Two Helpers

We seem to be living in a world that is changing quickly. I remember reading once that there may be an error of vision that leads us to see things this way; in a row of telegraph poles, the distance between the two nearest us seems larger than the distances between all the other poles combined.  Nevertheless, it looks as though we live in the midst of rapid change, which we need help in understanding. While they are decades old, the insights of two thinkers have helped me make sense of it.

Susan Sontag, in her essay ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964), suggested that  ‘[c]amp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over”content”, “aesthetics” over “morality”, of irony over tragedy.’ Can anyone doubt that this crisp judgment has become even more true since she uttered it? So much creative and intellectual work seems preoccupied with cleverness of expression at the expense of having much to say, to have abdicated from making moral judgments, and to have been somehow anaesthetized against the possibility of entering into the suffering of others.  

In his book  The Post Modernist Condition (1979), John-Francois Lyotard proposes that we now live in a world that is characterized by ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’. Indeed, these have come to be seen as somehow totalitarian. He seems to have had in mind the privileging of the enlightenment, which people used to take more seriously than they do now, but the insight applies to such things as socialism; we now get by without recourse to big explanatory systems. And he writes of our coming to find ourselves in a world without centres. In some senses this is not true; London, New York and Paris remain central to the world in all kinds of ways. But his words seem prophetic of the Internet, in two ways: the Net lacks a centre and is made up of infinite lateral extensions, and its use is coming to free people from centres such as research libraries. Anyone with access to the Net has more information at their disposal than can be found in many large libraries. 

Sontag and Lyotard acutely describe the world we live in. Now, as someone else once said, the point is to change it.


  • Hans Sachs

    John. As a late-comer to the site I should like to link a comment on this entry to your July thoughts on the evident decline of the western novel. I should not be surprised if this decline is due in part to the preoccupation with cleverness, Susan Sontag identifies, in my view correctly. As someone once said, and I forget who, that if you can read and enjoy novelists such as Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Greene et. al., yet can’t take Patrick White, then the fault probably lies with Patrick. Today there seem to be many “literary” novelists, whose work attracts high praise, but to the ordinary educated reader holds no interest.

  • Thank you for your comment, Hans. I agree, and the decline in White’s reputation since he died, while that of the others you mention remains high, backs up your point.

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