Leon Wieseltier: “Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”


Birthday boy.

“Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” asked Leon Wieseltier. The literary editor of the The New Republic spoke to the 2013 commencement crowd at Brandeis last month.  He called the commitment to the humanities “nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.”

“There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”

He deplored the dominance of technology in our society:  “The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. … There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. … This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.”


He also decried the descent of science into ideology: “Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic…”

So how did the crowd like it?  We weren’t there, but there are a mixed back of comments below the talk, which published, of course, in The New Republic (read the whole thing here).  Here are a few of them:

Polcereal complained that it was an “anti-technology screed.” Jack R. sniped, “Leon annoys me even when he might be onto something. Why he would imagine that a pompous, self-aggrandizing prose style would garner him adherents, much less a standing ovation, is a mystery to me. His main point that in today’s increasingly technocratic and digital world, humanistic values and pursuits are getting eclipsed is pretty much irrefutable. But surely one can advance this concern without the heavy air of condescension that Leon adopts to cloak the majesty of his thoughts.”

birthday cakeTo which W.K. Dawson replied, “Some people objected to Wieseltier’s style. It was a graduation speach. Should he have said ‘You people in the humanities should always be sure that your head is under the boot of science!’?”

What does the Book Haven say?  We say: “Happy birthday, Leon Wieseltier!”  June 14 is his big day.


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