May 24, 2017 (Wednesday)

by Yule Heibel on May 23, 2018

If anything I write should ever interest readers – and any reader is a future reader, interpreting words written in the past (which once was a present, but let’s not get too complicated) – it will be because somehow it touches on common ground, on something identifiable …and shared. Sometimes that’s a hard pill to swallow if you have the kind of misanthropic tendencies I feel within me. It’s a fear, really, this misanthropy. I think Camille Paglia is right, and we (well, some of us) do spend a lifetime trying to differentiate ourselves from the muck, trying to hone and burnish our contours, our clarities, and (or: but) everywhere we look we see the muck winning. In the form of relativism, for instance.

Relativism should be explored by any questing, still maturing mind (I know I did – really upset George Knox at UBC doing it, too), but lately, since it has gone everywhere and into everything, it has become part of the mire, part of that which fundamentally works against differentiation, clarity, judgement. It has instantiated itself as a kind of judgement, which is the worst charade of our age. If relativism serves as a foil for eventual differentiation and discrimination, it has served well. If on the other hand it becomes a catch-all that’s used to relativize, then it has overstepped its usefulness. Then it’s overwhelming (tyrannical) and an impediment to clarity. I sometimes wonder – like right now – whether Jesus was articulating his teachings with this conundrum in mind. He came from a judgemental, harsh sect, facing another harsh, judgemental (but more modern) world. He actually introduced a lot of relativism, really, especially with his teachings around not judging (lest ye be judged). But it seems to have been a tool, something dialogic (dialectic, even), something to move understanding forward. That’s not where we’re at now, it seems to me.

And everywhere, on social media in particular, you see this struggle – muck and clarity, relativism and judgement – whenever anything happens. It doesn’t matter, either, whether the events are “real” and incredibly salient (as, for example, with Monday’s Islamist massacre of mostly young girls at a Manchester UK teeny bopper concert) or whether they’re of the more manufactured, rumor-mill variety. Our media economy depends on outrage and attention, and so relativism and judgement set upon one another in tweets and status updates and all manner of virtue signaling (which in turn generates even more relativism and judgement).

In the end, everybody is doing the same thing – feeding the economy we’ve created (or had foisted on us) with clicks, clicks, clicks. And even judgement – discernment, the ability to discriminate and (Adorno’s favorite:) differentiate – becomes part of an inextricable, gigantically sucking muck. People today, right? Except we’re all kinda gettin’ played here. A philosopher king like Jesus might not be a bad role model at this juncture.

Yesterday I took the train into Boston, went to Cambridge to hear a talk about John Singleton Copley – which I really disliked. The speaker, Jane K. (a historian, but not of art), really annoyed me. Too glib; a talk filled with completely inappropriate anachronisms (which, in the case of her allusions to Sunset Boulevard were downright wrong!), and the auditorium was freezing.

Afterwards, I was cutting through the Yard where I ran into E.R., who recognized and stopped me. We talked at length (I walked back to his car with him). We dissed the old “mentor” who wasn’t. E. looks old. I wrote R.R. an email of condolences regarding his father’s dying – at 75. Heard from him – his grandfather died at 53, looking ancient. Sword of Damocles, genetic history like that…

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