Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Culture Critique - Contemporary American Zeitgeist

Since this will be my first content post, I figured I would list some of the influences of this post. Most of these are feminist blogs, and I will list my current, and subject to change, favorites (according to the criteria that they have the soundest theory I have found--that is, those that agree with mine--hah!):

Pam's House Blend
Women of Color Blog
Queer Dude
Bitch PhD

Many of these blogs deal with feminist and "progressive" (or whatever) issues and all are based in America. As a Canadian, I feel like I have a certain amount of distance from the fray, however much I sympathize with the issues being raised. I also feel like I can provide an interesting analysis about the cultural situation down there.

One of the things that these blogs have in common is their engagement with the many faces of "bigotry" and "conservativism" (their terms) that pervade the American public sphere. I have much sympathy for their arguements, though I only relate in lived experience in terms of how what goes on in America only somtimes affects me directly, but very often indirectly. So, I do have a small stake in this debate, because as we all know local issues are somehow also global issues--the details depend on the place and issue. Nonetheless, for all their differences, many cultural issues in America also play out in variously similar and different ways in Canada. So, on to my analysis.

The title of this post mentions the term Zeitgeist. As such, I want to comment on an element of American discourse to which I feel I can bring an interesting insight. One of the things I have noticed about self-identity in America is how it is becoming increasingly polarized. The stakes are high and people are digging in their heels. Now, for another confession, I am a Nietzschean (which is a reference to this book). And since I daily pick up a spot of Nietzsche for ingestion, my Nietzschean thought of the day inspired this post. There is a section from The Antichrist that I think is salient to contemporary American discourse. What I see as problematic about this polarizing discourse, aside from the devisive and hate-encouraging feelings it engenders, is how it embodies a fundamental weakness of spirit (which, I should note, I don't believe actually exists, but is like a chimera we can imagine to tell a story about the real--which, in a weird Baudrillardian way RIP is also like a chimera) . I will allow Nietzsche to elaborate for me (note: I have changed the gendered pronouns to make it more fun):

One should not be deceived: great spirits are skeptics. Zarathustra is a skeptic. Strength, freedom which is born of strength and overstrength of the spirit, proves itself by skepticism. Men of conviction are not worthy of the least consideration in fundamental questions of value and disvalue. Convictions are prisons. Such men do not look far enough, they do not look beneath themselves: but to be permitted to join in the discussion of value and disvalue, one must see five hundred convictions beneath oneself--behind oneself.

A spirit who wants great things, who also wants the means to them, is necessarily a skeptic. Freedom from all kinds of convictions, to be able to see freely, is part of strength. Great passion, the ground and the power of her existence, even more enlightened, even more despotic than she is herself, employs her whole intellect; it makes her unhesitating; it gives her courage even for unholy means; under certain circumstances it does not begrudge her convictions. Conviction as a means: many things are attained only by means of a conviction. Great passion uses and uses up convictions, it does not succumb to them--it knows itself sovereign.

Conversely: the need for faith, for some kind of unconditional Yes and No, this Carlylism, if one will forgive me this word, is a need born of weakness. The man of faith, the "believer" of every kind, is necessarily a dependent man--one who cannot posit himself as an end, one who cannot posit any end at all by himself. The "believer" does not belong to himself, he can only be a means, he must be used up, requires somebody to use him up. (The Antichrist, Para. 54)

While this passage hints at many things, and Nietzsche is explosively interpretable, it does point at a weak quality of character that seems to have entered much of American subjective experience. Many, conservative, liberal, or other, have much too much conviction and much to little skepticism. Passion should be built upon the pile of beaten, dead horses that are one's past convictions. Convictions should be used and used up for our passions. Passion? Conviction? What is the difference? Conviction is ideologically stagnant; it is an intellectual invalid. Passion is encouraged by conviction, but is only strongest when those convictions are in its service--and not the other way around. Passions allow the questioning, overturning, transcending, or transforming of convictions--that is, a healthy dose of skepticism allows us to be more authentic about our convictions. On the other hand, an unexamined conviction, especially one allowed to run amok, is weak. It is assuredly inauthentic by the very weakness that it cannot allow itself to be questioned (the weakness of fear, the fear of weakness), while passion, great passion, strong passion, authentic passion, can be exponentially more authentic because it is continually tested by routinely critically engaging its convictions.

As a hyperbole let us say that Americans (and slowly, increasingly, Canadians) are of these two types. Ask yourself this: Which am I? How can I prove that I am of this type?

Now, what is the your answer to that question?

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