Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 5

Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 1

Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 2

Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 3

Pantheism, Postmodernism, Pop, 4

All of the following Pattison theses about the nature of romantic pantheism and popular culture are convincing, in need of merely a few minor adjustments: “Ours is a more homogeneous culture than we generally allow, in which elite and popular cultures subscribe to a single set of ideas”; “Prominent among these ideas is Romantic pantheism”; “In its pure form, Romantic pantheism encourages vulgarity”; “American democracy provides an ideal setting for the growth of romantic pantheism” (this clearly depends on how American democracy is defined); “Poe’s Eureka and the Velvet Underground are products of a single cultural force”; “What separates elite from popular culture is its unwillingness to embrace the vulgarity inherent in its own premises”; “There is more ideological vigor and consistency in the music of the Talking Heads than in the paradoxes of the academy”; “Nineteenth-century Romanticism lives on in the mass culture of the twentieth century, and the Sex Pistols come to fulfill the prophecies of Shelley”; “Vulgarity is no better and no worse than the pantheism and the democracy out of which it grows” (the latter certainly imply the sanctioning of the former, but neither has to be accepted or sanctioned); “Believing in Whitman, the democrat should also glory in the Ramones” (the democrat does not have to believe in Whitman). [Op.cit. xi-xii.]

What is being described is increasingly the fate of the whole of radical modernist and postmodernist culture. Again, there is really no distinction between the new élites and the masses. Rock “recognizes no class boundaries. Rich and poor, well-bred and lumpenproletariat alike listen to rock, and in the age of vulgarity, Harvard Square shares its musical tastes with Peoria.” [Ibid. 9.] The institution of the romantic secular bard is sublated in the popular culture of romanticism. Judging from sales statistics, almost all citizens of the leading rocking country, the United States, from which the new cult has spread across the globe, must own copies of the records and CDs of at least some of the leading bards of democracy. Rock stars flock to the White House (and Downing Street), and presidents accede to the office cheered by 120-decibel court jesters.

Yet arguing that we should now accept the vulgarity that has already triumphed, it is in a new, desperate attempt at sophistication that Pattison, probably considering all of the previous ones of radical modernism and postmodernism to be by now hopelessly trite, takes his point of departure in classicist humanism’s definition of vulgarity, finds it still standing, and bluntly analyses his subject-matter in its terms:

“The romantic revolution has made vulgarity an ineluctable issue for this century as well as the last. In politics, the vulgar mob has wrested power from its genteel rulers. Youth, which is noisy and uncontemplative, has usurped the cultural privileges of maturity. The heroes of Romantic civilization are no longer the disciplined patriots of Horace’s odes but unrefined primitives who pledge allegiance to self or the universe. In the West, the masses now have the leisure to indulge their vulgarity, and they have done so.” [Ibid. 13-14.]

Pattison follows the same strategy in his book on Newman, The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy (1991). Having devoted the major part of it to demonstrating the possible validity of at least some aspects of Newman’s criticism of modernity, he simply asserts, without arguments, in one short sentence on one of the last pages that ”as [Newman] presents them, heresy is in every way superior to truth”. [Op.cit., 215.] One suspects that it is in fact not necessary to side with Newman in the more specific theological controversies and to accept his identification of truth with orthodox dogma  in order to feel that, together with the celebration of Newman in the previous chapters (on Pattison’s own showing, much more was involved than the content of the Athanasian trinitology), this studied, defiant gesture signals a more general attitude on the part of some contemporary radical liberals, namely that they are now prepared to face, and deeply understand, any argument, any analysis, and perhaps even to admit that it is true, but that still they are never ever going to change their minds. But if so, it is of course just another version of the nihilistic end of academic discourse, brought about by the pantheistic revolution.

The aspect of the challenge against a non-pantheistic understanding of the person, inspired by classicism and Christianity, that on a superficial view stands at the opposite end from romanticism is the direct philosophical criticism produced today by the scientistically motivated physicalist materialism within the philosophy of mind – represented by the Churchlands and similar thinkers – which denies either the reality or the distinct quality of intentional agency, purposiveness, and nonphysical states of consciousness. Positivism having long since collapsed as a philosophy, this form of scientistic materialism has not only proved impervious to postmodern criticism, but, as in the work of Richard Rorty, compatible with it. [See my article ‘Richard Rortys filosofihistoriska program: Fysikalism och romantik i den amerikanska postmodernismen’ (‘Richard Rorty’s Program for the History of Philosophy: Physicalism and Romanticism in American Postmodernism’), in Att skriva filosofihistoria [Writing the History of Philosophy], Ugglan. Lund Studies in the History of Science and Ideas, VIII, 1998.]

Babbitt shows that it is a mistake to consider romanticism and naturalism to be opposites; in reality, they are mutually dependent and reinforce and support each other in countless subtle ways. Romanticism provides emotional “elevation” (Babbitt analysed an earlier historical period, but even then the elevation was merely that of romantic dreaming) and release for the hard-nosed technologist, while at the same time the latter provides the technologies for the former’s enhanced expression. [The interdependence is clearly – if indirectly – brought out also, for instance, in some of Neil Postman’s books.]

These currents in turn display central ingredient parts both of the psychological makeup and the ideological expression of what Eric Voegelin terms “gnosticism”. But I would add that this whole complex also tends inexorably in the direction of impersonalism. Christopher Lash analysed central aspects of contemporary culture in terms of “narcissism”. Personality, in this culture, tends to be reduced to a powerless escapist diversion as vicariously experienced in the stars of popular culture and sport – democracy’s version of the morally ambiguous personalism of romantic hero-worship. Or perhaps, stardom is democratically disseminated, as predicted by Andy Warhol, to everyone for fifteen minutes each.

For the rest of their lives, people are, as Rorty prescribes, to be allowed to dream in totally unrestrained relativistic subjectivism, but only in the strictest privacy that does not interfere with the workings of the public technological machinery. Today’s uncompromising scientistic reductionism can be shown to have been reached by the same concerted influence of lower romanticism, rationalism, empiricism, and a psychological disposition favouring “gnosticism” – all of which are not only inimical to the classical and Christian traditions in the general aspects that are relevant here, but also to the qualified modern understanding of the person and personal consciousness which is in harmony with these traditions not least in its retention, at least to some extent and in some form, of a spiritual dimension.

It is a commonplace in contemporary intellectual history that the individualism proclaimed by romanticism and liberalism was accompanied by an ever increasing social conformity and rational regimentation of man. In the connection here discussed, the partial truths of this perspective, introduced in the works of Michel Foucault, Norbert Elias, and others, are certainly relevant as a part of the historical and cultural perspective I try to introduce. But in recent scholarship it has unduly overshadowed other perspectives that are equally necessary for a deeper understanding. The common explanation of romanticism as a mere escapist reaction, powerless in the long run against the new historical realities of industrialism, true as it certainly is in many cases, also disastrously ignores the factual readiness of romanticism to accept and join the modernist forces of rationalism and technology, and the extent to which the whole of modernity, and postmodernity, are quintessentially if sometimes obliquely romantic phenomena. The specific romantic combination of pantheism and narcissism in what Pattison calls a vulgarized form, with no qualms about embracing the ever new marvels of rational technology, and enthusiastically surrendered to by the rational technologists themselves in leisure hours, is what determines what has been analysed by several critics as the conformity of the globalized mass-culture of liberal capitalist democracy. The nature of globalization makes my references to American literature increasingly relevant in other parts of the world, and not least of course in Europe.

Romantic pantheism which issued, not only in unison with but as including the forces of a renewed rationalism, in radical modernism and postmodernism, is, I suggest, the central underlying dynamic factor in the decline of the traditional Western culture that was shaped by the general aspects of the traditions of Christian theism and classical idealism and humanism that I have indicated loosely yet with sufficient precision for the limited purposes of the present argument. This decline has today assumed crisis-like forms and symptoms more acute and decisive than anything previously seen in the drawn-out undermining process in some respects philosophically and imaginatively set in motion centuries ago. But it is this same process that is being brought to a culmination. In a “physicalist” postmodernist like Rorty, the Babbittian analysis of the confluence of Rousseauism and Baconianism is irrefutably confirmed on all levels.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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