Today, Norm Goldman Editor of Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest, James Polk, Ph.D author of Pathologies of Public America: The Triumph of Ignorance and Bliss.
Good day James and thanks for participating in our interview.
I noticed from reading the back cover of Pathologies of Public America: The Triumph of Ignorance and Bliss that you have been deeply influenced by both the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and twentieth century phenomenology. What briefly are the philosophies of these two schools and how have they influenced you?
To take the two questions in reverse chronological order: The Frankfurt School emerged essentially from the attempts of a group of German Jewish intellectuals to understand the genesis of fascist totalitarianism in Germany. The group encompassed several leading philosophers and sociologists, among them Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, and Max Horkheimer.
Along with thousands of other Jews and political opponents to Hitler at the time, they were forced into exile and found refuge in the United States. Horkheimer and Adorno later returned to Frankfurt, but Marcuse stayed in the U.S. The crux of their concerns was of course the question plaguing everyone: How could a nation as culturally sophisticated and technologically advanced as Germany conceive of and implement the most heinous, barbaric events in human history – the “final solution” – mass murder on an industrial scale. Coldly, rationally planned and carried out with excruciating precision.
The critical theory that emerged was very eclectic in its methods of analysis, employing Marxian theory of historical materialism and the political-economic structure of class societies, Hegelian philosophy, Freudian psychology, to name only a few of their resources.
What finally emerged was of course less a school of thought than an investigative discipline. Their critical analyses of fascism and the Holocaust, of late-capitalist society, of mass media and the culture industry, laid the groundwork for the New Left and the student revolts of the 1960s and anti-war demonstrations that accompanied America’s previous unjust ugly war in Vietnam.
The work of the Frankfurt School was also instrumental in bringing about many of the much-needed progressive changes in post-war Germany – changes in education, in people’s attitudes about themselves, their history, the state, and the individual’s role in society. The result was both a radicalization of thought and action later seen both in widespread forms of anti-authoritarianism in education, public discourse, and the creative arts, and in the success of left-leaning political groups such as the Greens but also in the “ausserparlamentarische Opposition,” whose most radical fringe encompassed the Red Army Fraction.
My own general discontent with “America as usual” in its ugliest forms led me straight into the arms of Marcuse especially, and his influence hasn’t waned.
Without going into any details of the historical development of phenomenology from Franz Brentano through Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, its influence on me personally can easily be summed up in one name: Martin Heidegger.
First by way of my very, very dear friend and mentor, Margherita von Brentano, a former student of Heidegger’s and until a sort of falling out with Elfriede Heidegger often a guest at the Heidegger house. That there is something inherently deeply critical from a social perspective in Heidegger’s approach to philosophy becomes apparent from the answer Heidegger once gave to Margherita von Brentano when she asked him why after so many years he had not written Being and Time Part Two (the book was conceived of and originally designated as a two-part work.)
Heidegger gave her one of his deep gazes for which he was famous and answered: “To write Being and Time Part Two, I would have had to be a Marxist, and I’m not a Marxist.”
In two different places in Being and Time (¶ 7 and ¶ 83) Heidegger defines philosophy as “universal, phenomenological Ontology” in the framework of the hermeneutics of “Dasein” or the human being. This definition emphasizes an active, unique form of inquiry into the historically mediated forms of all that we find in the world. It is hence no coincidence that those who’ve succumbed to Heidegger’s spell have been drawn to a Marxian understanding of history. I think we see very important glimpses of the sadly limited impact phenomenology has had on Western thought particularly in the epochal studies of Günther Anders (and of special note here his two-volume Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen), who has unfortunately not even been translated into English. I’d also mention especially the early work of Hannah Arendt (a former student of both Heidegger and Husserl and the former spouse of Anders).
But yes, no other thinker has had as deep an impact on my own philosophical development as has Martin Heidegger – without question the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.
Whom do you believe will benefit from your book and why?
The word “benefit” causes me to choke, I have to say, because of its utilitarian undertones. My purpose in writing the book was to provoke, or to paraphrase Kant, to wake people up from their dogmatic slumber of ignorance and bliss.
Why did you feel compelled to write this book? Why do you think this is an important book at this time? What are your hopes for this book?
When a sitting president is impeached by the lower house of congress because of ostensibly perjurious statements made about a sex affair in the White House, but the most egregious acts of violence against our entire planet, carried out by what is arguably the vilest administration in American history (and I include the administration of my own relative in the list) are scarcely noticed with even a gasp, something is profoundly wrong with the big picture, indeed with the American people themselves.
As Gore Vidal so aptly put it, what the American people witnessed in the so-called “election” of 2000 was nothing short of an underhanded coup d’état. And yet even the so-called “opposition” keeled over without as much as a whimper. Why weren’t they storming the Bastille?! And once in power, matters only got much worse. But of course Americans clearly have far more important things to worry about than boring questions such as who’s running the government and why. Have you seen J Lo’s new hair cut?
And from the looks of things, there will be more of the same in 2009 with a different poster boy at the helm. We’re still very much in the grips of a conservative-corporate power apparatus.
As for expectations for the book – I would hope that people read it and walk away with a feeling of profound disgust at what the country has become under this ignominious regime. In six years, we’ve become a pariah among nations, the most hated country on earth. Will we ever learn from our mistakes? We should wake up and join the ranks of more enlightened nations in foreign and domestic policies - in our attitudes about sex, morality, and the necessity of creating a more equal and just society and of protecting our only inhabitable environment from sure destruction.
How do you come up with ideas for what you write? What methods do you use to flesh out your idea to determine if it’s salable?
As a true and dedicated social misfit, I’ve always looked at the world from a skewed perspective; the ideas themselves come through alienated observations of the world around us. Now as far as the book being sellable goes – I understand the pressures publishers are under to sell as many books as possible – but this is simply not the way my own mind works. I frankly don’t give a damn about money and if I could, I’d simply give the book away to anyone who’s interested. I want people to read it, but not because of any monetary gain on my part. I want to provoke people, to incite anger and a true commitment to change. With our minds firmly in the control of marketing strategists though, we generally attach no value to anything that isn’t stamped with a price tag of exclusivity, and in the publishing world, that price tag is an endorsement from Oprah or from a cast member of Desperate Housewives. You win; I won’t compete with either. Not my game.
Samuel Johnson said: “We are more in need of being reminded than instructed.” Do you believe this to be true and how is this applicable to the various themes explored in your book?
Plato beat him to the mark I’m afraid on that one. I’m thinking in particular of the “recollections” experienced by Meno’s slave in the dialogue of the same name. But in answer to your question: I don’t believe the distinction is appropriate to the context of my book. I would prefer the word “derail”. The American society is thoroughly saturated with encrusted patterns of perception and grotesquely misplaced priorities. One of my main aims in writing this book was to force people to see those priorities and patterns for what they are.
You certainly are not afraid to step on many toes. How has the feedback been so far? (Positive-Negative?)
Thanks very much! I take that as a true compliment. I wish I could have stepped on more than toes, or to paraphrase Brecht, outrage at injustice harshens speech, but those in power are less secure because of me I hope.
There’s been very little feedback so far simply because no one knows about the book; I hope to change that in the coming months. Those who have read it have liked it very much, but were torn between laughing and crying out loud.
I noticed you have done a great deal of research in presenting and defending your various arguments and viewpoints. How long did it take you to write the book and how did you go about deciding which material to include and which to leave out?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t write regularly but in spurts. I’ll be sitting in the dentist’s office and suddenly I’ll write three or four pages without taking a breath so to speak. Most often it’s when I’m trying to fall asleep at night but then suddenly I have a lot of ideas and then I go into a kind of automatic writing mode. The bulk of the writing took a year and a half, but collecting the source material took close to five years or more.
Deciding what to include and what to omit is a very tough one and I have no ready answer to that. I wish former CIA Director George Tenet’s reflections had been published earlier because they’re fuel to the fires I’ve lit. I most definitely would have included important details from his book. Other important analyses on the state of the economy as well as newer revelations about the events leading up to and subsequent to the 9/11 attacks could also have been included, but my book went into print before all this information was made public.
In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much and have you taken any liberties in presenting your material?
I’d like to say that I leave no stones un-thrown and pull no punches, but less is indeed often much more. I have exercised restraint. In a book like this the risk is often becoming so engulfed in rage that one simply loses it and winds up venting.
This was the criticism many had of Michael Moore’s tirades. The criterion for form and content is ultimately always the reader and the message one hopes to convey. But as Adorno once indicated, it’s often only the exaggerations that can break through those pesky encrusted forms that fossilize our thinking.
In the eyes of many Americans no doubt my book (if ever read) paints a dour, cynical image of the country, its people and policies. If that is the image readers come away with, I certainly wouldn’t protest. It was never my intention to write a chicken soup for the family SUV (has that been done yet?) There’s far too much optimism and perkiness in the United States and in the books its people flock to buy. The people could use a good dose of realism as Russell Jacoby might put it.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
Yes indeed – a fearless commitment to justice and enlightenment, and an undying dedication to a better world for all living beings.
What has your experience been like with self publishing? Do you recommend it over traditional publishers?
Two different factors led me to the self-publishing route. First of all I really had no choice. I don’t have an agent, I don’t sleep with anyone who’s best friend is an agent, and from all I’ve read and heard about the difficulty involved in finding an agent, I’d say my chances of winning the lottery five weeks in a row are indeed much better.
The only alternative to self-publishing would have been to trash the manuscript and call it a day. I certainly wasn’t willing to wait for countless numbers of rejection letters or to become actively involved in networking schemes with someone whose boyfriend’s cousin’s neighbor is friends with an agent who.... I’m too fiercely independent for that kind of game.
And the mental image I always conjure up is not exactly trust-inspiring: a slim-fast woman sitting at her desk sorting through tons of incoming proposals and commenting “Let’s see, this name has a total of nine letters in it and I’ve always found the number 9 to be a very ugly number, haven’t you? Trash!” And with the vast majority of those with any influence, the rejection rates often hover around 98%. Life is simply much too short to hope to beat those odds. So again, if an author’s lucky enough to share the bed with a top agent or to have an aunt who’s a publisher herself, that’s the best route. Of course one could always become a felon and write one’s true account of the crime – that’s guaranteed best-seller material in the United States right away. But for the rest of us shy reclusive souls out there, it’s either self-publish or burn the manuscript. Maybe next time I’ll go the second route.
The second reason is related to my being a walking medical handbook’s version of a hypochondriac – I’ve even had ovarian cysts. So when the number of deaths reported from avian influenza kept climbing last year, I started making my own funeral arrangements. I knew if I wanted to get this work published, it had to be through the quickest route possible, and that’s to self-publish. I have to say, I’m pleasantly surprised every morning to find myself still among the living, but of course tomorrow is another day.
What is next for James Polk?
I’m working on two projects with priority see-sawing back and forth. But I never reveal a word about what I’m writing until the entire manuscript is signed, sealed, and delivered.
Thanks once again and good luck with Pathologies of Public America: The Triumph of Ignorance and Bliss.
The above interview was contributed by: NORM GOLDMAN: Retired Title Attorney: Editor & Publisher of Bookpleasures. Here are Norm Goldman's Reviews
To read Norm's Review of Pathologies of Public America: The Triumph of Ignorance and Bliss CLICK HERE