Is culture the new counter-culture?

Last weekend I attended a day of graduation ceremonies in Massachusetts, expecting only a series of speeches celebrating the achievements of the new alumni and exhorting them to go forth and do good in the world. I was unprepared, at 8am,  for Leon Wieseltier, shock-headed literary editor of The New Republic, who kicked off the day with the following blistering address to the humanities faculty:

“Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more? I am genuinely honoured to be addressing you this morning, because in recent years I have come to regard a commitment to the humanities as nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.

“For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology and happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American world view instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.

“Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality. Modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

“The greatest assault on human attention ever devised”

“The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised. They are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers –  reputable ones if you can believe it – who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that (as one of them puts it), there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human, but Google is very excited by it.

“In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch; that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method.

“And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways. For example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification; in which happiness is a fit subject for economists; in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.

“Scientism is a curse”

“Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science – I mean what practising scientists actually do – is acutely and admirably aware of its limits and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions, but scientism is dogmatic and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one. And so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical – which is to say, a humanistic – question.

“Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behaviour that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules.

“We are becoming ignorant of ignorance”

“Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.

“So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology and to recover the old distinction eschaton once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man.

“As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You, who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history, you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves and I commend you for it.

“Culture is now the counter-culture”

“Do not believe the rumours of the obsolescence of your path. If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen. There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counter-culture. Perhaps culture is now the counter-culture.

“Numbers will never be the springs of wisdom”

“So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honour of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are.”

Wow! Stirring stuff, indeed. And I was delighted to learn that members of the science faculty at the same institution, later that same day, were treated to the exact opposite argument in their own ceremony. As soon as I can get hold of the text I will reproduce it here, in the hope of stimulating discussion.

PS: If you found this interesting, you might enjoy an article and comments in today’s Grauniad: ‘Philosophy is not dead yet’.

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One Response to Is culture the new counter-culture?

  1. “In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information”

    I think his point about unreflective development of technology is a good one. Google Glass may be an example.

    I expect attempts by science to answer humanistic questions will increase, particularly as neuroscience advances. And when science claims answers to questions of human experience, on what grounds will the humanities oppose it? If science is our standard of proof, on what grounds could (or should) this encroachment be resisted?

    I was surprised to see his disapproval of economists trying and understand happiness. Whilst their understanding of its subtleties may not match his own (potentially a rather arrogant view), their attempt to incorporate it into their practice should surely be celebrated – unless, that is, you regard it as your exclusive right to think about happiness and define what it is. What if the economists do a better job than the novelists? Why not give them a chance?

    I think Leon Wiseltier’s criticism of big data makes a good point. I think there’s a lot of information that is either not utilised, or is underutilised. Often we’d be better off looking more closely and intelligently at what information we do have at our disposal rather than chasing ways to generate more data that we won’t deeply analyse. In my experience, the digital world could stand to learn from historians here, who are very good at working with limited, challenging information. Certainly in my own practice I’m very wasteful with data, and don’t spend enough time interrogating some of the information flows at my finger tips.

    I disagree with his bleak overall vision. I do think that humanities and digital and technology can play creatively and excitingly together. Technology can facilitate new forms of creativity and culture-sharing and whole new adventures in meaning. Let the digital humanists play in this new space and see what wonders and advances could be made. Did the renaissance thinkers set up an opposition between science and the humanities? I don’t think so.

    Digital and technology are not the death of the humanities. Maybe if Leon Wiseltier looked at remixing, open source culture and the explosion of publishing by ordinary people facilitated by the internet he’d be more impressed by what he saw. This isn’t the case of people abnegating their intellect to machines. Rather, it can represent an extension and empowerment of the human mind and human culture.

    A new cultural space is being created that could have not existed before the internet. I’m wary of sloppy use of the word ‘democratisation’, so I’ll just say that there’s cultural creativity and empowerment going on here, and it’s exciting. And if Leon Wiseltier would prefer something more ivory tower, there’s a digital humanities movement looking at knowledge and culture in a digital context.

    But this isn’t a fair rebuttal of Leon’s argument. He’s not just challenging a medium, he’s challenging a way of thinking. So I’ll retreat from defending digital to finish on his point about science and scientism.

    ” arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived”

    I like this point. I agree that we need to make sure that we continue to examine man beyond his digital and technological – and scientific – context. To only see him in this mode of existence would be a disappointing reduction of our focus, as would seeing this as the only axis of our advancement.

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