Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Do We Live in a Culture of Worthless Praise?

Leon Wieseltier, a public intellectual and literary editor at The New Republic, thinks that we do.  Check out Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson's interview with Wieseltier at Prospect.  Here is a taste:

So what do you think are some of these “central issues of our times”?

I think I’d back up for a moment and say that a kind of preliminary issue is the question of the role of ideas in our public debates and in our society. We have become a technologically addled society that is obsessed less with the question of whether something is true or false, or good or evil, and more with the question of how something works and what its consequences will be.

The technological realm has been promoted as the very model of thought for human relations and all sorts of human activities. Our society has come to scorn what is called humanism or the humanities. And I think that is terrible thing, because there are many things about human life that cannot be quantified. So the re-assertion of the centrality of humanistic ideas is a very high priority right now 

I read your piece about the philosopher Thomas Nagel and the controversy surrounding his book Mind and Cosmos. Is this debate a manifestation of our “technologically addled society”? 

Nagel’s book is astonishingly brave. There are things one agrees with more and one agrees with less, and there are things in it on which I certainly have no opinions. But I do know that not all of human life can be explained scientifically. And I do know that the question of consciousness cannot be smoothly worked out into a scientific analysis. There is a distinction between science and scientism. Science is what scientists do. Scientism is the belief that there are scientific answers to all questions.
I think the only important question really, in terms of worldviews, is the question of materialism— whether materialism can explain natural and human life. There are two camps. There are those who think it can and those who think it can’t. And all of those who think it can’t, whether they are mystics or rationalists or mathematicians, are all on the same side of the line... 

Let’s get back to your writing and the state of journalism. I liked your piece lambasting David Remnick’s essay on Bruce Springsteen. It was funny, but what I found interesting was that behind this humour seemed a sort of optimism about journalism. That it can, and should, hold more intellectual gravity. 

Yeah, I think that’s correct. I don’t call myself a journalist and I can’t call myself a professor, so the only professional term to which I answer happily is “intellectual.” And I think it is a very honourable term and I am happy with it. The Springsteen thing was written against a kind of journalistic complaisance. And to be wicked. I think that it is very important to give people an example of irreverence. We live in a culture of worthless praise. 

It seems that in an age of blogging and online journalism everything is either solipsistic back-patting or pure vitriol. 

Or it’s talk radio. And I have to say that there is not one blog, out of the eight million that must exist, that I read. The thing about blogging is that it is either someone’s first thoughts—which we know by definition are never their best thoughts—so that’s not interesting, or as time goes by they simply repeat themselves. Moreover there isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words. I write the back page of the magazine and I always wish it was three times as long as it is.