Notes on history: The thinkers and the doers

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By 2018-01-14

By Uditha Devapriya

The 15th and 16th centuries were largely eras of intellectual development in the West. These were eras of polyglots and versatile thinkers, whose preoccupation with whatever fields they worked in did not hinder them from exploring other fields. Da Vinci was in that sense a giant, with his range of interests extending to not just sculpting, not just painting, but also mathematics and music. The same could have been said of Michelangelo and Islamic Civilization (the latter of which saw its peak from the 9th to the 13th centuries): in these epochs we see polyglots as more the rule than the exception. They also came in a particular order, and were conditioned by their respective cultural ethos: the Muslim world with its paradoxical affirmation and defiance of Islam, and the Christian world with its as paradoxical trysts with deism.

But the sensibility of these centuries gave way to a sensibility of specialization, on the material and the intellectual plane. The Industrial Revolution, with its differentiation on the one hand between capitalists and workers and on the other between art for minorities and objects for mass consumption, oversaw a veritable bifurcation, which congealed into a world inhabited by either thinkers or doers. Adam Smith's famous hypothesis about the pin factory, in which various levels of production are categorized and compartmentalized for greater efficiencies and output, applied pretty much to everything else: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest," he wrote, and in that sentence he identified self-interest with a need to compartmentalize ourselves, to specialize in a given field of activity that would, theoretically, do away with the need for versatility and self-sufficiency. It was a culture of doers and dependents, of masters and slaves, in one respect, and of thinkers and doers, of philosophers and businessmen, in another respect. Karl Marx would later term this differentiation in the capitalist world as the rift between the base and the superstructure: between the multitude and the elite. The one needed the other.

Long before heresies became an established practice in a secularized West, heresies were entertained and even covertly encouraged in the Muslim world. The great Muslim philosophers – Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Gazali and Averroes – exerted a profound influence over a pre-Industrial West, but they were not automatically accommodative of the conventional wisdoms and the orthodoxies that ran riot in their societies. Al-Farabi went as far as to suggest that God (of the Koran, no less) did not or could not know the particular (the contingent), rather only the general (the universal), which was an extension of Plato's thesis of universal forms and their mimesis in the realm of the secular. In other words, the function of the secular thinker was to obtain particulars from universals. God existed to rule over the latter, while us mortal beings existed to rule over the former. My point here, hence, is that four or five centuries before European heretical thinking became the rule, the Muslim world flourished with such heresies. The secular was not always the preserve of Europe.

It's with the progression (or regression?) in the Muslim world from the secular to the anti-secular, and in the Christian world from the anti-secular to the quasi-secular (quasi, because even the most profoundly secular thinker, as Professor Nalin de Silva has observed, could not escape the clutches of the two-valued logic system that was more or less a Judeo-Christian inheritance), that we see a deterioration in the values that propped these civilizations up, intellectually, at their peak. What I'd like to observe here is that history, with all its shifts of affiliations and tempers (ranging from wars between countries and collectives and conflicts or grudges between heads of State), is very often a good indicator of how the world regressed on the intellectual plane from versatility to specialization, from cohesiveness and openness to enclosure and compartmentalization. The rift between thinkers and doers hence opened its wings more widely with the development of capitalism, which is where we move from the 19th to the 20th centuries and a key aspect or constituent of that rift.

In the 20th century we see, as has been frequently noted before, the peak of capitalism and communism. These two ideologies evolved in pretty much the same era (the closest to a Hegelian conflict that we got to), shifting from cohabitation to mutually assured destruction to detente. Economic systems, however, never always result purely from themselves, and are the consequences of a certain culture, a certain way of looking at things. The fact then is that both capitalism and communism retained the welter of Western thought which both identified with as the years progressed: that of the material over the intellectual, that of tying up the intellectual with the material (in capitalism: the managerial system to harness the power of labour; in communism: the collectivist system to harness the power of commonly owned resources). In other words the intellectual and the artist became vassals to both consumerists and collectivists. Knowledge became instrumental, a means rather than an end.

The scientist, who earlier had been a harbinger of good intentions, was now an evil man after Hiroshima. During the Cold War it was the activist, the artist, the peace-lover, who gained prominence and popular empathy. Professionals, or the doers as conventional wisdom has it, were on the other hand looked down on. In The Doctor's Dilemma Bernard Shaw contends, rightly I should think, that "All professions are conspiracies against the laity," which was contorted in a Reader's Digest article I read as a child and misquoted (or paraphrased) as "A self-regulated profession is an insult to the laity." Whichever of the two you pick, it's the same story: the profession, the vocation, which was a product of the Industrial Revolution deteriorated to a network of moneyed, vested interests operating in the private sphere: doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and academics in general. But not artists.

But then we must understand that the popular image of the artist as a lonely bachelor or spinster (as opposed to the busy, married husband and wife the professional is identified as), whiling away the time doing nothing, has persisted, and it is here that we come across a fatal contradiction in our societies, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Taoist: the professionals are taken seriously, the artists are not. Not that the artists themselves have done themselves any favours, of course, particularly thanks to their penchant for obfuscations, for their blatant preference for ideological haziness and obscurity over vigour and clarity, after the advent of postmodernism. The separation of the thinker from the doer subsists in the arts, for the most, in the separation of the critic, the purveyor, from the artist, the performer. Two people. Two sensibilities. Two ways of discerning the world. Two ways of responding to that world.Isn't it ironic that the greatest theories expounded on the cinema and photography – especially in the most formative years of these art forms – were expounded not by the practitioners of the art but by theorists cut off from that same art? Neither Susan Sontag (On Photography) nor Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida) was an exponent of photography, and what they wrote, the thinking that buttressed these writings, was a product of their enthusiasms. Pauline Kael, who purveyed the movies more wildly and freely than any other critic in the history of the medium, was once employed by Warren Beatty as a consultant to Paramount Pictures; despite her reviews and rants and raves against the Hollywood studios, it took some months for her to comprehend fully the problem of art versus commerce that subsisted in those closeted studio quarters. She had only purveyed the movies: her short tenure helped her understand the power relationships that went into the making of those movies more clearly.

When criticism is cut off from the arts, when theorists and ideological obscurants and iconoclasts (for were not the postmodernists iconoclasts, shielded as they were from popular public opinion?) rule the day, and when experiences can't be conveyed to the general public without resorting to hazy generalisations, they no longer become valid.

I can enjoy a movie, however obscure it may be, by Antonioni or Fellini or for that matter Handagama, but when directors contend that works of art must be aimed not an mass entertainment but at esoteric tastes, the films they churn out in the name of Art (with a capital A) lose their sense of exhilaration, a point which I think can also be made of music, literature, drama, dance, and theatre too. The surest sign of a philistine is his ability to make clear to us his intentions, and our philistines in the arts have succumbed to the intellectualisations (real or imagined) of their purveyors and critics.The sensibility embodied in the post-Industrial Revolution world flourishes on such intellectualizations, particularly in the arts, and they seek to make the artist, who really should be but is not a professional (he lacks the defining qualities of the professional: frequency and stability of income, client relationships, deadlines and so forth), the vassal of the ivory tower thinker. Which brings me to a point I've raised more than once in more than one newspaper: in a country like Sri Lanka, where theatre and cinema and even music remain leisurely and not common activities, such a rift, between thinkers and doers on the one hand and performers and purveyors on the other, can prove to be detrimental, for our artists and our cultural spheres. It's a crazy paradox, certainly.

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