Inauthentic Culture & Its Philosophical Critics

240 pages,
ISBN: 0773516913

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Today's Cave People
by Henry Lackner

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith.. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity."
What is it about the scribes and the Pharisees of the Book of Matthew that enrages Jesus so? They are dishonest; their prayers and the ceremonies they produce are dishonest. They lack "commitment and respect"; they do not take their "cultural products" seriously. They are irresponsible, they dehumanize those they deal with, and they devalue others as unique individuals. To use Newman's vocabulary, the scribes, the Pharisees, and their cultural products are "inauthentic", phoney. Existentialists and Freudians confront us with the lies we tell ourselves, unmasking our own subconscious phoniness. Philosophers of culture confront us with how we manipulate and are manipulated; how we produce and consume phoney "cultural products".
Inauthentic Culture & Its Philosophical Critics is a significant work by a prolific philosopher of culture. Although Newman is also a philosopher of religion, Scripture is conspicuously absent from the text. Unfortunately the writing is stilted and often clumsy; perhaps unavoidably so, for an academic writing for colleagues and not wishing to step on important toes. This philosophy professor has less excuse for his lapses in logic, and for his shallow (inauthentic!) discussions of Augustine and Allan Bloom. There is just so much one can do if one publishes three books in two years.
Yet Newman prods us to think about so many different things. And he is absolutely brilliant when he discusses Plato. This greatest philosopher of culture and indeed greatest philosopher of all time monopolizes Chapter 4 (there are seven chapters). In fact the spirit of Plato haunts the entire work. The author sees Augustine, Erasmus, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Veblen, Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind), and Jerry Mander (Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television) as variations on a Platonic theme (Chapters 5, 6, and 7). Only by reading Plato, Newman tells us, can we come to a deep understanding of the phoney cultural products that surround us.
The author feels he must defend Plato against fashionable cultural determinisms and cultural relativisms (Chapters 2 and 3). But he feels he must attack Plato for his extremism, his downgrading of human experience and empirical science, and his rejection of democracy (chapters 6 and 7).
The Republic is Plato's most famous work; its most famous scene is called the Cave. Newman takes us down into that cave, showing us its prisoners. Their necks and feet are shackled, so they can neither turn their heads, nor move away; they are forced to look straight ahead at the wall in front of them. Behind them we notice a blazing fire; still further behind, the sun shines into the cave from above, but this the prisoners cannot see. All they see are the shadows cast by the fire onto the wall, shadows of themselves and of the other prisoners. The cave echoes in such a way that when any prisoner speaks, the sound seems to come not from him but from his shadow. And there are other shadows: puppeteers working from a raised walk carry a variety of objects in front of the fire, which projects them onto the wall, filling in the prisoners' world of illusions. Now we see a liberator, undoing a prisoner's bonds, forcing him to look away from the wall. First he looks at the fire, which blinds him, hurting his eyes, so that he struggles to get back to the comfortable shadow-world. But the liberator persists, dragging the ex-prisoner kicking and screaming out of the cave. Now we see the him outdoors, slowly adjusting his eyes, first at night, until he can see things in their full colour and depth, even in the bright sunlight. Finally he can look at the sun itself, seeing it as the source of all that is good and beautiful in the world.
For Plato the objects of our experience are shadows, imperfect copies of the "Forms" represented by the real objects of the allegory-which cast mere shadows. We must learn to see these Forms by total immersion training with a philosopher-liberator who will guide us, first through empirical science, then mathematics, finally to dialectics, for which we must make full use of our "inner eye" to see the Forms, and ultimately the Form of the Good (the source of all that is true and beautiful). Plato explains this in the parable of the Divided Line.
But what do the puppeteers in the cave represent? Whereas the liberators are the true philosophers, the puppeteers are the poets, the painters, the actors, and above all the sophists who feed the shadows to those they manipulate. Plato discusses these inauthentic characters at length in The Republic. Listen to the arch-sophist Thrasymachus: Justice is precisely what benefits the strong; consequently it is just to manipulate (to lie to) the weak. Of course Socrates replies that only honest craftsmanship is just and Plato would turf the sophists and their ilk out of the Republic.
How lustily Plato's cave survives in the world of today! Television (and what came before it) deludes, seduces us with violence, sex, sensationalism, materialism. Here Newman's commentary on Plato is at its most striking. No-one else has emphasized the Platonic theme in the TV cave with such clarity and in such detail.
He also directs us to Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Here the TV critic preaches against "The Walling of Awareness, Mediated Environments, Expropriation of Knowledge, Arbitrary Reality, Commodity People, Domination of the Influencing Machine, How Television Dims the Mind, How We Turn into Our Images." In this shadow-world of television, we cannot know up from down, truth from fiction. Mander tells us how television is dominated by corporate power, that television can produce adverse physiological responses (or at least cause people to be more passive), and that the technology is limited: certain things cannot be depicted.
It's not only television, of course. Propaganda, advertising, schooling, political campaigns, newspapers, magazines, popular music, public relations-all contribute to our shadow-world. Of these, Newman chooses to analyse only TV and public relations. He is fast to dismiss the politically incorrect Allan Bloom. Yet Bloom provides a far deeper analysis of today's phoniness. He discusses, for example rock music, which is far more manipulative and far more profitable than television.
We judge what is authentic against our ideals. Plato's ideal is the Form of the Good. Other thinkers, as Newman points out, pursued different ideals. For Augustine and Erasmus, it's the true Christian Faith. For the mocking Voltaire, the ideal is "Reason": what can be deduced from self-evident premises. For the heartless Nietzsche, the ideal is self-realization for "supermen" only-and never mind what happens to anyone else. The esoteric Veblen sought love, creativity, and thirst for knowledge (Parental Instinct, Instinct of Workmanship, and Idle Curiosity), as against the phoniness of status-seeking and conspicuous consumption. Allan Bloom wants to return to the spirit of the Enlightenment.
Whatever the ideal, an ideal there must be. Otherwise, how could one tell whether the liberators are not just another bunch of manipulators? If nothing is authentic, then nothing can be phoney.
But what if what's outside the Cave is as phoney as what's inside? That, claims Newman, is where the cultural relativists come in. Yet his long chapter on the topic conflates two different questions: Do all human societies share at least some ideals? and, Can we distinguish the ideal from the phoney within any one particular society? Then again, even if every culture comes with its own values, could not these values still be authentic-within that culture? Christians, Muslims, and Nietszcheans each claim their own cave, their own liberators, their own manipulators. Why does what's authentic need to be universal?
Here we must tread the dangerous ground of multiculturalism, where opposite ideals can be equally authentic! Which do we choose? How carefully Newman avoids the issue! (At least in this volume.) Not so Allan Bloom, that child of the Enlightenment who unmasks the currently fashionable cultural relativism. That relativism turns out to be an absolutism, a "Dictatorship of Virtue", a postmodern counter-revolution stemming from Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other Germans.
Such extremism won't do for Newman, whether in Bloom, Plato, or any of the others. He calls the culture critics "hypercritical by temperament.cranky and somewhat self-righteous, largely blind to both the positive aspects of what they attacked and the dangers posed by their own prescriptions for cultural reform.." "Their cultural analyses are marked by ambiguity, inconsistency.. Their writing is marred in places by excessive cleverness and a rhetorical manipulativeness.. Even those who praised democratic institutions were aristocratic at heart."
Newman admires these critics for their empirical work, for the way they could integrate psychology, sociology, and anthropology to uncover the methods of the manipulators. He admires as well how they tried to provide the masses with broader world-views. Rather than the common crude materialism, they (including Nietzsche and Veblen!) tried to preach some kind of "purified religion". In particular, Newman admires the way Plato respected the popular religion of his time. Even popular religion provides ideals that can be of some value.
With these "religious" thinkers the author contrasts Freud, who rejected all religion as illusion. Newman almost seems to say that authenticity requires religion. But Freud himself can serve as a counter-example. The original psychoanalyst requires us to be honest about ourselves, honest about our relationships, and honest about the cold heartless world in which we live. The Freudian ideal insists we come to know the brutally hard truth about the world; that we face this truth stoically; that we realize that a very repressive civilization is essential for survival. Only the toughest can live up to this ideal, but who can deny its authenticity? Obviously Jung's spirituality is more popular. In Slouching towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork (whose conservative thinking kept him out of the U.S. Supreme Court) claims that religion is necessary to counteract an anarchistic, violence-prone cultural relativism. Culture philosophy makes strange bedfellows.

Henry Lackner is a Halifax writer.


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