Published Humanitas, Volume IX, No. 2, 1996
Institute for Interdisciplinary Research
The Defeat of the Mind, by Alain Finkielkraut. Translated by Judith Friedlander. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. 165 pp. $22.95.
The conclusion of this thoughtful, if problematic, book is summed up in one of its chapter titles: “The Zombie and the Fanatic.” The two types are the citizens of the new Babylon; the first is the one who has given up thinking, the second turns everything into feeling. Together they constitute what Alain Finkielkraut calls “youth,” the narcissistic preoccupation with temporality that turns everything away from the mind and towards the body as the new measuring rod for human living-together. The body, which has no significance beyond temporality, has become the locus of modern, now postmodern, obsessions. Temporality abolishes succession as a meaningful principle in human organization and makes culture impossible. This means that “barbarism replaces culture.” Culture has been degraded to somatic gratification, from which all meaning is now derived. Politically, this requires “using threats of high treason to silence doubt,” doubt about the status of the body as a justification for reshaping politics.
This is evident in the inversion of the meaning of culture, which had heretofore pointed man away from nature (Christianity), or attempted to perfect it (Greek philosophy). Under postmodernism, culture is debased on behalf of the body and now employs technology—what Freud called a prosthetic god—to advance the body over the mind in the search for identity, or “authenticity.”
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