Any understanding of antiquity has been horribly foreshortened in our culture. We are all too sure that ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Egypt and ancient Persia have nothing to do with us now, here today in New York. They are too far away in time, these traditions. The Hebrew tradition that gave us the Lamentations of Jeremiah is beyond remote. How can we imagine that the original Jeremiad could affect us. How could we think, in the way we are taught to today, that antiquity anywhere is related to any of our historical currents. How could they be related to or informative of our cultural responses, we must be saying on that way mentality speaks to psychology. Could something like the prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations inform how we write today? It should. Anyone’s protest writing would only be improved by contact with Jeremiah and all subsequent Jeremiads in our long cultural tradition in the west–and there is a long and vibrant tradition in the west. How we engage our social commentary in the media or in our personal lives might be informed by this contact (although too many branches or organs of the media defer to the monied elite, often in the seemingly benign case of sponsors; that is, when they are not deferring to the power elite or remain controlled and operated by monied elites, or those who are partnered with other monied elites). What could history teach us–teach anyone in a city of New Now Never Nonetheless? How could we imagine that antiquity could even hold any fascination for us, when the history of five or six decades ago is lost on us. We are thoroughly tempo-centric. We are so to fatal degree. In the matter of cultural survival, we are blind. In the matters of cultural diffusion over time, we are deaf and dumb. It is perhaps not ever, or not yet, criminal in a socially ethical sense, this tempo-centrism we suffer–although I am convinced that it is. It might as well be criminal for how it leaves (has left) far too many of us at loss for what happens or is happening in the world. Too many of geo-political moves and decisions are based on too little historical understanding. Our geo-political consciousness, or our acumen for reading crises in the world, is crippled, maybe? We are definitely mentally challenged. We remain condemned to relive the horrors of history. We will continue to make the same mistakes as we have made before, and those who have a half-awareness of this pattern of repetition will dismiss our being remiss with an assessment of our repetitive actions as facts of nature, as part of some vaster overarching determinism.
This New York I live in today is perhaps the place most like Jerusalem of the third century before the common era when the prophet Jeremiah was writing the prototype for all Jeremiads. I remember what Harry Truman said when someone asked him why he was reading Plutarch’s Lives; the haberdasher president said, “To know what’s going on in Washington.” But then, who is Harry Truman to anybody today; he was president during the Korean War, okay. He was FDR’s final Vice President, and the man who took office at the close of World War II when FDR died in office. What does that have to do with us today, too many of my students in remedial English classes in CUNY have asked–perhaps the question in itself part of the problem. The Korean War was in the early 1950s, and that’s now nearly seventy years ago. Anyone 18 in 1951 is 82 this year, if not dead. (You will have to revise the arithmetic, if innumeracy is not one of your issues.) Korean War vets will soon be gone; most have already disappeared–most is only more than half.Viet Nam era vets, 18 year olds, let’s say, in 1965, are going to be 68 this year, or are so already, right on the threshold of old age, having already begun to collect Social Security. The youngest Persian Gulf War vets are now pushing forty.What is our perspective in this culture, as horribly tempo-centric as we are. We do believe that now is the best of times; there are some of us who are convinced with or without the words to accompany this belief that now is the only time. Even multiculturalism in the academies of learning suffers this historical myopia, as well as suffering from a cultural hyper-focus about the very cultures they study.
We love the word authentic, but that’s as much a word from advertising as it is from social science, and it has never, as far as I have understood, had any valence in the academy among serious social scientists. But ad-men, mad-men and the popular man have never been completely kept out of the academies of what we once understood to be higher learning. And the learning was higher, hierarchically ordered along stages of ascent. Now the axis has been toppled on its side; everything is horizontal, which might not be the worst that our university pedagogy has suffered. We imagine we can appropriately arrange the vertical axis horizontally, and perhaps we might still be able to do this. This is one of our grosser misconceptions socially, intellectually, academically, scholarly; that merely setting thew hierarchy on its side was enough, was in itself going to bring about a broader dissemination of dialogue. The notion of authenticity, though, in cultural studies, is only acceptable if it remains marketable, able to be packaged with slogans attached and dogmas understood ahead of time. Advertising has come to the university.
Any authentic culture in this country is misunderstood–it is only allowed to appear if it wears an acceptably marketed dress over a solid American bourgeois capitalist pseudo-white mannequin. I do not have the inclination at present to delineate this along the many lines of ethnic or racial authenticity that the marketplace dictates, mostly via the images generated by the media, organized by advertisers in the service of capital. The medium is the message and the image, and the image is the identity. I have no delusions or illusions about whether this goes on in the academy as well–it does. The marketplace and the mandates of advertising have thoroughly permeated academic thinking, teaching and research. What our college educated and professorial elite maintain in their new rainbow colored towers, once the Ivory Tower painted parti-colored, are focussed primarily on package, because product does not matter, could not matter it has been concluded and subsequently enforced as dogma. Put a pretty bow on shit and you can sell it–and selling is the driving force of all ideas in the academy. In fact, the university barely resembles what the university was or has been in our Western tradition–and yes, there is a western tradition. Universities exist in a parallel way with department stores. Professors are clerks selling interestingly packaged ideas, themselves no deeper than what we have always gotten from advertisers getting us to buy goods, most of which were as much about package if not more about package than product. Yes, we have gone from the Ivory Tower to a multicultural tower most likely in the image of the one at Babel. But before I asserted that the hierarchy had been toppled–not the hierarchy of power and authority and influence; just the hierarchy of evaluation.
From where have we come; to where are we going? Questions repeating themselves without answers; questions for the sake of questioning; questions garnering responses in themselves counted, listed, ledgered. We seem unwilling to turn away from misguided attempts to understand our place in the world; our comprehension of our place in history has been horribly fore-shortened; what then must we do, Luke asked. Tolstoy himself also asks the same question. We too ask the question, only we do so with the intention of forestalling all other questions.