Tuesday, August 16, 2011


In a late note to editors on the topic of the flaneur, Walter Benjamin discussed the customer's empathy for the commodity and the commodity's empathy for the customer. Instead of "work adorning the citizen" ("Arbeit ist des Bürgers Zierde"), in industrial society the city dweller begins to feel ashamed of work and takes pride instead in possessions.

As I understand this empathy with the commodity (characteristic of the flaneur, the sandwichman, the whore, the propagandist/agitator or "journalist-in-uniform"), it is somewhat akin to what we typically think of as a LACK of empathy, the extreme instance being the psychopath. Except Benjamin's Einfühlung is not a mere void, an absence, but the presence of a surrogate: empathy for the commodity. Instead of no empathy, we have ersatz empathy.

If that loose connection with the psychopath sounds plausible, it can be brought closer following Robert Lindner's 1944 description of the psychopath as a "Rebel Without A Cause" and consequently Norman Mailer's definition of the "hipster" in "The White Negro." (1957). Mailer's hipster, though, is a philosophical psychopath -- meaning he is simultaneously a psychopath (albeit a latent or passive one) and the negation of the psychopath. (See my previous post on the Economist as Hipster).

I want now to make a leap from the motif of the flaneur, the sandwichman, the whore and the agitator, the psychopath and the hipster, to the Oslo terrorist, Anders Breivik, and the London rioters and looters. Benjamin calls the world exhibitions of the 19th century the "school" where the masses learned empathy for the commodity. The rule was "look, but don't touch." Looting is, of course, the converse: "grab, almost without looking."

The reason I want to make this leap is not to label terrorists and looters as psychopaths or hipsters but to establish a frame within which the rhetorical reactions from right and left to the two sets of incidents can be observed. I was first struck by the certain hypocrisies in the "conservative" responses to Oslo and London but on closer examination it is clear that there is a distinct parallelism -- or mirror image -- between characteristic right-wing and left-wing or liberal responses to both events.

What is meant by "characteristic" takes on a bit of a circular selectivity here and I apologize for that. To some extent the characteristic responses across the spectrum may simply be those identified by antagonists as such. Thus the "liberal view" may not represent what most liberals think or say as much as a conservative stereotype of what liberals think -- and vice versa. What I am suggesting is only a rough analytical frame, not the conclusion of an exhaustive research project.

So within that crude framework, the conservative editorial will deplore Breivik's actions but strive to differentiate between those actions and the perceived problems of excessive immigration, multiculturalism, political correctness, etc. Similarly, the characteristic liberal rhetoric on the London riots would deplore the mindlessness of the looting but point to proximate causes in hopelessness, inequality and poverty, police brutality and government indifference and corruption. Meanwhile, the characteristic liberal or left-wing rhetoric about Oslo will explore ties between an endemic right-wing rhetoric of antagonism toward immigrants and Islam (see this blog, for example) and the characteristic right-wing response to London will indict liberal permissiveness and coddling of criminals.

See, when people motivated by grievances we acknowledge do bad things, it is important to distinguish between those legitimate grievances and the bad actions but when the other guys do it, it is equally important to emphasize the links between spurious motives and bad actions. Voila! Consensus between right and left! So, is there a way out of this house of mirrors? I think there is for the left.

That way out, in my view, involves a critical and objective attention to the problem of "character" and how that is affected by environment -- not on explaining or rationalizing anti-social behavior as caused by environment but articulating programs to counter the pathological character formation. Ironically, such a focus on character development as fundamental to policy could be seen as philosophically conservative, although I want to be quick to rule out moralistic exhortation as a viable program.

I'll leave it to good-faith conservatives to devise their own way out but it seems to me that they are today much the same position as non-Stalinist socialists were in the 1930s. The conservative "movement" is dominated by unscrupulous, totalitarian and deeply-entrenched operatives. As far as I'm aware there really is no "outside" dissenters can defect to.

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