May 22, 2012

Is Kierkegaard's Present Age Our Own?

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I've been rereading a lot of Soren Kierkegaard's works over the last several weeks, in preparation for a new video venture -- a series of course lectures on Existentialist philosophy and literature -- and I was grateful and gladdened to get to return to one of his short works which I have enjoyed since I was an undergraduate nearly two decades ago, though admittedly I had much less of an appreciation for what he was doing in that text then:  The Present Age.  I shot roughly an hour of discussion of the key themes (available soon in YouTube), and as I find so often is the case, the mere act of explaining and unfolding the text, even before an essentially imaginary audience, not only highlighted certain themes for me, but also filled me with a greater sense of passion about the author, the ideas, their applicability.

We often talk as if the "life of the mind" was a matter of isolation, ivory towers, individual contemplation -- when the reality is that the more deeply we think, the more we also feel, and the more we find ourselves within fascinating conversations antedating ourselves, entangled with the lives and thoughts of others.  Perhaps more ought be said about that in a later post -- but for the time being, back to Kierkegaard and his diagnosis of the dangers, character, and opportunities for what he called the Present Age.  He wrote those words over a century-and-a-half in the past, though, so are they -- could they be -- as relevant today as when he wrote them?  I'd argue that some portions, certain ideas, several concerns are even more applicable to our own present situation than they were in Kierkegaard's own day

It's interesting to note -- if I can be permitted a momentary indulgence in philosophical theory-slinging -- that when it comes to the genres, traditions, schools of Philosophy that get called "Continental" (as opposed to its binarized opposite, "Analytic") a good portion of the stuff that's supposed to be contemporary, cutting-edge, post-68' framed itself by contrast to Existentialism, which was regarded as too humanistic, too individualist, too much a matter of the recent past, not the wave (responding to the insistence) of the future.  As decent post-structuralists, we were (for I feel into this camp -- and trap) supposed to leave all that Existentialist stuff -- really the sort of thing suited to undergraduates trying to find themselves, come to terms with the end of adolescence, to address their own alienation -- behind and get on with the real analysis of desire, protesting the effacement of the other, deconstructing western metaphysics -- or what have you.

After years of thinking through these now-canonical texts, living, observing, reflecting, a conclusion has coalesced for me that while Existentialist thought does lend itself to bringing problems into perspective and making (or muddling) sense out of a certain period of semi-adolescence -- and as a philosophical stance and body of literature, it is also all too easily appropriated to the purpose of building up a persona of the alienated, angsty, uncommitted (except to what one chooses to), necessarily misunderstood, sometimes even narcissistic stock "existentialist"type -- what I one commentator calling a leftist analogue to an Ayn Rand follower.  I'd even go so far as to say certain Existentialist authors lend themselves to that co-option more than others.  But at the same time, I've come to see in certain Existentialist authors contributions to what we might call a "perennial philosophy" -- meaning by this, that they uncover and dissect certain concepts, experiences, distinctions , lines of thinking, feeling, acting, and committing one's own self that possess a lasting importance -- one just as valid in suppose post-modernity as in any of the incarnations of the modern we thought for a while we were living in.

I'm hard put to think of an Existentialist author who does not make more perennial contributions than does Kierkegaard -- oh, I know that some of you will respond by pointing towards Nietzsche, or Heidegger, even the more cagy and well-read among you to Camus, but I do think K. does take the prize for this.  Nietzsche I'd certainly accord his legitimate place in the circle of first-rank philosophers, right alongside Hegel, Kant, Thomas Aquinas, and yes, Heidegger.  But Kierkegaard gets set side by side with Plato (and Socrates), Pascal, Augustine, and Anselm -- and somehow that seems to have chosen the better portion.  At all events, enough perambulation -- doubtless you want to know what The Present Age holds that is so timely.

One of the key oppositions -- identified as such for the reader who chooses to adopt it, against a backdrop of so many who don't so choose -- is between the individual and the "public," and Kierkegaard regards this as one of the key characteristics of our age, one in which there is a considerable danger of the individual human person failing, lapsing into less than an individual, succumbing to the alternately soothing or exciting seductions of the age.
The really terrible thing is the thought of the many lives that are or may easily be wasted.  I will not even mention those who are lost, or at any rate led completely astray -- those who play the part of the dog for money -- but the many who are helpless, thoughtless and sensual, who liver superior lazy lives and never receive any deeper impression of existence than this meaningless grin, and all those bad people who are led into further temptation . . . .
What does Kierkegaard mean here?  Lives wasted?  Lost?  Led astray?  Living a life essentially lacking?  He views all of this as results of two interrelated things -- a process of what he calls "leveling," and a creature of reflection he terms the "public" -- but also of the human person's captivation by and collaboration with this process and this abstraction.

The leveling process is something characteristic of modernity for Kierkegaard. While antiquity was an age in which leadership was the keynote of the dialectic -- the outstanding individual who mattered over masses who essentially didn't  -- and an earlier age of Christendom was an age of representation, the central theme running through modernity -- an age secularized, to be sure, but also in which Christendom runs out its merely cultural resources (Nietzsche was not the first, nor even Turgenev for that matter, to grapple with an age threatened by nihilism) -- is equality.  And, in so many cases, despite whatever rhetoric maybe invoked, equality as an ideal requires a process of leveling, or lowering, or bringing down to a common level, in order to become whatever measure of reality it may.  Kierkegaard writes, in metaphorically mathematical language, chilling in its precision:
The present age tends towards a mathematical equality in which it take so and so many to make up one individual.  . . . Now everyone knows that so and so many make an individual, and quite consistently people add themselves together (it is called joining together) for the most trivial purposes. 
Even the meaning of initiative, of risk, of bravery is thereby changed.
Simply in order to put a passing whim into practice a few people add themselves together, and the thing is done -- then they dare do it.  For that reason, not ever a preeminently gifted man can free himself from reflection, because he soon becomes conscious of himself as a fractional part in some trivial matter. . . .

The fact that several people united together have the courage to meet death does not mean nowadays that each, individually, has the courage, for more than death the individual fears the judgement and protest of reflection upon his wishing to risk something on his own.  . .. . That is why people band together in cases where it is an absolute contradiction to be more than one.  . . .When corruption sets in at that point, people seek consolation in company, and so reflection catches the individual for life.  And those who do not realize even the beginning of this crisis are engulfed without further ado in the reflective relationship.
Kierkegaard has used this term "reflection" several times here, and one might legitimately wonder:  what's so bad about -- let alone wrong with -- reflection?  Isn't it good to be reflective?  Doesn't the activity of reflection -- thinking about ourselves, our situations, what we say and do, what the point is -- stem from what is most valuable about ourselves, our rationality?  Certainly, and there's much more to be said about -- and in favor of -- reflection.

But reflection also transforms in some contexts, at certain times, for many people into a caustic and corrosive agent, incapable of checking its own processes -- checking both in the sense of bringing to a halt, and also in the sense of being able to exercise good judgement, control, verification over itself.  A lack of restraint and a lack of reliable criterion go hand in hand. What Hegel identified explicitly in Science of Logic and implicitly in Phenomenology of Spirit as the as the problem of limits to thought -- that, as soon as a limit is posed to it, thought vaults beyond it in some determinate way -- can easily spiral out of control.  If I can doubt this, and then resolve it with that, why can 't I just well doubt that as well?  If this is illegitimate, unjustified, wrongly considered right, and I propose to replace it with that, can't that just as well be called into question?  One can multiply these sorts of examples -- in fact, that's itself a reflective process!

Despite the stress he lays upon interiority, indirect communication, subjectivity, the individual, Kierkegaard (no less than does Hegel) knows we are at bottom relational beings -- we do not have our real being locked away like a treasure of substance in ourselves, but live it our and realize it in relation to others -- even if those others are partly within us, partly where others have permeated us.  And, not only are we relational beings, we are also social beings -- we do not just look to the other for clues as to who and how we are, we also look to an intersubjective, social, cultural, economic, and even political world of others, whose horizons generally antedate and exceed our own existences.

Well, despite how we picture the process sometimes, reflection is in large part not just something one does off by oneself, totally alone, no input coming from others.  In fact, even when we distance ourselves from others to get some time to think matters over, internalized voices, concerns, statements, attitudes of at least some of them -- even the unknown possibilities of what they might say, think, feel, do, respond with -- condition and contribute components to our own reflection.  We don't reflect, any more than we exist, in a vacuum, a desert inhabited only by ourselves.

And going even further, not everyone does their own reflection -- it's often happily farmed out, assigned, outsourced to others, perhaps because they seem to be able to do it more cheaply, effectively, reliably, perhaps because one has imbibed or inherited from others the sense that it is better to look to this or that person or group to do the thinking, the judging, the opining -- or in the case of some, because they have been deprived of the possibility of reflecting for themselves by having it beaten, coerced, or terrorized away.

In Kierkegaard's view, we live in an age in which there is actually far too much reflection, or at least too much of the wrong sort -- superficial, basening, skeptically negative, leveling.   Reflection involves a temptation to efface the concrete, to abstract from it, to disrespect it, to place it into its proper, restricted place, to remove from it its only limited value -- and some sorts and process, some shapes of reflection represent not only a temptation, but a tendency towards this.  This is particularly the case when it involves what Kierkegaard derisively terms "a public"

A public is humanity in its most abstract, composed of individuals who are concrete but whose concrete individuality does not matter -- only their collective voice, only the process of endless circulation to which they belong and give allegiance, each providing support for the other, an audience to respond to or replicate the sentiment or sensibilities of the other -- but within which everyone is ultimately interchangable.  It is a sort of consumerism, excitable, but lacking real passion, able to express all sorts of opinions and judgements, whether aesthetic, moral, religious, personal, political, but committed to none of them -- really just after consumption, entertainment.

Trying to imagine the public personified, Kierkegaard settles on:
one of the Roman emperors, a large well-fed figure, suffering from boredom, looking only for the sensual intoxication of laughter. . .  And so he wanders around, indolent rather than bad, but with a negative desire to dominate.  Everyone who has read the classical authors knows how many things a Caesar could try out in order to kill time.  In the same way the public keeps a dog to amuse it.  That dog is literacy scum.  If there is some one superior to the rest, perhaps even a great man, the god is set upon him and the fun begins.  . . That is an example of how the public levels.  Their betters and superiors in strength are manhandled -- and the dog remains a dog which even the public despises. The leveling is therefore done by a third party; a non-existent public leveling with the help of a third party which in its insignificance is less than nothing, being already more than leveled.
He continues with the metaphor, focusing on one key aspect of the public.
And so the public in unrepentant, for it was after all not the public that acted, but the dog. . .  The public is unrepentant -- it was not really belittling anyone; it just wanted a little amusement. . .  The public is unrepentant, for it is not they who own the dog -- they only subscribe.  They neither set the dog on anyone, nor whistle it off -- directly.  And if the dog had to be killed,they would say:  it really was a good thing that bad-tempered dog was put away, everyone wanted it killed -- even the subscribers.
The public remains unrepentant, because it regards itself as entirely unresponsible -- entirely correctly, on one level, since it is not the sort of thing (it's not even a thing) that could be -- and hold itself -- responsible.
A generation, a people, an assembly of the people, a meeting, or a man are responsible for what they are and can be made ashamed in they are inconstant and unfaithful; but a pubic remain a public.  A people, an assembly, or a man can change can change to such an extent that one may say: they are no longer the same ; a public on the other hand can become the very opposite and remain the same -- a public. 
In fact, a public has a different ontological status than the things about which it chatters, inquires, and passes judgement -- as well as from those concrete things, groups, persons, even institutions who it draws upon and into itself.  Kierkegaard writes:
a phantom, a spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage -- and phantom is the public.  It is only in an age which is without passion, yet reflective, that such a phantom can develop itself with the help of the Press which itself becomes an abstraction . . . . The public is in fact the real leveling-master rather than the actual leveler, for whenever leveling is only approximately accomplished it is done by something. . . . Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction, "the public," consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organization -- and yet are held together as a whole.
He concludes by warning of the danger that "the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything" -- transformed into a sort of false totality, within which the individual is seduced into locating, understand and learning the value of him- or herself.  In fact, it possesses and projects its own peculiar temporality.
The real moment in time and the real situation of being simultaneous with real people, each of whom is something -- that is what helps to sustain the individual.  But the existence of a public produces neither a situation nor simultaneity.  The individual reader of the Press is not the public, and even though little by little a number of individuals or even all of the should read it, the simultaneity is lacking.
I leave it as an open question -- one for which I already have my own answer, but which I think needs to be puzzled out by each on his or her own -- whether in our own time, an era of ever-increasing and interpenetrating virtualities, a proliferation of social media, communication, investigation, there is not an even greater risk posed to individuals by precisely the dynamic Kierkegaard saw at work in Europe mid-19th century?

As he noted, little can directly oppose the leveling process with any hope of more than a local, temporary success.  It can also be suspended momentarily in "times of passion and tumult and confusion" when there are genuinely opposed "parties, and they are concrete."  But, so long as individuals allow their subjectivity, their sentiments, their commitments or lack thereof, their inner and external world to be formed and shaped in relation to, as part of, something like the public as Kierkegaard construes it -- sometimes precisely so that they can avoid passion, risk, and conflict by choosing a soothing conformity of opinion, ever manufactured consensus, a congenial, convenient every-growing environment of entertainment and consumption -- the modern dialectic of individual and public will map out the moral landscape.

Kierkegaard is not pessimistic, however, observing:
For the leveling process is as powerful where temporary things are concerned as it is impotent where eternal things are concerned.  Reflection is a snare in which one is caught but, once the "leap" of enthusiasm has been taken, the relation is a different one and it becomes a noose which drags one into eternity.  Reflection is and remains the hardest creditor in existence; hitherto it has cunningly bought up all the possible views of life, but it cannot buy the essentially religious and eternal view of life.
Ultimately, that transcendent domain of the religious is where Kierkegaard will see not only resistance to and perspective upon the leveling dynamic -- and the interplay between the abstract public and the concrete individual -- stemming from, but the possibility for a more genuine, deeper, more satisfying way of life.  That is where I'll leave off, with another set of questions to consider.

Is Kierkegaard right in considering this the only real solution, the only one which goes to the roots of the problem?  Certainly, by anyone who has read and mediated upon his works, he cannot be accused of failing to experiment with and thoroughly examine other possible courses -- nor is his eventual leap into the divine a salved-conscience, escapist, reason-denigrating, fideist one.  But, it remains an open question, one which he would be just as quick to point out each individual must ask and answer, whether the individual can develop, and determine who he or she is, fully, freely, truly without seeking, thinking on, exposing oneself to, the divine.

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