December 17, 2012
Artist Jeff Koons with sculpture
A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people. High culture is a precarious achievement, and endures only if it is underpinned by a sense of tradition, and by a broad endorsement of the surrounding social norms. When those things evaporate, as inevitably happens, high culture is superseded by a culture of fakes.
Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling. There are fake beliefs, fake opinions, fake kinds of expertise. There is also fake emotion, which comes about when people debase the forms and the language in which true feeling can take root, so that they are no longer fully aware of the difference between the true and the false. Kitsch is one very important example of this. The kitsch work of art is not a response to the real world, but a fabrication designed to replace it. Yet both producer and consumer conspire to persuade each other that what they feel in and through the kitsch work of art is something deep, important and real.
Anyone can lie. One need only have the requisite intention — in other words, to say something with the intention to deceive. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. In an important sense, therefore, faking is not something that can be intended, even though it comes about through intentional actions. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but his pretence is merely a continuation of his lying strategy. The fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member. Understanding this phenomenon is, it seems to me, integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted.
We are interested in high culture because we are interested in the life of the mind, and we entrust the life of the mind to institutions because it is a social benefit. Even if only a few people are capable of living this life to the full, we all benefit from its results, in the form of knowledge, technology, legal and political understanding, and the works of art, literature and music that evoke the human condition and also reconcile us to it. Aristotle went further, identifying contemplation ( theoria ) as the highest goal of mankind, and leisure ( schole ) as the means to it. Only in contemplation, he suggested, are our rational needs and desires properly fulfilled. Kantians might prefer to say that in the life of the mind we reach through the world of means to the kingdom of ends. We leave behind the routines of instrumental reasoning and enter a world in which ideas, artefacts and expressions exist for their own sake, as objects of intrinsic value. We are then granted the true homecoming of the spirit. Such seems to be implied by Friedrich Schiller, in his Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794). Similar views underlie the German romantic view of Bildung: self-cultivation as the goal of education and the foundation of the university curriculum.
The life of the mind has its intrinsic methods and rewards. It is concerned with the true, the beautiful and the good, which between them define the scope of reasoning and the goals of serious enquiry. But each of those goals can be faked, and one of the most interesting developments in our educational and cultural institutions over the past half century is the extent to which fake culture and fake scholarship have driven out the true varieties. It is important to ask why.
The most important way of clearing intellectual space for fake scholarship and culture is to marginalise the concept of truth. This looks difficult at first. After all, every utterance, every discussion, seems to be aimed at truth by its very nature. How can knowledge come to us, if we are indifferent to the truth of what we read? But this is too simple. There is a way of debating that disregards the truth of another’s words, since it is concerned to diagnose them, to discover ‘where they are coming from’, and to reveal the emotional, moral and political attitudes that underlie a given choice of words. The habit of ‘going behind’ your opponent’s words stems from Karl Marx’s theory of ideology, which tells us that, in bourgeois conditions, concepts, habits of thought and ways of seeing the world are adopted because of their socio-economic function, not their truth. The idea of justice, for instance, which sees the world in terms of rights and responsibilities and assigns ownership and obligations across society, was dismissed by early Marxists as a piece of bourgeois ‘ideology’. The ideological purpose of the concept is to validate ‘bourgeois relations of production’ which, from another perspective, can be seen to violate the very requirements that the concept of justice lays down. Therefore, the concept of justice is in conflict with itself, and serves merely to mask a social reality that has to be understood in other terms — in terms of the powers to which people are subject, rather than the rights that they claim.
The Marxist theory of ideology is extremely contentious, not least because it is tied to socio-economic hypotheses that are no longer believable. However, it survives in the work of Michel Foucault, and other intellectuals, notably in The Order of Things (1966) and in his witty essays on the origins of the prison and the mad-house. These are exuberant exercises in rhetoric, full of paradoxes and historical fabrications, sweeping the reader along with a kind of facetious indifference to the standards of rational argument. Instead of argument, Foucault sees ‘discourse’; in the place of truth he sees power. In Foucault’s view, all discourse gains acceptance by expressing, fortifying and concealing the power of those who maintain it; and those who, from time to time, perceive this fact are invariably imprisoned as criminals or locked away as mad — a fate that Foucault himself unaccountably avoided.
Foucault’s approach reduces culture to a power-game, and scholarship to a kind of refereeing in the endless ‘struggle’ between oppressed and oppressing groups. The shift of emphasis from the content of an utterance to the power that speaks through it leads to a new kind of scholarship, which by-passes entirely questions of truth and rationality, and can even reject those questions as themselves ideological.
The pragmatism of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty is of similar effect. It expressly set itself against the idea of objective truth, giving a variety of arguments for thinking that truth is a negotiable thing, that what matters in the end is which side you are on. If a doctrine is useful in the struggle that liberates your group, then you are entitled to dismiss the alternatives.
Whatever you think of Foucault and Rorty, there is no doubt that they were intelligent writers and genuine scholars with a distinctive vision of reality. They opened the way to fakes but were not fakes themselves. Matters are quite otherwise with many of their contemporaries. Consider the following sentence:
The fake intellectual invites you to conspire in his own self-deception, to join in creating a fantasy world. He is the teacher of genius, you the brilliant pupil. Faking is a social activity in which people act together to draw a veil over unwanted realities and encourage each other in the exercise of their illusory powers. The arrival of fake thought and fake scholarship in our universities should not therefore be attributed to any explicit desire to deceive. It has come about through the complicit opening of territory to the propagation of nonsense. Nonsense of this kind is a bid to be accepted. It asks for the response: by God, you are right, it is like that . And if you have earned your academic career by learning to push around the nonsensical mantras of the impostors, combining them in the impenetrable syntax that hoodwinks the person who composes it as much as the person who reads it, no doubt you will react indignantly to everything I have said so far and cease to read further.
It could be argued that the rise of fake scholarship and fake philosophy matters little. Such things can be contained within the university, which is their natural home, and make little difference to the lives of ordinary people. When we think of high culture and its importance, we tend to think not of scholarship and philosophy but of art, literature and music — activities that are only accidentally connected to the university, and that influence the quality of life and the goals of people outside the academy.