Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Franzen on Kraus

This is too long for my taste, but it certainly has its moments:
Kraus's Vienna was an in-between case – like Windows Vista.
Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can't face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn't really a problem; we can't even agree on how to keep healthcare costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense.  
To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting "Whoa!" 
Some nice bits of Kraus too:
Present in body, repellent in spirit, perfect just the way they are, these times of ours are hoping to be overtaken by the times ahead, and that the children, spawned by the union of sport and machine and nourished by newspaper, will be able to laugh even better then … There's no scaring them; if a spirit comes along, the word is: we've already got everything we need. Science is set up to guarantee their hermetic isolation from anything from the beyond. This thing that calls itself a world because it can tour itself in fifty days is finished as soon as it can do the math. To look the question "What then?" resolutely in the eye, it still has the confidence to reckon with whatever doesn't add up. And the brain has barely an inkling that the day of the great drought has dawned. Then the last organ falls silent, but the last machine goes on humming, until even it stands still, because its operator has forgotten the Word.


  1. It's funny, but it seems like every blog I visit and every Twitter feed I look at is suddenly about this. "In cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads" indeed!

    At first I was indifferent; then I disliked it vaguely; then I disliked it quite intensely; and by now I'm back to disliking it rather more vaguely again. There are two things in particular that I don't like.

    1) "To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. [...] [Y]ou'd think it was inconceivable that eastern Europe could liberate itself from the Soviets without the benefit of cellphones, or that a bunch of Americans revolted against the British and produced the US constitution without 4G capability."

    The liberation of Eastern Europe happened long after Kraus wrote, and thus long after technological progress had supposedly been decoupled from moral progress already. Thus, reading Franzen himself – or his gloss on Kraus at any rate – you'd think it inconceivable that Eastern Europe could liberate itself from the Soviets whether there were cell phones or not. If things were already wholly bad morally in Kraus's time and have been going downhill ever since, how it is possible that things such as the events of 1989 are possible at all?

    It's never clear in writing of this type why the later progress away from the horrors which the world experienced during Kraus's own lifetime is not supposed to count as "moral and spiritual progress". It would be one thing to question the extent to which they so count, but the claim between the lines is invariably that they do not count in the slightest. It's as if "high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi" are enough to balance the scale when its other cup has the Holocaust and the Gulag Archipelago. This is not deep and it's not thought-provoking, it's just crass. More so than twenty million smartphone videos combined.

  2. 2) "If I'd been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending."

    Well, no. Life expectancy being what it was, throughout human history up until the first half of the twentieth century, you'd probably have been dead long before you made 53. As late as Kraus's lifetime, even in the most prosperous Western countries, the mere fact of survival until a baby's first birthday raised the baby's statistical life expectancy by approximately 6 or 7 years; and fully one quarter of children died before reaching adulthood.

    I can illustrate this by an autobiographical example. As long as my mum lived, I was in the belief that she'd had six siblings – all but one of whom had lived to see me. This seemed to be confirmed by the very elaborate family tree we'd had had drawn up in the '80s, going back to the eighteenth century, which had pride of place on my parents' bedroom wall. But when she died three years ago, an official family tree had to be drawn up from birth and death certificates, to allow her will to be probated. And I then discovered that I'd had three uncles whom I'd never heard of – the reason being that each of them had died shortly after birth, and been written out of history for this reason. One of them was born three years after my mum and lived six months, so she had to have remembered him however vaguely, yet she never spoke a word about the matter.

    So, well into the second quarter of the twentieth century, premature death was so everpresent in everyday life in Europe (in peacetime, not to even mention war) that babies were more or less written off like a crashed car if they died. Whereas if I or my sister had died before my mum, I'm sure her whole life would have collapsed in an instant, perhaps never to recover completely. The same will in turn go for my nieces, their own kids, and every new generation for the foreseeable future.

    To me, this jump-like increase in the perceived value of human life – in the course of one single generation of humans, that of my parents – is just astonishing. Again, in all the writings of Franzen and his kind, there is not a single word about this. Franzen imagines himself at the age of 53 in the Middle Ages as if it would have been just as normal and unremarkable to survive that long then as it is now. Which itself calls out for a lambasting worthy of Kraus, if you ask me.

    I was reminded of the old Situationist slogan from the 1968 Paris Spring: the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom. The reply to this is that there's such a thing as Maslow's hierarchy of needs. To be able to die of boredom requires that you haven't died of starvation first.

    1. To be able to die of boredom requires that you haven't died of starvation first.

      Indeed. Thanks.

  3. Yes, things are not just getting worse.

    I think there's truth in the idea that the substance of our lives is total distraction, but obviously this does not apply to everyone. And it isn't a very new phenomenon any more. Maybe Franzen's piece as a whole is less than some of its parts.

    1. Oh, I'm sure that is the case. When he complains about even Salman Rushdie going on Twitter, I feel like making an analogous complaint about even Jonathan Franzen giving in to what he does give in to. He is self-reflexive about it, to a not insignificant degree, but still not quite as much to make me forgive.