There are some very modern aestheticians who place the genesis of the aesthetic fact in the pleasure of conquering of triumphing or, as others add, in the desire of the male, who wishes to conquer the female. This theory is seasoned with much anecdotal erudition, Heaven knows of what degree of credibility! on the customs of savage peoples. But in very truth there was no necessity for such important aid, for one often meets in ordinary life poets who adorn themselves with their poetry, like cocks that raise their crests, or turkeys that spread their tails. But he who does such things, in so far as he does them, is not a poet, but a poor devil of a cock or turkey. The conquest of woman does not suffice to explain the art fact. It would be just as correct to term poetry economic because there have been aulic and stipendiary poets, and there are poets the sale of whose verses helps them to gain their livelihood, if it does not altogether provide it. However, this definition has not failed to win over some zealous neophytes of historical materialism. – Benedetto Croce, ~1907
I've been thinking a lot lately, especially lately, about the genealogical tradition of radical thinkers and their schools, especially as it pertains to notions of drift, punctuation, and the inevitable return to the status quo. Where are the missing links? We occasionally find something ancient and obscure and wonder why the totality of a person's works are not available, did not go on to form the basis of a "school", why they seem to be totally unknown to the thinkers of the present and particularly ourselves, isolated textual ditties, artifacts consisting of isolated quotes often attributed to "anonymous" or "unknown author"? We find them attractive largely because we feel some sort of kinship; perhaps we thought something they said was our own idea. The structuralist in us posits this co-incidence as some shared set of conditions, a common background generating similar results. They are not known because they did not speak loudly enough, they did not know the right people at the right time, or were silenced by the "powers that be".
How did we come to the idea we have which they shared without ever having read them? The mystic in us blames the external muse, the zeitgeist, kulturgeist, the poltergeist. Sometimes quite the reverse happens. A name is dropped and we spout off their "truisms" (eg, a Nietzscheism) without ever having read them. There is perhaps another explanation: word of mouth. They have somehow become a major influence behind our backs, beyond our ken. They have infected the age, were downloaded into the collective unconsciousness as a complete anonymite. This is the process of viral infection. In other words, in our literate world, oral tradition still explains the spirit of the age, the reproduction of wisdoms and unwisdoms, but not in any coherent and consistent fashion, like we see among the "uncivilized" with their seeming unchanging forms, the conservative traditions wherein the story is told in a ritualized fashion. It is told "the right way" or it is not told at all.
Being good literate members of the peak of cultural evolution, we must use our own tools to understand our heritage, to answer our question, "where did we come from" (which usually is only a euphemism for "How did I get to be such a smartypants?") The tool, of course, is the library (or its modern, networked data-base equivalent) and the experts who educate us in its use – we are handed approved reading lists by the gendarmes of civilization. We disregard any other possible source of our wisdom because it is simply inconceivable. We can't invoke a spirit of the ages else we are accused of being hegelian and "living in the past". (I've yet to get beyond the halfway mark to Hegel's Introduction to "Phenomenology" – maybe I'll think about that tomorrow). It's just not scientific! It is old intellectualism, a good thing but we have evolved since then. That is, unless that ism is incorporated into a named modern school such as the marxist tradition, pro-situ, psychoanalysis, chaos theory etc. We give schools and traditions an air of scientific authority when we call them theory (Decadence Theory). In fact this vantage point of the school is an excellent platform from which to criticize those mad folk (we must be politically correct here) and their anti-intellectualisms. The mad-men have formed their own school to counter the assault: post-modernism, the garbage bin of the present (and I say that with all kindness and appreciation), the category for the left-overs. There is still the problem we have to face up to: Vaneigem was not the first who noted that everything that is said has already been said. My nephew informs me that Franz Boas is no longer a quotable source in American academic anthropology as he is one of those old dead guys who have no relevance to today's modern world. Shit, without Boas and Einstein, post-modern thinking might not have appeared 'til the twenty second century! (Well, actually they came out of a tradition of german historicists and linguists going back to Humboldt's relativity and to the 17th century Italian, Vico. Wittgenstein and Heidegger were also involved in this tradition – it was never a "school". Maybe they are irrelevant to the path of history).
Schools illustrate a progressive traditional genealogy. Yet the new wave of exponents themselves remain infected by previous (known or unknown) thinker's viral infections. I'll try to illustrate by way of example how this non-literate infection takes place. The process is not progressive. Neither is it conservative. Because there is no ritual behind the telling of tales, our knowledge is a cornucopia tending toward chaotic confusion. We eventually must give up, sell out or go mad. The easiest solution is to attach our self to a school or try to found a new one. We want to be a guru. We claim exclusive ownership of our own ideas and forget all about name-dropping. Guru, cult hero, it is our only option if we don't want to fade into obscurity or conform to someone else's school. The perk is that once the cult forms around us, we can proceed to say or write anything without actually thinking about it. Coherence becomes the task of your interpretors. This is the common route of more schools (and their celebrities) than we care to admit. They flow into dogmatic absurdity or their interpretors disband the school in lieu of killing each other.
So on to my example of the mechanism of civilized oral tradition. I was an adolescent during the late 1960's and early 70's when it wasn't hip to be square. The particular circle of influence I found myself in were the uncouth intellectual wanna-bes who had read maybe three books and so had all the answers. Not just any three books, mind you. The available authors included Ray Bradbury, Kafka, Camus, Richard Brautigan, Vonnegut, Alan Watts, Mao's little red book, you get the picture. Entry into the club didn't actually require reading anything at all, although our most radical member had read the Communist Manifesto and everything he could muster by Trotsky. These were required reading for the enemies of the establishment (capitalism, madison avenue, the world of suits and other squares), so made highly influential credential for membership with the unread enlightened.
All we really knew of Leary was "turn on, tune in, drop out". The "turn on" part was especially appealing. We liked to party! "Drop out" meant we had ready-made strangers with whom to affiliate – the word "solidarity" was not yet in vogue, but we had "groove". "Free speech" from Berkley had progressed to "free love", so our main aspirations revolved around getting high and getting laid. How was one to get laid? By illustrating our depth. One way was to drop names (Nietzsche) or to keep quiet. Obviously, a quiet person was "laid back", too busy thinking to have time for speaking. That was me back then. I just really had nothing to say, and was usually too high to even be able to think. This is good too: you are perceived as one who "understands", just "takes it all in". Ignorance is so fucking easy to camouflage!
To make a long story short, Nietzsche and his crew of nameless authors had infected our minds with isolated quotes without ever having had read them. There was just so much wisdom passed around. Reading Nietzsche thirty years later brought back so many fond memories of conversations at "parties" consisting of creative ideas we thought we had invented, never knowing there was a collective source. We belonged to no school, but we were hip! Less hip, of course, than those more numerous learned and lettered cats & chicks who went on to become les en avant gardes de toutes rencontres concevables! We called them "hip intellectuals", or "know-it-alls" in our less erudite moments. Is it any wonder our nihilist revolution failed? We went mad, got religion, went back to school, sold out, got jobs and committed suicide. They, on the other hand, left no descendants outside of pedagogia. Each generation must start anew. But we still are somehow able to pass on, even unconsciously, some of those fragments of RNA (Radical Nameless Authors) to others who take those kernels and run with them so they can get laid too.
It seems to me this is all very reasonable, but might I not also acknowledge the more aesthetic interpretation that the viral infection metastasizing in my consciousness (in fact, my consciousness itself) is nothing other than the phantasmic presence of historical beings, freed from the context of space-time, standing upon my shoulder and whispering their secrets in my ear, their freedom, autonomy or independence seen only in the mathematical sense of a system of equations in which no single, precise equation is necessarily solved via solutions to any other, yet they themselves are encumbered by other phantoms upon their own shoulders because our problems are precisely not mathematical – that is to say, our hearing and comprehension are not equally all-embracing – and in turn making the elucidation of the reality (or fantasy) of these phantoms unnecessary?
It has been said of me "You don't know what the fuck you're talking about!" To this, is answered: "I completely agree. That, in fact, is precisely why I said it!" Whatever metaphor is taken – and what do we really have but our metaphors – the effect is the same, and if consciousness is not handed over to the mathematician as a problem to be solved, our simultaneous commonality and uniqueness does not present a contradiction, nor even paradox. When this strange effect is witnessed among our contemporaries, known or unknown, we cast out accusations of espionage, plagiarism, or proclamations of telepathy.
Or we call them "kindred spirit".