Dreams of Reason Then
There’s a famous phrase in a painting by Goya–“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos“– which might mean “the sleep of reason produces monsters,” or “the dream of reason produce monsters[!]” The charm of the line lies in its polysemy, since the Spanish word sueño means both sleep and dream. These are opposites, along the axis of agency: sleep happens when the switch is pushed in one direction–and the light of mind flickers out–dreams when the switch is pushed in the opposite–and from sleep’s oblivion the unreal emerges in the form of the wild hallucinations no one diagnoses as madness.
Paraphrasing these two meanings of the phrase, we get either “when you don’t follow the tenets of reason, really bad stuff happens,” or “when you follow the tenets of reason too far, really bad stuff happens.” Goya shows that both may be true. Or, I think, that the first is certainly true, but that the second is always in danger of being forgotten.
Here’s the picture the phrase captions. In a way typical to Romantic art, the text penetrates the frame of the picture:
This problem illuminates our current conversations on history, specifically on the bad regimes which arose in the early twentieth century, the fascisms and totalitarian communisms which still today feed our nightmares (or ought to).
One professor sees here a lapse of reason, the other an over-indulgence in it. Which is true? Citing a lapse of reason in totalitarian regimes, we might refer to a general lack of respect for religious, genetic, and cultural differences or for the human’s biological identity. The other side may evoke the worship of a false God, whose name is “objectivity,” and accuse “over-enlighteners” of positivism. Those who see in say, the Holocaust, a temporary lapse of reason are opposed by those who see there an overabundance of it. For doesn’t fascism take an easy step from admiring the theory of evolution as great progress in science to finding eugenics an appropriate political aim?
In terms of the history of ideas, we attribute the rise of totalitarian regimes either to a fluke in the enlightening process–called Romanticism–or to the Enlightenment gone wild, become monstrous by falling in love with its own image, taking its project much too far.
Let’s see if we can find aspects of either in such political movements. To do so, we must ask two questions: on the one hand, are totalitarian regimes unreasonable? And, on the other, is there too much reason in totalitarian regimes?
It’s easy to find unreasonable steps in the arguments which bring about these regimes. For example, Marxisms don’t seem to appreciate human nature. The individual can never be expected to represent–perfectly to the point of self-annihilation–his group. Nor can we expect the increase of control to ever culminate in freedom. Then, the emergence of a new kind of human in “The Higher-Stage of Communism” is a tall order indeed! We don’t make our own natures through politics: they are influenced by politics, but very firmly grounded in biology and tradition. The irrational side of Fascism isn’t all that different: its proponents forget that control will always be despised by the controlled, that violence won’t go unanswered, that ethnocentrism means hatred of the “genetic impurities” in oneself.
But do we also find an overabundance of reason in such regimes? A biographical fact hints at the answer: Marx held a professorship, and his theories dealt in something modern-day positivists also ply, materialism. Still today the smart kid in the room may consider himself/herself a “communist.” Why should a doctor earn much more than a janitor, while enjoying more fulfilling work, too? It’s a very good question. So the young man dedicates himself to trying to better this situation without understanding what this project might entail. Hopefully he grows up before joining the guerilla and building his first pipe bomb–or worse–founding a political party–soon to flourish–which aims to enforce such a change by any means necessary.
Right-wing extremist movements these days arise from different milieus. Their heroes generally have names unadorned with honorifics; they don’t hold endowed chairs in the ivy league. We can understand the difference like this: populism always evokes an elite Other. In left-wing circles, these elites are the wealthy. In right-wing circles, the elites are intellectuals and members of the social professions, the doctors, lawyers and professors who hold immense power in the realm of ideas, though not necessarily in terms of money.
Thus, it seems natural that right-wing political aims are not as firmly founded in established intellectual traditions. Still, we recall the reference in the rise of fascism to a bad reading of Nietzsche; we recall, as well, its usage of science in the creation of the perfect soldier, and in eugenics; and in such inhumane acts as forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and genocide, doctors, lawyers, and even professors eventually take part. And this is when fascism becomes most horrifying: when torture is employed with rigor and exactitude, taking on the form of scientific experiments.
Here, fascism indeed has an overabundance of reason. The reason this aspect is more horrifying than the simple stupidity of it, is that it relies on our higher faculties, which are more powerful than our brute force, but mostly because we define the civilization by its foundation on reason. We may see something humorous in the rise of a regime of idiots, but there’s no laughter at all when we consider a Mengele, precisely because his crimes come gift-wrapped in the scientific method, our new, and much-loved techniques for acquiring knowledge, and for developing the technology which has lead to so much flourishing.
In general, when reason encroaches on the primacy of human subjectivity–in human flourishing and especially in suffering–then reason has gone too far. It’s not that it’s become unreasonable. It’s that it’s become unethical. Many of the brutalities committed under extremist regimes in the early and mid twentieth centuries can be understood as abuses of science, in which the objective is always good, no matter how much harm it does the subject. Mengele is not a doctor who has lost his wits, he’s one who has lost his ethics: the former is a comical figure–the quack selling snake-oil–the latter, one of recent history’s greatest monsters, the doctor who causes harm intentionally, and makes causing harm a science.
An Excursion into Ekphrasis
I will start with the picture above. It’s not clear where the dreams of the young writer start or end–the cat may very well be an empirical house cat. And then there are the winged creatures. As we look upward and away from the young man, we see a gradual transformation from owl to demon. The owls nearest the young man don’t seem particularly vicious. They may, indeed, be protecting him. Or they might be attacking him.
Each of the five owls in the foreground has a different personality. The central owl looks very much like he may be spreading his wings to protect the young man, and wears a caring and concerned facial expression. To the right of this central figure we see a kind of owl face exclaiming the facts without dismay. To the left is a dark figure–perhaps part feline, part owl–who looks to be hiding from what’s going on, only concerned with himself. Then, on the margins, are the old guys, quite concerned indeed.
The two unconcerned figures, directly to the left and right of the central owl, both seem to represent to me something like “pure reason”–that which is purblind to subjects, and engrossed in a world of “objective truth.”
The young writer falls asleep in exhaustion, his hair now disheveled in a way that shows his conversion to Romanticism; his entrapment in atomism, or whatever totalizing form of logic, has taken him away into the cold kingdom of objects. The nightmares are premonitions of what may become empirical if such abstract forms are used, with any intervention of the heart, in politics or any other form of power.
But he’s saved himself from becoming the supporter of such movements. The nightmare is a sign that the knowledge he seeks and shares in his writing must be flawed. He will awaken to less reductive forms of thought.
And here’s the one who isn’t saved from vice. The Marquis de Sade has traditionally been the figure which represents just the form of “overabundant reason.” His narratives are seen as prototypes for fascism in continental philosophy (of the Frankfurter school), but–more accessibly–in the brilliant and disgusting film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Sade’s anti-ethos entails praise for all forms of sexuality and violence in any combination whatsoever. This anti-ethos is a perverse form of Enlightenment thought. Its genesis goes something like this:
- Because I am a human being and human beings are perfect,
- whatever I will should be done,
- so if I like torture and rape,
- these things must be good.
- I will achieve self-actualization only through torture and rape,
- and enjoy it all the while.
Unlike Goya’s figure’s disheveled, Romantic hair, Sade’s coiffure achieves the perfect primness of Enlightenment positivism. It’s a kind of self-satisfied cuteness which makes you think he would be the optimal guest at the party…until you find out he rapes women and children, and tortures the guy who snubs him. He’s just the natural end of hedonism–the overseer of the ritual dismemberments which purportedly crown all Dionysian orgies.
Dreams of Reason Now
These two readings of history are still prevalent today. The idea I’m propounding here originates indirectly from the works of the Frankfurt School, especially from Adorno/Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Here we find the claim that Enlightenment, rather than having overcome the dark ages of myth, has become myth itself. Myth and reason are intimately entwined. This fact seems obvious to me–that a set of dogmatic views arise from an overabundance of faith in the scientific method and “objectivity,” that these have historically included eugenics, physiognomy, behaviorism, dialectical materialism, or the trend in analytic philosophy which would like to see the written word replaced with mathematical formalism.
It also seems obvious to me that these forms of “reason gone wild” have contributed to the most horrible events in recent history.
And yet, the more prevalent view in American intellectual culture today continues to ignore this connection, continues to rely on dogmatic “scientism,” and “positivism” in which objectifying thought is seen as the only sound truth.
We find in Steven Pinker a proponent of the idea that everything gets better all the time, as Reason spreads across the nations. This greater half-truth is accompanied by one of the symptomatic lies ubiquitous in our culture: that the human mind is computer software, the human brain computer hardware. Though eugenics and physiognomy have (thankfully) lost face in academe, “cognitive science,” a subject founded on the false claim of equivalence between mind and computer, now thrives. So the little symptomatic lie has now trickled down to become part of our collective dogma. We have forgotten what even Alan Turing must have already known: that when we say that a computer is thinking, we are using a metaphor, not making the claim of equivalence. To do so would lead us to determinism and materialism; in short, to forms of thought which rob the human of his soul and heart.
The common references to the computer as mind in our everyday speech are just one symptom of the positivist dogma which dominates our current culture, just as blind faith in Christianity dominated our previous ages. Another example is: use of the words “brain” and “mind” as absolute synonyms, as if some philosopher proved irrefutably and long ago that this must be the case.
But the usage I’d like to consider now is how common the term “objectivity” has now become. I think that this term is insidious because I don’t believe there is such a thing, at least for us mere mortals.
Using the term “intersubjective” may make us sound like egg-heads, but also underlines a very great truth: by “intersubjective” I just mean some shared experience. Discussions of the scientific method are where we most poignantly evoke it: one scientist observes that matter falls downward at about ten meters per second per second. This is definitely a form of intersubjectivity to which just about anyone could have access.
But to call it “objective” is to take a great leap into the realm of the unproven: for, beyond the possibility of a shared but fallacious observation lies the possibility that certain existent phenomena may be both true and unrepeatable. Or that certain phenomena may be shared experience, but only in a certain time and space.
This forgotten realm between the “objective” and the intersubjective may be vast beyond measure. It may be a place where “miracles” occur–these being unrepeatable as part of their nature. (What good would repeatable miracles be anyway? They’d just be nonsense.) In short, the realm between the objective and the intersubjective provides plenty of room for something beyond whatever knowledge the natural sciences may offer humankind.