By Tom Pepper
Why try again? This is the question I’ve been asking myself every day lately. Is it worthwhile to try one more time, to attempt to “fail better”?
In Eudemian Ethics Aristotle suggest that “Children, invalids and lunatics have many views, but no same person would trouble himself about them; what such people need in not argument but something else: either time for their opinions to mature or else medical or penal correction”. I’d suggest our culture, the family and educational ISAs as well as newer ISAs like social media and the entertainment industry, have succeeded in producing a critical mass of lunatics, mental invalids, and the permanently immature. No argument can work with them.
My concern, then, is to raise the question: whom exactly are we hoping to reach with attempts at intervention in thought? Is there an audience capable of reasoning about such things? Or might it be better to try some other approach, one aimed at producing some kind of intellectual maturity and, perhaps, sanity? What might that look like?
Over recent months I’ve begun and abandoned a couple of projects, mostly because I think they say things I’ve said before, and didn’t have any real impact the first time.
I had considered trying one more time with the problem of ideology, beginning a book I called “Deficiencies of Ideology” but abandoning because I don’t think an audience for this exists. Here’s the main idea, from the introduction:
These days we seem inundated with problems that are commonly explained as the result of too much ideology—both too many different ideologies and ideologies so powerful they prevent us from clear and rational thought. Extreme divisiveness over matters ranging from politics to vaccinations is usually explained as the result of “echo chambers” and a general inability to escape our ideologies and think objectively.
My argument is that this gets it exactly wrong. The problems we face today, from the collapse of the global supply chain to the battles over Critical Race Theory, are the result of, and intractable because of, a deficiency of ideology.
Our ideologies are deficient in both senses of the word. There are too few of them, with many people living outside of ideology most of the time. But those we do have are also inadequate as ideologies, failing to accomplish what we need ideologies to do.
When I mention this to people, I rarely get past the first sentence before they stop hearing what I’m saying. This happens because most people use the term “ideology” to refer to something we in fact do have too much of in our world: weakly-held, unsubstantiated, and not quite clearly understood opinions about everything from how an economy works to religion to the science of viruses. The first task, then, is to explain what I mean by ideology, and why we need it and should seek to produce it. Then I’ll explain how our ideologies today fail to do what an ideology should. Finally, I’ll attempt to make a case for a particular kind of ideology we might produce today, which I believe is the only kind capable of saving humanity and the planet.
I can’t see that one more attempt to explain the vital need to consciously produce our ideologies would be of interest to anyone except perhaps the couple dozen people on the planet beside myself who already see that this is so.
Then I thought I’d attempt another essay on the cult of mindfulness. This was prompted by two things: the use of forced “mindfulness” sessions in my local school district, and a recent visit to an addiction rehab in which there are now daily mindfulness sessions and weekly lecture about mindfulness although nobody there seems to have any idea at all what they mean by the term. The idea that one can be forced to perform a kind of non-surgical lobotomy on oneself, and that this would somehow make kids better at school and cure addicts of their addiction is troubling. Of course, it doesn’t do a great deal of harm. Kids just put their phones on their laps and ignore the mindfulness teacher, and treatment for addiction already had a 100% failure rate anyway. But what it does is excuse educators and therapists from trying to come up with something that might actually fix the problem they are being paid to solve. Instead, they can just accuse the failing children and relapsing addicts of not being mindful enough!
In thinking about this, I came across a post Glenn Wallis wrote a decade ago on his Blog: https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2012/02/10/mindful-lobotomy/ I don’t think I can say it better, or that I would get a better response than is evidenced in the comments on Glenn’s post.
So, this may not be an intervention, except in the sense that it is asking both readers of this blog to think about this problem: is “fail again, fail better” anything more than another bourgeois bromide? Might it be best to find altogether new ways to force people to think? Are we just reasoning with madmen and children?
And if a new approach is needed, what might it look like?
Thanks for this reflection, Tom. I think–agonize, get depressed, wonder, despair–about each of the several questions you pose here. I do so daily, hourly even. My own conclusion (for the time-being) is just to keep going as I am able. I would love to find a new approach, one that would cut through the cacophony and land the punch I desire. But I don’t believe there is such a thing. We live in the Tower of Babel. Beckett’s “fail again, fail better” can certainly serve as yet another bourgeois bromide, but not in your case. In your case, it will function much differently, indeed. I encourage you to jump back in with both feet and, yes, fail you will, but maybe better.
I don’t know. All I have to offer would be logical argument and concrete evidence–which I am told won’t persuade anyone these days. You can’t reason with a child who won’t let the nurse do a strep test (I know this from experience with my own child). Merely telling them that sticking this swab in their throat might save their life doesn’t work. And merely pointing out to people that pretending to be mindful as a cure for addiction could kill them won’t work either. There just must be some kind of maturational process first, before reason can be of use. I’m not sure what that might look like, though. Or how to get anyone to look away from TikTok long enough to even register how miserable their lives really are.
I don’t like anything I’ve read from Henry James. But I do like his response to the question of what the artist does: “we work in the dark, we give what we can, we give what we have.” I like that saying because it so exactly matches my own experience and struggle with persuading people, or, indeed, just having an informed, intelligent dialogue. I think the James quote continues along the lines of “our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” This may sound somewhat Romantic, but it also captures so well my own experience with this business of thinking and writing and teaching. And that’s what is important to me., to get some uplift and encouragement. The same goes for Beckett and Zen when they speak on doubt and the need simply to go on. I quite literally can’t go on. The life dedicated to thought and transformative change is too full of despair. I can’t go on. And I will go on.
This might be the most important post on this blog yet. How do you “intervene” in a discourse in which thought is forbidden, mocked, despised? Is there any point in even trying to do this? I don’t know what the answer to this is, and struggle with that fact daily and even hourly, as Glenn says. I’m young enough to retain some naive hope in the possibility of convincing people about the importance of ideology, but also old enough to be cynical too. I go back and forth between the two depending on the day.
So, is it worth trying? As you know, Tom, just the act of trying might be the only way to stay sane and not lose your mind. I mean that literally, of course: trying and failing again better is the only hope at keeping the collective mind you are a part of alive. Your writing helps people like me clarify and increase our understanding of the problem of ideology. Will this make a difference? Hard to say. There’s a good chance it won’t. But remaining faithful to the truth requires keeping the truth alive in some collective mind. When I’m not working to keep this collective mind alive, I start to lose it. And I become a subject I’d rather not be. That is, I’m either reading and writing, trying to keep a critical collective mind alive, or I’m rotting away. There is no in between, there is no giving up on humanity without giving up on myself.
Again, this might be my youthful naivety speaking. But for me the problem is ensuring the truth remains possible to think, even if the prospects of incorporating many more people into a collective mind that can do so are not encouraging. Really, the only other option in losing your mind completely.
Still, the need to find some new strategies strikes me as obviously important and something to think through. I’m afraid I’m at a dead end there. I will just say that the only way to come up with new ways of reaching people is to increase our understanding of ideology. Really, this could be the only point in a scientific theory of ideology, if there is such a point. Continuously writing, even if you are making the same arguments, can help those bad subjects who might be open to them more likely to clarify their own position. I know it seems like this never happens, but clearly it does. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
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Over at the stimulating new blog, “Interventions,” Tom Pepper asks: “Why try again? This is the question I’ve been asking myself every day lately. Is it worthwhile to try one more time, to attempt to ‘fail better’?”
If any of you, my readers, have ever tried to incite change in our collective thought and action, change that you deem valuable, even necessary, then you know the struggle animating Tom’s questions. Read on!
I’m still doubtful that it is worth the effort to write a book like the one I had planned, and certainly don’t think there is anything to be gained by yet another essay on the evils of mindfulness. Reasoning with children and lunatics accomplishes nothing.
I don’t know what kind of experience would lead to maturation, to a cure for our anti-intellectual insanity. The assumption for most Aristotelians (and Thomists, I believe) is that the general culture, the community or polis, will gradually teach children to reason, and eventually to enjoy the use of their intellects. Clearly, the goal of our ISAs here in the US is the opposite, though. And once one reaches adulthood hating thought and disdaining reason, it is ever possible to overcome this?
Today I read that the next five years are expected to bring record high temperature, with disastrous effects for food and water supplies. And all those psychoactive drugs they’ve got everyone addicted to? Now you can’t get them because of “supply chain issues” and low profit margins on generic drug production–so there’ll be hordes of folks withdrawing from drugs meant to treat imaginary mental illnesses. Perhaps these things combined will bring sufficient chaos under heaven to push people to think? Probably not, though. But it would make for an interesting alternative to the ubiquitous “and then a mysterious illness decimated the population” post-apocalyptic novel. What if the apocalypse didn’t diminish the population at all, and was not an accident of nature but humanly caused?
I’d like to think that something other than a disaster could prompt people to think, but I can’t see what would do it. And until we start thinking, we can’t possibly produce more adequate ideologies.
Hi Tom, I’ve read those same articles in the Times and the “smart” comments from people who for the most never quite see that the juggernaut of capitalism just doesn’t hold any real solutions to any of them. Try saying something outside the box, unorthodox or outside the circuit of the profit and very few will pay you any attention.
This morning I pulled your Indispensable Goods from my shelf and starting reading it again. It really feels good to dig into it again, like an old friend. What a masterful piece of work it is! Of course I am mostly just a dusty old guy, but I must say it’s the most important book I’ve ever had my hands on. Thank you for that, Tom!
Hey Danny, great to hear from you. Yes, I’m just a dusty old guy myself. I’m glad a few people got something from that book. I may have to withdraw it from Amazon for a time, though. They’ve changed their pricing, and I’m going to have to edit and “republish” the book to try to keep the price down. It’ll give me a chance to correct a slew of typos, though!
I think one of my concerns is whether it is worth the time in front of the computer to revise a book that probably nobody will ever buy another copy of. I party wrote it to give to my kids when they finished college. Well, my oldest has graduated, I gave her a copy, and she wouldn’t even open it. But still, it’s there if she ever wants to, I guess.
I had thought I’d try writing a much shorter and more “accessible” (I hate that word) book about what is wrong with our ideologies today, and what happens when we are without ideologies altogether. But I don’t know that I have the mental capacity to write such a thing anymore—which is why I wrote “Indispensable Goods” when I did.
I wonder if Nietzsche’s distinction between passive and active nihilism is relevant to the issue of this discussion? His warning about passive nihilism certainly galvanized me into action as a young man–however little that action may have been worth. Thoughts?
I’m not sure how useful Nietzsche can be in this matter. I have Covid, for the second time, so I’m not really able to write a clear response right now. But my initial thoughts are that Nietzsche’s idea of active nihilism depends too much on an illusion of extreme individualism. This seems to be the problem haunting “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”—the idea that we should each create our own meaning, that we should depend on nobody.
Personally, I think nihilism takes things too far. Certainly it is true that all of our mind-dependent reality, our values and social formations, are open to change. But just as certainly there are truths that are not. Some of them will limit what kinds of social formations we can thrive in. We are rational animals by nature, social beings, and have an innate need to understand the world and to participate in the choice of our collective projects. When we are denied these things, we are not fully human, and are miserable. When we don’t even know we need these things it is even worse. My approach has always been to encourage collective discussions—we cannot create meaning individually, beginning from nothing, indifferent to others. Meaning is always and only a collective thing—despite Nietzsche’s fantasy, we cannot even feed or clothe ourselves without the cooperation of a community.
So, sure, it would be great if everyone saw the social constructedness of our values as an opportunity for freedom, instead of seeing it as a source of despair. Most young people today seem to have embraced the passive nihilism that is encouraged by our hegemonic ideology. I don’t know that Nietzsche is the best alternative to this.
I also just finished reading Indispensable Goods again and really enjoyed it. It seemed much clearer to me now than it did three years ago. Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (helping me to understand how symbolic communication may be a central feature of human nature) and Spinoza’s Ethics (helping me see more clearly how human freedom can be understood as the ability to exercise our natural capacities) have been especially useful, I think, in clarifying some crucial points for me since my last time reading it. I might add that Adler’s “How to Read a Book”, mentioned, I think, by Sonoran Ghost a few years ago on Tom’s blog, has also been quite helpful. Until I read it, I hadn’t even realized that I was reading rather poorly.
It seems to me that we are still trapped in the dilemma that Adorno describes somewhere in his Minima Moralia: On the whole, we can only see the two options of either remaining a “child”, attached to a disempowering fantasy of a world without effort, or becoming an “adult” and adapting to the world as it is (i.e. taking the capitalist market and other existing cultural practices as beyond question) – options which we often seem to combine to some extent, for example by being an “adult” at work and in (some aspects of our) personal relationships and a “child” in our pursuit of entertainment. What remains mostly unthinkable for us, it seems, is that there may be a different kind of maturity which avoids and transcends both of these positions that leave us unsatisfied. At least, I would say that this has been my personal experience for most of my life so far.
My sense is that learning usually appears to most of us – even intelligent and relatively educated people – like an activity firmly in the “adult” category, just a boring matter of memorizing more knowledge authorized and fixed in advance by the Other, useful at best to “win” the discussion at the next family dinner. Either that or it feels unsettling because it seems to threaten to take away the “child” position from us. It reminds us that we could, in fact, be doing something more satisfying than playing video games or watching videos on YouTube – and because we cannot see another option, we think that this would mean we must become “adults” (in the sense described above) permanently.
A while ago, I read an article by a neuroscientist (here’s the link for German-speaking readers: https://telepolis.de/-4780309) who argues that arguments and evidence never really convince anybody and that only creating a personal connection between people can do so. His conclusion seems to be that we ought to consider “human warmth” as more important than the “ice queen” truth. But I’m not quite willing to accept that these two things just must be mutually exclusive. Is there perhaps some way to make truth (an integral part of) a “third thing” we all have in common (as in Brecht’s poem “Praise of the third thing”)? Something that can bring us closer together precisely when we all try to be close to it?
Of course, that’s not an answer to Tom’s question. I have occasionally wondered whether a truth-friendly ideology could be produced by a video game designed in the right way. But as far as I can tell, one of the major appeals of video games for most people is precisely that they offer “activity” that requires no engagement with real-world questions, sort of like a daydream turned into an object one can interact with. So I doubt it, but who knows.
Hi Ian, good to hear from you.
I used to use that Adler book when I was teaching a class called “Inventing Literature.” Adler is usually seen as a stuffy old conservative dimwit–and his book on Aristotle is certainly terrible; but “How to Read a Book” is quite useful in an age when actually reading and understanding what you read is generally frowned upon.
I would agree that it is in fact the case that solid arguments an concrete factual evidence will not convince anyone today. I just don’t believe this is a feature of the human brain; it is a result of the hegemonic (capitalist) ideology. As Badiou describes this ideology, there are bodies and there are opinions. The goal of the neuro-everything disciplines is to convince us that the current dominant ideology is in fact hardwired into our brains.
I still believe that if we can get people to question their ideology, recognize that it is an ideology, then they will be capable of being persuaded by arguments and evidence. Personally, I have often been persuaded to change my position when I encountered new evidence or better arguments. I remember once reading about an incident involved the economist John Maynard Keynes. He was accused of being a hypocrite because he changed his position on something (I don’t recall what). His response was (paraphrasing) “I change my beliefs to fit the evidence; what do you do?” This, of course, is not the way people generally operate today. If you alter your position when presented with new evidence, you are accused of being a weak-minded opportunist, and are no longer to be taken seriously.
I’d agree that video games, in my limited exposure to them, seem mostly to be in the realm of childish fantasy–like most movies in America today, where there is always someone with a super-power. Unfortunately, literature seems to be following that path as well: the “literary” is pure fantasy wish fulfillment.
I like your way of putting this: either we are adults, who accept capitalism as the structure of the very universe, or we are children living in the fantasy world of comic books and video games. What is that third alternative?
By the way, do you have a copy of that Brecht poem? I just looked through my copy of the collected poems of Brecht, and it isn’t in there, so I suppose it is from one of the plays?