Friday, January 16, 2009

Hofstadter and Chomsky - playfulness and piety

Richard Hofstadter, on page 32 of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, writes of the extremes intellectuals may be subject to: “At one end of the scale, an excess of playfulness may lead to triviality, to the dissipation of intellectual energies on mere technique, to dilettantism, to the failure of creative effort. At the other, an excess of piety leads to rigidity, to fanaticism, to messianism, to ways of life which may be morally mean or morally magnificent but which in either case are not the ways of intellect.”

Hofstadter thinks “in most intellectuals each of these characteristics is qualified and held in check by the other.”

On page 33 he writes, “It is a part of the intellectual’s tragedy that the things he most values about himself and his work are quite unlike those society values in him. Society values him because he can in fact be used for a variety of purposes, from popular entertainment to the design of weapons. But it can hardly understand so well those aspects of his temperament which I have designated as essential to his intellectualism. His playfulness, in its various manifestations, is likely to seem to most men a perverse luxury; in the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence. His piety is likely to seem nettlesome, if not actually dangerous. And neither quality is considered to contribute very much to the practical business of life.”

I would not be willing to use the word “tragedy” about myself, but Hofstadter’s description could fit my experience in Aerospace. I was hired for the very mental capacities Hofstadter describes, but was able to “play” at it in order to free up time to “play” in the more serious realms I was interested in. I have always been able to learn things very quickly and work even more quickly; which invariably meant I was the most effective in any group I was in; so who would notice me using my excess time to study philosophy or history? And even if some boss did notice, he would just heap more work on me in an attempt to fill up my “free time” which would cause me to work even more quickly and efficiently. I’m not sure this is quite the sort of “playfulness” Hofstadter had in mind. I was often bored by the work they had me do, but there were always my studies, and if I couldn’t study, I would write. Is writing “play”? And I don’t mean by the above that I was irresponsible in my “work.” I had it all in the equipoise Hofstadter says most of us achieve.

On the other hand, I don’t quite agree with Chomsky who seems to imply to Peck (pages 35-36) that people by and large are equal in their intellectuality. It is just that they are using their intellects on sports rather than Foreign Affairs. Many of the people Chomsky encountered had good analytical skills. “It just happens that they exercise them in analyzing what the New England Patriots ought to do next Sunday instead of questions that really matter for human life, their own included.”

And, when we read Chomsky, we must look for the conspiracy theory at the end of any of his own pious analyses: “One of the functions that things like professional sports play in our society and others is to offer an area to deflect people’s attention from things that matter, so that they people in power can do what matters without public interference.”


Years ago I read Julian Benda’s The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. Although I can’t recall his arguments vividly, he believed intellectuals had a responsibility to hold political leaders to account. Intellectuals had mental equipment enabling them to know what was right, as opposed to lesser people who did not. So intellectuals were cowardly if the didn’t fulfill their responsibilities. Benda wouldn’t believe that Chomsky’s gas station attendant might be just as acute as Chomsky himself. He set the bar higher than Chomsky, but I did get the impression that he thought that intellectuals would all reach the same views. After all there was only one truth; so intellectuals would all find it and all that remained was for them to fulfill their responsibilities. If they didn’t do that, they were traitors.

I read Benda after reading Goebbel’s Diaries, and recall wondering why Goebbels didn’t find the same truth Benda was describing. I concluded that Benda’s mythical realm of truth must be so far above any human capacity that no intellectual could ever reach it. Intellectuals like Goebbels, Heidegger and Ezra Pound could become attracted to Fascism; while others like Lenin and a host of others were (and still are) attracted to Communism.

Hofstadter would argue that Goebbels, Hitler, Marx and Lenin were at the “pious” end of the spectrum. They had lost their ability or willingness to “play.” Playfulness was beneath them, and it seems to be beneath Chomsky too. Their intellectualities are not held in equipoise between playfulness and piety. They are deadly serious.

As to myself, I don’t commit Chomsky’s deadly sin of being fanatically interested in sports. But I often read light fiction and watch “no-brainer” movies. “Ah ha,” Chomsky might say. “But wait,” I would hasten to add. I can only apply myself to a truly boring book such as At War With Asia for a limited time before my mind “goes tilt” and I must let it “play.” Light fiction and movies serve that purpose for me. Writing poetry and fiction also serve at other times. Night before last (Chomsky’s fault) I wrote a short story (entitled “Indistinct Impressions”) after walking the dogs. I often feel embarrassed after writing such things because people who read them or know of them invariably think I ought to “do something with them.”

1 comment:

Slave Revolt said...

Well, I leave it to you to research and better guage the nuances of Chomsky's critique of intellectuals.

You don't do it with this--but, I am assuming that you want to give as fair a depiction of the man's views on the subject as is possible.

But, you know the wages of 'assuming'. LOL

Far be it from be to get between an 'intellectual' and what 'he' believes. Right?

Strawman caricatures substitute for sound and compelling argumentation. And I don't blame that on the internet.

And, please, can't you analyze social phenomenon without resorting to view that strike you as wrong as being 'conspiracy theory'.

No, no, elites throughout the ages have never 'conspired' to protect the status quo, divert the public's attention, dissimulate, obfuscate, etc.

They only want what is absolutely best for the people below them on the social hierarchy.

Assume the best.

But, seriously, one only needs to look at the state of the world today and the human contribution to the despoilation of our ecological systems to conclude that the 'best' of human thinking is pure shit--or, it is seriously diseased and pathological.

One can always count on the corporate media to put a nice little spin on reality so as to confirm the squalid nature of the 'best' human thinking and technological whizz-bang machines.

Leave it to the smart guys--they are so smart, they can fix anything. (As long as those damned commies don't fuck with capitalism.)