The United States, it is often said, is an anti-intellectual country. Okay, I admit “often said” is a weasel phrase, which intends to exculpate the author from doing any research. So doing a little research, one can go to, for instance, Richard Hofstader’s classic “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”. Hofstadter writes that he wrote the book in the 1950s, when it seemed that the Eisenhower presidency was all about actively knocking about “so called intellectuals going around showing how wrong everybody was who disagrees with them” – to quote Eisenhower himself.
Hofstadter does a thorough job of searching out American intellectuals, going back to the Puritan clergy. Of course, he has a more sociological sense of the intellectual, and through that lens can see that far from being an era of disrespect for the intellectual, the Eisenhower fifties enshrined the intellectual as “expert” with far more influence and money than, perhaps, at any time since the scribe-dominated days of Pharoanic Egypt.
However, Hofstadter does not wax very philosophical. I on the other hand am always applying philosophical wax to objects small and large. Nothing is cheaper than philosophical wax! I myself am willing to sell cartons of it for very reasonable prices – buy the perfect Christmas present! But, er, I digress. What I was going to say is that, in my opinion, American culture is not so much anti-intellectual as anti-dialectical.
Of course, the intellectual historian would adduce the American inheritance of a common sense philosophy from England as the reason, perhaps – but I think that is an all too intellectual explanation. Too much superstructural woo woo woo going on there, even for me, who generally find the whole superstructure/base thing bogus.
I, on the other hand, would go back to slavery.
I’d go back by this indirect route. At the beginning of Hrabel’s I served the King of England, the protagonist harks back to his first day working at the marvelous Golden Prague Hotel:
“When I started to work at the Golden Prague Hotel, the boss took hold of my left ear, pulled me up, and said, You’re a busboy here, so remember, you don’t see anything and you don’t hear anything. Repeat what I just said. So I said I wouldn’t see anything and I wouldn’t hear anything. Then the boss pulled me up by the right ear and said, But remember too that you’ve go to see everything and hear everything. Repeat it after me. I was taken aback, but I promised I would see everything and hear everything.”
A prima facie analysis, grasping only the logic in this passage, would conclude that the boss was mad. After all, didn’t the message to the left ear contradict that with the right ear? And what is all this repetition about? I think, in fact, that is how the American think tanker would naturally read this passage.
However, as Nietzsche acutely saw, dialectics begins in servitude – in slavery – and the logic of both showing that one doesn’t hear or see anything but in actual fact observing and hearing everything is the slave’ s instrument of survival. It is a mark of the film 12 years a Slave – a film I sat through with total attention, a film I have wanted to see my whole life – that certain dialectical hints, on the order of this contradiction between the ears, are voiced.
It was not, of course, beyond Ralph Waldo Emerson to see and understand this contradiction, but it is absolutely characteristic of American culture that Emerson’s reputation is as an inspirational thinker, a manufacturer of high minded Hallmark card slogans. By one of those great accidents that are fastened onto by the gnostic historian, always on the lookout for intersignes, a boy who was named for Emerson, Ralph Ellison, spent his whole career meticulously elaborating the contradiction between the ears –the contradiction that gives its title to one of his essays: Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke. Ellison wrote the essay in reply to Stanley Edgar Hyman, who had analyzed “negro culture” from the point of view of the trickster. Ellison takes up the challenge of the trickster, the masked man, but he refuses to allow the white and the black to play roles in a segregated story, even if the story is changed from one in which the black is deserving of enslavement to one in which the black is perpetual victim:
“And it is this which makes me question Hyman’s designation of the “smart man playing dumb” role as primarily Negro, if he means by “conflict situations” those in which racial pressure is uppermost. Actually it is a role which Negroes share with other Americans, and it might be more “Yankee” than anything else. It is a strategy common to the culture, and it is reinforced by our anti-intellectualism, by our tendency toward conformity and by the related desire of the individual to be left alone; often simply by the desire to put more money in the bank. But basically the strategy grows out of our awareness of the joke at the center of the American identity. Said a very dark Southern friend of mine in laughing reply to a white businessman who complained of his recalcitrance in a bargaining situation, “I know, you thought I was colored, didn’t you.” It is across this joke that Negro and white Americans regard one another. The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition (something which strikes the white man with a nameless horror), just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures, and the Negro knows that both were “mammy-made” right here at home. What’s more, each secretly believes that he alone knows what is valid in the American experience, and that the other knows he knows but will not admit it, and each suspects the other of being at bottom a phony.”
It is part of the dialectic that occurs between two ears to superimpose the serious on the ludicrous. It is part of the American anti-dialectical tradition to insist on separating the two, and to further insist that the two things are allergic to each other. I like Ellison’s way of substituting the “joke” for the “trick”, even if in the end I’m a trope-man, enamored of trick or treat – and actually thinking that the two are one. I am reminded of a man who visited the United States once - Ludwig Wittgenstein. Norman Malcolm, the man he was visiting at the time of his American journey, wrote in his memoir of the LW: “Wittgenstein once said that a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).”