Defensive infantilism

1.) Assume the decadence of the West makes sense, not in the minimal sense of being the logical outcome of some crazy or hedonistic idea, but in the more robust sense of being an attempt to deal with some fact about the world. This does not rule out other explanations but only looks for that aspect of decadence that makes sense as a response to the world. It also does not attempt to justify or condemn the decadence, but simply to take the first step towards understanding why it made sense to choose it. I claim it makes sense as a defensive infantilism, and I’ll deal with it first as infantilism, then as defensive.

2.) Consider decadence as infantilism:

a.) Consumerism. The only sort of person that can be relied on to want to buy everything they see is a child. Even a shop-till-you-drop parent will be shocked by how much a kid will ask/insist “can we get that? puh-leeeze?”

b.) The sexual revolution. At it’s heart, it’s the limitation of eros to the fact that all the sex you want is fun! Why are the oldsters so uptight about it? The highest reality about eros that can be allowed is that it (often? sometimes?) involves commitment, but even my second grade son (who “got married” at recess in a series of weddings performed by his friend) understands that much. Again, the pornographic depiction of sex – which seems like the ideal world of the sexual revolution – is a fantasy which cannot get beyond infantile fascination with gigantism.

c.) Cult of celebrity. The objects of the cult all have a Peter Pan quality about them: living in a world of perpetual youth, partying like a bunch of kids sneaking out of the boarding school, and primarily skilled at play-acting and make believe.

d.) Primitivism in art. The infantilism of Pollack or Cy Twombley is the easiest to grasp, but all our art tends toward the primitive (pentatonic scales, tonic chords, pictures over text like a child’s book, fascination with potty-language, etc.) It goes without saying that this does not rule out beautiful art, but it does rule out any popular art demanding subtlety of taste, a long attention span, an adult-sized vocabulary, a palate of emotions that goes beyond exuberance, rage, sadness and defiance, etc..

e.) Infantilism of justice. For us, justice is primarily found in (a) identifying a theatrical and almost operatic protestation of injustice (oppression! The total loss of freedom!) then (b) seeking some universal authority to vindicate us (Washington! Bussels! The Constitution!) All of this suggests nothing so much as kids fighting on playgrounds and then tattling their grievance.

3.) Infantilism makes sense as a response to the horror at “the parent”, i.e. at authority and power.  The obvious candidate for such a horror is the First and Second World Wars, though these were inseparable from the larger horrors that arose from attempts on the Right to crush moral decadence (Italy, Germany) and attempts on the Left to create collectivist, Utopian, and modern-Mechanical economies (Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam).

Human authority and power is human wisdom, but this wisdom seems to have shown itself to be simultaneously incompetent and too clever for itself. All attempts to make ideal societies, fight just wars, or establish predicable economies have fallen laughably short; but we have been so wildly over successful at creating weapons that any fight between industrialized powers ends up killing soldiers and even whole populations like insects.

Our infantilism is thus our defense against ourselves. It is a Utopian ideal of creating a world too innocent for war. Our systems of education, manners, and political life will promote docility, obedience, close surveillance, confused authority and suppression of masculine energy. All differences between persons that might prove worth fighting over will be villainized with taboos (discrimination!). This collective approach isn’t planned, of course, since it is a response precisely to planned societies. While unplanned, however, it is certainly enforced.

7 Comments

  1. July 28, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    In general, can man’s will be credibly responsible for his intellect as it is perfected in science and understanding? Or is man’s natural perfection too great for him to bear?

  2. July 28, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    If Kafka were writing today, he might have called it ‘In the Orphanage’, and set it in some nameless, vaguely eastern bloc locale whereabouts some pathetically damaged children might play war or beat each other in a minefield.

    Innocence and infantilism are are sadly different things.

  3. Socrates said,

    July 28, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    So we know of the problem, but what is the solution(s)? What can an individual do? Should we stop resisting and give in, or should we despair and become bitter?

    Christi pax.

    • obscure said,

      July 28, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      What is the opposite of a commercial society? A commercial society has a ‘bloodstream of currency’ as Hobbes would say viz. commerce must have no end or aim. A society of ends is the opposite. Imagine a society where practices are not valuable because of their subordination to utility, but for their own sake. This is why in pure art ‘works of art’ are called ‘works’ and not products, for it is only in the mechanical arts that practice is enslaved to utility. The completed ‘work of art’ is a sign indicating a valuable type of activity and not a material product at all.

      Solution: A society grounded in virtue, ritual and animism. A man is to be judged not by his apparent actions, but by the constitution of his intentionality. Thought is not instrumental, but rather material goods are. The mind is to find its joy in the synthesis of essences. All of those concrete practices which are ‘valuable for their own sake’ and not subordinated to materialistic utility are to be revived. Happiness is to be found in the establishment of and commitment to praiseworthy habits. Practical anthropology ought to be more moral than political insofar as the political domain is so radically divergent from ideal politics. The construction and maintenance of internally coherent communities shall thus be of greater importance than popular politics which has become theoretically intolerable and practically inoperable. Of course, moral duty prevents one from utterly dropping out of secular society, but one mustn’t become impassioned and overly affected by the madness and inanity out there.

      At the end of the day one must do what one can and prepare oneself to receive what one must.

    • July 28, 2015 at 7:47 pm

      As an abstract matter, and all other things being equal, it would better not to be decadent. But in the concrete case we could probably only drive out decadence by giving rise to other problems and kinds of injustice, and I don’t know any way to evaluate whether this would make us better off as a whole. I read about all sorts of societies that aren’t decadent, but I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life here for theirs.

      Plato speaks of the many colors of late democracy, before the tyranny sets in. It’s among the lowest degradations of society, but the only one where philosophy is really possible.

      • July 29, 2015 at 1:34 am

        I’m typing this on a phone, at 2 AM. I made my other post in line at the DMV. In a way, this is as incontinent as habitually posting photos of dinner ilto instagram, communicating in emoji, or other practices common in our crepuscular democracy that baffle or annoy me.

        Philosophers in Plato’s day were not notable for being much more than excretors themselves. I think if anything it’s the only environment that promotes a certain mode of philosophy, as it does certain modes of everything else – that it’s in the same milieu and mode as Plato’s doesn’t give it title claim to capital ‘P’ Philosophy.

  4. July 29, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    I read about all sorts of societies that aren’t decadent, but I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life here for theirs.

    I think this is a point of some importance, and complicated because we’ve all had our tastes trained to the society in which we’ve been raised and in which we have lived all our lives. Any medicine might be quite bitter, and in fixing the problem, we’re almost inevitably going to end up losing something that we actually like a lot about our society, because it is an incidental effect of something that would need to be changed. Anyone setting out to change things would, if honest, have to admit that it would occasionally be a rather brutal transition.

    But I suppose Plato gives the principle that would have to be followed here, too: you have to strive to live as a citizen of the kallipolis even if you actually find yourself in a democracy being slowly torn apart by factions.


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