Mark Greif - In his new cultural history, Greif examines the literature and artistic production of a 40-year span in American history, 1933–1973, when most prominent intellectuals agreed that humanity was basically doomed
Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, Princeton UP, 2015.
In a midcentury American cultural episode forgotten today, intellectuals of all schools shared a belief that human nature was under threat. The immediate result was a glut of dense, abstract books on the "nature of man." But the dawning "age of the crisis of man," as Mark Greif calls it, was far more than a historical curiosity. In this ambitious intellectual and literary history, Greif recovers this lost line of thought to show how it influenced society, politics, and culture before, during, and long after World War II.
During the 1930s and 1940s, fears of the barbarization of humanity energized New York intellectuals, Chicago protoconservatives, European Jewish émigrés, and native-born bohemians to seek "re-enlightenment," a new philosophical account of human nature and history. After the war this effort diffused, leading to a rebirth of modern human rights and a new power for the literary arts.
Critics' predictions of a "death of the novel" challenged writers to invest bloodless questions of human nature with flesh and detail. Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright wrote flawed novels of abstract man. Succeeding them, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, and Thomas Pynchon constituted a new guard who tested philosophical questions against social realities--race, religious faith, and the rise of technology--that kept difference and diversity alive.
By the 1960s, the idea of "universal man" gave way to moral antihumanism, as new sensibilities and social movements transformed what had come before. Greif's reframing of a foundational debate takes us beyond old antagonisms into a new future, and gives a prehistory to the fractures of our own era.
In 1933 the world witnessed Hitler’s ascent to power. Twelve years later atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. By the time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, American intellectual culture had reached a consensus, across political lines, that mankind was surely in a state of crisis. Books by Reinhold Neibuhr (The Nature and Destiny of Man), Lewis Mumford (The Condition of Man), and Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition), remain some of the best known examples of the many volumes that grappled foremost with the issue of the human condition. They are, however, only a small few among a pervasive, and highly propulsive, body of literature that would continue to influence public dialogue and artistic production well into the 1960s. In The Age of the Crisis of Man, n+1 co-founder Mark Greif charts how a fundamental question of how to determine both the face and the fate of humanity framed, and was ultimately unraveled by, the creative output, critical and ethical debate, and profound shifts in public policy that took place after the Second World War. - www.housingworks.org/events/detail/the-age-of-the-crisis-of-man-mark-greif-and-a.o.-scott-in-conversation
“One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.” Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–1973. By “the discourse of man” Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from Being and Nothingness, to the “Family of Man” photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time. I’ve been toting The Age of the Crisis of Man around for the last month, using a pencil for a bookmark, because there’s something to underline on every page—and I haven’t even got to the chapters on O’Connor and Pynchon. —Lorin Stein
"Mark Greif is one of my favorite contemporary essayists, and it's a pleasure to read his analysis of a time of change so fundamental to our culture and artworks today. This is a brilliant history of midcentury American (and European) thought. His writing is witty, profound, and able to change the inner landscape of anyone who encounters it."--Sheila Heti
"An utterly surprising prehistory of our present, and one of the best imaginable roadmaps to the intellectual and literary geography of the last seventy years."--Elaine Scarry
"One shouldn’t use the word ‘masterpiece’ promiscuously, but this is a truly valuable excavation and explanation of a puzzling phase of twentieth-century culture that has been not only buried but largely forgotten. Mark Greif’s writing is utterly straightforward, and the book is limpidly researched, smartly argued, and, in case after case, stunningly right, as it sheds new light on the crucial middle decades of the century. I was riveted from start to finish."--Morris Dickstein
Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man exhumes a neglected thread of American intellectual history, a period from the early 30s to the early 70s when the “crisis of man” was on everyone’s mind. Though an intellectual history, Greif attends as much to novelists as to philosophers, arguing plausibly that ideas are often transmitted to popular consciousness by artistic media.
Every term of that phrase is important to Greif. The notion that there was a crisis - not only political or economic, but anthropological, a crisis in the very identity and meaning of being human. And the gendered naming of the crisis is also significant - it was summed up as a crisis of man, without much thought to the possibility that it might entail also a crisis for woman.
Politically, the crisis was a response to the rise of totalitarian regimes that attempts to redefine human nature; in both its Nazi and Communist guise, totalitarianism was an ideology of “the new man.” Enlightenment and quasi-Christian conceptions of human beings as bearers of rights or as dignified images of God were being forgotten, and according to many writers, man was being forgotten in the process. Most broadly, “the ‘crisis of man’ itself could become a name for the existence of people without religion or values, or individuals made lonely by the individualism and anonymity of cities in alienation; in short, a new name for solvent features of the modern, which had been better diagnosed by Durkheim, Weber, or many a sociologist from the turn of the century to its middle.”
One of the interesting results of the study is the way he fits the Sixties into his history. When one focuses on the “discourse” of the crisis of man, the Sixties look less like a new departure than like a “separate and distinct level of vernacular transformations of the discourse of man.” This doesn’t mean the Sixties weren’t disruptive, but that “When the sixties intervened, it wrote out in political actions and activism some of the contradictions we will have seen that the novelists had intuited or foundered on, synthesized, or papered over. . . . when you approach the individual pieces rocketing apart in the sixties, and sample them, you can see that they are often surprisingly made of the same stuff. Through recovery of the crisis of man, I can offer the prehistory that helps us trace back the trajectories of what now seem different intellectual galaxies, in hopes that others will compass them in a more various future.” - Peter J. Leithart
This is a curious, fascinating book which doesn’t quite grip its subject. It’s actual subject is the crisis of the manifest image of man (more of what I mean by that below), and the historical moment when intellectuals dropped that subject and turned to another problem without noticing that this is what they’d done. I’m not sure Greif notices this either but his book is so good this can be discerned even if the author remains oblivious. Historically this changing of the subject did happen (roughly the change was from the threat to the manifest image by scientific discoveries about nature to complaints about the exclusion of other manifest images) but Greif doesn’t acknowledge this and continues to provide commentary as if the subject hasn’t shifted.
Once upon a time, and for a very long time, knowledge was one thing amongst others in the world. Then a miracle happened and now the world is in knowledge. That is a cartoon version of Max Weber’s understanding of the scientistic challenge. If science doesn’t underwrite it, it ain’t so! As mad dog naturalist Alex Rosenberg reminds us:
‘… science has to reject almost everything common sense tells us about reality and our place in it … I am going against a Naturalistic tradition whose leading figure is the sainted Daniel Dennett. Dan has done more than any one to advance the naturalistic program of giving answers to the persistent questions that reconcile common sense—the manifest image, in Wilfred Sellers’ words—with science. But a lot of other philosophers have helped to try to advance this agenda. I honor them all, but I deem their program a failure by the standards that they set themselves. Two examples: Naturalists either violate Hume’s dictum is/ought dictum or reject it without good arguments. Sam Harris wrote a whole book steadily doing so, ‘The Moral Landscape’. Intentionality—the aboutness of propositional thoughts: a half century of the philosophy of psychology and we still haven’t figured out how it is even possible.’
Between the thirties and seventies America caught on and felt this disjunct between the manifest image and scientism as a looming crisis. Greif’s story shows how the realization that the received ‘manifest image’ of humanity was threatened with obsolescence became a key theme of the times. What he also shows is how the issue was understood at strange angles and filtered through all sorts of backwash that left too many things just as they had always been. By the time we get to the seventies a postmodernist or post structuralist discourse had been detected that presumed an unearned extreme skepticism. This was a smokescreen for rejecting the original crisis on the grounds that if all knowledge is suspect then science is just one of many equally suspect cognitive idioms. Relativism removed the scientistic crisis at one rather literary stroke! The genuinely interesting crisis – the one that picked up the challenge of scientism and which is the unique predicament of modern societies – was written out. It’s no wonder that Rosenberg is still having to remind us that there really is a crisis that needs working on. Greif’s book is informative and lively, although I think he’s rather too generous in assessing the end-game characters and misses the importance of some of the figures he writes about, such as Quine, because he misses the shift. Rosenberg nails what the book is really about and had the book been clearer about its terms I think certain intellectual currents would have been treated rather differently.
Where the book is superb is in the chapters on the fiction writers of the period he covers. Greif is writing as a literary studies professor and not a sociologist or philosopher or historian and this I think helps account for why the prominent literary and cultural theorists are treated with such respect in his story. It explains why his take on philosophy buys into the Analytic / Continental divide uncritically as an expression of some actual intellectual divide. But if he had really meant to discuss continental philosophy then he should have brought in all the various types of it, rather than just the strand that fed into literary theory of the time. Postmodernism or post structuralism is clearly no more than a tiny subset of continental philosophy. Marx does get a mention but more the moralised Marx than the hard core materialistic original. Weber and the historicists don’t get a look in, nor do Hegelians, never mind the materialists such as Nietzsche. Heidegger is there but only as the launch pad of Derrida but the neo-Kantians, existentialists et al aren’t – except to be called out as boring. This is the same kind of idea that the editor of ‘Wired’ encapsulated when he wrote that it was ‘po-mo that saved Marxism’s ass.’ Historically it may well have bee the case in the sixties and early seventies that post modernity was dominant in certain literary theories and cultural studies departments, but Greif doesn’t make clear how parochial this was, nor how a figure such as Quine, whom he dismisses, is considered by many leading philosophers today as being a very significant and serious player in the scientistic crisis.
Princeton’s blurb sets the scene:
‘In a midcentury American cultural episode forgotten today, intellectuals of all schools shared a belief that human nature was under threat. The immediate result was a glut of dense, abstract books on the “nature of man.” But the dawning “age of the crisis of man,” as Mark Greif calls it, was far more than a historical curiosity. In this ambitious intellectual and literary history, Greif recovers this lost line of thought to show how it influenced society, politics, and culture before, during, and long after World War II.
During the 1930s and 1940s, fears of the barbarization of humanity energized New York intellectuals, Chicago protoconservatives, European Jewish émigrés, and native-born bohemians to seek “re-enlightenment,” a new philosophical account of human nature and history. After the war this effort diffused, leading to a rebirth of modern human rights and a new power for the literary arts.
Critics’ predictions of a “death of the novel” challenged writers to invest bloodless questions of human nature with flesh and detail. Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright wrote flawed novels of abstract man. Succeeding them, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon constituted a new guard who tested philosophical questions against social realities—race, religious faith, and the rise of technology—that kept difference and diversity alive.
By the 1960s, the idea of “universal man” gave way to moral antihumanism, as new sensibilities and social movements transformed what had come before. Greif’s reframing of a foundational debate takes us beyond old antagonisms into a new future, and gives a prehistory to the fractures of our own era.’
Lori Stein in the ‘Paris Review’ is impressed:
‘One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.’ Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933-1973. By ‘the discourse of man’ Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from ‘Being and Nothingness’, to the ‘Family of Man’ photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time.’
Another enthusiastic critic finds that ‘… one of the interesting results of the study is the way he fits the Sixties into his history. When one focuses on the “discourse” of the crisis of man, the Sixties look less like a new departure than like a “separate and distinct level of vernacular transformations of the discourse of man.” Greif doesn’t mean the Sixties weren’t disruptive. He writes: ‘When the sixties intervened, it wrote out in political actions and activism some of the contradictions we will have seen that the novelists had intuited or foundered on, synthesized, or papered over. . . . when you approach the individual pieces rocketing apart in the sixties, and sample them, you can see that they are often surprisingly made of the same stuff. Through recovery of the crisis of man, I can offer the prehistory that helps us trace back the trajectories of what now seem different intellectual galaxies, in hopes that others will compass them in a more various future.’ Well, Greif does fit the sixties into his history but at the expense of an unacknowledged discontinuity of its subject matter.
Greif reads closely and the visions of the dissolving, threatened manifest image these novelists write about, are compelling. His reading of Pynchon, as a parade case, shows that Greif is a skillful and shrewd reader of the novels he covers. Setting the scene Greif says the early 1940’s the intellectual crisis of man centered on philosophy, history, faith and technology. Mid-century technology was factory presses, assembly lines, dynamos and centrifuges, automobiles and bombs. The technology of human organization was a fascist and totalitarian coordination which America domesticated via the dishwasher, laundry machine, electric refrigerator, countertop appliances, tv radio and portable transistors. This latter technology followed Americans wherever they went and works as a strong metaphor for the changing relationship between machine and mankind. Pynchon’s formula is devastating; the distinction between people and technology is a distinction without a difference. Everything he writes follows from this. For Pynchon this is a problem, not a po-mo solution.
Greif locates Pynchon as a writer developing themes out of earlier works such as ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ (1955) and ‘The Organisation Man’ (1956). ‘Entropy’ is a key note, a term taken from physics but developed to mean something quite specific in the Pynchon universe. Early on it was a technology of the mundane that fascinated him in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ and ‘V’ and this is where Greif focuses his study. He establishes quickly that ubiquity of the technology and its inescapable relationship with modern lives as something that pervades Pynchon’s fiction. There are TV sets in every room and the grim politics of this techno-human relationship is quickly established. Greif makes clear that Yoyodyne aerospace and Republicanism grow up side by side. What Pynchon starts to articulate is a creepy, X-Filey sense that technology is draining us away. Some elements of technological threat, such as its speedy computerized efficiency, is by now a cliché and was even then. A character kills himself after being ‘automated out of a job’. Pynchon tells us it‘took three weeks to decide to kill himself. ‘You know how long it would’ve taken the IBM 7094? Twelve microseconds’ (CL49) and this is funny but ersatz. But there’s more to Greif’s Pynchon than that.
Greif sees the influence of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’ (1964) and Norbert Weiner’s ‘The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society’ (1950, revised 54) in what is interesting about Pynchon. Weiner at MIT was a pioneer working to find a scientific understanding of intentionality. He failed of course. But at the time he was at the cutting edge of this frontier.
‘The information received by the automaton need not be used at once but may be delayed or stored so as to become available at some future time. This is the analogue of memory…as long as the automaton is running, its very rules of operation are susceptible to some change on the basis of the data which have passed through the receptors in the past, and this is not unlike the process of learning.’ Unlike insects, humans have developed a powerful memory functionality which gives them a mechanical fluidity, especially during their prolonged childhood, and limitless possibilities to learn.
‘Feedback is a method of controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance. If these results are merely used as numerical data for the criticism of the system and its regulation, we have the simple feedback of the control engineers. If, however, the information which proceeds backwards from the performance is able to change the general method and patterns of performance, we have a process which may be called learning.’
‘In one sense, this terminal apparatus [i.e. mind] may be regarded as a filter superimposed on the transmission line. Semantically significant information from the cybernetic point of view is that which gets through the line lus filter rather than that which gets through the line alone. In other words, when I hear a passage of music, the greater part of the sound gets to my sense organs and reaches my brain. However, if I lack the perception and training necessary for the aesthetic understanding of musical structure, this information will meet a block, whereas if I were a trained musician it would meet an interpretation structure or organisation which would exhibit the pattern in a significant form which can lead to aesthetic appreciation and further understanding.’
‘Semantically significant information in the machine as well as in man is information which gets through to an activating mechanism in the system that receives it, despite man’s and/or nature’s attempts to subvert it. From the point of view of Cybernetics, semantics defines the extent of meaning and controls its loss in a communications system.’
Weiner also linked the transmission of meaning with teleological behaviour:
‘Causality implies a one-way, relatively irreversible functional relationship, whereas teleology is concerned with behaviour not with functional relationships. Out of this comes the idea that feedback operates to change the rules of the operation.’ And where teleology is lost? Pynchon has networks of feedback, insane loops of communication, learning, machine noise and information, data, telephones ringing in forgotten rooms, messages coded from the buzz of the other side of a universe, deciphered warnings on this side of advertising hoardings, subliminal images running lunatic codes in synapses now hooked to long rerouted and cancelled experiments, wiring that no longer connects, upgrades that leave worlds in limbos of supernal darkness and silence, flesh units that drive on roads that satellites map onto different planets, riots and wars that happen without anyone knowing, images that replace words and sounds that replace images and silence that replaces everything. Sunsets are an invention of evolved humanity. This is the world that can’t have sunsets anymore.
Pynchon felt the increasing pressure of the scientific image of mankind squeezing out its vernacular manifest image by confronting a revenge-effect of technology, the US mastery of ‘the art of waste’. In this new relationship with technology mundane objects aren’t the ephemera of stereotyped consumerism but persistent objects of lost memory and desire. What is lost is not the materiality of the objects but their value. Human values are stripped away and they become empty shells. Cycling and recycling become signs of the new vision of mankind, a vision where there is no longer a memory, not even a nostalgia for what there used to be. The new landscape is one scattered with the forgetfulness and meaninglessness of material leftovers, and this includes people.
For Pynchon it is inanimate objects rather than technologies that threaten to undermine our sense of ourselves. Objects without values proliferate, and the Pynchon landscape is one of barren inertness spreading across it. Technology inserts material objects into men and brings with it a leveling incommensurability denuded of values. This junk world is his fear, not power hierarchies. This is a post-war imagination that sniffs out the importance of the technological objects as fetish, not because they’re different from us but au contraire. The images of the holocaust were images now written out in the fierce logic of the refrigerator and automobile, technologies we insert things into and are in turn inserted into.
Greif writes: ‘Pynchon is the major American author most affected by WW II , apart from the immediate post-war novelists like Norman Mailer and James Jones.’ He says that Pynchon’s work doesn’t require the reader to embark on a programme of deciphering but is rather all about situatedness. He’s a thematic writer and his theme is the tension between the material and the animate and the increasing accretion of the material around him. Pynchon’s a research writer – he knows all about plastic surgery and life in 20s Montmartre and the 1898 Fashoda Incident but nevertheless it doesn’t pay to work out what Pynchon is. It isn’t the point of what he’s doing. What Pynchon is giving us, is a dire warning around his theme, the coming deadness of animate spirits, the loss of our ability to haunt ourselves and others, the disaster coming when nothing carries memory and value. Pynchon fears the loss of our ability to care. Come to think about it, it may well be hindsight speaking. Not so much a fear as a recognition.
‘Benny Profane: ‘Keep cool. Keep cool but care. It’s a watchword, Profane, for your side of the morning.’
‘What do you mean, we’ll be like you and SHOCK someday? You mean dead?
‘Am I dead? If I am then that’s what I mean.
If you aren’t then what are you?
Nearly what you are. None of you have very far to go.’
‘Remember, Profane, how it is on Route 14, south, outside Elmira, New York?… Acres of old cars, piled up ten high in rusting tiers. A graveyard for cars… Now remember, right after the war, the Nuremburg war trials? Remember the photographs of Auschwitz? Thousands of Jewish corpses, stacked up like those poor car bodies. Schlemiel: It’s already started.
‘Hitler did that. He was crazy.’…
Fifteen years ago. Has it occurred to you there may be no more standards for crazy or sane, now that it’s started?’
‘Schlemiel’ is Yiddish for someone who can’t go along with objects. Pynchon is calling out a modern kind of decadence;
‘… a decadence… is a falling away from what is human, and the further we fall the less human we become. Because we are less human, we foist off the humanity we have lost on inanimate objects and abstract theories.’
His novel ‘V’ where these quotes come from is one half a road novel satire on New York bo-hos Beat novel. What is Pynchon worrying about there? He’s arguing against the groups who just talk without meaning what they say, who have already lost the ability to value but are rather living lives in parenthesis. What’s wrong with the New York bo-ho scene?
‘It does not create, it talks about people who do. Varese, Ionesco, de Kooning, Wittgenstein, I could puke. It satirizes itself and doesn’t mean. Time magazine takes it seriously and does mean it.’
If one side of the novel is a satire on that, the other half is a pop historical pulp in spy thriller vein which says; ‘… something unexpected has happened in our century.’
Rachel Owlglass is first seen sexually caressing her MG a vision that haunts Benny until late in the book. Here is Pynchon’s image of the man-machine interface and it really doesn’t need to be said that Ballard is not far outside this room. The character Melanie l’Heuremaudit is in love with herself and becomes a human mannequin. Inanimate objects take over. And Pynchon’s war memories feed into this. He can imagine how the world goes once the Nazis crossed a sort of barrier. The response to genocidal extermination is inflected through a horror of recycling. Pynchon’s world takes in the deepest horror:
Rachel says to Benny:
‘I guess on the rare ocassions you bathe you wouldn’t mind using Nazi soap made from one of those six million Jews.’
In ‘Lot 49’ we have Oedipa Maas and the ‘… deafening ad for Beaconsfield Cigarettes, whose attractiveness lay in their filter’s use of bone charcoal, the very best kind. “Bones of what?’ wondered Oedipa.’ The human bones of Lago di Pieta where GIs were massacred and dumped in a lake. The bones dredged up in the early 50s so that ‘ the dead American’s bones simply entered the American commercial system of raw materials: sold as fertilizer first, warehoused for a time in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then bought by Beaconsfield cigarettes in the end. So good contemporary Americans, instead of remembering the soldiers who dies in a forgotten tragedy, in what was supposedly a ‘good’ war, now were smoking them, with obvious luxurious pleasure.’
Elsewhere the realization that death will take us all to dust is amplified by the obliteration of memory spaces such as graveyards: ‘Now the cemetery is gone. They took it out for the East San Narciso Freeway.’ Pynchon writes into the American world of Tupperware, Muzak, LSD tests, Perry Mason, ‘Sick Dick and the Volkswagons’ ‘I Want to Kiss your feet’. The Volkswagon beetle car is another potent machine sign of the memory loss recycling implacably brings. The Nazi people’s car survived the war and reached America chic and cut off from its original values. It gets driven by uber-cool American beauties just as the bones of American G.I.s are smoked by Californian and New York far-out hep cats. He asks whether any inner meaning or memory remain stored in waste objects? How did he know that this was the question? And can anyone answer it without doing suicide? Pynchon reiterates this theme and the fear that humanity is now junk, merely waste stuff without value, without the shimmer memory and feeling brings, crocks of nothing easily and ever recycled and emptied of meaning.
Pynchon lays out networks where trade-ins, reruns, cycling , communication and energy become the central processes of his dissolving animate world. It is in this context that he uses the word ‘entropy’. Greif explains:
‘Entropy is a figure of speech, then… a metaphor. It connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow.’
He develops his understanding of all this in terms of a process where we move from material to immaterial information. The technologies he uses to show this are telephones where we communicate with known and unknown disembodied voices, and radios with hidden radio disc jockeys and songs that relentlessly penetrate everywhere. His tale of a postal conspiracy the Tristero, about a rival mail service involving conspiracy secrets turned violent as it resisted Thurn und Taxis and Pony Express, (maybe) and deep rumors that it may have survived takes us to the reiterated theme of secret mails of WASTE. Here Pynchon gives us the shadow fakery of fake messages and waste communication, attempts to escape official channels that have become more pressing as technologies of communication endlessly and ruthlessly overwhelm us. Here is an answer to those who call out conspiracy theorists. The conspiracy theorists fantasies are raw data of what has been lost, what has been forgotten, a different arrangement and a form of insane resistance, an aberrant shape of memory trace.
If there’s a sort of warning there’s also the hallucinatory mapping of a sort of desperate escape route via embracing the terms of the new reality. The deal is to cheat the fate of extinction by accepting the terms. Young stuff – the child actor turns lawyer who recycles his early films ‘ … in an air-conditioned vault at one of the Hollywood studios,’ is shown attempting a proxy eternal recycling of himself in a place where ‘light can’t fatigue it, it can be repeated endlessly.’ The image of mankind gets harvested in a ceaseless returning but there’s no one left to understand it, no one left to even inherit the loss. It’s the absolute opposite of the Nietzschean return where the appeal to life’s repetition is to endorse its purpose. Pynchon’s Young Stuff is the mankind whose value disappeared, who remains as just material junk, dead satellites circling pitch dark space. Here then are Pynchon’s questions: are there other ways to use recycling for those already disinherited? Is there escape: ‘What was left to inherit?’
In Pynchon’s world anxiety and malignity remain and there is no proof that escape is possible though rumors collect and seep out. The source of why Pynchon’s paranoid literature gains traction is here, in the sense of secret powers and underground resistance that refuses to communicate using the official channels and obvious histories: ‘For here were God knows how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by US mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly an act of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private. Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?), there had to exist the separate, silent, unsuspected world.’ Our contemporary underground communication guerilla group, the mysterious ‘Anonymous’, seems to have been spooked directly out of this world.
‘Were the squatters there in touch with others… were they helping carry forward that 300 years of the house’s disinheritance? Surely they’d forgotten by now what it was Tristero were to have inherited … What was left to inherit? She thought of other, immobilized freight cars, where the kids sat.. or slept in junkyards in the shells of wrecked Plymouths, or even, daring, spent the night up some pole in a lineman’s tent like caterpillars, swung among a web of telephone wires, living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication… And the voices… that had phoned at random during the darkest, slowest hours, searching ceaselessly among the dial’s ten million possibilities for the magical Other who would reveal herself… the recognition, the Word.’
What’s left behind is America. What’s crying in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’?
‘The auctioneer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49.’
The moment the circulation of words and ideas break off. There is no solution to its mystery.
Pynchon’s brilliant imaginative work wires us to the phenomenological vernacular of modernity, its fear of being cashed out as worthless junk, of losing track of values, not knowing if the car is Nazi memorabilia and the cigarette a human body. His understanding of new forms of communication webs where voice and image are messages and noise in disembodied and insane networks and counter-networks creates desolate avenues of ghost and phantom messages and data mutating where intentionality is no longer required. The relational and reflexive properties of sender and receiver are lost. It’s the pianist Brendel saying a recording studio is like a tomb compared to the concert hall. No responsiveness, no audience. Pynchon’s tomb world is that recording studio with no one even in the booth anymore and the tapes just ceaselessly draining recycled sounds to junk. A mystery. No solution.
As if somehow picking up on this, a theory developed over time that captured this sense of lost human identity and a new identity identified with orders of redundant communication. It was a time when a literary culture in the radicalized American University’s embraced the sense that ghostly entities such as propositions and sentences rather than cultures and societies were crucial. They approached the issue as a shallow version of Positivism, both frivolous and scholastic at once. It failed to dig deeply into the differences of cognitive potential between humanities and science and, as social philosopher Ernest Gellner once wrote, although they were right to say ‘… that language is a form of life, and not just a series of verifications…’ they missed the crucial point that ‘… systematic verification happens to be a crucial part of certain forms of life, of industrial-scientific societies, and is conspicuously absent from others; and what matters is the understanding of the differences between these types, and of the various paths available from one to the other, and the assessment of those paths and of their social consequences.’ Instead, the literary, political and cultural theorists at the end of the sixties shifted the dehumanization problem. Instead of dehumanisation being what follows from scientific discoveries about reality (the challenge to the ‘manifest image’ that Rosenberg, cited at the beginning of this review, outlines) it became a moral and political solution rather than a problem. ‘Humanism’ was just code for a hegemonic ‘white, male, colonial power discourse’. Susan Sontag, a representative of this, wrote: ‘If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilisation.’ Literary theory changed the subject, and drew back from the truly radical implications of scientism. Reading about this after Greif’s extraordinarily good discussion of Pynchon it’s hard not to see the transition as a trivialisation, even though the subjects of colonialisation, racism , sexism and inequalities generally are clearly deadly serious.
The American intelligentsia took to French structuralist theory imported via Levi-Strauss as a starting point. The rise of ‘Theory’ involved the critique the subject where the notion of ‘difference’ was its basic, activating principle. If ‘humanism’ was just code for a devious and evil discourse then Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes were seen as bringing to the table a form of antihumanism, a ‘principled removal of the level of explanation of phenomena from single rational human actors and their explicit self-understandings and sub and super-personal aggregations.’ Anti-man became the measure and with it a creeping moral hostility to what, rightly, was seen as a complacent humanism. Foucault wrote at the time: ‘You can’t imagine into what kind of moralizing pool of humanistic sermons we were plunged after the war. Everyone was a humanist. Camus, Sartre, Garaudy were humanists. Stalin was a humanist.’
Pierre Bourdieu agreed, confessing that, ‘ … many of the intellectual leanings I share with the ‘structuralist’ generation (especially Althusser and Foucault)… can be explained by the need to react against what existentialism and represented for them: the flabby ‘humanism’ that was in the air, the complacent appeal to ‘lived experience’ and that sort of political moralism.’ The new ‘analytic’ content of Carnap and Quine of mid-1950s logical positivism was repudiated but its style and approach was grafted on to lit-crit close reading to create a form of latter-day scholasticism.
Levi-Strauss studied with Merleau-Pony, Simone de Beauvoir and Fernand Braudel. His ‘The Elementary Structures of Kinship’ had much to recommend itself to analytic-style philosophical rigor and felt a lot like Carnap. Indeed from 1949 to 1966 structuralism looked to Greif a lot like analytic philosophical rigor with Jakobson developing Saussure like Carnap developed Frege. This new rigorous French thought was an alternative to what was seen as sloppy Sartrean phenomenology. This led to formal systems modeling qualitative phenomena (e.g. game theory or rational choice), the mathematisation of philosophical principles, the removal of political economy from economics and the elevation of quantification and statistical methods to sociology and special sciences generally. Levi-Strauss ‘heralded a belated modernist turn in the social sciences.’ The many conferences on cybernetics , information theory , computational approaches to sociological fields of this period all support this thesis. So at this point structuralism was seriously engaged with finding out how things really work.
But at an odd angle to this scientism was Levi-Strauss’s anti-colonialisation, anti-ethnocentrism and his commitment to ‘difference’. Here we detect a shift from trying to work out how things work to delivering moral sermons about how things should work. In his 1952 lecture on race at UNESCO Anthony Hazzard reports that he was clear that ‘racism was morally unacceptable and unsupported by science’ but saw this as a problem.
Levi-Strauss said: ‘ It seems to us, however, that the very effort made in this series of booklets to prove [the nonexistence of race] involved a risk of pushing into the background another very important aspect of the life of man – the fact that the development of human life is not everywhere the same but rather takes form in an extraordinary diversity of societies and civilizations…
It would be useless to argue the man in the street out of attaching an intellectual or moral significance to the fact of having a black or white skin, straight or frizzy hair, unless we had an answer to another question which, as experience proves [,] he will immediately ask: if there are no innate racial aptitudes, how can we explain the fact that the white man’s civilization has made the tremendous advantages with which we are all familiar while the civilizations of the coloured peoples have lagged behind, some of them having come only half way along the road, and others being still thousands or tens of thousands of years behind the times.? We cannot therefore claim to have formulated a convincing denial of the human races, so long as we fail to consider the problem of inequality – or diversity – of human cultures, which is in fact – however unjustifiably – closely associated with it in the public mind.’
‘The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn. By refusing to consider as human those who seem to us the most ‘savage’ or ‘barbarous’ of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.’
Levi-Strauss said that universalism is evolutionism without race, what we think of as racism but with the notion of race abandoned. He thought that universalism ‘… is really an attempt to wipe out the diversity of cultures while pretending to afford it full recognition.’ This anti-Ethnocentrism was linked with the anthropology of Frank Boas: ‘… even the most indubitable Western superiority becomes just an observer effect amid cultural relativity.’ This was, says Greif, a bomb exploding under the post-war consensus of international development. Well, it was certainly powerful enough rhetoric to distract many intellectuals for years from actually getting back to working out how reality is. Delivering highly questionable conclusions using high octane camouflage prose assuming maximal moral righteousness became the sign of intellectual sophistication for these high priests of theory. It wouldn’t be important if it was trivial but it did mean that for many years afterwards the genuine crisis was hidden.
Structuralism joined up with systems thinking, the hermeneutic suspicion, the linguistic turn and a new analytic method that was dissolving a humanism understood as the discourse dishonestly pretended to be the one and only discourse of mankind. Structuralism championed difference and attacked ethnocentricism, logocentrism, phallocentrism as Levi-Strauss’s ‘The Savage Mind’ made clear: ‘ … the ultimate goal of the human sciences is not to constitute, but to dissolve man.’
All the poster boys and girls are here, saying the same thing. Foucault’s ‘The Order of Things’ says: ‘As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.’ Lacan agrees: ‘It is known that I have always felt a repugnance for the term sciences humaines, which seems to me a call to slavery itself.’ Barthes claimed; ‘… it is language which teaches the definition of man, not the reverse.’ Althusser says: ‘ To put it plainly: we need to say once and for all to all those who… are constantly harping about man, men, we need to tell them once and for all that this idealist blackmail and unbearable , if not criminal, demagoguery and political (I say political) duty is to rid the domain of Marxist philosophy of all the ‘Humanist” rubbish that is being brazenly dumped into it. It is an offense to the thought of Marx and an insult to all revolutionary militants.’
Structuralism was just one of the movements that morphed into this moral and political crusade: ‘… the structuralists have come to the conclusion that … a good deal of our trouble arises out of the invention of the self as an object of study, from the belief that man has a special kind of being, in short from the emergence of humanism. Structuralism is not a humanism, because it refuses to grant man any special status in the world. Obviously, it can not deny that there are individual men who observe, think, write, and so on (although it does not encourage them in a narcissistic effort of ‘finding themselves’, to use the popular jargon). Nor does it deny that there are more or less cohesive social groups with their own histories and cultures. Nothing concrete recognized or valued by the humanist is excluded, only the theoretical basis of humanism. In order to clarify the point it is necessary to consider the central question of structuralism, which comes to dominate all discussions of it, namely, the status of the subject.’ As the seventies approached the full-blown post-structuralist era was dawning with Derrida it’s most accomplished and sly practitioner.
Reading Greif it seems Derrida got himself noticed at this time for being a thinker as interested in making a name for himself than seriously engaging with the crisis: ‘… his specialty was in picking… freewheeling battles with other thinkers on the basis of an instability he claimed to identify through close readings of their texts, while affirming ‘play’ and undecideability as his own freedom from the nostalgia for foundations: it was a philosophical method rooted in school training, but also not an unfamiliar way of gaining notice in France.’ This seems to impute a sly careerism to the Derridean approach. Greif also shows how Derrida nicked ideas from others without acknowledging this fact. Greif points out, for example, that ‘escaping the illusion of “presence”’ sounds familiar in Derrida because he was actually lifting the language of Heidegger. Heidegger in his ‘Letter on Humanism’ writes; ‘The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics… Thinking is on the descent to the poverty of its provisional essence. Thinking gathers language into simple saying. In this way language is the language of Being, as clouds are the clouds of the sky.’ Greif suggests that Derrida’s ‘philosophy’ is really just riffing with this sort of idea and nothing else. What Greif calls Derridean ‘tics’ are all derived from Heidegger: Heidegger’s ‘the destruction of metaphysics’ becomes ‘deconstruction,’ and Derrida’s use of crossed out words “under erasure” were adopted from 1920s Heidegger. Cunning neologisms, and alterered orthography eg existentiell and ontotheology inspired differance where misspellings were to be understood as deep conceptual twist. Derrida proposed to go behind the ‘logos’ and the ‘ratio’ just like Heidegger but instead of Heidegger’s primordial Being waiting there Derrida claimed there was nothing but a polysemy, a play of endlessly deferred undecideable refoundations of meaning of language where all centres would fail to hold (thus contradicting himself).
In this way structuralist anti-humanism and late Heideggerain antihumanism turned into post-structuralism and gave new life to the old guard of New Criticism by giving a new theoretical and avant garde cast to the literary practice of close readings. Instead of paradoxes you found decentredness and undecideability. It extended anti-ethnocentrism into new projects such as feminism, queer scholarship, critical race scholarship, discourses of social difference and so on. De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ gave an existential sense of the body’s condition and situation. One could think oppositions without turning them into options. Foucault’s new historicism was a better type of deconstruction useful for unmasking the metamorphoses of the techniques of domination, but Foucault’s debt to genuine historicism was quickly corrupted by the po mo influences latterly.
By 1969 the old humanists were clearly on the wane. Marcuse, Marx, Engels, Mao, Castro, Sartre, Fanon, Maslow, Fromm, Horney and Klein were less potent than before although Marx, Engels and Fanon still had power in certain circles. But deconstruction was clearly on the rise with Foucault, Barthes and Derrida rising stars in literary circles. And although the French had been important there were German imports also helping to secure this new approach coming from the Frankfurt school. This helped move theory to the centre in America where Adorno and Horkheimer were at first very influential and Benjamin the movement’s martyr until they became out-radicalised by the student movements of the late sixties. A significant influence was the dematerialising of Marx, turning Marxism into a moraliser. Frederick Jameson at Yale looked back to their significance (and Ernst Bloch and Lucaks) in ‘Marxism and Form ’ but Adorno and company proved far too conservative for the young militants of ’68 and in turn Adorno called the police on the students.
‘Theory’ gave meaning to the death of man that the earlier discourse of the crisis of man had failed to do. Greif says the radical deconstructionists ‘… shared a will in the 1960’s and 1970’s to free the experience of reading the record of the past and writing the artifacts of the present and future, from a constricted overpoint that had come to be associated with the emphasis on Man.’ Martin Jay’s ‘The Dialectal Imagination’ was an influential text when translated into English in 1972. What had been created, or assumed, was a new kind of audience and receiver. Greif notes that ‘To outsiders it sounds like nihilism or fanciful conceptual homicide.’ Greif’s book ends in 1973 which he says is the beginning of the post-modern era. Reading the antics of the characters Greif writes about latterly, it is depressing to see their lack of curiosity about how their world actually works. Weber talked about the new man as living in a ‘disenchanted’ world. What Greif has shown is how a re-enchantment industry began.
Greif wonders whether the breakup of the vulgarized version of universal man was salvation or loss. He notes that the novel was ‘… briefly a space in which the new authority of unmarked, universal man could be borrowed and spread, and yet where its contradictions and gaps would come into relief.’ It could still sermonize, prophesize, preach ultimate things because ‘… a nationalist project had coffered the past of American literature into Old and New Testaments, asserting the legitimacy of US culture as a rival to European cultures- and insisting new novels must keep up this high office of art and prophecy; and yet by recalcitrant habit, because novels were still composed from below, requiring the depiction of plausible, generally lower-middle class American characters, who spoke vernacular language and embodied vernacular conflicts. There, high philosophical obligations must intersect the ordinary.’
Greif’s claim is that there’s been a hole in the historiography of the period he covers because previous overviews have failed to track the subject of ‘humanity’ at the ‘maieutic ‘ level i.e. the level of ‘… negotiations and articulations of man and the human.’ Greif’s book fills that hole. But having followed his story, it is strange for Greif to conclude with the following advice :
‘…. I want to tell my contemporaries: Stop! Anytime your enquiries lead you to say “ At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are, our solution and salvation must lie in a new picture of ourselves and humanity, this is our profound responsibility and a new opportunity” – just stop. You have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment…. Answer, rather, the practical matters, concrete questions of value not requiring “who we are” distinct from what we say or do, and find immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim. … a maieutic discourse of the background politicals to rule and regulate what is thinkable, what must be spoken of and genuflected to, collecting participants and legitimacy rather than accomplishing consequential thought.’
If we take Rosenberg’s assertions at the start of this review seriously then what is striking about the period Greif discusses is how the problem was avoided and misdiagnosed by the theorists of the time. As noted above, they were right to say that that language is a form of life and that it spawns diverse choice. But they ignored that they were living in a form of life where a particular form of cognitive discourse severely restricted options for what we could actually be. Science boxed in the manifest image, disenchanted it so that much of what made life meaningful was illusion. The problem of bridging the gap between science and that ‘manifest image’, those ‘forms of life’ that live outside the scientific method, remains as serious as ever. The re-enchantment industry tried to fix this rather like the person who fixes the problem of the oncoming tiger by closing her eyes. Rosenberg is bracingly clear about the issue when he says:
‘I tried to coopt the word ‘scientism’ and to argue that science can answer the persistent philosophical questions that trouble people, including the nature of reality, the purpose of life, the existence of a soul, the grounds of morality, whether we have free will, and the meaning of human history. Most of the answers science gives to these questions are unpopular and people neither understand them nor want to hear them.’
Greif’s book is fascinating and rich but his final recommendation is one that commits the same mistake as the thinkers he charts in his book. He avoids the genuine crisis, one that isn’t about linguistic negotiations any more than physics is and so remains oddly unperturbed by what science is telling us about ourselves and the options that follow from this knowledge. The strength of the book is that although I disagree with much of what he says about the general position his readings of the novelists are engaging, lucid, attractively fresh and critically astute. So if you disagree with my views you should still read the book, and if you agree with me you should too. And of course it’s not clear Rosenberg’s right either. - Richard Marshall
The title of The Age of the Crisis of Man, the new book by Mark Greif, has a curious sound to it. In the 21st century, we are subject to no end of crisis-talk: We know about the Ebola and AIDS crises in Africa, the geopolitical crisis in Syria and Iraq, and the climate crisis everywhere, which threatens to render all those local crises irrelevant. (The one we no longer hear about so much is the nuclear crisis, which has receded since the end of the Cold War, though it could flare up again any time.) The word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats, each demanding total attention in order to ward off catastrophe. This sense that humanity is living close to the edge of extinction might, in fact, be a constant for our species—perhaps the Middle Ages felt about Judgment Day the way we feel about global warming—but to interpret this apocalypse as a “crisis” is distinctively modern, a creation of the 20th century. For a crisis is something urgent, about which steps must be taken, rather than a fate that simply looms over us. It implies a problem of our own creation that demands our own solution.
Despite all this crisis-talk, however, it has been a long time since people worried about “the crisis of man.” Indeed, to talk of “man” at all now sounds old-fashioned, for several reasons. The obvious one is that the term is gender-restrictive; since the rise of feminism, the absurdity of referring to all human beings simply as “men” or “man” or “mankind” has become undeniable. On a more profound level, however, we no longer feel comfortable using the word “man” because we have lost a certain confidence in the unity of the human species. “Man” implies a common nature and an irreducible essence, something that all of us have always had in common. But the whole trend of philosophy, anthropology, and critical theory since the 1960s has been in the opposite direction, toward an emphasis on difference, diversity, historical and cultural pluralism. To speak of “man,” rather than human beings, now has a bombastic and even imperialistic sound.
Greif’s goal in The Age of the Crisis of Man is to chart this evolution: to show how, between the years mentioned in his subtitle, “Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973,” intellectuals and novelists first embraced, then questioned, and finally abandoned the concept of “man.” There is, then, a kind of pun lurking in Greif’s title. “The crisis of man” was a commonplace of the 1930s, when the rise of Fascism and Communism seemed to threaten the very idea of human nature as it had been understood since the Enlightenment. This is Greif’s starting point; but he goes on to explore the crisis of “man,” that is, of the word and concept itself. In the course of this exploration, he draws connections between exceptionally diverse books and thinkers, showing a mastery of mid-century American intellectual history that few writers of his generation can match. Greif’s story takes in everyone from Reinhold Niebuhr to Ralph Ellison to Franz Boas to Jacques Derrida to Thomas Pynchon. In this way he demonstrates the power, and also the peril, of the concept of man: It includes everything.
In a famous essay, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” Lionel Trilling wrote that the element of the past that literature can’t recapture is “the culture’s hum and buzz of implication”—the penumbra of ideas and understandings that give artworks their meaning. Greif begins by attempting to conjure up that hum and buzz for the 1930s and ’40s, the era when, as he writes, “American intellectuals of manifold types … converged on a perception of danger.” This danger was not just to individuals, nations, or even whole races, but to “man”: “their fear, above all, was that human nature was being changed.” This was the era of books with titles like The Nature and Destiny of Man (Niebuhr), The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis), Man the Measure (Erich Kahler), and The Condition of Man (Lewis Mumford). As Greif summarizes, “Man became at midcentury the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognized, helped, rescued, made the center, the measure, the ‘root.’ ”
One of the challenges facing Greif is that, while he necessarily begins with this material, which falls at the chronological beginning of his period, it is in fact some of the least interesting and important in his study. Indeed, he writes about the whole “crisis of man” period from a certain intellectual remove, as if unsure that these books—most of which are now entirely unread—deserve serious scholarly attention. The question of man was asked over and over again, Greif shows, usually in similar terms. Writers on the subject lamented the decline of Enlightenment ideals, asked where society had gone wrong, and often found the culprit in technology. They called for what Greif calls “re-enlightenment,” a return to the ideals of freedom, reason, and individualism that modern Europe seemed to have abandoned.
Yet he finds this discourse generally unimpressive, lacking originality and profundity. The best way to understand it, Greif argues, is as “maieutics.” The word comes from the Greek for “midwife,” and a maieutic argument like the crisis-of-man discourse is less concerned with establishing truth than with eliciting certain responses in the audience. By talking about man, in other words, these mid-century writers hoped to will him into being, at a time when he seemed about to disappear.
In tackling this refractory material, Greif spends less time explaining the actual contents of the crisis-of-man books than he does exploring the intellectual networks by which ideas spread. Often The Age of the Crisis of Man is reminiscent of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which likewise looked at how individuals and institutions underlay the transmission of ideas. But where Menand’s focus was pragmatism at Harvard, Greif’s subject embraces everything from Robert Maynard Hutchins’ Great Books program at the University of Chicago, to the “moral anthropology” of the German Jewish intellectuals who fled Hitler for America, to the creation of UNESCO after the war. In all these ways—and even in a middlebrow phenomenon like the blockbuster photo exhibition “The Family of Man”—Greif sees the premises and contradictions of crisis-of-man discourse being worked out.
In the second of the book’s three sections, Greif turns from intellectual history to literary criticism. For it wasn’t only social scientists who wrote about man in the 1940s and ’50s: Think of titles like Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man. These books, along with Thomas Pynchon’s V. and The Crying of Lot 49, represent for Greif the laboratory in which the idea of man was tested and, for the most part, found wanting. In particular, they show how “the crisis of man ran into complexities … when it encountered the daily experience of race in the postwar era.”
The key text here is Invisible Man, which for Greif shows how the universalizing concept of man proved unable to capture the complex, mediated nature of African American identity. Man, for Ellison, was not something we automatically are, but something we arduously become, or fail to become, through a process of mutual recognition. “Categories and abstractions have no real existence,” Greif writes of Invisible Man, “one tries to apply universal names to people and clasps the air. Only individuals exist—and the categories that would cover more than one of them are illusory.”
Of all the fiction Greif explores, it is Bellow’s Dangling Man that seems to have the closest connection, thematically and biographically, to the crisis-of-man discourse. Like many exponents of “man,” Bellow was Jewish, but Jewishness as such plays only a minor role in the story he tells in his debut novel. (Indeed, one question that Greif opens but doesn’t fully explore is whether the flight from Jewishness was, for many Jewish intellectuals, one of the motors that drove them to embrace the abstraction of man.) Rather, Joseph, the novel’s protagonist, confronts the problem of man when he finds himself waiting to be drafted during World War II. Without a job or purpose in life, he is forced to discover whether it is possible for an individual to be an abstract “man,” without any mediating social role; and the answer Bellow gives is negative. Like Ellison, Bellow finds no route to the abstraction “man,” only individual men with their particular roles and problems.
It is in the last and most engaging part of The Age of the Crisis of Man that Greif returns to intellectual history and connects his subject matter to the present. Why is it, he asks, that starting in the 1960s American intellectuals so ardently embraced structuralism and deconstruction, those Parisian imports that dominated the academy for decades? The answer he proposes is that “theory” was correctly understood as an “antihumanism”: that is, a discourse about human beings that steered away from the abstraction and sentimentality of “man.” (Not coincidentally, Greif remarks, the 1960s was the time when “man” become a slang pejorative, in the form of “the man,” the representative of class and race oppression.) Instead, theorists like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, and Derrida focused on the structures of thought and society that produced our subjectivity; substituting structure for nature, they denied the idea of a permanent human essence and so opened the possibility of revolutionary change. Here Greif once again proves himself a master of intellectual genealogies, tracing the paths that led from the logical positivism of the early-20th-century Vienna Circle down to the French theorists of the 1960s.
By the end of The Age of the Crisis of Man, it becomes clear just how urgently contemporary its lessons really are. As one of the founding editors of n+1, the premier literary-intellectual magazine of its generation, Greif has been a participant in our own political debates, as well as a chronicler of debates past. And as a writer on the left, Greif has encountered what he describes as a continual dialectic between the universal and the particular, man and the individual, human rights and political struggle. In the terms of his study, this is the debate between the 1940s and the 1960s—that is, between the discourse of man and its literary and political critics. “These antinomies,” Greif writes in his conclusion, “turn round and round, until they resemble a pinwheel, exerting a hypnotic attraction. The needful thing, it seemed to me, would be to arrest the ceaseless spin, anatomize the parts, and see the construction as a whole.”
Today’s inheritors of the rhetoric of man, he suggests, are the rhetoric of human rights and the rhetoric of environmental crisis, each of which employs the tools of “maieutics” to shock us into a new kind of self-recognition. But Greif has learned to distrust this kind of totalizing language, and he warns: “Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, ‘At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are …’ just stop. You have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment. … Answer, rather, the practical matters … and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.” In embracing this kind of pragmatism, Greif aligns himself with an American tradition older than the crisis of man—the tradition of William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, which The Age of the Crisis of Man subtly sets out to reinvigorate. Even readers who find themselves on the opposite side of the debate from Greif—who see some value in the language of man and humanity, in foundational concepts and essential truths—will recognize The Age of the Crisis of Man as a brilliant contribution to the history of ideas, one of the rare books that reshapes the present by reinterpreting the past. - Adam Kirsch
Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.
Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “transhumanism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. . . . There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” (The author of that updated mechanistic nonsense is a director of engineering at Google.)
And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.
This gloomy inventory of certain tendencies in contemporary American culture — it is not the whole story, but it is an alarmingly large part of the story — is offered for the purpose of proposing an accurate name for our moment. We are not becoming transhumanists, obviously. We are too singular for the Singularity. But are we becoming posthumanists?
No culture is philosophically monolithic, or promotes a single conception of the human. A culture is an internecine contest between alternative conceptions of the human. Which culture is free of contradictions between first principles? This is no less true of religious cultures than of secular ones, of closed societies than of open ones. Popular culture may be as soaked in ideas as high culture: A worldview can be found in a song. Wherever mortal beings are thoughtful about their mortality, and finite beings ponder their finitude, at whatever level of intellectual articulation, there is philosophy. Philosophy is ubiquitous and inalienable; even the discourse about the end of philosophy is philosophy. A culture may be regarded as the sum of all the philosophies, all the reflective approaches to living, that are manifestly or latently expressed in a society. It is a gorgeous anarchy, even if it contains illusions and errors. There are worse things than being wrong.
Within a culture, however, some views may come to prevail over others, for intellectual or social reasons. The war between the worldviews has winners and losers, though none of the worldviews are ever erased and there is honor also in loss. In American culture right now, as I say, the worldview that is ascendant may be described as posthumanism. We have been here before, and not too long ago, but for different reasons. The posthumanism of the 1970s and 1980s was more insular, an academic affair of “theory,” an insurgency of professors; our posthumanism is a way of life, a social fate. An important book, a brilliant book, an exasperating book has just been written about the origins of that previous posthumanist moment. In “The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973,” the gifted essayist Mark Greif, who reveals himself to be also a skillful historian of ideas, charts the history of the 20th-century reckonings with the definition of “man.” Strangely, he seems to regret the entire enterprise. Here is his conclusion: “Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, ‘At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are, our solution and salvation must lie in a new picture of ourselves and humanity, this is our profound responsibility and a new opportunity’ — just stop.” Greif seems not to realize that his own book is a lasting monument to precisely such inquiry, and to its grandeur. “Answer, rather, the practical matters,” he counsels, in accordance with the current pragmatist orthodoxy. “Find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.” But before an aim is achieved, should it not be justified? And the activity of justification may require a “picture of ourselves.” Don’t just stop. Think harder. Get it right. (Why are liberals so afraid of their own philosophy?)
Greif’s book is a prehistory of our predicament, of our own “crisis of man.” (The “man” is archaic, the “crisis” is not.) It recognizes that the intellectual history of modernity may be written in part as the epic tale of a series of rebellions against humanism. Humanism has been savaged by theists and atheists, conservatives and progressives, fascists and socialists, scientists and philosophers, though it has also been propounded by the same diversity of thinkers. Who has not felt superior to humanism? It is the cheapest target of all: Humanism is sentimental, flabby, bourgeois, hypocritical, complacent, middlebrow, liberal, sanctimonious, constricting and often an alibi for power. The abusers of humanism, of course, are guilty of none of those sins. From Heidegger to Althusser, they come as emancipators. I think we should emancipate ourselves from their emancipations.
But what is humanism? For a start, humanism is not the antithesis of religion, as Pope Francis is exquisitely demonstrating. The most common understanding of humanism is that it denotes a pedagogy and a worldview. The pedagogy consists in the traditional Western curriculum of literary and philosophical classics, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and — after an unfortunate banishment of medieval culture from any pertinence to our own — erupting in the rediscovery of that antiquity in Europe in the early modern centuries, and in the ideals of personal cultivation by means of textual study and aesthetic experience that it bequeathed, or that were developed under its inspiration, in the “enlightened” 18th and 19th centuries, and eventually culminated in programs of education in the humanities in modern universities. The worldview takes many forms: a philosophical claim about the centrality of humankind to the universe, and about the irreducibility of the human difference to any aspect of our animality; a methodological claim about the most illuminating way to explain history and human affairs, and about the essential inability of the natural sciences to offer a satisfactory explanation; a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion. It is all a little inchoate — human, humane, humanities, humanism, humanitarianism; but there is nothing shameful or demeaning about any of it.
And posthumanism? It elects to understand the world in terms of impersonal forces and structures, and to deny the importance, and even the legitimacy, of human agency. It certainly does not mean, as Greif correctly notes about antihumanism, a “hatred of the human.” There have been humane posthumanists and there have been inhumane humanists. But the inhumanity of humanists may be refuted on the basis of their own worldview, whereas the condemnation of cruelty toward “man the machine,” to borrow the old but enduring notion of an 18th-century French materialist, requires the importation of another framework of judgment. The same is true about universalism, which every critic of humanism has arraigned for its failure to live up to the promise of a perfect inclusiveness. It is a melancholy fact of history that there has never been a universalism that did not exclude. Yet the same is plainly the case about every particularism, which is nothing but a doctrine of exclusion; and the correction of particularism, the extension of its concept and its care, cannot be accomplished in its own name. It requires an idea from outside, an idea external to itself, a universalistic idea, a humanistic idea. Asking universalism to keep faith with its own principles is a perennial activity of moral life. Asking particularism to keep faith with its own principles is asking for trouble.
Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.
“Our very mastery seems to escape our mastery,” Michel Serres has anxiously remarked. “How can we dominate our domination; how can we master our own mastery?” Every technology is used before it is completely understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences. We are living in that lag, and it is a right time to keep our heads and reflect. We have much to gain and much to lose. In the media, for example, the general inebriation about the multiplicity of platforms has distracted many people from the scruple that questions of quality on the new platforms should be no different from questions of quality on the old platforms. Otherwise a quantitative expansion will result in a qualitative contraction. The new devices do not in themselves authorize a revision of the standards of evidence and argument and style that we championed in the old devices. (What a voluptuous device paper is!) Such revisions may be made on other grounds — out of commercial ambition, for example; but there is nothing innovative about pandering for the sake of a profit. The decision to prefer the requirements of commerce to the requirements of culture cannot be exonerated by the thrills of the digital revolution.
And therein lies a consoling irony of our situation. The machines may be more neutral about their uses than the propagandists and the advertisers want us to believe. We can leave aside the ideology of digitality and its aggressions, and regard the devices as simply new means for old ends. Tradition “travels” in many ways. It has already flourished in many technologies — but only when its flourishing has been the objective. I will give an example from the humanities. The day is approaching when the dream of the democratization of knowledge — Borges’s fantasy of “the total library” — will be realized. Soon all the collections in all the libraries and all the archives in the world will be available to everyone with a screen. Who would not welcome such a vast enfranchisement? But universal accessibility is not the end of the story, it is the beginning. The humanistic methods that were practiced before digitalization will be even more urgent after digitalization, because we will need help in navigating the unprecedented welter. Searches for keywords will not provide contexts for keywords. Patterns that are revealed by searches will not identify their own causes and reasons. The new order will not relieve us of the old burdens, and the old pleasures, of erudition and interpretation.
Is all this — is humanism — sentimental? But sentimentality is not always a counterfeit emotion. Sometimes sentiment is warranted by reality. The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence. There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life. And a complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty. In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter. Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance. - Leon Wieseltier