The Responsibility of Being a Public Intellectual

Posted: November 21, 2011 in My moral code, On Beauty
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In response to my posts expressing intellectual issues with the Post-Structuralist philosophers, one of my followers made a comment to which I will now respond. Essentially she said that, if the 20th century turned out to be what I consider a “nightmare” then I should not “shoot the messenger”. In  other words, if Foucault correctly describes the 20th century, then I should not blame Foucault just because he was correct. I would like to explain why I feel that it is not only acceptable, but imperative, that we do, indeed, take sharp aim at the messengers. My rationale is that they are not simply messengers.

I will offer one example, from a writer I’ve not discussed before, to frame my contention.

Jean Baudrillard is an eminent French post-modern intellectual who passed away in 2007. Like Barthes, he is someone with whom I disagree but who’s writing I find quite beautiful. Unlike Barthes, who I simply find beautiful, in Baudrillard I find the linguistic beauty to conceal something quite dangerous. As one example, let us consider his brief essay “”Transaesthetics”.

This essay is really a lovely little piece of writing. It correctly frames much of the art after Duchamp, specifically much of the “pop art” of the 60s and 70’s, within his notion of “Simulation”. By this he means that little new is created and much of what already exists is simply regurgitated. He goes on to use Warhol and his “soup cans” as an example.  Some of the concepts which he states accurately are these: (1) that there is no longer a “gold standard of aesthetic judgement”, (2) that 20th century art measures itself against nothing but itself, and (3) that everything coexists amid “general indifference”. Accurate enough, and well enough stated. Here is my problem. The full clause which uses the phrase “general indifference” reads: “all coexist with a marvelous facility amid general indifference“. The word “marvelous” does not simply state a fact, it editorializes it; and it does so in a way as to condone indifference.

Soon after extolling the acceptability of indifference, Baudrillard discusses the Warhol soup cans and states that they release us from “the need to decide between beautiful and ugly…” I understand what he is saying and, without the context of the full sentence, I get it. But, again, let’s look at the full context. What Baudrillard says is this: “The only benefit of a Campbell’s soup can by Andy Warhol (and it is an immense benefit) is that it releases us from the need to decide between beautiful and ugly…“. Again, he editorializes and states that he considers the result of Warhol to be “an immense benefit“. My interpretation of this is that Baudrillard is saying that it is beneficial to have no need to consider the difference between the beautiful and the ugly.

Now, contemplating distinctions is an aspect of cognition and using distinctions is an aspect of communication. So, to say that indifference to the distinctions between beauty and ugliness is beneficial is to downplay the role of cognition in human existence. This is where I find the danger in Baudrillard’s thinking. He advocates indifference and complacency versus thinking and action.

Having set some context, let me tell you why I’m perfectly comfortable criticizing Baudrillard. I believe that Baudrillard clearly states some fundamental dilemmas in 20th and early 21st century art. But, Baudrillard  is not a mere messenger. that is my point in criticizing Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard; and it’s my point in using Baudrillard (just by way of adding to the list) as yet another example. You see, these philosophers do not bury themselves in the ivory towers of Harvard, or Yale, or the Sorbonne or the College du France; They speak out publicly. They aren’t just “philosophers“; they are “public intellectuals“. The public treats them like rock stars. People listen to them. This means that each of these men has a moral responsibility to be a positive influence. If the general population takes their lead from you, then it is you who bears the responsibility to lead. So, these people are not simply the messengers of the tragedies of the 20th and 21st century, they are complicit in them. For that reason, I hold them accountable and, when I criticize them, I’m not shooting the messenger I’m shooting the culprit. A public intellectual has responsibilities and should be held to account for properly carrying out those responsibilities. Baudrillard, for example, is not saying: “hey, everybody’s indifferent and no one thinks anymore. Bummer.” He is implying (my interpretation of his words, not his words per se): “we, as a world are beyond thinking, beyond caring, beyond being glorified by beauty – and that’s just fine. It’s the way of the new world – so live it! It’s what I personally endorse.

I’m not trying to shoot messengers. I’m just trying to do my little part to stop the further demise of human mind. No big deal, really.

    • YOur interpretation of these philosophers is incorrect.

      BHL IS a rock star, yes.

      Foucault is a an intellectual who has NOT proposed any philosophical theory. He has simply proposed a method, the method of genealogy that he got from Nietzsche and which he acknowledges. Foucault is out of the dialectical, out of polemics, our of linear time, progress, history, idealism. OK? Baudrillard does engage in polemics and Lotringer tells him that he is at his best when he is confronting a view opposed to his own.

      Transcendence is not a term either Foucault or Baudrillard engages in. Both have disposed of it as it is based on a belief in God. Transcendence requires transgression. Without god who are you transgressing against?

      Deleuze has disposed of distinctions placing them within repetition. Hard to explain without using ready-made words and concepts. Distinctions depend on difference which throws us back into the dialectic where we are no more. So we use a way of thinking that is gone. Like flat earth thinking.

      Of course there are distinctions. In simulated reality they are meaningless. Example: In the film Water for Elephants The prop obsessed director Francis Lawrence built a copy of a 1930’s circus and there was nothing in the set that wasn’t of that period. Now there is no longer an original. The 1930 circus is gone forever. So on the WFE set we have a copy of a copy (from books, photos, films, memories, etc) . In other words we have a simulacra circus. A copy of a copy without an original. Anyone who remembers an original one is very old, a person whose memory is not considered reliable, so 99 % of people living have never seen one, never seen an original one.

      So in this example you can see how distinctions disappear. This is what Baudrillard means when he writes that there are no differences. Who can ever know that something is different, not authentic, and so on.

      I really explain this much better in my latest post on my blog concerning the filmed wedding of Bella and Edward, the “wedding” of Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, and what makes a wedding a wedding and a marriage a marriage in simulated reality.I have ddrawn the Baudrillardian conclusion that one can never know.

      And this, is what Baudrillard warns as our greatest danger, the “stealing of the world”. Have you read The Perfect Crime in which he carefully tells you how it is done. Now that I see, I can’t unsee it. All young people immersed in the world of video games are already there.

      There are consequences. The film Contagion is one example of a consequence that is looming. If it seems total fantasy, then think of the Native American population and syphilis and measles. Or the Black Plague. Our population explosion bomb is going to be taken care of.

      Foucault’s activism/writing was focussed on what is the greatest danger NOW. It is not Obama, not elections, not any of the things the media would have us believe.

      Our greatest danger is simulated reality. Not whether a work of art is ugly or beautiful, but the fact that the criteria, the reality of how to distinguish is disappearing ever and ever faster and faster. When simulated reality it total, then we will be in Virtual Reality. And there will be no escape from that. Baudrillard has proposed the only escape as being seduction as seduction cannot be manufactured – produced.

      I really do say all this much better on my blogs. And my style there is not expository, mostly, as this. My above comment is not the proper form to say this. Which is exactly why you love Baudrillard’s writing. He says all this in a style that mirrors everything he says. His style forces you out of the above kind of writing which I just got seduced into doing because I like to argue, but I am fast losing this inclination. It leads nowhere except to more interpretation and more argumentation. And so it goes as Vonnegut says.

  1. Indifference: When Baudrilard uses indifference he is using it in coming from Nietzsche altho not explicitly. The world is indifferent now that god is dead. In a world of simulation we are in a world of indifference. Our only response is to be even more indifferent.

    Ex.: Obama is indifferent to the left liberals who worked to put him into office. They scream everyday about him, and his indifference. The only way to respond to the big O Oreo cookie is to be even more indifferent that he is. That translates to no commenting about him, no soliciting of votes for him, and no voting. In fact the entire political process can be responded to by indifference. Just vote for the worst one running. Which I will do. Lots of choices for me there and it may be Obama.

    CGI movies. I recently saw killer elite because that excellent actor was in it. It was so fast, so much jump cutting, in your face, meaningless that I kept fall asleep at what was so excessive it was supposed to keep me on the edge of my seat. This is what Baudrillard means by indifference. Not that there is no good, no bad, no beauty, not ugliness in terms of value judgement, only that in simulated reality, where we are so much of the time now, there cannot be opposites because all circulates endlessly, and circulation means no oppositional poles as in the Hegelian world.

    Warhol represents a “cut” in art history criticism. An end to the linear Dominating Discourse (Foucauldian) about art. Warhol did not intend at all to make beautiful art yet some of his work has such a lyricism of line and color I cannot help but love it. But it is very magazine, advertisement lovely and has been copied to exhaustion for those purposes. To get you to buy a product.

    When Baudrillard talks about the relief of not having to respond and judge beauty and ugly, he is being ironic and you have read him in a literal way. He also says that we should be grateful for our politicians running the government so we don’t have to. A bore and a tedious job off our hands. Just as offloading our will onto someone else relieves us of having to decide all the minutiae of life. Rand of course is very Nietzschean on will to power, on self powered forward motion, but her characters say something different. Dominique is an interesting study on “will” as she has decided not to will, not to want, as an escape. When she wants to go to the quarry to see Roark, she refuses to go. She does the opposite of what she wills. But that doesn’t work. Her resistance just makes her wanting to grow stronger and she is furious she has lost control of her self. At the end when Roark returns to her life through Wynand, she experiences an acquiescence that now Roark will decide everything for her. She is again choosing a strategy. This is not a psychological fault.

    I’ll continue. BTW if you put your blog on all your requirements for posting are eliminated. It auto does this for you and then the person can follow the thread on their own disqus account as any replyer will auto be there. Visit me and reply and you wilol see how it works. Easier for you all the way around as they take care of all of it. They are compatible with wordpress.

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