Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More on Baroque Sensibility from Thomas Harrington: Learned Helplessness and In-Built Obsolescence

Thomas Harrington has another posting up at Common Dreams on the baroque sensibility.  As with his previous posting about this topic, which I discussed here, he sees strong parallels between how the Spanish empire behaved in its decline during the Baroque period, and the American empire at present.  He notes, in particular, that the baroque behavior of the Spanish empire set the conditions for the empire's demise.  As it ruthlessly suppressed alternative social imaginations and imposed a monolithic way of doing things from a supercharged, all-powerful center, it introduced the conditions that led to its fragmentation.

Today's posting focuses on the "learned helplessness" that imperial minds always seek to inculcate in their subjects.  Harrington argues that, by embracing the Counterreformation with a vengeance as part of its strategy of imperial self-maintenance, the Spanish empire was acting according to a game plan that Noam Chomsky describes as making "thinkable thoughts" unthinkable among a populace, and, especially, among its intellectual class and arbiters of social meaning: 

In every counterinsurgency the chief aim of the propaganda part of the operation is to remove certain notions from the realm of what Chomsky has called, "thinkable thought". The leadership class seeks, in effect, to make the social cost of uttering and/or acting upon certain ideas so high that people will learn to self-censor and bury within themselves the impulse to think in ways that openly challenge social orthodoxy.

The baroque sensibility flows from this need of the rigidly controlling and all-powerful center to control what is thinkable: this sensibility invites us to focus on "complexity" and "shades of meaning," on form, style, nuance--on what some Catholic centrist intellectuals like to call the "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach to issues--while ignoring and refusing to discuss the moral center of problems.  The moral center that calls on our engagement, decision, and action, and forces us to forgo the endless back and forth of one-hand, other-hand abstraction:

Like the Spaniards before us, we instruct the young to lose themselves in questions of nuance and style, pursuits that will allow them to appear "thoughtful" and intelligent" while simultaneously delivering to the powerful classes what they most want in an intellectual and a citizen: someone who will lose themselves in talk about "form" and "shades of meaning" while never fully engaging the core moral issues of a given problem.   

As Harrington notes, the pseudo-complexification of issues, the endless abstraction that hovers above the real world in which non-intellectuals live, and, above all, the refusal to grant or even talk about the moral center of issues: all reflect the penchant of centrist intellectuals of  a baroque mindset to serve the powers that be--to end up always and predictably on the side of power, as they throw up their hands in despair at the tortuous ambiguity of it all: 

This is, in my view, one of the hallmarks of the baroque mind: trying to appear wide ranging and thoughtful while meekly accepting the many a priori restrictions on thought imposed by the powers that be. 

And the predictable result of this inculcation of learned helplessness among those who are arbiters of taste and opinion--in the intellectual center--of a social group is the eventual obsolescence of that group and its way of doing things.  Because social organizations desperately need the infusion of new ideas in order to remain viable.  

And they also need at their center those who are committed to moving the group forward towards some sustainable moral consensus regarding the primary ethical challenges the group faces--if the group wishes to have a sustainable future, that is.  And all this a fortiori when a social group is something like a church, which makes high moral claims . . . .

I highly recommend Harrington's essay, though, like many of my own postings, it needs some proof-reading.  And I want to issue a note of thanks to the good reader of Bilgrimage who brought Common Dreams to my attention some time in the past.  It has now become part of my daily spiritual bread.

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