logo image
Interview with Kenneth Smith
July 4, 1996.

As this current atmosphere of nihilism is getting more and more pervasive, more and more all-encompassing, do we have a responsibility to believe in the betterment, the amelioration of ourselves as a species, as a civilization, as a society, and as individuals? Is there some philosophical overview that could perhaps give us some feeling that it's not all going to hell in a handbasket, that there is some light at the end of the tunnel? Is there something we can choose to look at as some optimistic sign of the future?  
Well, I think the issue of nihilism is the way our particular culture or civilization has discovered, in its own terms, a certain vacuity at the heart of what a philosopher of history would call our ethos, which is the basic core of our values, our principles, our most central ideas. We have never taken for granted, either as Americans or as moderns, that a certain kind of task, or a certain kind of work has to be undertaken in order for human beings to be human--we assume that being human is just a birthright, and human beings will just age into it without a task of self-cultivation, philosophical enrichment, concentration, focus, discipline. The ability to make oneself into a moral and politically responsible creature, someone who is in the classical sense rational--that ability is not natural, it doesn't just occur. It's possible only where human beings have a sense that they have to shape the whole destiny of their existence, they have to bring out certain dimensions of human existence that are latent, not obvious but covert. And in a good many cases, those dimensions of potential have been aborted by our educational system, our popular culture... We think it's enough just for human beings to be, and to accept the appetites and interests and preoccupations that they happen to find in themselves; it doesn't occur to them that as those things naturally occur they may well be self-destructive, chaotizing... They produce conflict of course, between one human being and another, such that the system of law, politics, society, economics, may not be feasible, but they also produce conflict within an individual. We are in fact discovering something real and significant about ourselves over the course of the late twentieth-century, ever since the big faddishness of existentialism in the nineteen-fifties. We're discovering that when we ask certain kinds of questions about the meaning of existence, what is value, what is the significance of being human, etc.--our peculiar form of culture has no substantial answers to give to those questions. And for a human being who is determined to be no more than modern, a late-twentieth-century American, the answer may well be nihilism, or in actual, practical fact, the evasion of recognizing nihilism. That is, human beings who spend their lives in self-distraction, entertainment, various kinds of escapism. We make quite a fetish out of being pragmatists, out of improvising a life that is ultimately experimental. This is the distinctive feature of modern civilization, it's one of the reasons that modern science has the peculiar kind of authority that it has, and that the consumer economy has become such a dominant force in the forming of human beings' lives. We haven't got a substantive sense of purpose of what we ought to be about, so by default we take whatever form the economy offers or imposes on us.
What criteria would we observe to qualify what is substantive and what is not? I mean, perhaps one particular mode of thought in modern day society might not have been substantive ages ago, but perhaps we're looking at a new form that just hasn't fully developed yet.  
Well, it's quite true there is no definitive criterion, there is no one uniquely right way of being human, or being rational, being responsible, and so forth. The question of what are the authoritative values that are healthy for a human being to cultivate--that question can be given multiple answers, a plurality of possible ways of living can satisfy all of those concerns, but that doesn't mean that just any arbitrary way of living satisfies them. There's more than one way of being human, but not just everything that our species does qualifies as "human" in that meaningful sense. Well, I guess what I'm trying to say is, there are many more ways of aborting or misconducting a life, essentially living in such a way that one comes into conflict with the basic principles that make a person human in the first place--we look at the sad conditions of what we consider derelicts, or addicts, etc.; there are human beings who spend their lives lying to the public for the sake of commercial campaigns and political campaigns; there are medical professionals who put their talents to work for the sake of torturing political prisoners for dictatorial regimes--there are many, many ways of misconducting a life so that instead of developing or cultivating oneself, one is really tearing the fabric of one's life apart, one is creating a kind of artificial schizophrenia. There are manifold ways of fulfilling a responsible and rational existence, but many, many more ways of ruining, shredding, aborting, disintegrating that existence. Not every human being cares about the right kind of principles and values, so that he's concerned about the moral or political quality of his existence.
That may be so, but again, doesn't it seem to be just whatever is decided upon by the individual? I mean, are there in fact any universal values that we have to observe?  
Our particular civilization is distinctive because it has taken this concept of arbitrary will as its core, or defining principle. The belief that what we are is essentially a willful creature, that is, someone who could just as easily do one thing as another, a creature that has no inbuilt or innate natural needs or predispositions, a creature that has no higher spiritual or rational nature that it has to live up to--the belief that willfulness can be turned into a principle of existence is exactly what comes to dominate the plane or the region of social existence through the modern world, from the renaissance onward. This notion of personality which places an extraordinary emphasis on conscious ego, on superficial or decision-making will, which, as I say, could fall one way or another... The belief that we live in a world that is essentially stochastic or accidental, there are no morally binding rules that govern the physical or human or social world... And of course, we have evolved a legal system, an economy, an educational system, that conforms to that modern concept of character, or, really, technically speaking, characterless personality, personality that has no inbuilt norms or standards or whatever. Some human beings react against that culture, and do attempt to determine what is ingrained, what is obligatory according to their own character. It's obvious from, in my experience, the difficulties that students have confronting the college curriculum and evaluating what really serves their needs and purposes--what is good for them, obligatory for them, etc.--that difficulty is really expressing a kind of increasing chaotization of the kinds of resources I would call cultural or philosophical. The classical Greek motto "Know thyself" has become acutely more problematic for us, and to make a rather obvious point, academic philosophy is really not helping. It has nearly no bearing on concrete or existential questions--you know, who am I?, what ought I to do?, what are my options, my resources, my obligations? It's much easier for moderns to leave these kinds of questions hanging in abstracto, and that goes perfectly hand-in-glove with the concept of arbitrary personality, that there are no laws, there are no tendencies, no tides, no currents. The reality, human, historical reality is, of course, there are tendencies, there are currents. We do live in a specific kind of culture, but it's a culture that lies to us, a culture made up, basically, of what Marx would call a "false consciousness." It wants to convince us that we are abstract creatures who don't really belong in the world of nature and shouldn't care about any of the issues that are at risk in that world. It's this distinctively modern notion of abstracted ego that cuts itself out of context that has brought on all of the ecocidal problems that we have. Dimly, by degrees, we've become aware there is an issue here, that this issue originates from the central principle of the notion of modern identity--who we are, what we think we are. The Greeks and the medieval Christians answered that question in a completely different way. The conflict among these different civilizations is something we really don't know how to confront in a determinate or specific way. Our orientation on this issue is, again, in terms of completely abstract principles, in terms of the concept of individual freedom, the concept of individuality, arbitrary will, etc., etc.--a notion of rationality that is really value-free, which of course is what modern science represents. I find it an acutely challenging issue, how to make these issues have some sort of bite from the perspective of modern intelligence. There are many better-than-averagely cultivated and questioning minds, of course, in every generation, the question is what will they feed upon, what does the culture offer them to give some specific shape to the issues? I would argue that we've had a series of abnormally insightful philosophical thinkers who tried to capture the concept of what it means to be modern and these concepts have not been clearly understood or digested. Nietzsche is really a civilizational critic, Kierkegaard, Marx, Kafka, Dostoyevsky--they realized from what I would call a millennial perspective, a perspective that reaches trans-civilizationally, it reaches back across the framework of many different cultures. They realized how peculiar, how one-sided and deformed the normal orientation of moderns is, and each one had specific resources for making criticisms of that orientation, and what I would call its ideology, its idea-system. But these philosophers all wrote in order to have some kind of formative impact on the intelligence of their readers, they didn't write in order to be studied by academics, and academics don't look in their writings for this kind of heavily moral and political, existential kind of issue. The concern about where western civilization is steering itself certainly goes back a couple of centuries, it's not something peculiar to the past couple of generations. I'm sorry to say I don't find much receptivity to those issues among academic philosophers. In fact, I would argue academicism is really what our civilization has deformed philosophy into--this is what philosophy becomes in a civilization in which thinking is just nothing but something technical to do with your intellect. It makes your mind into just another tool, in effect, instead of something that should really be the core guiding principle that imposes value, or quality controls on your values.
But was there a time in the past, where we had a better situation, that we could look back, and say those were the good ol' days?  
In a factual historical sense, of course, the middle ages were anarchy, rampant criminality, rapine... There have always been chaotizing or wild elements going on at the periphery of civilization, and it's been questionable whether a given civilization has the values to hold those things in check, century after century. What I'm arguing really has less to do with the factual behavior of human beings, than the normative controls on those behaviors, that is, do human beings see, are they capable of seeing what is wrong with their tendencies, their established conventions and habits, their customs. It's one thing for human beings, as a matter of fact, to be criminal or war-mongering or whatever, it's something else for there to be no countervailing values that enable them to realize that this is barbaric behavior. A civilization that believes there are no such things as objectively valid values is a civilization in which all things are possible and no one really has the right to criticize anything as inhumane, uncivilized, etc. Where that nihilism leads is, of course, a condition of completely unconscionable exploitation and destruction of human forms of existence. We haven't yet felt the brunt of that barbarizing tendency, we have felt it only incidentally, in this country. Just in the past few years, we've started to experience the kinds of terrorism, which are the radically unscrupulous forms of political activity, that nihilists see as a perfectly reasonable way to advance their interests. Terrorism is really just politics by other means, as war itself is. If we had the disadvantageous position of the IRA or other international terrorists, we might also be resorting to these means. We have the advantage of multi-lateral deterrent systems and thermonuclear weapons, the potential steering guerrilla warfare wherever we need it... It's very hypocritical for the United States to stand up and make criticism of terrorist organizations--that's not our way of sinning, we have other ways of getting our methods across.
Do you know who David Brin is?  
David Brennan?
David Brin. Science fiction writer.  
No, I don't know his work.
One thing he's always been known for saying is that we are, in fact, living in some kind of a renaissance in modern day society, given that we preach tolerance in all our popular entertainments, given that this is a society where our heroes are entertainers, not principally warriors as in generations or centuries past, and fewer women and children have been touched by war, fewer young sons have gone off to war... Given all of those factors--literacy, etc.--that there's a lot to be said for what we've accomplished, but I think you've probably answered with what you've said: Does that give us any terms of a value system, or does that, in effect, shut off our thinking? I'm wondering tho, is it more important that the specific leadership, and who we elect as leaders--if their effects aren't more wide-ranging than the ordinary chattel, the lower class, shall we say...  
Well, I have considerable doubt whether modern society is really leadable. I think we tend to elect a president in order to have someone to blame for things that are really not under specifically human or political control any longer. The president serves a sort of mass illusion purpose of making us think that the conditions under which we live still have human parameters to them. The economic forces that we're subject to that make domestic industries close down and open up maquiladoras, the unbridled competition that tends toward oligopoly or monopoly in one field after another... We've created an economy that is, apparently by mass consensus, very difficult for number two or number three to survive any longer. We may well wind up with one complex of publishers, one complex of bookstores, of burger chains, etc., etc. This has had a very deleterious effect on a whole stratum of the economy; it is those mid-range employers, that really employ the bulk of the American population. So at the same time Americans like to go with winners and have very little sympathy with losers, this comes home to roost in the form of the risk of unemployment, the diminishing scale of job prospects--people have to go out and get re-hired at completely different scales of pay. It is something we have been relinquishing degree by degree, I think--our human, or moral, or political control over economic forces. These forces have a virtually tidal kind of power over our lives. We struggle, as writers and artists and professors and so forth, we struggle to try to contribute individual perspectives and anomalous insights into that mainstream of culture, but it's an extremely... it's a mass-scale phenomenon--thoughts, ideas, insights that a hundred thousand people aren't interested in and really can't understand are just not going to get circulated very widely. Our culture is polarizing in certain ways that it makes me wonder how anyone could look at our situation and call it a renaissance. It may well be true that if you believed in arbitrary will, licentious self-indulgence, the ability of people to satisfy various kinds of consumer appetites--it may be very healthy and very exciting from that standpoint, but as a culture, that is to say, as a culture able to foster the values that make people respect values, we seem to me in a very feeble position. What is holding us together are not values, for the most part--in some respect, they are ideologies, in some respect they are economic interests. All that has to happen is a slight shift in the constellation of how people define their self-interest, and we discover that we have a very fragile form of existence. People were willing to accept for decades that the Federal Government, essentially, had the public interest at heart, and that our tax money went for basically benevolent purposes, it was not just a form of extortion, it was not just feeding corrupt interests who have tapped into the governmental feeding trough. When people lose their confidence, they lose their respect for the government, Anti-governmental militias make a very predictable kind of response to that. So much of what I see in terms of how our culture reflects on itself, really, is symptomatic of the envelope of that culture--that is, when we evaluate whether we think we're a basically healthy patient or not, it is, after all, a patient evaluating himself, not a doctor. A millennial or civilizational perspective, that looks back across many different kinds of society, and the kinds of problems they are subject to, the crises they can be afflicted with--a millennial perspective is hardly to be found anywhere in our culture. I mean, I've tried to represent such a thing when I teach the philosophy of history, courses on nihilism, courses on nineteenth-century post-modernism, which I guess is what it should be called... But students typically have never been exposed to these kinds of issues before--they are astonished to find that somewhere in the history of philosophy there have been reflective and critical thinkers who tried to frame these issues in elaborate arguments.
You've been a well-known fantasy illustrator in science fiction, fantasy and comic book fandom... Do you have any perspectives on the comic book field as you've seen it change, and in what ways has fandom redirected itself, from when you first entered into it, to where it is today?  
Well, this may sound paradoxical, but fandom today seems to me much more sophisticated and much less exploratory, at one and the same time. The standards of illustration, reproduction, even to a certain extent, the writing have become far more professionalized. If you did a cross-section and compared the kinds of things being published back in the late sixties with the work that is out there today in '96, there's no question that it's a visual culture of more stringent standards, but it tends to be more obviously barbaric, I would go so far as to say a lot of what we see in comics is really Nazoid. These are the sort of comics that the Nazis would have delighted in--a lot of machismo, a great deal of sexual sadism. The comics, more than perhaps any other field, reflect graphically the arbitrary taste, that is, the willfulness, the satisfaction of the culture of licentiousness: "All is permitted, nothing is prohibited," Nietzsche's famous formula, Dostoyevsky's also, for the culture of nihilism. Comics have eagerly leapt forward to offer that kind of fare. In effect, they've made nihilism ordinary and routine, they've made it popular, they've made it accessible to younger and younger age strata. In one sense, our comics are very directly and naively symptomatic of how the culture has mutated over the past three decades. I think it's harder to use comics today to get people to reflect, to make them self-conscious, self-critical. Comics have become, for the most part, the same kind of spectacle that Hollywood and the blockbuster bestseller lists have given us--they create such a dazzling array of phenomena, of events, action, explosion, etc., etc. They are exactly the kind of vehicle that caters to a mentality that's obsessed with what's going on outside of it, it's looking for self-distraction. It's never an accident that a culture is one-sided in the peculiar way that it is. The most significant thing that you will find in any culture that you look at, whether it's Hopi, or Japanese, or American, or whatever, the most distinctive, defining trait of a culture is really what is missing from the culture, what isn't there any more, what's lacking, what do people no longer have the resources to express and understand. My impression is, as a form of literature, comics may well have missed the boat, it's simply a handful of first-rate writers that still try their hand at it. I don't believe they have the audience to permit them to say philosophically challenging things. Alan Moore is probably the most outstanding example of a comics writer who has tried to get his credo into print in some narrative form. It's not really a very searching philosophy, of course. Anarchism has been put forward by very thoughtful, and literarily very widely-experienced individuals, like Paul Goodman, Herbert Read and others...
Noam Chomsky...  
Yeah, Chomsky, great example. It's very easy to be an anarchist, and in some sense, anarchism betrays the same incoherence with respect to principles, the same bankruptcy with respect to ultimate ideas and values that are rampant in modern culture generally--the belief that there are no ultimate answers concerning what is right, good, true, obligatory, authoritative, etc. This same position which feeds nihilism, terrorism, etc., etc., is also the basis that anarchism takes for granted as its standpoint. It's very easy to say no one should have the right to impose his values on someone else...
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."  
That's right, Rabelais. Of course, he meant that motto to apply to a cultured mentality, what you get when you apply it to one that's devoid of culture is totally different. It's an interesting question how far we can even bend the modern imagination back to philosophical questions... We may have let a certain barbaric genie out of the bottle which we no longer know how to command any longer. If you think about the reality of our diverse, fragmented society, a society in which, once individuals have left the family and the school system, there's no longer any way to challenge them to think about those issues which a responsible, modern citizen ought to have to come to terms with. That's not to say that some viewpoint ought to be imposed on them, or even could be, it's simply to say, that those individuals who want to spend their lives in self-distraction, or for that matter, in self-narcosis... I think the line between modern entertainment and modern pharmaceuticals is a very fuzzy line--they both serve the same purpose: they help individuals to detach themselves from reality.
So what would you say would be the ultimate responsibility of art?  
I think the first problem is that human beings need a sense of traction, they need to be able to get their feet on the ground, they need a sense of what is actually going on, and of course, they're highly unlikely to get this from newspapers or television any longer. Our literature very rarely serves the purpose of rubbing our nose in the grisly circumstances of how life actually is today. I mean, there are exceptions, but, for the most part, all of our literature has become some species of fantasy. As a fantasist, of course, I have a certain stake in this issue. I have always felt that fantasy is indispensable to stretch human beings' sense of what is possible, to get them to realize that the peculiar conventions and habits and customs that they've become inured to--these things are not reality, they're just an artificial construct of some kind. That said, it has to be acknowledged that most forms of fantasy are indeed neurotic, in effect, socially and historically pathological. They temporize, they're pastimes, they are ways of taking human beings out of the context of the troubles and problems and issues of everyday life, they give them hypothetical circumstances that have as little to do with reality as possible. If, in that hypothesis, someone can possibly raise an issue that has something in common with the profile of what's actually the case, that's a remarkable feat. I don't think it's true that most people will be attracted to that. I think we have become a people in whom alienation, including self-alienation, is so routine, we have probably largely lost the taste for the nuances of human nature as it actually occurs, the problems of history and culture, economics, etc., as they actually are. We are in the grip of a great many forces that we would just rather not think about; they're really so hideous, they're dehumanizing. And the privileged few who have a lot of leisure time, enough money to indulge themselves, etc.--those who have the privilege of occupying this envelope of consumer culture, and indulging their appetites as they like--they don't set the general standard; this is not the way things are for the society at large, and it's not the way things are for the whole rest of the world. To me, it's more pathetic, it's more delusional for individuals to want to use their peculiar advantages as if they marked some kind of historical or civilizational standard, in general.
Well, we've drifted a bit far from art. In your personal experience, what compels you to your artistic endeavors?  
Well, Yeats has a great line: "I've tried to hammer my thoughts into unity." And that is a challenge, I think, for someone who tries to understand the variety of different perspectives there are in the world--and not just that exist today--but the many different standpoints from which different cultures have understood themselves--the different values and principles, philosophies, religions, cultures, the strategies that human beings have had for making sense and evoking significance out of the human situation--the more you understand of those strategies and perspectives, the harder it is to put these kinds of issues together into a coherent expression. So for me, the task of writing--whether in philosophy or in comics and fantasy--that task has always been something serving my own purposes first of all; I wanted to know how far these different issues could be brought together synoptically--in one perspective, one eye's viewpoint. I started my Phantasmagoria with a strategy that probably had more in common with the philosophy of history, and philosophy of civilization than with much of anything else: Would it be possible to do the sort of thing that Aesop did with his fables, from a kind of Hegelian standpoint, asking about the forms of civilizations, the kinds of characters and values and interests that different species would have? At that time--I mean, the first issue of the magazine I put together in the early seventies, published it in '71--I mean, at that time, I don't think the issue of the status of modern civilization was being made into a matter of concern by much of anybody. I've tried to elaborate on my concretizing resources, my sense of how these issues apply in individual's lives, how they have an impact on the state of the family, the state of education, etc., etc. The fact that philosophy predominantly is taken to be an abstract pursuit... This is just demented... I don't know, if I could adequately express the kind of contempt I have for that misconception. Philosophy, in most ages, has been understood as the consummate synthesis of all the forms of meaning, significance, intelligence, value, etc., that a given society or civilization had to offer. It wouldn't have been possible to talk about the philosophy of the eighteenth-century if one didn't know its drama, the poetry, etc., etc. Philosophers all through the nineteenth-century were literate human beings, they were cultured. We find it difficult even to translate these things, because our academic system doesn't turn out individuals who have the same breadth of cultural understanding as a Nietzsche or a Hegel or whatever; we produce specialists, and these narrow and basically technical kinds of minds. We may be interested in some of the things that those philosophers had to say, but we really don't have much in the way of philosophers to resonate with them. Our civilization has been tending in a whole other direction, and we have a problem coming to terms with that. Administrators have known for several decades that students, especially undergraduates coming into our universities, need exposure to generally significant issues, they need generalists. But our system doesn't turn out generalists, it doesn't publish them, it doesn't reward them, there's hardly any place for our peculiar kind of narrowed academic culture to absorb them. They create a kind of graphic challenge, they illustrate in a nutshell how our civilization has become... hypocritical is perhaps not strong enough of a word. We profess to educate students, but really, what we're doing is training them. We're giving them less and less of the resources they need in order to be generally competent, to think for themselves in a broad array of different topics and dimensions and methods. We're fitting them to some narrow niche or other, which the university is obliging them to specialize in, in an age when the real society, the actual economy are mutating so fast that virtually no specialty is going to remain valid for more than ten or fifteen years. The need for philosophical intelligence as classically understood, has become more acute than ever, as Alan Bloom insisted. Nonetheless, our educational culture is less competent than ever before to cultivate that kind of wit and insight.
Part of the problem is the enormous amount of knowledge that has been accumulated...  
Well, a human being who has understanding--that is, who has active, living intelligence--he knows how get access to, and how to make use of information, he knows how to organize it, how to criticize it, how to perform quality controls on it, and so forth. The task of information gathering has certainly become infinite, with the proliferation of different forms of scientific investigation, the different specialties and sub-specialties that have cropped up, the mass of academic publications alone has become unmanageable, our universities libraries' capacity has been shot...
There's so much to learn, there's not enough time to learn it, and not enough people to learn it.  
Well, the moral that I draw from this is the futility of trying to keep up in detail with so many different branches of information production, which themselves, really don't have a strong sense, either, of their own significance, their own place within the larger organization of the culture. The culture, I mean, to put it in schematic terms, the culture is chaotizing intellectually; this is the way in which human beings lose a grip on their sense of the whole. It's very easy for us-economically, educationally, professionally, etc.--it's very easy for us to settle into a specific niche, and then of course, some institution will take care of us, our daily work circumstances will decide what we need to know, etc., etc. But none of this has to do with what we need to know and understand as human beings or as actual individuals, this has to do with our extrinsic roles and functions, the uses that this society puts us to. For those who capitulate to circumstances in that way, I'm afraid they are buying short-term clarity and security at the expense of long-term self-responsibility, long-term perspective, perspicuity. It's always, to me, more interesting to talk with students who still have a sense of the questionability of how we live, who may not perfectly accept that these issues are completely settled. Out in the larger society, occasionally I run across some professional, either in business or advertising, or finance or wherever, who realizes his philosophical intelligence may have been for a time awakened, either in college or by arguing and discussing with someone who was not ordinary, someone whose perspective didn't quite conform to what we take as standard. Our society, unfortunately, has become so privatized, I would call it idiotized, everyone settles into their own narrow life-way, their life revolves around their time away from work, their living room, their weekends. Human beings in our form of civilization satisfy or indulge themselves only in their private time, and in that time, they are essentially trying to get away from the pressures, compulsions, conflicts, stress, etc., of their work situation. These two kinds of time the Greeks took for granted as really sub-human--everyone has to spend a certain amount of time laboring, earning money, etc., and that imposes a kind of external compulsion or necessity on the individual. It's a time during which people are more or less subjected to a slavish regime, either that of an employer, or of the rules of money, or whatever it might be. The time human beings spend in recreation, that is, trying to recuperate from hard work, from stress, etc.--recreation is analogous to sleeping, it's a time during which your psyche is trying to knit itself back together the way your body tries to catch up on its metabolic conditions during sleep... The life of communication, of culture, of politics, of self-education, self-enlightenment, philosophical challenges, questions--that whole dimension of existence that the Greeks took for granted as the ultimate purpose of being human--this is something animals have not got, this is the distinctively human dimension--and it has dropped out utterly from our culture. What we think of as culture is really entertainment, it's distraction, it's escapism. We do not reserve the highest and finest, best parts of our lives for self-cultivation, it's something that most people... I mean, people may read, individuals may engage, occasionally, as some certainly do, in a program of self-education, of some sort--even that, to that extent is rare--but the idea of sharing these insights with other people, challenging and being challenged, the life of dialog, the metabolic interaction between one person's perspective and another--without that, the political conversation, the life of private self-cultivation is not complete. We have no place in our civilization... We do not appreciate the conditions under which distinctively human forms of value actually manifest themselves. We are truly a consumer society, one that exists for the sake of the indulgence of private appetites. Those may happen intellectual appetites in a few cases, but for the most part, they're not even that. Students come to realize how much there is to be gained from philosophical interaction... And the idea impacts them, that having left college, they have probably left that opportunity, that medium, that matrix behind, where that kind of thing can be pursued... I found myself over the decades, awakening a kind of appetite for something that really made students realize more than ever how pathetic the normal and ordinary circumstances of our form of society and economy are. What culture could be, which is the same thing as saying what individual intelligence and conscience and judgment could be, essentially gets aborted by our way of living. One very acute culture critic, Edward Dahlberg says, "Our world eats the inner life." It causes human beings to become less enriched,less confident, less concerned... They readily sacrifice an inner dimension of introspection, for the sake of a normal and routine kind of extroversion, which is shot all through our culture, from the way we gather news and information to the way we pursue entertainment, etc. I think, even what we call religion is corrupted with it: I mean, people spend very little time in actual religious meditation--their concept of religion is to go and be preached at. Someone outside them serves the function of a kind of surrogate conscience for them.
Suddenly it seems so obvious why nihilism seems to be so rampant, and so pervasive... (Laughs.) What is there to be done about all this?  
Well, en mass, I don't know that anything can be done, because this involves a kind of authority or a kind of control over people that's just contrary to fact. Human beings will not respect what they do not understand or value, so you cannot command someone that they should become more philosophical or more reflective. I mean, my assumption has always been that those individuals who are capable of seeing and of caring enough not to let this inner life wink out and get snuffed or suffocated--those individuals should be given all the help and challenge and encouragement that it's possible to do, but we're talking about individuals who, in our cultural framework, they're exceptional, they're extraordinary. It is no accident that our culture is as viciously egalitarianizing as it is--we resist and resent individuals who are different, who hold themselves accountable under aristocratic standards... Everything that to us is extraordinary is abnormal, whether that means the village idiot, or a philosopher. The very capacity of someone to see something that the ordinary, average citizen can't see--that is inherently subversive. It was a very instructive argument that Hannah Arrent made, concerning the trial of Adolph Eichmann--what Eichmann was showing us, was how frighteningly ordinary radically thoughtless evil could be... That is to say, once a culture is perpetrated in which thought has been purged as something inefficient, risky, uncontrollable, etc., etc.--once that culture universalizes itself, anything, even the most obviously and heinously evil kinds of things could be perpetrated. There was something about Eichmann that didn't have to do with the peculiarities of Germany or Nazism or whatever... It had to with the modern format of organized existence, and the fact that we make ourselves organizable at the expense of our individual, discretionary, autonomous intelligence. We still think of ourselves as individuals in an economic sense--we have our self-interests, our appetites, which are mine, not yours, etc., etc.--but in the classical sense of individuality, we have no sense of the responsibilities that are inherent in that status; what makes us unlike animals, what makes us unlike Pavlov's dogs, because a society in which human beings don't think, but only behave, is a society in which, of course, human beings are radically conditionable.
Is there a way for a society to organize itself in manners that would, in effect, counteract the effects of nihilism?  
Well, I'm suspicious of the very condition of being conditioned. I think if we trust to organizations to do any of this, we've gone desperately astray. We've entrusted our health care to organizations that increasingly have a profit perspective on the issues, and we will certainly come to regret that, more and more; we've entrusted education to institutions that really have their own self-interest at heart; we've entrusted politics to lawyers, etc. All down the line, the classical forms or media which the ancient world really evolved in order to guarantee the human quality of existence--these systems have failed us, because we have not tried to live up to them with the right kinds of values; we've taken it for granted that we could be passively taken care of in one format after another. All they've done, of course, is turn us into sheep, patients--we are fodder, we're pawns, guinea pigs, however you want to express it. The sense of nihilism, the sense that something was going desperately awry in our entrusting ourselves to the paternalism of modern mass organizations--that is really the core insight of Kafka's entire writings, and Kafka still remains one of the subtlest and sharpest observers of the whole dementia of an inhuman form of culture coming to dominate, one that human beings just mindlessly capitulate to, because for them to do otherwise would be as silly as your dog or cat having its own opinion about where it wants to go when you take it out for a walk. We have by degrees mutated downward into dependence, and our organizations have mutated upward into ascendancy over us, as authorities, really, what Hegel called, earthly gods. These institutions dictate to us the language we'll cultivate, the things we will read, etc., etc. I have no hope that the modern educational system is at all fit to turn out anomalous individuals any longer--they run, of course, utterly contrary, against the grain of everything that those institutions hope to achieve. Those institutions want to make us, as far as possible, commensurable with one another, so that we've been educated in a predictable way--we all know the same things, we take the same things for granted, we're competent to run the same kinds of technology, etc., etc. Education, understood as some kind of voyage of individual self-discovery, went down the tubes a long time ago... This just gives university rhetoric something to bemoan, but it has no intention of reforming itself. Is the patient going to play doctor to himself?
But if those values that you were speaking of are, in themselves, self-correcting, and their snowball effect would counter-effect the effects of nihilism in a culture, then how did we get to the point where we are now?  
Well, they aren't values--understood in the classical sense of philosophical rationality, a sense of one's place in the natural order, an understanding of the character of oneself as a psychological organism. In the classical sense of values, yes, it would be true that values help keep us sane, but we do not have values operative in modern circumstances, we have an ideology, which is an artificial or intellectually contrived idea-system, and this not only is not self-correcting, it's really self-exacerbating. The longer it goes on, the more it caricatures itself, in the same sense in which you might see some elderly person who has become a hermit, and they become more and more eccentric as the years go by, they become more and more perfect caricatures of themselves. If you knew them at age twenty, and then could immediately compare them with how they are at age eighty or ninety, you'd see that they have accentuated certain things that were dominant strains in their personality, their language patterns, etc. A human being who knows how to fight that tendency to exaggerate, the tendency to become one-sided, deformed, etc., etc.--that human being doesn't occur just by accident, that is a human being who has a sense of philosophical perspective on himself or herself. One has to be able to see oneself from the standpoint of the whole, not just the whole society that happens to exist now, but all the many forms that humanity has been capable of taking, whether we're talking about primitive tribes, ancient peoples, medieval, etc., etc. A healthy sense of the differences in national character from one society to another is a very useful philosophical and moral control. You know, occasionally you become too much of an idiomatic or idiosyncratic creature, you get caught up in those things which are distinctively your own, you lose your sense on the whole perspective. The difficulty with modern society is it has triumphed, it has become one encompassing universe, and everywhere it can it exterminates residues of pre-modern perspectives, values, culture, existence, etc. The consequence that follows from this is we have no sense of an outside, we have no standpoint from which we can make a comparison and contrast of how we are with how any other people is. We have naively trusted that academics will preserve some sense of how things used to be, how cultures used to function, but this is fallacious! Academics are, for the most part, moderns, and they have been carefully screened and qualified by an institution that is itself radically modern. Our universities, so far from being an ideologically neutral institution, are really the churches of the modern age--they have a dogma. Really, they are screening individuals for those who intellectualize in academically-acceptable ways. Someone who has too much of a contrarian perspective on things is going to experience problem after problem with the vast majority of faculty members. It's not a system that is congenial to individuation. I think students recognize that conformity to the expectations of the professor is pretty much going to be the cost of admission to graduate school. You know, the professors act, in effect, as gatekeepers for the entire network of professions.
So how did ancient societies avoid what we've fallen prey to?  
Well, they were far less formalized. Education for ancient Greece during the era when it was really at its archaic glory, passing into the age of Socrates and Plato, education was really a matter of reading great paradigms--the great writings of Homer and Hesiod, and so forth. There was no formalized or systematic education in empty grammar, etc. You learn the language by learning how the great masters had used the language, and therefore, you had a model, you had an example in your mind which you could vary, you could follow, etc. Our educational system, of course, is quite the contrary of that, and it originated precisely out of the revolution in education which the ancient Greek Sophists produced. They thought it would be possible to purge education of its specific aristocratic values, to make education into mere technicalities, the mere mastery of mechanical formats--they invented the curriculum as we know it today, the emphasis on grammar, etc. We are, in many ways, not the heirs of the Greeks generally, and certainly not the heirs of Plato, or Socrates or Aristotle--we're the heirs of the Sophists. I'm quite astonished how little even professors of philosophy have studied the way our form of society is really rooted in the ancient order--we owe more to the subversive elements, in antiquity, than we do to antiquity, per se.
Well, would you consider yourself one of the subversives, in your own way?  
Well, a subversive who is also a conservative. I mean, it is a disorienting thing to do to ask people to think according to forms and principles that have become worse than anomalous with us--they're hardly even vestigial, anymore. There just aren't enough examples, I find, among academics, among writers. Thinking that isn't autonomous, that isn't the result of one's own direct mastery of the issues, is not thinking. Someone who is merely manipulating conventionalities is not thinking. Someone who is merely playing with the mechanics of the language, who is asking questions just in terms of verbalisms, and understanding things strictly in terms of verbalisms--this doesn't qualify as thinking. It may look like it to us, but it's not really philosophically penetrating, it's not trying to grasp things in terms of basic organizing principles. It's not looking to understand things In the broadest, most comprehensive and penetrating kinds of terms. Our society has become so ingrown, and we have universalized, or we have made uniform, some peculiar assumptions about how the world is, what nature is, what god and religion and values and morality and politics are. Our assumptions are really so narrow, we have become sophisticated provincials, and our educational system not only makes it possible for people to do this, it encourages and rewards it, for the most part. There's no necessity that people should expose themselves to classical culture, and even if they did try, they would find that most professors in the classics are not prepared to take these kinds of issues up. So, as narrowly bounded as we are by our provincialism, I find I'm certainly doing something in teaching philosophy as I understand it. That tends to have a subversive effect on most of, at least my sharpest students' understanding; they find themselves going into professions--whether librarians, or software engineers, or professors or doctors or whatever--they are able to hold at arm's length the conventions and jargon, the passing ideological fashions in their particular line of work. It has been educational to me to hear back from these students just how useful the philosophical arguments I've given them, and tried to help them develop for themselves, can be. They have a sense of distance from their colleagues, such that they can be critical of things that other people simply get absorbed into, in a sort of thoughtless or subliminal way.
One thing I'd be interested in asking: What were some particular paradigm shifts of your early experience, things where it all just suddenly seemed to re-orient itself to an entirely new way of thinking? Perhaps you could relate some especially profound thoughts or experiences.  
Well, I think one of the most decisive things that helped me glean deeper ranges of argument out of these issues, was the nineteenth-century philosophers, that I find, still, the most biting. Among the ancient Greek philosophers, Heraclitus, prior to Socrates, wrote in a particularly paradoxical and gnomic fashion--he wrote about the lack of absolutes, the constant flux that human beings are subject to, the necessity of being ever on the alert with respect to the life of self-activity and self-cultivation. The more I studied Heraclitus, the more I came to understand those nineteenth-century thinkers--Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kafka, etc.--as really belonging in his lineage. Heraclitus helped capture the root system of these philosophers who otherwise appear so disparate and incommensurable with one another. I mean, here's Nietzsche, who is an avowed anti-Christian, here's Kierkegaard, the very opposite, here's Marx who has very little to say in terms of moral philosophy, he devotes his work instead to the criticism of the objective structures of economics... If you only look at the philosophers taken in their own right and don't consider that there might be some tuning fork in their own background that they aligned themselves with, you can read them indefinitely and not come up with harmonizing insights...
Does that require additional reading of critical writings on them?  
It requires asking what the preconceptions and presuppositions are of these philosophers. I mean, Marx makes many critical evaluations about what he considers the pathological quality of capitalism, etc., and we are so far from having disproved what he said... Indeed, uh, most of the evolution of corporate and high-finance capitalism in the past twenty years can hardly be understood without grasping Marx's laws.
Do you think that's because he wrote it in the first place?  
Oh, no, no no. He understood himself to be describing phenomena that had a life of their own. In some ways, it is true that capitalism has evolved or mutated in order to try to avoid the consequences of the criticism that he made--how to stave off the risk of class-consciousness that would tend to make workers identify their interests as standing in opposition to their employers. We certainly do not have an economic format that mutually favors the interests of all who are involved in the system. That can hardly be said. You know, the towns that made municipal sacrifices for the sake of attracting corporations to bring their plants there, and then find, you know, four or five years later, the plants pull up stakes and move out of the country. You know, capitalism's not serving those communities' interests in the same way it's serving the stockholders and the corporations. It's a very difficult question to resolve, whether there is any correlation, measurable whatsoever, between how the stock market goes and how the actual economy goes; I mean, what's good for the economy, is certainly not necessarily what is good for Wall Street, and vice versa. So there is that much of a gulf between the values of those two worlds. You could ask, just in a narrowly economic context, how could a society that is split into such schizophrenic perspectives on what is economically good hope to answer the question rationally: What is economically valuable, what is a value, in terms of the framework of economics? As a people, we have a conflicted mentality on these kinds of issues, and it's of course not by accident, that's the whole character of the fabric of the culture. The issues that these philosophers raise are the decisive central controversial issues that go to the heart of what makes modern civilization work, what is the motor, the motive force, the prime mover in the way we live and think. We no longer have the resources, or for that matter, the motive to want to understand these issues as sharply and clearly as they did. They had the advantage of coming along at a time when they still had access to pre-modern resources of understanding; they had a philosophical reach outside the system of modern culture, as a consequence. We are more and more immired in the envelope of what we take for granted--if we see some problem, it is a specific problem, it's something that has a very pointed character to it, we don't see the larger framework, the context that that has to be put in--you know, what's the significance of this difficulty, why is this difficulty symptomatic and epidemic in the peculiar way that it is?
Do you have any final comments that you'd like to make, in summary?  
Well, I take for granted, I guess, the same thing that our optimistic science fiction prophets do: We're going to be living in an age of vast revolutionary change, we already are living in such an age--if you look back over the past thirty or forty years, we already live in a science-fictional world, we live in a world that would be utterly unrecognizable to our grandparents. We can expect further mutation, accelerating change, not just in terms of technology, but in terms of the social forms that we have to take for granted. If the United States is really in the process of third-world-izing itself, we can take it for granted that politics as well as economics is going to change. The schizophrenia of the culture between those who have a sort of state-of-the-art competence in technology and finance and so forth, and those who've learned to adapt to much more primitive kinds of conditions, and whose life-form may be closer to that of the third world for the foreseeable future--how are these people going to coexist? I mean, every place they come in contact now, there's some kind of conflict and potential risk. Whether we can remain a single society that has a common basis of humanity--this is a philosophical issue in itself, and for human beings to come to terms with it requires for them to have a developed sense of philosophical intelligence. I believe it's the task of writers and artists, as well as of educators, to try and make their readers and students as reflective as possible about what the contemporary actualities of life are. Every institution otherwise tends to create a vicious condition of cultural lag, it tends to trap people in the ways of thinking and seeing that were common twenty, thirty, forty years ago.
Well, hopefully, we'll have thinkers such as yourself to document and criticize our world...  
More and better, we hope.
More information on Kenneth Smith can be found at http://kennethsmith.ueuo.com
 Neil Gaiman 1 | Neil Gaiman 2 | Neil Gaiman 3
David Brin | Robert Williams | Evan Dorkin