So there I was, leafing through the New York Times Magazine, having scurried out early into the snow to get it before the lovely and talented Valerie woke up and took possession of it for the morning (the pre-nup specified that I’d get the first shot at the book reviews if she got first shot at the magazine, an agreement about which I’ve been ambivalent ever since). As I ruminated over Randy Cohen’s Ethicist column, it hit me: modernity is disinterest. What, you say? What could this mean? And how does it connect to Randy Cohen (or, for that matter, to good taste, disinterest, and the failure of democracy in Iraq)? Good questions, all! And, fuelled as I am by Intelligentsia’s powerful Sumatran coffee beans, I’ll endeavor an answer.
Randy Cohen’s weekly column, “The Ethicist,” sets forth to answer, in practical terms, the ethical questions that arise in the daily lives of the readers of the New York Times. In this week’s installment, the redoubtable Randy begins with a question from a guy in Cambridge, Mass, who reads books and magazines aloud in order to make tapes for blind people. While engaged in this worthy endeavor, the guy — a good lefty such as one finds in Cambridge — was asked to read some right wing screeds put out by the despicable John Birch Society. What to do? Read on, or act on one’s personal conviction that this stuff is immoral? Randy Cohen has no problem providing an answer for our Cambridge worrier. “Your function is akin to a librarian’s,” he writes, “to provide requested material, not to judge it.”
In effect, Cohen is saying that our social function must be kept separate from our private convictions. We are to be disinterested professionals at work, setting aside personal ethics for professional ones. So a doctor, loyal to medicine and the Hippocratic Oath, would be obliged to treat anyone who came for help – even a Hitler or a Stalin. So a lawyer, assigned to protect a person he believes to be guilty, is obliged to make that person’s case to the best of his or her ability. The ethic here is one of disinterest and gessellschaft — of setting aside personal interests and convictions in a society of abstract, contractual relations. It makes for a very split self (the part of me with real convictions, and the part of me that performs a social role according to ethics determined by that role alone). This is interesting, in that while it is entirely ordinary for our society to take Cohen’s view, the view is quite rare historically and in many other cultures.
I want to say two things about all this: first, that this ethic is a product of the Enlightenment and a property of Western Civ (broadly conceived, and incorporated to varying degrees in other cultures); and second, that the idea comes, ultimately, out of 18th century theorizing about (of all things) good taste. Yes indeed. I really do think I can make the connection.
To see how thoroughly Western this idea is, we could turn to all sorts of sources, but the one I have in mind is an article in the latest issue of The American Scholar, which I was thumbing through in the Lake Forest train station Thursday morning, waiting for the Metra after an “I’m getting too old for this shit” all night end-of-semester shindig thrown by a colleague (a colleague whose guest-bed mattress seems, I might somewhat petulantly add, to have been designed and built by Torquemada). One of the main articles in the current issue, Lawrence Rosen’s “What We Got Wrong: How Arabs Look at the Self, their Society, and their Political Institutions” makes a grim but convincing case about the poor prospects for Western-style democracy in Iraq (problems that would persist even if the current attempt at setting up an oil-vending democracy hadn’t been implemented at the end of a gun by a nation that had killed untold thousands of Iraqis — a particularly unpropitious proposition).
Rosen (a sharp guy, and an anthropologist at Princeton) lays down a number of factors that mitigate against the success of democracy in Iraq, but I’d like to focus on two of them. In the first, Rosen argues that, in contrast to the West,
in the Arab world the self is never seen as divided. Whereas in the West we imagine ourselves able to take on multiple, even contradictory roles — as when an official gives support to a law with which he personally disagrees — to Arabs this self-segmentation runs contrary to the idea of a person as a unified whole.
So, while it seems clear to a guy like Randy Cohen to advise someone to separate his ethical convictions from his social role, this sort of separation doesn’t make sense to cultures operating with different logics. It is a deeply Western idea — and, as the letter to Cohen makes clear, one that isn’t always obvious even in the West, where some people feel ambivalent enough about it to turn to an professional ethicist for help.
Another point of Rosen’s carries this idea of an Arab resistance to democracy outward from the self to the social world. In the Arab world. Rosen says,
political institutions have never been separated from the individuals connected to them. Indeed, personal attachments — whether to a political leader, spiritual guide, or close relative — focus not on the settled expectations of position but on the constantly shifting network of obligation through which each actor seeks to negotiate an advantageous connection.
So, while in the West there is this notion of the separation of person and office or role (you may not like the John Birch Society, but damn it your professional ethics demand that you read it onto tape for the blind man who wants to stoke his ignorance and rage with the contents of those pages), this just doesn’t pertain elsewhere. While a Western official is (ideally, though not always in practice) impartial, looking after everyone impartially and with a kind of disinterestedness, this sort of division is not available in the Arab world, where gemeinschaft networks of contact and obligation are the norm. We’d see many Arab officials as corrupt and nepotistic (and, described in terms of the logic of our system, they would indeed be corrupt). In their own estimation, though, they’d just be remaining true to themselves and looking after their peeps.
Of course, this divorcing of personal ethical conviction from institutional activity that we see in the West doesn’t always manifest itself in positive ways. One example of creepy shit connected to this that comes to mind involves the advertising industry. One of the most chilling parts of the generally excellent documentary about capitalist social organization,The Corporation, shows us how an otherwise decent human being can do bad things because of the kind of dissociation of private ethics from institutional life that we’ve come to expect in the West. In one scene, a very chipper and apparently quite bright woman from the advertising industry (who doesn’t seem to know just what kind of documentary she’s in) goes on about how marketing research has shown that it just isn’t effective to market children’s toys to parents. You’ve got to market directly to the kids, crafting ads aimed at their level of cognitive development, with the goal of getting them to nag their parents into submission. Empirical studies, she says, show that parents hate this, and other studies indicate how much pressure of what kind one has to put on kids to get them to nag their parents the right way. Parents then buy the kid the product in order to get some peace back in the house. When the filmmakers asked the marketing executive how she felt about the ethics of deliberately introducing misery into households, she didn’t seem phased. “That’s the best way to do our job,” she said (or words to that effect — I returned the DVD to the library the other day, dreading any addition to the mammoth late fees I’d already racked up by hanging onto the 4-CD history of Jamaican music that’s been overdue for the past two weeks or so — excellent music for grooving around the kitchen with a cocktail while cooking, I might add, and quite possibly the source for a poem. But I digress). So here’s a dark side to the Western system: perfectly decent people who love their own children can step into the office and do some seriously evil shit without batting an eye.
Okay. So disinterest is one of the defining characteristics of the contemporary West ("disinterest is modernity," one might say, hoping to make an impression). But if this system of disinterest and the separation of self from role is indeed a Western thing, and only recently so (I mean, doesn’t the world of obligation-networks Rosen describe sound a lot like the Elizabethan England Stephen Greenblatt writes about in Renaissance Self-Fashioning) how did it come into being in the first place? Here, I think, is where the idea of good taste comes into play. Check it out.
The idea of the beautiful (and of taste in things beautiful) is deeply tied to the idea of disinterest in the main line of Western aesthetics from the 18th century on through the 20th century, and even in our time, for some die-hards. Here’s my favorite chunk of text for explaining the idea of a disinterested appreciation of beauty. This imaginary dialogue comes from Coleridge’s On the Principles of Genial Criticism, and serves (according to the students in my theory of lit seminar last semester) as a better example of Kant’s ideas than any examples Kant came up with:
Let us suppose Milton in company with some stern and prejudiced Puritan, contemplating the front of York Cathedral, and at length expressing his admiration for its beauty. We will suppose it too at that time of his life, when his religious opinions most nearly coincided with those of the rigid antiprelatists. P[uritan]: Beauty, I am sure, it is not the beauty of holiness. M[ilton]: True, but yet it is beautiful. P:It delights not me. What is it good for? Is it of any use but to be stared at? M: Perhaps not! But still it is beautiful. P: But call to mind the pride and wanton vanity of those cruel shavelings, that wasted the labor and sbstance of so many thousand poor creatures in the erection of this haughty pile. M: I do. But still it is very beautiful. P: Think how many score places of worship, incomparably better suited both for prayer and preaching, and how many faithful ministers might have been maintained, to the blessing of tens of thousands, to them and their children’s children, with the treasures so lavished on this worthless mass of stone and cement. M: too true! But nevertheless it is very beautiful. P: And it is not merely useless, but it feeds the pride of the prelates, and keeps alive popish and carnal spirit among the people. M: Even so!
It goes on, but the text is too obscure to be available anywhere online except one site that isn’t responding right now, and I tire of typing. Also, I imagine you get it: matters of taste in the beautiful, in the view of Coleridge’s Milton (who speaks, somewhat anachronistically for a whole 18th and 19th century tradition in aesthetics) is to be judged without reference to our sense of utility or morality. In this view, we are separate from parts of ourselves when we make an aesthetic judgment. We set aside such things as personal connections (“that painting is beautiful because my daughter painted it/is in it/bought it for me”) and ethical reservations (“Leni Riefenstahl is a lousy filmmaker because she supported the Nazis”). We become divided selves, compartmentalized in exactly the way Rosen tells us the Arabs, with their refusal of “self-segmentation,” are not. And once we become divided from parts of ourselves at the level of aesthetics (where the stakes seem so low to so many people), we’re ready to become divided from other parts of ourselves, like ethics. We’re ready to treat people with the same disinterest Coleridge’s Milton treated the Cathedral, without bias regarding our personal prejudices. We’re ready to treat our own actions that way, too, without reference our own ethics (“business is business,” we tautologically opine, while doing things we wouldn’t countenance if we weren’t enabled in the divorcing of individual ethics from professional ethics).
(Caffeine-fuelled sidebar: Pierre Bourdieu has convincingly argued that this self-segmentation is a class marker — specifically a bourgeois and upper-class class marker. The working classes in his survey of French taste didn’t make these kinds of distinctions between the good or useful or personally-connected and the beautiful. In effect, they’re with Coleridge’s Puritan, not his Milton. And John Berger’s work bears this out too, but that’s another blog entry, one I’ll probably never get round to).
Anyway. The interesting thing to me is this: the idea of disinterest in the West begins to come into being in the 18th century, and it begins in discussions of taste. It travels into the realms of politics, institutions, corporations, and professional ethics (the stuff Randy Cohen supports and the makers of The Corporation find creepy), but it begins with taste and aesthetics. You don’t really get it as a part of ethics until after you get it as a part of aesthetics, unless you count the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s 18th century Characteristicks, in which aesthetic disinterest and ethical disinterest are sort of united (trust me, I spent the first half of last summer up to my tweedy academic elbows in Shaftesbury's works).
The reasons for this early theorizing about disinterest as vital to aesthetics are themselves quite fascinating. So are the paths disinterest takes on the way from being an aesthetic idea to being a key element of gessellschaft social organization, and of modernity itself. I could go on. But I rather imagine that anyone who’s made it this far into this entry is thinking it is high time for Archambeau to settle down, so I’ll let all that wait for another Sumatra-bean fuelled trip to the outer blogosphere.