Monday, March 29, 2010

Cognitive dissonance, post-modernism and the cultural zeitgeist

Chuck Closterman has a theory that the reason that he's been successful with women is because of Woody Allen. And it's not that the women he's dated necessarily like Woody Allen movies or find Woody attractive, which, let's face it, today most people think Woody's a little pervy for marrying his formerly adopted daughter. That's pretty effin' weird. For myself, I really like some of his more dramatic movies and think the rest of them are insufferably stupid.

Regardless, the point Chuck makes is that Woody became this kind of archetype of the smart, witty, goofy looking guy who can make you laugh and think (if you so choose), and because that became cool then smart, witty, goofy-looking guys like Chuck Closterman can now get laid.

I would argue the same is true for modern conservatism and post-modernism. Post-modernism came into it's own as a philosophy in the French intellectual movements of the 1950's and 1960's. The trends that we've identified as post-modern started long before that, and certainly questioning reality and the nature of subjectivity is not exactly a new phenomenon. But the French intellectuals of that time really started to question the structuralist project that suggested, a la Saussure, that the structure of the products of human consciousness were essentially related to the structure of the human brain (that's not actually how he conceptualized the process, but I'd say it's the best way of expressing of the structuralist idea).

While they called themselves or were called (I'm not sure if the moniker was self applied) post-structuralists, they were what I think of when I think of the philosophic component of post-modernism. Literary post-modernism was in effect since the turn of the 20th century, and apparently the term was coined in relation to the drabness of what was called modern architecture in around about the 1870's. And sociologists like Max Weber have been questioning what we mean when we talk about the rational since about that same turn as well.

Regardless, these post-structuralists or post-modernists were classic bullshit artists. The truth is there is no truth is only true in the mystical sense. In the sense that everything is illusion and nothingness. It's not true in any pragmatic way. It's not true that there is no underlying objective reality, of which our subjective consciousness only gleans some small part. And I would hasten that that objective reality is itself an illusion that must be transcended. But that does not negate the intermediate stage at which objective reality is indeed, for all intents and purposes, objective reality.

Now the modern conservative movement, call it neoliberalism if you wish (but the appellation is so clearly disingenuous) or neoconservatism (which has essential oxymoronic elements [if you're dedicated to conserving the status quo, how can you're movement be new, and if you're not then what are you conserving?]) or whatever, would almost certainly rather be collectively mauled by bears than admit to having intellectual roots in a French philosophic movement, but the truth is that this idea that there is no truth so whatever truth you can make sound plausible enough is as good as any other is quite clearly possible because of the intellectual post-modern movement. That Fox news, for example, can call themselves fair and balanced in a non-ironic manor is almost surely a result of this same cultural process that gets Klosterman laid.

Course the supreme irony is that post-modernism's progressive element is so jaded about 'truth' and reality that they take nothing seriously, while the result of post-modernism for the conservative movement is that they take a mostly fabricated reality very, very seriously. As a result, conservatives are generally more organized. (Also better funded cause the whole world view is a means toward the concentration and intergenerational maintenance of power and money [I would suggest this is more a kind of processural memeticism {even, somewhat ironically, structuralist in nature} than necessarily the result of some vast conspiracy {although Paully Krug isn't necessarily wrong when he calls out the really well funded right wing think tanks as a kind of vast right wing conspiracy (If I wanted to make a living just thinking [which of course I do], I'd do much better if I'd take on a post-modernist stance and say fuck truth)}]).

I often think the reason prominent proponents of the conservative ideology are so angry is because of how fragile their world is. I mean, Rush Limbuagh is full of shit. He really is. His entire world view is the result of the selective use of information coupled with outright fabrication. He really is a kind of poster boy for post-modernism. Because ultimately, much like Rush himself, the movement is intellectually bankrupt.

Now none of this is to say that I myself have transcended subjectivity. None of us can. That's the point. Anyone who claims to know completely truth is a liar and probably a con artist as well. But post-modernism is incredibly unsettling. Knowing that you can't know, if it doesn't lead you to a spiritual place or result in the kind of ironic or blase attitude, will probably just make you feel afraid of the unknown.

Which explains the rise of evangelical Christianity and the success of Fox news. These movements ultimately have to be anti-intellectual because this is where philosophy has gotten. We haven't transcended post-modernism, nor is it even really possible. That's the cheap gimmick of the movement. It's in the finite structure of the human mind, which is not capable of attaining perfect or true knowledge. Not really.

And, essentially, that's been the thrust of the neoconservative movement from it's earliest days back in the 1960's. If you read Friedman (or a modern variant would be Amity Schleas or the Wall St. Journal op-ed or, again, Fox news), you find a selective process. As if you can just take the successes of your ideas without ever acknowledging any flaws or failures as a way to minimize cognitive dissonance without actually aligning yourself closer to reality. We saw how bankrupt that process was with the initial stages of the Iraq war. (and just as a quick addendum, this idea that Obama is somehow a dictator because he hasn't bent to the will of some small collective of very active protestors who get substantial media coverage when George Bush ignored literally millions who took to the streets in protest of the prospect of an invasion of Iraq is quite frankly a bit offensive and just plainly ignorant. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. If you want to work by consensus then that principle has to be applied consistently.)

For myself, I could never be sure of any of my knowledge. That's why I always continue to search, and I don't limit myself at all. In fact, I actively seek out information that contradicts what I think I know, and then try to figure out how to work out those contradictions. It's not easy, and it creates a lot of dissonance, which is not fun. Cognitive dissonances sucks, but relieving it by lying to yourself and others is not really a long term solution to the problem.

Okay, so that turned into a complete rant, and there's much more to say. Always more to say, but I'll leave off for the time being. I've got journal articles on cognitive dissonance to read. Let me just say this quick. It's not a mistake that every single mystic movement of every religious tradition, who almost without fail all acknowledge the problem of illusion of reality, all of them have very strong moral per and proscriptions. The only way to transcend the illusion is through goodness and, as the Buddhists say, mindfulness and right action. I guess that leave's me out, but still...the point remains salient.

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