Kenneth Smith: Cultural Critic of the Modern Era

Kenneth SmithIn 1988 artist and philosophy professor Kenneth Smith began writing a philosophy column called Dramas of the Mind in The Comics Journal. Smith’s column ran there intermittently for the next twenty years. Smith wrote about philosophical issues as they relate to modern civilization, covering ethics, violence, sex, education, science, art, etc. Smith wrote powerful analysis of contemporary manias and delusions in a blazing, take-no-prisoners style. His insights into the modern age are penetrating and worthy of the great cultural critics and essayists of the past, in the traditions of Chomsky, Mencken, Bloom, Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Edward Said, Vidal, Žižek, etc. Certainly his is a voice that deserves greater exposure.

This information page gives an overview of Kenneth Smith, links to many resources, and posts scans of his classic run of TCJ columns. The scans contain his most essential writing, but there is a Tumblr blog and a Gaim library that provide quotes from longer pieces. Here are some choice fragments.

via Gaiam:

Art or culture or philosophy must ply its genius today against this most prodigious opponent in all of history-human self-obliviousness, man’s deific powers of denial and delusion, the nescience buried in the heart of science. Art must keen its scalpel for one sure incision, it must razor the bladder of an inflationary corpus of hypertrophic beliefs so deftly that the violence is only felt after the fact. Delusion must be lanced like a boil bloated to purple distension: art is not the play of pretty illusions – entertainment is that whoring pastime – but rather righteous and wise disillusion, judicious severing of a malignancy. Art is far from amoral; it is in crusade against lying and trivializing conventional morality and must transcend that snake pit of corruption, certainly; but amoral it is not, in no way is it free to be neutral and objective. Art is either the lancet of a higher truth, a law superior to any of man’s pleasant and flattering rhetorical reasonings, or else it has no authority, no right to command anyone’s attention. Art traffics with the divine, that is, the hidden or occult, the mythic, which is after all of the very essence of man, the stuff his character and even his life are ultimately woven from. A wise society knows to have contempt for egomaniacal poseurs playing onanistically with art supplies, and a foolish society imagines that “art is whatever artists may do.”

Learning to free up or liberate one’s mind to capture precisely the most essential points in anything is an athletic exercise in which, for the first time, we discover just what the actual cash-value of our “culture” truly is: has our culture contributed to making our minds more acute, clearer, more nimble and elastic? Has it given us a richer vocabulary of essences or concepts to facilitate our rational and moral digestion of issues? Or is our “culture” really no enzymatic culture at all, but merely a scheme of encumbrances, of intellectual and rational impediments that have been compounded out of endless Pavlovian conditionings, by which we came to accept fallacies and equivocations and deceptive connotations and lying rhetoric etc. as if they were the gospel truth? The premier value of reading the ancient thinkers lies in their aristocratic culture’s determination to put an absolute premium on the development of acuity, directness, economy or essentiality of characterizations, etc. To be competent as an aristos (one committed absolutely to the cultivation of excellence or arete in its superlative degree), an individual was expected to keen his insights and judgment as much in the domain of intuition (being sensitive to the subtleties of the evidence, the realities) as in the domain of intellection (mustering the most apt tools of expression to characterize, conceptualize and evaluate these realities). Moderns have only the feeblest grasp of both of these processes.

How infinitely happier and more grateful is the whole personality or spirit when it finds something nourishing in art or writing or thinking, than the mere mind or intellect is: the kinship you celebrate in these personalities is your own dismembered Orpheus stumbling across another fine organ to rejoin to itself. I put it this way: aristic psyche loves itself enough to chasten itself, to put itself through boot camp for the sake of being competent for life, alive to life.

Nietzsche’s realization was astute that modernity had abolished the very prospect of humanity as ancient culture grasped it as aristeia or nobility, or even as medieval Christianity grasped it in the form of spirituality. Modernity has, from generation to generation and from century to century, an ever-lowering ceiling of minimalist “humanity,” an arrant folly of setting up the democratist “human, all too human” as if it could in any way serve as some sort of norm or standard. It is nothing but a quivering, quavering mass of pathos, a gross form of moral and spiritual and philosophical bankruptcy: it is one great complex of fault-lines across the superficial plaque of a veneer-culture, a mere mask of humanity over bestiality. That is what our programmatic war against aristeia ultimately means, the systematic abolition of “man” as well considered as an honorific or value-laden concept.

Nietzsche recognized the prodigious accomplishment of the Greeks in at least two seismic insights: (1) that man was somehow capable of being cultured to become more than just another heteronomous “phenomenon” within nature, society or history, i.e. he could in the most exemplary or extraordinary of cases stand in some sort of parity with the ultimate principles that shape and drive and organize existence (which is as much as to say: the gulf between aristoi and douloi is as abysmal as the chasm between cosmos and chaos, between arche and hyle or principle and matter); and (2) that in man nature—in actuality culture—had managed to produce a true prodigy of timebinding self-mastery, “an animal that dared to promise” and to make itself live up to its promised responsibility. Modern behaviorism and economism and scientism have undereaten the foundations of all these normative accomplishments. All the spiritual and rational and cultural and philosophical achievements of premodern civilization had long ago become nothing more than a treasury of rhetoric for moderns to pillage and deplete. Culturally considered, modern “culture” is de facto a form of entropy or self-parasitism, a thieving or vampiric world-order that accomplishes nothing whatsoever in the domain of norms; on the contrary it bleeds this domain down to nothing, to pathos.

Kenneth Smith information page.

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  • gustave courbet

    I recommend checking this fellow out on youtube. His writings are very good but also fairly abstruse, but his interviewing style is very approachable, and his ideas are worth listening to.