Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Breakfast of Champions" (1)

"I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can't live without a culture anymore."

"Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness."

As I mentioned in my 2007 review Revisiting Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, I devoured Vonnegut as a teenager, but I ceased reading his novels after Breakfast of Champions (1973). I wasn't even aware of any subsequent novels for a couple decades afterwards. I am not certain why this is, but I think by the mid-'70s I absorbed everything I thought I had to learn from Vonnegut and moved on to other priorities.

But sometime in the '90s I began to rediscover music and literature of my youth I had assumed to have outgrown, and gained a new appreciation. I don't know when Vonnegut re-entered my consciousness, possibly with my renewed interest in the atheist/humanist movement, but I re-read Cat's Cradle in the month following Vonnegut's death. Then in June 2007 I read his novel Timequake (1997) and the 1999 nonfiction work Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing with Lee Stringer. I'm pretty sure I since read A Man Without a Country (2005), and I may have even given a brief scrute to Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace (2008).  Vonnegut continues to pop up in unexpected places: Vonnegut in Hungary: postmodernism, hi-low genre hopping, & self-parody.

I decided some time ago that I wanted to re-read Breakfast of Champions. I remembered little of it: the childlike illustrations, recapitulating one's past, unvarnished bitterness, and something about the biochemistry of emotion, . . . and a piece of narrative on solipsism of vital interest to me today.

Because my local branch library rid itself of books upon installing more computers than books, I could not find Vonnegut on the shelves but had to download this novel as an e-book so I could re-read it after 39 years.

Re-reading the novel now, I am amazed to find that I had forgotten its most conspicuous themes. Does it say something about me that I remember only something about solipsism? (I'm still waiting to find what I think I'm looking for.) There is sharp criticism of the emptiness of American life, of ecological problems, of consumerism, of war. But the most persistent indictment of American society is of its racism and class inequality! I am struck by how heavy is the emphasis on race.

I note also the outrageousness of Vonnegut's science-fictional imagination. His anti-hero Kilgore Trout's garish si fi scenarios are all contained within the covers of pornographic books, per the publisher to which he sent his manuscripts. I love the combination of outlandish pulp sci fi ideas and philosophical-social content.  Vonnegut didn't need to write out Trout's novels, he had only to describe the scenarios and ideas within them. I wish I could learn to use this technique.

Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology (3)

Those who follow the atheist / humanist / skeptics blogosphere are probably aware of controversies that have erupted over the past few years, mostly in connection with accusations of sexism and the role of women within the movement, but also to some extent the priorities of black atheists in relation to established national organizations. I have no intention of questioning the validity of such concerns, but I do question the ideological basis from which many of the dissidents operate.

In my podcast Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology I vaguely alluded to the mechanical combination of ideological labels coming from progressive movements and the atheist/etc. movement. Atheism Plus is a particularly noxious ahistorical, intellectually dishonest, demagogic, and ultimately vacuous attempt to brand a new division of the movement, or a new movement altogether. The insipidity of such gestures mirrors the insipidity of the mainstream from which the dissidents purport to distance themselves.

Such liberal or left-liberal developments are symptoms of the lack of a vigorous mass movement in the USA, more centrally, the lack of class politics. The sins of the hard left stem from the same condition. When you have a subculture of professional middle class people who are essentially spectator-tourists in the world of human suffering, bad politics and superficial accusations of self and others become the political watchwords.  Thirdworldism is one such manifestation of bad politics, which, however bankrupt, would have at least made sense in the context of the global anti-colonial anti-imperialist thrust of the '60s & '70s, but is worse than worthless now.  But just as disgusting is the politics of "privilege", perpetrated of course by the privileged, with no constituency or substantive program, against whomever is deemed more privileged, the white male being at the top of the heap, of course. But 'white male' (or female) is not a class category.  This is what left bourgeois politics gets you, and in the smattering of cases in which one finds alleged radicals participating in the organized atheist/etc. movement, this is what you get.

Naturally, given the historical and structural conditions of American society (and several others), white males are going to be at the top of the heap, and prevailing perspectives and priorities at that class level are likely to prevail, accompanied by dollops of tokenism as a gesture of balancing things out. But focusing on the obvious obscures the essentially bourgeois nature of the movement, and thus the slim chances of any anti-bourgeois perspective--wherever it might come from--of gaining the prominence, leadership role, or influence that it might merit.

While the next logical step would be to name names, I'll let you use your imagination. Instead, I want to probe the blogosphere of the hard left and see what they have to say. Left--and specifically Marxist--takes on atheism and religion vary tremendously, and thus cannot be summed up as one generality. What is wrong with various Marxist takes on religion needs to be covered in separate posts. But now I'm searching the blogs for "bourgeois atheism", and here are a few finds.

Boobquake Revisited by EDB, The Fivefold Path, 24 August 2012

While the blogger is certainly justified in adverse reactions to the atheist movement, though feeling at least in part a part of it, he is too uncritical of the demagogic propaganda stemming from certain dissidents.

Much worse is a Maoist blog. I met my first Maoist in high school at the end of the '60s. My first impulse was to punch him in the mouth--I didn't, but he would have deserved it--and my regard for Maoists has not altered since.

"Atheism and Theism" is not a Class Contradiction, M-L-M Mayhem!, 30 August 2012

Aside from the sectarian bankruptcy of the entire politics of this group, and of its take on religion, there are unqualified and unrestricted generalizations such as this:

" . . . it is a club primarily for privileged pro-imperialist petty bourgeois males who imagine that they're subversive for rejecting God while, at the same time, accepting everything capitalist-imperialist society has socialized them into believing is holy."

This characterization certainly fits a number of petty-bourgeois white men . . . also white women, black people, South Asians, and others in the movement, but as a blanket characterization, and by implication a blanket exoneration of others, it is dishonest and demagogic.  But of course such voices exist within the atheist/etc. movement as well.

Various debates are no better. Here are a couple of examples:

Bourgeois Atheism, Revleft, 8 June 2010

A Proletarian critique of 'New' Atheists,, 2 July 2012

We have here utter incoherence. The leftists are as confused as the "mainstream" atheists.

I'm not saying no insightful perspective can be found, but those who rise above the prevailing superficiality are going to find that whatever they choose to call themselves, they won't have as many people on their wavelength as labels might suggest.

Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology (2)

I received a handful of scattered responses via Facebook to my podcast of last Saturday, 11/17/12 Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology.

There is one fellow who has spread the news of my podcast far and wide among atheist/humanist and leftist circles. What he expects to come of this I do not know, or whether he is more optimistic than I about a perceptive reception. I expect nothing from either the atheist/etc. milieu or the left or both in combination.

So far I see a discussion thread on lbo-talk, the listserv of Left Business Observer:

Was something about Atheism & Humanism

So far the greatest appreciation was expressed for the opening quote from C.L.R. James & co., Facing Reality (1958):

C.L.R. James on Descartes & the Division of Labor

We shall see what else comes of this.

Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology

For the past couple of years I have planned to do this podcast. I didn't think I could squeeze all this into an hour, but I got it all in in 3/4 of an hour. Recorded Saturday night, 17 November 2012, here is my latest podcast, installment 7 of my Internet radio show "Studies in a Dying Culture" under the auspices of Think Twice Radio:
11/17/12 Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology 

I propose a framework in which the intellectual basis of the atheist - humanist - skeptical movement, particularly in the USA, can be seen as a progressive bourgeois ideology that, while marking an historical advance beyond pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-technological, pre-capitalist, supernaturally based forms of unreason, addresses only one half of the cognitive sources of irrationality of the modern world, and is ill-equipped to grapple with the secular forms of unreason, which can be denoted by the term "ideology". I argue that the Anglo-American intellectual heritage of atheism has never absorbed the indispensable heritage of German philosophy and social theory from Hegel to Marx to 20th century critical theory and thus remains philosophically underdeveloped and ensconced in a naive scientism. I furthermore argue that American atheism / humanism lacks adequate historical perspective due to the historical amnesia induced by the two historical breaks of McCarthyism and Reaganism. To combat historical amnesia I highlight not only relevant intellectual history but the buried history of working class atheism. I also sketch out some relevant philosophical aspects of the history of the American humanist movement beginning with the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933. I then discuss the intellectual consequences of the political repression of the McCarthy era. From there I discuss two prominent influences of the 1960s and 1970s, atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and humanist Paul Kurtz. I highlight Kurtz's dialogue with the Yugoslav Marxist-Humanist philosophers and his failure to learn from the encounter. Finally, I discuss the intellectual shortcomings of the so-called "new atheism" and today's celebrity atheists in the context of the depressing political perspective of our reactionary neoliberal era. I also don't spare the dissidents within the movement from my accusations of intellectual superficiality. I end on a note of bleak pessimism.

46:09 minutes 
This podcast provides a framework for thinking about the atheist/humanist/skeptics subculture in the Anglo-American sphere (and possibly beyond) which is different from anything else you are going to find on the subject.

There are some people who are going to appreciate this podcast. There are also some people who think they appreciate this podcast. There is something essential that experience has taught me about commonality: it is elusive, often illusory.

I do not expect the bulk of my readers, even those among the "progressive" liberal-left segment of the atheist/humanist/etc. community, or the hard left, to share my perspective, whether they react sympathetically or not. Note also that while I say little about the "intellectual superficiality" of the "dissidents within the movement" (i.e. the atheist/etc. movement), those familiar with the current political controversies within that milieu may have an idea of what I'm talking about, whether or not they understand where I'm coming from.  I am not optimistic.

Still, this podcast is badly needed and perhaps it will have a modest impact.