A Short Lament

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Have moving pictures been good for us? Milan Kundera does not think so, and I think he is right. Without them, our increasing material comfort, our docility and consumerism might have made us merely ordinarily stupid–passively less mindful of what Heidegger called our lifeworld–but we have, thanks to movies, television, and commericals, become avidly, remarkably stupid. We have changed history. I think the forces behind this change will likely overwhelm us, that we have reached a point of no return.

But first here is Kundera, from his wonderful little book Encounter:

What the brothers Lumiere invented in 1895 was not an art but a technology that made it possible to capture, to display, to keep, and to archive the visual image of reality, not a fraction of a second, but in its movement and its duration. Without that discovery of the “moving photo,” the world today would not be what it is: the new technology has become, primo, the principal agent of stupidity (incomparably more powerful than the bad literature of old: advertisements, television series); and secundo, the agent of worldwide indiscretion (cameras secretly filming political adversaries in compromising situations, immortalizing the pain of a half-naked woman laid out on a stretcher after a street bombing).

kundera
Milan Kundera

When Kant wrote that we construct experience from a combination of “received” external reality and internally imputed structures including, at the most basic level, phenomenal time and space, he did not think he was writing a self-help book. He thought he was resolving an argument between (mostly English-speaking) empiricists, who thought all our experience was derived from sensory impressions of external reality, and (mostly French- and German-speaking) rationalists, who thought the internal operation of reason played the leading role in structuring our experience. Kant was just doing metaphysics, decribing the boundary between our minds and reality.

But (ignoring some oversimplifications that my philosopher comrades will zealously point out), seen from today, Kant also offers wisdom, an improving idea cast in the glaring light of TV. The moving picture robs us of the essential thing Kant espied–our engagement with reality. We can now lie back and have much of our mental work done for us.

If you think I am going to follow this up by pointing out how our lack of mental engement has led to rampant media bias and our political “bubbles,” you are wrong. Those things are minor tragedies, made possible by the original sin of prostrating ourselves to the moving picture. We decided to starve our souls before we got around to mutilating them.

In the 1980s, Kundera already had a sense of what was happening to us: “the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.”

I wonder what Kundera would think today. He is still alive but very private, almost secretive. He hasn’t written about the state of things recently. He probably has observed us, seen us hooting and howling a demonic farewell to the pathetic weakness people once felt, the need for art, nuance and irony (we are far beyond missing them), and he has probably passed over us in silence.

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To Sit, Perchance to Write

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

If I haven’t seemed very industrious lately it’s because I can’t sit. And if I can’t sit, I can’t very well write. It’s a pinched nerve, and I’m hoping it will pass soon.

Like Harvey Korman’s character in Blazing Saddles, though, my mind remains a rivulet of dazzling ideas; it’s just become temporarily hard for me to bring them to you.

In fact I have more to write about than I could contemplate even in perfect health. I’d like to review the execrable When It Was Dark, by Guy Thorne, a man who actually looks like what he was–a drunken toad. Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness is a fascinating study of how the Nazis’ offensively stupid lies of 1933 somehow became Germany’s accepted political consensus by 1939 and dragged all of Europe into the most ruinous war in history, but why should we be dogged by this kind of rehashing of old business?

I had outlined a review of The Field of Fight, a tract that caws and screeches to life Mike Flynn’s delusional worldview. History, though, seems to be discrediting the first-he-wasn’t-then-he-was foreign agent faster than your humble reviewer can, so it is probably best just to let his book fade into a well-earned ignominy.

At the top of my list, though, I hope to write very soon about the unexpected celebrity of my own arcane profession, epistemology. Episte-what? Epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Briefly, it is a 2,500 year-old meditation, still ongoing, on the concept of knowledge. For a long time it has been one of those things to which the brochures of university philosophy departments pay bland or backhanded compliments (It sparks critical thinking, prepares the mind for the study of law, etc.), but now it seems to have become important. Our experiment in post-truth politics has, in a sense, made armchair epistemologists of us all. And since we seem to be courting “principles” that contend mightily with the basics of epistemology–that things can be true or false, that people can know or not know things–I thought some reflections on this topic might scratch a growing itch. Coming soon, I hope.

Conrad
Joseph Conrad, sitting

In the meantime, I leave you with this luminous passage from Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line. Like Martin Amis, who quoted it at the end of his book on 9/11, The Second Plane, I tend to think that the worst cases of our reactionism spring from the supernatural idea that what we have is a tawdry substitute for what is to come, or what is really out there. Isn’t all this as magical a thing as we can contemplate? Aren’t we already glutted when we demand more?

All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.