The recent Indian nuclear test, which took place after this Chronicle was conceived, reminds us of the possibility that future generations may look back with nostalgia on the foibles of our peaceful age. The earlier history of the century now ending ensures that those of us who have emphasized the centrality of the avoidance of violence to the human condition would rather be laughed at or even forgotten than proven right by circumstances.
The mindset that appeals to the authority of an absolutely unavailable experience is ready to appeal to the relatively unavailable experience of later-generation thinkers. These appeals are not simply “in contradiction with” Foucault’s mindlessly quoted “What is an Author?” (see Chronicle 129) and similar denunciations of authorial and patriarchal authority. Such denunciations no doubt reflect the interest of a new set of authorities in denying their occupation of the very “patriarchal” position they denounce. But the appeal to inaccessible experience–at the very least that of a French education, or of postcolonial resentment–defies the simple Nietzschean “genealogy” that derives all values from the will to power of their perpetrators. Our academic mandarins have found a way of justifying authority by renouncing it, in the centrifugal mode that characterized the art object in the modernist era and that in our own has become characteristic of its creators. The nostalgia this inspires in me is not so much for the days of my youth as for the philosophical tradition in which appeal to authority was accounted a “fallacy” and at the central moment of which Descartes crawled into his poêle and meditated on the minimal conditions of selfhood with no other guide than his internal scene of representation–a tradition that survives today only in the unworldly speculations of analytic philosophy.
I can conceive two possible interpretations of this phenomenon, which their very articulation as a duality draws together into one. The more prudent of the two makes it a simple matter of historical perspective. When I began my studies, it was felt that twentieth century literature, which in those days still had some time to run, was a more difficult and unstable specialty than the others because we had had insufficient time to judge the “permanent value” of its creators. Until we have come together on a “canon”–a term unknown in those days–we are forced to rely on the vagaries of the intellectual marketplace with its fads and injustices like those of any other market. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is the worst possible way of making intellectual and cultural decisions, with the exception of all the others. Thinking for oneself is admirable, but only very rarely more efficient than thinking like everyone else. The current generation is only marginally and unimportantly more mimetic than earlier generations; beyond the brief period of personal experience, we forget the faddishness of the past because we remember only its greatest minds.
But despite the obvious pitfalls, I am tempted by the more radical view that our situation is indeed historically unique, and not only because the vast expansion of our intellectual market, coupled with the precarious funding of humanities departments, creates a far greater dependency on the approval of one’s peers than was required in the expanding university world of the 1960s. When I was a graduate student, it was professors, not students, who went to conferences, and not to all that many of them. The relative decline of the humanities, by which I refer not so much to such things as the weakening of the “language” departments as to a general disaffection from high-esthetic “universal” culture, is no epiphenomenon, but the inevitable result of the democratization of culture. (No one whose ancestors were commoners should bewail the nobility of the past in our vulgar age.) The contemporary recoil from the heights of cultural authority tends to be expressed in terms of the oppressiveness of past “hegemonies” that vast intellectual energies have been deployed to denounce–it is by their ability to catalyze these energies that the present generation selects its “authorities.” But what lies beneath this facile and anachronistic criticism of the past is the resentment of those who do not intend to respect any superiors in the present. Who are, after all, our “superiors”? There is no absolute measure of accomplishment in any domain, save in sports, where we can play at adulating the possessors of abilities whose relevance to everyday life in the machine age is too insignificant to inspire comparison. John Henry doesn’t compete against today’s steam drills.
Why then are there any authorities at all in a democratic age? The now nostalgic mode of the left-wing intellectual who provides the authority needed to contest the “establishment” has endured since the Romantic era. Joseph Schumpeter thought this phenomenon endemic to bourgeois society; but Schumpeter also believed that, despite its economic superiority, market society would generate too much resentment to survive the appeal of socialism. Today there is nothing recognizable that we can even fantasize under the name of “socialism”; the concept is as dead as phlogiston.
The intelligentsia is still alive, but it’s no longer kicking very hard. The very fact that its authority lives on chiefly in humanities dissertations and in the watered down PC purveyed in teachers’ colleges reflects its disconnection from the crucial areas of political reflection. A moralistic view of history would attribute this fall to hubris, but not only is the danger of hubris itself anthropologically derived (he is guilty of hubris who generates resentment in his fellows), the attribution of such moral designs to history is itself sacrificial and therefore doubtfully moral. The decline of the intelligentsia may be explained simply enough by the growing inadequacy of its mode of resentment in the “mature” postmodern era that has succeeded the fall of socialism. The problems of market society are real enough and those of us who style ourselves intellectuals would do better to make our modest effort to address them than to blather on about “late capitalism” as though we had a superior system in our heads ready to take its place.
There is no way to judge once and for all the specificity of a historical moment. My reading, for what it’s worth, of our era is that we have been privileged by the “end of war” with Auschwitz and Hiroshima to witness a time of ethical progress and construction through the circulatory movement of the marketplace. As a result, there has been little urgency for decisive thinking of any kind. To grant authority to the thinkers of crisis is a way of preserving the intellectual’s role of rendering an independent and presumably functional critical judgment on reality, however clearly the very fact of the appeal reveals the hollowness of both independence and functionality. What we appeal to in these witnesses of the time before posthistory is the once-legitimate illusion of transcending the exchange system in which all values are determined simply by others like ourselves. Just as in the days of the “democratic republics” of Eastern Europe, it is those who fervently claim to be on the side of the “people” who are the most fearful of democracy.
The pertinent fact that we have the peace and leisure to engage in such speculations as these is not easy to take into account while we are still so engaged. American power still dominates the world, still guarantees a tired leftist discourse about Western dominance–as well, more dangerously, as the current Administration’s serene fecklessness in international affairs. It is only when this dominance comes truly to be threatened by the ferocious resentment it generates in the rest of the world that we will see what kind of authorities–perhaps even what kind of artists–we really need. Men do not follow a leader out of a blind adherence to his charisma but, as with everything else, out of fear of chaos. At the moment, we have order enough to afford its imaginary deconstruction; this may not, surely will not eternally be the case.