in the Age of Media, Computers, and Internet
AN ESSAY ON VULGARITY
My title alludes to an essay written in 1950’s by Aldous Huxley on “Literature and Vulgarity.” But I understand “vulgarity” not just as a question of taste as Huxley does. Vulgarity is primarily a hermeneutical and political issue.
In The Prince (chapter XV), Machiavelli presents obliquely his theory of a double discourse: an open discourse for the many, and a hidden discourse for the few. This deliberate ambiguity has as its foundation the Renaissance version of skepticism, which is philology, an empirical science that seeks to establish the historical “truth” of a text at the very moment it doubts all interpretive manipulations. More than that, Machiavelli makes ambiguities the very basis of government or the arcana potestatis, the necessarily hidden practice of power. The theory of dissimulation, “Platonic” noble lies, and politics-as-spectacle move centerstage.
This double, simultaneously open and hermetic discourse, was picked in the Baroque period by most political philosophers. It became the centerpiece in the political debates dividing the Machiavellians and the so-called anti-Machiavellians. Two of them stand out and are treated in this paper: Tommaso Campanella and Francis Bacon . They both write two utopias, respectively, the City of the Sun and New Atlantis. They are two texts in which utopias of science are tangled with Machiavellian politics. It is Bacon, above all, who articulates a theory about the secret powers of science and the hierarchical ordering of intelligence: Bensalem over Renfusa.
This double “Machiavellian” discourse permeates some of the most influential articulations about the democratic advances and the loss of the aristocratic perspective in latter-day modernity. These ideas were debated with great clarity in nineteenth – centuryt Victorian England. They were also debated, among others,by Ortega y Gasset, Croce, and Nietzsche. Sundry theories of “concealment” and taste can be removed from metaphysical abstractions and be viewed within this political framework.
In recent times, the debates between science and politics have been restated forcefully from a variety of viewpoints. A political thinker, such as Leo Strauss, theorizes the hegemony of the “political” as well as the necessity of a double discourse over and against the excesses of the decadence and vulgarity of the modern age. On the other hand, Marshall Mcluhan‘s optimism about technology calls for a new esthetics and a non-linear way of thinking.
The paper stops short of submitting some general tentative propositions about how a new elite is to educated for the exigencies of the future. It retrieves, however, the medieval idea of “vulgarity” as the basis for thinking about and opening up new perspectives.