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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Merit and dreams



(from here)



I looked, last night, for a passage in Cioran where, as he discusses what he sees as the decline of Europe into bourgeois comfort (he is writing in the fifties), he makes a passing remark that we are all equal in our dreams. I couldn’t find the exact words, but as I remember the passage, he is speaking literally: while our waking lives may be structured by numerous and overwhelming inequalities, there is neither wealth, fame, nor competition in dreaming: we dream alone. And in this sense, radical egalitarianism is not a political credo so much as a natural historical fact about human beings. A good third of our lives, our lives when asleep, are equal.


Cioran does not go any further with this idea; but it seems to me that it deserves more than to die in that undiscoverable passage, another philosophical “crack” that one forgets. Rather, I think it gives us an angle on the strange career of egalitarianism in our time.

I would develop the idea by matching it with a passage from another great essayist, Roberto Calasso. In an essay on Karl Kraus’ war on public opinion, Calasso puts  his finger on another radically equalizing moment in modernity: that of public opinion.

Calasso links the rise of public opinion to the Enlightenment, in line with a recent trend among historians who have found a use for the notion of the public sphere to explain certain traits about the 18th and 19th century in Europe and the U.S. Calasso, however, is after a tension between the Enlightenment utopia of the tabula rasa, able to “endure the total abrasion of meaning produced by an all consuming nominalism”, and the emergence of public opinion. If the Republic of the tabula rasa led to a constant reign of virtuous terror, the epistemological search for the tabula rasa led to a contradiction. For in fact, Calasso claims, the public mind is neither blank nor inhabited by Descartes innate ideas – rather it is inhabited by opinions. And of opinions, the opinion is: “One opinion is as good as another: The abyss yawns in this commonplace as in every other.”

That particular abyss has been plumbed extensively by the great pessimists – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Leon Bloy, Kraus - and Calasso himself, who all share the theme first announced in Plato’s dialogues, which is that opinion is a bad epistemological object. However, I have never been convinced by this argument and its arriere pensée, which is a contempt for the people. My impulse, on the contrary, is to take hold of another piece of the great Platonic whale – the idea that doxa, in the chain of being, is halfway between the real – the ideas – and the unreal – their images, or the physical world. That doxa exist only halfway puts them on the same plane as dreams. In this way, public opinions are part of the great public dreamlife. Now, one might object that opinions aren’t the same as dreams, and I’d agree to an extent. The difference is made by waking. However, one should not overestimate waking. In a formal sense, waking is a break with dreaming, but it is so only to the extent that consciousness succeeds in substituting its strong sense of externality for the insulation of dreams. In fact, of course, we carry that insulation about with us in our ordinary life, a depthless pocket that we become uneasily aware of when we drop something in it – the typo, the address we forgot, bad luck and fuckups, a whole day’s worth of silent muttering and inattentions.

It is against this psychological and existential background that one should examine the last instantiation of the Enlightenment utopia, meritocracy. The version current in America is tht disparities of wealth and income should correspond to disparities in merit. Some students did the homework and got As, some didn’t and got Fs.

This, it should be said, is a curiously childish way of seeing the world, and could only have been developed in that Asperger’s paradise of a discipline, economics. To return to Plato again, what this idea does is shift the focus entirely from the thing done to the external reward for doing it. In so doing, the thing done is curiously emptied of all merit on its own, all glory. The perfect meritocracy would be one in which the thing done requires a highly developed amount of skill, and is absolutely pointless. Thus, it should be correspondingly awarded with showers of external reward. This is an exact representation of the current financial services sector, at least in its higher reaches.

But if we reverse the values and forces in play, here, we might find room for both merit and egalitarianism. Or at least that was the dream entertained by the most solitary of men in the forest of Saint Germane in 1753. 

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