Living On

It seems to me that the desire for fame and the corresponding resentment towards others for one’s anonymity that Eric Gans identified as “the fundamental human value” and the source of the “radical evil” motivating the mass murderers of our time must, in turn, be rooted in more originary desires. Interesting, Gans doesn’t posit an opposing form of the desire for fame—rather, he contrasts that desire with moral responsibility and human solidarity. But there is a very clear contrast with the radical evil, demonic desire for fame, and one that I think would have been foremost in the minds of practically every person up until a couple of hundred years ago at most, and that David Goldmann (the online “Spengler”) places at the center of his political analyses: the desire for the soul’s immortality. The motivation for resisting the temptation to do evil has, historically, been the fear of eternal punishment and the hope of eternal reward. The desires circulating around celebrity are a substitute for that fear and hope—the tawdriness of much celebrity and the periodic outbursts of this radical evil might suggest that this substitute is a pathological one, but I would agree with Gans that it is very difficult to tell for sure—aside from Gans’s reasoning in his “Aurora and ‘Radical Evil’” (Chronicle #428), there is no lack of atheists out there who will recount to us all the blood that has been spilled on behalf of behalf of this or that favored version of immortalization. Maybe the costs of celebrification are lower. But there have been other alternatives to the orthodox modes of immortalization in modern times: living forever in the nation one belongs to, in great works and, perhaps, most accessibly, in ones descendants—all of these modes, indeed, long co-existed with belief in eternal damnation and salvation, while being capable of existing without such belief. The first two are certainly of receding credibility, having been associated with violence (of nationalism, war, the megalomania of the tyrant), while few are capable of unambiguously benevolent great works (like curing diseases). And families are smaller, more individuals are without them, tensions between the generations make the pleasures of seeing one’s self carried on in the next generation more problematic. If immortality is a basic need for we sign users, whence can we reasonably hope to receive it?

We certainly don’t need to be nostalgic for presumably more certain guarantees of immortality: the promises of the Church and other religious authorities in this regard were clearly extravagant and, fortunately, so were the threats. People must have always noticed, regardless of whether they would discuss or reflect upon it, that no one could really know about any of these things one way or another. Furthermore, nations dissolve and leave the stage of history; family lines die out; with very few exceptions, great works change their meaning over time, as no one has any way of knowing whether he will end up a Herostratus or, say, a… well, who—would anyone like to venture to name an individual whose legacy has been received with enduring and unambiguous adoration?

All that endures is language, and whoso would seek out immortality today would best do so therein. Indeed, as Gans has argued on many occasions, the eternity of the sign is the model for all our other understandings of immortality. So why not cut right to the chase? The only guarantee of immortality is some discernable, irreversible change to the language—we need only think in terms of some minimal shift, a “style,” which one cannot help but have, and of which one can, with only a slight introduction of self-reflexivity, identify the markers. This really is a sure thing, because even if one, near the end of one’s life, were to discover that one’s style was completely derivative, even parasitic upon some precursor or mere repetition of the deadening formulas of everyday life and common sense—well, even carrying a copied style forward into new domains constitutes something new, and the latest iteration of the formulaic or commonplace communicates something extra, whether it be a charming naivete or unwitting parody. Of course we are lowering the bar here—we surrender the power to direct sinners netherward, to nominate heroes to adore and villains to abominate. But styles are subject to judgment as well, and a kind of posthumous punishment, and all the paradoxes of faith are activated here as well—it is precisely the most scrupulous, those who attend to their style, those who seek to bound up style with substance, to familiarize themselves with so as to distinguish themselves from a range of styles, who will be most tortured with the fear of the irrelevance, harmfulness, or fraudulence of their contribution to the language, while those who just absorbed some off the shelf style that “worked” for them will exhibit that style most blithely (and, who knows, maybe with greater approval). But this just means that such judgments are out of our hand, as they should be—our inability to force the issue, to ensure that our style enter the language in a particular way, or ripple out with ascertainable effects, signifies the absence of violence from this form of immortalization. At the same time, though, we could always reasonable hope that some little bit of our style, especially now that we can record and make universally available the most trivial of our experiments in style, will resonate sufficiently, even if in a mediated or marginal way, with some, a few, down the road, perhaps even so much that someone will take the time to find their way back to the “original.” And since it would be like that person is conversing with us, it is also like I or anyone else is conversing with that person right now. Perhaps that is, or can be, immortality enough.

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4 thoughts on “Living On

  1. Q

    Milton called the desire for fame “the last infirmity of a noble mind.” Leo Braudy has written an interesting history of fame called The Frenzy of Renown. The desire for fame is at least one source of the greatest human inventions and benefits; only when it’s divorced from moral considerations, pursued as an end in itself, does it become “evil.” (But what about all the publicity seekers in Hollywood and Youtube? Are they evil?)

    I think the opposite of the Aurora killer, or of the many who seek fame without moral considerations, is what Pascal called “The honnête homme,” a mensch, the salt of the earth (see Gans’ Chronicle #26), who maintains an awareness of his own necessarily peripheral status in the eyes of others, who subordinates himself to the larger community, since what is truly eternal transcends the individual.

    The model of true immortality as a shift in the language works well with great authors like Tyndale and Shakespeare. Yet while everyone knows Shakespeare, few know about Tyndale and his effect on the English Language, by way of the King James Version Bible.

    The religious model of fame cannot be surpassed, imo. The best attitude towards fame is simply to do one’s job in life, whatever that may be, to the best of one’s ability, and leave it to God as the ultimate judge and guarantee of true value, the basis for real fame. All earthly guarantees are vulnerable. The more famous you are, the more people will attack you. Moses and the prophets understood this and resisted their calling, and even Jesus prayed at Gethsemane to be spared the trial that afforded him ultimate fame.

  2. adam Post author

    I agree with what you say here, but if fame is just a form of immortality, with immortality being the real need, the question is how individuals can imagine that need being met today. A kind of fleeting fame and hence immortality is, or at least appears to be, much easier to acquire today than in previous, unwired eras; and the shortest cut to that kind of fame is disruption of the status quo in some way that can’t be ignored–like mass killing. Now, even if we assume that the religous model of fame (did you mean immortality here?) is the best, it is worth considering what happens, and might happen, if that model becomes less and less available (or, what comes to the same thing, is increasingly rejected). All those people without the unsurpassable model will nevertheless come up with some model. And what you propose as the best attitude towards fame would also be the ideal, but for a cultural theorist to stop there would be like a doctor being satisfied with giving advice to “take care of yourself.” Doing your job (and raising your family, supporting your community, etc.) in the best way you can is not self-evidently a path toward fame, so however satisfying in other ways this moral rectitude may be, it’s not addressing the need in question–that for immortality (again, unless we introduce, as I am disallowing for the sake of my argument, God as the deus ex machina who rightly sorts out the value of everyone’s contribution). That need, I am suggesting, can only be met if, in one’s subordination to the larger community, one can actually see, and be assured others see, the marks made by one’s contribution.

    And that brings me back to my suggestion regarding language, to which we all do, undeniably, contribute. In other words, we are all (very) little Tyndales and Shakespeares, if we lower our threshold for acknowledging linguistic or semiotic shifts sufficiently. And such a lowering is really what my suggestion amounts to. Imagining oneself in that way, as initiating a style others might model themselves on would situate one within a possible dialogue with invisible interlocutors–and that would be a first step towards the kinds of exemplary attitudes you outline.

  3. Q

    You’re right that fame is different from immortality, although the christian vision of immortality includes a measure of recognition. Being immortally anonymous might be the oxymoronic fate of a GA scholar :).

    I think GA teaches that what we all need is an arena in which we can successfully compete and win recognition. This becomes easier in Modernity by way of various media, but also harder because of the “winner-take-all” phenomenon. But we can still be individually different without being “best,” which is inaccessible to most. We can be recognized as a worthwhile, “unique” individual without being “famous.” A certain humility, then, is required to be satisfied with one’s share of recognition (religion makes such humility easier, since it posits an alternative, transcendent scene coram deo, before God). The anthropological model doesn’t depend on any religious guarantees. We all live in local communities in which is it quite possible to win some modest recognition. This model also necessitates we be willing to appreciate each other person as special and valuable; from a religious viewpoint, made in image of God.

    You’re suggesting that we can acquire some practical immortality (if not personal fame) through our effect on the language. The useful of this model, then, would be the humility of giving up the imperative for fame in favor of immortality at a low threshold. I guess this leads to question of how and why our language changes. Are such changes purely rhetorical, or is there an anthropological value here; so that changes reflect not just style but also content (“style with substance” as you say); in which case, wouldn’t it be better to articulate this immortality as our contribution (i.e., permanent addition) to our body of anthropological self-knowledge? Acknowledging, of course, that the distinction between style and content is artificial. “A new way of thinking” necessarily encompasses both form and content. A new form implies a new content, without which it would be doomed to triviality. I wonder if Eliot’s concept of tradition might be helpful here.

  4. adam Post author

    Your last paragraph sets up some of the questions I’m most interested in now. More precisely, I would like to construct a theoretical vocabulary that takes the artificiality of the style/content distinction as a given–a new style is a new way of organizing attention, which is intrinsically substantial. I want to be able to say that lexical and grammatical changes are changes in “economies of attention” (one useful convergence between the notion of attention–for GA, “joint attention”–and economics is the assumption of scarcity in both cases: if we all had enough, no labor or exchange would be necessary, hence no economy; while you can only pay attention to one thing at a time, meaning there is always a monopoly of attention.) (Richard Lanham gets this discussion started with his The Economics of Attention.) The real trick would be analyze a particular linguistic phenomenon–let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, the pervasive use of the resigned “whatever” (which actually seems to me to be fading) or the multiple ways in which the word “dude” is now used–in these terms; and, then, to situate those changes in the economy of attention to broader historical changes, or changes in the relations between the gift and market portions of the economy. Anthropological self-knowledge would then be new ways of organizing or monopolizing attention.

    Regarding your first paragraph, again, I pretty much agree with you–we can and should do the things you say we can and should. But very often we (or some of us, anyway) don’t, or feel we can’t, or are prevented from, etc., which is where the questions start coming in.

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