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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Our Panoptean Times?


I am not by any means a philosopher, let alone an expert on Nietzsche. Be that as it may, I believe I have read enough about the Saxonian master to appreciate his disdain for the stultifying influence of dichotomous thinking. As the work of a true visionary, Nietzsche’s tearing-down of essentialized binaries prefigures recent critiques of structuralism: internal life is not made up of unequivocal categories, like fixed stars; it comprises shifting constellations of meaning, shaped by human struggles.

It was recently suggested to me that myth might be a Dionysian cure to present-day Apollonian excesses.

While not without merit, this claim presents a certain number of problems. It suggests myth is primarily Dionysian, and assumes that Western societies are predominantly Apollonian. I wish to suggest an alternate narrative, and perhaps recommend another god to represent our era.

Given the Nietzschean rejection of many conventional dichotomies, it is telling that he should conjure the brothers Dionysus and Apollo to explain art and the world. It is probable Nietzsche believed eternal myth would carry more weight and authority than most conventional concepts of criticism.
The suggestion that myth is Dionysian -- spontaneous, intuitive -- is somewhat undermined by Nietzsche’s invocation of the divine pair for the purposes of criticism. Nietzsche instrumentalizes myth in order to draw fine distinctions, to engage in analytical discourse. Mythic concepts lend themselves to this exercise and so they are intuitively grasped, but very little about this intertextual approach is spontaneous. As Nietzsche is not the first to resort to myth in this manner, one might suspect he is taking a stance against Plato's -- his nemesis -- or else contradicting religionists who offer up less sophisticated readings of myth as the basis of their morals.

If myth or mythopoeia can be used to clarify language and experience, it is possibly because it precedes both epistemologically. It seems we are heuristically better suited to extrapolate lexica from narratives than from other lexica. It is something of an aporia that symbols are intuitions at the basis of our systems of meaning which nevertheless require methodical discourse in order to be made intelligible. Myth is both Dionysian and Apollonian, or possibly neither.

Everyday experience provides ample evidence giving the lie to the assumption that our Western societies are governed by the Apollonian principle (i.e.: rationality, analysis). To be sure, we tend to value methodical thinking over spontaneity under most circumstances, but we are not always aware of our own motivations, nor even particularly consistent at applying the strictest standards of rationality. Advertisers know very well that we do not often consume rationally: their art is to create situations in which we might relax our standards, shrug off the rational pressure to examine our options critically, and direct our aspirations according to non-utilitarian principles. Advertising may not dictate all of economic behaviour -- consumerism may not define us entirely -- but it seems unlikely that the omnipresence of marketing messages does not condition us very significantly.

I surmise the greater part of our decisions concern our consumption in one way or another; at least some of these decisions are swayed by advertising narratives which flout Apollonian ideas. To the extent that we are consumers, we are not, therefore, Apollonian. But consumerism is merely one indication to the effect that Western societies are only superficially rational; there are other signs, like our reluctance to investigate information which contradicts our self-serving narratives of citizenship, race, and gender.

But if we are not Apollonian, what are we? I do not purport to have Nietzsche’s talent for mythological metaphor, but I do have a suggestion. If I am to draw any conclusion from my study of McLuhan’s observations, it is that we have become Panoptean (after Aργος Πανόπτης, the thousand-eyed shepherd) insofar as we are over-informed. The contemporary human is awash in an ocean of competing signals, her senses hyper-extended to the point of taking her own omnividence in stride. The consequence of this condition on the individual and collective psyche is panic; this is evidenced not only in the tone of round-the-clock newscasts but also in the overwhelmingly contrarian attitude of popular online discourse. Intellectually, the tendency of the contemporary media environment is to keep us always in the frantic state of fight-or-flight, or else charging us to proclaim grievous loss, like the voice out of Palodes.

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