The Task of Thinking, or, Whither the Writer’s Responsibility?

Two questions are posed to the writer, and by writer I mean the generalist, the critic, the essayist. First: What task have you set yourself to complete? Second, and following on its heels: What is required of you? The first is posed by writers to themselves. The second is presented to the community of writers by society. On the one hand there is an inner command; as conscience, will, or desire, often animated by the drive for success. In its exaggerated moments this inner necessity can become a world-weary competitiveness demanding sacrifice. On the other hand the writer’s charge transcends the sense of individual duty. In this capacity the imperative to write is formed organically through concourse with society. The social demand is for writing that encapsulates human experience. These two aspects, the inner and the outer, the subjective and the objective, individual conscience and civic duty, lead to the central task of transforming human experience into words. The pen elicits the writer’s vital thoughts and carries them forward crafting a textual expression of human life.

To simplify further, writers share two broad aims: achieving the clear expression of thoughts and images; and being relevant to the times. The last entails keeping abreast of current social and political matters. Writers address concerns that affect most people. But this demand is made difficult by the general downward pull and leveling that contemporary culture promotes. Writers instinctively know what to write about and how to go about writing it. Therefore, they are chary of ceding power or agency concerning both their ideas and the rhetorical means they use to flesh them out.

When one comes to the reader what is of paramount significance is the way collective experience and life is translated into a shared vocabulary of ideas and feelings. Readers quickly register the general effects of new writing and often welcome the chance to broaden their understanding. Yet writers must also face the fact that what they present and the way they present it can remain unheeded and underappreciated for a very long time. There is therefore a give and take in substance and style between writers and readers, between what writers wish to convey and the capacity or willingness of audiences to openly receive and accommodate new ideas and ways of thinking. The gap, even incongruity, between a writer’s conception, and execution, and what the writer imagines the audience yearns to read, is compounded by the desideratum always to be “relevant.” When it comes to style and taste writers are therefore obliged to stoop to what is au courant.

A further issue for writers is the social responsibility to reflect back, or refract, troubling aspects of social and personal life. The writer is tasked with rendering, or “repackaging,” the immediate life-world as an aesthetic artifact. The writer of fiction resorts to magical realism or social realism. The essayist has no such recourse. In addition there is no imperative, at least in a free society, for writers to pose solutions to social contradiction and quotidian life. Nevertheless, writers are forced to confront their own reconstructions of reality. They must rationalize their novel imaginings and renderings of other possible forms of life. It is here the utopian impulse, what Walter Benjamin calls the “dialectical image,” enters as a way of “illuminating” phenomena. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed that art redeems appearances. The same might be said of the essay.

The responsibility of writers is to realize a world in their imagination by concentrating forms of life into easily assimilable mental images. This is coupled with the general responsibility, as pointed out by Edward Said, of speaking for those whose voice is drowned out by the din and monotony of current views and opinions. Walter Benjamin remarked at the end of one of his early essays that, “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.” It is a sobering thought, without the mawkish, duplicitous overtones found in the call to charity.

The writer or thinker as intellectual is forced to confront the violence in the world. In this capacity the writer’s task is not to provide answers, nor is it to point a disapproving finger at one or other culpable element, such as the “ruling classes.” Rather, the task is to meditate on the basic forms of violence that vitiate the “developed” world’s seemingly serene exterior. It is a confrontation of individual consciousness, and conscience, with the “political unconscious” of society.

It is its quarrel with the media and medium saturated surface—or what some theorists call the “spectacle”—that now renders print or digital writing distinctly “intellectual.” This does not require resurrecting the model of psychoanalysis, namely, the distinction between the “ego” and the “id.” Anyway, in order to achieve social understanding a Lacanian would claim the “superego” is more fundamental. Whatever the case may be, the vast quantities of desire, prejudice, bias—but also violence and the will to dominate—make finding some social “essence” a writerly imperative.

What of political commitment in writing? Letting my guard down, I would claim that the conservative almost always conforms to and approves of “what is,” the current regime, and the regimen of knowledge that underwrites its institutions. In addition conservatives remain mum (and dumb) about the etiology of the violence that continues to stain and mar the globe, notwithstanding their shrill call for greater and greater productivity by the global “south”—what is in effect “super-exploitation”—and spectacularly over-the-top consumption by the “north.”

Humans, it is claimed, are fallible, sinful creatures. That is the premise that allows conservatives of all stripes to “justify” the continuing barbarity in their midst, letting themselves (and other bastions of privilege) off the hook. The recourse is always to moral reasoning and ethical norms. It is a simple step to seeing decline everywhere, the abandonment of basic moral principles, and the general inability to contemplate the meaning of virtue. The reason competitive (and aggressive) individualism is the regnant ideology of the age has something to do with this recalcitrant moralism. Irrationalism might play a role in reactionary ideologies but it does not come close to explaining the smug middle keeping the war machine oiled and warm, and “erasing” lives all the while believing it is “liberally” meting out God’s grace.

The strains of puritanism in progressive writing on the other hand are also ethical, but in a different sense. The progressive or liberal is a puritan confronting the phony moralism of the individualist with the categorical imperatives of enlightened reason. Radical democrats highlight the principles of autonomy and rationality established during the Age of the Enlightenment. Some elements of this reason arguably partake of the mythical in a new sense as detailed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, and taking such caveats on board, universal aspirations underwrite the gains of the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By dint of historical circumstances the essayist is constrained to tackle the antinomy between moralism and puritanism, so different yet so indissolubly bound up together. In a similar vein Anglophone philosophers discriminate between “virtue ethics” and “deontological ethics,” the former capturing the standpoint of the individual, the latter that of society.

The most effective writing sits somewhere in the middle of this sociopolitical antinomy. It uncovers the limitations of both individual and collective human willing, proving how difficult it is to elucidate, let alone provide solutions to the deepest human problems. In addition, effective writing is opposed to both scientism and speculative metaphysics. Its natural element is a life-affirming skepticism.

The levity and dalliance of the essay is provided by the parity of universality and particularity. Such equivalence expresses the insoluble conflict and dialectic between the individual and the collective, between what Hegelian philosophy calls “subjective consciousness” on the one hand and “objective consciousness” on the other. It is not through solving but rather confronting the fundamental contradiction at back of existence—which is neither ontological, epistemological, nor purely sociopolitical—that intellectuals can discover their vocation and satisfy their social responsibility. In holding up a mirror to society the intellectual is a silver light illuminating all phenomena, every shade and shadow of life. Using words, intellectuals provide pictures of the circumstances made and remade by anthropos, that being standing on solid ground with two feet, but with its head in a quagmire.

In reflecting on the “ambivalent reason of modernity” writers must confront responsibility in another sense. Here one can turn to theology, albeit secularized theology. Recall Kant’s famous moral dictum (which arguably has its roots in Semitic religion): we should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself. This well-known formula stands at the foundation of modern politics and citizenship and is one of the greatest fruits of modern ethics. Here is one “universal” unassailable by any mere opinion (doxa), at least since the advent of what the French and Germans call “bourgeois society.” Remembering this categorical imperative even the political conservative and progressive meet in the center. Postmodernism might have a different approach; nevertheless it too is dependent on such a sliver of “rational society.” The particular and the universal coalesce in the Kingdom of Ends. Such an ethical aporia pushes the intellectual to confront what is most sacrosanct in human life—the human imago. Through the critical eye of the writer the inverted image of humanity is turned right side up. Here artistic redemption becomes the promesse de bonheur.

In order to make sense of the monstrous spectacle of post-industrial society intellectuals often respond to change with naiveté and well-intentioned guile. They also reject Archimedean omniscience regarding the past and present. Who in fact can ever claim authority on matters of right human conduct? At most, the writer wishes to articulate what it means to feel concern for one’s neighbors: in a word, what it means to love. Writers clarify the circumstances that produce or reproduce indigence, social isolation, domination, and violence. The eye for discerning the political everywhere rejects the fawning and pandering flourish and ornament of the commentator’s pen. Rhetoricians of all kinds—laboring sophists—uphold entrenched institutions and powers, yielding to their “terms and conditions.” Intellectual autonomy and independence is the most basic attribute of writers. It defines, or should define, their vocation.

All this is to say that writers, ideally, avoid anything that distracts from their ability to think deeply and independently. At times, of course, they become spokespeople for partisan views. But even then they do this without relinquishing their intellectual independence. It is by taking the contradictions of modern life prima facie, neither collapsing them into one-dimensional viewpoints nor being lax and accepting come what may, that the writer’s greatest merit and responsibility lay. This is not to say that intellectuals should not hold fast to their own principles; only that in reflecting back those aspects of society they find most problematic—because essential to a well-rounded life—writers bracket out their own opinions and presuppositions, letting things reveal themselves in a timely fashion. This “letting be,” allowing phenomena to emerge after making a “clearing” for them, is not only a philosophical stance, as found, for example, in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Rather, it is also a way of communicating the totality of human experience, and comes naturally to thoughtful beings wishing to add in whatever small way to the global “republic of letters.”

Writers do not aim for a position on truth. That separates their vocation from the exactitude and pedantry of academic disciplines, including much philosophy. Nevertheless, the imperative to hold to an ethic that dignifies the “human”—even as attachment to humanism wanes—predisposes the interpreter of “social facts” (in all their ambiguity and complexity) to err on the side of “care.” The ethic of care rejects social hierarchy and the aristocratic spirit. A word about conservatives would be helpful here. Since their arguments always evoke the succor of bromides such as the “responsibility of the individual,” or repetitively deplore and bemoan the scourge of “secularisation,” conservatives have difficulty writing with sincerity about social transformation. To borrow Samuel Johnson’s adage about patriotism, moralistic individualism—at least in political matters—“is the last resort of scoundrels.”

The bias stemming from individualism is that it rejects most attempts at rectifying social ills. What of changing or transforming the “social imaginary”? Unfortunately the “free-market” has become second nature. The present is conceived as “the best of all possible worlds,” and representative democracy “the least worst of all possible governments.” Such beliefs—and they are superstitions at base—ineluctably lead to writers writing without scruples, allowing them to leech off the institutions they intellectually (sometimes only cynically or reluctantly) support. There is a fine line between writing to please and taking pleasure in the freedom to write.

The fundamental fallacy of the argument that writers must refuse the critique of society, economy and politics is its inability to identify the contradiction between the atomised labour of the citizen—still sold on the market as a commodity—and the hoopla about the dignity of the person. The person is of course still “officially” bestowed with the full panoply of bourgeois rights and liberties. How the leap is made, acquiescing in the doctrine of “the end of history” governed by the invisible (and sadomasochistic) hand, is never registered; all debates devolve on philosophical principles sufficiently abstract to sideline basic material, let alone economic, factors. The political is indeed “autonomous” for one writing without a social conscience; to concede its entanglement with other aspects of life would be to sully the artificial logic of its grounds for certainty.

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