Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Stupidity by Avital Ronell

The temptation to wage war on stupidity as if it were a vanquishable object – as if we still knew how to wage war or circumscribe an object in a manner that would be productive of meaning or give rise to futurity. One could not easily imagine circumstances in which an agency of state  or government, even a U.S. government, would declare war on stupidity in the manner it has engaged a large-scale war on drugs. Though part of a politically suspect roundup, the presumed object of the drug wars offered a hint, at least, of materiality.  Stupidity exceeds and undercuts materiality, runs loose, wins a few rounds, recedes, gets carried home in a clutch of denial – and returns.  Essentially linked to the inexhaustible, stupidity is also that which fatigues knowledge and wears down history.

Brecht, you might recall, said that while intelligence is finite, stupidity can be infinite, Einstein added, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, but I am not so certain about the universe.”  Schiller understood that stupidity can effect the realm of the infinite, paradoxically imposing a limit upon the gods; “ In their struggles with stupidity, the gods themselves are at a loss.” From Schiller’s exasperated concession to Hannah Arendt’s frustrated effort, in a letter to Karl Jaspers, to determine the exact status and level of Adolf Eichmann’s Dummheit, to current psychoanalytic descriptions of the dumb interiors of the despotic mind (heir to the idiot-king of which Lacan has written) stupidity has evinced a mute resistance to political urgency, an instance of unaccountable ethical hiatus.  In  fact, stupidity, purveyor of self-assured assertiveness, mutes just about everything that would seek to disturb its impervious hierarchies.

The early German romantic Jean Paul’s task, as he saw it  (in Rhapsodies) was to proceed brutally and take down stupidity’s empire, justifying his righteousness with the claim that the stupid have been conducting covert operations to smash the forces of the smart. Gathered into an insipid group, the stupid, a band of thugs, begin to resemble the armies of ressentiment raised later on by Nietzsche.  The noble or the smart ones – the strong who turn out to be the most vulnerable – are felled by what amounts to the incessant mosquito-biting binges of the stupid. Greatness should not scorn stupidity, writes Jean Paul, because although stupidity does not deploy the strength of elephants, like termites it secretly eats through the throne of loftiness until it crashes. Before its looming aggression, pressing forward on a front without limits –a permanent stupid revolution- even the toughest cookies crumble.

While the situation is diagnosed by Jean Paul as one of war, the sides that are drawn up do not appear to be entirely stable.

Forward and backward-looking stupidity comes from a past that discloses itself in the discontinuities and breaks of an unfolding history  where history has been diminished to the raw grappling – the solitary warfare – of a distressed subject. Very often one who names a stupid mistake or faces a reserve of dumbness, newly discovered, speaks from a place of enlightenment, as if stupidity had compelled subjection to a strenuous process of overcoming. Hence the enlightenment accent on learning, no matter how slow going.  Still, the structure of one’s own stupidity is such that it continues to haunt and heckle, creeping up as the other work in progress and threatening from a vague presentiment of the future.

No act of will or shedding of past embarrassment can guarantee that stupidity has been safely left behind – or, indeed, that it does not belong to the very core of your writing being. What you risk each and every time is the exposure that Holderin called Blodigkeit. As  Thomas Pynchon sees it, in Slow Learner:

Everyone gets told to write about what they know.  The trouble with many of us is that at earlier stages of life we think we know everything – or to put it more usefully, we are often unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance. Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map.  It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well. So as a corollary to writing about what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our ignorance, and the possibilities therein for ruining a good story.

A corollary to knowing, ignorance has its own story, a story that needs to be told, but one, perhaps, that can spell only ruin. Yet, as Pynchon somewhat paradoxically offers, ignorance is not just a blank space.  While it draws a blank and is about blanking out, ignorance, at once perniciously coherent and seriously lacking in coherence – not in itself contemptible – downshifts from stupidity in the sense that you may still find the owner’s manual somewhere or, for all we know, some rules of operation.  Ignorance holds out some hope, you can get to know it, maybe move on.  I am not so sure about stupidity.  It comes closer to a sense of nullity – the crushingly useless, that which comes to nothing; the bright side of nullity is that the oeuvre, its essential possibility, originates in it: “The lesson is sad, as Dion always sez, but true.”

On the whole, following the lead of Flaubert and taking into account the observations of Musil, stupidity can be considered as something related to shutdown, to closure – a closure that confuses itself with an end.  Closing a matter “once and for all,” it appears to be bound up with the Western logos to “finish with,” to terminate. The judgment passed by this type of stupidity poses, among other things, a number of temporal problems, the most prevalent of which concerns its speed.  Even though it is consistently associated with slowness, the endless frustration of non-attainment, stupidity in fact moves too fast; fast-paced and in haste, it is always (already) a rush.  .  . to judgment. To the extent, moreover, that stupidity is bolstered by all sorts of accelerators, its spread undoubtedly derives essential features from our age of technological dominion, which is at all times on fast-forward – a speed that actually proves to be backward.  Whereas the architect said, “Less is more,” we must add to the lexicon of contemporary paradox, “Fast is slow.”

Poised to write on stupidity, one must first show oneself to be exonerated from its insinuation; yet making a show of being clever is stupid. Indeed, that which shows, as with the case of showing-off or anything that asserts itself to be particularly clever, magnetizes stupidity.  And each particular imprint of cleverness always carries with it a typology of stupidities,  There would be no intelligence as such, then, nothing that would be spared a package deal of attendant stupidity and their historicity (what was once stupid may now be upgraded, and visa versa). Thus the figure of the professor comes in handy for Musil, for it has been stamped with the twin features of alert and devoted scholarship supplemented by an unavoidable extension into the vacant lot of the nutty or absent-minded professor.

Whether in the precincts of the literary or the psychological stupidity offers a whirligig of imponderables: as irreducible obstinacy, tenacity, compactness, the infissurable, it is at once dense and empty, cracked, the interminable “duh” – (morphed into seemingly less lacerating assertions such as “shallow,” “airhead,” “bimbo,” “brain-dead,” etc.)  A total loser, stupidity is also that which rules, reproducing itself in cliches, in innocence and the abundance of world.  On the other hand, the very existence of stupidity can a must be disputed – are we not dealing in each case with intricacies of repression, bungled action, error or blindness? – and on the other hand, stupidity can and must be exposed. In a sense, though, one wonders who would be spared liability where stupidity is concerned. Is there not a suspicion, an anxiety, that you, a fugitive from stupidity, are on the verge of being caught (finally) by some smart bomb headed for your house?

1 comment:

  1. It is said that television makes you stupid: mechanical repetition of any sort can infect you with a strain of stupidity. (My own concern as a witness to contemporary social histories is that work makes people stupid, depriving them of essential types of nonproduction, leisure, meditation, play. It becomes ethically necessary to find a way rigorously to affirm nonworking, to subsidize rest, laziness, lolling around without succumbing to common criminalizations or devaluations of the logic of other “activities” – Rousseau’s far niente. But ethics is work, too, so let me just posit this in the lazy space of a parenthetical remark, without accommodating the punishing surplus of terrific labor pains, not even the labor of the negative. The reduction of the human figure to work is to be understood as rendering the human equal to the laboring animal. Servile by nature and affecting docility, work, at the core of the modern experience of alienation, is inhumane and antisocial. Conversely, when at all subjected to procedures of legitimation, play is heralded as work, as “working out”. In a restaurant the waiter asks whether you are “still working on it.” Disgracefully overworking, superficializing, tagging “human resources,” ours is a culture where all too many are losing their heads to an unjustifiable ethos of production. Werner Hamacher suggests that even the concept of “working through” belongs to the uninterrogated workforce.)