Persist in Folly


Image from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC, 2011

by John Bruni

The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973,
by Mark Greif,
Princeton, forthcoming November 2016, 448 pp.

To pick up on the cultural dissonances around the crisis of man discourse we need to look no further than to the thoughts of two of the key figures engaged with this discourse, Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag. It is not just that their participation, that, of course, foregrounds gender, raises the question of when and where the crisis of man overlaps, or is overtaken, bythe crisis of the human; Arendt and Sontag pressure the fundamental idea of what being human means. Arendt’s concept of the “right to have rights” insists that “one had to be part of a political community, rooted—never susceptible to being expelled or reduced to the merely human” (94). Her emptying the category of the human “could not proceed on the model of a restoration or shoring up or protection of old forms” (95); in hindsight, it is, more or less, as Cary Wolfe has recently shown, the end of the line for humanist ethics (6-8). Sontag, on the other hand, is more rooted in the posthuman. Her “Notes on Camp” reflected the cultural influence of Paris, rather than Harvard-Oxford, setting the stage for the “entry of ‘French theory’ into American thought”: first, Claude Levi-Strauss, then, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (283-85).

Now, in particular, Foucault’s work on biopolitics is, as Wolfe argues, a vital component of posthuman thinking (31-52). At the time, however, what distinguished Foucault was his “radical critical historicism” that “unmask[ed] the metamorphoses of techniques of domination” (309). Greif positions Foucault at the forefront of an emerging interdisciplinarity that comprises the closing act of the book. Unlike Jacques Derrida, “whose diffusion primarily occurred through specialist literature journals,” Foucault “enjoyed a wider diffusion across the social sciences” (310). It was an interdisciplinary perspective that gave added weight to Foucault’s argument that human identity, as it was constructed through the development of academic fields such as psychiatry, criminal science, and sexual studies, could no longer be regarded as organic or autonomous.

Granted, Foucault was just a single, albeit important, voice in a larger movement that Greif multiply names (while distinguishing among) “the end of the sixties,” the rise of “Theory” (the capital T by no means accidental), and “the death of the subject [and/or] author” (311). But it is the book’s crucial engagement with Foucault that sheds light on a critical bridge between the humanities and sciences. Foucault’s writing on techniques of domination across disciplines is anticipated by Thomas Pynchon, who is suspicious of the expression of the crisis of man discourse as a literary project and the transformation of this discourse heralded by technology. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 bids farewell to both; the novel’s formal literary experimental techniques and absurdist take on techno-futurism disclose, on multiple levels, the incoherency at the basis of any definition of the humanist subject.

First, Pynchon suggests that the crisis of man discourse no longer moves forward; it circles back: thus “it is no longer the objects produced, nor uses and ways of consumption, nor organizing forms that matter about technology but ‘cycling’ and recirculation” (230). Then, one of the numerous subplots of Lot 49 touches on the origins of the discourse in anxieties about how human bodies were broken down into and reused as consumer products during the Holocaust. In the novel, the bones of American soldiers, massacred in Italy, are dumped into a lake by the Nazis, later dredged up as relics of the war, sold for fertilizer, and end up in cigarette filters. Greif limns the macabre joke: “So good contemporary Americans, instead of remembering the soldiers who died in a forgotten tragedy, in what was supposedly a ‘good’ war, now were smoking them, with luxurious, oblivious pleasure” (241). In another typical Pynchon comedic turn, one source of the novel’s imagined soundtrack is a teenage rock band, the Paranoids. The association becomes rather clear: talk about the meaning, or lack thereof, of man is disrupted by noise—not just clanging guitars through amplifiers, but the insistent buzz of corporate machinery and techno-capitalist communication—making us all come down to varying degrees with cases of paranoia about there simply being too many connections to be drawn (many which surface through a mysterious underground postal system, W.A.S.T.E.) when reading the novel, much less understood.

As a reaction to a model of history shaped by conspiratorial plots, Pynchon’s bracing brand of paranoia, in a further uncanny resonance, has reemerged in a notable review of Greif’s book. Writing in the January 7, 2015 edition of the NY Times, Leon Wieseltier calls Greif’s study “important,” “brilliant,” and “exasperating.” This rhetorical flourish does little to disguise his being visibly ticked off by Greif’s critique of humanism, especially by how humanist ideals were deconstructed by those very academics who were supposed to safeguard them. Wieseltier doubles down on nostalgia for the presumed unity of humanistic thinking: “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.” To my ears, this sounds impassioned but empty, precisely that which overall characterizes the crisis of man discourse that originated in the turmoil after WW I.

Greif chronicles how the sense of crisis intensified during WW II, pressuring the pragmatic views of John Dewey, the leading philosopher at the time. The shadows of fascism and totalitarianism loomed over Dewey’s argument that human identity was dynamic, geared to evolutionary processes. Fear that humankind might be changing for the worse bolstered the counterarguments from the University of Chicago enclave headed by Mortimer Adler that relied on a conservative view of human identity, an outlook shared by the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. In a careful and lengthy account, Greif shows how all of the major participants in the crisis of man debate were either for or against Dewey, even and especially Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who tore apart the Enlightenment foundations upon which Dewey’s argument rested.

In retrospect, it seems rather hard to miss the influence of the crisis of man discourse on post-WW II literary works—the titles, alone, are a giveaway: Dangling Man (Saul Bellow), Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), and A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor). Before Pynchon and Foucault, Bellow was already addressing “the essential emptiness that has already been a feature of the existence of any abstract Man or human being—the Man who is the subject of the Rights of Man, the person who mattered for intellectuals of the era” (158). Ellison further upped the ante, reminding readers that who was observing the crisis played a crucial role in gauging the political dissent voiced by those who could not be seen, who remained figuratively underground. And the way back to Adler’s ideological conservatism can easily be glimpsed in O’Connor, namely in her dismissal of Dewey, her use of complex faith-based scenarios to derail liberal humanism, and her various rationales for maintaining the status quo against the pressures of social change.

While Greif treats all of these writers fairly—and Pynchon is rightly acknowledged as the prime agitator in the ranks—he cannot resist coming up with a provocative finale, starting from “outside the guise of scholar” with the proviso: “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” (328). An irresistible pull-quote, to be sure, that appears to critics such as Wieseltier as the final word on the matter, an admission of defeat. In the very next paragraph, however, Greif makes a 180 degree turn:

Speaking as a scholar and historian … I can say nothing of this sort, and am embarrassed to have revealed the contemporary person’s outraged instinct. How could I tell anyone to desist? How can the dispassionate analyst ever discourage even what seems to him to be folly? Persist in folly! Without folly, how would we have history? (329)

A good question, indeed. We might look at how history is made, lived, and not let the subject of the human subject obscure too greatly our critical thinking about the historical time we call modernity, and how it instills crucial differences between subjects and objects.

Greif briefly touches upon this possibility, yet leaves out acknowledging the work of interrogating modernity already having been done by Bruno Latour. Following Latour, scholars such as Bruce Clarke and Stefan Herbrechter have found ways to harmonize literary and science studies by examining the fluid demarcations between humans and their environments (Clarke 111-38; Herbrechter 158-9). Thus it seems that a posthuman future will rewrite the idea of agency in ways that make the crisis of man seem like an anxious afterthought, especially, as Greif reminds us, given the increasing possibilities of global ecological breakdown.

Furthermore, what is posthumanism but an active disinheritance of, at the very least, some of the orientations of humanism, those that, in particular, alienate humans from their environments? We can flashback to Lot 49, in scenes of the recovery of the lives of “those who truly are disinherited” (248). As Pynchon relates to us his historical vision: “[O]ld Pullman cars left where the money’d run out or the customers vanished, amid green farm flatnesses where clothes hung, smoke lazed out of joined pipes” (in Greif 249).

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Works Cited:

Clarke, Bruce. Neocybernetics and Narrative. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Greif, Mark. The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Herbrechter, Stefan. Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Wieseltier, Leon. “Among the Disrupted,” The New York Times. January 7, 2015. Last accessed July 7, 2015.

Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law: Animals and Humans in a Biopolitical Frame. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.