March 15, 2004

Disengagement and Judge Posner

This essay is a hopeless mess, but since it brought to mind Judge Richard Posner, I thought I'd say a few things about it.

A fan of sci-fi and fantasy, this author nevertheless claims (mistakenly in my opinion) that fans of sci-fi and fantasy are somehow disengaged:

But the criticism of science fiction and fantasy fans - that we are infantile and escapist people, and socially inept to boot - sadly has a little more truth to it. Of course, there are many pastimes that people pursue obsessively, and it may seem a little unfair to stick the boot into sci-fi geeks rather than car fanatics, opera buffs or stamp collectors. But of all the hobbies and interests out there, being preoccupied with the details of otherworldly settings and characters, at the expense of being engaged with the world you actually inhabit, does bespeak a certain retreat from society into the safety of one's imagination.

Why must an enthusiasm for fantasy and sci-fi be 'at the expense of' an engagement with the actual world? Answer: they're not mutually exclusive, and the author is mistaken. But Starr isn't primarily interested in a criticism of imaginative stories or of their fans; he wants to use this common misunderstanding as a springboard to a discussion of his main concern--a general waning of concern for this world:

No, the broader reason why mainstream society has become more disposed to immerse itself in fantasy is because of a general cultural stagnation that exists today. At a time when we feel less certain of our ability to impact on the world around us, we tend to retreat into fantasy worlds instead. One consequence of this is that we are increasingly more comfortable contemplating the ins and outs of life in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, than we are confronting the ins and outs of life on Earth proper. As Hollywood serves up ever more lavish fantasy spectacles for us to marvel at, the society that lies outside of the cinema and the comic shop stagnates.

I won't attempt to rescue this essay. But I do think the author's observations are fairly accurate. More and more, people are feeling impotent, and believe that they cannot have any meaningful impact on the world around them. Since I don't believe that this is due in any way to fantasy novels or to the internet, I'm left wondering what it is due to.

Which brings me to Richard Posner. The first thing I did today was settle in to my usual spot in the coffee shop and read more of Posner's Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy (see link at right). Posner believes that the great mass of the people don't give a rat's whisker about politics. Instead, he claims, they care passionately about what he calls "private interests," by which he means interests that are the subject of markets. According to Posner, most people would be happiest if the whole of their public lives were spent in the market, and if the realm of politics disappeared entirely, good riddance! (Assuming of course that this disappearance wouldn't have bad consequences for the market itself.)

This is exactly the opposite of what Hannah Arendt believed. She thought that people were most fully actuated and fulfilled when they left the marketplace and moved into the agora, where buying and selling were left behind to make room for politics. The lot of a Greek slave was miserable in part because the slave, although occasionally allowed to buy and sell, could never be a political actor.

It seems to me that some judicious mix of the two activities will actually prove to be the elixir of happiness for most people. But although I will readily admit that Posner's position is probably at least as (partially) correct as Arendt's, I've always been much more attracted to Arendt's position than to Posner's. The market has never seemed to me like the nirvana that Posner describes. If it was, for the majority of people, I would not expect to see an increasing disengagement from the world in an age where the values and practices of the market are swallowing every bit of public life, including the realm of government and politics. People should be happier than ever, and yet many seem plagued with feelings of impotence and irrelevance.

Perhaps my observations are simply wrong. Perhaps people today are so happy and wealthy that the only chance they have to indulge in the pleasure of whining is to complain that they feel irrelevant and impotent. Perhaps. Unlike the author of the article I've quoted, I won't use the box-office receipts for The Return of the King to try to make my point.

I may be wrong, but I don't think so. I think Posner is wrong. He's mostly right, but he's wrong in just the right places.

Posted by Carey at March 15, 2004 08:58 PM

Holy balls, Carey! That is a long post.

Posted by: Jkrasch at March 15, 2004 09:03 PM

My two cents: Happiness cannot be found in either place. But if I told you where I think it is, then I would be laughed off your blog, and my IP address banned forever.

Posner and Arendt are two scholars who are hopelessly lost in their own "brilliance".

Posted by: Jordan at March 15, 2004 09:41 PM

I agree mostly with your post, but I think our opinions diverge when you say that the market is swallowing every bit of public life. It isn't - private interests are swallowing public life. Individuals are no longer empowered to participate in the market in a meaningful way, on equal terms with other market participants. This is just another thing that alienates us from "real life."

Posted by: Mark Ashton at March 16, 2004 10:11 AM

It's funny how everyone assumes that private life consumes public life, when the governement and bureaucracies are bigger than ever. People feel disengaged not from the private markets, but from public life. To have any political voice nowadays, you have to have your own lobby. To have a voice in he private markets, all you have to do is supply someones demand or demand someones supply. Very easy.

Posted by: TM at March 16, 2004 12:57 PM

What's even more amazing than the length of this post? That anyone takes the time to read it!!

Hee, hee... ;)

As for Fingolfin's livery; I wouldn't sweat it. His estate has leased it to me for use on this blog. Elves, you see, are tight like that.

As for markets, I agree that everything depends on what kind of market you're talking about. A classical market, where buyers and sellers meet to actually haggle and barter, is vastly different from a "market" where every transaction is impersonal, few of the agreements are actually discussed (let alone haggled over), and the bargaining power of the buyer and the seller is not effectively comparable.

There are probably two separate problems out there: one, that people have no influence in their commercial life under current "market" conditions, and two, that people have no influence in political life given huge bureaucracies that respond only to well-heeled lobbyists.

Posner provokes me into strong disagreement because he ignores the first problem, and dismisses the second as not a real problem.

Posted by: Carey at March 16, 2004 05:44 PM

"Posner and Arendt are two scholars who are hopelessly lost in their own "brilliance".

As is Carey.

Your lack of life experience shines through in this post. You've been successful in your self-created, book-fueled microcosm, and this seems to have led to an arrogance beyond what I can safely stomach.

Posted by: Brian at March 16, 2004 09:23 PM

Have fun praying to the porcelain god. ;)

Posted by: Carey at March 16, 2004 09:50 PM

Ah, a real life experience. I'll do my best.

Posted by: Brian at March 16, 2004 09:58 PM

This is totally off-topic, but your mention of Hannah Arendt brings to mind one of the few things that I remember from undergrad intro to political philosophy class. Apparently, Arendt had a love affair with Martin Heidegger. Not strange until you realize that Arendt was a Jew who later fled Germany during the Holocaust and Heidegger was basically a Nazi. Lust conquers all, I guess. (It's amazing the things you remember from certain classes)

Posted by: Larry at March 16, 2004 11:52 PM