[Paleopsych] In These Times: Ratio Nation

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Ratio Nation -- In These Times

By Curtis White

[14]Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature,
Art, and Individual Lives
By Nicols Fox
Shearwater Books · $30.00

[15]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
    a publisher.

    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
    call enemy.

    Reader Comments

    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
    old-fashoined. Thanks.
    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

Author Bio

    Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent books
    are The Middle Mind and America's Magic Mountain.

    [28]View other articles by this author


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