The Courtiers of No Court

Keith Edmier

“Nostalgia stalks modernity as an unwelcome double”.
Peter Fritzsche

“If madness is everywhere, nobody knows what sane, healthy and rational behaviour is any more.”
Steve Taylor

“The contemporary world, scientific, technical, and sensualist, sees itself without exit – that is, without God – not because everything there is permitted and, by the way of technology, possible, but because everything there is equal. The unknown is immediately made familiar.”
Emmanuel Levinas

A number of anthropologists have concluded that early hunter/gatherer communities only spent about 20% of their waking time looking for food. The remainder of their time was spent in storytelling and music and dance. Whether this is true or not (since these conclusions were mostly based on contemporary communities roughly labeled hunter/gatherer) it is clear a lot of effort was spent, in those prehistorical communities, on what today might be called *art*. In fact during the entire Upper Palaeolithic period (40000 to 10000 BCE) there is almost no evidence of collective violence, or in other words, no war. This is a contested interpretation it should be noted if only because of that *almost* qualifier. There are a few examples of mass graves and skulls which indicate violent death, and it is, after all, a very long chunk of time.

Bae Bien-U, photography.

What life was like for people living thirty thousand years ago, or even twenty thousand, or fifteen, is hard to know. And the old question of ‘is mankind born violent’ remains difficult to ascertain from the evidence of these very early communities. It is clear, I think, that at the least it was very much less violent. Certainly on a collective level. There was no war per se because there were simply not enough people around. There was a lot of space. There was also a lot of quiet. And the of quiet is much neglected as a topic. But it is more useful to ask about the psychic discomfort that might or might not have existed in your average cave painter circa 20,000 BCE.

“For the first ninety-five thousand years after the Homo sapiens Stone Age began [until 4000 BCE ], there is no evidence that man engaged in war on any level, let alone on a level requiring organized group violence. There is little evidence of any killing at all.”
Richard Gabriel

detail from wall mural, Catal Huyuk, Turkey. 6th millennium BC.

Steve Taylor quotes R.Brian Ferguson: “…all around the world, what has been called primitive or indigenous warfare was generally transformed, frequently intensified, and sometimes precipitated by Western contact.” Intertribal conflict, when it did occur, was neutralized by ritual means. And there is ample evidence that hunger/gatherer groups are simply not territorial. Spatial boundaries are almost non-existent. There was also a marked lack of gender inequality and of social oppression of any kind. One telling detail is that later (8000 BCE) Horticulturalist societies died younger and their remains suggest far more wear than hunter/gatherers. The Neolithic period which began horticulture and larger settlements also marked the division of labor to some extent and a rise, unsurprisingly, in conflict. People began to keep possessions and there was a gradual territorial sensibility beginning. Still, there is very little evidence to suggest there was any gender inequality, and almost no warfare. Conflict existed, but it was relatively trivial and again was dealt with by ritual practice. Nobody much wanted to fight.

There was also, it seems anyway, very little sexual repression. People were, in most cases, naked most of the time. The Neolithic period, across all continents, is marked by an absence of collective violence, an openness about sex and at most minimal territoriality. This is all prior to 4000 BCE, which marked what Steve Taylor and others have described as *The Fall*. There is a very good question regarding the rise of *romantic love* which came out of medieval court chivalry. It was also linked closely to the growth of the novel. But this period, the pre 4000 BCE era, became the foundational memory that created it as a *Golden Age*. James DeMeo suggests this seismic shift was largely environmental. It was the great drying out of a huge swatch of land that cut across north Africa and southern Europe and into Asia. What he called “Saharasia”. It marked the beginning of the desertification of much of the planet. Without going into huge detail here, one of the telling shifts was in burial practices. For the first time graves of different size and importance are found — the so called *chieftain’s graves*. It also marked the start of clear patriarchal power and the repression and subordination of women. Agriculture was impossible in these new desert regions and the first evidence of famine is indicated. Now Gerhard Lenski emphasizes, not without some merit, that part of this great shift in human sensibility came out of technological development. The first real metallurgy created tools (and eventually, soon, weapons) of much greater efficiency. And it also marked, the dawn of mathematics and astronomy, and the invention of the wheel. The West likes to think of this period as the birth of *civilization*. The ‘followers of Horus’ civilized (sic) the Nile region in Egypt and the Sumerians did the same in what is now Iraq and Syria. Civilization was to be equated with class stratification, possession, ownership of land, and gender oppression. And with mass collective organized violence.

Klaus Pichler, photography.

Pharaonic Egypt, starting with the Early Dynastic Period (3050 BCE) is a fascinating example of another trend in civilization building, an obsession with death. The growing power of the Pharaohs was reflected in their mortuary cult practices (see Mastaba tombs). The culture of Pharaonic Egypt is almost certainly the most death fixated in human history. And how this happened, or why, in comparison with Sumar or Elam or the various Mesopotamian cultures is worth examining. (more than below).

The role of Christianity in Western madness is a second related topic here. Early pre-Orthodox Christians worshipped multiple deities. Not unlike Hinduism.

“Orthodox Christians placed great importance upon the singular authority of the bishop, upon rankings within the clergy, and upon distinction between the clergy and the laity. As there is only one God in heaven, declared the first century bishop, Ignatius of Antioch, so there can be only one bishop in the Church.”
Helen Ellerbe

Neolithic plastered skull, Jericho, 7000 BCE.

The rise of a priest class solidified the class hierarchy in the Church. Along with the worship of a single God, a single voice of authority. A punitive and punishing God. And this ran counter to Gnostic belief. As did the repression of female deities. The figure of Mary Magdalene was to be controlled and regulated. The voice of the supreme God was to be male. Ellerbe also notes that the insistence on the resurrection as a physical fact and not a symbolic one (spirit) meant it was a one-off event. And as such only the elect, the Apostles, could really know the *truth*. Hence the priest class. The perhaps other most significant factor in the rise of Christianity was in how the new priest class negotiated with the Roman state. Their pitch was, to be simplistic perhaps, we can control the masses. Or, we can assist you the state in controlling the people. And this pitch worked. To be a Christian meant only to confess, attend service, obey your priest and not question authority. The compilation of gospels that now make up (more or less) what we know as the New Testament, was born of a desire for uniformity of message (393 CE). Never mind that the four canonized gospels are contradictory in many places, the work had to be done quickly and later various interpretations worked to explain the contradictions.

John Desmond, in his book Consuming Behaviour, writes about the 1920s advertising and refrences Stuart Ewan, an early student of advertising and consumerism…“Ewen describes how advertising was used in the USA as a form of ‘civilizing’ influence, particularly with respect to immigrant groups. It promoted new values based on the use of consumer goods as a means for expressing a unique ‘American’ identity, based on the ‘facts of the marketplace’, while simultaneously discouraging traditional values and lifestyles.”

Donovan Wylie, photography (Prison chapel, The Maze, Belfast).

I want to try to touch on a few other aspects of early Christianity here before jumping forward to the coercive nature of Capitalism and the consumerism of the 20th century. Ellerbe is very cogent in outlining the influence of early Church officials under Constantine. Everything was done to promote conformity and obedience. The famous ecumenical council at Nicea in 325 codified a number of theological positions, most importantly perhaps the idea that Jesus was divine and not a mortal.

“The Nicene Creed, however, established a trinity that extolled sameness and singularity. All reference to a synergy, an energy, a magic, that could result from two different people
coming together was lost.”

Helen Ellerbe

The Nicene Creed was the first example (that I can think of anyway) of an institution of religion deciding on a strategy of control, on establishing an easy to understand system of belief that would be easy to enforce, as well. It was an early removal of erotic energy, of Dionysian energy, replacing it with a one dimensional demand to obey — and with that a discouraging of inner reflection for its own sake. All was to be in service of the priest class, the specialists in spiritual well being.

Peter Alexander

“Garlic smells and other bad odours arise. People spit everywhere. Someone is cleaning his boots on the table. Then the meal is brought in. Everyone dips his bread in the general dish, bites the bread, and dips it in again. The place is dirty and the wine is bad. And if one asks for a better wine, the innkeeper replies: I have put up enough nobles and counts. If it does not suit you, look for other quarters. The stranger to the country has a particularly difficult time. The others stare at him fixedly as if he were a fabulous animal from Africa.”
Erasmus (1523)

Nobert Elias quoted Erasmus, above, describing an inn in Germany in the 16th century. Elias is interesting, I think, for all his flaws, because he saw the significance of European self congratulation — the hubris that Europeans expressed with their notions of being civilized. Elias saw the French absolutist state of Louis XIV as being of particular importance. For this was the model for what he called “Court Rationality”. Andrew Linklater and Stephen Mennell wrote (on Elias)…

“In western Europe, absolutist monarchy and centralized government emerged from the medieval world as something that contemporary observers regarded as new and extraordinary. The antecedents of absolutist rule appeared in Italy during the Renaissance. But nothing in the experience of the two Venetian ambassadors who visited Paris in 1492 had prepared them for the level of success in monopolizing the right of taxation that underpinned the growth of the ‘total superiority’ of centralized powers that was being ‘revealed nakedly to the eyes of its astonished and embittered contemporaries’.”

Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati, dr.)

The idea of civilization is itself born of the uncivilized violence that was directed at increased state control. For the purposes here, though, it is worth returning to Christianity and to death.

“‘Heresy’ comes from the Greek hairesis meaning ‘choice’. In the early centuries there was much to choose from within Christianity—and consequently, many heresies.( )Augustine believed that our freedom of will to choose good over evil was lost with the sin of Adam. Adam’s sin, that, in Augustine’s words, is in the “nature of the semen from which we were propagated,” brought suffering and death into the world, took away our free will, and left us with an inherently evil nature. To sin is now inevitable. Should we occasionally do good, it is only because of irresistible grace. “When, therefore,man lives according to man, not according to God, he is like the devil,” Augustine wrote. An individual, according to Augustine, has little power to influence his or her predetermined fate and is entirely dependent upon God for salvation.”
Helen Ellerbe

Jean Fouquet (Melun Diptych 1450).

The removal of Dionysian energy, for lack of a better word, was clearly a part of a greater psychic shift going on in this period of desertification. Owen Barfield called it a “loss of participation”. The Church saw choice as sinful. Heresy was having a perception, a discriminating idea of difference. For Augustine and the church this was a revolt against absolute authority in the male voice of God. European monarchs became, in a sense, God on earth…

“…the development of the court as a centre for the concentration of armed force and as an administrative and commercial centre benefited some rulers more than others and in particular the king. The courts were at the centre of a money economy which grew primarily as the result of taxation but also with respect to the need to buy things which could not be produced locally. This increased the relative power of the king over other nobles as other high lords or chieftains of the time were paid either in barter or in fixed rents while the king’s taxes were paid in monetary form. With the increased power of the king or queen, more of the nobility were forced to rely on his or her financial support and so the court of the king grew larger. In this process a very important development took place whereby these nobles were transformed from being a class of knights to being a class of courtiers.”
John Desmond

Masaccio (Trinita, Santa Maria Novella, Florence 1438 detail).

This court rationality was found in the shift from Knights to Courtiers. The courtier sought influence with the monarch, sought favour. Direct action was deflected, and channelled into various courtly calculation. Sublimated drives sought expression in symbolic activities. One telling detail of court life is found in the treatment of women of rank. The monarch’s wife, or other high ranking wives or daughters or sisters were exalted, and care was taken not to offend their exaggeratedly refined sensibility. These women adapted exaggerated behavioural sensitivities as a natural response. Courtly etiquette became complex and ritualized. At the same time women who were of inferior rank, beneath one socially, received even greater mistreatment and abuse. The overall thrust here was for the development of manners, but also a retreat inward in the sense that calculation meant planning, and a certain reserve of knowledge only gained by books and education. The courtly rituals of deference were balanced with the growth of embarrassment or repugnance and shame. The latter is something I wrote about before but remains a significant aspect of contemporary life I think. In any event, the most important outcome of this shift (per Elias) was the increasing disdain for those of lower rank, those beneath one in an ever more rigid hierarchical system of favour. The courtier (unlike the Knights of a previous era) had contempt for anyone not directly in court, a contempt for the bourgeoisie. And a fear, for the bourgeoisie were rising. The bourgeoisie imitated the court, and the court developed a keen sense of avoiding anything that smacked of bourgeois appearance. Hence the birth of fashion, an ever changing fashion sense at court. Courtiers were Knights without a sense of honour.

The monarch as God is reflected in what Ernst Kantorowicz called the king’s two bodies. The King is dead, long live the King. Immortal as well. Nations can be seen as the second body. I am reminded again at this point of ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs and their obsession with death. For this, too, was an immortality quest. And a statement of eternal power and authority.

Jan De Maesschalck

“…by the Common Law no Act which the King does as King, shall be defeated by his Nonage. For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body.”
Ernst Kantorowicz

I am digressing a bit here, but it is important to note this court rationality was the foundation of a rationalism that bled into the Enlightenment and beyond. In fact this restrictive controlled world of intrigue and sublimated desires is one that carried through right into contemporary Western life. The liberal middle class (sic) are in a sense always at court. They are imitating the courtiers, only the monarch is now the boss.

“Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered by the Church but the latter for the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.”
Boniface VIII (Unam sanctamm, 1302)

Alphaville (1965, dr. Jean Luc Godard).

The Catholic church has unsurprisingly always sought alliance with fascism. The Nazis recruited great numbers of catholics even as they mounted an assault on political enemies after Hitler took power in 1933. The first rank of enemy were the communists. One must have God on earth.

“…the radio was always on. The sights and sounds of the national revolution swept up both skeptics and sympathizers. The media choreographed what so many Germans desperately desired: the evidence of national political regeneration. Contemporary accounts indicate that Germans generally approached their neighbors as people who mobilized themselves, considered and moved toward Nazi positions…”
Peter Fritzsche

A few pages later Fritzsche writes…” Erika Mann, daughter of the novelist Thomas Mann, estimated that children saluted “Heil Hitler!” 50 or maybe 150 times a day, in any event “immeasurably more often than the old neutral greetings.” But what did it mean to call out “Heil Hitler!”? What does the greeting, the raised arm, the casual reference to “the Führer” say about the relationship between Germans and Nazis in the Third Reich.”

Maxime du Camp, photography. (1850, Abu Simbel temples, Egypt).

The loyalty oath, the compulsory greeting which was encouraged in print and on the radio and in speeches was meant to create a unity of purpose, the regeneration of a special society of elect. How this relates to court rationality is not unimportant. The desire to be close or to be part of the court. And in Augustine, the father of the Church, the basic tenants of his theology was the denial of free will, denial of sensual pleasure, and justification for violence if in the service of compelling obedience to Church law. The looming obsession with sex-negative beliefs cuts across all of western society after 3000 BCE (roughly speaking of course), perhaps all societies after the shift in environment, if one takes the desertification theory as mostly correct. One must renounce the body and apply oneself to duty and to learn the lessons of authority. Richard Slotkin wrote a very good book (well several) on early America, and on the West in particular. One is titled Regeneration Through Violence. And this might well serve as the title of almost any book on any Western society over the last three thousand years.

One salient historical note regarding early Christianity is the 6th century plague that struck Byzantium. It is estimated that three times more people died in this outbreak of bubonic plague than even the Black Death of the 1300s. That is a staggering figure. If, as most historians claim, between fifty and a hundred million people died, that is probably easily a half the population of the region. It spread further to parts of what is now Russia, and across Africa, into Europe, Bulgaria and Romania in particular. Over five thousand people a day died. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened had this plague not put an end to Justinian Rome. Byzantine culture was flourishing even if Rome as an empire was in decline. But the plague in a sense ushered in the time of the Church, the dark ages. The Church of the time, say from Pope Gregory onward, was a force for ignorance and dogma. The sole purpose of Church power was to amass wealth, and it succeeded rather well at that. Whatever culture existed under Justinian, or in corners of northern Europe, was stomped out. Books were burnt, libraries destroyed and punishments levelled for those who dared to read *gentile* authors. The only books allowed were theological and existed in monasteries.

Oswaldo Guayasamin

“The Church had devastating impact upon artistic expression. According to orthodox Christianity, art should enhance and promote Christian values; it should not serve simply as an individual’s creative exploration and expression. New works of art which did not concur with the Church’s ideology would not be created again until the Renaissance. Marble statues of ancient Rome were torn down, most notably by Gregory the Great, and made into lime.”
Helen Ellerbe

The contemporary version, in a sense, of compulsive greetings such as ‘Heil Hitler’ is found in compulsive texting and social media in general. The community of cyberspace is without regeneration, however. Or, at least a very diluted form. What is the line between obsessive/compulsive repetition and the coercive demand for national unity under National Socialism? The narrowing of choice, or its regulation, is built into computer platforms. Everything is a list, a simple not complex list. Boxes appear, clicks are made. One travels further, nowhere.

“…deeply imprinted in the self-consciousness of our Western society is the morally elevating story of humanity emerging from presocial barbarity.”
Zygmunt Bauman

Laurent Marsolier, photography.

“…knowledge is in reality an immanence, and that there is no rupture of the isolation of being in knowledge; and on the other hand, that in communication of knowledge one is found beside the Other, not confronted with him, not in the rectitude of the in-front-of-him. But being in direct relation with the Other is not to thematize the Other and consider him in the same manner as one considers a known object, nor to communicate a knowledge to him. In reality, the fact of being is what is most private; existence is the sole thing I cannot communicate; I can tell about it, but I cannot share my existence. Solitude thus appears as the isolation which marks the very event of being. The social is beyond ontology.”
Emmanuel Levinas

The greeting demanded in National Socialism was meant to build a collective sense of purpose and unity. The individualist American, steeped in a mythos of personal rights is meant to discourage collectivism and unity. And yet there is something similar in the strictures the psyche must not breech. The rote greeting ‘Heil Hitler’ became as empty as the constant repetition of emoticons. Social media encourages an acceptance of an unchanging frame not just for expression (where everyone’s home page is a variation on the same) but unchanging opinion, if that is what it can be called. But now there is no voice. If the devout Christian in the Church of Pope Gregory knew how to repeat prayers, even if little understood, there was still a community in part because there were voices. To speak aloud is to less establish one’s own presence than it is to conjure the Other. One speaks aloud to be heard. And this is related, I think, to the solitude of the earth 30,000 years ago. How many people does it take to impinge on that sense of isolation? Nomadic and even semi nomadic peoples from this distant past did not travel or live in large groups. When did speaking aloud become linked to the community?

Maurice Blanchot & Emmanuel Levinas

I think the depoliticizing of psychoanalysis, which began when the movement arrived in North America, but is now far more acute, and is, of course, focused on adjustment. A dozen years ago a psychotherapist noted that as an institution now psychoanalysis was increasingly distancing itself in theory (and bureaucracy) from the vernacular language of face to face encounters. Especially, as David Swartz pointed out, in the era of ‘managed care’. Because the term ‘managed care’ was an oxymoron. When care is managed it is no longer care. The voice was a font of truth was receding.

Bourdieu makes reference (and John Desmond quotes, partially) the Kabyle (Berbers) people and their calendar which links seasons to fertility of the woman, to gestation and this to crops and growth and even to moistness and aridity. Both in nature and in individuals and by extension in groups. It is stunning how the loss of voice has resulted (and been the result) of the computational language of computers, but also just the rigid logic of capitalism in ‘time is money’ sort of commonplace. Efficiency experts. Risk management. The strategies and tactics of accumulation. The cliches of living in boxes, both physically and mentally is all too true. Mass incarceration is the purest expression (and projection) of the western psyche.

Sian Pile, photography.

“If there are actors on a stage, they can’t credibly represent themselves as not existing. Their bodies impinge on the audience; even those spectators too far away to feel the actors’ saliva on their faces have an irresistible, even oppressive sense of their physical presence. Similarly the stage can’t easily unstage itself; the stage, so good at being anywhere, has trouble being nowhere.”
Daniel Albright

One of the significant aspects of theatre is that it is spoken text. Spoken aloud. Spoken on a stage. Film can be watched on smartphones. Theatre cannot, and if it is, then its not theatre. Its a movie about theatre. Badiou said, and I paraphrase, that the meaning of Beckett is the imperative of saying. But as is often the case Badiou is at best only partly right. For Beckett is also moving toward silence. As is Handke and Pinter and theatre itself. The anti bourgeoise theatre is one that is wrestling with, always, the tension of speaking into a time of silence. But then there is silence and there is silence. The silence of the hypnotized texter is not quite the same as the lone hiker on a high mountain, alone with his or her thoughts. I have always found the idea of silence, that monasterial quiet, very attractive. My hearing, as it happens, has deteriorated a great deal. I find it a huge relief to be honest. But I digress.

Back to the courtiers, for that is what the western bourgeoisie is today. They are followers of political fashion, they are attuned to shifting winds of fashion in all realms and they seek consensus as a sort of protective intellectual and social prophylactic.

Hermanubis (God Anubis, Lord of Mummification, 2nd century AD). Vatican Museum.

“Thus it is not sufficient for modern bourgeois society simply to subdue the drives that oppose the standards of ‘normality’. It is also necessary that, as a ‘free individual’, not as a fearful subject but as a convinced citizen, one perceives the social norms as one’s own. One must internalize them and fuse external compulsion and internal impulses into a new unit until the former is no longer distinguishable from the latter. This fusion is what we usually call ‘consent’ or ‘legitimation’.”
Franco Moretti

The Nazi mythology was one borrowed from volkish stories, from fairy tales and romantic poets, but also from kitsch mysticism — and racialized it all (an Indo European language group became a racial classification etc).

“The rough edges of the extreme anti-Semite and agitator of the masses were sanded away through the creation of a new, sophisticated persona that emerged in carefully crafted domestic surroundings. With silk curtains and porcelain vases, Hitler’s designers suggested an internal world that was both cultivated and peaceful. Gerdy Troost, Hitler’s interior decorator, played an important role in conveying an image of her client as a man of taste and culture. Inspired by British design reform movements, she emphasized quality of materials and craftsmanship over showy display.”
The Conversation, (Sept. 2015)

Gerdy Troost is a rather neglected figure in the history of the Third Reich. Her influence was far more extensive than simply interior decoration. In many ways she set the tone and image of benign Lebensraum, blond children at play in the shadow of snow capped Alpine mountains. And the Berghof Chalet was the propaganda centerpiece for promoting a new appealing Hitler. In 1936 David Lloyd George visited Hitler at Berghof and was so impressed by the huge living room window that when he returned to England he had one just like it installed at his Surrey estate.

Postcard of Hitler’s Berghof Chalet, 1936.

The mythology of American individualism, rugged frontier self reliance, is manufactured from the same kinds of sources. Dime novels, official government hagiography, and romantic novels. American myths are also split into two general spheres, it seems to me. One is western and one is eastern. An argument can be made to include the South, but the South is not really a central part of the *American Story*. The West is gunfighters and outlaws, homesteaders and the Rocky Mountains. The east is, however, more mediated and complex. It is New York City, and Boston, and it is the original colonies (which in the popular mind are only north eastern) and it is vaguely sanitized immigrant-statue of liberty-huddled masses stuff. What I want to return to here is the way in which contemporary capitalism produces pseudo courts, both mobile and at times subliminal, and with it a new culture of mass courtier.

“Yes – ‘maturity’ is hardly compatible with ‘modernity’. And contrariwise. Western society has ‘invented’ youth, mirrored itself in it, chosen it as its most emblematic value – and for these very reasons has become less and less able to form a clear notion of ‘maturity’. The richer the image of youth grew, the more inexorably of adulthood was drained.”
Franco Moretti

Fabien Verdier

Moretti (quoting Agnes Heller) notes that only in pre-modern societies can maturity be the stated goal for the individual. Only in a world of *closed social forms* are boundaries validated. This seems quite right, and for the modernist courtier the idea of maturity is simply never entertained. The mobile stealth court is that of celebrity and fame. And of course wealth. The western bourgeoisie gravitate to wealth like love sick teenagers. The Court of fame anticipates fawning approval now, and this extends to media and hard news. In fact the idea of news is now so interwoven with fictive narration, with the novel, that this idea is actually promoted and not hidden. But there is no regeneration in America today. Perhaps once, in what Slotkin called Gunfighter Nation, there was such, but not now. The Nazi goal of Aryan supremacy and a special race of supermen is missing in the contemporary west. There is this idea of Exceptionalism, but it, too, lacks regeneration. And it is eroding. There is only the strange disjointed aspiration for wealth, for fancy cars and big homes and expensive jewellery. But such desires are internalized. And this seems one of the contradictions of western life today. Desire is hidden, but it is also accepted that everyone is doing this, is hiding their desire. The new courtiers do share an absolute contempt for those beneath them, however. The american bourgeoisie clearly do not want the underclass daring to aspire to their court or any court.

Therapy is now about managing disappointment and finding coping mechanisms for the knowledge that social mobility is largely impossible. Over the last fifteen years, maybe twenty, electronic media has taken over the lives of people in the advanced (sic) West. The industrial revolution coerced agricultural workers to move to urban centers and accommodate their daily lives to the monotony of factory labor. But the first shifts came far earlier. Maybe as far back as 3000 BCE. The front edges of cybernetic computational thought, of the algorithm weighted world is found, in shadow form, in Descartes and the Enlightenment.

Chris Wright wrote just last week….“There’s something anti-humanistic about having one’s life be determined by algorithms (algorithms invented and deployed, in many cases, by private corporations). And the effects on mental functioning are by no means benign: studies have confirmed the obvious, that “the internet may give you an addict’s brain,” “you may feel more lonely and jealous,” and “memory problems may be more likely” (apparently because of information overload). Such problems manifest a passive and isolated mode of experience.” But it is more than this. There are very deep and perhaps irreversible psychic damage being done by, yes, electronic media but also by this distilled system of court rationality — if that is the term we choose to use. Moretti’s analysis of fiction and bourgeois modernism is highly relevant. Society shapes itself in the image of its imagination. And the West largely has lost touch with the imagination. And a good part of the way in which this has been lost is the disappearance of the voice. Sartre once said that when he looked at newspaper photos he could no longer see them. Today people speak, but they cannot hear themselves and others increasingly are unsure of what they are hearing. Texting and email feel easier today than even phone calls, let alone face to face discussion. The voice is displaced. We cannot locate the sound of ourselves.

Fra Fillippo Lippi, (Portrait of a Man and Woman at a Casement, detail. 1440)

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  1. Gary Weglarz says:

    So many threads one might explore in commenting on this piece. I’ll limit myself to one close to my heart, the need in the West for a re-examination of the notion of a universal “human nature” that mirrors our own cultural norms – selfish, self-obsessed/narcissistic, violent and greedy beyond all personal need.

    Living several years among Inupiat peoples in the arctic I watched multiple times as a bystander as 150 Inupiat men, women and children assembled on the beach and with ropes and only a block & tackle pulled many tons of bowhead whale onto the shore. There, together, the whaling crews and village then carved the whale sharing some immediately, and sharing all the rest with the village throughout the remainder of the winter. The communal harvest of the whale and the subsequent communal sharing I witnessed is something that is literally unthinkable in any Western society I am familiar with.

    The field of epigenetics was shattering the “genes control everything” paradigm of Western science during the last few years I worked in Alaska as a clinical social worker. The reality of the ongoing impacts of “historical trauma” my Native Alaskan colleagues and clients spoke of, and knew first hand from multiple generations in the boarding schools, the “great deaths” and ongoing land theft and racism, was finally being “discovered” by Western science to be a real phenomenon.

    In short what the epigenetic research is showing is that Lamarck was on to something. The impacts from lived experience in one generation, trauma for example, can literally be transferred to subsequent generations through changing the “expression” or “methylation” of genes, not altering the DNA itself. The implications are vast regarding the questions we might ask in reassessing the impacts of collective trauma and how they might manifest today. The brutality of Columbus and of the many Europeans to follow came after losing our European tribal roots and after being subject to the systematic torture and public violence of the Holy Inquisition, the black death, famines and war generation upon generation. Could these events of intergenerational collective trauma in the Europe perhaps shed light on why the West embarked upon 500+ years of colonization, rape, plunder and genocide unmatched by any other region of the planet?

    Could it be that what we of European ancestry have come to see as “human nature” – often in justifying our collective brutality toward others – is in reality related to the intergenerational impacts of these experiences, not simply through the creation of shared myths and values related to such traumas, but in terms of physiologic impacts we are only now beginning to understand even exist?

    The article about the WEIRD research (link below) shows that our Western concept of “human nature” is shared by only 12% of the planet, and exists in its most extreme form in terms of individualism and narcissism in the U.S. of course. The questions being raised by epigenetic research, in light of the WEIRD materials, are both fascinating and very important. Thanks for a very thought provoking piece John.

  2. John Steppling says:

    thanks, Gary. Excellent comment.

  3. Yes Gary, yours is a superb adjunct to a tremendously well-crafted, thoughtful essay.
    Thank you both for my 3rd re-read of it all.

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