Monday, September 02, 2013

Decadence: We're Blind, but Once We'd Seen


"Decadence" - the decline of moral consciousness.

"Consciousness" - vigilant reflective activity on matters of self and community.

Consciousness, argues Charles Hill in his essay "On Decadence," is in decline in America. Which means moral consciousness is also in decline. To be conscious is to be morally "awake." Today's America is, largely, morally asleep. Ours is a decadent culture, which implies that once we were morally awake but now are asleep at the moral wheel. Reversing the lyric of "Amazing Grace," "We're blind, but once we'd seen."

Hill writes:

"Consciousness has been an American preoccupation since Tocqueville analyzed the nation's "point of departure" in early New England, reinforced by Thoreau's call upon his fellow citizens, in Walden, to become fully "awake." But...  the "Enlightenment's assertion of the sovereignty of the individual subject as the center of human thought, capable of essentializing thought in itself," was soon challenged by Marx, Freud, and the new social scientists. Thus were planted the seeds of  doubt regarding human consciousness capacity; viz., innate biological systems were seen to transcend the power of individual consciousness. Freud's "unconscious" and Marx's "capital" overcome  and dominate humanh reflective consciousness and, so to speak, "take the wheel" from the human "subject."

Edward Said has written that this view ""flatly contradicts the core of humanistic thought" by relegating the idea of individualism to the status of illusory autonomy or fiction."

Hill says this brings us to the heart of the question that every political thinker since has had to address; viz., "What is a human nature?"

Until recently the assumption has been that human nature is mostly guided by conscious thoughts and feelings. It was broadly assumed that humans have "free will." (Which we do, BTW, and that is another story.) But now we have "an 'avalanche' of studies' [that] unsurprisingly asserts that we hold prejudices seated in a level of our minds so deep as to be inaccessible to our conscious awareness." (See, especially, Daniel Kahneman's landmark study Thinking Fast and Slow. At least Kahneman allows for "slow thinking" ]rational deliberation], but most "thinking" is "unconscious." Note that scholars are now questioning Kahneman's research - see here.)

Hill cites evidence of the shrinking of consciousness. He writes:

"The advent of 'screen culture' - cellphones, iPads, as well as old-fashioned TV and film - now ubiquitous among the young in their formative years of education, has shrunk consciousness down in a different way. Students increasingly seem conditioned by the fact that much of their waking life is populated by mechanically mediated images in which they can see other beings on screens but those others cannot see them. As a result the view can become oblivious to others, having no need to interact or maintain a minimum of civil conduct with them. To think back on Herodotus again, this is the Gyges question: What do you do when no one is looking? The "screenie" has invisibility even without privacy. As consciousness has atrophied, obliviousness - and no little rudeness - replaces it. This phenomenon adds a new dimension to the age-old definition of decadence."

Of course consciousness changes over time. As Hegel showed us, any study of consciousness is a history of consciousness (even if one doesn't buy into Hegel's notion that individual consciousness 'recapitulates' the historical development of 'the world spirit'). So, looking at the present moment, we see a shriveling of consciousness that, Hill argues, is die to two things:

1. The current orthodoxies of social science that deny free will, and
2. The electronic domination of society by screen culture. (Look around, everyone is looking at screens, including you if you are reading this and, of course, including me as I write this.)

These two realities will affect human consciousness; in this case, shrinking it. We are becoming the unconscious people. Hence the proliferation of zombies? Arguably screen culture zombies people. This is not a moral judgment, but rather an empirical observation, a phenomenology if you will.

We have become the "incomplete" society. The textification of culture leading to the texticide of the complete text has led to incomplete thinking, the failure of following an argument through and to its very end. Thus subverting "any real book's purpose."

Hill writes:

"What scope is there for the self when consciousness has shriveled and free will dwindled?

The answer is "not much", and this means the loss of a core dimension of human purpose. This, from Emerson to Nietzsche to David Foster Wallace, is the imperative to harness the power of one's own attention so that we can "construct ourselves by assembling our experiences, desires and actions in the way a novelist gives coherence to the incidental points of a novel" (Quoting Thomas Meaney, "David Foster Wallace on Planet Trillaphon"). But a diminished self, with its loss of interiority, is disinclined toward or simply unable to undertake such a task of self-fashioning. As a population, such diminished selves increasingly become passive, receptive, pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent and, yes, decadent.

With this observation we enter the Age of entertainment, Plato's nightmare, made worse by a ubiquitous screen culture that makes entertainment always available and that turns everything - news, sports, health, war - into one or another form of entertainment." (Is this the subtext of "The Hunger Games?")  

If this interests you, read Hill's entire essay, which goes into far greater detail. Here's one more quote from Hill, in conclusion:

  • "Today, everyone expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time... Everyone must be amused, or they will switch... This is the intellectual reality of the twentieth century." - Michael Crichton
This is true, correct?