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The Two Cultures Revisited: on Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

By Jared Marcel Pollen.

Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker, Penguin 2018.

Does the Enlightenment require a defense? Aren’t its truths demonstrative and self-evident? In 2018, that a book like Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now should even be written suggests that the movement that began in the seventeenth century needs to be reaffirmed. Pinker’s book is a brilliant and triumphant work. Over the course of nearly 600 pages we’re treated to a data-bath of good news: polls, distributions and upwardly curving graphs. Virtually everything about human life has gotten better: we’re freer, healthier, smarter than ever before, we’re more reasonable, democratic, affluent, tolerant, conscientious, more peaceful and more secular; the rich are getting richer, but so are the poor, the pie is getting bigger and the gap of inequality is not widening; child mortality is at a historic low; we’re less violent, less superstitious and less at the mercy of the elements that threaten to wipe our species off this earth for good.

People like Niall Ferguson, who has been an occasional critic of Pinker, has described this as the “everything is awesome” outlook, a Panglossian optimism about “the best of all possible worlds,” which was rightly mocked by Voltaire in Candide. Pinker is often wrongly characterized as an optimist, because optimism typically requires a naïve confidence that things will improve when it is not at all clear that they will. It is a feeling, not an argument. In this case, there is no need to see the glass as half full. The evidence that human life is better now than ever before is overwhelming. We know of course, that everything is not awesome. Nor does Pinker claim it is. Still, a book like Enlightenment Now has to face up to the corollary waiting at the summit of all its data: why then, aren’t we happy? It’s a hobbyhorse question, sure––far too vague to nail down. But it’s one that still requires serious thinking because it is the question that lies at the heart of the Enlightenment.

I should declare now that I’m a huge fan of Pinker. I love his work and I have no real quarrel with his thesis. And what business does a novelist and occasional critic have weighing in on such questions? Only that when it comes to addressing happiness, a question Pinker anticipates and dedicates a whole chapter to, he takes several swipes at my kind; that is, the literary culture of artists, critics and intellectuals, what Pinker calls the “Second Culture,” borrowing the term coined by C.P. Snow in his 1959 book The Two Cultures.

Pinker dislikes the term pessimism, and prefers “declinism.” There are two culprits. The first are the newsmakers, who Pinker rightly contends, disproportionately report stories of death, war, murder, rape, terror, political factioning and injustice, and he explains how regular exposure to these stories lead us to make rash generalizations about the state of things as a whole. This is verifiable. We know that people who consume large amounts of news often have more pessimistic outlooks and believe their societies to be in decline, despite believing that their own lives have improved. Pinker assigns this to the “optimism gap.” The second culprit is the Second Culture, who carry the same pessimism as the average news watcher who turns of the TV in disgust and declares, “ah, the whole world’s goin’ to hell.” Cringing at the banality, the intellectual might quote Yeats instead: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

For Pinker, the culture of literary intellectuals and artists is wracked with romantic notions of the Self, which views the individual as sacred and the modern condition as hollow, corrupt, spiritually and morally empty. Pinker has a tendency to lump, and feels comfortable bundling writers as disparate as Thoreau, Eliot, Yeats, Camus, Burroughs and Beckett into this category. As intellectually rigorous and data-driven as Enlightenment Now is, this is virtually the only claim that goes unsubstantiated. Pinker only cites works like Walden and “The Waste Land” as examples of literary culture’s hostility towards modernity, and hangs much of this antipathy on “aesthetic revulsion.”

Pinker extends his disdain to the neo-Marxist postmodern philosophers and their influence over the humanities. It’s the French intellectuals that he ranks among the very highest of the culture pessimists, as moral relativists who were sympathetic to totalitarianism and resentful towards scientific objectivity (for example, Foucault’s contention that the diagnostics of mental illness are a form of social control). Into this Pinker also throws the fascist Heidegger, the bloodthirsty Sartre and the entire Frankfurt School.

The problem then, is not with the state of things, but with our evaluation of them. Too many of us are running around reading Adorno and Auden to realize that we’re actually happy. We just think we’re not. “For nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” But, to believe this, you’d have to believe also that a simple presentation of the facts would be enough to change not just one’s position, but one’s feelings. Hence the reason for Pinker’s book. If what constitutes the declinism of artists and intellectuals is that they believe people to be sick, alienated and lost, they simply need to be informed that they’re not. But I doubt if even Pinker himself believes this.

The Two Cultures model sets up an unwanted binary that benefits neither party. Still, there is certainly truth to it. As is the insistence of intellectuals on things like anomie, ennui, tedium vitae, weltschmerz and any other malady that requires borrowing words from other languages. Indeed, the tendency to view the present as a time of unique crisis with a unique sickness that requires a critic to take upon herself the duty to explicate this illness is an odd preoccupation of the thinking class (I wrote a novel parodying this very thing). Fiction, which should be treated as distinct from the cultural criticism that surrounds it, is not immune either. This mode of thinking has a way of spilling over into the creative realm, partly because most writers since the 60s have been raised on a steady diet of criticism, and the second voice, the discursive voice, often speaks louder than the first.

Here’s Saul Bellow, writing about this very problem over fifty years ago:

Literature has for generations… lived upon its own traditions and accepted a romantic separation or estrangement from the common world… The separatism of writers is accompanied by the more or less conscious acceptance of a theory of modern civilization. This theory says in effect that modern mass society is frightful, brutal, hostile to whatever is pure in the human spirit, a Waste Land and a horror… This is one of the traditions on which literature has lived uncritically.

Bellow found this posture tiring and maintained that writers, if they are to stay interesting to both each other and the general populace, need to throw off the fatigue of the cultural Waste Land.

And they have, for the most part. In recent decades, a new role for literature has emerged, a more relaxed and admittedly rearguard attitude, which views fiction as a medium crucial for imparting the value of empathy to its audience, as well as offering a respite from loneliness. Pinker is no philistine when it comes to literature, nor does he lack appreciation. In his other triumphant book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he cites literacy, and fiction in particular as having played a role in the decline of violence, mostly due to its power to inspire empathy by offering direct access to another person’s conscious experience. Writers can pat themselves on the back for this. It’s a good stance to take, and it’s one that has been championed by some of our finest writers, including David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith.

My reading of Enlightenment Now intersected with my reading of another, equally brilliant book: Sapiens (2014) by Yuval Noah Harari. One of the more illuminating sections of Sapiens is on the agricultural revolution, specifically on how this transition made life much harder for humans, contrary to the commonly accepted belief that the move towards agriculture was only a good thing. In fact, it made people more prone to disease and plague, to drought and to starvation if their crops were destroyed, it shackled them to a work cycle that demanded long hours and little rest, and the work that it required was poorly suited to our evolved bipedalism, resulting in perennial bad backs, knees and neck pain. It is a hardship that our species would stick with for centuries and would only be liberated from with the advent of industrialism, which gifted a whole new set of woes to us.

No one would suggest that we would have been better off sticking with nomadism and hunter-gathering, just as we’d never suggest leaving the office today to return to the fields. Progress is inevitable, and for the better. But it is not painless. This is the key point that Pinker misses, or else fails to fully acknowledge. Take for example something both Pinker and Harari touch on: the prospect of amortality. It is conceivable that in our lifetime we will develop the technology to extend our lives indefinitely. Though we won’t be immortal (as this would violate entropy), our ability to crush disease and grow new sets of vital organs for ourselves could increase life expectancy to potentially hundreds of years. This would be a good thing, yes? But how might a species change, no longer confronted with the grim reality of death in less than a century? What might that do to our mammalian brains? And what would a human being do after five hundred years of life? Would they sink into nihilism, excess, depression and yes––ennui, in which they actually long for the kiss of oblivion, as depicted in Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive?

Among one of the most beautiful and edifying things the Enlightenment has given us is the knowledge of our ancestry and our origins. We know that we are a primate species, outfitted with small prefrontal lobes and a tendency to make errors in cognition, which we developed on the plains of Africa solving rudimentary problems using medium-sized objects. This was the world our species lived in for most of its existence. Indeed, one doesn’t have to go back very far to find a world utterly unrecognizable from the one we live in now. Industrialism would have seemed like demonry to a twelfth century peasant, and our present world, with the watches we talk into and the encyclopedia we carry in our pockets was considered the stuff of science fiction as late as the 1980s.

Pinker, who authored The Blank Slate––a criticism of the Lockean view (commonly held during the Enlightenment) that human beings are a bleached canvas on which anything can be written––surely doesn’t need to be reminded of this. We are not born with a tabula rasa, and to carry on as if we are is an act of Bad Faith, one that amounts to a denial of our origins. As a cognitive psychologist, Pinker’s view of human progress as “problem solving” is strangely tone deaf to the questions his field of knowledge would command him to ask. The main one being that evolutionary development, and the technological development we’ve mapped onto it––which has commanded great changes in our behavior––is not frictionless, and that not all expressions of this friction are tantamount to cultural pessimism and golden age thinking by people who prefer candles to electric light.

This is where Rousseau comes in as an important counter-point to Locke’s human perfectibility. Like Pinker, I also don’t accept Rousseau’s claim that humans are pure and true and good only in the state of nature and are then sworn into bondage when we enter society. But unlike Pinker, I don’t see this as a fallacy of Romantic thought. Rousseau’s contribution to the Enlightenment (which Pinker gives little attention to) is exactly this: that progress is not always rosy, that any major advancement, especially one that requires social and psychological restructuring, will inevitably induce some kind of distress, even as it liberates us from prior distress.

Thus, social media, which has made us all more connected, has also made us more atomized and isolated. We know from polling data that people who spend less time on Facebook feel less lonely. Instant communication and immediate news, which has made us more productive and informed, has almost made us more anxious and prone to pessimistic generalizations, as Pinker shows. The golden age of information also produced enough disinformation to give us Trump. And isn’t it true that the consumer society (one of the cornerstones of modernity) feeds people into a hamster wheel of getting and spending, desire and purchase, forever searching for the next thing that will supposedly be the thing that finally makes them happy, leaving them perpetually dissatisfied?

Or has the Second Culture simply made all this stuff up in order to impose itself on the rest of society? Pinker seems to think so, because he can only dismiss these claims as the cool malaise of too many people reading Derrida. More nuance and sensitivity is required here. For one thing, it vastly overstates the influence of French and German intellectuals on the cultural mainstream. And to say that the Waldens and Waste Lands of the world are merely poetic and intellectual flourishes of a class ignorant of science and resentful towards progress is a glib dismissal and woefully simple for someone as thoughtful and meticulous as Pinker.

True, the Second Culture has a tendency to dwell in the trenches of the human spirit, to cavil and carp and occasionally bite the hand that’s kept it well fed and gainfully employed for generations. I agree with Bellow that we should drop this, at the very least so as not to be boring. Pinker’s scorn for the postmodern neo-Marxists is also properly placed. Their influence on the humanities and the social sciences has been poisonous, and the bankruptcy of their ideas has been clearly demonstrated. At a time when free expression is being shaken by the hate speech “deplatformers” and both sides of the political spectrum have shown hostility to scientific truth, whether it be the right wing that regards climate change as a hoax, or the social-constructionist left refusing the biology of sex, a book like Enlightenment Now cannot be more welcome.

As for literature, we know what Montherlant said is true, that happiness is white ink on a white page. It simply doesn’t show up. And even if it did, it wouldn’t be interesting to read. All art documents some kind of suffering. So it may be that writers are doomed to be pessimists in a time of rapid advancement and increasing quality of life. I’ve become less and less convinced over the years that storytellers have any unique cultural responsibilities. Writing good books should be enough. But here’s another which is not bad, one that Pinker likes, lifted from John Dryden’s “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy.” Literature is:

‘A just and lively Image of Humane Nature, representing its Passions and Humors, and the Changes of Fortune to which it is subject; for the Delight and Instruction of Mankind.’

An image of Human Nature, yes. That includes the friction and psychological stress of progress, which fiction by no means has a duty to render, but will inevitably rub up against by virtue of the fact that it dramatizes the condition of our time. Pinker goes on to explain how the discoveries of science could vastly expand the humanities; for example, the neurochemistry that might explain empathy, or why readers sympathize with characters who are wicked. We might not need neuroscience to understand this. Writers tend to be averse to the medicalization of their characters. To classify Hamlet as bipolar for example would be horribly crude, and consulting the DSM-V wouldn’t help us understand him any better. Nabokov famously despised Freud for his encroachments on literary territory and his reduction of our psyche to Greek myths and genitals. Nabokov was a member of the Second Culture, firm and true. But writers and critics today don’t have to be. They have little to gain by digging in against the advancements of science, and it will be yet another thing that threatens to leave them behind.

Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, Salo Press and Potluck Magazine, among others. He is also a frequent contributor to Political Animal magazine. He is the author of a forthcoming collection of stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness, to be published this summer by Crowsnest Books. He currently lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 30th, 2018.