Wednesday, February 17, 2016

MY PATH FROM earnestness, which betrays an embarrassing naïveté TO ironic detachment.

Eons ago when I was young and naive and suffering all the pangs of ignorance and making enemies as fast as I could meet, analyze and open my mouth at them, I could have used this book, but better late than never. I came upon this book just about the time the 20th Century tipped over into the 21st and all computer hell broke loose. Not. One of the books that helped the world make sense to me. 

"The Postmodern Mind"  from THE MORAL ANIMAL by Robert Wright

All told, the Darwinian notion of the unconscious is more radical than the Freudian one. The sources of self-deception are more numerous, diverse, and deeply rooted, and the line between conscious and unconscious is less clear. Freud described Freudianism as an attempt to "prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind." By Darwinian lights, this wording almost gives too much credit to the "self." It seems to suggest an otherwise clear-seeing mental entity getting deluded in various ways. To an evolutionary psychologist, the delusion seems so pervasive that the usefulness of thinking about any distinct core of honesty falls into doubt.

Indeed, the commonsense way of thinking about the relation between our thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and our pursuit of goals, on the other, is not just wrong, but backward. We tend to think of ourselves as making judgments and then behaving accordingly: "we" decide who is nice and then befriend them; "we" decide who is upstanding and applaud them; "we" figure out who is wrong and oppose them; "we" figure out what is true and abide by it. To this picture Freud would add that often we have goals we aren't aware of, goals that may get pursued in oblique, even counterproductive, ways-and that our perception of the world may get warped in the process.

But if evolutionary psychology is on track, the whole picture needs to be turned inside out. We believe the things—about morality, personal worth, even objective truth—that lead to behaviors that get our genes into the next generation. (Or at least we believe the kinds of things that, in the environment of our evolution, would have been likely to get our genes into the next generation.) It is the behavioral goals—status, sex, effective coalition, parental investment, and so on—that remain steadfast while our view of reality adjusts to accommodate this constancy. What is in our genes' interests is what seems "right"—morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order.

In short: if Freud stressed people's difficulty in seeing the truth about themselves, the new Darwinians stress the difficulty of seeing truth, period. Indeed, Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth. For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth—moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse—are, by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles. A winner will emerge, but there's often no reason to expect that winner to be truth. A cynicism deeper than Freudian cynicism may have once seemed hard to imagine, but here it is.

This Darwinian brand of cynicism doesn't exactly fill a gaping cultural void. Already, various avant-garde academics—"deconstructionist" literary theorists and anthropologists, adherents of "critical legal studies"—are viewing human communication as "discourses of power." Already many people believe what the new Darwinism underscores: that in human affairs, all (or at least much) is artifice, a self-serving manipulation of image. And already this belief helps nourish a central strand of the postmodern condition: a powerful inability to take things seriously.

Ironic self-consciousness is the order of the day. Cutting-edge talk-shows are massively self-referential, with jokes about cue cards written on cue cards, camera shots of cameras, and a general tendency for the format to undermine itself. Architecture is now about architecture, as architects playfully and, sometimes, patronizingly meld motifs of different ages into structures that invite us to laugh along with them. What is to be avoided at all costs in the postmodern age is earnestness, which betrays an embarrassing naïveté.

Whereas modern cynicism brought despair about the ability of the human species to realize laudable ideals, postmodern cynicism doesn't-not because it's optimistic, but because it can't take ideals seriously in the first place. The prevailing attitude is absurdism. A postmodern magazine may be irreverent, but not bitterly irreverent for it's not purposefully irreverent; its aim is indiscriminate, because everyone is equally ridiculous. And anyway, there's no moral basis for passing judgment. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

It is conceivable that the postmodern attitude has already drawn some strength from the new Darwinian paradigm. Sociobiology, however astringent its reception in academia, began seeping into popular culture two decades ago. In any event, the future progress of Darwinism may strengthen the postmodern mood. Surely, within academia, deconstructionists and critical legal scholars can find much to like in the new paradigm. And surely, outside of academia, one reasonable reaction to evolutionary psychology is a self-consciousness so acute, and a cynicism so deep, that ironic detachment from the whole human enterprise may provide the only relief.

Thus the difficult question of whether the human animal can be a moral animal—the question that modern cynicism tends to greet with despair—may seem increasingly quaint. The question may be whether, after the new Darwinism takes root, the word moral can be anything but a joke.

(pp. 324-326 in The Moral Animal by Robert Wright)

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