Leon Wieseltier Asks: What Happened to Humanism?

In this essay from the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, Leon Wieseltier considers American “posthumanism.” Here’s the opening.

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

The heavy-handed beginning notwithstanding, there are thoughtful bits throughout the essay and certainly rich material for debate. While the motive force of the piece is a defense of humanism, Wieseltier finds occassion for much that will encourage a variety of responses in readers:  there’s the rage for quantification (“Economists are our experts on happiness!”); a dismissal of questions concerning media (“a second-order subject if ever there was one“); we have Pope Francis “exquisitely demonstrating” that religion is not the antithesis of humanism; and so on.

A good opening for discussion, at any rate.

Read Wieseltier’s essay here.

On a related note, we posted in the past an exchange of sorts between Wieseltier and Steven Pinker that appeared in the recently imploded New Republic.