Anti-intellectualism, pornography, and a communal sense of the sacred

philip-rieffI was just reading the introduction to the 2006 (fortieth-anniversary) edition of Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. 2006 – as it happens — was the year that Rieff died (at age 83). The introduction was written by social/cultural/intellectual historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and contained some passages I thought worth quoting.

Capitalism and the self

Rieff’s book is about the cultural transformation of the twentieth-century — from widely held religious/communal values to the prominence of psychology as supreme arbiter of interests and values. According to Lasch-Quinn, Rieff sees a connection between this transformation and the “advances and excesses of capitalism, with its radically destructive gospel of greed.”

[H]e makes a clear link between modern wealth accumulation and the “symbolic impoverishment” of the therapeutic age. The wealthy attempt to compensate for the shortfall with money and its accoutrements, making both art and science into forms of self-analysis and self-worship.

Self-interest becomes “the only principle of action or judgment.”

The book’s implicit connection between consumerism and the cult of impulse release, the nihilism of which Rieff captures so persuasively, represents a searing indictment of the status quo, a clear condemnation of a society “technologically loaded with bribes.”

Nice phrase, nice insight that last bit, and so much more characteristic of society 47 years later. And “gospel of greed” turns out to be even more descriptive of the 1980s (“greed is good”) than the 1960s. In a preface to the 20th anniversary edition of his book (1987), Rieff remarks: “This book stands as it first appeared. To change the text of a ‘prophetic’ character would be to write another book.”


Lasch-Quinn’s comments on Rieff’s assessment of capitalism are immediately followed by comments on anti-intellectualism. (emphasis added)

Rieff does see a special role for intellectuals … far beyond what is fashionable today, when even the so-called symbolic analysts of the information age feign humility in the face of the supposed egalitarianism of the popular culture (where a proclivity for rap music or the television show American Idol, for instance, confers democratic credentials). The hegemony of popular culture, with its notion that everyone’s self-expression might result in celebrity status, renders any argument for aesthetic or moral judgment and standards automatically suspect. Today’s anti-intellectualism rules out the notion that intellectuals may have even a modest role. The intellectuals themselves, so called, aggravate the situation by failing to live up to their self-designation. Either they produce studies of dubious public value, incomprehensible to anyone outside their limited subspecialty, or they lust for the moniker for the sake of self-aggrandizement rather than the pursuit of truth. They largely forsake the large questions and broad range of earlier writers who treated their work as a kind of public trust, their entry into to [sic] the cultural or intellectual tradition (even if it meant a dissenting aspect of that tradition) just one way to contribute toward the preservation of some cantlet [fragment] of humanity given the terrible odds at any time in human history against doing so.

Perhaps I should mention (as Lasch-Quinn does not) that when she refers to “earlier writers,” she may have in mind intellectuals such as her father, Christopher Lasch. (She does discuss her father at some length in her introduction to Women and the Common Life.)

Also of interest, perhaps: Philip Rieff was married (for eight years) to someone who became a very high profile (popular?) intellectual, Susan Sontag, known for her “condescension toward most of America and its cultural products.” (I wonder what Lasch-Quinn thinks of Slavoj Žižek?)

Anti-intellectualism is not what it used to be. For example, it’s not what it was in 1963 when Richard Hofstadter wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Eisenhower had warned of the military-industrial complex, but in the sixties, under Kennedy, this became the military-industrial-academic complex. Kennedy was known for surrounding himself with the “best and the brightest,” i.e., academics and intellectuals, especially those associated with elite universities.

Today one is more apt to hear complaints about elitism (independent of the intellect), anti-rationalism (as in ultra-conservative members of the Republican party), or the inequalities perpetuated by a meritocracy (Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy). And the assessment continues to evolve: I just came across an interesting review of a book by Aaron Lecklider, Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture. “Instead of Hofstadter’s account of exclusively antagonistic attitudes toward traditional intellectuals, Lecklider reveals a multitude of dispositions among ordinary people towards intellectuals and the intellect ranging from sour resentment to effervescent delight.”

Does the increased consumption of pornography mean we live “lurid lives”

Lasch-Quinn goes on to make a connection between the dearth of worthwhile cultural contributions by intellectuals and pornography. (emphasis added)

The embrace of, or failure to challenge, an anti-philosophy, an anti-religion, and an anti-politics has had a potentially disastrous effect on life as we know it, helping remove an important scaffold supporting everyday existence, with its struggles and limited successes. With nothing shared beyond a commitment to the self, which turns out to be a commitment to nothing, the individual lacks essential resources for flourishing in ordinary times and for solace in periods of great need. The anything goes mentality of niche marketing prevails, driving what qualifies as reading and thinking downward to new lows. A ten billion dollar pornography industry—together with the incursions of “soft porn” (yesterday’s hardcore) into nearly every remaining precinct—reveals the lurid lives of a growing proportion of the population. We now witness the pursuit of the basest interests in violence and a version of sexuality so profane—or, in the contemporary metaphor, so sick—that it is virtually unrecognizable to those who quaintly still believe in love.

She’s right about “yesterday’s hardcore,” but “lurid lives” may be a bit over the top. “Who quaintly still believe in love” is sweet. And it’s also, given today’s hook-up culture, as she says: quaint.

I haven’t read the literature on cultural changes wrought by the increased viewing of pornography (fascinating, I’m sure), except for a chapter in Laurie Essig’s American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection. Sociologist Essig believes pornography has changed women’s perceptions of their bodies and greatly increased the demand for cosmetic surgery (especially the search for the perfect girl parts).

I suspect that the increased consumption of pornography has a lot to do with a technology “loaded with bribes” (aka the Internet) and not so much with the failure of intellectuals to provide the “scaffolding” for a meaningful existence.

A communal sense of the sacred

Lasch-Quinn ends her introduction with a description of her first and only meeting with Philip Rieff. She had heard that he was not well. Her “hand-typed” letter, sent overnight, brought an immediate response. She spoke to him first on the phone, then in person. “At the top of the stairs, I was ushered into an elegant, light-filled bedroom where Philip Rieff was sitting in an armchair, wearing pajamas and a bathrobe and breathing from an oxygen tube.” In conversation (“a conversation that took form as though we had talked every day of our lives”), she encounters a voracious mind in a failing body.

The conversation, for Lasch-Quinn, is an example of what Rieff mourns as a cultural loss in The Triumph of the Therapeutic. (emphasis added)

“Every line of your writing resonates for me,” I explained, “on many unexpected levels.” My father had been so deeply influenced by Rieff that his phrasings reverberate with echoes from many distant hills. “I feel as though you are my intellectual grandfather,” was what I found to say. His instant response was “I am.”

Such tender moments — so remarkable and rare — teach or remind us what it is to experience deep intellectual connection with our discovered kindred spirits. Even further, they reaffirm what a profound gift it is to be alive, not in the modern sense of physically persisting, but in the sense of the soul’s quickening to the soul of another. Of course such moments of recognition and connection are what makes the suffering of life, and death, bearable. They deliver us from incommunicability. I believe it is this ability to recognize one another, the basis of all forms of connection that we can experience, that is the heart of Rieff s worry about the loss of a compelling transcendent purpose or communal sense of what is sacred. It is the basis for morality and the foundation of meaning. But it is also the source of hope.

The communication of insight about our humanity – whether in person, in writing or in a work of art – is a source of hope, as well as a source of pleasure and delight. And as I wrote in a recent post, “truly liberating ideas – those with extensive explanatory and emancipatory powers – win out in the end.” Optimistic, perhaps. Definitely hopeful.

Related posts:
Imagine a future without cosmetic surgery
The sociology of knowledge

Image source: The New York Times


Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of faith after Freud

Christopher Lasch (edited by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn), Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism

Elaine Blair, The Making of Susan, The New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013

Drew Grant, New York Post fooled by Lady Gaga, Slavoj Zizek hoax, Salon, June 22, 2011

Laurie Essig, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life

Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy

Aaron Lecklider, Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture


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