Posts Tagged ‘Public intellectuals’

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.