April 15, 2008

HOW'D THAT AGE OF REASON WORK OUT ON THE CONTINENT?:

THE AGE OF AMERICAN ­UNREASON By Susan Jacoby (Wendy Kaminer, Spring 2008, Wilson Quarterly)

For some aging intellectuals, the apocalypse is now. Like Nathan Zuckerman railing at cell phones, they long for what was lost in the transition to a ­post­print culture and can’t imagine what might be gained. Illiteracy, innumeracy, attention deficits, ­close-­mindedness, civic ignorance, junk science, celebrity worship, anti-rationalism, and outright disdain for intellectualism are some of the plagues Susan Jac­oby laments. In The Age of American Unreason, she mourns the end of civilization as she knew ­it.

Jacoby is a perceptive and prolific critic, a former journalist with a talent for social and intellectual history. Her most recent previous book was Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and her critique of unreason immediately identifies religious fundamentalism as a “major spur to ­anti-­intellectualism,” evidenced by the popular embrace of creationism and intelli­gent design. Not surprisingly, Jacoby also assails the mass media and what she considers the devolution from reading to viewing, and from writing to messaging. She has little patience for the contention that technology and new media are spawning new forms of intelligence, and she sees slim literary promise in the disjointed reading and writing encouraged by computers or in their facilitation of “packaging-plagiarism,” by book publishers as well as students.

Many of Jacoby’s criticisms and com­plaints are familiar, but she doesn’t aim to surprise us with her critique of unreason so much as she wants to alert us to its clear and present dangers. Jacoby envisions her book as a sort of sequel to Richard Hof­stadter’s relatively sanguine 1963 classic, ­Anti-­Intellectualism in American Life. His judi­cious, cautiously optimistic analysis was written when intellectuals were either enjoying or anticipating a renaissance, Jacoby observes, but in the half-century since, our descent into unreason has been steep. Indeed, while Hofstadter regarded ­anti-­intellectualism as a fluctuating force in American life, Jacoby suggests that it’s now the fabric of our ­culture.

She looks back on the 1950s and early ­’60s—­coincidentally, the years of her youth and television’s ­infancy—­as, if not quite a golden age for intellectuals, then a period of promise.


Sadly for intellectuals, the delivery on that promise was the late 60s and 70s and Americans, who were always hostile to their ideas, rejected them permanently in November 1980. Europe, of course, remained in their thrall, which is why it's dying.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2008 11:27 AM
Comments

Susan Jac­oby laments ...

Susan Jac­oby's parents lament the decline of American culture in which sophisticated symphonic music is replaced by Elvis' and the Beattles'.

Susan Jac­oby's parents' parents lament the rise of the girls' hemlines exposing their ankles.

In other words, Jacoby is getting old.

Posted by: ic at April 15, 2008 1:40 PM
[Susan Jacoby] reviews the liberal intelligentsia’s brief, mid-­20th-­century romance with communism’s “social ­pseudo­science,” [...]

Brief? Brief???

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 15, 2008 9:50 PM

Getting?

Posted by: gordito at April 15, 2008 9:53 PM
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