose of the news is to agitate, tranquilize, or distract us concerning all issues of significance. It is to manipulate us so that we angrily support the powers, passively let the powers do what they want to us, or miss the hurtful actions being committed by the powers while they have us looking the other way.
“‘Vital kitsch,’ the promotion of commercial energy at the expense of genuine content…will be the reality for most Americans in the twenty-first century…Most of those who claim to oppose the world of corporate sci-tech will themselves become commodities, making the round of the talk shows and selling ‘soul’ or ‘green earth’ or ‘total health’ as the latest commercial fad” (129).

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.