Last updated: 3 October 2023

Download: Philosophy and Human Values (1990) Lecture 8: Philosophy and Postmodern

Transcript: A brief recap of the whole journey we have taken here. We tried to as it were retrace, sort of, the history of the accounts of human values given in the Western philosophical tradition. That account seemed to dead end with some rather ordinary philosophical problems. In other words, we found out that most of our accounts wouldn’t work too well, until we got to Hegel’s account, which reminded us that human values and moral and ethical problems come up in historical circumstances, which then forced us to investigate society and history, which opened up immense topics that we have only been able to say suggestive things about.

Those topics are… we have addressed through these second set of lectures today. We have tried to address a few of them. Topics relating to the economy we have tried to… I tried to distil some of what I consider Marx… to be important insights Marx has into the economy, and others. In terms of the State, I didn’t assign any readings by Max Weber, but I did suggest you look at some Kafka on the State. Then I ended up with culture in the last lecture, and when I got around to culture today, you may have noticed that my remarks became less systematic. Now, I have got to explain why. And that’s that a culture based on spectacle and images has a peculiar non systematic character. It’s like the Fall TV schedule. All you really know about it, right, is that it is going to appear on a kind of grid. But culture in general, we are not even sure about the grid let alone, you know, which dumb new sitcom goes in it, but we are not sure about the grid.

So, when you discuss cultural phenomena today, you almost have to go phenomena by phenomena to see how they fit. But it becomes crucially important for the kind of account I have been trying to give, that if the project is what I said it was in the sets of lectures before – trying to create a human life that is free and so on – it becomes crucially important if the culture itself is beginning to, as it were, destroy, deconstruct or disrupt the very conditions for being human at all. Because it becomes pointless to talk about free humans in the absence of humans. So, the problem of freedom was bad enough, right? Everybody went “I don’t think that can ever be done”, but by who, now is the question, which is even worse. So that’s been the trail that we have followed.

Now, the only reason that I am mentioning Freud at all in these last lectures is to remind us, and take us back for a moment to Kierkegaard and deepen that analysis, where I did mention despair, and used a kind of existential motif to turn it into a social one. Despair not as, sort of, an existential thing like a Bergman movie, “The Seventh Seal“, or something, but as a social malady that is not merely psychological. Many of you have had the experience, I am sure, of going to a therapist and hearing them describe the problems you have with your husband and how you should adjust, and you go “Geez, I don’t think it’s that, I think it’s really the whole situation, you know, the fact that he has all the money and my life is shit, and I think that’s the problem” – we’ll cut that… anyway… – “My life is a mess, and that’s the problem”. Well those objective problems were what I was trying to show despair to be, and not ones that can be fixed, as it were, by simply, you know, having someone say: “adjust”.

Well, this last part, where I am going to talk about Freud, is similarly not therapeutic, because that’s not the interesting part of Freud to me. The book I have suggested is “Civilisation and its Discontents“, which stands… which has nothing to do… doesn’t discuss at all Freud’s Oedipal drama, so there will be no talk of penis envy. I mean, whatever Freud may have thought about that, or why, I don’t care. This has to do with the processes that are, as it were – to follow a parallel kind of argument with Marx’s – much of human civilisation has been built by economic motivations of which people were culturally unaware. In other words, they have been motivated economically, but cultural meaning made them unaware of it. That’s a simple way to put one of Marx’s sort of sceptical arguments.

A way to look at Nietzsche’s arguments could be to frame them in terms of the State, if you want to talk about power. They are motivated by principles of power, but ones of which we are unaware, sort of, of where they are rooted. To move to Freud, we will talk again about how our lives are motivated in ways of which we may be unaware, and in Freud, of course, the great discovery is the discovery of the unconscious. In a way, Freud’s work hinges on an insight that makes all of philosophy problematic. Freud was that thinker who reminded us that the conscious mind – which was the topic of philosophy, both in terms of cognitive things and values – is a very small part of our psychic life.

Freud compares the conscious mind, in the book I have – I am talking about now – he compares the conscious mind to a garrison. A captured, tiny garrison in an immense city. The city of Rome, with all its layers of history, all its archaic barbarisms, all its hidden avenues, covered over by civilization after civilization. And the conscious… That’s our mind, that whole thing. But the conscious part of it is that one garrison that’s clear, that sort of holds out in this captured city. A magnificent metaphor for all the surrounding motives, motivations, motifs, desires, that drive us – that are not philosophical – that cannot, even if we talk to our therapist a long time, all be brought up at once.

Now, it is true that Freud’s goal, was that the “it“; the unconscious, the “id” – translated by Americans as the “id” – in German, the “it”, kind of a more… normal word. The “it” – the “id” – was to become conscious. Ego, the English word again being less spectacular: “I”, the “I”. I don’t know why translators do that, it’s to make the person sound like they are a scientist, you know. Freud says “it” and “I”, and we go “id” and “ego”. And all of a sudden it sounds like science. It’s not. It’s just a… it’s a myth, but a very interesting and fascinating one.

So the goal of analytic treatment would be for those unreflected massive areas – again to go back to that metaphor of the city – to become part of the garrison as it spreads out to things we are clear about. In other words, it’s not a bad metaphor saying we shouldn’t be clear about who we are, and have an “I”, or a self, or a subject. Now, why am I bringing this up now? Well, to contrast it with my last remarks about culture, if the goal of psychoanalysis is that the unreflected parts of us become reflected, that the “it” become the “I”, then the goal of a mass simulational culture – and this is a remark that I am using from the Frankfurt school, don’t worry about it.

The goal of a mass telecommunication culture is psychoanalysis in reverse. It’s that the little, last remaining parts of that garrison become unconscious. It’s precisely to reverse that process of enlightenment. Mass culture is enlightenment in reverse gear. Precisely to wipe out that last little garrison of autonomy. It is a constant assault upon it. That was why, and the last time I was out here, I approached it first from this religious angle of Kierkegaard’s, and characterised the assault as one that caused despair. Where despair was not a mood, but a structure that belongs to a captured garrison. Not an accidental feature of a captured garrison, but part of it. A structure of it. Fundamental to it.

And so now, the reason to use the Freudian text is to remind us that the kind of culture I am talking about is simply to reverse that process that Freud saw as the goal of “talking it out”. Well, philosophy has always been a form of therapy in that sense. You all know that from nights when your life has felt like it wasn’t working and you got together with somebody you liked and you got drunk and you talked about “what did it all mean?”, or “what does it all mean?”, and you start talking it out. Well the goal of that is that those unreflected parts are to become reflected.

The account I am giving of this mass telecommunication culture – postmodern culture – is that it’s goal is the opposite. That the “I” become “it”. That the parts that were just yours become general property. So that even if you are an idiosyncratic single woman, like “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” again, which is a nice thing to be, but by the time you have watched a few of those, there is not much of you left that isn’t “it”. You can forget about it, it’s been understood, it’s now a part of the general property of everyone.

I gave the example earlier, I’ll return to it for the fourth time, of the telephone sex. It’s just an amazing phenomenon to me. First of all, I can’t imagine anyone that bored, but in any case, there your deepest fantasies, which Freud was going to draw out in an analytic framework, now you just… that’s the way that something that was going to be “I”, you know, that special thing, no matter how perverse, and remember Freud… when something becomes reflected in Freud’s picture – it doesn’t mean… I mean, you may not know this – but even if it’s sick, you are supposed to remember it, and it is supposed to become part of the part of you that you know.

So you dig up even really ugly memories, so that you can know them, and know them about yourself. It may not be pleasant, in fact it isn’t. But then again, that’s part of the pleasure principle of mass culture, is it does just the opposite. It takes socially uncomfortable memories, and takes them out of that clear garrison, and throws them into the wasteland around the city. In the way that elements of the culture of the late 60’s broke everyone’s heart. Because families were divided, the country was divided. No-one knew what kind of culture we should have after that, or during that. No-one knew who the heroes were. Whether it was the boys who were forced to fight the grunts down there, or Quaker pacifists who froze in jails in this city. No-one had the guts to choose, or the way to choose.

So our culture since then – has been not just about the 60’s, but other great revolutionary moments, as I am not afraid to say – is in the process of continually burying and reburying them. Making them a part of the “it”, scattered out all around. I can go further back, based on my father’s memories. Great moments of rebellion like the populist movement around the turn of the century, The Knights of Labour, and so on. It’s the goal of a mass culture to bury that. It’s a goal of mass culture to take that part of a culture where we have begun to reflect and understand, and reverse it and make it unconscious.

So, that’s the reason the discourse of Freud is important. It’s because the parts of our culture that we understand and can reflect on are just those tiny garrisons, [and] around it the mass of the culture. And one can think in our situation, of the tonnes of information, for example. This city probably has – this city we are in – you know, ten billion tonnes of paper on which are printed billions and billions and billions of words. Perfectly analogous to Freud’s unconscious. No-one is going to dig most of them up. Most of them have no meaning to anyone. The goal of mass culture is to make sure that the narratives of our lives fit somewhere in those documents. Just as fileable, malleable, and trainable as possible.

During the break, at the end of the other lecture, I had another movie suggested to me that raises the possibility, in another way, and again in a way that would have bothered Freud, because for Freud… I mean similar with Proust, I don’t know if any of you read long books, like “Rememberance of Things Past“, but to the extent you remember the past you again expand the room of the “I”, the garrison, the little clear part of your head… dig it up from it’s buried past. So that’s the process working in the direction of enlightenment, which it can. It can work in that direction, but my argument has been that it is endangered in ways that we couldn’t suspect. The movie I have in mind here is Total Recall.

In Total Recall, the character thinks throughout that he’s a revolutionary hero, and it all seems to be taking place in the conscious, clear garrison of the mind; the I; the conscious, clear place. As many of you who have seen Total Recall know however, the dream tape that he is on, which gives him real memories and avoids all… by the way, let me say this… don’t be too cynical about this. In Total Recall, it is true that the people that sold him the vacation are telling the truth about vacations. Vacations are a pain in the behind. They are a lot of trouble, and why not just come back after a few hours with all the right memories, but with no bug bites, and you know, no flat tyres, and then go on. So, it’s a good product. That’s the dialectic of the situation, you see, it’s also a good product. But after he has fought this great battle… and remember, this whole movie has taken place in this clear spot, right? It looks like an action movie.

You’ll notice that the vacation he ended up buying was called “Blue Sky Over Mars”, which is how the movie ends, with these blue skies over Mars. You know, with memories like that, now he’s a revolutionary hero, and it’s conscious. See, it looks conscious. So the duplicity that Freud located in consciousness recurs in culture in an even more savage way. Because even in the most private parts of the “I”, where we think we are clearest, in principle we can’t be sure that they are not already invaded, inculturated, stamped, coded, filed, indexed. Not in a direct, crude way like in total recall, because television is already more subtle than that. Again, from my generational perspective things may look different, but, I, you know, I have to use it… you know, you can use yours when you want to, we can talk later!

But from my generational perspective, it’s been a very bizarre experience to see your earlier life recreated as a kind of drama of a period in which you quasi-recognise yourself, but realise that they have invaded everything that meant anything to you and taken it over as a game like Trivial Pursuit, you know. It’s like… you know, like sitting in a nice cafe and hearing a Doors album on muzak, and some very important part of what made you who you are now has become unreflected to you, where you don’t even listen. In fact, listening is maybe where I want to stop, since I have talked so much, I would like stop maybe on the topic of listening. I have got a long time to talk about listening… paradox.

But in a culture so overloaded, where we already suspect – if we don’t know – that it’s goal is psychoanalysis in reverse. To make the parts of us that think into ones that don’t. To just react, follow, or replicate. One thing that we can do, is tune out. So, many of us do that in one form or another. We take the culture and simply try to tune out as much of it as we can. But… there is a flaw in the strategy. And that’s that no culture ever was so pervasive. Even this word may be bothering you. There was a time when culture meant going to the things created by us folks, as opposed to nature. Where is nature now? There isn’t one. Everything has been inculturated. The most beautiful natural scenes there are, are the filmed ones that are created through fractogeometry at IBM.

And it’s… I heard a great remark that the Swiss cuisine at Busch Gardens is better than the food in Switzerland… and more Swiss! You know, so, why bother to go? No reason! The food’s better, there’s a Swiss person, there’s some yodelling – I’ve been there! – the rest of it’s just clocks. Well, there’s a clock, you know. So this is a culture that… in a way, my critical remarks are beginning to break down, have you noticed that? Because now it looks as though that we are heading toward a society where you can plug yourself into it and it will meet your needs. Its… you can press in your needs into the machine, and it will meet them. Big screen TV, CD’s all around, every human need, maybe including the earlier one I discussed: the need [for] this radical freedom. I said I wanted to go out on a date with Kathleen Turner, well who knows… three dimensional replicant… punch it in, here she comes… hello. Since it’s a replicable image, you know… virtual reality suit, maybe they’ll be able to sell me that, and every other need for all of you, every one.

But in the matrix of needs, in such a possible future system, as if it weren’t already kind of like that. Within such a possible future system, the only command or need that the machine would not respond to would be the one command that I have a feeling some of us would most want to type into the machine. Which is the demand that it destroy itself, you see, that would be my problem with the machine. It would meet all the needs except my need to see it destroyed. It would take every other command well, and meet every other need well, but the need to just shut it down. Television is something like that now. It will meet so many psychic needs and fulfil so many compensations… compensatory things for you.

We all know how it feels after a day at work to turn on our familiar show. I am not making fun of it. It feels the same for me. Oh, Cheers again, I’ve seen this one! Phew… and you’re out of it for a while. It’s just this [makes zoned out gesture]. But the one command you can’t order from the television – or the show you can’t get – is the one that blows all the TVs in the world up. It won’t do that. The demand even to turn it off is ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous thing. They go “Oh, you can just turn it off”, yeah, on pain of falling out of anything that even resembles the resemblance of reality. I didn’t say resembles reality, but resembles its resemblance. You don’t watch TV for two weeks in this country and you walk around going “What happened???”. Well, you know damn well, the same old stuff! But you still feel disconnected.

You know, it’s been bad here in Georgetown, you don’t have cable here. I’m going “NO CABLE??? You know, how backward are these people! Do you guys cook, you know, over open fires? I mean, you got no cable? This close to the Whitehouse and no cable?”. So I had to walk up to a bartender and I said how was the war going and he goes “Still winning”. Well I knew that! [crowd laughter]. I knew it without watching it. A priori, we are always going to be still winning. That’s an a priori truth about the war. I can guarantee you that. Every day the news will be the same: “We are winning”. How about that? See, I can predict things based on my theory. We are going to win. See, it’s a good prediction. We’ll win.

In any case, this may sound too cynical. I have tried to… well, of course it sounds too cynical, but it’s sort of hard… to feel bad about that, about ending up in a kind of cynical spot. Because the handlers and the various… You know, the handlers of the systems of mass culture could not possibly be more cynical than they are; both about public taste, about how they… about their own complicity with power. I’d love to see a news report that says: “Oh by the way, we are speaking for the people who run your life, don’t worry about it”… “This news report is not true”… Then we go: “Oh good, I am going to watch the not true news report…” [crowd laughter]. So, I mean, don’t kill the messenger, you get it? I didn’t build that system. I am just trying to describe it to you. The description of it sounds cynical, [but] on the other side of it there is a possible kind of freedom… on the other side of it. I don’t know how to describe it, or how to even evoke it.

But it’s clear that where we can make systems of this complexity; cultural systems, economic systems, machines and so on – of this complexity – surely we can make the world that could first meet those needs that I described that everyone should have, and then perhaps meet needs that people have only dreamed of, like the need for some autonomy and freedom. The need for that little space up there, the “I” part, to expand a little bit, just a little. With the full knowledge that you are going to still be a fallible, finite human. It’s still… a reasonable thing, to want some parts of your life to be clear and reflected. That’s still reasonable to want. Even in the face of knowing that the full achievement of that is fairly unlikely.

For Freud, civilisation was a drama between two principles: eros and thanatos, or to use Woody Allen’s more normal words: love and death. And in this book, this last book I am discussing, Freud paints a beautiful and quick panorama of civilisation as being a struggle between these two – what he calls – eternal principles. Well, on the account I have been giving, the mechanisms of one side have clearly gained the upper hand. Just clearly. It’s not… on that I really don’t think it’s that debatable. But one can expect, as Freud admitted – in an hour in a history… in a time in the history of the world as dark as this one – Freud admitted that it could be expected perhaps that the other adversary, eternal eros might come in and strike a blow for the other side, that the mechanisms of death and forgetfulness, which are very closely aligned… final death [make dying gesture], death and forgetfulness, very close. That it might be expected that eros would have a… make a comeback. Possibly.

That’s not much of a “keep hope alive” message in a culture… like this one. Especially as it threatens to become global. Under conditions where many of the people in other parts of the world that receive our culture will do so with extreme naivete. In Eastern Europe they’ll believe we have got a democracy. They will love to have a VCR, and with each step forward they will become more entrapped in the same totalitarian system that is much more subtle than the crude and simple one that many of them have overthrown. What a joy to overthrow a crude and simple totalitarian system. I mean all of us enjoyed that, right? Dancing on the wall was fun, because that system was so crude, and not postmodern enough. They didn’t understand that there are walls that you can build that cannot be seen between people.

Those are harder walls to overthrow, the walls they build between different races and classes and sexes in our society. Those walls are much more difficult to overthrow than crude and stupid walls like The Great Wall of China, which doesn’t wall anybody out, it just walls you in. But the stupid forms of totalitarianism build these walls in a way that people can storm them. The global system that I am talking about, not is already here, perhaps, but is on its way. Perhaps. About the present and future you can just guess. I mean, you know, that’s what scientists do too, make their best guess. You can just guess. But about this system, the walls will be much harder to storm, because they won’t be the kind that will be available for storming. Hard to storm the walls on TV, in fact you’ll already – like in Total Recall – have the feeling you have already stormed them. You’ve already… I mean, you know, the guy in Total Recall, well, he has already won the revolution, it’s cool. He did it in ten minutes sitting in a chair injected with the same emotions.

Those kind of walls and that kind of totalitarianism I suspect many people in the world don’t suspect is the dark side of the American dream. I hope you… I hope there will be forms of resistance, but the basis for that hope today is slim. I’d be less than honest if I said it was more than slim. I expect, and with Freud hope that the final word hasn’t been said. I don’t think that in a way it is a part of this system that final words are sayable. Even in this system. And I will have to say this about it. That it has to reinject – and I haven’t got a good argument for this in the time remaining – it does have to reinject resistance into it in some form or another. It’s important that it at least put up a simulation of opposition. That’s why the most powerful anti war movement America could have now, would be for the last few of us that are against the war to just disappear completely so it looks like those polls are 100%, and many of my friends have started throwing off the poll numbers and joining the pro demonstrators, because the worst statement we could make about our democracy is to be unanimously for something, which will make it self evident that it’s no democracy. So the most radical…

See, in our culture, our struggles will have to become more sophisticated. Instead of fighting Bush, maybe the best way to fight him is to agree with him and say: “Hell yes, bomb them all”, and get right with them. Talk all of your wildest friends into it, say yeah… because once 100%, that’s saturation. No opposition? Bush will go “What will we do for a TV spot?”. They’ll have to start hiring the CIA to go out and demonstrate. They would, well it seems they would. There’s no opposition. That’s what we use to say we are a democracy, the opposition. So there will be all kinds of new strategies, and I have not yet given up on that last remaining spots of clarity that are around in the world. To quote George Bush: “Those thousand points of light”. Well it might turn out that they might not be what he suspects.

I am just not willing quite yet – and I don’t know, I guess your questions will be “why not?” – to write radical democracy‘s final obituary. And yet… and this is the point where I have to say I don’t have an argument. It’s taken me a long time. I just don’t have an argument about why not to write its final obituary. I have seen too much of this last… especially the last fifteen years or so – of Reagan and Bush – not to feel like writing that last obituary for radical democracy, or even for these private moments that I have tried to steal from this text where we have that clear thought in our own mind and we are sure it’s not the unreflected part being produced by our culture.

I am not quite, even under these conditions, ready to write the final obituary. I don’t have any argument, but I at least… I have this much going for it. It’s… now, I am really going to go back to an archaic text called the New Testament. Going to have a good revolutionary argument to hook you with at the end. I mean in a way, that’s why I said “preaching”, I feel like Paul before the Corinthians, and they were all real cynical, and I can see that I’m pretty cynical, you’re pretty cynical, St Paul was pretty cynical. All the Corinthians were going “This resurrection in the body stuff…”, kind of like how some of you may go “This radical democracy stuff?”… “What do you mean resurrection in the body?”… “What do you mean freedom, radical democracy, enlightenment? What the hell are you talking about?”.

Well if you read the… read Corinthians, it’s very strange. The people at Corinth are really questioning Paul… very tough, you know “Resurrection in what body? When I was 16? 15? 14? Where will I be”, and stuff. Well please… this is my last reading assignment, and it’s a widely known text… its The Bible. Look at Paul’s answer in Corinthians. It’s a masterpiece of sophistry, rhetoric, and bitter invective. No arguments, because how could you have an argument for such a utopian thing, you couldn’t. But Paul does have one consideration that is very persuasive to the Corinthians: that if this hope goes, everything goes with it. It’s a desperate form of argument, but these are desperate times. If the hope goes to reconstruct our lives in that way, everything else will go with it. Everything. And not in that neat, fun way like the apocalypse, where you all get to Rod Serling yourselves out together and me too, but everything human will go too. So, if there is no other reason to hope that things will change, then hope was after all, all we were given in the first place, for those who were hopeless. Hope was given for the sake of the hopeless, not for people who are comfortable.

Philosophy, as I said, does not provide comfort for people who are comfortable, it shouldn’t. It doesn’t even provide comfort for the afflicted as you may have found out if you are afflicted. It is – as I tried to warn you when I started – disconsolate in principle. Hegel says it in a scarier way. He says “Dialectics (or philosophy) does not run from death and devastation, but it tarries with it a while and looks it in the face”. So that’s all I have tried to do with our culture in this last couple of hours, which may have seemed strange to some of you, you may think “Oh, things aren’t that bad because after all the TVs are still running, the people are for it, and everybody is happy, and I’ll go back to my normal life”. Unfortunately, giving talks like this is a part of my normal life, eww. But don’t forget as you watch the TV that the fires of Belsen burn in the TV tubes every night. Don’t forget that the structural principles of our society are as barbaric in their structure as they ever were, perhaps more so… perhaps more so. We have to remember we are talking at a historical moment when most folks want to nuke somebody again and why not!

« »