A quote from Jacques Lacan’s Écrits, from the essay “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis:
“The list of disciplines Freud considered important sister sciences for an ideal Department of Psychoanalysis is well known. Alongside psychiatry and sexology we find ‘the history of civilization, mythology, the psychology of religion, literary history, and literary criticism’. This whole group of subjects, determining the curriculum for instruction in technique, can be easily accommodated in the epistemological triangle I have described, and would provide an advanced level of instruction in analytic theory and technique with its primer.
For my part, I would be inclined to add: rhetoric, dialectic, (in the technical sense this term takes on in Aristotle’s Topics), grammar, and poetics-the supreme pinnacle of the aesthetics of language-which would include the neglected technique of witticisms.
While these subject headings may sound somewhat old-fashioned to certain people, I would not hesitate to endorse them as a return to our sources. For psychoanalysis in its early development, intimately linked to the discovery and study of symbols, went so far as to partake in the structure of what was called ‘the liberal arts’ in the Middle Ages. Deprived, like them, of a true formalization, psychoanalysis became organized, like them, into a body of privileged problems, each one promoted by some felicitous relation of man to his own measure, taking on a charm and a humanity owing to this particularity that in our eyes might well make up for their somewhat recreational appearance. But let us not disdain this appearance in the early developments of psychoanalysis; indeed, it expresses nothing less than the re-creation of human meaning in an arid era of scientism”.
Before we follow up on this important observation, let me relate an incredibly interesting finding, one which I will write an entire article about. There is a function on Google dictionary where one can look up any word, and see immediately below the graph of its usage over time. Now I challenge you, the reader: take any word upwards of three syllables and look at its use over time. In my experiment, I could not find a single complex word that went up over time- there was always a decline in the later part of the 20th century. Some words, if you look them up, chart exactly as one would expect: the word “communism” finds its peak in the 1960s, and then returns back down, rising with the counterculture and anti-war movement. More descriptive words like “covetous” just show a general trend of decline. Simple words with the same meaning like “greedy”, meanwhile, have risen.
There are some outliers, like the word “reclusive”, which skyrocketed in the 1950s, but words like “solitary” show the characteristic decline trend. For this experiment, I purposefully chose words that weren’t archaisms, but merely words that we would associate as “literary” words, colorful words, words not used in common speech. Even so, we see general trends of decline for these literary words. “Apathetic” has declined, but “lazy” has gone up since 1950. Perhaps most interestingly, the word “self” has steadily increased in usage since 1900, perhaps reflecting our self-absorbed individualistic society…
What does this actually demonstrate? It represents the poverty of our current intellectual culture, or rather, the takeover of intellectual and literary culture by rapacious scientism.
Lacan emphasizes that Freud, far from biologizing the mind, in fact introduces the idea that the unconscious is primarily related to discourse in texts such as the Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. For Freud, unlike Jung, the study of mythology has far less to do with “archetypes” and “innate ideas” and far more to do with history. In this sense, when Lacan emphasizes the historicity of Freud’s theories, he is really emphasizing its relation to that concept anthropologists would call culture.
In David Harvey’s excellent book on Tolkien, The Song of Middle Earth, Harvey emphasizes that mythology is primarily a part of the literary tradition of a society- whether it be the Vedas and the Mahabharata for Indian society or Homer’s Iliad for Western Europe. When Lacan emphasizes that we should go back to the study of rhetoric, we are reminded of the difference between “classical” education of the 19th century and earlier and modern education. Rhetoric formed a part of the curriculum that emphasized what is now called the Classics, or philology- reading the writings of Horace or Cicero formed a part of the pre-modern European education not just in the formation of the “sensible and Enlightened” individual, but also one’s introduction into what has been called the “Western tradition”, the philosophical and literary culture which formerly was not voluntary.
Higher education has obviously abandoned these “liberal arts” ideals to which they still profess: even disciplines like philosophy have been “mathematicized” and scientized. And not that they shouldn’t talk about the philosophy of mathematics or science! But in their very character, analytical philosophy’s sensibility has colonized the terrain of the “literary”, and Nietzsche’s profound warnings about the Last Man, who echoes the assumptions of his age, have possibly come to pass. The Last Man is Nietzsche’s formulation of what Adorno called mass culture, or manufactured culture. It is a cliche to say that television and movies have replaced book reading, but the process is accelerating at an alarming rate: now the video game industry has surpassed the television and movie industry in terms of revenue, as well as the music industry! (link: https://www.nasdaq.com/article/investing-in-video-games-this-industry-pulls-in-more-revenue-than-movies-music-cm634585).
What even Adorno could not contemplate is what was considered “low brow” in his era (jazz) has become high culture, and we see a process of gradual “dumbing down” that is now becoming widely observed even in popular culture: the chords progressions of songs becoming more simple, etc. The connections are already made, the same ones Adorno made: the profit motive creates a kind of mass production of culture, of music, of television. The remake is overtaking the original production, the copy more successful than the original. Even the “indie” genre has been co-opted and marketed, everywhere the colonization of mass culture imminent to our very psyche- hell, even I like a good Blockbuster now and again- love me some Star Wars! But the cracks are starting to show: don’t believe I’ll be going to see the new Han Solo movie- the gimmick is too apparent.
What does all of this have to do with scientism? Scientism, for lack of a better word, is today’s intellectual zeitgeist. The popular “intellectuals” of the day, the ones doing the most harm, masquerade as simple arbiters of objectivity. The Sam Harrises and Jordan Petersons of the world offer their watered down versions of “race realism” and Social Darwinism to the internet, and the masses eat it up in droves. Never mind that “The Bell Curve” is junk science proved a million times over- the new motto of the Last Man is “facts are facts!” This manifests itself as a literal worship of Reason and Science, with science being synonymous with technology.
The 50s fascination for new technology has not dwindled, in fact it has only gotten worse with the advent of the computer age. No one is immune to it, but the obvious commodity fetishism and consumerism it generates is unprecedented. The lines for Apple products, and everything associated with “computer culture”: emojis, text lingo: these are the shared substance of our society.
Is there a kind of elitism in assuming that people should simply “read more Shakespeare” and get off their iPhones? On the contrary! It would be elitist to assume that Shakespeare is only for the elite! It would be elitist to assume that Shakespeare shouldn’t be made accessible to everyone from diverse backgrounds! Shakespeare in its day was the common man’s play. This is what our education system, to its credit, tries to do, but generally fails miserably to do, continually trying to “adapt” the curriculum to the needs of the time, introducing more computer coding classes. Is this inevitable? Am I being a kind of cultural grouch? Here’s the problem- you train all of our kids to be computer programmers, what happens when they all apply for those limited computer jobs? Who among them will be trained to be the next authors, the next Shakespeares? Will anyone care if they are?
One can take postmodern relativism too far in this case, saying that because Shakespeare and the Tale of Genji are equivalent, we should therefore teach neither. In fact, both are equivalent to Saturday morning cartoons! This is the road we are going down, and its not a pretty one.
And for the postmodern anthropologists in the crowd who point out my argument is somewhat “logocentric” in assuming that literary culture is the crowning achievement of society, I would merely point out that the oral high traditions of traditional societies are too being lost to the endless process of commoditization and the advance consumer capitalism that is eating away at the foundations of non-industrial societies. It would be great if we had any oral traditions to fall back on.
We live in an era of ever-expanding access to almost complete entertainment- 24/7 television, video games, and music on demand at our fingertips. The internet should be a tool to expand our access to the archive of classics: Project Gutenberg is a great resource to access all of the great works of literature which no longer have any kind of copyright. Unfortunately, if you compare the numbers of Project Gutenberg hits to videos of Lady Gaga, I’m sure the picture won’t be pretty.
I’m advocating for a new kind of entertainment, for a world in which one can seamlessly switch from rap to high literature, without any kind of stigma. As a huge contrast to my previous article, the “defense” of anti-intellectualism, in the sense of recognizing the value of “proleterian” and peasant values of hard work and the reproduction of society materially, here I’m offering a full throated endorsement of intellectualism, of the reclaiming of “mass education”, and not in the outdated Marxist sense of only being educated about Marxist orthodoxy. But as Marx stated, along with the alienation of the individual from the means of production, there is also a more fundamental alienation which accompanies capitalist material poverty that results in spiritual and intellectual poverty. These problems are just as real in our era of mass consumption. Never before has there been such an era of consumption for consumption’s sake: a kind of gilded prosperity where even the poor can live like king’s for a day, provided they go into heaping amounts of credit card debt. Once again, we see the value in Martin Luther King’s prophetic words about the Three Evils of Society: militarism, racism, and (MLK’s original wording) materialism, which he used interchangeably with poverty and capitalism.
We shouldn’t moralize this term materialism, but we should realize the structural problem that is materialist individualism in our late capitalist society, and realize its connection to intellectual poverty and the “mass culture” phenomenon. Rather than the endless postmodern process of combing through the classics for “racist and sexist” overtones, we should look for what is universal: stories of heroism, tragedy, loss, longing, belonging, and most of all, compassion, a word that too has declined in usage since the 1800s.