Last updated: 27 March 2023

Download: Philosophy and Human Values (1990) Lecture 7: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary

Transcript: Okay, last time I may have dropped out of my West Texas mode for a moment and become a little too philosophical, so I am going to try to restate a few things from Nietzsche in a simple way, quickly, before I move on to some remarks about Kierkegaard. What I was trying to evoke in you was more the spirit of Nietzsche than the specific text. The spirit of Nietzsche is one of deep suspicion, and that suspicion is that power is intertwined with things that we normally like to think of, even today, as not being dependent on power, for example: truth, goodness, and so on. Nietzsche says they are.

Now Nietzsche says… and he uses historical models. Since we have already made remarks that real history is material and philosophers generally use sort of idiographic and very brief descriptions of historical periods, mainly to make points about them. Whether the Greeks were really like that is another issue. A very troubling and problematic issue. But for Nietzsche the Greeks had a kind of straightforward idea of virtue based on Excellence, which I discussed in the very first lecture on Socrates. Excellence was to fulfil your human powers, so that among those would be that if you had desires, the ability to meet them was quite important to being excellent. Excellent people wouldn’t be filled with resentment and envy because mostly when they tried to exercise a human power they would be able to meet their need.

Now, for Nietzsche, the Christian morality that grew out of a slave context. And this is not meant to be a criticism of the slaves. And the only sense in which I used it as a criticism of Christianity was as Christianity as a public religion, and I… there’s where I made my political points. But the slave aspect of Christianity meant that its doctrines of love and compassion were rooted in the resentment of a power that could not exercise itself. One of the things slaves have a problem with is that they have powers too, but are constrained from exercising them.

Christianity therefore – on Nietzsche’s account – part of its function was compensatory. To compensate for that power you don’t have in this one… in this world, by projecting a power in another one. By loving people in this world, but the thematic underneath it – the thematic underneath it, its motivation – that’s what Nietzsche argued was resentment, hatred and so on. That made it all the more important to cloak those motives in a dialogue of love. Just as one has a political doctrine of greed, best to cloak it in a political language of freedom and choice. Greed doesn’t sell as well as freedom, choice and points of light.

So that’s my quick recap of Nietzsche. He’s to make us suspicious even about what people think they really believe. That was another point. On the other side of resentment however, is religion as resistance. So I have had some very helpful questions on that, and religion also serves this function… and now I am referring back to some famous remarks of Karl Marx’s about religion not only stupefies… that’s the remark about religion being the opium of the people. Marx didn’t live long enough to know that today opium is the opium of the people. [crowd laughter]. We are materialists now, like him. Today, you got a whole bunch of dissatisfied people, their opium is opium. It’s more effective as opium, real opium is. It’s really opium.

But religion had this dual significance. That while resentment was there, there was also resistance, and rebellion. In other words, it was a form of resistance to power and therefore itself a… what? A power. So that’s where Nietzsche’s account becomes complicated in regard to power. But what – if anything – is shocking about Nietzsche, it’s to look at these doctrines that are considered; about the holy, the good, the true, the right and the virtuous, and analyse them in terms of power. So that’s a brief recap of what I have said about Nietzsche.

I was also asked to explain – and I guess you always are – Nietzsche’s famous remark. He was not the first to make it. Hegel was the first to make the remark “God is dead” in a certain context. But Nietzsche is best known for saying “God is dead”, and my way of treating that is not like other philosophers. I took Nietzsche to be making something like a sociological point. A point about society. Nietzsche is trying to tell us something – and this is to go back to remarks I made earlier too – about the condition of the modern world, where our lives are fragmented into a work week, and then a festival day called “Saturday”. Well that’s if you’re not doing the work left over from the week, or you don’t have the neighbours over, when it just becomes more work. No, you may like your neighbours, I don’t know. But anyway, the work week, and Sunday as a sort of separate segmented day set off for religion, when in Nietzsche’s view and mine and according to, as it were, the guiding principles of the religious way of life itself, could not by the very nature of the case be religion.

So the remark that God is dead is a remark about how society has changed. Nietzsche in his famous parable where he discusses this said that you and I have killed him… “God is dead and you and I have killed him”. In other words, we have ceased to live a life centred around God. And he makes a shocking and I think brilliant remark when he says “What are these churches today if they are not the tombs and the sepulchres of God. They give the best evidence to his death. These churches, these creeds, what are they but his tombs”. So Nietzsche’s remark is about a culture that can’t truly be centred in the… religious holy way of life anymore. Not that there aren’t any more believers that really believe – okay, it’s not that – but that the culture has segmented into one facet of life something that by its very nature should permeate the whole of life. Because if there is a God, it clearly would permeate the whole of our lives, be the point of them. And that’s the sense in which that God at the centre of the world is dead, and what’s in his place are other world systems. Economic, political, and I discussed those too.

So that for me is the meaning to the remark “God is dead”. Of course at one level it’s a paradox, because if you were an atheist you would think it was a strange remark, because what sense does it make to say something died that never was there in the first place. So that’s why I take it to be a historical/sociological style remark… is because God and/or gods are imminent, inside – as it were – cultures, tribes and so on, not somewhere above them and outside of them. So Nietzsche’s remark is that in our tribe that myth has lost its power to bind us all. Now, many modern conservatives wish we had it back. Daniel Bell argues that an answer to America’s problems is a rebirth of religion, but almost everything counts against that in a society divided. Where labour is divided the way ours is, and where the first thing that would happen if we had a rebirth of it would be experts in it, specialists, and new TV shows about it. Which is where we get onto Kierkegaard and his brilliant attempt to try to save more than Christianity as a personal, singular relation with something else, about which Kierkegaard won’t say much. But what he calls… what I will call his attack on Christendom, and it’s not so different than Nietzsche’s.

Kierkegaard is the author of a famous remark, and he says “In a country – or in a place – where all are Christians, ipso facto none are Christians”. He reminds us that the Gospel – the challenging Gospel – that arguably someone like Martin Luther King took probably too seriously, not in my view, but in the view of some, that arguably there it would be dangerous to be a Christian. But we all know today to be a Christian – a famous Christian – like Billy Graham doesn’t mean you have the task of Moses which is to lead your people out of bondage. It means you have the job of playing golf with the Pharaoh, you know. I mean… that’s a different function of religion, right? To play golf with the Pharaoh isn’t the same thing as leading your people out of bondage. So, religion in that sense is just a bullwort for the status quo. You know, it’s praying for the troops, praying for victory and so on.

Kierkegaard was a brilliant critic of this use of religion. And he is a philosopher that someone I studied with – Louis Mackey, a very brilliant man – is an expert on. And he used to advise young students who are on their way to the seminary not to take his course. Because he said even though Kierkegaard is the most sophisticated modern defender of Christianity, it would be very counter-productive for your career as a minister to study Kierkegaard with me. So by all means, avoid my course. Take a course in Marx, Nietzsche, anybody, but don’t take Kierkegaard because in a way from the inside he makes the point, in a way. One of my favourite books, and its one where I may drain some of the Christianity out of it as I build the case that Kierkegaard makes about what “human subjects” are, to return to our topic of “human values”. I don’t think we have left it far.

But to return to our topic of human values, Kierkegaard wants to build a case in a very famous book and I’ll talk about it next. And it is another reaction against accepting Hegel’s, sort of, conservative thesis that the world kind of came to an end with modern life; the bureaucratic state, the capitalist economy. Kierkegaard is a critic of that and he’s a critic of a fundamental notion to it which is that each one of us are individual subjects somehow separated from each other, almost like monads, individuals. A concept that might be criticised in a West Texas way by saying “Rugged individualism leads to ragged individuals”. So, a more sophisticated version I’ll give you in Kierkegaard of that, and remind you that we are talking here about one of the most sophisticated defenders of Christianity, so that you’ll see that I am going to try to be balanced, tolerant, liberal and fair, and give both versions.

The book I have in mind is “The Sickness Unto Death” by Soren Kierkegaard. A very… as you can see, you are in for the happy part of the course now [crowd laughter]. “The Sickness Unto Death”, which by the way, with Kierkegaard you have to be on guard for irony all the time. Underneath – the sub heading – is “A Christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening”. None of that is going to happen in this book. [crowd laughter]. In fact, the odd thing about “The Sickness Unto Death” – and I am going to discuss this book because I find it just a fascinating and wonderful book – it’s shocking and it does hit a part of us that I mentioned before when I discussed our search for meaning in modern conditions, how difficult it is, and a fragmented life shaped by work and other imperatives. Kierkegaard in this book is going to argue not for psychology, but about why psychology is in principle impossible. In other words – to make the argument banally – it’s about why psychologists won’t do you any good unless they give you medicine. If they can give you medicine it will knock out a lot of your human worries, but other than that there is a deep problem, and it’s because the psyche itself is a problem.

So, now someone said to me they didn’t understand very much of my last lecture. We are going to read you the densest passage that I know of in all of philosophy that opens Kierkegaard’s book. And I have got to remind you before I read it that it’s a bit of a joke because it’s a parody of Hegel’s language, but beneath the parody is an important joke about what we are as subjects. So let me start with that, and… don’t ask me after I read this what it means [crowd laughter]. I mean I’ll have a little bit to say about it, but it’s just… It’s written beautifully and we’ll do this part and, [flicks through pages], and then we’ll move on.

Okay. “Despair is the sickness unto death”. That’s section A. You may have wondered what it was, it’s despair. A condition we don’t have anymore so we don’t need to worry about it. Well actually, this book will argue that despair is not a mood or a psychological state. It’s not either one of those. I’ll get around to what else it is, for Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard begins this way. “A human being is spirit”, now this is the language that some of you were making fun of. I like it, it’s ironic and fun. “A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation. Now the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is not a self.”

That’s a long joke. See, that shows you that philosophers don’t have to share a sense of humour with everyone else, right. [crowd laughter]. No, the long joke that’s hidden in that passage is that the self is not a substantial thing but a deep relation, and it’s not even that relation but the relating of a relation. Now let me try to explain what Kierkegaard is driving at. We are constituted in that paradoxical condition where we can do two of the things that we have tried to do throughout these lectures: think in a quasi-utopian way, about projecting from everyday life about what the world might be like, and even think about things as immense as infinity, and on the other hand be absolutely stuck in the finite banal conditioned world of everyday life. So we are a synthesis between those. We are a synthesis between our desire for freedom and our recognition of brutal necessity. But because we are a relation, we are incomplete. The self – and here he agrees with David Hume and others – is not yet a self.

Now, this is not a mood problem. A psychologist can’t fix it because this despair that Kierkegaard analyses in this book constitutes the self. The self is this despairing relation. You can’t be cured of it. You are it. You can’t go to the psychologist and go “I am in despair, fix it” in this sense, because that would be to obliterate your self that’s built in this despairing relation. Now, despair, you’re going to go “That’s too big a word, I am not in despair that much”. Still not thinking along the lines of Kierkegaard’s argument, because there are various forms of despair. I’ll quickly lay them out. I like the despair part, because everybody’s too happy at this point in the course.

There is despair that… takes the form of not being conscious of having a self. That’s very common today, I would argue. Despair in just not being conscious that you have a self, that there is this integrated narrative called your life, but more or less just being telematically conscious, if I may contrast it with another form of consciousness. Scene by scene like “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd“, scene by scene by scene by scene by scene by scene, but no connecting narrative, no connecting thread to the story. Not being conscious of having a self, that’s despair. That’s the despair that fills you with emptiness when you go “Well what does my life mean?” and there is not a narrative to fit it into. That may not even occur to you. If you are that telematically conscious, it may never occur to you.

Some people die a real death never having been alive. That’s why zombie movies scare us, you know, been to a mall, seen a zombie movie, you should be scared. You don’t know how many people will die that never took the gamble to try to live.

But despair would be… simple if only people were in despair who were not conscious of having a self. You can also be in despair… and in fact I will skip one of the other forms, because this is one that’s probably most common and where Kierkegaard opens up the biggest problems with our ordinary understanding of what we are as psychological beings. Which is to add another level to our account of our material conditions as humans, and that’s the despair that is unaware that it is despair. Now well, you are all going to go “Well, that’s unfair, that’s philosophical, that’s unfair”. No. Kierkegaard says that’s the incurable kind. The incurable kind is the despair that is unaware that it is despair. Now the reason that one’s incurable is you haven’t got the crisis. A crisis will make you face despair, but it won’t cure it. You will know more about what you are as a self.

The kind of despair that is unaware that it is despair. That’s… hopeless. There is no way around that. Now, when he calls it “The sickness unto death”, that too is a kind of irony. Because it’s a joke in a way, because there is not the least possibility that anyone will actually die from despair. They may dress in black and go to Bergman movies or whatever, but there is not a real chance you’ll die from it. It won’t really kill you. It’s not that kind of death. That kind of death would be wished for in a dialectic, or dialogue, like Kierkegaard’s. Real despair of the Kierkegaardian kind is characterised over here as follows.

Kierkegaard says “Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death”. You may notice that Woody Allen, you know, constantly despairs and frets, but it really means he is just a hypochondriac, he’s not going to die from despair, but I have made that point. “On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die”. This is not an argument for suicide, it’s even worse than that. Suicide won’t help either, for Hamlet’s kind of reasons. “Thus it has more in common with the situation of a mortally ill person who lies struggling with death and yet cannot die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, and yet not as if there was hope for life, but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die”.

Now, the only reason that I have taken us this far into Kierkegaard, a brilliant Christian… for him, a paradoxical answer to this is a relation with Christ, which he admits is absurd. You can read more of him and decide if you want to believe something absurd. He admits it, he’s a joker about it. I wanted to try to lead it back into social theory, because I think that it is arguable that subjects, selves, human beings – about whose values we have been discussing, philosophising – may very well be that the human situation today is one of that despair in that sense. And I am going to use some very modern and seemingly off the topic examples of what I mean by that. Seemingly off the topic.

I am going to try to use two genre of horror movies to explain the difference. Does anybody remember the old B horror movies, or even the, sort of, Freddy… the 13th… The big danger in them is that you will die. I mean that’s what everybody is trying to avoid, and that’s what generates the fear. But that is not the fear generated in the new near fiction science fiction like Blade Runner. In Blade Runner, the greatest hope is to be able to die. You know they won’t let you. They will cybernetically make sure that you’ll be around. They will record your image and save it, shoot it to rockets in space, and the desire to be obliterated, to die a concrete death, becomes an almost utopian hope.

Now, you are going “Oh, you are crazy Rick, that’s too… I don’t understand it, it’s too weird”, it isn’t! Why do you think apocalypse movies are popular? Because they are scary? Uh-uh. Mad Max is exciting because compared to the boredom, the banality and the despair of everyday life, in this kind of society, what could be more exciting that an apocalypse and fast stripped down cars, shoot Mad Max across the desert and a return to… it’s not that the apocalypse horrifies us at all. Now by the apocalypse I am not speaking biblically. We have technologically achieved the ability to create it long ago. Don’t worry about the atom bomb in that sense. It’s old fashioned technology by now. You know, it’s well within the reach now, as we know, of… peripheral countries can build them. We are scared of that, but it’s old fashioned technology.

Apocalypse movies create in the audience… and it’s pretty easy to see when you go into them with younger people who are less ashamed to show their emotions. When the big boom goes off, that’s great, it wipes the slate clean and now we can start the movie. Here’s Mad Max and these people running around and the desire for death is the greatest hope here. That’s not… these kids are not going to die from it. But it is… that desire is even a source of pleasure and joy.

Another movie that I can mention – now maybe many of you haven’t seen it – is Heathers, which marks this same movement into a society of… where despair is this kind of condition, this structural thing. In Heathers, the young juvenile delinquent who they make fun of by calling him J.D., which could stand for James Dean, or juvenile delinquent, is a rather uninteresting young man who is planning a Woodstock for the 90’s. Namely, to get everybody in the high school to sign a collective suicide note – that they are not aware of, he has put another little thing over it – and then blow up the high school and kill everyone in it. That will be the Woodstock of the 90’s. Now, young audiences go, and according to feedback to me – I receive about this movie – is that this is a perfectly acceptable new James Dean. He says at one point in the film… “Why am I not a rebel?”. One of the women in the film says “You are a psychotic”, and he goes “Well you say tomato, I say tomato“, I mean, who is to say?

Well, the thematics of presenting that possibility – an apocalyptic one – as a hopeful one, only can be hopeful if structurally there is a greater danger than even dying. At least in an apocalypse everyone would die, and you would see other people and you would be one of them, and there would be the real embodied feel of it. But… to be in a situation where you were unable to die, but trapped in this cycle of despair which Kierkegaard talks about, which to refer back to Marx, Weber and others may be no more or less than just the cycle of our boring daily existence without projects beyond these limited ones I have named: getting a boat, getting some new shoes, resoling the Reeboks, getting the kids in the “right” school.

Under such conditions moments may arise, Kierkegaard argues, in which – when we really face ourselves – the hope would be to find a way to die. It doesn’t mean you couldn’t commit suicide, but that wouldn’t even solve it. You would be too worried. You would say “What will the kids do after I am gone?”. See that wouldn’t solve it either, because what has structured you is this despair. It is you. That’s again why, you have a lot of therapists, but they can’t fix this Kierkegaardian problem. It is not a mere psychological problem, it is a structural condition of the self. My argument here is that under our modern conditions, it is quite general.

So, apocalypse movies – on this kind of account – will give us a social compensation for this inability, for this despair. Now they will also give us a thrill. Things could be otherwise, there could be the big bomb after all. I mean, it’s joked about. It should be. In a way… it’s one way to express this very despair. It’s joked about. The more frightening movies, as I say, are movies like Blade Runner. Where a very near future is presented in which you, like all other commodities, will be recycled. Where that is the greater danger – not to die a death in despair – but to live a life that’s not human.

The real danger is one that is summarised beautifully by a theologian friend of mine at Duke. The old problem of Theology, which has always been closely connected to Philosophy, as you may know. The old problem was the unbeliever; the non-believer. The new problem is the non-person. This Kierkegaard had already foresaw… you know, had a foretaste of. It isn’t the problem of people not believing, it’s the problem of finding people. Are there people? Do we want to call these beings that are walking around “people”? And that isn’t… can’t… and I don’t want to make this sound elitist. That can’t be said from a standpoint separate from you being one of them. You know, raised in the same televised culture, where the simulated images of the “real” are just as “real” as real, and sometimes more “real” than real.

I mean, it is not a problem about which one can be an elitist in any sense, because it is quite generally a social malady, in much the [same] way as the massive support for the war now could be understood as some social malady of a certain kind, like shellshock; the reaction of people struggling to be sane in insane conditions. Despair is a reaction of people struggling to be human in inhuman conditions. But the answer to this is not to… all a psychologist can do if you go to them… I mean, it’s not “all”. It’s a pretty good thing. You don’t want to worry about this kind of thing; “despair”, losing your humanity. There are drugs. And I am not talking now about the “just say no” kind. Those are, as we know, for the lower classes. There are middle class drugs that can be prescribed to you legally that, as it were, handle these existential worries. Valium is one. In Don DeLillo’s novel, Dilor is an even better version. Totally kills the fear of death, just pop one pill and it just shuts off the electrochemical things that make you despair, fear death, have anxiety.

Valium, already I think is… well, it’s been replaced though by a whole series now, right, of designer tranquilisers. I mean, it’s still the major general one. But now there are designer tranquilisers. Well there is a point here, and a very deep one. We have been tracing throughout here a series of human projects, and yet we have not yet faced the greatest danger: that if the story of the development of society in the late 19th Century in its broadest sense was the replacement of manual labour by machine labour in the advancing countries of the world, the story of the 20th Century will surely be in part, and in broad strokes, the replacement of intellectual labour – thinking, and even feeling and emoting – by machine labour.

How much of that has already occurred? I am not up here to spin a science fiction story for you. Well, we already have near future movies that project cyborgs and stuff, but we also have actually technically built virtual reality suits, we have hosts of designer drugs, we have TV and movie stars that redesign their bodies, that redesign their iconic images, that come out with a different kind of soul. For example, Michael Jackson. We couldn’t decide whether he was Diana Ross – you know at one time he kinda looked like Diana Ross – one of the young Jacksons, a motown singer, or a Walt Disney star, because he is rewhittled, reshaped.

Now in terms of this whole discourse we have had about what humans are and their values as they develop historically, probably the greatest danger in the final situation that might be faced, is what’s left of the human at all under modern conditions. What is left to talk about in this dimension? And in that situation you have to face squarely this problem that Kierkegaard – I have to say with some nostalgia – called “despair”, because it’s just as common today to find people who are giddy over the current situation. I mean really, they write books called “The Ecstasy of Communication“, about how much more… how wonderful it is to be an image rather than a person. In that regard… let me try to make this… get back to a West Texas level with this so you can follow me.

For Reagan, it was so much more convenient to be an image than a person. A real person like him is kind of a drag, semi-good actor… semi-good, he was good in that one movie where they cut off his legs… [crowd laughter]. Made him shorter for one thing. Magnificent as an icon. Great TV icon, which was his function. You know, and I know, that he couldn’t run a government. That’s not debatable. Just like a cabbage can’t drive a BMW, we don’t debate issues like that. [crowd laughter]. What was important about him was his iconic significance. It was more real than real.

See, FDR was a real president. You know… real. You know, FDR. There were sort of all these embodied things about him, you know, the wheelchair, tied down… could sort of feel the real about him. With Reagan, his telematic image was sort of more real than even real. Sort of transcends even our notions of limited reality because, well, here’s a famous Hollywood phrase: “Larger than life”. That’s what we say about screen figures. He was larger than life. By which I suppose we mean he was dead. And in a sense, it was totally irrelevant. Because as long as the images kept flowing and some other hack actor could dress up like him to show up and wave under the knowledge… under the noise of the helicopters, it mattered not!

In a society – and this is the point I am making – in a society where images count to that extent, what it means to be a subject… what it means to try to find a project… gets to be re-understood in terms of what it means to find the right place to buy the clothes, the best place to go to school, the right kind of accent to use, and who to get to know. It becomes a matter of fashion. For Kierkegaard, that was rather despairing. He thought that humans driven to such an extent – driven to that extent of socialisation; hyper-socialisation – would greatly prefer death, but would pretty much unable to pull the thing off. Just like the young man in Heathers doesn’t quite get around to blowing up the high school, and the young audience is very disappointed that he doesn’t! Everyone that I talked to who saw the film, all the young people went “Well it would have been so much better if he had blown it up! I mean, we did want a Woodstock for the 90’s. It would have been real, I mean, send a message to the whole country”.

Well, this is where we reach a sort of limit on what we can do in terms of either social theory or human values, and that’s where we begin to discuss the possible disappearance of the subject of that discourse: the human. And if human beings were constituted in what they physically did and what they thought – which seemed to be what we were talking about for most of the course, right? – then if in the nineteenth century we began to replace physical labour with machine labour, and now every home has a PC that’s smarter than any of us used to be! When mental labour becomes replaced, what functions are left over for humans to perform becomes really problematic. It becomes really problematic.

Now, the despairing way to look at it is that we have become useless, however that is only in the scale of values I have been criticising. In other words, we would become useless in the sense that they don’t need our labour. That’s the scale of value I have been criticising. And I think part of the giddiness of this situation within which the need for humans to do certain things is becoming erased in society through the advance of capitalism; technology, if you want to put in a cheap way. The other side of that is the giddiness of the possibility of freedom. I mean after all, freed from manual labour doesn’t sound so bad, freed from mental labour doesn’t sound so bad, especially given the boring kinds computers do! You know, computers do a lot of bookkeeping and a lot of numbers stuff, and who in the hell likes that! Well, I mean, you know, there may be someone who does, but they can still do it as a hobby, you know. If they have got to keep some books, they can still do it!

But the other side of this social system, which seems as it were to squash out what was understood as human values. And I mean now in the broadest sense, insofar as humans thought… something, did… something… begins to squash that out. The other side of it is the need for the necessity of some of these things disappears and leaves open possible projects of freedom again, but at another level now. What those would look like – what they would be like – would be much different. They can’t really be talked about. Just like the social situation I am trying to describe is difficult to evoke, because we are in the middle of it.

You know, it’s always hard to evoke the present because you’re in it. It’s kind of like the aquarium fish trying to describe the aquarium. I mean, it’s home, you know, “Here I am, there’s a [mumbles, pretends to be a fish]”. But what we would need, and what we cannot have, in my view, is a view from outside the aquarium, sort of looking at it, where its limits are, and its boundaries. In this situation, the one I am describing now, and trying to connect up now as the third part of my social account, and the scariest probably for me, is the culture that – many of you have heard this word – the culture which is postmodern

I think we have a very modernist economy still, a very modernist State, but when we hear the phrase “postmodern culture”, one of its reference is a culture based on spectacles and images that have become more real than the real thing. Where Madonna is more real than your real lover. Where the real thing is not God, but Coca-Cola. Coke is it. You know, IT… That’s a strong claim. [crowd laughter]. “It”. What do you get to be more than that? It. It’s almost like a Hindu religion. You know, this is the cultural aspect of society, and culture is very important because it’s where we draw our meanings from, and our identities. It’s in a culture that we learn how to speak a language, what our identities are.

In a totally commodified culture – I have mentioned, you know, phone sex and that sort of thing – in a totally commodified culture, it’s hard to decide whether you have just adopted a fashion, or you are developing as a person. In fact, how you could argue between the two becomes very difficult in a culture like ours. Does it mean more than you now jog and do diet pills. Does it mean something more? It becomes difficult to say what more that is. That attempt to articulate meaning finds all these bizarre outlets. Shirley MacLaine chakras, I mean people watch that on TV without just bursting – not in laughter – but in either laughter or tears, because when you are driven to that extreme to find some meaning, then your condition is a sickness unto death… if you are driven to that extreme to find meaning.

When the only warmth you can get is to cuddle up by a flag that you are all too cynical to really believe in. It’s long gone and we all know it. The new patriotism is a cynical one, in a way. We know better now, but we just have to forget that we know better. When that’s your comfort… is to go into that… as a kind of new lifestyle, sort of like yuppy-ism is over and greed… there must be something to give meaning… oh there is! I forgot about the flag. Well, what’s next? Well maybe baseball. We’ll have a… you know, they made a bunch of baseball movies, maybe everybody will get back into baseball.

The point here is that what these things are don’t look like human choices or human values anymore, but human commodities; things you can buy, you know. I mean you can’t walk in a 7-Eleven without being able to buy a piece of identity. We all know that when you put on a hat that says “Lonestar Beer”, you’ve bought a kind of identity. But no less so than when you show up at Harvard in your little wool sweater. They code certain kinds of identities, and the fear is that beneath them, what we have understood and discussed in here as “human values” have been, as it were, dried up by the very ability to market them. By the ability to turn them into goods for sale, and worse than that, into images, and into cultural products of each one of has the trouble of saying, you know, as I say, why we are not one.

How could I not be aware of this as we film this, right? Because I have no control over the image production, in a certain sense, and even the people who film and so on… it goes beyond that. We are in a telematic world in that sense, where you could have a revolution in Beijing, have the pictures over here in two minutes, and then forget about it in a month, and three months later have one of the people on The Phil Donahue Show. That kind of society produces different kinds of people. The question is whether we still want to call them that or not. At a certain point, we don’t! I don’t, anyway. This is my view… where they reach… I call it the “D.Q. threshold”; the Dan Quayle threshold. Beneath that I cease to give an analysis of human values or of the subject. Beneath that threshold, I am dealing with what Descartes called “cleverly constructed automatons”, dealing with people without affect. In other words, they can fake affect. They can pretend to be moved, but can’t be moved. You know, where being moved was an inner relation.

I’ll try another example to evoke this postmodern scene that I will discuss again in the next lecture, not using Kierkegaard, but using a little Freud, but what the hell, it’s something. Measure the distance this way. Try to measure the distance between Wuthering Heights and the interior of reading that novel, Wuthering Heights. You know, that’s a love story, I mean it’s really a love story because it’s scary and crazy and embodied like love, its nuts. You know, the guy loves the woman so much, he’ll follow her forever and drive her crazy, even into hell if she dies. You know, it’s just a… It’s a loony, scary novel, but it has a tangible feel and it has affect, and that’s what I am coding as still real. Now, let’s compare that to Love Story. [crowd laughter].

One way to measure the historical distance we have come is by measuring the distance between Wuthering Heights and Love Story. I don’t know what you thought about the movie, but the book‘s real short. [crowd laughter]. And my own feeling was that him having a lot of money didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt a bit. There’s an immense distance that has been travelled by human subjectivity – humans as subjects – between Wuthering Heights and Love Story, and I hate to say it, there has been some distance travelled between Love Story and now, and movies like Heathers, Blade Runner, or just visiting Los Angeles. I mean, I don’t need to use examples, just visit Los Angeles. Just walk down the walk of stars at one o’clock in the morning, and ask yourself “Are these people really here, or is this central casting?” And it isn’t a funny question. And as our society develops in this telematic way, it’s not going to be funny to ask it around the Christmas dinner table about Uncle Henry, “Is that Uncle Henry, or is it just someone playing Uncle Henry? The further postmodern insight is: what difference does it make! See, that’s the thing Reagan’s handlers understood. It doesn’t make any difference! They’re buying it! Well, that’s all I have to say for now…

« »