Susan Neiman’s new book is a brilliant inquiry into the current infantilization of culture.
I have been meaning to write about this book for a long time, which I originally overlooked because of the overly “pop” cover – one would think that this was a book about the perils of junk culture written in a simple, crowd-pleasing manner, but no – this is a text which seriously wrestles with the questions of why we value what we value, and what value this has for us as human beings. It’s a remarkable accomplishment in every respect.
It’s a dense text, but bears its scholarship lightly, and reminds me of nothing so much of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols in its compactness and economy, even if Neiman’s views are markedly different on a number of topics that both texts examine.
Reviewing Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantie Age in The New York Times on June 15, 2015, A.O. Scott noted that “the ‘infantile age’ she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. ‘Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,’ she writes, ‘and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs’ than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way.
Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, ‘the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.’
How are we supposed to become free, happy and decent people? Rousseau’s Emile supplies Neiman with some plausible answers, and also with some cautionary lessons. A wonderfully problematic book — among other things a work of Utopian political thought, a manual for child-rearing, a foundational text of Romanticism and a sentimental novel — it serves here as a repository of ideas about the moral progress from infancy to adulthood. And also, more important, as a precursor and foil for Kant’s more systematic inquiries into human development . . .
In infancy, we have no choice but to accept the world as it is. In adolescence, we rebel against the discrepancy between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’ Adulthood, for Kant and for Neiman, ‘requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.’ It is a state of neither easy cynicism nor naïve idealism, but of engaged reasonableness.”
Neiman, who also is the director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, has been working with many of these ideas before in her earlier texts, but this volume seems almost a distillation of all of her previous work into one spare, epigrammatic volume – easy to digest, but never suffering fools gladly – provided, of course, that one is also willing to engage fully with the many other philosophers she cites throughout the book.
In an era in which pop culture has become inescapably junk culture, Neiman finds much to value on the web and elsewhere, provided that one is willing to look for it, and then read and/or view it. The problem, of course, is the plethora of material available in the digital world, and the fact that so much of what is superficial and useless rises to the top in terms of popularity, while more thoughtful work is marginalized, with no real way to find it – unlike the analog era, in which one could still browse through the book stacks on any given topic, and harvest a range of critical voices.
This is an essential volume for anyone interested modern culture, and its numerous “discontents.”