1. Introduction: On Nihilism
2. Nihilism and Logocentrism
3. Nihilism, Logocentrism, and the Destruction of Magic
4. Nihilism’s Destruction Of Magic and the Rise of Amusement Culture
5. Conclusion: On Recovering Aesthetic-Magical Experience
This essay’s key terms may appear to be silly phrases, almost non-terms. For I will be talking about things like nihilism, magic, amusement, and aesthetics. As my friend told me, I sound like some kind of Barnum & Bailey ring master writing about ‘the destruction of magic’ and ‘the rise of amusement’. Imagine that I have on a top hat and I’m shouting ‘come one come all to witness the destruction of magic!’ I probably appear as though I am writing something silly. But this is not the case.
One cannot read Collingwood’s The Principles of Art without taking his ideas on magic and amusement very seriously. He spends more than a hundred pages explaining the practical importance of magic and the dangers of amusement. That is, the importance of rituals that serve as useful ways for a community to focus their emotions; and the danger of forms of art that serve to dull and distract the mind from life’s proper business. Collingwood firmly believed that the emotional health of our communities have been compromised by our rejection of magic and our addiction to amusement. It is my intention to take those claims seriously, and, more importantly, to connect them with contemporary analyses of our situation. In particular, I want to connect Collingwood’s claims with contemporary work on nihilism. I will be arguing that the process that Collingwood describes, of magic’s destruction and amusement’s rise, can be rendered in terms of nihilism and logocentrism. Since the Enlightenment, Western culture has been gradually infiltrated by a spirit of rational inquiry that has destroyed 'traditional', ‘magical’ forms of life, while simultaneously failing to provide any rational basis for morality. The result has been cultural nihilism; a state in which we no longer have the means to emotional renewal; a state in which practical magic and aesthetic experience are foreign to us; a state in which we have become addicted to superficially articulate language, false certainty, and amusing spectacles.
My wager, along with others, is that the antidote to this nihilistic culture can be found in the recovery of aesthetic and magical forms of experience. More specifically, I believe that aesthetic and magical experience can reacquaint us with uncertainty, can remind us that we really do not know what is going on or what we should do. This recovery, moreover, is not just a simple reach back into the past, it is an attempt to create something new, an attempt to reinvent aesthetics and magic for the present. I am trying to elaborate a form of ethics that admits that it does not know, and therefore humbly engages in acts of judgement instead of confidently adhering to a flimsy doctrine.
This whole thing will happen in five sections. First I will be clarifying my use of the term nihilism, explaining how it must refer to a cultural state, and not a method. After that I’ll be explaining how nihilistic culture arose out of the West’s relationship with language. I’ll try to show how our logocentric culture led to the hollowing out of our culture and the destruction of our sources of emotional renewal. Then I’ll be arguing that, in the wake of magic’s destruction, amusement became the dominant practice of our culture. That we now simply seek to amuse ourselves, distract ourselves from the drudgery of our lives. Finally, I’ll try to explain how the recovery of aesthetic and magical forms of experience can serve as an antidote to nihilism, and what precisely it means to ‘recover’ a lost form of experience.
1. Introduction: On Nihilism
I sometimes use the word nihilism in an unconventional way. For a while, I thought of it primarily as a method of using historical study to breakdown contemporary norms. Without this directed and aggressive historical study we run the risk of mistaking the social norms of our day for the natural order. Nihilism, therefore, can be thought of as a method of overcoming the social limitations imposed on yourself through the historical interrogation of contemporary social categorization. I think this is what Nietzsche was doing in The Genealogy of Morals. And Foucault, though not necessarily a 'nihilist', but a professed Nieztschan, embraces similar goals in his historical-philosophical studies. Thus nihilism as a method.
Nihilism, however, usually means something very different. Typically it connotes a certain worldview. Namely, the belief that the world is without objective meaning. Sometimes it is equated simply with pessimism, but more often refers to the perceived of the world or society. More precisely, nihilism refers to a society that finds itself in a cultural 'dead end' of sorts. One in which a way of life has exhausted itself, leaving its members in a state of disillusionment, unable to foresee a way to reorganize communities and reinvigorate culture.
Hubert Dreyfus claims this is what Heidegger meant with the term nihilism. Further, Heidegger believed that the West's focus on the technological domination of nature had forced us into this state of nihilism. Our culture is suffering from our focus on precise, technical language and its goal of technologically dominating nature for the perpetuation of man. John Gray, too, believes that both Heidegger and Nietzsche used the term nihilism in this way: "As I understand it, the hollowing out of the public culture of modern Western societies of their animating conceptions of science and morality is at least part of what Nietzsche means by 'nihilism'." (Enlightenment's Wake, 245). To put it even more strongly, Heidegger and Gray believe that nihilism is the logical conclusion of the West's commitment to science and the technological domination of nature: "It is in the global reach of this Western nihilism, as mediated through the technology whereby Western people have sought to appropriate the non-human world, that the last phase of the modern age is accomplished. In this last period of modernity, Western instrumental reason becomes globalized at just the historic moment when its groundlessness is manifest" (Ibid., 249). I, therefore, have been somewhat misguided in my claims that the word nihilism should denote a method. For nihilism is something quite different and serious: it is the fear that our culture and way of life is without foundation. That our commitment to science and technology has 'hollowed out' our culture, left us with an unsustainable way of life and no foreseeable way out of it. Nihilism is about an existential dead end.
There are many questions to ask about this sense of the word nihilism. I intend to ask four interrelated questions. Does nihilism really have something to do with science, technology, and the West's commitment to the use of reason? If so, what did the West's logocentrism do to our traditional, more religious, ways of life? What came about to replace those religious forms of life? And is there any use in attempting to recapture what Western nihilism has destroyed? That is to ask, is there any value in returning to a more ritualistic, mystical, and non-rational way of being? Four questions, four sections.
In asking these questions I am trying to understand in some kind of way why my life is the way it is. In particular, I want to understand why I feel so removed from the concept of community. It is never something I feel like has been a part of my life. I want to know why. So the operative question of this essay is: What does nihilism as a cultural phenomenon have to do with my relationship to the notion of community? This entails two larger questions, both pertaining to Collingwood’s definitions of magic and amusement.
2. Nihilism and Logocentrism
The first thing I need to clarify is the relationship between nihilism and logocentrism. Is there a definite relationship between nihilism and logocentrism? Does the collapse of our way of life have something to do with our commitment to reason? I have already briefly used Gray and Heidegger to make this point. But now I’d like to draw on some different sources.
Guy Claxton is insistent that the West is addicted to language and rational thought. In his Hare Brain Tortoise Mind Claxton argues that the West has developed an addiction to highly articulate, linguistic modes of thought. “We have been inadvertently trapped,” Claxton asserts, “in a single mode of mind that is characterised by information-gathering, intellect and impatience, one that requires you to be explicit, articulate, purposeful and to show your reasoning. We are thus committed (and restricted) to those ways of knowing that can function in such a high-speed mental climate: predominantly those that use language (or other symbol systems) as a medium and deliberation as a method. As a culture we are, in consequence, very good at solving analytic and technological problems” (Claxton, 6). For Claxton there is an element of logocentrism that is inseparable from the West’s cultural heritage. He claims that this logocentrism, which he calls d-mode (with the d meaning both deliberation and default), can be traced back to philosophers like Descartes or Locke. These philosophers claimed that the only true form of thought was rational, linguistic thought. The West, therefore developed an addiction to linguistic and rational forms of thought.
Wendell Berry, too, believes that the West has developed an addiction to technical language. Moreover, Berry believes that this logocentrism leads to a sort of nihilism, to the disillusion of individuals and communities. Berry believes that logocentrism is dangerous because it leads to “the cultivation of discrete parts without respect or responsibility for the whole” (Standing By Words, 34). In other words, scientific or technical language forces us to artificially demarcate the world. This artificial demarcation gives us a distorted sense of the world. It leads us to believe that our analytical world is the only world, leading us into a state of self-deception in which our technical language in no way reflects the reality of our communities. “People speaking out of this technological willingness,” Berry argues, “cannot speak precisely, for what they are talking about does not yet exist. They cannot mean what they say because their words are avowedly speculative. They cannot stand by their words because they are talking about, if not in, the future, where they are not standing and cannot stand until long after they have spoken. All the grand and perfect dreams of technologists are happening in the future, but nobody is there” (Ibid., 60). Technical language forces us into a delusional state in which we only account for a highly limited part of the world.
This delusional logocentrism, Berry believes, ends in nihilism: it leads to the destruction of individuals, communities, and, most importantly, the language that sustains them. Technical language aims to remove itself from the community that gave rise to it. Specialization forces us to ignore the context in which a language grew up in favor of treating it as a self-contained system. Specialization invites us to analyze a topic as if it had no relationship to the larger world of individuals and communities. When language is separated from communal living, he claims, it becomes “a paltry work of conscious purpose, at the service and the mercy of expedient aims” (Standing By Words, 33). Berry is very explicit on this point. There is no doubt that he believes that specialized language “attempts to detach language from its source in communal experience, by making it arbitrary in origin and provisional in use. And this may be a ‘realistic’ way of ‘accepting’ the degradation of community life. The task, I think, is hopeless, and it shows the extremes of futility that academic specialization can lead to. If one wishes to promote the life of language, one must promote the life of the community” (Standing By Words, 33-34). There seems to be an undeniable connection between logocentrism, the specialization of language, and the collapse of communities and individuals.
Using Claxton and Berry, therefore, I can corroborate Heidegger and Gray’s argument that nihilism as a the cultural hollowing out of the West is a direct result of our commitment to science, reason, and the technological domination of nature. In short, The West’s nihilism is a result of our addiction to rational inquiry and the specialization of language. But why is this the case? What is it about logocentrism that would lead to nihilism?
3. Nihilism, Logocentrism, and the Destruction of Magic
I think one of the largest effects of nihilism and logocentrism is the collapse of religious forms of social organization. Further, I believe that the collapse of religious ways of life followed from the rise of the West’s logocentric culture. I think this simply because of all the struggles that took place between rational scientific knowledge and the church. I’m just thinking of folks like Copernicus, Galileo, or Darwin. People making discoveries so large they challenged all the basic assumptions that religious ways of life presupposed. The discovery of solar systems, deep time, or evolution will really shake some things up. As evidence for these claims I’ll offer Gray’s argument that “It may be that the status of science as the sole remaining accreditor of knowledge in Western cultures prevents them from perceiving the wholly pragmatic and instrumental practice it has now become” (Enlightenment’s Wake, 275). In other words, science has gained a monopoly on knowledge only to become an emotionless practice that is sapping the West’s culture energy, leading it into a state of nihilism. In the very next line, however, Gray also claims that modern Christianity would also fail to solve the problem: “It may be that the humanist character of Christianity closes off for Western cultures any form of spirituality in which human hopes are not comforted and confirmed” (Ibid.). Nihilism has broken the mental order that existed prior to the intense development of rational knowledge. There is no going back, rational knowledge has largely divorced itself from religious experience.
Collingwood, too, believes that there was some kind of rupture in Western consciousness that began during the Renaissance. He claims that prior to this break individuals were able to achieve a greater ‘unity of mind’. That is to say, “No mental activity, for him, existed in its own right and for itself. Art was always working hand in hand with religion, religion hand in hand with philosophy” (Speculum Mentis, 27). This unity of mind, however, was to be broken, and we are the inheritor’s of this scattered experience. Collingwood puts this historical sketch very clearly: "The middle ages thus represent, in their spiritual life, a mind content with its lot, at peace with itself, growing in sun and shower like a tree, hardly seeking ‘to know the law whereby it prospers so’; the Renaissance represents the same mind coming to a new consciousness of the depth and seriousness of life, realizing that it must choose its vocation, making its choice and thus breaking with the easy life of compromise when it could be in fancy, like a dreaming boy, everything at once. Henceforth all is disunion. Priests and artists and scientists no longer live together peaceably, either uniting these functions in one single individual or at least combining them without thought of friction in a single organism; it is now a war of all against all, art against philosophy and both against religion. Henceforth no man can serve two masters; he must give his whole soul to art, or to religion, or to philosophy, and in choosing his friends he chooses at the same time his enemies" (Ibid., 33). This is clearly a huge generalization and real historical study would reveal all kinds of interactions between these experiences after the Renaissance. The point, however, is still vital and undeniable: traditional, religious, total forms of spiritual experience have been forever scattered by the pursuit of rational knowledge. We are stuck in some nihilistic mindset that refuses the unity of mind.
Slavoj Zizek, too, believes that we live in conditions that fosters divided minds and communities. In Violence Zizek quotes a review of Michel Houellebecq’s novels. A review said that Houellebecq’s novels depicted the failure of love in the modern West due to “the collapse of religion and tradition, the unrestrained worship of pleasure and youth, the prospect of a future totalized by scientific rationality and joylessness” (Violence, 35). The collapse of religious ways of life has left us in a ‘postmodern’ existence, Zizek claims. Further, the character of our world can be characterized as ‘atonal’, that is, we “lack the intervention of a Master-Signifier to impose meaningful order into the confused multiplicity of reality” (Ibid., 34). For a long time religion served as a meaningful Master-Signifier: it could assert that this is how it is, this simply the tradition that we follow. And it worked for some time. Our culture, however, has driven itself to the point “that it tries to dispense with this agency of the ordering Master-Signifier: the complexity of the world needs to be asserted unconditionally. Every Master-Signifier meant to impose some order on it must be deconstructed, dispersed....” (Ibid., 35). Zizek, too, supports these ideas. Western logocentrism has driven us into a cultural nihilism, destroying religion and most other Master-Signifiers that are the foundation of any community.
Gray, Collingwood, and Zizek, therefore, all agree that the growth of Western science led to the collapse of religious ways of life and the appearance of nihilistic, fractured, and atonal individuals and communities. Religious and traditional ways of life were literally analyzed into destruction. The relationship between nihilism, logocentrism, and the destruction of traditional, religious ways of life should thus be clear.
The thing I’d like to do now, however, is to ask the question: What precisely was lost in the conversion from religion to nihilism? In order to understand why nihilism is so destructive we must understand what precisely it destroyed. But I cannot simply refer to ‘religion’ and ‘tradition’, those terms are too imprecise. As we saw, Gray believes that modern religion, too, has been hollowed out and ceased to be a source of meaningful experience for the masses. So this is not simply a matter of religion. Religion, too, has succumb to nihilism. What we must understand, then, is what religion once accomplished but no longer can. What were the practical benefits of religion, how was it able to organize the existence of individuals and communities? I believe that what religion lost was its capacity to general ‘magical’ experiences for people. What I mean by magic, however, is complex and entirely influenced by Collingwood’s definition of the term.
In The Principles Of Art Collingwood claims that art proper must be distinguished from magical art. For Collingwood, magic is a form of representation that is intended to arouse certain emotions that are practically useful in daily life. When we think of magic we think of think of modern magicians and their illusions. But that is not magic. That is illusion and amusement. Magic is a form of practical ritual, it is a form of representation that is meant to create the emotional energy required for daily living. Collingwood couldn’t be clearer. “Magic,” he argues, “is a representation where the emotion evoked is an emotion valued on account of its function in practical life, evoked in order that it may discharge that function, and fed by the generative or focusing magical activity into the practical life that needs it. Magical activity is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the emotional current that drives it” (The Principles Of Art, 68-69). Let me make this abstract defintion clearer with a few examples.
I’ll quote a few of Collingwood’s important examples: that of rain dances in native American culture, and that of religion and sport in Western culture. Collingwood claims that when we observe a native American performing a rain dance we cannot assume that the individual really believes that their dance is going to produce rain. Instead, we must ask “whether the real function of rain-making magic, so called, may not be to cheer up the cultivator and induce him to work harder, rain or no rain” (Ibid., 68). Western religion, Collingwood argues, often served a similar purpose. It was a way for communities to focus its emotions by engaging in a ritual, a form of representation that everyone partakes in. He says that the purpose of “hymns and ceremonies and rituals” is obvious: Their “function is to evoke, and constantly re-evoke, certain emotions whose discharge is to be effected in the activities of everyday life” (Ibid., 72). Magic, therefore, is not to be thought of as requiring one form or another, but as amore general category that encompasses any form of representation that is meant to produce emotions that are practically useful in daily living. For example, Collingwood believes that Marxism at one time served a ‘magical’ purpose. He believes that in Marxism and other “historical schemes...” we see they “have an important magical value, as providing a focus for emotions and in consequence an incentive to action” (The Idea Of History, 266). Magic, thus, is a common social phenomenon that is vital to the existence of any healthy community. What it really boils down to is that “in warfare or woodcraft, nothing can be done without morale; and the function of magic is to develop and conserve moral; or to damage it” (The Principles Of Art, 67). We best take magic seriously, because our emotions could use a bit more focusing these days.
The collapse of magical experience, and not simply the decline of ‘religious or traditional’ ways of life, I claim, is the real problem that nihilism presents us with. It is not that we need to return to religious ways of life, because as Gray argues, religion, too, has become emotionally bankrupt. What we need is ways to organize our communities, we need forms of representation that focus our emotions in ways that help us build strong lives and relationships. Collingwood, too, agrees that our society has not simply lost touch with religion, but has become hostile towards magic as he defines it: “Hence magic is a necessity for every sort and condition of man, and is actually found in every healthy society. A society which thinks, as our own thinks, that it has outlived the need of magic, is either mistaken in that opinion, or else it is a dying society, perishing for lack of interest in its own maintenance” (The Principles Of Art, 69). The West is suffering from its rejection of magical tradition.
The decline of magic, I believe, is an outcome of our logocentric culture. We believe that if we can simply come up with the perfect social model, if we can just create the right laws and system of government, then society will fall into order. But no, this is not the case. Because people are not rational beings that should be appealed to through logic and codified laws. People need to engage in rituals that focus their emotions. Magic, as Collingwood said, is an essential part of a healthy society. Zizek corroborates this claim that the modern fixation on law and codification, the West’s logocentrism, has led to an emotionally bankrupt society. Zizek points to the European Union’s failure to arouse a cultural or emotional loyalty. The Left’s commitment to administration, and not passion, has led us to a position in which no one has any emotional commitment to the EU: The “European project... fails to enflame the passions...” because “it is ultimately a project of administration, not of ideological commitment” (In Defense Of Lost Causes, 101). In other words, the EU and other modern societies’ commitment to administration (logocentrism) has destroyed our connection to magical experience. We no longer have communal rituals that can ‘enflame the passions’ and create commitments to political causes. Our emphasis on law and administration, undoubtedly a result of the Enlightenment project, has destroyed our capacity to magically organize society.
The main outcome of nihilism that we must reckon with, therefore, is not the collapse of religious ways of life, but the West’s gradual disconnect from magic. We must deal with the fact that the West no longer engages in forms of representation that are able to focus communal emotions and actions. We must attempt to recover magical-aesthetic forms of experience. How we can go about recovering those forms of experience, is what I’ll be exploring in the final section of this essay. Before I do ask that question, however, I must ask: If we have lost touch with magical experience, what has stepped in to replace it? If our time is no longer being spent in magical rituals, where is it being spent? What has replaced magic? My answer is simple: amusement has replaced magic.
4. Magic’s Destruction and the Rise Of Amusement
I intend to make good the claim that the void left by nihilism’s destruction of magic was filled by amusement. That is to say, that the collapse of meaningful ritual led to an addiction to amusement, to an unhealthy relationship with entertainment. We have gone, in short, from relatively healthy communities to bread and circuses. By amusement I mean a form of representation that is meant to be enjoyed in itself, with no practical benefit, and with potential negative affects on daily life. Just as I drew on Collingwood’s discussion of magic, I am also drawing on his discussion of amusement.
In The Principles Of Art Collingwood wishes to disentangle art proper from amusement art. Moreover, he offers a critique of the West’s relationship with amusement, arguing that our addiction to amusement is a symptom of a social/mental disease. Collingwood’s concern with amusement thus has implications for the health of society as a whole. Before I explore the role of amusement in society I must provide an adequate definition and examples of amusement.
Amusement art is similar to magical art in that it is a form of representation that is intended to arouse specific emotions in a person. In magical art, the emotions produced are of practical benefit to daily life. In amusement art, however, the emotions produced are only enjoyed while one experiences them, and are of little or no practical benefit. Collingwood is very clear on this distinction: “Magic is useful, in the sense that the motions it excites have a practical function in the affairs of every day; amusement is not useful but only enjoyable, because there is a watertight bulkhead between its world and the world of common affairs. The emotions generated by amusement run their course within this watertight compartment” (The Principles Of Art, 78). This distinction, of course, is ideal, and in real life there will be a variety of instances that fall somewhere along this spectrum. But it is important to recognize that the emotions aroused by piece of representation are either more or less useful in practical life. Collingwood claims that if a day of engaging in amusement provides a sort of emotional renewal it can indeed be of practical benefit. He says that sometimes he struggles to write and likes to garden or sail instead, do things that he finds enjoyable. He says that perhaps he “may get back to the book feeling fresh and energetic, with my staleness gone. In that case my day off turned out to be not amusement but recreation. The difference between them consists in the debit or credit effect they produce on the emotional energy available for practical life” (Ibid., 95). Thus amusement’s hallmark is that it produces emotions that are experienced in a ‘watertight bulkhead’ in which they are discharged, thus contributing nothing to the emotional energy necessary for daily life.
Collingwood believes that a society’s relationship to amusement says a lot about the health of that society. Collingwood argues that the rapid growth of the amusement industry signifies the onset of a moral disease: "Amusement becomes a danger to practical life when the debt it imposes on these stores of energy is too great to be paid off in the ordinary course of living. When this reaches a point of crisis, practical life, or ‘real’ life, becomes emotionally bankrupt; a state of things which we describe by speaking of intolerable dullness or calling it drudgery. A moral disease has set in, whose symptoms are a constant craving for amusement and an inability to take any interest in the affairs of ordinary life, the necessary work of livelihood and social routine. A person in whom the disease has become chronic is a person with a more or less settled conviction that amusement is the only thing that makes life worth living. A society in which the disease is endemic is one in which most people feel some such conviction most of the time" (Ibid.) A society that is addicted to amusement is thus a society that has become dissatisfied with the conditions it has created for itself. It would be accurate to say that an amusement society is a nihilistic society, it has reached a cultural dead end and no longer possesses the practices that would allow it renew its stores of emotional energy.
Collingwood is most radical on this point while discussing the advent of pornography and sex as a form of amusement. He asserts that representations of sexuality in the West exist primarily for amusement, and that most of it is “an appeal to the sexual emotions of the audience, not in order to stimulate these emotions for actual commerce between the sexes, but in order to provide them with make-believe objects and thus divert them for their practical goal in the interests of amusement” (Ibid., 84). It is true that pornography is everywhere, way more than it was in Collingwood’s time, but he was concerned about it even in 1937. The proliferation of pornography and sex as amusement, he claims, “reveal a society in which sexual passion has so far decayed as to have become no longer a god, as for the Greeks, or a devil, as for the early Christians, but a toy: a society where the instinctive desire to propagate has been weakened by a sense that life, as we have made it, is not worth living, and where our deepest wish is to have no posterity” (Ibid., 85). Clearly Collingwood believes that our commitment to amusement is the symptom of a moral disease, of a deep dissatisfaction with the nature of our societies. Amusement and cultural nihilism seem to go hand in hand.
To corroborate this claim Collingwood turns to historical analogy. He claims that the downfall of Roman civilization could be seen in their relationship to amusement. “The critical moment,” he argues, “was reached when Rome created an urban proletariat whose only function was to eat free bread and watch free shows. This meant the segregation of an entire class which had no work to do whatever; no positive function in society, whether economic or military or administrative or intellectual or religious; only the business of being supported and being amused” (Ibid., 99). The important thing to note here is that an addiction to amusement can set in when an individual lacks an obligation to the state or their community. Amusement is enticing when one serves no purpose in a society. And once amusement sets in, it can take over a society: “Once a class had been created whose only interest lay in amusement, it acted as an abscess which by degrees drew away all emotional energies from the affairs of real life. Nothing could arrest the spread of amusement;....” (Ibid.). Collingwood admits that historical parallels are ‘blind guides’. But he finds the comparison with Rome to being “alarmingly close” to our own situation (Ibid., 102).
We, too, have become dissatisfied with the state of our society and have begun to rely increasingly more on amusement. He believes that this “same disease is notoriously endemic among ourselves.” And that: "its symptoms are the unprecedented growth of the amusement trade, to meet what has become an insatiable craving; an almost universal agreement that the kinds of work on which the existence of a civilization like ours most obviously depends (notably the work of industrial operatives and the clerical staff in business of every kind, and even that of the agricultural labourers and other food-winners who are the prime against in the maintenance of every civilization hitherto existing) is an intolerable drudgery; the discovery that what makes this intolerable is not the pinch of poverty or bad housing or disease but the nature of the work itself in the conditions our civilization has created...." (Ibid., 96). The role of amusement in society, is therefore of great political importance. It shows us how the average member of society relates to their way of life. Are we satisfied with our means to subsistence, or is it ‘drudgery’? Do we have means of creating for ourselves the emotional energy necessary for the business of society? Or has amusement overtaken us? Moreover, Collingwood makes it clear that our addiction to amusement has something to do with industrial capitalism. He claims that ‘industrial operatives’ and ‘clerical staff in business of every kind’ feel their work to be an ‘intolerable drudgery’. In Collingwood’s analysis of amusement, therefore, I find a way to corroborate my claim that nihilism’s destruction of magic led to the rise of a culture of amusement.
In Empire Of Illusion Chris Hedges makes a near identical argument about contemporary America. He argues that the American political-economy has plunged our society into an addiction to amusement. Hedges believes that the most important elements of our culture have been systematically perverted by our socio-economic system. Our amusement culture, our “cult of distraction,” Hedges claims, “masks the real disintegration of culture. It conceals the meaninglessness and emptiness of our own lives. It seduces us to engage in imitative consumption. It deflects the moral questions arising from mounting social injustice, growing inequalities, costly imperial wars, economic collapse, and political corruption” (Hedges, 38). Unfettered capitalism has ravaged our communities and our identities to the point that we can no longer face reality. We are living, Hedges believes, in an empire of illusion, in a world in which our major institutions and pastimes have all been hollowed out by capitalist culture. Hedges argues that literacy, love, wisdom, happiness, and the nation itself have all been reduced to mere amusement and distraction. That is to say, television and spectacle have destroyed our faith in the importance of reading; pornography has come to dominate our conceptions of love and sex; our educational institutions have been transformed into economic training grounds, leaving liberal education in shambles; a whole branch of psychology now exists that tells people to strive for happiness, encouraging them to ignore real inequalities in their lives; and finally, that ‘America’ no longer exists, it is now ruled by an oligarchy, and the “words consent of the governed have become an empty phrase” (Hedges, 142). With illusion all around us, we have little choice but to give in. We partake in amusement to numb ourselves. Action in this world seems so difficult. It is so much easier to merely distract yourself. “The success of professional wrestling, like most of the entertainment that envelops our culture,” Hedges claims, “lies not in fooling us that these stories are real. Rather, it succeeds because we ask to be fooled. We happily pay for the chance to suspend reality. The wrestlers, like all celebrities, become our vicarious selves” (Hedges, 5-6). In short, Hedges believes that our capitalist culture has destroyed our communities and identities, leaving us with little choice but to amuse and distract ourselves.
Hedges argument is easily rendered in the terms of nihilism that I developed at the beginning of this essay. It is clear that Hedges blames the rise of amusement culture on technological-capitalism, which is inherently logocentric. Furthermore, given that I already established the link between nihilism, logocentrism, and industrial-capitalism, it is easy to say that nihilism has indeed led from the destruction of magical ways of living into a culture of amusement.
Not only is distraction symptomatic of our capitalist culture, it is now embedded in the technology that we use everyday. In particular, cell phones, smart phones, and the internet all encourage us to lead distracted, amusement saturated lives. In The Shallows Nicholas Carr argues that the internet as a medium inclines us to engage material in a distracted, shallow way. His starting point is Marshal McCluhan’s famous phrase ‘the medium is the message’, which means that the way we perceive something, the form in which we access information, is just as important, if not more important, than the actual content we access. It means that form is more important than content, because form always colors the content in a certain way. Carr extrapolates form this idea to develop the notion of an ‘intellectual ethic’. He argues that every piece of technology, every ‘tool of the mind’, contains certain assumptions about how the mind does or should work. The piece of technology, in turn, then encourages the mind to work in that way. The map, for example, assumes that humans wish to engage with space in certain ways, and in turn effects the way that we engage with space. In short, a piece of technology will never passively provide us with information, it will always actively change the way that we perceive things.
The internet, Carr claims, offers us a dangerous intellectual ethic. The main thing the internet encourages, he argues, is distracted, shallow engagement. Carr points to the type of impatience that is implicit in the internet’s design. The existence of tabs, the fact that our e-mails automatically update once every minute, that hyperlinks are littered on every page, shows that the intellectual ethic of the internet is one of shallow, quick engagement. In other words, the internet inclines us to be distracted. Furthermore, this type of distracted engagement is supported by companies like Google, who purposefully design their pages to get us clicking as many links as fast as possible. Every time a sponsored link is clicked Google makes money. Our largest search engine is economically inclined to make us more distracted. To make our attention more divided. Moving us from link to link, window to window, tab to tab more quickly.
The internet thus appears to be the ultimate technology of a distracted, nihilistic culture. If the hallmark of our society is the collapse of magic and the rise of amusement, then the internet is our new church. It is the ultimate distraction machine for a supremely amused society. Nihilism, in the sense of a dead-end distracted culture with dying stores of emotional energy, emanates from the internet itself.
We are a diseased culture. Technological nihilism has destroyed magical ritual, leaving us with far fewer means of emotional renewal. As a result, we have lapsed into perpetual distraction, endless amusement for a dying way of life. Collingwood, Hedges, and Carr make this point undeniable. There is something going on in our political-economic system, something in our relationship to technology and logocentrism, that has driven us into a state of constant distraction. We must recognize that our way of life has undermined itself. Our logocentric, nihilistic culture has driven us into an addiction to amusement. That is what I have said in this section.
Allow me to summarize the argument thus far and prepare for the concluding section. I have been arguing that our culture has discovered itself to be on a dead-end track, that we have exhausted our sources of emotional renewal, and that this state is best described as nihilism. I then followed Heidegger and Gray in their claim that nihilistic culture emerged out of the Enlightenment Project’s commitment to rational inquiry. That is to say, the Enlightenment project bequeathed to us a logocentric culture, one that values, above all, rational language, scientific inquiry, and the technological domination of nature. Cultural nihilism emerged from the Enlightenment’s logocentrism. It has been said that this logocentrism led to the destruction of religious or ‘traditional’ ways of life. It is more accurate to say, however, that logocentrism destroyed magical forms of experience, that is, rituals and practices that serve as practical ways for communities and individuals to focus their emotions. I then argued that the cultural vacuum left by nihilism’s destruction of magic was filled by an addiction to distraction and amusement. Many thinkers have helped me along the way. In short, our logocentric culture destroyed our sources of emotional renewal and left us instead with proliferating forms of amusement. I now hope to make an argument about a cultural recovery. I think that if we are to overcome our nihilistic addiction to amusement we must find new ways of thinking and relating. And I think those new ways are to be found in aesthetic-magical forms of experience. I will now propound this idea that we must recover these ways of thinking, feeling, and knowing.
5. Conclusion: On Recovering Aesthetic-Magical Experience as Embracing Uncertainty
My goal in this essay has been to explain how logocentric culture has destroyed our capacity for these aesthetic and magical experiences. Having arrived at a tentative diagnosis of my situation, I am now proposing a cure: the recovery of aesthetic and magical forms of experience with the goal of arriving at a more unified mind, one that is, above all, comfortable with not knowing. I am explicitly collaborating with Collingwood’s project in Speculum Mentis: “What is wrong with us,” he claimed, “is precisely the detachment of these forms of experience–art, religion, and the rest–from one another; and our cure can only be their reunion in a complete and undivided life. Our task is to seek for that life, to build up the conception of an activity which is at once art, and religion, and science, and the rest” (Speculum Mentis, 36). As I showed above, Collingwood believed that the modern era, with its logocentric spirit of rational inquiry, scattered our experiences, forcing us to choose one form of knowledge over another. I, too, seek a reunion of forms of knowledge. I wish to possess a unity of mind. And seeing as how I grew up in a world saturated with scientific, philosophical, and historical knowledge, the task is thus to reintroduce aesthetic and magical forms of experience into my constellation of knowledge. Moreover, beyond this individual unity of mind, the recovery of aesthetic and magical experience might serve as a way of reinvigorating Western political culture. This is the possibility that I now intend to explore. How the recovery of these forms of experience can be both personally useful and politically important.
There are two reasons that the recovery of aesthetic and magical experience is important. The first one I mentioned above: the attainment of a unified mind. The second reason, however, follows from the unity of mind, yet would have consequences at the cultural as well as the individual level. For the greatest benefit of the recovery of these forms of experience is that they are forms of knowledge that are compatible with, even encourage, not knowing. That is to say, our logocentric culture only values forms of knowledge that lead to clear argument and certainty, however flimsy that certainty might be. To reacquaint ourselves with uncertainty, therefore, may have some serious benefits both in our individual lives and in our culture. The recovery of aesthetic and magic experience is thus about re-familiarizing ourselves with uncertainty.
Several authors have claimed that our logocentric culture has left is with an unwillingness to embrace uncertainty. We have a cultural fixation on knowing and being certain. This is because one of the hallmarks of logocentrism is analytical division: we create distinct disciplines, we segregate forms of knowledge, we create analytical distinctions. The analytical distinctions made by logocentrism, further, greatly favor rational, scientific knowledge. Logocentrism, moreover, is distrustful of forms of experience that cannot be easily analyzed, such as aesthetic and religious experience. These analytical distinctions, while more ideal than actual, infiltrate our minds and create experiential divisions. That is to say, we experience things differently based on the social ideas that structure that experience. Our minds, therefore, are far more inclined to experience things in terms of science, philosophy, and other forms of rational knowledge, while ignoring more affective experiences like aesthetics, religion, and magic. The analytical conclusions we reach, however, may be entirely inaccurate. But our comfort with rational thought may lead us to merely believe these quick conclusions, ignoring the problem of uncertainty.
In other words, the nihilistic culture that emerged out of the Enlightenment has to no patience or capacity for dealing with uncertainty. We are addicted to articulate and superficial knowledge. Or, as Guy Claxton argues, “the Enlightenment view of the mind is in urgent need of moderation” because “Its lopsided adherence to explicit, deliberate, conscious reason as the acme of intelligence is flawed” (The Wayward Mind, 357). Furthermore, this logocentrism leads to things like “a kind of flimsy political culture in which no one ever has the time or the inclination not to know, and so buying and selling jumped-to conclusions becomes a substitute for thinking” (Ibid., 358). John Gray makes a similar point at the end of his essay ‘Enlightenment’s Wake’. He, too, believes that our culture has lost touch with uncertainty, and can only engage in forms of thought that are deceptively certain. He claims that “the calculative and representational mode of thinking which philosophy has privileged in modern times is now so hegemonic that the cultural space is lacking in which an alternative mode of thought might occur” (Enlightenment’s Wake, 275). One of the greatest casualties of the Enlightenment is therefore our capacity for dealing with uncertainty. Instead, we cling to superficially articulate reason.
So we can see how our logocentric culture would naturally lead to discomfort with uncertainty and an addiction to seemingly rational forms of thought. The logical response for me can only be an attempt to recover forms of experience that embrace uncertainty. As I’ve been saying, we must seek this type of comfort in aesthetic, magical, and potentially religious thinking. Claxton, Gray, and Wendell Berry all agree with me on this point. As Claxton argues in Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, “our culture has come to ignore and undervalue” slower, less certain modes of thought. We have come to “treat them as marginal or merely recreational, and in so doing has foreclosed on areas of our psychological resources that we need. Just like the computer, the Western mind has come to adopt as its ‘default mode’ just one of its possible modes of knowing: d-mode. (The ‘d’ can stand for ‘default’ as well as ‘deliberation’.)” (4). According to Claxton, we must try to recover different ways of thinking. We must recover less certain modes of thought. Ideally, we would cultivate the habit of being “relaxed, leisurely and playful; willing to explore without knowing what [we] are looking for. [Of seeing] ignorance and confusion as the ground for which understanding may spring” (Ibid., 13). Claxton identifies these less certain forms of thought with aesthetics and with buddhism. He claims that Buddhism is the world religion that most strongly believes that wisdom emerges from unconscious, uncertain modes of thought. Similarly, artists and poets are “comfortable setting out on a journey of discovery without the reassurance of knowing in advance where they were going” (Ibid., 84).
Gray, too, argues that the antidote to our logocentric culture must be found in forms of experience that are properly aesthetic or religious. Gray asserts that we have no way to think of ethics as a process akin to aesthetics, that “Western cultures are so deeply imbued with rationalism that they cannot tolerate a conception of ethics, for example, in which it is an aspect of the art of life, not to be distinguished categorically from prudence or aesthetics in its character, in which it shares with these practical arts a provisional character, and local variability, which sits uncomfortably with both Socratic and Christian conceptions which are now elements in the common sense self-understanding of our civilization” (Enlightenment’s Wake, 274-275). The ethical life, just like a work of art, must be adaptable, creative, and uncertain. The ethical life must be artistic in that it must set out on an uncertain journey of expression and exploration. This is why Gray’s work “embodies the wager that another mode of thinking – found in some varieties of poetry and mysticism, for example – can assert itself against the domination of the forms of thought privileged by both science and philosophy in Western cultures. It is with these humiliated modes of thought that the prospect of cultural recovery... lies. Only if the ground of Western cultures can renew itself through such modes of thought can any practical measure have lasting effect” (Ibid., 275). Gray’s argument strikes at the heart of what I am talking about. He so clearly grasps the importance of overcoming cultural nihilism through a recovery of humiliated modes of thought, those aesthetic and magical forms of thinking. For Gray, this may be one of the only ways to save the West from “further hollowing out into nihilism, with eventual dissolution – or, worse, replication throughout the world as instruments of technological nihilism – being their fate” (Ibid.). The wager is that we can escape nihilism through a return to aesthetics and magic.
Wendell Berry makes a similar argument, claiming that Western culture needs to reacquaint itself with the most important elements of religion. Chief among religions uses, Berry argues, is that it makes sure there is always a boundary of mystery that encompasses our rational thoughts about ourselves and the world around us. In other words, religion is useful because it forces us to reckon with life “in as large a context as possible–to see, in fact, that the account is never ‘closed.’ Religion forces that accountant to reckon with mystery.... It forces the accounting outside of every enclosure that it might be internal to. Practically, this... means that all ‘answers’ must be worked out within a limit of humility and restraint, so that the initiative to act would always imply a knowing acceptance of accountability for the results” (Standing By Words, 49). Religion forces us to grapple with the limits of our knowledge and the impossibility of ever really knowing. It pushes us to embrace uncertainty. Even though modern religions speak so dogmatically, I still think that this might be true. In either case, it is a powerful ideal, one worth striving for. We should always be trying to take account of more, to face the mystery of the world and act as responsibly as possible from the largest perspective possible. This is what aesthetic, magical, and religious thinking can do for me.
Beyond the fact that art, magic, and religion share this attitude that welcomes uncertainty, there is a deeper continuity that connects these forms of thinking. According to Collingwood, the imagination is responsible for all three of these forms of knowledge. The artist, the magician, and the religious person, however, differ in the way that they regard the products of their imagination. “The artist,” Collingwood argues, “is an irresponsible child who feels himself at liberty to say exactly what comes into his head and unsay it again without fear of correction or disapproval. He tells himself what story he likes and then, at the bidding of a whim, ‘scatters the vision for ever’. In religion, all this irresponsibility has gone. His vision is for the religious man no toy to make and mar at will; it is the truth, the very truth itself. The actual object of imagination, which in art obscurely means a truth that cannot be clearly stated, in religion is that truth itself....” (Speculum Mentis, 112). In other words, religion is the aesthetic experience elevated to the level of truth. Magic occupies a sort of middle ground in which a work of art is not merely expressive, yet does not represent pure truth. Rather, magic is the imagination used for its practical benefits. For Collingwood there is a definite continuity between aesthetics, magic, and religious experience. And the imagination, the ‘cutting edge of the mind’, is this continuity. It seems that the type of attitude I’m describing can properly be called an imaginative life. The goal is to recover the forms of experience that are most imaginative, most comfortable with uncertainty, and lead to the most creative decision making.
The return to aesthetic and magical forms of thought is thus an attempt to overcome nihilism by embracing life’s uncertainty. It is an attempt to improve our ability to make ethical decisions by finding ways to remember that we never really know what we are doing. And these ways of not knowing, I believe, are to be found in art, magic, and religion (in an unusual sense of the term). This type of ethics is to be found in humble and imaginative forms of thought that operate at the frontiers of the mind’s knowledge. Moreover, Gray believes that a return to these modes of thought may be the only way for a Western political recovery. There is something vital in this recovery of tentative, uncertain knowledge. We must learn to operate at the frontiers of our thinking. Because our culture hardly allows such thinking to take place. We like clear, definite answers. We don’t entertain uncertainty or daydreaming. We are closed off to many forms of knowledge. John Gray claims that his work is an attempt at ‘releasement’, “which encompasses an openness to ultimate danger, to the contingency and morality not only of human cultures and of other living things, but also of the earth itself” (Gray, 276). We must overcome nihilism by embracing past forms of experience, such as aesthetics, magic, and religion. We need to regain our familiarity with the uncertain and scary frontiers of thought. Yet so much stands in the way of the recovery of these forms of knowledge.
I can identify two obstacles to the recovery of aesthetic and magical forms of experience. The first is what I can call the specialization of art. By which I mean that art is something that people believe to be done by experts, something with very little connection to the ordinary affairs of life. The second lies in the notion of ‘recovery’ itself. It is dangerous to speak of returning to a former way of life. The idea of a better, ‘simpler time’, is the hallmark of radical conservative movements. Further, you run the risk of misrepresenting the past and creating a mere simulacra. Thus I need to find a way to speak of recovery and yet avoid conservatism, and the danger of simulacra.
One major obstacle to this conception of aesthetic-magical ethics is that art is something that is now regarded as the business of experts. People have a hard time imagining how aesthetics could have something to do with everyday morality because they think that art requires special training, that artists are experts in the use of language or paint or clay. This resulted from the specialization of other disciplines, which withdrew from aesthetics, leaving is as “the proper ‘field’ for artists” (Berry, Standing By Words, 5). The specialization of other disciplines thus forced the artist to constitute himself as an expert. The led, according to Berry, to the break down between aesthetics and morality which had once been taken for granted. Berry claims that “it remains true that the poet is isolated and specialized and that the old union of beauty, goodness, and truth is broken” (Ibid.). Logocentrism thus forced aesthetics into a new position, just as it did with magic and religion. “In reaction to the utilitarianism of other disciplines,” Berry argues, “the arts became defiantly nonutilitarian” ( Ibid.). Art loses its moral implications, and rather becomes the business of obscure and professionally trained artists. Foucault, too, believes that the specialization of art has destroyed the moral implications that aesthetics once possessed. “What strikes me,....” he said in a 1982 interview, “is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?” (Foucault Reader, 350). This specialization of of art has certainly decoupled aesthetics and morality, and has reduced the social function of art.
The poet, Berry argues, is no longer able to connect or sympathize with his community, and has therefore lost his role as the community’s spokesperson. For Berry, as for Collingwood, the true poet is one that expresses the heart of their community, that the poets proper subject “is not words, it is the world, which poets have in common with other people” (Standing By Words, 8). We can see the specialization of poetry and the breakdown of art and truth all around us. Where are our public poets? Where are our artistic spokesmen? “That we have no poets who are, in that sense, public persons,” Berry writes, “suggests even more forcibly the weakness of our poetry of protest. In his protest, the contemporary poet is speaking publicly, but not as a spokesman; he is only one outraged citizen speaking at other citizens who do not know him, whom he does not know, and with whom he does not sympathize. The tone of self-righteousness is one result of this circumstance” (Ibid., 20). The specialization of art, therefore, is one of the major impediments to founding a morality based on aesthetics, and by implication, magic and religion. For all of these ways of thinking have been corrupted by rational inquiry. They have been robbed of their capacity of dealing with life’s uncertainty. Still, I must persist in my attempt to ‘recover’ them.
The second problem with this whole endeavor arises from the notion of ‘recovery’ itself. As I mentioned, the attempt to recover a lost way of life can easily slip into nostalgia, dangerous conservatism, or the creation of a simulacra. I must insist that the attempt to recover aesthetic and magical experience is in no way an attempt at a return. It is an attempt to come up with something new. But something new that embodies the spirit or core of past forms of thought and experience. An art exhibit ‘Gauguin and Polynesia’ recently put me face to face with this question of cultural recovery.
At Seattle Art Museum they displayed Gauguin’s work that was produced during his travels to Polynesia. He was hired by the French government to go to Tahiti and paint the people, their customs, and the wild life. He made several trips between 1891 and his death in 1903. There was something about Polynesian culture that fascinated him. One strange thing, however, was that he claimed that it was really the Polynesia of the past that he was in love with. But he persisted in his depictions of Polynesian culture, painting the people and practices around him. Admiring their work and mourning the cultural loss that had taken place after colonization. Much of the French population, too, seemed to be fascinated with Polynesian culture. In fact, at the Parisian world’s fair a group of sixty Polynesians performed a traditional dance in a recreated Polynesian village. This staged dance, however, could not have been an authentic replication. Rather, it was most like a simulacra of sorts: an attempt at simulating something, but in the processing creating something new that does not resemble the original. A copy without an original. But was Gauguin’s work doing the same thing? Were his depictions of Polynesian life capturing something real, something authentic? Or was he simply creating simulacra? Did his desire to recover the lost Tahitian culture force him to paint glorified, stylized things that never actually existed? In short, did Gauguin really recover something, or did he just create a simulacra through naive nostalgia? I cannot answer this question about Gauguin. I’m no art historian. But Gauguin’s problem is a good starting point for thinking about our problem in this essay.
When attempting the recovery of a lost way of life we must avoid naive nostalgia and the creation of distorted simulacra. In other words, we need to find a way to reckon with cultural loss without lapsing into conservatism or historical distortion. What, then, is the proper way to mourn culture loss and attempt some sort of recovery? What is the process that would allow one to do such a thing?
I believe the only way one can properly attempt the recovery of a type of experience is if one is committed to creating something new. That is to say, the attempt to recover a lost experience, the attempt to repeat someone else, will only be successful if it leads to something new. This is Zizek’s main argument in In Defense Of Lost Causes. He believes that revolutions of the past all had a valuable core that we ought to repeat, that is, we should take their thoughts and actions further than they were able to, giving them a new embodiment in the present. Many revolutions, according to Marx and Zizek, contain an element of excessive passion that is then “betrayed by the market reality which takes over ‘the day after’... this excess,” however, “is not simply abolished, dismissed as irrelevant, but, as it were, transposed into a virtual state, continuing to haunt the emancipatory imagination like a dream waiting to be realized. The excess of revolutionary enthusiasm over its own ‘actual social base’ or substance is thus... a spectral Event waiting for its proper embodiment” (Zizek, 394). Zizek believes that this spectral event can be realized only if we are willing to repeat the thoughts and actions of past revolutionaries. Here Zizek is operating under Deleuze’s definition of repetition. He uses film as an example: “The cinematic version of Edgar Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate is basically a failure, but an interesting one: a failure which nonetheless evokes in the viewer the specter of the much better novel. However, when one goes on to read the novel on which the film is based, one is disappointed – this is not the novel the film evoked as the standard with regard to which it failed. The repetition (of a filed novel in the failed film) thus gives rise to a third, purely virtual, element, the better novel” (Ibid., 322). Anytime you attempt to repeat an individual you inadvertently create something new, because you are necessarily accessing the ‘virtual’ of that person’s actions. That is to say, you always see what could have been in another person’s actions, and in repeating them you bring that spectral element, that virtual potential, closer to reality. You, in turn, create further virtual possibilities that another person may be able to access in their repetition of your action. With the Deleuzian concepts of repetition and virtuality, we can see how something new must emerge from an attempt to repeat someone’s thought or action.
There is compelling evidence that the human mind is indeed capable of repeating another person’s thoughts for themselves, and that this type of repetition could easily lead to the emergence of something new. This evidence comes both from Collingwood’s philosophy of history and contemporary philosophy of mind. There are two vital claims in Collingwood’s philosophy of history: 1. All history is the history of thought, 2. All history is the re-enactment of past thought in the present context of the historian’s mind. Collingwood believes that the only way we can ever achieve historical knowledge is if we accept that all we can know is thought, and that human’s have a unique capacity for understanding one another’s thoughts. To know another person’s thoughts, he asserts, “involves the repetition by one mind of another’s act of thought: not one like it... but the act itself.... To know someone else’s activity of thinking is possible only on the assumption that this same activity can be re-enacted in one’s own mind. In that sense, to know ‘what someone is thinking’ (or ‘has thought’) involves thinking it for oneself.” (The Idea Of History, 288). A most important point, and one that he wants unmistakably clear: There can be no such thing as historical knowledge unless “on the view that to know another’s act of thought involves repeating it for oneself” (Ibid.). Moreover, not only is knowledge of past thought achieved through repetition, all knowledge of mind is achieved in this way: It is through re-enactment that “we discover the thought of a friend who writes us a letter, or a stranger who crosses the street.... In this sense, all knowledge of mind is historical” (Ibid., 219). Whether this means all knowledge of mind is historical depends on what we mean by historical. Regardless, it is clear that Collingwood believed that knowledge of thought could only be attained by repeating those thoughts for ourselves.
Collingwood also believed that this repetition was not a passive process, but one in which the repeated thoughts are critically examined. That is to say, Collingwood’s ideas about repeating thoughts also logically lead to the emergence of new thoughts. The new emerges from repeating other’s thoughts because that act of repetition provides an individual with self knowledge and knowledge of the world: "If what the historian knows is past thoughts, and if he knows them by re-thinking them himself, it follows that the knowledge he achieves by historical inquiry is not knowledge of his situation as opposed to knowledge of himself, it is a knowledge of his situation which is at the same time knowledge of himself. In re-thinking what somebody else thought, he thinks it himself, in knowing that somebody else thought it, he knows that he himself is able to think it. And finding out what he is able to do is finding out what kind of man he is. If he is able to understand, by re-thinking them, the thoughts of a great many different kinds of people, it follows that he must be a great many kinds of man. He must be, in fact, a microcosm of all the history he can know. Thus his own self-knowledge is at the same time his knowledge of the world of human affairs" (An Autobiography, 114-115). The repetition of thought is thus a powerful source of self-knowledge. It reveals to us the limitations of our thinking, and thus opens us up to the possibility of thinking differently. In fact, Collingwood believed that this type of thought would be the only way to construct a science of human affairs. That is, only through historical thinking can we “learn to deal with human situations as skilfully (sic) as natural science had taught them to deal with situations in the world of Nature?” (Ibid., 115). I believe there are more ways in which Collingwood’s thoughts on re-enactment corroborate this idea that repetition always leads to something new. For Collingwood, the new emerges because repetition is what provides us with self-knowledge, alerting us to with the frontiers of our knowledge. Foucault, similarly, believed that historical thinking did the same thing for us. Let these brief examples suffice to show that historical thinking (repetition) leads to the new.
Contemporary philosophy of mind also corroborates the claim that individual’s understand one another by repeating expressed thoughts for ourselves. In Simulating Minds Alvin Goldman argues that human beings understand one another primarily by ‘placing ourselves in each other’s shoes’. That is to say, we understand people’s thoughts by simulating them in the context of our own minds. I don’t intend to plumb Goldman for further evidence right now. I will simply refer you to all my other writing on simulation theory. Because the truth is that it deeply corroborates the idea that we understand other people through repetition of their thought, through simulations of thought.
The recovery of a form of experience, therefore, is never about a pure recovery or a verisimilitudinous representation. Rather, recovery must be about accurate repetition that leads to something new. Recovery is not about nostalgia, conservatism, or the yearning for a lost time. It is about re-thinking or re-experiencing something as intimately as possible with the goal of learning about yourself and introducing variety into your mind, thus arriving at something new. It is about re-thinking someone else’s thoughts in order to add them to the pool of your own mind. Moreover, this newness that arises from repetition must have a particular manifestation: it must lead to the cultivation of new habits.
This attempt to recover aesthetic and magical forms of experience is primarily a moral project. It is about embodying a certain attitude towards yourself, others, and the world. One that is expressive, creative, and emotionally rich. Moreover, I fully believe that morality can only be achieved if we seek to alter our unreflective behavior. That is to say, we can only live a moral life if we are willing to purposefully create habits that implicitly embody our explicit morality. We need to regard habit as the synthesis of thought and action.
The final thing I want to show is that this attempt to repeat past forms of thought logically leads to the creation of new habits. The relationship between repetition, the new, and habit formation becomes clear if we grasp several points. First, that habit formation is a necessary part of all emergency preparation and decision making. Second, that expression and the use of language always leaves a deposit of habits in its wake. Third, that to really repeat someone’s thoughts means to express something yourself. Fourth, that because we can gain control of who we repeat, and thus what we express, we can gain control of the habits that we create for ourselves. Let me elaborate these points in turn.
It is vital that we recognize the role of habit in both emergencies and daily decision making. As Zizek observed in his essay ‘Madness and Habit in German Idealism’, in modern times habit has lost its role as a form of “organic inner rule” and is now viewed as“something mechanic, the opposite of human freedom” (1). We chide habit, believing that “freedom can never become habit(ual), if it becomes habit, it is no longer true freedom” (Ibid.). But why this decoupling of habit and freedom? Why the insistence on the rational break with habits? Elaine Scarry, for one, believes that we must find a rapprochement between habit and freedom. “Our derisive attitude toward habit,” she argues, “prevents us from seeing the form of thinking embedded in these cognitive acts and hence makes us willing to give up, or set aside, the most powerful mental tools that stand ready to assist us” (Thinking In An Emergency, 15). We must not ignore habit, especially not in difficult emergencies and moral dilemmas. Habit, Scarry claims, will always come into play during difficult decisions. Our goal, therefore, is to create habits for ourselves that will serve us well during trying times. For “It is not the case that ordinary life is habitual and emergency life is nonhabitual” (Ibid.). In fact, “in the absence of ordinary habits, a special repertoire of alternative habits may suddenly come forward” (Ibid.). The question is, Have we taken the time to prepare those habits for ourselves? Have we attempted to deeply intertwine thought and action? Have we engaged in a “highly willed act of internalization” that “may seem to be an artificial exercise without an object,” that has left a deposit of habits in us (Ibid., 82)? Purposeful habit creation, then, is our task. Moreover, habit acquisition through expression and repetition. For when Scarry speaks of ‘an artificial exercise’ she is referring to forms of simulation that she surveyed earlier in the book. It is through these simulations, through repetition, that habits are formed.
Habit creating exercise, furthermore, is something accomplished through expression and the use of language. For Collingwood the aesthetic process, i.e. the use of language, is a breeding ground for habit. He argues that although the use of language is a fully natural process, it creates ‘deposits of habits’ that can be denatured and become utilizable. “When we speak of ‘using’ language for certain purposes,” he argues, “what is so used cannot be language itself, for language is not a utilizable thing but a pure activity.... Language in itself cannot be thus denatured; what can be is the deposits, internal and external, left by the linguistic activity; the habit of uttering certain words and phrases; the habit of making certain kinds of gesture, together with the kinds of audible noise, coloured canvass, and so forth, which these gestures produce” (The Principles Of Art, 275). In other words, the process of expression involved in art leaves in us a residue of habits. I don’t grasp this entirely, but there is something about language and externalization that then in turn effects our behavior. Language, essentially, is reflexive: it changes us in the process of speaking. As John Dewey wrote, man uses language to create external structures that serve as guides, “we temporarily deposit our will in some external structure,” like a building or a piece of writing, and “after some time [it] returns to its source and modifies our behavior,” creating new habits in us (Quoted in Scarry, 106). By externalizing our will through language, we act upon our own hearts, letting that expressed language then become re-internalized, turning into a newly formed habit. Habits, therefore, develop as a result of externalized language becoming re-internalized. Expression thus creates habits.
Habit formation through expression, however, does not restrict us to merely expressing what we think. We can also access things that other people have expressed in the past, and attempt to form habits based around that expression. Because, for Collingwood, to understand another person’s thoughts is to repeat them in our own mind. And to repeat someone’s thoughts is not just to passively receive them, it is to express them for ourselves. As Collingwood say, when “a poet expresses, for example, a certain kind of fear, the only hearers who can understand him are those who are capable of experiencing that kind of fear for themselves. Hence, when someone reads and understands a poem, he is not merely understanding the poet’s expression of his, the poet’s, emotions, he is expressing emotions of his own in the poet’s words, which have thus become his own words. As Coleridge put it, we know a man for a poet by the fact that he makes us poets. We know that he is expressing his emotions by the fact that he is enabling us to express ours” (The Principles Of Art, 118). To understand someone’s emotional expression is therefore inseparable from expressing those emotions for oneself. We are thus not limited to the expression of our own emotions, we can express the emotions of anyone who we are capable of understanding.
The different types of habits we are capable of creating in ourselves, therefore, is limited only by our capacity for understanding other people. Because if expression and language create habits in us, and to understand someone is to express their emotions for ourselves, then we can create habits by selecting what types of thoughts and feelings we want to express. In other words, we can pick and choose what forms of thought we repeat, and therefore what types of habits we create in ourselves.
The recovery of aesthetic and magical experience must proceed along these lines. We must reacquaint ourselves with writer’s who were able to express themselves in aesthetic and magical ways. By putting ourselves in touch with these writers we will be repeating their thoughts for ourselves, arriving at something new in the process. This is what I am proposing in this essay. What we would be doing, in essence, is creating forms of synthetic experience that would create beneficial habits for us. We would be allowing artist’s and other thinkers to ‘enlarge our experience with their own’. This is what the attempt at recovering aesthetic and magical forms of experience is all about: the use of synthetic experience to create habits that would lead to a more unified mind, one capable of overcoming cultural nihilism by recovering forms of thinking that are less certain.
I feel that this discussion of repetition, the new, and habit, has drifted a bit too far from the main point that I have been trying to make. The point of this whole essay was to explain how nihilism had destroyed our capacity for magic and aesthetics, leaving us in a culture saturated with amusement. I concluded that we needed to recover aesthetic and magical experience because they are ways of thinking that embrace uncertainty. One thing our nihilistic culture lacks is the means to deal with uncertainty. We cling to flimsy rationality, we have no patience for sympathy or uncertainty. The recovery of aesthetics and magic would thus be a useful antidote to the West’s logocentric nihilistic culture. Recovery, however, can not be a simple return to an old way of life. It must be a complex process of repeating (simulating) past thought with the attempt at arriving at something new. What we must really do, therefore, is reinvent magical and aesthetic experience for the contemporary moment. This can only be accomplished, however, through repetition, synthetic experience, and purposeful habit formation. This is my answer to nihilism. There is so much I’m not able to express here. I have so many other thoughts about what an aesthetic or magical life means. But I don’t wish to keep going. I wish to let this essay go now.