And when everyone’s super, no one will be…
There have never been so many writers, artists, and philosophers. […] It is not the public that is at fault today but the excess of pretenders. But instead of recognizing their own lack of excellence, many resort to styles that will allow them to charge their lack of success to the abtuseness of the public (Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism p. 2)
What makes a philosopher a philosopher and not a second-rate, B- persona that is forgotten as soon as he or she stops writing, loses tenure or dies? For Kaufmann, a person is remembered if they are great-souled, showing integrity, courage and humor in the face of an inescapable tragic worldview, neither disillusioned nor resentful regarding how one is thrown into the world (great advertising for, lets say,…an energy drink).
Greatness or excellence is possible, according to Kaufmann, a position I distance myself from, when exceptional people–whatever that means–care more for truth than what people think. Cliche enough. Moreover, they are outspoken and frank in such matters, relying on no illusion of future reward to assuage the present burden and suffering. These self-sacrificing, great-souled individuals are, in a word, great prophets, philosophers, poets and artists in their own right, despite the ugly, fragmented or cruel world they may live in.
Thus, Kaufmann has no sympathy for expressive modern individuals who “blame their failures on the absence of a cultured audience” (p. 2). For Kaufmann, the starving artist should accept failure as his or her own guilt.
To make a leaping generalization, the big picture Kaufmann seems to convey is that philosophy today is full of “pretenders” and at no other fault than its own. But I value the situation in the exact opposite measure. True, “there have never been so many writers, artists, and philosophers”, but this is hardly a failure. As Žižek puts it,
The true victory (the true ‘negation of the negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat. It occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy. (Slavoj Žižek presents Mao: On practice and contradiction)
In this precise sense, philosophy and the arts have not utterly failed but succeeded beyond their wildest imagination. The is very little that the cultured individual today encounters that he or she has not seen anything like before. In short, nothing is utterly strange or foreign any longer.
The n+1 journal recently published an article, MFA vs. NYC conveying a similar theme. Speaking of fictional and creative writing, they write: “We are all MFAs now.” In great rhetorical style, though admitting an honest assessment of the field, the editors continue.
…MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work–especially shocking if you’re the student, and paying $80,000 foir the privilege. Staffed by writer-professors preoccupied with their own work or their failure to produce any; freed from pedagogical urgency by the tenuousness of the link between fiction writing and employment; and populated by ever younger, often immediately postcollegiate students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the ’70s), and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.
The entire article is not wholly pessimistic. Although the degree-granting programs in creative writing have jumped from 79 in 1975 to 854 today, this has created an enormous amount of unseen opportunities for teacher-writers, not limited to lecture fees, adjunctships, temporary appointments, decently paid tenures, grants and prizes. Indeed, just as many American fiction writers today are earning their income through university payrolls as publishing contracts. I would venture to guess that the situation for philosophers is not all that different.