Zygmunt Bauman’s Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part I

Zygmunt Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. His interest in the mechanisms of identity construction is enough to make me follow his work with great dedication.

Bauman’s recent Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Institute for Human Sciences Vienna Lecture Series) made a dubious impression on me. Everything Bauman has to say about identity is really good. Everything he has to say on other topics, however, is really not. This is unusual, since normally philosophers are provoked by the topic of identity into uttering strings of annoying platitudes. Bauman avoids this danger and talks about identity in a thought-provoking and profound way. The other subjects he addresses in Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? , though, are analyzed in a much weaker way. Unfortunately, a moment comes in everybody’s life when our brain cannot process change as effectively as it used to when we were younger. As a result, we see any change in our world as at worst terrifying and at best negative. This is, sadly, what happens to Bauman. His fear of today’s reality taints his analysis and robs it of any intellectual value. I have no patience with anybody whose sexism and racism do not allow them to recognize that life today is without a shadow of a doubt better than at any other point in history. Bauman’s lamentations about some unspecified past when everything was better, fresher, and sweeter are a testimony to his nostalgia for his lost youth. This nostalgia is so strong that it overruns the obvious ethical considerations that should have helped Bauman remember that the current historical period he dislikes so much is characterized by an incredible progress in the rights of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

In this review, I will first address the parts of Bauman’s argument that I really liked. Then, I will proceed to discuss the much weaker second half of this book.

Bauman starts his discussion of identity formation by observing how much the task of creating an identity is linked to fear, anxiety, and constant insecurity:

Identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation. Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation, turns into a lifelong task, never complete; at no moment of life is the identity “final” There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing. That built-in “nonfinality,” the incurable inconclusiveness of the task of self-identification, causes a lot of tension and anxiety.

The idea that identity today is negotiable, fluid, and non-static has, of course, turned into something of a favorite platitude among the theorists of identity. What is different in Bauman’s analysis is that his thinking does not stop there. He realizes that the qualities of fluidity and variability of contemporary identities do not in any way rob them of their potential to do harm. It is a given that everybody today moves seamlessly between identities. This mere fact, however, does nothing to alleviate the dreadful burden of identity.

By its very nature, collective identity requires a common enemy. The ever-growing complexity of today’s world makes the need for this enemy stronger, instead of weaker:

The act of selecting a group as one’s site of belonging in fact constitutes some other groups as alien and, potentially, hostile territory: “I am P” always means (at least implicitly, but often explicitly) that “most certainly, I am not Q, R, S, and so on.” “Belonging” is one side of the coin, and the other side is separation and opposition-which all too often evolve into resentment, antagonism, and open conflict. Identification of an adversary is an indispensable element of identification with an “entity of belonging”-and, through the latter, also a crucial element of self-identification. Identification of an enemy construed as an incarnation of the evil against which the community “integrates,” gives clarity to life purposes and to the world in which life is lived.

Consequently, when the world becomes less clear and more complex, a group needs to construct an enemy who is more and more evil with every passing day. Thus, those who believe that we live in a post-identity world are completely wrong. I have no idea whether these people even follow the news or turn on the television. There are no structures in place today that would dilute the strength of collective identifications. Just the opposite.

After this impressive discussion of identity, Bauman proceeds to talk about the actual subject of his book, which is the relationship between ethics and consumerism. And here, unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart. In order to introduce the topic of ethics, the philosopher comes out with the following bizarre statement:

In order to have self-love, we need to be loved or to have hope of being loved. Refusal of love-a snub, a rejection, denial of the status of a love-worthy object-breeds self-hatred. Self-love is built of the love offered to us by others. Others must love us first, so that we can begin to love ourselves.

It honestly took me a while to realize that the author was completely serious in this statement. When I finally saw that no punch line was coming and this is exactly what he meant to say, I felt pretty embarrassed for Bauman. You cannot proceed to theorize on the basis of your psychological insecurities and neuroses. Of course, we can never escape them, but the least we could do is avoid projecting them onto the entire world. The kind of self-love that is so dependent on the aceptance and approval of others is beyond unhealthy. A theory constructed on the basis of this vision cannot convince anybody.

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Chris Hedges’s Empire of Illusion: A Review

The moment China, the oil-rich states, and other international investors stop buying U.S. Treasury Bonds, the dollar will become junk. Inflation will rocket upward. We will become Weimar Germany. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to simpletons like Sarah Palin to loudmouth talk-show hosts, whom we naively dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. . . There are powerful corporate entities, fearful of losing their influence and wealth, arrayed against us. They are waiting for a moment to strike, a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control. The tools are in place. These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing dissent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy. And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross.

Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion

This long quote from Chris Hedges’s Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle demonstrates perfectly why I think this is a stunning piece of journalism at its very best and a book that any responsible citizen has to read. I absolutely loved this book (except Chapter 2, which seemed like it was taken from a completely different book and can be resumed as “Pornography bad, Dworkin good, sex scary, intimacy comforting.”) I suggest that this chapter be skipped altogether in favor of the brilliant political analysis of the rest of the book.

Empire of Illusion is an angry book. Hedges, one of the very few remaining journalists in the US who do actual journalism instead of regurgitating washed out mantras handed to them by their keepers, is not afraid of hurting the public’s tender sensibilities by the truth. He realizes the gravity of our current situation and is unafraid of telling the readers that our economic and political future looks bleak. The way our government tries to address the collapse of the economy, which it coyly terms “a recession”, by throwing taxpayers’ money at the problem is wrong and self-destructive:

We are vainly trying to return to a bubble economy, of the sort that once handed us the illusion of wealth, rather than confront the stark reality that lies ahead. We are told massive borrowing will create jobs and re-inflate real estate values and the stock market. We remain tempted by mirages, by the illusion that we can, still, all become rich.

None of these so-called measures are working. Endless bailouts and stimulus packages that have indebted us in an unheard of way have failed to jumpstart the economy and move the country out of this crisis. Still, nobody is proposing any alternatives to this failed system. The economy of the US operates in exactly the same manner as the unsustainable Soviet economy. Nobody, however, is willing to recognize it. People believe that if you call this perversion “capitalism” and “free market economy” often enough, it will actually turn into capitalism and free market economy. Reality has been substituted by illusion in so many areas of life, Hedges observes, that people often refuse to see and identify what is right in front of their faces. This rejection of reality in favor of illusion haunts all spheres of our lives:

Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity. The New Age mysticism and pop psychology of television personalities, evangelical pastors, along with the array of self-help best-sellers penned by motivational speakers, psychiatrists, and business tycoons, all peddle a fantasy. Reality is condemned in these popular belief systems as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as negativity, or as inhibiting our inner essence and power. Those who question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able to confront reality and who grasp the hollowness of celebrity culture are shunned and condemned for their pessimism.

The reason for this resistance to acknowledging the reality that lies right in front of us is that the very few of us possess the intellectual, psycholigical, emotional, and linguistic tools needed to perform this task. Rather than decipher the incomprehensible, confusing, and often painful reality around them, people prefer to escape into the world of cliches and make-belief. Who wants to dedicate their lives to addressing complex, important issues, if you can happily escape into the world of triviality?

Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by cliches, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes or our national character or because we are blessed by God. In this world, all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition.

(I’m quoting so much because the way Hedges writes is so powerful, concise, and convincing that I don’t want to deprive my readers of the enormus pleasure of seeing the way a real journalist should write. This is a rare pleasure nowadays.)

One would expect, of course, our system of higher education to help students acquire the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to analyze the failings of our poitical and economic systems. This, however, does not happen. As anybody working in the higher education system knows all too well, our universities have been undergoing the process of transforming themselves into robot-churning factories. Hedges’s understanding of the way the higer education system has been appropriated by the military-industrial complex is profound:

The bankruptcy of our economic and political systems can be traced directly to the assault against the humanities. The neglect of the humanities has allowed elites to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions. Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed. But those in charge, because they are educated only in specializations designed to maintain these economic and political structures, have run out of ideas. They have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system.

Our universities have become nothing but “high-priced occupational training centers.” Graduates are incapable of approaching their reality in a critical way. All they are trained to do is to service the system as efficiently as possible. Now that the system itself is in dire need of a rehaul, there are very few people around who would be at least capable of recognizing this fact, let alone do something about it.

For a while now, I have been discussing with my friends and colleagues the very scenario that Hedges describes in the first quote of this post. This crisis is not going away any time soon. People will start to get scared, restless, depressed, and angry. They will turn to the Evangeical fascists for consolation. It’s good to see that there are thinkers who realize that we are going in this scary direction and are trying to do something about it.

We all remember Obama’s insightful remark about bitter people clinging to guns, religion and hatred. I still remember what a relief it was to hear a politician say something so smart and relevant for a change. If the President is smart enough to understand that we are going in the direction of religious fascism, then why is he doing all he can to push us towards this horrifying prospect?

>Tana French’s The Likeness: A Review

>I just fnished reading http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=00FF0F&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=0143115626. What an absolutely delightful book, my friends! I enjoyed every one of its 480 pages profoundly. Tana French is a young Irish writer. The Likeness is one of those really good books that its female author tries to masquerade as a mystery novel. The mystery itself is not bad, especially if you manage to get over a few of the initial premises that border on the fantastic.

Cassie Maddox, a young Irish policewoman, goes undercover among a group of PhD students who live in an old house they are attempting to restore. This premise is, of course, highly unrealistic. Graduate students in literature have a certain way of talking and acting that cannot be faked. In reality, un undercover police officer would have blown her cover during the very first discussion on why Lacan is wrong about everything and Eagleton’s new-found essentialism is annoying. Nobody can fake writing a doctoral dissertation convincingly. You have either lived through that process or not.

Having said that, however, I have to confess that French’s writing is so good that soon enough you forget about these inconsistencies and even forget to care about the identity of the killer. The Likeness is a beautifully written story about today’s Ireland. It offers incisive criticism of modern consumer society without falling into the trap of bemoaning the good old days:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on.

What makes this novel so enjoyable is that, in places, it reaches the level of insightfulness that is normally completely our of reach for the mystery genre writers. In The Likeness, the main conflict arises – and eventually leads to murder – because of a profound dissatisfaction that the characters of the novel feel with the very structure of society:

Part of the debtor mentality is a constant, frantically suppressed undercurrent of terror. We have one of the highest debt-to-income ratios in the world, and apparently most of us are two paychecks from the street. Those in power—governments, employers—exploit this, to great effect. Frightened people are obedient—not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. If your employer tells you to work overtime, and you know that refusing could jeopardize everything you have, then not only do you work the overtime, but you convince yourself that you’re doing it voluntarily, out of loyalty to the company; because the alternative is to acknowledge that you are living in terror. Before you know it, you’ve persuaded yourself that you have a profound emotional attachment to some vast multinational corporation: you’ve indentured not just your working hours, but your entire thought process. The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought are those who—either because they’re heroically brave, or because they’re insane, or because they know themselves to be safe—are free from fear.

Just this one paragraph makes the novel absolutely worth reading for me.

The Likeness is only Tana French’s second novel and an obvious improvement on her first one, In the Woods. I can’t wait to see how far this growing author will go. Her talent is undeniable and her command of the language is unique. Maybe one day she will feel strong enough to stop hiding behind the protective screen of the mystery genre and will write actual literature. I have no doubt that French has enough talent to achieve that.

>Tundra in the Midwest

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I will never understand what strange psychological problems lead people to drive this kind of total monstrosity in the Midwest of all places. Besides being an environmental nightmare, it is incredibly ugly and inconvenient. Getting into it and finding a place to park it must be quite a production. 

I keep wondering whether the proud owner of this coffin-like structure even knows what tundra is and whether he is hoping to find it in Southern Illinois. It is pretty cold here right now but we are still too far away from turning into a tundra.

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>Who Caused the Collapse of the Soviet Union?

>I have read several articles dedicated to the collapse of the Soviet Union recently. These articles attributed the breakdown of the Soviet Empire and the fall of the Communist system to a variety of the weirdest agents. There are analysts who are so uninformed as to believe that the Soviet system came to an end as a result of the actions of President Reagan or even the CIA (yes, the same CIA that failed in every single major operation it ever attempted to carry out.)

From somebody who saw the disintegration of the USSR from within the country, this is what happened: Forget Reagan, Bush Sr., the CIA, the FBI, and James Bond. They had nothing to do with the situation in question. There was a certain group of people in power in the Soviet Union. That group of people decided that the economic system of the Soviet Union couldn’t be milked for much more profit because it had worn itself out completely. So they introduced a new economic system (which, of course, had to be accompanied by a new political structure and a new ideology) that allowed them to remain in power and exploit that system a lot more profitably.

So, in reality, there was no real collapse, breakdown, or anything of the kind. The same people who were in power before, are still in power now in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It is funny how Americans, who have this weird delusion that they are the root cause of pretty much everything in the universe, keep trying to find reasons for what happened to a huge country on a different continent within the US.

>Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: A Review, Part II

>Among other things, Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) is such a joy to read because of his brilliant deconstruction of Christopher Hitchens’s obnoxious God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything: “Hitchens seems to hold the obscure Jewish sect of the second-century BC known as the Maccabees responsible not only for the emergence of Christianity but also for the advent of Islam. It is surprising that he does not pin Stalinism on them as well.” Eagleton is absolutely right when he suggests that atheistic fundamentalism is in many respects an exact copy of religious fundamentalism. It is just as intransigent, dogmatic, reductive, and obnoxious.

Everything I have said so far might produce the erroneous impression that Eagleton is trying to create a defense of Christianity. This is, of course, not true. The critic is opposed to a unilaterall dismissal of this complex and intricate worldview but he recognizes that “Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more stupidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins.” Apart from Eagleton’s unintelligent characterization of Stalinism as stupid, this statement could not be more true. Many people’s hatred of Christianity has nothing to do with Jesus’s teachings but is rather addressed to what many of the proponents of this religion have done with it: “Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neocons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right.” (I swear to God in heaven, that if I ever learn to write half as good as Eagleton, I will die happy.) Are the actions of many of its followers enough, however, to discredit Christianity once and for all?, Eagleton asks. Haven’t the tenets of Liberalism, the ideals of Enlightenment, the central points of Marxism suffered the same fate? Does this mean, then, that we should abandon all of these ideological and intellectual movements in their entirety?

In his brilliant analysis, Eagleton hits upon an absolutely wonderful definition of Christianity that I have been searching for my entire life: “Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is … effectively worthless.” It is amazing that a Marxist like Eagleton has been able to understand the very nature of the New Testament so much better than all the quasi-religious freaks out there put together and multiplied by five.

One of the things that make Eagleton’s philosophy especially endearing to me is his passionate defense of the values of Enlightenment. He enumerates the ways in which Enlightenment has come to defeat its own basic propositions but still maintains that the task of Enlightenment is far from over. Just like Christianity, Enlightenment has been discredited by the atrocities done in its name by its misguided, unintelligent followers. This is why so many people today fall over themselves in their rush to abandon the Enlightened philosophy as wrong, evil, and outdated. These thinkers are just as wrong as the wholesale deniers of the value of religion. Eagleton himself was guilty of Enlightenment-bashing on more than one occasion, and I am glad to see that his position on the issue seems to have shifted towards a greater degree of reason (pun intended.)

One of the most fun characteristics of Eagleton’s writing is the way he pokes fun at Americans: “For some in the USA, the C-word is ‘can’t.’ Negativity is often looked upon there as a kind of thought crime. Not since the advent of socialist realism has the world witnessed such pathological upbeatness.” Eagleton defends his way of voicing his critiques that soem people may stupidly deem offensive: “Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes ‘abuse’ clearly have a problem.

Once again, let me reiterate that this book is fantastic. If you only read one book of philosophy this year, let it be this one You are going to have a blast reading it. It is one of those books where you feel extremely sad to turn over the last page because you want the jouissance to continue.

>Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Terry Eagleton: A Review, Part I

>In April of 2008, Terry Eagleton gave a series of talks at Yale University. Since I was in the process of looking for a job, I only managed to visit the last lecture in the series. Eagleton’s brilliant lecture on religion and the subsequent reception made two things very clear to me. First, Eagleton is an amazing lecturer and listening to him is one of the greatest intellectual pleasures one can experience (especially at Yale, where intellectual pleasures – or actually, pleasures of any kind – are few and far between.) Second, Eagleton’s personal life is pretty contemptible and makes one wonder how it is possible to be so brilliant and so daft at the same time.
I was very happy to discover that a book based on Eagleton’s lecture series has not only appeared in print but has also been made cheap enough for me to buy it in Kindle version. This collection of essays is written in Eagleton’s incomparably beautiful style that is funny and incisive at the same time. The theme of the essays is fascinating: Eagleton offers an approach to religion from the Left that is neither reductive nor stupid, as similar books often tend to be. The playfulness with which Eagleton talks about religion offers a beautiful contrast to the usual deathly gravitas informing the style that academics both on the Left and on the Right employ to discuss religion.

With his incomparable sense of humor, Eagleton makes fun of the entity he calls “Ditchkins.” This is his new term for referring simultaneously to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Eagleton ridicules Ditchkins’s reductive and simplistic vision of religion that forces them to enter into an unproductive science versus religion dichotomy: “Unlike George Bush, God is not an interventionist kind of ruler. It is this autonomy of the world which makes science and Richard Dawkins possible in the first place.” Religion, says Eagleton, deserves an analysis that is at least a little bit more profound than the usual all-religion-is-bad approach taken by many Liberals. In their defense of rationalism, the critics of religion often demonstrate an irrationalism which is as strong as the one they keep denouncing: “This straw-targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals – that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance.

Eagleton doesn’t stop at destroying the pseudo-rationalist piety of the so-called progressive scientists. He also demonstrates – in his inimitable, hilarious way – the ridiculous nature of the US fundamentalist Evangelicals and their utter failure to understand pretty much anything about the religion they claim to hold in such a high regard.

Of course, as happens with every good book, there are things in Eagleton’s essay collection that I find unconvincing. Eagleton surmises that the resurgence of the importance of religion in the late capitalist society is a postnationalist phenomenon. I am a lot more weary than Eagleton of accepting the very existence of post-racism, post-feminism, post-nationalism, and the likes. In the US, for example, virulent nationalism and fundamentalist religiousness walk hand in hand and do not exist without each other. Evangelical fundamentalism has become the national idea of the US for the lack of any other set of beliefs or concerns that can possibly bind this country together. Whenever somebody begins to talk about post-nationalism and post-racism, I know that this is either a fan of the Oprah Show or an academic hiding deep within the ivory tower.

It is impossible to read this book by one of the greatest living philosophers and literary critics without having uproarious fun on every single page. If you want to indulge yourself by reading a philosophical treatise that is exceptionally well-written and that will make you laugh until it hurts, Eagleton’s new collection of essays is perfect for you.