Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Upon seeing the miraculous photo of a headset-less Mark Zuckerberg walking through an Oculus Sea, I thought that this post, written in 2012 was just as, if not more apt today than when it was written. All comments most welcome. 

Pleasure Principles

“What will fill the vacuum formerly occupied by religion?”

The most thoughtful, as well as the most memorable wedding gift my spouse and I received in 1993, the year of my first (and only) marriage, was neither the most expensive, nor an object. Rather it was a “Brunch” - that uniquely American invention deplored by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential as a reliable though odious route for restaurants to recycle anything and everything left over in their refrigerator and pantry. I learned other useful pointers from Boudrain, (who since parlayed that success into a TV Celebrity status that sufficiently provides for his habits), such as never eat restaurant fish on a Monday, and if you're a foodie and looking for best execution, avoid Fri and Sat evenings like the plague., etc. But I digress. This 'Brunch' was a simple but special affair in that it included the company of [the late] acclaimed author, Chaim Potok, and his lovely wife Adena.

Who is Chaim Potok, you might ask? I'd read several of his novels, independently, following on the heels of those  by Nobelists Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, though before I'd been introduced to works of Philip Roth. All their voices rang true. All chewed upon the clash of the traditional with the modern. All seemingly lamented the loss(es) of what was, even when (reluctantly) accepting the victory of modernity's “progress”. And they all struck some chord within me, each ruminating in their own perspectives and style upon issues still-raw-and-contentious (in my own family), growing up as I did on the generational cusp, and witnessing my parents wrestling with theirs over the same.

I think Potok stands out as his breadth of thought was more encompassing. He was first a Rabbi, then a writer, also a theological academic and philosopher (PhD Penn, Philosophy) as well as a graphic artist, and playwrite, though the arts were his first love and a source of conflict with his own (traditional) parents. His  timeline reflected this same struggle: from indoctrination and orthodox study sliding towards the increasingly secular graphical artist and thinker. He may not have been the superior novelist of the genre shared by the four eminent writers, but he probably was the most eclectic and adept thinker. His experiences were varied: an army Chaplain, a rabbi, a teacher, an editor, writer, an artist). Bellow's and Roth's characters and dialogue might have been more realistic, Potok stretched the boundaries of thought further than the others. Like the great Jewish minds (unlike those of current-day Likud), Potok ruminated thoroughly and saw things not categorically, but nuanced – context within context within context.

Beyond these spartan observations, there is little I can add. We drank coffee, and chatted about our experiences, and about faith. I made no effort to hide my lack thereof, though I couched it in the agnosticism of the empiricist versus certitude of the militant aetheist, which was more useful for friendly discussion than Dawkin's axe-wielding approach. More coffee and cakes, and the conversation drifted from the first to third person, and modernity's impacts upon religion. I noted that religion was useful historically as a means control. Fear of God, his wrath (for the Jews) or Hell (for Christians) were powerful tools. And whether a tool for purposes of control, or more recently as panaceas for the spirit, there is in modernity, I suggested, a gaping hole in the psyche and in one's preoccupation that was previously occupied by religion. “What”, I continued, did he “think might or will replace it???!!?”

He pulled on his whiskers for a long time, looked upwards towards the heavens, and then stared deep into the depths of his half-filled cup before meeting my eyes and saying more categorically than he had about anything to that moment ......”Hedonism”. “Hedonism will fill the void...”, and for the first time, I saw resignation on the face of this otherwise thoughtful optimist. It is the same resignation floor traders must have felt as transactions went "upstairs", or that which strikes value-oriented reversion traders horse-whipped by seemingly less-than-explicable momentum, or an allocator feels when assessing the new normal of what used to be the risk-free rate. It is a distinct feeling that the sense one previously made of the world has been palpably altered, leaving it a less-hospitable place as a result.

Conversation rebounded from the after-effects of this pronouncement, for it was clear he knew that however depressing the prognostication, there was nothing he could do. He could analyse this wave, indeed, he could explain it. But he knew it will be as it inevitably will be. Efforts to change the direction of such a tide would be futile. I understood he was not whining. Nor was he living in the past. As was the case with his literature, he sought first and foremost to understand what was going on around him, and make sense of it, rather than tell us how it should be.

In 2012, it seems ironic, that mired in debt with unemployment rife, that our Grasshopper-like spirits' gaze is, as Potok forecast nearly two decades ago, firmly fixed (and growing) upon hedonism. Not spiritualism or New Age-ism, but full, unbridled "Whatever!" I see it manifested in demagogues pandering "7-Minute Abs" solutions, to problems of marathon proportions. I see it in my eldest's seeming addiction to fatuous social networking, or under the spell of inane traditional media at the cost of reading or doing. I see it in the increasingly stylized beach or ski holidays. I see it in the untempered expectations still being conjured and polished by companies and their Madison Ave agents. I see it in the politicians' promises to restore what Americans' believe is owed to them.   

But is this not natural? Should hedonism be a pejorative?  To the extent it plays a part in fueling expectations and pursuit of a lifestyle for the individual that is unsustainable for the group, then yes. To the extent that it prevents sober or pragmatic evaluation  of what needs or might  be done to pursue even weak-form sustainability, then yes. To the extent it discounts the longer run policy pursuits, for the short-run, then indeed, yes. To the extent it encourages anti-social behaviour to finance parochial hedonism, then yes.  To the extent it fuels near-unprecendented greed at the expense charity yielding a coarser way of life for the benefit of parochial pleasure and the privilege of the yet unborn, then yes, it is a pejorative, and we should lament its expansion in filling the vacuum.

Unlike the Apocalyptors and Tin-Foil Hat Brigade, I do not believe 2012 will be the year of the Return of Barter or Oblivion For Mankind, and while it may even surprise to the upside given the hugely bearish expectations of the market and anti-European shills, I do think it will be an interesting year for observing what happens when hedonistic rubber meets the austere reality of the road ahead of us [all].


vlade said...

TBH, I can see where Potok came from, when he saw hedonism as replacing religion. But, to be honest, I doubt it. Not because I'd have any trust in the humanity goodness (I don't), but because there's a few traits that humanity does have.

One of them is that it's not the pleasure per se that we crave (although we often say so), but the expectation of pleasure, the fantasy when we imagine our possible pleasures. All real ones fade against our fantasies, and hedonism becomes boring (even if it's initially more and more of excess in trying to get to our fantasies). Religion from that perspective is not just a measure of control, but a fuel for our fantasies, moreover fuel for fantasies that can never really be tested and found wanting.

Indeed, I'd expect that the more our worldly fantasies can be satisfied, the more humanity would turn to religions (of sorts), and would not be surprised to see revival of religion, although far from the crude "old-man-in-the-sky" sort. The faith (in something) will adapt, and although I don't know what, I'm very sure it will be something unverifiable and unattainable, in other words, something that can again feed our fantasies (both the good and bad ones).

Rich said...

So Donald Trump is a natural progression...

Mercury said...

You’re missing the larger picture here I think. Although some will claim you can’t have the later without the former, the decline of Judeo-Christian faith in people’s daily lives is less significant than people’s decline in faith in Western Civilization’s values, traditions and institutions. Western Civilizational Values (broadly defined but more specifically those established after the Glorious, American and French revolutions) haven’t been countered or replaced with hedonistic values so much as values which simply aren’t Western (multiculturalism is Good/all cultures are equal) or adhere to some form of Cultural Marxism (it’s all about race, class and gender). Technology-enabled hedonism fills the void left by reverence for Western Civ when it becomes obvious that the MultiCulti or Cultural Marxist frameworks lack substance and practicality.

A society can have a solid moral foundation with very little or no, explicitly religious regulation but without a E Pluribus Unum type cultural consensus or broadly shared values it’s hard to imagine a self-confident, productive and happy populace. Those who most yearn for a return to (their conception of) cultural consensus and shared values are going nuts for Trump and Sanders over the technocratic, inbred presidential candidates who promise (as they always do) to expert their way through the world’s stack o’ problems.

Zuckerberg and the Silicon Valley wonder kids are the real hedonistic libertarians as they realize that under such a value system their inherent advantages will yield them the most power, wealth and freedom; keep playing Candy Crush you fool I’ve got an island city-state to rule, sexbots to fuck and a spaceship to catch. I’m my own God.

"Cassandra" said...

Vlade...viewed through that lens, in this corner, the reigning heavyweight champion: greed, and in the far corner, communitarianism. Both "fantasies" seemingly lacking...

Post-enlightenment thought is but an infant in the historical time-line, and while it makes fodder for the academy, it is a mere punctuation-mark in its consumption of the common man (and woman's) attention. In comparison to the belief in the supreme being, and the weight of its obligations, and fear of its punishments. No matter how free one might be politically, people were still tyrannized by religion. While it's evident that as dubious spiritual beliefs have waned, they've just as often been replaced by other dubious political beliefs - be it Nationalism, Fascism, Marxism or Libertarian free-marketism. IO think the idea that mullti-culti-ism ever possesed even a fingernail's grip of religion's place in the mind is an amusing canard. Multi-cult-ism is but a fashion - perhaps with the longevity (keeping with the fashion analogy) of a girdle. Religion was the invention of clothes themselves.

I think there is no determinism of what can, or will, make a "self-confident, productive and happy populace" at the level of complexity in modernity. One might point to it in a remote fishing village in Hokkaido, or a farming hamlet in the Azores, but these are outliers. We're physically/behaviourally hard-wired for village and tribal life in world where this itself is fast-becoming a nostalgic novelty. Charlatans and demagogues pandering to this ignores the physical geography and political realities of our world, and is playing a most dangerous game toying with primal and embedded hair-tragger fears. The river's current is strongly dragging identity itself towards ever-greater fragmentation and levels of complexity that mock one-dimensional flat-earth conceptions of nationalism. Will I go to war with Xubuntu users who are carnivorous Arsenal fans to impose my will just because I'm a vegan, Fedora-gal-of-a-spurs fan?? Hardly.

As for the hedonistic libertarians, I'd like to think that there are limits to shamelessness, and that Bernard Baruch was, once, a role model, and would, once again, cut a fine figure to emulate.

I Am Not a Robot said...

I would recommend a read of Charles Murray's lecture to the AEI on "The Happiness of the People". You will likely disagree with significant parts of it, but the central thesis is compelling. Key quote:

"That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible."

That's the "hedonism" of your friend Chaim Potok. And he's right, that is the prevailing mentality among an increasing number of the general population: to find pleasant ways to while away the time until one dies. It neatly explains the pills, the shopping, the promiscuity, the obsession over trivial hobbies, the movies and television and video games, the endless surfing of the internet, etc. (N.B.: I am guilty as charged on one or two of those counts myself.) All ways to kill the time until the clock ticks down.

In the distant past, survival was such a challenge that it was the near sole focus of human life, both at the individual and at the social level. Once humans got to the point that they could consistently survive, however, that raised a crisis of purpose - a crisis resolved by the introduction of philosophy and organized religion, both of which gave greater purpose to life above that of survival.

We are still ahead of the survival game (so far - nothing is guaranteed, of course), but having rejected organized religion and largely ignored philosophy, there is a crisis of purpose. Rather than address that head-on, we are filling life up with endless meaningless distractions.

I favor a return to religion - but then, I am a believer, so that is naturally the direction I favor. But in any case, I would favor a serious reflection on the larger question of purpose. That is an unrecognized hole in our personal lives and in our society, and the distractions of "hedonism" will be unable to fill it, leaving us unhappy and unfulfilled, and at risk of making very bad decisions that could potentially destroy all the progress that we have realized this far.

"Cassandra" said...

Not a Robot -
Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I do not believe there is any evidence of inherent meaning in life, or any meaning inherent in life, outside what we ourselves attribute to it. As humans we both adopt others' meanings and share with others those we create. This is benign at worst, and healthy , magical and beautiful at best (whether illusory or not). Problems arise when people attempt to impose their meaning upon others - whether they are playing "Control ROck, Paper Scissors", insecure, or possessed. I too favour a return to religion ... versus utter lack of purpose, or destructive, anti-social or socio-pathic purpose & pursuits. That's not setting the bar high, but then, the bar ISN'T very high. I've not found what others have in religion, but I see clear benefits - both explicable and not, which, as an apathetic agnostic I place into the placebo binder. This is not pejorative: for you can tell people they're taking a placebo, give them full disclosure that it has no active medicinal compounds, that some people find it helps, and lo and behold, it results in a highly significant effect over the baseline. There is much I (and We) do not understand...yet. In my mind, I conceive a hierarchy of purpose, some place at the nexus of Jean-luc Picard & The Next Gen, the Dalai Lama, Dale Carnegie, and the present Pope. It reflects movement in the general direction of something, rather than stasis or regression. I think it's good, and right and noble and so forth. Contemplating - as you suggest - IS good. Purpose is like talking to a teenager whose fore-brain all-too-often prevents them from exercising sound judgement, where one walks them through a hypothetical decision process when confronted with a decision. The mere act of practicing cost-benefit, and imagining possible outcomes and effects of future actions has a profound impact upon the formerly-reasoning impaired teenager.