[Paleopsych] In These Times: Ratio Nation
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Ratio Nation -- In These Times
By Curtis White
Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature,
Art, and Individual Lives
By Nicols Fox
Shearwater Books · $30.00
Freethinkers : A History of American Secularism
By Susan Jacoby
Metropolitan Books · $27.50
While rereading the poetry of William Blake recently, I realized very
little had changed between the 18th century and today. Of course, the
media would like us to believe that the zeitgeist spins madly,
producing "eras" as if they were products being readied for the next
marketing season (which is exactly what they are). The media doesn't
want you clinging to any antique notion of "who we are" any more than
the auto industry wants you to cling to your 1990 Civic. And so we
have the Sixties, the Me Generation, Reagan's Yuppies and Gen X. The
Cold War, the War Against Terror, the Clash of Civilizations and
Globalization. This approach to understanding national identity and
history is as dizzying and malevolent as that possessed girl's
spinning head in The Exorcist.
What no one wants us to imagine is that the fundamentals of identity
have not changed dramatically in 250 years. And it could be that even
that estimate accelerates the matter. For William Butler Yeats,
meaningful historical epochs last 2,000 years. We've only just
recently emerged from the second, "Christian," era.
For poets like Blake and Yeats, history is a long, grinding affair.
Change is almost imperceptible. Reading Blake revealed that however
much the details have changed, the big picture is much as it was in
1783 when Blake published his first book of poetry. The three
principal ideological elements in Blake's time were the
backward-looking forces of Christianity, the Enlightenment advocates
of Reason and Experience, and the revolutionary practitioners of the
Imagination: In short, Christians, rationalists and poets.
Without question, the dominant ideology since 1783 has been the
rationalist. For Blake, the "manacles" of industrialization were
"mind-forged" by what he called Ratio--the tendency to divide the
world from the self, the human from the natural, the inside from the
outside and the outside itself into ever finer degrees of manipulable
In spite of its domination, Ratio has always felt it necessary to
continue its criticism of religion, or "superstition," and obliged to
defend itself from the criticisms of its post-Enlightenment sibling,
the Imagination. Ratio's debate with these two competing tendencies
has been taken up in great detail and energy in two recent books, both
of which share at least one virtue: They understand that our problems
are essentially the problems that confronted William Blake.
Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism is a
useful tonic for a moment in which religious fundamentalism seems to
own all political leverage. Conservative politicians kowtow to the
evangelists, and even the most liberal candidates must carefully
nuance their positions so as not to appear insensitive to
fundamentalism's primary concerns with "values": orthodox piety,
school prayer, abortion and gay marriage.
Jacoby's useful response to this slowly evolving national disgrace is
to show that the present culture wars over value (our red state/blue
state standoff) is not a recent development and is not merely the
consequence of a cultural backlash over the aberrant '60s. Our culture
war is, rather, a disagreement, an enmity, that is fundamental to our
national character. The deistic freethinking and respect for Reason
typical of figures like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson was from the
very first in conflict with the assumptions of evangelicals. Jacoby
reminds us in revealing detail how this tension between the
Enlightenment's reverence for Reason and Protestantism's confidence in
revelation have played out in national controversies from the
abolition movement to the teaching of evolution to women's suffrage
and the civil rights movement.
On the other hand, Nicols Fox's Against the Machine: The Hidden
Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives attacks the
smug assumptions of Reason from the perspective of Blake's
Imagination. For Fox, too, the present conflicts over the role of
reason, science, technology, and the mechanization of the human and
natural worlds is an old story, one she tells with great energy and
knowledge. For Fox, the digitalization of the world is only the latest
version of the problem first confronted by the Luddites: the end of
the world of human creativity and the beginning of the world as human
machine. Her survey of the opposition provided by the Luddites,
Romantic poets like Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, early critics like
Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin, and the utopian
efforts of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement is
fascinating and inspiring.
Useful though these two books are for reminding us how little the
media's chatter about change really gets to the enduring essentials,
there is an interesting paradox in them. The books themselves--their
form, their rhetoric, their approach to argument, their assumptions
about what they can expect of their readers--are an acknowledgment of
the continuing domination of Blake's Ratio. As much as I admire Fox's
book, I wouldn't call it a work of the imagination.
Fox articulates what's wrong with utilitarianism: It separates
"individuals not only from nature but from their own natures--from the
creative, imaginative, and spiritual aspects of human existence." And
yet my feeling is that Fox's book, and certainly Jacoby's, is finally
utilitarian. They are books of popular history and social commentary
written by professional journalists. The prose, the approach to
structure and argument are very familiar, are industry standard, if
you will. Fox admires Ruskin for writing books in which "Divisions
between topics are artificial constructs; one thought naturally leads
to another, and it may or may not be the topic he began with. The
reader must follow and put aside impatience for the pleasure of
Well and good, but this is not a description of Fox's book, though
it's no fault of her own. If she had written a rambling meditation
full of quirky genius and digression, she would have been violating
her own disciplinary training and she would probably never have found
Innocent though Fox may be, I think this irony cuts deep. Her thematic
critique of Ratio is in a form that Ratio tolerates because it tends
implicitly to confirm its own reign. Unfortunately, the Ruskins of the
present are mostly unpublishable if not, as critics like to say,
"unreadable." For these critics, digression is "self-indulgent." Works
in Ruskin's spirit fail the rationalist test of clarity, of perfect
transparence. This test, let it be known, is finally only about
ideology. History and criticism written by journalists in a
journalistic mode is unwittingly utilitarian in that it, too, seeks
"the greatest good for the greatest number." In matters of art and
intellect this is only a brush stroke away from "dumbing down."
("There is no audience for this stuff!" say the nice people in
marketing. The nice people in editorial then go slinking off full of
contrition.) In such subtle yet fatal ways we lend comfort to those we
What a great piece! Does White not wake every day thanking a divinity
of some kind for his wonderful powers of ratiocination? Ah, what a
golden intellect! I wish I had more friends like Curtis White. If I
did, I would invite them over often to discuss myriad things over good
food and wine. Curtis, if you're reading this, will you come over?
I'm starving. I await your response, and in the meantime, I look
forward to your next article in Harper's
Posted by Daniel Luke on January 3, 2005 at 10:03 PM
It reminds me one thing, that to be contemporary means to be
Posted by Ivan Shevnin on January 7, 2005 at 2:42 PM
How great to find Curtis White on this site! One year ago I found "The
Middle Mind," a rather controversial book that appeared to me to be
one of the key social critiques of our American society. He seems to
me to be a mixture of Theodor Adorno and H. L. Mencken, with a bit
more poetry added to leaven the prose. WEheter you agree with him or
not, he does set fire to our brains. His critiques of American films
(Private Ryan in the book) are outstanding and highly recommendable.
Also, his critique of critique. There is an article he wrote called
Whatever, Dude, that is pricelss (find it on the web).
I, for one, equivocate Imagination with Hope, and Hope with the
all-pervading Hunger of our existence on this planet, and White
supplies that hope by "keeping the conversation going." And
paradoxically, he does that by taking very strong positions on all
sorts of topics. White is balm for the intelloect and the soul.
Posted by Talleyrand on January 9, 2005 at 5:20 PM
This article is really fascinating and mostly true.
I wonder though if the final point about utilitarian
(journalistic) writing is viable. Does writing that has utility and
accessibility automatically become "utilitarian" in the ironic way
that Mr. White describes? The idea of a division between utilitarian
writing and that which is more creative (or artistic?) is itself a
product of a relatively modern society under the sway of "Ratio."
After all, the earliest writers in ancient cultures did not make such
distinctions, and much of their most creative and beautiful work
possessed a high level of utility as well.
Posted by Eric B on January 10, 2005 at 7:02 AM
In the reply section to Curtis White review of Ratio Nation, a reply
by Talleyrand(1/9) contained the following statement:
"I, for one, equivocate Imagination with Hope" this doesn't make sense
to me, nor does it agree with the tone of the rest of the paragraph. I
believe it should read: "I,for one,EQUILIBRATE Imagination with Hope"
Equivocate means to avoid making an explicit statement.
Equilibrate means to bring into equilibrium.
Posted by al pedant on January 10, 2005 at 9:27 AM
The comments about White suggest raging hormones. Is this a cyber
Posted by tJp on January 10, 2005 at 9:29 AM
Thanks pedant! Not equilibrate either, equate (Middle of the night
after a day of heavy work, sorry)... but hope and hunger are
tJp.. Not hormones... hunger for someone with a standpoint that goes
beyond the traditional leftwing rightwing duality without falling into
the gap between the two, where there is no real opinion, and
everything is the same, be it Beethoven, or Elvis. That is precisely
what White calls the Middle Mind in his book. "What the Middle Mind
does best is flatten distinctions," he writes. "It turns culture into
mush." White makes us use our brains again, and that is very pleasant.
That's what a brain is for.
Posted by Talleyrand on January 10, 2005 at 10:41 AM
I was astounded by the opening sentences of this article. Our present
age is unprecedented, and our reality like nothing ever known to
mankind before. The present generation of human beings has developed
techniques of human reproduction which may seriously undermine the
human condition. The rush to the post- human in the biotechnical realm
takes many different forms and forces us to ask what is really
essential to our humanity. The power of self- destruction given to
mankind today is now being extended to states and groups that are
wholly irresponsible. I could go and on with a long list of `
transformations' mankind has gone through in the past century alone
which make our situation so unprecedented, difficult and in my
opinion, more threatening than challenging. Blake's Industrial
nightmares are innocence itself before the kinds of Doom and Disaster
we remakers of ourselves and our environment may bring about.
Posted by Shalom Freedman on January 12, 2005 at 5:48 AM
I think there have always been thos three classes of persons, more or
less. Each person or type of person just learns to accomodate
themselves to the domnant way of thinking of their time.
Unfortunately, there are always fewer poets than there should be.....
Posted by a bard on January 12, 2005 at 11:07 AM
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent books
are The Middle Mind and America's Magic Mountain.
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