May 25, 2013
June Gloom With Lewis Lapham
Posted on Sep 2, 2011
By Mr. Fish
Lapham: And you lose democracy that way because democracy is face to face and it’s argument with people unlike yourself. Television keeps you inside your own set of circumstances where there’s no risk, and dissent is a habit of mind that withers unless you use it.
Fish: I often wonder, though, if the problem of how we deal with democracy and human interaction isn’t so much about what we think, but how we think. Ultimately, it becomes a question of how viable a tool human consciousness itself is when it comes to both perceiving and comprehending reality. If human consciousness is only able to use objective reality as corroboration for its subjective notions about reality—which I believe is the function of consciousness—then we are doomed as a species because it means that there is no perception of reality, there is only opinion and how do you get everybody to have the same opinion?
Lapham: You can’t.
Fish: Right—so what happens when opinion becomes our only concept of reality?
Lapham: It’s an epistemological question: How do we know what we think we know?
Fish: And that’s how we wind up using something like capital as a unifying principle instead of some human element that cannot be manipulated.
Lapham: You see a very clear demonstration of that in what’s now happening in Wall Street. Here you have these guys who have been pretending that they know what they’re doing, or that they’re not stealing, or that there is somehow some substance in these entirely fictional debt instruments. They wish to preserve the facade. Our money is only worth anything as long as we believe it is. Money is the great abstraction. Schopenhauer said that, “Money is human happiness in the abstract; he, then, who is no longer capable of enjoying human happiness in the concrete devotes himself utterly to money.” Again, it’s nothing.
Fish: And yet we’re convinced that we can’t afford to engage in self-preservation as a species, as if self-preservation had anything to do with capitalism. I mean, why is it necessary for us to fundraise before we can even attempt saving those most in need of humanitarian assistance, for instance, or to prevent some environmental catastrophe from happening? How has it become logical for us to refrain from doing all that we can to prevent self-annihilation without first squaring our attempt with an economic philosophy? When did peace, love and understanding become incorporated? Again, it may be a problem of human evolution and the fact that consciousness, itself, is flawed, particularly if our consciousness is blinding us from suicide.
Fish: And, getting back to what you were saying about McLuhan and the electronic media: As long as technology remains sexy to people it will justify the mechanism of industry that seeks to present itself as an addiction to a society that can never be satiated. So then the question becomes how can we make agrarian society more sexy to people? How do we make wooden carts and dirt roads and no air conditioning preferable? Wasn’t that part of the ’60s mentality, figuring out how to get back to the garden?
Lapham: And that concept is now what they mean when they talk about sustainable growth. The world’s population is now 6 billion people and the estimates show 9 billion people by 2050. Now the thing that saves Europe in the 14th century is the Black Death. It kills one-third of the population and what you find, if you measure the curve, is that Europe can’t feed itself before the plague arrives. It’s starving. Take away a third of the people and suddenly there’s more work, wages go up, land gets cleared, things improve. It’s like democracy—democracy only really works in a relatively small circumference.
Fish: Which is mirrored by the anarchist ideal—the idea that given a small enough society where people’s natural desires are allowed to flourish and nobody is forced into doing anything that they don’t want to do, the tribe will be able to sustain itself. It’s really just an extension of the family model, where your natural tendencies are not to take food out of your own child’s hand, or your mother’s hand, or your wife’s hand. It’s when the community is allowed to bloat to a ridiculous degree, where the tribe is suddenly populated more by strangers than by those who you actually have some intimate knowledge of, that you run into problems.
Lapham: We need some new big idea. The Enlightenment ideas are played out. Think of all the ideas that are dead and gone. What has to come along in the 21st century is a new uber myth/assumption/idea. There’s a parallel, although no parallels are exact, as you know, between the death of Alexander, roughly 300 B.C., and the birth of Christ. And the birth of Christ rises at the same time as the Roman Empire—the old Roman Republic, after 100 years of civil war, gives way to the empyreal idea, in more or less the same few years that Christ is alive and well and walking the roads of Palestine. But in the 300 years between the end of the death of Alexander and the birth of Christ, there’s no guiding idea and the only thing that counts is money. There’s no other value. You don’t get that much civilization coming out of that setup. I expect some idea to come out into the consciousness of the 21st century that will allow for some notion of sustained balance as opposed to unlimited growth.
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