Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
The modern era is the age of the enlightenment, in which man throws off the shackles of religion and tradition and stands on his own feet. And yet it hardly seems as if we are living in the age of freedom. In an age of mass bureaucracy and scientific determinism, we are more wont to hear of helplessness and despair than of self-rule. For Hannah Arendt, freedom, like politics, is endangered by the rise of a social realm of government, scientific rationality, and bureaucratic administration. For Max Weber, the modern age is marked by a Herrenlose Sklaverei, a servitude without a master. The enlightenment, it seems, has taken an unexpected turn. What then is the Destiny of Freedom?
That is the question Professor Philippe Nonet poses in a two-part lecture he gave recently at the Hannah Arendt Center.
We are, Nonet argues, before the necessity of a decision regarding freedom. Until now, freedom has been thought as an attribute of the will. But freedom of the will leads, Nonet argues, to the rise of modern technique that threatens to extinguish the freedom of man. Freedom of the will thus threatens to transform itself into utter servility—the Herrenlose Sklaverei of Max Weber's famous formulation. This is the destiny of freedom insofar as freedom is thought from out of the will.
And yet, there is the possibility of a new opening of freedom, understood as freedom from the will, that Nonet finds in the thinking of Martin Heidegger.
We hope you enjoy these extraordinary lectures. You can watch them here.
Every once in a while an art project comes to town that reminds us of the beauty and wonder of the creative arts—and also appeals to our love for books. One such arrives today. Inspired by the transporting and joyful act of browsing, “A Bookmobile for Dreamers” is a multimedia chamber opera for live theremin, electronic sound, and video projection. The most recent collaboration between composer and thereminist Elizabeth Brown and artist Lothar Osterburg, creator of the video portion, the opera centers upon a dreamlike model world incorporating real time video and stop motion animation with onstage playing by Brown.
The Arendt Center caught up with our Bard colleague Lothar Osterburg and asked him a few questions.
“‘A Bookmobile for Dreamers’ is about the lost experience of browsing through stacks of books and the joy of discovering the unexpected by pulling out the neighboring book on a whim,” Osterburg explains. Surely we have all experienced those magical moments which occur amongst a stack of books when, due to serendipity, a whim, or just plain luck, one picks up a seemingly random book and is carried away to a plane of existence so remote and exhilarating that the experience, in hindsight, strikes one as absurdly life affirming. Through their latest work, Osterburg and Brown reflect upon this quality of living attainable through the printed word. Pressed to describe what occurs when we read, Osterburg writes: “In short: it is an act of discovery and exploration without the need to leave one’s physical space.”
The dreamlike world which envelopes the reader is evoked by Osterburg through the combination of various film techniques, in order for the viewer to “have a reading like experience with room to fill the voids with their own imagination, without the over-simplification and hyper-realism of most commercial films. Timing is part of this, and I try to move on quickly to leave a faint impression that leaves the viewer with the want for more.”
The vitality of the work radiates from the conversation formed between Osterburg’s video and Brown’s theremin. The theremin, an electronic instrument invented in 1928 by Lèon Theremin, produces its unique sound without any physical contact from the player. The instrument’s two metal antennas respond to the motion of the player’s hands, resulting in changes in oscillation frequency of the tone alongside changes in amplitude. This allows Brown the opportunity to respond to the video with her whole person – physically as well as musically.
The conversation between the video and theremin playing is perhaps best exemplified by the roles Brown plays as actor and reader in the performance, and the audience will sometimes find her responding to herself. “In the ‘theremin sculpture,’” Osterburg reveals, “she is stepping outside her body to play a choir with herself. The theremin generates the sound just as virtually as the video sets the stage, which is as virtual as the world we enter when we read.”
While Brown and Osterburg have collaborated on many projects, this is the first time they chose to incorporate a person directly with the video. The move was appropriate for the project, however, as it serves to blend the ethereal nature of reading with the all too tangible elements encountered in the act. By “stepping in and out of the video, [Brown is] referencing the incredible presence a read story can take on when you are engulfed in reading, when suddenly the phone rings and tears you back into the other world.”
“A Bookmobile for Dreamers” will be shown Today, Tuesday, September 18, 2012 from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Bard’s Campus Center, in the Weis Cinema. For more information, contact Melody Goodwin at 845-758-7674 or email firstname.lastname@example.org