Learned Helplessness and the Imperial Mind

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Learned Helplessness and the Imperial Mind

As some of you have perhaps noticed, I am fascinated by the Baroque, and, more specifically, with how so much of the cultural production in today's America resembles the fruits of that movement which dominated the Spanish empire in the period after the Council of Trent (1543 to 1563), which is to say, the series of strategic conclaves that gave birth to the Counterreformation.

The Counterreformation was an attempt to shore up the Catholic Church--and from there, the Spanish Empire (and vice versa)--in the face of the Protestant Reformation that was then spreading like wildfire across northern and central Europe, territories where the now Spanish-controlled Hapsburg Empire had long been dominant.

Looking back from today, you wonder. Did the Spaniards and their collaborators really believe overwhelming military power and the re-packaging of old and widely discredited thoughts and practices would to bring the Dutch and the rebel German principalities back to the Church and the Empire?    

Apparently they did. And they thus spent the next several decades trying to make it happen. And this, while they were also carrying out wars with the Ottoman Turks further to the east and all means of conflict with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.   

The result was the bankrupting of the country, and not long thereafter, its definitive disappearance from the league of the world’s most powerful and prosperous nations.   

While the outlines of the country’s geopolitical decline are more or less well-known, the history the Counterreformation's effect on the internal functioning of Spain’s culture and society generally is not.  

The Counterreformation was basically a giant campaign of counterinsurgency. And like all great campaigns of counterinsurgency, it had both a military and a propagandistic thrust.  

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.

Though such an efforts often begin in the military theater, their modus operandi usually migrates back to the Homeland (as we now call it) with alacrity, thus quickly turning the citizenry into subjects of their own government’s efforts at mind control.   

Some examples: 

16th Century

Precocious Spanish Child Juan: "Papá, I really don't see how free inquiry can work in the framework of a Roman Catholic Church wherein the priests and the hierarchy are deemed to have the last word on questions of meaning".   

Juan's Dad: "Juan, don't talk like that. You know the Jesuits are Catholic and just as intrepid intellectually as any of those Protestants who say they believe in a freer dialogue with God. Direct your thoughts to Ignatius Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits, a group some have called the “shock troops” of the Counterreformation) and his men who combine faith and reason like no one else can, and more importantly, are our people, and forget about all that bad Northern talk about individual examinations of conscience.  Besides, if you continue to explore those heretic ideas, it might get you into trouble with the authorities"  

21st Century  

Precocious American Child John: "Dad, I really don't understand how when we kill innocent people, often in greater numbers and with much greater lethal force than the enemy, we are doing good things when we portray the same actions as awful things when they do it?  I also don't get how we can be constantly outraged about non-existent Iranian nukes when our ally Israel has several hundred wholly uninspected nukes aimed at Iran"   

John's Dad: "Young man, I can see you are quite unsophisticated and that you don't really understand “how the world works”. That is just the way it is. If you know what is good for you, you'll put a button on it, especially if you want to get a good job at some time in the future".   

Both Juan and John get a very strong and clear message. It is: DO NOT TRUST WHAT YOUR EYES AND ELEMENTARY SENSE OF LOGIC AND JUSTICE TELL YOU, but rather learn to read (with the goal of slavishly imitating) how people with more social prestige and power than you manage to talk "seriously" about the pressing issues of the day without mentioning or addressing any of the self-evident contradictions implied in their postures.  

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.   

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.  

These reflections were stirred as I read Maud Newton's excellent essay in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.  Though a bit baroque herself at the outset of the article, she finally levels a very clear critical eye upon the gaudy and verbose irony exhibited by David Foster Wallace and his legion of imitators over the last two decades, wondering out loud where these ironists’ supposed verbal virtuosity ends and a possible lack of intellectual and moral courage begins.  

She starts by outlining the case that is often made for their digression-laden prose:   

As the Times critic A. O. Scott has observed, Wallace “wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.” Every assertion, consequently, comes wrapped in qualifications, if not partial refutations; a later essay, appearing in “Consider the Lobster,” is titled, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think.” 

In a 2000 essay for Feed, Keith Gessen applauds Wallace for “trying, at last, to destroy” the oppositions between “irony and sincerity, self-consciousness and artifice.” He chastises those critics who in effect suggest that at “this late date, we might unlearn the postmodern vocabulary and recapture some pre-ironic way of being.” What we need, Gessen posits, in fiction writing at least, is someone to work “a sort of Barthelmeic magic” and “transform our language of apathy into a cri de coeur.”

After telling us a bit about her own journey through, and subsequent deliverance from, the universe of the hyper-ironic, however, she lowers the boom.   The italics are mine.

In “Generation Why?” a social-networking jeremiad published in The New York Review of Books last year, Zadie Smith reduces the motivations of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to one: he wants to be liked. She writes, “For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.” Even if you reject, as I do, the universality of her diagnosis, Smith has pinpointed the reason so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.

…. Qualifications are necessary sometimes. Anticipating and defusing opposing arguments has been a vital rhetorical strategy since at least the days of Aristotle. Satire and ridicule, when done well, are high art. But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward."

In other words, life is complex and provisional and people who forget that are fools. 

But arguably more foolish than these rigid and uncurious literalists are those that respond to the inevitable complexity and provisionality of modern life by seeking refuge in still more provisionality--disguised as esthetic cuteness--because they believe such obfuscations will free them from the possibility of losing the approval of others, especially powerful people in high places.

The ideological structures of Empire, be it it in late 16th and 17th century Spain or the early 21st century US, are always intimidating. Why? Because they are designed with precisely that function in mind.

They are meant to make us doubt, squirm and temporize when confronted with examples of our own nation’s,  or our own sub-culture’s,  immorality. We can follow the cues and engage in doubting, squirming and temporizing before our families, our fellow citizens and our political class.

Or we can throw off the “learned helplessness” of the Baroque and speak in clear and assured tones about what our eyes, hearts and inherent sense of dignity tell us is true. 

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

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