Denier's lottery and neo-illiteracy
The savage mind of the second order illiterate
“To learn what we fear is to learn who we are.” Shirley Jackson
Upon receiving the 1985 Heinrich Boll Literary Prize in Cologne, German poet and social critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger used the occasion to deliver a startling speech not on the joys and wonders of literature, but “In Praise of Illiteracy.”
Enzensberger, it turns out, thought that our unlettered forebears, in spite of their technological limitations, were in many ways more fully human and imaginative than the highly literate technocratic humans of recent times. While dismissing the temptation of idealizing them as “noble savages” based on his personal experience with modern illiterates, Enzensberger nonetheless says.
“I envy the illiterate his memory, his capacity for concentration, his cunning, his inventiveness, his tenacity, his sensitive ear. [It] was illiterates who invented literature. Its elementary forms, from myth to children's verse, from fairy tale to song, from prayer to riddle, all are older than writing. Without oral tradition, there would be no poetry; without illiterates, no books.”
Humanity has been illiterate for most of our history. Widespread literacy is a very recent historical phenomenon that was radically accelerated by the industrial revolution. Enzensberger sees a clear linkage between the two.
The friends of mankind and the priests of culture were merely the henchmen of a capitalist industry that pressed the state to provide it with a qualified workforce. It was not a matter of paving the way for the "writing culture," let alone liberating mankind from its shackles. Quite a different kind of progress was in question. It consisted in taming the illiterates, this "lowest class of men," in stamping out their will and their fantasy, and in exploiting not only their muscle power and skill in handiwork but their brains as well.
Fast forward to today, and one can see in Enzensberger’s analysis seminal ideas now reflected in modern economics.
Swiss-Italian economist Christian Marazzi, for example, describes a new form of “cognitive bio-capitalism” that is predicated on literacy. It has been spawned by financialization’s invasion of daily life. In this financialized milieu, living beings are transformed into fixed capital, while social relations that require basic literacy must be “put to work” to generate profit.
Marazzi sees this as a fundamental societal shift that represents “the financialization of the reproductive sphere of life itself.” Crises in this social-economic environment are therefore marked by “a destruction that strikes the totality of human beings, their emotions, feelings, affects, all the ‘resources’ put to work by capital.” (pp. 75-76)
The instrumentalist view of humans at the heart of this newly financialized, technologically driven world order has not produced a historically brave and enlightened humanity, but rather, a new species that Enzensberger calls “second order illiterates.”
[The second order illiterate] has come a long way: his loss of memory causes him no suffering; his lack of will makes life easy for him; he values his inability to concentrate; he considers it an advantage that he neither knows nor understands what is happening to him. He is mobile. He is adaptive. He has a talent for getting things done. We need have no worries about him. It contributes to the second-order illiterate's sense of well-being that he has no idea that he is a second-order illiterate. He considers himself well-informed; he can decipher instructions on appliances and tools; he can decode pictograms and checks. And he moves within an environment hermetically sealed against anything that might infect his consciousness. That he might come to grief in this environment is unthinkable. After all, it produced and educated him in order to guarantee its undisturbed continuation.
The sealed, insular nature of the social structures producing this new kind of human were particularly evident during the Covid pandemic. For vast swaths of the population, the system that had educated and nurtured them with steady material rewards, ego-soothing forms of pseudo status, titillating 24/7 virtual entertainment and seemingly perpetual consumer convenience could not possibly be malevolent.
In Enzensberger’s day, nearly four decades ago, the ideal medium for the imaginative and affective passivity of the second order illiterate was television. Today it is cell phones, computers, the World Wide Web, social media, augmented reality, AI and immersive gaming.
In the early twenty first century, second order illiteracy is sufficiently widespread to be the de facto norm at every level of society. Class distinctions are based on money and power, not differences in kind, while outdated ideas of left and right are buried in an avalanche of second order sameness.
At the highest, most elite social and political levels, alternative electronic environments such as the “Situation Room” in the White House, which received a $50 million update in 2023, offer not only a symbolic national affirmation of second order illiteracy, but the kind of wired cocoon in which our leading modern illiterates thrive, a hi-tech hall of mirrors designed to flatter their insatiable narcissism and sense of self-importance.
The consequences of this affective dissociation are profound.
SECOND ORDER BARBARISM
Both the US and Europe dote on an image of themselves as highly sophisticated and literate. Level 1 literacy in the US comprises 92% of adults. In Europe, the figure is 99%. These high literacy rates go hand in hand with a self image of modernity, usually coupled with equally high rates of advanced technological adoption.
Yet for much of the 20th century, and all of the current century, these modern, literate societies have produced non-stop war and barbaric brutality without end, including Nazism and the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nakasaki, Vietnam, Iraq, China’s Cultural Revolution and much more. Between 1945 and 1999, the US alone led, or was a lead participant in, 32 bombing campaigns on 24 different countries.
At the beginning of 2024, the Imperial War Museums reports:
Conflict took place in every year of the 20th Century; the world was free from the violence caused by war for only very short periods of time. It has been estimated that 187 million people died as a result of war from 1900 to the present. The actual number is likely far higher.
Philosopher John Gray notes that as modern society has become ever more literate and technologically sophisticated, it has also become increasingly destructive as its politics have atrophied.
The increase of knowledge in recent centuries is real enough, as is the enlargement of human power through technology. These advances are cumulative and accelerating and, in any realistically likely scenario, practically irreversible. But there have been few, if any, similar advances in politics. The quickening advance of science and technology in the past few centuries has not gone with any comparable advance in civilization or human rationality. Instead, the increase of knowledge has repeatedly interacted with human conflicts and passions to produce new kinds of barbarism. Modernity in politics is a species of phantom.
Czech philosopher Erazim Kohak warned decades ago that the resultant society was increasingly comprised of “technologically advanced savages.”
Lacking affective maturity, creature feeling, empathy and deeply imaginative creative and religious impulses, today’s savage illiterates can easily become vicious when the social scaffolding that nurtured, sustained and rewarded their illiteracy begins to break down.
All that is needed is a patina of sophisticated-seeming logic to justify and direct their anger and confusion over the encroaching chaos away from themselves and onto those who dare to question the social-political regime to which the new illiterates are intimately bound.
This is usually accomplished via scapegoating, and in the 21st century, the vehicles for scapegoating are often cloaked in the garb of science, which our neo-illiterates use as a political cudgel.
Economic philosopher Robert Heilbroner observes that under this new dispensation, science has been charged with “draining nature of its vast animistic sensibility” and replacing it with “an infinite and uncomplaining grid of space and time.” Its primary task is reducing the universe to an array of units of energy that can be legitimately used for any purpose whatsoever.
Under the inverted logic of this worldview, the illiterate’s enchanted view of nature is ridiculed as naive and derided as a form of denial. Wonder and reverence have been displaced by a rigid and intolerant belief in a one-dimensional science of nature that demands humorless detachment. It has produced a cohort of deeply dumb and cold second order illiterates who believe they are in possession of absolute truth.
There is no room for the endless give and take of politics in such a worldview.
DENIER’S LOTTERY & THE CONSCIOUSNESS INDUSTRY
For those who believe themselves to be armed with absolute certainty, violence is certain to follow. The vicious intolerance and authoritarianism so widely on display during the Covid pandemic also propels the radical end times climate agenda. They are both precursors.
Even modest questions about the nearly $300 trillion estimated price tag for reconfiguring all social, political and economic life on earth in the name of climate are met with angry derision. Such questions, it is said, are clearly being raised by science “deniers,” a description appropriated from the moral horror of the Holocaust to delegitimize all opposing voices.
Shirley Jackson’s infamous short story “The Lottery,” first published by the New Yorker in 1948, immediately comes to mind as a way of understanding the lethal intolerance of second order illiteracy in the modern world.
In a small American town of about 300 people with a postmaster and a grocery store, there is an annual lottery on June 27, in which all of the residents gather to draw slips of paper. Prior to the drawing, the children of the town, who attend school but are on summer vacation, spend hours gathering stones that are arrayed in a semicircle in the town square. One of the paper slips is marked with a black splotch. The person who draws it will be stoned to death by the others. Everyone in the village participates in the ritual murder, which takes place mid-morning so residents can get home for lunch.
No one remembers how or when the lottery started. “Old Man Warner” oversees the ritual every year. He has lived through 77 lotteries, but his name has never been called. He has no tolerance for dissent and believes the village would “go back to living in caves” without the annual drawing.
One of the most striking things about the story is its matter of factness, its seeming normalness. Mob violence and murder have been so normalized and routinized, the only person to raise a completely fruitless momentary objection is the murder victim. Everyone else goes about their day as usual after the stoning.
Such a breakdown in both empathy and critical thinking was foreshadowed by Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle with his observation that all members of spectacular society are constantly confronted with “the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made.”
Enzensberger also offers an explanation for this breakdown in “The Consciousness Industry” when he describes the need for second order society to augment material exploitation with “immaterial exploitation.” A societywide consciouness industry has emerged “whose main business is not to sell a product, but rather, to sell the existing order.” Under this regimen, education has become “the most powerful mass media of all.” Its mission is to “perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man's domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means."
RECOVERING CARITAS – ST. AUGUSTINE & HANNAH ARENDT
Hannah Arendt is perhaps most remembered by the public today for her description of “the banality of evil” in a two part article published by the New Yorker in 1963 covering the war crimes trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, a primary architect of the Nazi Holocaust.
Although Eichmann was a member of the Nazi intellectual elite, Arendt was struck not just by his ordinariness, but by his “lack of imagination” and his “inability to think.” As a creature completely molded by the regime, Nazi “officialese became his language.” His enabling peers were not shadowy underworld figures, but rather, “doctors and lawyers, scholars, bankers, and economists.”
The Nazi social context in which Eichmann operated was one in which the “lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become…almost a moral prerequisite for survival.”
As a young woman, Arendt began her scholarly career with an exploration of the concept of caritas and its potential to create social change as described by St. Augustine in the Confessions and City of God. This developed into a life long affinity for many of his central ideas and influenced her later examination of Nazism, especially her characterization of those who succumb to evil.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Arendt believed that ideologically enforced loneliness was at the heart of totalitarianism, and she was careful to distinguish loneliness from isolation.
Isolation and loneliness are not the same. I can be isolated – that is in a situation in which I cannot act, because there is nobody who will act with me – without being lonely; and I can be lonely – that is in a situation in which I as a person feel myself deserted by all human companionship – without being isolated.
Fear of loneliness, the debilitating threat of being psychically and spiritually cut off from “all human companionship,” is a core principle and tactic in the world of second order illiteracy.
Arendt found inspiration to counter this destructive impulse in St. Augustine’s exploration of caritas, or neighborly love. Caritas is closely related to the medieval Latin concept of communitas, or community duty. Both are the opposite of immunitas, which offers the false promise of exemption from community obligation.
In distinction from the passivity of immunitas, which requires as a precondition the acceptance of prevailing social-political structures, both communitas and caritas are radical, are revolutionary, are an “existential revolt against structure that seeks catharsis from the immunization of life and experience.”
Augustine’s confessions were written between roughly 397-400 AD, a time of almost universal illiteracy. Yet absent his own literacy, we would have no record of his thoughts. There could be no better use of our literacy today than understanding the reasons for his, and Arendt’s, focus on the importance of radical caritas.