Of the many personal messages I received in the last week on the Cost of Empire series, the most fascinating and troubling came from my friend Larry Gross. Larry is the most unique of Hollywood hybrids, the screenwriter/philosopher. He wrote classics like Walter Hill’s 48 Hoursand Clint Eastwood’s True Crimeand yet is deeply schooled in philosophy from Hegel to Baudrillard. Here’s a bit of what he wrote me.
Congratulations on this piece which is definitely important. I think there is one dimension further your analysis has to reach. One has to see how the totalizing vision of Wilson, Cold War, and the current neo-con Fantasia, are literally, to some extent,the bastard step children of certain impersonal consequences of technological change–the same change that has allowed for “universal” market solutions to economic problems. What I know you know better than most is that every dangerous expansion of military ambition in the 20th century by America has been accompanied by, if not created in part by, a massive unleashing of technological growth. We know the most recent and most important such moment was the birth of the Internet as an instrument of Defense department nuclear policy–War has been in addition to being the most wasteful and destructive thing about our planet’s 90 uninterruptedly horrific years, the medium by which wholesale developments of human capability have arisen. This excruciating paradox exactly parallels the growth of global capitalism, that which has “freed and liberated” so much human energy in this century, while destroying, wasting, and irrevocably corrupting so much at the same time.
The great counterculture visionary Norman O Brown (Life Against Death, Love’s Body) wrote a chastened essay during the Free Market’s last moment of apotheosis, the year 1990,after the conservative ideologue’s greatest moment, the collapse of the Eastern bloc: “Capitalism has proven itself more dynamic—i.e.Dionysian–than socialism. its essential nature is to be out of control: exuberant energy exploiting every opportunity to extract a surplus, that is what free enterprise means.”
It reminds me a little of a great essay William James wrote about the need to discover somehow “A Moral Equivalent for War”… your account of the ruinous effects of war on our system needs to be expanded to begin another of layer of analysis–what part of our souls, our bodies, our desires, have ineradicable needs for War–and I’m not just making some Jungian-Hobbesian rant about the darker side of our natures–though Dionysis, Norman O Brown’s hero and Nietzche’s does talk that talk sometimes–or in other words how has war–and American exceptionalism, and all the horrors it has and is instituting in our world right as we speak, been an improper expression of drives and needs in us, and not just us…that will always need to find expression?
It seems to me that this deeply troubling paradox is one that we need to wrestle with. Is our “exuberant energy exploiting every opportunity to extract a surplus” capable of being channeled in less destructive directions? This of course is probably the critical question for the planet as a whole. Whether through war or the exploitation of the environment we do not seem to be able to put a check on our Dionysian instincts.
Given that I have been recently engaged in a generational argument (I think a false one) with one of our correspondents, it might be churlish of me to point out that part of the joy of living in 1969 was the ability to channel Dionysis into music and art and other ecstatic realms of the spirit. But here again we faced the paradox, because in the back of our minds we knew that some of our high school classmates were risking their lives for no good reason in the Swamps of Vietnam. The writer Norman O. Brown, who Larry referenced tried to deal with this dialectic. I don’t know if his solution was right, but I throw it out to the community in hopes of creating a dialogue.
It is possible to be mad and to be unblest, but it is not possible to get the blessing without the madness; it is not possible to get the illuminations without the derangement. And so there comes a time–I believe we are in such a time, when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new.