Friday, February 19, 2010

Implausible Characters, Vacuous Foundations

Eddie has testified to the desire that discussion of Rand continue and go deeper, and in that spirit I might offer a few additional points of departure folks might want to take up.

One thing that perplexes me about the novel that we touched on and Eddie also brings up again is the radical implausibility of the characters. I focused in class on the implausibility of the protagonists -- pointing out that one can have a romantically heroic protagonist without actually going so far as to make characters literally impossibly brilliant, as Francisco d'Anconia is made to me, literally the instant and effortless winner at everything he tries without fail, re-inventing calculus as a child, being handsome and athletic, and so on and on, or Hank Rearden being not only an incomparable entrepreneur, but also a master prospector for a whole diversity of resources, and also a master metallurgist, and also just happening to be a paradigm-shattering engineer/architect, and so on.

But it also seems to me that the bad guys in the novel are also quite flabbergastingly implausible, apt to declarations of the most absurd things imaginable, twisting at their villain mustaches and propounding Dr. Eeeevil conspiracies about their hostility to anything that might be construed as an accomplishment or about their unslakable lust to obliterate anything that might be construed as beautiful and so on.

Rand takes real pains to insist on the actual factual reality of her heroes:
"About the Author: 'My personal life' says Ayn Rand, 'is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence 'And I mean it. I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books and it has worked for me, as it has worked for my characters... I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don't exist. That this book has been written -- and published -- is my proof that they do."

Needless to say, writing Atlas Shrugged no more proves Ayn Rand the equal of John Galt than the publication of Harry Potter novels (works of fiction in every way -- including philosophically -- better and preferable to Rand's hackneyed hyperbolic bodice-rippers in my humble opinion) makes J.K. Rowling the equal of Albus Dumbledore.

Setting aside the curious evangelical sales pitch slash motivational speaker flim-flam artistry of Rand's punchy little bit of self-promotion there (change your life! -- it worked for me, it'll work for you! -- just mail in the handy card included in the novel to contact the Ayn Rand Institute and we'll turn your life around!), it seems to me that Rand is insisting on the literal reality of her superlative characters in a way that makes it difficult to treat them merely as "artistic" or "stylistic" conjurations of every person's capacity for greatness or independence or what have you. I mention this in answer to a few complaints about my emphasis on Rand's endless implausibilities by some who wanted to rationalize their own identification with the castle she has built in the air here.

I also think it is not accidental that conventional Movement Conservative discourse -- arising out of the ferment of works by Mises, Hayek, Hazlett, Rand, Friedman, Heinlein, and others -- many of whom we are reading in this class -- very typically declares humanities departments in universities to be cesspools of relativism, typically dismisses modern art as infantilism, typically declares any concern for the exploited or the vulnerable as expressions of envy, and so on. All of these facile mischaracterizations directly echo the villainous portrayals in Rand's potboilers, treated as literally truthful quite as much as she demands we take her heroes as accurate portrayals of human possibilties (and I might add that there is a cottage industry of lionizing corporate CEO biography/memoir literature that seems to want to declare that the titans of Atlas Shrugged roam the world among us even now -- even if they might strike the everyday on=bserver as rather more flabby sordidly unimaginative crudely opportunistic jackholes than Rand's heady prose would lead one to expect).

I want to be clear that in saying this I actually do not mean to deny that there are exceptionally brilliant and creative people in the world -- among them some I happen to reverence myself, as it happens -- nor that there are fairly appallingly idiotic dangerously deceptive people in the world -- among them some I happen abhor for their crimes and their their schemes and their lies (nobody who reads my blog, for example, would doubt that for long). However, I really think both the heroes and the villains in the novel are caricatural in ways that say something important about the way the novel is functioning and what its project amounts to.

I think this reliance on radical hyperbole and caricature treated insistently as literal truth surely connects to the radical underdetermination of actually rationally warranted beliefs by the recognition of the vacuity "existence existence" or "A is A" and also the correlated radical underdetermination of actually efficacious moral/ethical norms by the recognition that "[i]t is only the concept of 'life' that makes the concept of 'value' possible."

On my page 1018 Rand has Galt declare: "My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists -- and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these."

Needless to say, I think that nothing much proceeds from these vacuities at all, that they are at best foundations in quicksand.

Certainly "existence exists" is a near-vacuity incapable of grounding the host of highly idiosyncratic Randian factual beliefs -- most of which do not square with actual experience of the world, experience of the way technoscience actually functions, industrial and commercial concerns actually function, the way artists and art promotion actually plays out in the world, and so on.

Nor does "the single choice: to live" provide anything like a groundwork for her highly idiosyncratic conception of "flourishing" -- which, again, does not square in the least with actual human concerns, histories, or hopes as far as I can tell, our awareness, for example, of our reliance on the common heritage of accomplishments and knowledges, our awareness of our interdependence on our peers for our survival and flourishing, our awareness of the ineradicable diversity of stakes, ends, capacities, situations, perspectives that suffuse the plurality of peers with whom we share, contest, and collaborate in the world, our awareness of our precariousness on earth, or vulnerability to humiliation, misunderstanding, our openness to being changed in ways we cannot imagine by the vicissitudes of history, love, conflict, differing perspectives, and so on.

Rand thought of herself as a "philosopher novelist" and of Atlas Shrugged as a philosophical novel. And I think that the false substantiation of Rand's highly idiosyncratic views both of what is and what ought to be through her endlessly reiterated recourse to the nearly vacuous assertions that "existence exists" or "A is A" on the one hand and that we must "choose life" or else "deal in death" on the other hand is a rhetorical gesture of Rand the (abysmally terrible) philosopher that is directly correlated to the rhetorical gesture of Rand the (abysmally terrible) novelist in soliciting our identification and dis-identification with her flabbergastingly ridiculously hyperbolized heroes and villains.



  1. I haven't developed this thought as much as I'd like to but perhaps the effectiveness of Atlas Shrugged and Economics in One Lesson is grounded in the fact that they both operate on a mythic level.

    They don't describe reality but offer the reader a lens to view reality. The lens colors reality in certain ways so that some features are exaggerated or understated. Hence we were presented with caricatures of the government bureaucrat, politicians, professors, etc.

    The power of a myth is that it is not itself falsifiable. It operates in the meta-level. If successfully rooted, a myth can incorporate any attempts to negate its assertions. So for instance if academic knowledge is produced to refute the statement that markets are natural and they are disembeded from social practice, the power of the "myth of natural free markets" is not, as a consequence, diffused. On the contrary, it can incorporate that counter-claim by coloring it as the propaganda of the elites of academia, stuck in their ivory tower and liberal ideology.

    Yes, the characters in Atlas Shrugged are implausible. However, their implausibility does not affect their mythic reality. Rand's project is to offer us a schema or structure through which reality is colored by her Objectivist views.

    So, these mythic characters do exist for her followers because real life actors are colored by her myth so as to become these characters.

    This way of understanding Rand and Hazlitt brings into question: do any of the other authors we have or will have read operate on a mythic level? What does it even mean to operate on such a level? How can these libertarian myths be challenged on a mythic level if not on the level of direct counter claims to their exaggeration, implausibilities, and paranoid fantasies?

  2. Recall what Barthes said about "left wing myth" ...

  3. Dale and Jon you both bring up some very interesting points, however they have only caused me to think more about an issue that I am having with the text, so I must blog about it! I am having issues with this text being a book of “objectivity”. I realize that because Rand creates a “magical” world in which it seems that reality is paralyzed, it somehow constitutes the right to be claimed as objective. However, if Rands in fact creates a “lens in which the reader can view reality” (as stated by Jon), wouldn’t the text become more of a novel based off of subjectivity? … that is: subject to interpretation by the reader. When using the word “subjective” you enter a dangerous ground, the word often creates an aura of insult rather than compliment. That being said I realize that I could be offending some of you right about now…so bear with me. I understand that a novel can be both subjective and objective simultaneously, but I am having trouble grasping what is precisely objective about the text. Is it the structure itself? According to Webster’s dictionary objectivity is “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations…having reality independent of the mind”. We use the word objectivity in such a way that personally, I believe creates a distance, a space that separates one from the text itself, making it extremely difficult to critically analyze the presumed argument(s). This is where my problem lies. There is a big difference between reading a text from an objective perspective, versus a subjective one, what comes more natural to us as human beings is the involvement of our emotions and voicing our concerns, critiques, criticisms, etc from a personal position, to remove ourselves is foreign. Within lecture, we have been discussing the text in a matter of “I feel that…” consequently creating a problem in itself. With that statement, we no longer follow (according to Webster’s) the analysis of the text from an “objective perspective”. Thoughts??

  4. @Paulina
    I think that during class we pointed out this contradiction as a sign of Rand's inconsistency and as a weakness in the text. How can she preach such objectivism through a piece of fantasy fiction? You are right in thinking that this is a big problem.

    I don't feel though, that this contradiction reduces the effectiveness of her work. In fact, her objective truths might only be realizable in a subjective way, that is, through the experience of the book. Could she explain her ridiculous philosophy to any person and have them agree with her? Would a cartoon version of Atlas Shrugged be a convincing argument? I don't think so. I think the despair of the world, the connection with our super-human idols, and the entertainment (in between the lectures) are ways that trigger our subjective enjoyment and allow the objective facts to filter through. Essentially, she realizes that language is not just a pipeline of objective ideas, and the form of the language is as important to forming those objective ideas as the word meanings. She uses a subjective manner as the avenue through which she can make sure we share her objective thoughts, and even though these objective thoughts are a rejection of subjectivity, she has no other avenue through which to ensure each brain will "get it". "Universal subjective experience", resulting in "objectivism" making it into your brain, if you will. This is the essence of the contradiction. I believe this is the source of the power of her work--the attempt to achieve her intellectual goal at any cost, even by negotiating and creating contradictions.

  5. @Dale

    "...that "existence exists" or "A is A" on the one hand and that we must "choose life" or else "deal in death" on the other hand is a rhetorical gesture of Rand the (abysmally terrible) philosopher that is directly correlated to the rhetorical gesture of Rand the (abysmally terrible) novelist in soliciting our identification and dis-identification with her flabbergastingly ridiculously hyperbolized heroes and villains."

    I believe I am following you in what you say about how A=A connects to the super black and white heroes/villains, but I didn't catch the answer to,

    "However, I really think both the heroes and the villains in the novel are caricatural in ways that say something important about the way the novel is functioning and what its project amounts to."

    How does the relation between her A=A style of thought and the hyperbolic characters play into how the novel functions? Is it because the characters necessarily exist that way because of her argument, and exist as constant reminders of that argument (as if she doesn't beat it into our heads enough)?

    Rand's A=A argument is her way of trying to establish reason as the source of knowledge--therefore, each statement must build off on each other in a way that cannot be contradicted (sort of like a categorical imperative?). A = A. No one will argue with that. But it is, as Dale said, a "castle in the sky". Absolute rules cannot stoop to apply to all of our lives' situations; they will just float there in the air. Her attempt to negotiate a link between our world down here and the ideal castle up there might not have been the most skilled, but she is certainly not the only person to try to defend that sort of philosophy. Perhaps her strategy is to avoid the impossibility of connecting the two worlds, and "cheating" by using subjectivism and this book as a way to "teleport" us up there. Who cares by what trickery and by what contradictions we get to this floating castle in the sky, as long as we all live there together? If the castle in the sky is Galt's Gulch, wasn't it damn impossible for Dagny to ever get there, except by impossible coincidence and circumstance? (I haven't finished but did the book ever explain why she didn't die when her plane literally just fell straight into the ground?) For many people that the book is popular with, they probably find themselves enchanted by that castle in the sky and willingly imagine themselves there without any thought to how impossible it is that they should have gotten there (yay objectivism!). For us, we see that the castle in the sky is just that--stupid, pointless, and impossible to get to by any stretch of reason.

  6. Thank you Dale for posting this piece, which threads together the points you made in lecture last week. In addition to attempting to solicit our identification with her hyperbolized characters and fantastical world, I would argue that Rand is engaging in a project of self-validation. in creating her own sealed fictional universe, she has delineated her own values of human worth, whereby she privileges man's mind above social morality (as we see in the John Galt speech, "Whatever else they fought about, it was against man's mind that all your moralists have stood united" (1012). Throughout the text, Rand buttresses this worldview by celebrating characters such as John Galt, Francisco d'Anconia, and Hank Rearden, who exercise their minds and develop fantastical technological innovations. She elevates these individuals, who serve as the "creators" of the world, to divine heights. In producing this epically egregious piece, which is the bible of Objectivism, Rand probably imagined herself on the same level as these "thinkers" and "creators." Rand is attempting to validate her own existence, or at least masturbate her ego, by producing Atlas Shrugged. In my opinion, Rand's achievement may be valid only in the world she created and not IN REALITY. If I were to implement her philosophy of "morality of reason"-- in which I were to exercise MY "faculty that perceives, identifies, and integrates the material provided by the senses "(1013)--and apply it to this book, I would arrive at this conclusion: Ayn Rand's loquacious Atlas Shrugged paints a morally incoherent, fantastical world-- a world that is saturated with false dilemmas, straw men, and other logical fallacies. It's very frightening that this book has left such a deep and lasting impression on the American public consciousness, such that for some like the Teabaggers, Rand's fantastical world now serves as the literal substance behind the idea "socialism." In other words, when the word "socialism" is deployed, many conjure up a world that is uncannily similar to Rand's apocalyptic world in Atlas Shrugged.


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