The time has come the walrus said, or saith, to speak of Bishop Berkeley. Get your three legged stools folks.
Berkeley didn’t like Newton and didn’t trust materialism. But like the old joke, you can’t live with it and can’t live without it. In this way he invented proleptic phenomenology and thought the mind could influence dull matter. His two greatest descendants are Carl Jung (who arrived at this via a different tradition) and Walt Whitman (who as far as I know never read a line of Berkeley.)
Why on earth am I “on” about this? My nation state has lost its mind–the ye olde United States no longer believes in “can do” pragmatism nor does it believe in the future. All the writers listed above believed in the future.
Blame Donald Trump if you like. Blame the evangelicals. Blame the academy. Blame diminished resources. Blame those who do not resemble you. Blame the Koch brothers and everyone with money. Blame Herman Melville and Moms Mabele. Blame Yoko Ono.
But when people can no longer imagine a good future they generally have three deficiencies:
- Zero curiosity about human beings and the natural world.
- A cocksure belief they’ve figured out the secret of life.
- Number two is ideologically driven and has zero to do with life’s troubling complexities.
In 2013 while flying to Central Asia I read George Packer’s “Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” which attempts to diagnose how and why the US came to its already apparent collapse. I found the book unpersuasive, thin on nuance, not unscrupulous but “of or pertaining” to number two above. In other words I finished it and thought of how convinced Packer was that American liberalism had collapsed and America’s citizens were correspondingly and collectively helpless.
If you want to sell a book in the US that’s a winning formula. Early on Packer writes:
“If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”
I don’t know much about organized money but I’ve a winning record at the race track and I know how to read the betting sheets. Packer presumably means Wall Street and corporate America when he speaks of organization and while I don’t believe corporations are people in the Mitt Romney way I also don’t think they’re terribly well organized. Packer’s vision of unwinding is essentially modeled on a poorly articulated conspiracy theory. He’d be better off saying like old Berkeley he doesn’t believe in gravity. I’d like him better for it.
Anyway it’s a problem for Packer that nowhere in his book does he mention Batman. I mean it. I’m talking about early 1990’s Batman movies with their slicked up supersonic death spiral vision of America’s cities even as there’s plenty of money to go around.
Americans are being fed doomsday visions even as the streets are clean. Or they were before the pandemic.
This is a good moment to stop reading if you want to blame Yoko or Reagan.
As for me I think Americans are now so addled by conspiracy theories and fast food (Twinkie defense?) that they really don’t care Putin now runs the joint.
“The only things we perceive are our perceptions,” Berkeley said. That we cannot now interrogate them in America is the tragedy of our moment.
Berkeley again: “The same principles which at first view lead to skepticism, pursued to a certain point, bring men back to common sense.”