Bell III: Fear and Trembling at Tsinghua
Daniel Bell makes me think of Kierkegaard. Well, actually, I should be honest — everything, including salad croutons, makes me think of Kierkegaard. I’m the Existential version of that kid from the Sixth Sense — I see Kierkegaard (and Existential analogues) everywhere. It’s a strange phenomenological experience to be inside my head. This time I think it’s true, though. Bell’s discussion of “local knowledge” — and I owe this insight to Peony — sounds to me to have a real existential dimension. Well, maybe. I wonder if Bell has visited Copenhagen? Ah — I’ll explain below.
In my first post on Bell, I commented on what I take to be the central message of the first hundred pages of East Meets West, namely that the particular trumps the universal. In other words, values come into existence from local contexts. They are like specific and unique flowers that grow into the plants they are as a way of expressing the unique local soil and particular local climate conditions they exist in. Values that claim to have a trans-local origin or justification are rejected by Bell as far as I can tell (and so most typical American universalist-oriented liberalism would be in trouble to some degree, especially given the way in which such people wield human rights claims that do not claim to have their origin and justification in local contexts).
What interests me here is the fact that Existentialists often make a similar claim about what it means to live an authentic life. Authentic lives, they often argue, are inherently local ones. They emerge from and grow — and flourish — inside very intentionally embodied local commitments, knowledge, and practices. The more a lifestyle drifts from the local and into “general” talk that is disconnected from one’s lived local world, the more inauthentic it becomes.
Kierkegaard and Heidegger perhaps had the most to say directly about this phenomenon, although Nietzsche says a bit as well. Although the portraits given of inauthenticity by these three are not the same, they share some similarities. After all, Heidegger’s “Das Man” (the “one”) and Kierkegaard’s “public” and Nietzsche’s “herd” seem to be three names for the same cancer. As I mentioned, inauthentic people tend to be disconnected from the specific worlds in which they live. Usually, Existentialists read this failure as a refusal to choose a direction in life from the ones that one’s particular situation make available. It’s a refusal to take life seriously (and passionately!) by embracing commitment.
Instead, the inauthentic drift — mostly in self- deception about their own condition. The inauthentic can express their disconnection in interesting ways, though — usually it is expressed in actions that make one feel connected, but without actually being so. As Kierkegaard might put it, the inauthentic are good at “play acting” at being serious. Instead of participating in revolutions, they plan them, and then put off execution so that they can plan them all over again the next day.
The reason for inauthenticity is sometimes explained through fear or anxiety. Typically, the Existentialists say, real “choice” is a scary and anxiety-driven affair. To make a real commitment requires risk. A real commitment is one that a person must do alone, without the approval of others. Given that values (and lives) are local, for the Existentialist only the individual can truly make the decisions about what is or isn’t the right path. There is no way for another person to know that my path is the right one for me. Any kind of “general” knowledge about what is right (and thus removed from local context!) is immediately suspect. As a result, the risk comes from the fact that one could always be wrong — one could waste one’s life in delusion and bad choices.
As a result, the fear that comes with authentic choices can drive us into the arms of a variety of different kinds of soothing medications (but medicine, that Nietzsche would say, that is far worse than the disease!). The medicine: “crowds”. In the crowd, we can find approval, we can find life-choices that are embraced and authorized by many, we find “general knowledge” that allows us to huddle together and assure each other that we’re doing things the right way.
The crowd, unfortunately, is “untruth” as Kierkegaard puts it. Crowds are not individuals; the “group think” of a crowd is an abstraction that connects up with no particular context or local situation. The crowd is no one, and yet it speaks for all. The crowd is the “average” of all of the individuals that compose it, trying it’s best to abstract from the real local differences that ground the reality of its constituent individuals. When we listen to the voice of the crowd, we are robbed of our “connection” in this way. We engage with life in a way that has little to do with the local realities of the world we actually live in, on an individual and particular level.
For Kierkegaard, when we live in the will of the unreal “public” we begin to live our lives in accord with what Heidegger calls “idle talk” or gossip. The crowd allows us to remain distracted — it offers us its opinion on the affairs of people and places we have no real connection to, and it entices us with superficial engagements with those people’s lives. It keeps us far away from our own particular lives. We become entranced with the life of Britney Spears. We read the Enquirer. We (in the connection to the Internet) become engaged with the lives of others through Facebook, but always in non-commital superficial and risk-free ways. Anything that gets us away from our own lives. Commenting on Spears costs me nothing, it requires little engagement or embodiment in her actual world. No investment. But it allows me the illusion of participation. One is reminded of a great passage from Nietzsche (I won’t quote the whole thing, it’s rather long):
Not to be dead, but no longer living — a spirit-like intermediate being, quietly observing, floating, gliding. Like the boat with white sails gliding like an immense butterfly over the dark sea. Yes! To move over existence! That’s it! That would be something!
Nietzsche’s description of a superficial engagement with life, and the enticement of such a life, is the main cautionary tale in Existentialism. We are called upon to reject the “risk free” and superficial engagements with issues we know nothing about (and do not want to invest the time to know about) and to reconnect in a passionate way with the very particular worolds that we live in. We are called upon to no longer “dabble” in a detached way, but rather to embody ourselves in passionate local (and risky!) commitments.
And now to the Tsinghua Existentialist, Daniel Bell. I wonder whether Bell’s maxim,
The particular trumps the universal
is meant to remind us of the importance (and authenticity) of local commitment. When reading through Bell’s work, one can get the impression that he thinks the liberal Western human rights advocate is, in a way, a dabbler of sorts. The Western rights theorist comes to the local scene, armed with “the consensus of the crowd” (this or that a priori claim about rights) and applies it in a judgmental fashion to the problem at hand. The Western liberal is an unreal abstraction — a representation of the ‘average’ man or herd-member –armed with a priori abstraction (gossip, idle talk) that allows for the play acting of seriousness.
Such an approach, one might argue, requires little risk. It requires little investment in the sense that the Existentialists suggest. One floats “superficially” over the local worlds one likes to observe, casting one’s opinion in the same way that one might remark on the life of Britney Spears. No need to dive into the actual particular world — that would require embodiment and investment. One can interact with these particular worlds without ever really having to “join them” (making a ‘choice’ about who one is, or will be). One always remains, in the sense that Nietzsche might suggest, “at a distance” and “floating over existence”. Not to be dead, but no longer living?
If Bell would agree to this Existential way of reading his criticism of the Western rights theorist, we might suggest that such a person is inauthentic. Their very way of approaching the world is not particularly serious. It is born of a desire for distraction, to amuse oneself with the glitter of cultures (the East, in this situation) that one doesn’t want to remain in for long, nor to really take seriously. Instead, Bell wants us to be authentic, to engage cultures by commiting to them — by embracing local knowledge. His way of understanding the right way to engage in rights discourse would require the person to deeply invest themselves in one culture. It would require risk. It would require a specific commitment to understanding life as it is in one local world. It would require becoming part of that world. It would require a kind of self-transformation that I would suspect Bell thinks the Western liberal theorist has no interest in. Or: that the Western liberal theorist fears.
Well, or so it seems after a few beers.
Note: Click here to download Bell’s 1994 piece, a book review of The Limits of Liberal Justice, by Brian Barry.