Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:

The real problem with Trump’s rhetoric

It has taken me forever to try to figure out why Trump’s hyperbolic bluster, outright lies, and paranoiac screeching has any effectiveness at all – and it’s not simply that the media find it fascinating.


The fact is, Trump is saying exactly what his core followers would say in the same situation.  They would want to order people about; they would want to threaten and bully; they want to belittle people noticeably different from themselves.  They want to “grab her by the pussy;” they want to laugh at the disabled; they want to threaten nuclear war.  They want to gloat over perceived enemies after every little victory, and to blame others for every failure.


The key to understanding Trump’s behavior since entering the White House is that he is always playing to these core followers.  He has nothing to say to Merkel; it is more important to his followers that he say something about her.  By now he must know that bullying doesn’t work with Congress – even his Republicans; but that doesn’t matter, it’s the appearance of bullying that delights his core following.  He mocks the press because they have not fallen in line and glamorized him as he thinks they ought to – and that thrills his core following, who believe him glamorous as they could never be.


The real problem with Trump’s rhetoric is – Trump’s voters (or at least what I am calling his core followers, his true believers).  They represent about a third of the electorate, and they have no contact with any reality science can study, any logic one might wish to use in argument, and evidence not promised in conspiracy theories that will never be brought out in public (because of course non-existent; but that doesn’t matter to them, because they ‘believe’ in it, that’s all the validation they need).


That’s the problem.  A third of the electorate unreachable by any reasonable discourse or fact or evidence.  A personality cult verging on a religion.


It has been often said, without an informed an electorate, democracy is unsustainable.  Well, America is at least a third underwater now; and unfortunately, they’re the ones who elected the captain of the boat.

Thinking Nominalism, Living Pragmatism

Nobody really wants the sloppy, childlike relativism that some self-proclaimed ‘post-Modernists’ espouse – even they don’t want it, since it would make their proclamations and espousals nonsensical. But relativism is not all one thing, it’s available in various types and to varying degrees. Dealing with any relativism in a useful manner requires considerable thought, caution, and care.

It is one of the most difficult concepts to get our minds around, that the world we know is only known through the concepts our minds generate (or that are communicated to us by others). Since these concepts are generally constructed via some linguistic or otherwise systematized communication processes, it follows that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is really largely a knowledge of what we say about the world. Even if I kick a rock (ala Sam Johnson), this experience will only make sense through my signifying response to it in a given context. Even expressions like ‘ow!’ or ‘ouch!’ can be seen to be some responsive effort to make sense of the experience; i.e., announcement that a painful event/sensation has occurred.

We’ve all had the experience of feeling some tiny sting on our arms; we slap at it reflexively. What is it? I pull my hand away, and there on the palm is a flattened body with broken wings, and I say, ‘oh, a bug.’ But if I pull my hand away and there is no flattened body on it, there still arises some thought in mind, such as ‘oh, probably a bug.’ And it is probably a bug, but that doesn’t matter – more important is recognizing that whatever it was, I have made sense of it by interpreting it and expressing this interpretation. And if it never happens again, and I never find any further evidence that it was a bug, yet a bug it will be in my memory.

I confess that I am something of a classical (i.e., traditional or Medieval) Nominalist – I’m sometimes unsure that we know anything ‘out there’ at all, except that it exists (but I’m also something of a Pragmatist, so this doesn’t really cause me any loss of sleep). But one doesn’t have to go so far as Nominalism to see that any claim we can make of the world beyond ourselves is thoroughly mediated by the system of the language by which we make the claim, and thoroughly dependent on context – not only the context of the particular world in which we speak, but the the context of the language we speak itself, and all the social reality that requires we admit.

Nominalism is a position taken regarding the problematic relationship between universals and particulars. This relationship can only be worked through in language.

It should be noted that there are certainly signifying practices other than language; but there can be no experience with reality that does not engage – and hence is not mediated by – signifying practices. (An infant reaching for the mother’s breast is signifying something, and reaching for what signifies to it.) Whether infants have ‘concepts’ seems irrelevant, or badly phrased. That an infant responds to the world reliant on persistence of objects hardly means that it has a concept of persistence of objects. This seems to beggar the very concept of a concept.

One of the questions inadvertently raised here is whether knowledge is to be equated with the hoary Positivist standard of Justified True Belief; because an infant certainly has no belief to be justified. – the truth of the breast is the immediate presence of the breast, and the justification of that is satisfaction of hunger. But the infant surely does not ‘believe’ this in any way  he or she can articulate, but merely reaches for the breast. Yet infants surely know, in a meaningful way, the breast – and the success or failure to get satisfaction from it – and intimately.

I’m not sure that the notion of knowledge being reducible to Justified True Belief, makes any sense outside of language, since analysis of a ‘justified true belief’ requires formulation into claims in a language system.

I noted parenthetically that my Nominalist position (concerning universals) did not cause me loss of sleep because I am also something of a Pragmatist. In pragmatism, knowledge need not be equitable to JTB. Reliability, as ground for responding to the world, often seems to have a stronger claim.

I earlier used the term “signifying” exactly to avoid getting into a technical distinctions between signifying systems. But I will introduce one technical term which may be of use here, which is that of Charles Sanders Peirce: interpretant. The interpretant to a sign is primarily composed of responses to the sign, which may be conceptualization or may be some form of action or speech-act, or some inner sensation. If we think in terms of signification and how various organisms respond to signs, we can avoid the dangers of ascribing language to an infant, and still have a means of addressing how they interact with their environment and each other in significant ways. And we can also avoid the trap of conceiving of our entire existence as somehow fundamentally linguistic. We are the language speaking animal, but we have other non-linguistic significant interactions with each other and the environment.

Pragmatism is a post-Idealist philosophy (Peirce was taught to recite Kant’s First Critique – in German! – at an early age; Dewey was an avowed Hegelian until WWI). Idealism makes a claim, actually similar to that of Logical Positivism, that knowledge is primarily or wholly the result of theory construction, and thus must be articulated linguistically. * Pragmatism begins with the recognition that this cannot be the case.

So the question may come down to whether what we know needs be communicated in language, or whether some other form of signification can be rich enough to inform our responses to the world.

But that does not mean we can be free of signification all together. The sting on the arm is a sign; what I say of it is an attempt to understand its significance, as response to it. If (assuming the scenario that I cannot see or find the bug or bug-parts) I come down with symptoms (signs) of malaria, that will enrich the signification of my response, and will also point to (sign) the species of bug that stung me. None of this need be predicated on the understanding that there is an inherent ‘bugness’ (some universal bug-hood) in the bug, the theory of which I must be familiar with before I form a proposition concerning it. And that is what I see as the real issue here.

* This falls into the Nominalist trap: if all knowledge is theoretical, and all theories concern universals, and all existent entities are individuals, then the most we can say we know is our own theories, since individuals are not universals, but universals need to be constructed to account for them.. Unless, that is, we allow that knowledge is not all one thing and that there is not only one way of knowing. I’m glad that my doctor has a theory of malaria that can be relied on should I come down with it, so I can get properly treated. But I know I was stung, and what that felt like, without any theory to account for it. The interpretation of it is, however inevitable, as making sense of the matter, and certainly necessary if I become sick and need to articulate to a doctor what I think happened.


The election’s over; what now?

Among the many gaffes, groundless accusations, false flags, insults and general whining these past couple weeks, Donald Trump assured his followers that he couldn’t possibly lose in Pennsylvania unless the election were rigged.   Let’s stop and consider the logic of that.  Trump was not relying on any polls (indeed he has taken to deny they matter).  He was not referring to a tsunami of letters to the editor of various news organizations, or some set of petitions.  His reference point seems to be entirely his own ‘gut,’ his confidence that everyone recognizes him as the ‘smartest guy in the room,’ who so many people love and admire.

Actually, my suspicion is that his true reference point is simply and only the applause he hears from fans at rallies.  If true, that tells us a lot about the man, first of all that he really doesn’t get the difference between fans applauding and an electorate voting.  But I think it is becoming more and more obvious that this is exactly the case.

But the logic of his assertion that he can only lose if the election’s rigged, extends beyond the rallies.  Basically, what he’s saying is, that since it s so obvious that he’s so smart, and would do such wonderful things, and is so beloved for this – the election is now immaterial.  Indeed, if Trump’s gut were a true measure of reality, then we shouldn’t hold the election at all.  Hillary should simply throw in the towel, and the House of Representatives appoint him to office.

The irony is that Trump is making his gut known on this matter at exactly the moment when it is now possible to admit that the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is some not so nice things for a progressive – or even a liberal.  She does lie, she is dishonest, she is conniving and manipulative.  She’s also a neocon on foreign policy, and a neo-liberal on economics.  The judge she appoints to the Supreme Court will steadfast moderates – meaning that while the train-wreck that was the Roberts court is now over, it’s legacy will not be undone by any major reversals.  On top of that, she has now a small constituency of anti-Trump Republicans that she will have to accommodate after election.  In short, Clinton’s offers to become the most conservative Democratic administration since Woodrow Wilson.

However there is one thing Clinton is not, that Trump now obviously is – She is not mentally ill.

Call it sociopathy, or narcissism or delusions of grandeur or some other out-of-touch egomania, what you will.  Donald Trump has not the slightest clue as to the nature of the political process, the nature of government, what it means to be a political leader of the most powerful nation in a very complicated world order that is untethering at the seams in response to years of finance-capital-elite driven globalization.  (In fact, by some reports, he wouldn’t even know what to do in day to day administrative tasks, and is not entirely enthusiastic about becoming President for that reason.)

However – the good news is, that the election is all but over.  Whatever the final numbers prove, this is why Donald Trump has lost the election:

Demographics:  Besides loyal Democrats, Trump has alienated the majority of each of the following voting blocks:

African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, non-Muslim Americans from pre-dominantly Muslim nations, Mormons, Jews, Americans with disabilities, LGBT Americans, atheist Americans, scientists, veterans, parents of veterans, attractive women, not so attractive women, mothers, women who menstruate (I think that’s quite a number), Republican women, Republican moderates, Republican politicians struggling to retain their seats in the next congress, Republicans concerned for national security, Republican business people, the college educated (left and right), Americans who don’t like Putin, Americans who like babies – and the list goes on.  Trump has failed to alienate angry uneducated white men, but recent polls indicate that he’s no longer doing so well among them.  (And yes, he has alienated the Christian Right, but then hired Mike Pence for VP to make amends.)

But, that’s not all.  Trump has utterly failed to understand the post-nomination campaign process.  He has no ground game, few storefronts with door-to-door campaigners, few liasons with local Republican politicians.  (It’s not even clear he understands why that’s needed.)  He expected the RNC to fund his campaign, when part of the responsibility of the Presidential nominee is to raise funds for the Party.  He has isolated himself from the national press, failing to realize that he is expected, in part, to speak through them, especially were he to become the President.

It clear now that Trump has no strategy.  His pet boy Manafort may be able to guide him to battleground states, but in as lop-sided an election as this, he can’t just ignore previously safe ‘Red’ states – even Arizona, probably the most right-wing Republican state in the West, and one suffering severe tensions between dominant Anglos and a Mexican American underclass, is now in play.

But Trump’s biggest problem, of course, is his own mouth.  He can’t stop it.  That’s why he is clearly pathological.  He sounds like a robot when he reads a written speech, but when he goes off-text, he’s an uncontrollable, foam-at-the-mouth ranter, and self-promoter.  Even if his people could get him to reign it in, it’s probably too late.

The next big moment of the campaign season is the arrival of the Presidential debates.  My guess right now is that Trump will probably make it through one or two before he blows up.  After which he will ‘double-down’ on the narrative that the ‘system is so rigged against me, they won’t let me win,’ because by that time it will be obvious even to him that he has already effectively lost the election.

So the discussion progressives and liberals now need to begin is, what are we do during the Clinton administration – how do we further progressive causes and somehow begin winning seats in Congress and in State capitols?    That’s a long game to play; but otherwise we may have more nightmares like 2016 further down the road.

Problems with public discourse again (and again, and again…)

Recently, people have been been wondering about the clamor for correct speech, from both the Left and the Right. There are just some things we’re not supposed to talk about in certain quarters – whether this is a discussion of a rape narrated in a work of literature in an English studies course, or about the non-Christian deism or skepticism among the writers of the US Constitution. People are just too damn sensitive these days. We forget that an honest public discussion on shared concerns should deal with the realities of life’s experience, and the disappointments of history, however harsh. This is a problem that bubbles up time and again in American public discourse. America has been a Puritan culture since… well, since the Puritans first landed here. (They were not escaping the religious intolerance of England, they were running from the religious toleration they found in the Netherlands.)

Puritanism, need not be claimed by only one ideology. It is a rigid attitude toward social behavior, demanding that what one person, or one group, sees as the right and the good ought to be accepted by everyone and abided by. So there are many forms of puritanism, across the cultural and political spectrum. Since it stems from a ‘will to be right,’ which is endemic among those belonging to cultures open enough to engender serious disagreements, it will keep rearing its ugly head again and again, causing pain to those successfully repressed, and push-back of various rebellious spirits – including competing forms of puritanism.

But while we should always increase our understanding of the problem, that doesn’t mean we will ever be able to rectify it. The variable factors are too many, too historically entrenched, and too many people are invested is the most troublesome of them.

Two things I’d like to note. First, of course, the obvious – all societies engage in discourse management and limitation. ‘We don’t talk about such things;’ ‘a proper lady/gentleman would never use such language;’ ‘say that again, child, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!’ Such cautions were common in my youth. The free speech movement of the ’60s led to their eventual disuse; but they’ve obviously been replaced by other cautions, motivated by different interests. Were these eventually discarded, they would simply be replaced. Social interactions, to proceed smoothly, must have some sense of direction, and of boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some of these boundaries are rather obvious in a given context: A white supremacist skinhead should probably not spew his racism when he’s in the midst of bloods in the hood. Knowing such boundaries and maneuvering through them is part of the skill of speaking with others. An individual is his/her first censor, and should be.

Second: America doesn’t have only one culture, and never has. The very hope for one was lost with the Louisiana Purchase. Throughout the 19th century, when people wrote of ‘American culture,’ they were actually talking about the culture of the Eastern seaboard. By the 1920s, this myth became harder to sustain, as emergent cities in the West began defining themselves, while regional politicians began stoking grudges born in the Civil War against Eastern intellectualism, big banks in NYC, and the ever out of touch Washington politician. Meanwhile new media were developing to record and preserve (and market) the culture of quite limited communities – think of the blues and early country recordings from various locales in the South. But also think of the Western films that memorialized the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western historical experience. Finally (but only for now), think of how the influx of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries effectively redefined many of the cities of the Eastern seaboard (and, later, elsewhere as well). The 1926 might find one reading The New Yorker, but just as likely, given one’s heitage, Der Groyser Kundes.

In the ’60s, which saw television become our major media for information and politics, combined with the rapid increase in the number of colleges, all sharing a similar curriculum, and the ride of national political movements, Americans effectively deluded themselves into believing there was a national culture. That could not be sustained. The social consequences of the national political movements included much good, but also considerable fragmentation along regional, political, economic, ethnic lines, but also along lines of locally generated sub-cultures, some cultures of choice. Now when people refer to an ‘American culture,’ they are really only talking about the culture projected on television, since TV is the only source of information that most Americans share. Unfortunately, all TV seems to deliver is further delusion, much of its ‘information’ of questionable quality and uncertain factual basis.

The fragmentation is an on-going process – the tendency appears to be a function of Modernity, and we find it in play during the Reformation, as Protestant churches splintered off from each other due to (often violent) doctrinal disputes. This fragmentation is thus an on-going historical process; groups are formed in opposition to other groups, coming together over a perceived sharing of values, only for its members to discover that they do not share the same motivations, and are not unanimous in their interpretation of those values. The group’s discourse management strategies break down, boundaries get crossed, and group members break off to form new groups, and so on.

‘Well,’ the question may be asked, ‘why aren’t we simply a bunch of mutually suspicious, antagonistic tribes at this point?’ Well, maybe we are. However, we have, at crucial historical moments, developed bureaucratic institutions and organizations that suffer from considerable inertia; and these institutions and organizations are really what bind most of us together.

(For instance, I prefer Bernie, but I’ll probably have to vote for Hillary in November, because I share more values and interests with the Democratic organization than the Republican one, and the institution of the US government remains relatively stable, even though apparently incapable of needed reform. But hopefully it would prove resistant to Trumpian subversion as well, should the worst come to pass….)

I here think of the countless essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like ‘we need to,’ ‘we ought to,’ we really should,’ concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.

I think it was maybe the late ’90s, when I was reading an essay insisting that ‘we need to do (x).’ when I suddenly realized: ‘no, we don’t need to do anything – it might be good to do (x); but since we don’t need to do it, and most people seem not inclined to do it, well, so it goes.’

Around that time I had another unhappy insight, into the nature of ‘the crisis of contemporary capitalism.’ There is no crisis of contemporary capitalism. Workers get screwed, lose their jobs, suffer in poverty – and that’s exactly what is needed to keep capitalism working. So was the recession of ’08, and the lame attempts at amelioration. Unemployment is built into the system; poverty is built into the system; uncertainty is built into the system. Social injustice is part of the American economy. Some use race to leverage this injustice, some gender, some age, some class, some education – but some prejudice must be formed and deployed to leverage injustice in the system, because the injustice is a necessary function of the system. One can no more imagine a capitalist economy without social injustice than one can imagine a species of tree without bark.

That means that social injustice cannot be corrected by sweeping movements without actual revolution; it has to be corrected incrementally, on a case by case basis, even where the case involves collectives. John L. Lewis, when asked why he was not a communist, replied (paraphrasing from memory), ‘Communists want utopia; I just want to make things better.’

It is a core problem with so-called Social Justice Warriors, or scientisimists, or religious zealots, or the Tea Partiers, etc. – that they honestly believe that if we all just get together and get our heads right, the world will spin in the desired direction.

That’s not true, and it’s not how history happens.

Read instead Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” King uses “we must” phraseology in only one paragraph, and it is not a call to social change, but a moral directive to those who already agree with his basic project.

There’s no point in asking people to change. They have to want to change. Americans are unhappy; but they do not want to change. That’s the real problem here.

I’m not simply trying to say something about our economic system (although economic considerations underlie many of the issues here discussed). My point is that ‘what ails our discourse?’ is a question for those of us who believe that public discourse ‘ails’ – that the shared interchange of information and persuasion has developed obstacles to communication and shared agreements leading toward collective action. But I suggest that most people do not perceive any ailment here at all, and are not only content with the current universe of discourse, but actually find it socially useful in a number of ways (including economically).

Any time we are considering a seeming problem in a given society, it helps to ask three questions: 1. Do the people involved perceive a problem? 2. If they do, what are they willing to do about it? 3. If they don’t, or are not willing to do anything about it, then could this ‘problem’ actually be built into the social processes that keep the society functioning? In other words, a) it may not be causing anyone discomfort despite its inefficacy as a process, and b) even should it in some ways cause discomfort or even harm, it may be satisfying in other ways that keeps the given society functioning.

In short: on disinterested observation, it may appear to be a problem; but once all interests are taken into account, it may not be a real problem at all, or at least one that people are quite willing to live with.

Finally, I referenced Dr. King’s “I have a dream,” because that was a public address that really did contribute to a moment of social change. But how? At the time, everyone knew that change was in the wind – it had already begun with Brown v. Board of Education, and the Alabama marches, and it was not to be stopped. All King did was to provide it with a focus, a lightning rod of imagery expressing the fundamental hope that his audience held dear, while reminding those on the fence of the issue of the justice embedded in that hope. He doesn’t talk about what we should do – his audience already knows what they should do; he is telling us ‘now is the time to do it,’ and reminding us of the future it can lead us to.

In the condition of increasing fragmentation in 2016, it’s not clear that an address like King’s is possible or would have anything like the same effect. We do not know that change in a given direction is possible; we do not share the same hopes or dream the same future anymore. There is really no ‘we’ here to share this knowledge or these hopes. or take action based on these. Just a whole bunch of differing ‘us’ against ‘them’ tribes.

Unfortunately – most people, though they complain, seem quite willing to live with that.

Hitler’s religion

Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? Was he, as others charge, an atheist? [1]

These questions are poorly formed. A more apt question would be, ‘What did he ‘believe’ beyond his own destiny, if anything?’

A preliminary point that needs to be made concerns the touchy question about which scholars one trusts and which one does not; but I don’t really want to raise that issue. Nonetheless, a rule of thumb is, if the same historical trend has been noted independently by different scholars giving careful interpretation of the source materials, then likely their remarks can be trusted, and any disagreements resolved through consideration of their differing perspectives. The majority of scholars I’m familiar with agree that Nazi Germany, and the Nazis themselves, were not as religiously homogenous. Hitler’s own beliefs depend on a careful study of Mein Kampf – selected passages will mean nothing taken out of context.

Such a move leaves one utterly unable to account for the complexities of Hitler’s psychology; unable to account for his biography, what led him to the juncture that Mein Kampf marks as the arrival of the historical Hitler; unable to account for the complex relationship Hitler had with the German right and the German people as a whole. It will certainly not adequately account for the anti-Semitism; or for the obvious tensions between Hitler’s own cosmogony and that of Christianity, which are not identical and in many respects antagonistic.

Quite a number of scholars believe that the evidence strongly suggests that the Nazis not only intended to re-interpret Christianity, but do away with it entirely. (The ‘bible’ they placed on the alter of the one church they established themselves, in Berlin, was of course – Mein Kampf.) That doesn’t make them atheists, but I never said it did. The matter needs greater study, more complex and nuanced argument, greater accounting of the historical context. The problem at the time was not simply Nazism, nor religion, but the history of Germany to that date, and the malaise the Germans found themselves in during the 1920s. The issue simply cannot be reduced to a question of whether they had a religion or not. They had Hitler.

What Hitler himself seems to have believed about himself and his place in the world, is that Fate – some cosmic force, which he sometimes equates with ‘the Almighty,’ but also simply refers to as a less personalized ‘Fate’ or ‘Destiny’ – had placed him at the epicenter of an age old racially determined struggle between the Aryan and the Jew. ‘Good’ (Aryan) and ‘evil’ (Jew) are entirely defined by this struggle, there is no morality otherwise. [2] His dedication to this struggle effectively became his religion.

Thus, Hitler’s own profound sense of personal destiny and his rage against the Jews led to his religion – not the other way around.

Mein Kampf is an act of self-creation. It’s a passion, a narrative of apotheosis of a self-identified savant and savior.

After the disappointment of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler wanted to trash the established right-wing, with its old militarism, and re-define Nazism as a holistic anti-Semitic revolution, and at the same time culminate the reconstruction of his personality that had been on-going after his nervous collapse at (and as response to) the end of WWI. This meant providing an entire cosmogony that could synthesize with both traditional beliefs and prejudices as well as then-contemporary popular understandings of scientific knowledge. It also meant providing a mythic figure that could function as both prophet and savior – Hitler himself, of course.

It is not at all clear what Hitler really thought about the trends of belief that came before him, whether that which could be found in traditional churches, or the developments of science. Paganism, eugenics, Weimar hedonism, evangelical tent-revivals, blind faith in technological innovation, paranoid denial of then current physics – all were simply melted into the alloy forged in the furnace of Hitler’s rage against the world (where he had only felt belonging as a soldier during during the First World War [3}). (A close reading of Mein Kampf reveals that he actually held Germans in contempt almost as much as Jews – “Are these still human beings, worthy of being part of a great nation?” he allows himself to wonder in evident disgust, concerning the German construction workers with whom he worked before the war. [4]) Hitler’s racism was conditioned by Social Darwinism as well as by ‘special creation’ theories, since both were prevalent in that day; but originated in his personal disgust with the human, and his experience of the world as little more than a battleground in a war of all against all.

Claiming to know “what Hitler believed” is simply facile, without struggling to grasp who this cypher was [5] or why his speeches resonated so well with the Germans of his day. It is also a misconception of modern revolutions to try to define their attempts to supplant previous religious beliefs with their preferred ideology, as reducible to the imperatives of their ideology. It is in the nature of modern revolution itself to supplant and dissolve traditional religion. This is as true of ISIS as it was true of the French Revolution’s “Church of Reason.” And it was certainly true of Hitler’s self-created messianism. Of course Hitler would find it useful to claim the authority of “the All-Mighty” for his project. But beyond some profound sense of personal destiny, it is wholly unclear that Hitler believed there was anything ‘out there’ but chaos and never-ending conflict. Although Hitler courted the Wagner family to lay claim on Nietzsche, in fact the only philosopher he read was Schopenhauer (although he inverted Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as what needed to be constrained, choosing instead to unleash it).

So what did Hitler believe? I have tried to suggest here that, while the question is most certainly interesting, answers to it cannot be reduced to ‘ready-mades’ to fit our own ideological preferences. He was a product of history – but that history was not simple, not linear, and not uni-vocal. Like most of history, it was – and remains – a morass of conflicting urges and social pressures against the individual’s will to achieve some importance – some sense of ‘being there.’

That’s the problem – the will to become a self in opposition to all other selves.

Any ideology promising that will only bring about heart-break.


[1] Really, the dangling of the ‘Hitler-monster’ in the theist/ atheist god debate has got to stop. It does no justice to the victims of Nazism, and distorts the history rather than clarifying it. ‘Well, they started it!’ each side claims – I don’t care. It’s got to stop. It is poorly informed, a-historical, and contributes to the general stock of discursive muddle that plagues the public mind, especially on the internet. Those who think they really have a case to make, should engage in the research necessary to make that case, and not mine for quotes. As raw source, Hitler can be made to say practically anything. Anyway, the whole “believers in X do nasty things, therefore X is wrong,” is a bad argument. Every ideology contains imperatives that can be used to justify even heinous acts. The real lesson of Hitler here is that, if one wants to perform those acts, one will find the justification for it – or make it up.

[2} See: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The war against the Jews, 1933-1945. Weidenfeld And Nicolson (1975).

[3] See: Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press(1974).

[4] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated and edited by Alvin Johnson, Reynal & Hitchcock (1941); page 54.

[5] See: Joachim C Fest, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt (1973).

Hitler’s Mom

I’ve remarked in comments here and elsewhere, that I once wrote a critical-rhetorical analysis of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf  (circa 1994). I would like to submit here a chapter of that analysis, so that if further reference to it becomes necessary, there is evidence of its existence.

This particular chapter, as essay, reveals the somewhat odd relationship Hitler had with his mother, at least as far as can be gleaned from Hitler’s text.

The argument:  Hitler uses rhetoric to redefine his early experiences in a way that tends to bury facts, suppress anxieties concerning women and sexuality, and shape those experiences as seeming necessities of fate. The principle revealing rhetorical moment is when, having effectively blamed his mother for the poverty he suffered in Vienna (eliding his own irresponsibility as something of a wastrel), he tropes a new mother for himself (‘Dame Care’), which thenceforth effaces memory of his actual mother altogether.

One reason for posting here is the recent legalized publication of Mein Kampf  in Germany for the first time since WWII. It is also always a good thing to remind ourselves, not only of what Hitler and his  followers did, but the kind of people they were – especially since there are many such people among us, unfortunately even in politics.

Finally, I hope the essay demonstrates the helpful interaction between rhetoric and history (and indirectly psychology). The understanding of history is not simply the recording of facts, but a greater understanding of the people who make history, and of their motivations.

(Another time, I will probably tell something of the story of why I did not follow the full study through to publication, which is not without its own interest…. )

Hitler’s Two Mothers, by E. John Winner:

My mother, to be sure, felt obliged to continue my education in accordance with my father’s wish; in other words, to have me study for the civil servant’s career.
Concerned over my illness, my mother finally consented to take me out of the Realschule and let me attend the Academy.
Two years later, the death of my mother put a sudden end to all my highflown plans.
It was the conclusion of a long and painful illness which from the beginning left little hope of recovery. Yet it was a dreadful blow, particularly for me. I had honored my father, but my mother I had loved.
What little my father had left had been largely exhausted by my mother’s grave illness(…). [1]
When my mother died, Fate, at least in one respect, had made its decisions. [2]
After the death of my mother I went to Vienna (…). [3]
I exalt it [poverty] for tearing me away from the hollowness of a comfortable life; for drawing the mother’s darling out of his soft downy bed and giving him ‘Dame Care’ for a new mother (…). [4]

In a book of some 300,000 words, much of it purporting to be autobiographical in nature, and from a man who had, at the time of writing, lived nearly half his life with his mother, the above handful of sentences and fragments comprise every last word Adolf Hitler chose to write about his mother in Mein Kampf.

Respect his father but love his mother? Considering her nearly complete absence from his autobiographical material here, one wonders if he thought much about her at all.

Historians tend to agree that Klara (Polzl) Hitler, the young wife of a middle-aged man (who, by some accounts, abused her), several of whose children died before the age of six, spoiled her only surviving son (excluding step-children), Adolf. One could expect that. And one could expect that the son would be devoted to his mother in return; or, if the relationship took a pathological turn, perhaps the son would respond to the fawning attentions of the mother with an equal pathology, in what might be termed a ‘love/hate’ relationship. It could take on even a sado-masochistic quality. Certainly Hitler’s character and reputation invite this interpretation. But, alas! why doesn’t it show up in what he writes of her?

To be sure, National Socialism’s brutally exclusionary ideology, and its dominating attitude toward women, are well known. The ideal ‘Aryan’ is a male; women, even in terms of their most admirable qualities, are little more than baby-making housekeepers. Their greatest virtue, accordingly, would be their ‘racial purity’ – bearers of good genes. Nothing else would be asked, or expected of them. Indeed, any more would be too much. (But see the discussions in When Biology Became Destiny. [5])

Hitler’s own attitudes were kinky enough, even as manifest and openly expressed, without (pace the once famous OSS psychoanalysis by Langer [6]) speculating on his behavior in the bedroom. Hitler was oft dependent on women, and yet uncomfortable around them. He idealized them, avoided them, talked down to them. He treated both of his known mistresses, Geli Raubal and Eva Braun, as sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, children. The matter is made more pathetically complex when one remembers that Hitler surrounded himself with the promiscuously homosexual leadership of SA, as well as pathologically sado-masochistic anti-Semites like Jules Streicher. And Hitler’s rants in Mein Kampf – against syphilis, prostitution, and genetic contamination – are widely held as evidence of his own sexual pathology, although no one is quite sure anymore what that pathology might of been. Disgust? Suppressed desire? Certainly these rants are mad parodies of reformist rhetoric, and need closer reading. But when revivalist ministers begin foaming at the mouth about the terrors of Hell, are they expressing a personal fear? doing all they can to save the souls of their listeners? or simply selling a belief in exchange for filled coffers? (And who would want to believe in the terrors of hell, and to what purpose?)

At any rate, the point is, Hitler’s attitude towards women per se is enough of a question that anything he might say about the first woman he would know intimately, his own mother, would promise to reveal much about that more general attitude which so informed the ideology of a major political movement that would eventually dominate an entire nation.

But such is not the case. Hitler’s one great opportunity to wax sentimentally over the virtues of motherhood, in their embodiment in the form of his own mother, slips by with little remark.

In sum, the story Hitler tells is this: His mother (notice the absence of name) feels obliged to continue with his dead father’s plans for his son. Then her own illness brings about her death. This impoverishes the son. He leaves for Vienna, and further poverty. However, this turns out to be fortuitous – indeed, decided by Fate. The son learns more from the harshness of his poverty than he could have learned from his comforting mother and her comfortable lifestyle. So much so, that itself becomes his surrogate mother thenceforth, figuratively speaking.

But what is the nature of this figure of speech? The unnamed actual mother becomes displaced by the figural mother, ‘Dame Care’ – apparently a noblewoman, and a masterly one. The actual mother could teach Hitler nothing, but ‘Dame Care’ is insistent, unyielding. From her, he begins to learn his lessons about life. She is thus his real mother, since she fulfills the parenting function.; the actual is thus displaced by the real. The actual had obligations, but would not meet them; thus her position is surrendered to the real. Of course, the death of the actual was convenient; but perhaps more than that: Fate, again, takes a hand.
There is bitterness in this little fable, but there is more. Interestingly, no scholar I’ve read seems to pick up on it; but Hitler’s ambivalence towards his mother, and towards her death, are right there on the surface, nothing could be clearer. He “loved” her, but her death turns out to be a good thing. She loved him, but this was not such a good thing, he learned nothing thereby. Perhaps (could this thought have crossed his mind?) it would have been better for her to fulfill her obligations to the dead father and push Hitler to pursue a civil servant’s career? But he hated this idea. Nonetheless, he would not have suffered in poverty if she had done so. Yet if he hadn’t suffered in poverty, he would never at last have learned the world, would never become the leader of a historically important political movement. So it was good that she relented, and good also that she died, and good that her death forced him into a life of poverty, and good that she was revealed as not a very good mother (for loving too much) by a parenting figure, Dame Care, poverty, who proves a much better mother indeed – because she (poverty) does not love her son.

So the matter stands thus: Whatever he actually once felt for his mother, by the time of the writing of Mein Kampf, Hitler had condemned her for loving too much, and fulfilling her parental (rather than wifely) obligations. He turned instead to experience itself to be his guide, assuming it to have a will (and thus a personality), and an intention for the education it was giving him. His own experience thus becomes projected outside of himself, as a power greater than himself, directing him in his career. As much as to say: ‘This happens to me, but the “This” has its reason for happening; it wills me to move in a given direction. It is not me, yet it makes me who I am.’

On the surface this sounds terribly optimistic, a healthy means of learning from one’s mistakes, so to speak. But Hitler isn’t writing of mistakes – all this has been fated, there are no mistakes. Under this seeming surrender to experience lies a complete denial of the lessons that could be learned from experience. ‘This wills itself on me;’ i.e., ‘I am not doing this, it is doing itself.’

Perhaps a bit of factual detail helps clarify the matter.  In his subtle but unmistakable condemnation of his mother, Hitler effectively accuses her of impoverishing him by growing ill and dying, thus incurring costs for medical treatment and burial. But according to all his recent biographers, the evidence is clear that this is false. The family pension on which he lived at the time, continued after her death; he appears to have squandered it by acting as a kind of bargain-basement spend-thrift. To be sure, he had little; but what little he had he spent carelessly. Yet poverty, he claims, ‘happened’ to him, and he implies that this was his mother’s fault.

Well, if poverty is such a great teacher, perhaps Hitler owed his mother thanks, and this was his round-about way of expressing it. But the point is, Hitler, however he might be viewed objectively, presents himself as a kind of motherless child – the actual mother failed him; his ‘real’ mother, Dame Care, is simply a figure of speech. He is thus thrown into the arms of Fate, propelling him to his destiny….

And that is why Klara Polzl Hitler, to give her back the name he refuses her, so quickly disappears from view in the autobiographical passages of Mein Kampf. The love mother and son shared was but temporary weakness; its only contribution to his life was its closure. Any further memory of it – tracing possibilities to which he had turned his back – would merely prove annoying.


[1] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (hereafter MK), 1925; Trans. Ralph Manheim, Houghton Mifflin, 1943; p. 18.

[2] MK, p. 19.

[3] MK, p. 20.

[4] MK, p. 21.

[5] Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, Marion A. Kaplan, When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany; Monthly Review Press, 1984.

[6] Walter C. Langer. The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report; Basic Books, 1943.