Dear Tom,
 
Individualism is a problematic subject nowadays. The epic tale of a militaristic hero is less appealing, and maybe even impossible, don't you think? Isn't that a question posed by Joyce's Ulysses? Romantic poetry that elevates personal experience to public importance also seems to be losing its appeal. Individualism can go either way: Idi Amin or Martin Luther King, tyrant or benevolent leader.
 
What interests me now are interrogations of what John Searle calls "collective intention." Sports teams, orchestras, choruses, and all activity that calls for a group acting as a body consists of what some sociologists call "dividuals" who do not act autonomously. As I said before, I believe that a space for a leader is created by collective forces, and a leader steps into it, for good or ill.
 
Whether collective intention is better or worse than individualistic behavior is a subject of many studies, as you probably know. Someone wrote a book that documented how success in the stock market was superior when it was based on group guesses by ordinary people rather than resulting from the estimates of a professional stock broker. On the other hand, an event involving collective intention can be disastrous; in the past there have been stampedes at the Haj, for example, in which people were killed (I understand that crowd control there is better now.) War of course is collective intention actualized also.
 
Charles Russell's essay in "Sub-Stance" 27, 1980, titled "Individual Voice in the Collective Discourse" offers some insights in this regard, and John R. Searle has spent a lifetime examining and teaching the subject. (He has been invited to the economic summit Davos to lecture, and also to a conference at the Vatican in Rome.) A book of his on the subject that I have read is The Construction of Social Reality (1995). While I take exception to many things he says, his ideas are generally worthwhile to think about. You can find out more about Searle at:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Searle

 

Cheers,

 

Diana
 


Date: Mon, 18 Jan 2010 11:32:03 -0500
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Eliot's poetry: the medium & the message
To: [log in to unmask]

Dear Diana,

Thank you for your thoughtful answer. I apologize if my post was overly aggressive, but I have always placed a high value on the individual. In fact, I think one of the great contributions of Western thought is the idea that the individual is the engine of progress. When I see the individual portrayed as "helpless and insignificant", it gets me upset.

In politics, I think of individual leaders like Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi and many others, who made such a difference in the lives of so many, at a great sacrifice to their personal lives. They did not consider themselves to be "helpless and insignificant". I remember a speech by Jesse Jackson that stressed precisely the importance of the individual. Jackson spoke with distain of those who say "Time heals all" and instead reminded his listeners, "Time is neutral and heals nothing". He meant, of course, that it's up to each individual to rise to action and make changes happen -- the opposite message from the one in which the individual is "helpless and insignificant".

To me, the same holds in the arts, in the sciences, in philosophical endeavors -- individual leaders, individual geniuses produce breakthroughs that propel all the rest of humankind forward. And those breakthrough accomplishments are not inevitable.

D> I don't know that the holocaust was inevitable; perhaps some leader
D> could have turned that tide. Maybe if Jesus came back as a modern German.
D>
D>I'm sure you agree that it's unlikely that a single individual could have
D> turned a society in that evil direction if they were not predisposed
D> to being turned.
 
I certainly agree that Germany in the 1930s was a society receptive to Hitler's evils (for example, see the book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" by Daniel Goldhagen). However I don't think that only the return of Jesus could have stopped the Holocaust. I think the specific evil-talents of Hitler and the Nazis leaders propelled Germany into Hell. Without these key monsters taking power, I don't think the Holocaust would have happened.

You write, "I don't know that the holocaust was inevitable; perhaps some leader could have turned that tide". Perhaps you and I have the seeds of an understanding in that expressed doubt about inevitability (even if you really think that it's unlikely that anyone [excluding Jesus?] could have made a difference). For if the Holocaust was not inevitable, then individuals make a difference. Individuals matter.

-- Tom --
 

Date: Mon, 18 Jan 2010 15:04:11 +0000
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Eliot's poetry: the medium & the message
To: [log in to unmask]

Dear Tom,
 
Having been raised near Edison's laboratory in Edison, NJ, where he is a local god, I tend to credit him with more inventions than he actually invented!
 
Sorry for that. Everyone knows Don Ameche invented the telephone!
 
The very facts you mention, for example that Hitler, Mengele, Goebbels, et al were in place and ready to collaborate in an evil plan, is evidence that the holocaust was a result of social/economic/anti-Semitic forces that were trans-individual. Jews were bound to suffer terribly in that climate. I don't know that the holocaust was inevitable; perhaps some leader could have turned that tide. Maybe if Jesus came back as a modern German.
 
I'm sure you agree that it's unlikely that a single individual could have turned a society in that evil direction if they were not predisposed to being turned.
 
With regard to individuals recognizing that they are manipulated by ideolects circulating in their society, don't you think that awareness helps one think for oneself as much as is possible? If the public were aware in that way they would not have bought into Bush's proclamation that we were bringing "democracy" to Iraq.
 
It's often said that Postmodern literature is a-historical (by Terry Eagleton for one), but in fact it reveals historical accounts to be distortions. When we realize that we tend to question what we've been taught, and I can't see that as anything but a good thing. The history of the United States as seen by Native Americans is quite a different history from the one I learned in school.
 
Our beliefs are largely determined; if you agree that a person's beliefs are part of her/his identity, then our subjectivities are largely determined. I for one am glad I know that.
 
Diana
 

Date: Sun, 17 Jan 2010 18:36:44 -0500
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Eliot's poetry: the medium & the message
To: [log in to unmask]

Diana wrote:
D> Tom you are a Romantic. Do you really think there would be no telephones if Edison were not born?

Edison? Since I believe in the unique, powerful, contribution of the individual, let me say this: As long as Alexander Graham Bell was born, we'd have telephones.

And while it can be argued that any particular invention would have been discovered _eventually_, how much longer would the world have had to wait if the particular inventor hadn't made their discovery, and what effect would that delay have had on human history?

D> And if Germany was susceptible to a charismatic leader it would have been manipulated
D>  by some other Sturm-und-Drang-spouting leader. The forces that made Hitler
D> had little to do with him.

This statement is bizarre. Are you proposing that the Holocaust (the government-sponsored murder of millions of civilians) was _inevitable_, regardless of who came to power??? Are you seriously saying history would have played out in the exact same way if Hitler, Mengele, Goebbels, et al., had been assassinated before 1939? Where does this "inevitability" come from? Is our whole damn history from now until doomsday pre-determined in your analysis?

D> There are reasons why postmodern novels like those of Vonnegut, Pynchon,
D> Heller and Barth portray the individual as helpless and insignificant.  

They are wrong. Think for yourself.

-- Tom --



 

Date: Sat, 16 Jan 2010 09:29:38 -0500
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Eliot's poetry: the medium & the message
To: [log in to unmask]

Tom you are a Romantic. Do you really think there would be no telephones if Edison were not born?

And if Germany was susceptible to a charismatic leader it would have been manipulated by some other Sturm-und-Drang-spouting leader. The forces that made Hitler had little to do with him.

There are reasons why postmodern novels like those of Vonnegut, Pynchon, Heller and Barth portray the individual as helpless and insignificant.  

Humanism hasn't got us very far. The planet is sick from human stupidity and  we are banalized to death by people soliciting the wages we make, and the wages we don't.

Diana
 
Sent from my iPod

On Jan 16, 2010, at 2:00 AM, Tom Colket <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Diana wrote:
D> Most achievements would have emerged in time -- even without Galileo
D> we would not still think the sun revolved around the earth.
D> Individuals as I say are overrated.

I couldn't disagree with this more.

The importance of the individual is probably most obvious in the arts. No "Ninth Symphony" without Beethoven. No "Prufrock" and "The Waste Land" (and this list) without Eliot.

The importance of the individual, for good or evil, is pretty obvious in politics too. Let a different George Washington declare himself to be King instead of President and trace the new history of the United States (and the world). Ask a Jew about the evil-importance of an individual German demagogue named Adolph Hitler.

Even in science, the individual matters a great deal. Perhaps the inventions and discoveries we know today would have been made later by someone else, but how much later? And how would that delay alter the development of society or science as we know it?

I think the truth is the opposite of what you write. In fact, a handful of individuals, perhaps a few thousand people, a number small enough to fit in a movie theater, have changed the course of human history. We all stand on the shoulders of those individual giants.

-- Tom --



Date: Fri, 15 Jan 2010 17:34:50 -0500
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Eliot's poetry: the medium & the message
To: [log in to unmask]


Dear Nancy,

I'll look for that online -- thanks for the suggestion!

Language seems to have evolved organically -- like a bird's feathers for which no smart bird can take credit for inventing.

Most achievements would have emerged in time -- even without Galileo we would not still think the sun revolved around the earth. Individuals as I say are overrated. 

TGIF!

Cheers, 

Diana

Sent from my iPod

On Jan 15, 2010, at 4:26 PM, Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Dear Diana,
 
I think the most interesting poetic focus on this topic is Denise Riley.  If you can find a copy of Mop Mop Georgette, you will have a fascinating poetic discourse about discourse and self.  (I think it's out of print, but a library might have it.)
 
I did not, by the way, say "discourse" originates with the individual; I said humans create discourse.  The connection--and direction--is an old discussion, but words did not spontaneously appear in the universe--even if you believe a god suddenly said them and created it.  There is still the god.  My point is that none of this makes sense except in a complex set of relations.  To say language just appears is as decontextualized as to say individual romantic creation, a la Coleridge, just appears.  Neither works if you try to follow it to any logical conclusion.  But then, as I said, I discuss this in the article on "Subjectivities," which focuses on how Anglo-American and French theories are set down on a template like Scottish poetry where they just do not explain anything--one of them being these notions of discourse as either totally originated by the lyric voice or totally constructed by language.  I never feel constrained by "either/or"; it is pretty much always a false dichotomy.
Cheers,
Nancy

>>> DIana Manister 01/15/10 3:18 PM >>>
Dear Nancy,

As you know origins are tricky -- language itself does not originate with the individual who learns one.

As for discourses, like the many feminisms from liberal humanist to radical postructuralist, who can say if any one person started them, or if a collective intention reached a critical intensity and was articulated as a system of ideas whose time had come.

No doubt Freud's ideas would have arrived in some form bearing someone else's name.

Discourses have a life of their own -- although people put their names to them. Someone would have taken credit for inventing the wheel if there had been a way to do it.

Language, as a system, is a capacity with which we are born -- how it originated as you know is a mystery. 

When a species evolves to a point where language is possible everyone participates in its arrival.

No one invented language, or thought. They evolved, like the opposable thumb.

Individualism is highly overrated, in my opinion.

Anyway there's no one whose ideas on the subject I'd rather hear than you! 

Cheers,

Diana

Sent from my iPod

On Jan 15, 2010, at 1:12 PM, Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Dear Diana,
 
I know what they mean. I don't just fully agree with any of them.  I think, as I said, that the notion of humans as devoid of agency is simply false. 
Plato's realm is not disembodied either except the highest realm of the Real--there is an actual world where humans see, perhaps only shadows, but where they must choose.  Otherwise there could be no dialogues.  And souls may end up there.  But Plato was pretty clear on the necessity of making choices that would lead to it.
 
Discourses are in one fundamental sense prior to any specific person: we enter into a world where they exist.  But humans are not mere passive recipients of them.  Where, then, do they begin?  They are, at some point, humanly created words, and humans alter, rearrange, add to or limit what they experience in discourse.  Otherwise there would not be any difference between Foucault and Plato.  You have not responded to the problem of names.  Who or what is Foucault that "he" had any theory at all, much less one that was not already existing since--since when? the Big Bang? 
 
I am not being stupid or obtuse:  discourse is a human activity, not a world without humans in which we happen to get in the way of traveling words at times.  If we are less undetermined and less an originary source of discourse than Coleridge imagined, we are also less determined and less mere recipients than your (and many others') reading of these writers means.  Someone, somewhere, somehow, sometime has ideas, words, thoughts that alter any dominant discourse.  That's why, for example, there is femininism.
 
The real issue in these theories is not whether there is any author in any sense but what an author is--as in Foucault's use of many discourses to frame a particular question and offer an answer.
 
That he said it--or anyone said it--does not carry any weight unless it is convincing.
Cheers,
Nancy
 
>>> Diana Manister 01/15/10 12:49 PM >>>
Nancy wrote:
 
"If only thoughts occur, they must exist in some possibly Platonic realm where there is nothing but thought. I don't happen to think that makes sense."
 
Dear Nancy,
 
There is nothing disembodied about thought. When Russell said "thoughts occur" he meant they self-create and self-regulate, like breathing and pulse, which are not Platonic or abstract.
 
Likewise when Foucault and Blanchot say we are spoken by circulating discourses, they mean that these pass automatically among members of a culture. No self consents to receiving them.
 
I see positive value in admitting that we are more determined than we would like to admit; we are implicated in the ideologies we criticize. Foregrounding our ideological conditioning can only increase awareness. As Martha Stewart says, "It's a good thing."
 
Diana
 



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