Saturday, March 08, 2008

Analyzing Slobs.

...real philistines are not those people incapable of recognizing beauty—they recognize it only too well, with a flair as infallible as that of the subtlest aesthete, but only to pounce on it and smother it before it can take root in their universal empire of ugliness. - Simon Leys

This quote from Leys appeared in the New Criterion article by Anthony Daniels, "At the Forest's Edge", which compares two views of the Slob Motif as put forth by Sigmund Freud and Jose Ortega y Gasset. Freud's model for the Slob is an individual whose aggressiveness is constrained by society and civilization; the frustration of this state then takes the form of self-destructive behavior. Freud asserts that this condition is more or less permanent with the presence of a society, given that aggressiveness is an inherent quality of human beings, and offers no remedy for the Slob, not even a neo-primitivism.

Gasset has a very different evolutionary theory of the Slob, or as he refers to him, the "mass-man". Daniels describes the Ortega's "mass man" as

...the man who has no transcendent purpose in life, who lives in an eternal present moment which he wants to make pleasurable in a gross and sensual way, who thinks that ever-increasing consumption is the end of life, who goes from distraction to distraction, who is prey to absurd fashions, who never thinks deeply and who, above all, has a venomous dislike of any other way of living but his own, which he instinctively feels as a reproach. He will not recognize his betters; he is perfectly satisfied to be as he is.

Mass man accepts no fundamental limits on his own life. Any limits that he may encounter are purely technical, to be removed by future advance. He believes that life is and ought to be a kind of existential supermarket, that an infinitude of choices is always before him, in which no choice restricts or ought ever to restrict what is possible in the future. Life for mass man is not a biography, but a series of moments, each unconnected with the next, and all deprived of larger meaning or purpose.

Mass man does not have to be poor or stupid. He can be both highly paid and highly intelligent, in a narrow way, and he can also be very highly educated, or at least trained; indeed, as knowledge accumulates, and as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to master more than the very smallest portion of human knowledge, so connected thought (of the kind of which mass man is incapable becomes rarer and rarer. Mankind collectively knows more than ever before, says Ortega, but cultivated men grow fewer.

Ortega's description of the Slob fits well with the "Stupid by Design" paradigm that seems to enthrall many Americans, for example the rejection of education or the hostility toward western culture and values by invoking class or race (as in the anger directed at Bill Cosby). Another ingredient to Ortega's mass-man, or the Slob, is the lack of transcendent values for human life, i.e., laws of God or even humanistic properties derived from an Ethics. The lack of an ultimate accounting for one's conduct and behavior, be it standing before a Creator or in a final measure of one's eudaimonia, is completely liberating and empowering to the Slob.

Ortega's answer to the "mass-man" problem is chilling: apparently nationalism and fascism are excellent treatments, despite his disdain for them. These movements give Slobs the illusion of transcendent meaning, but can also serve justify the desires of his old life, as in excusing the excesses of ruling vanguards. We also add that particular religous fanaticisms, with strong components of separatism, persecution of "outsiders", and divine entitlements, can likewise infatuate the Slob. Islamism, Fundamentalist Christianity, Ecofundamentalism, and Neo-Ludditism are examples.

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