Hello once again Dear Reader,
I had the pleasure — I think? — of reading Wyndham Lewis’ enigmatic 1926 monster tome, The Art of Being Ruled.
In typical Lewis fashion, this book is paradoxical, contradictory, elusive, allusive, erudite, entertaining, comical, boring, droll, incendiary, revolutionary, and reactionary all at the same time.
I was most intrigued by the first and last sections of this gargantuan 375 page rambling. I won’t try to trace out the whole text for you, it would take an enormous amount of time, and it would really require a lot of circular explanation and explication — as Lewis’ thoughts tend to turn back on themselves, sometimes with surprising results.
Instead of an overall view, I’ll try to just trace out some of the areas that interested me. I apologize for the scattered nature of this post, I got caught up in the relation of this to some contemporary political issues (post forthcoming).
LIMITS OF LIFE
I am interested in this text because of its intricate consideration of the interplay between life, cultural production, science, and politics. (So, Lewis was thinking about my dissertation, I guess?)
I love one of the opening remarks of the book, on page 13, where Lewis explains that “Most books have their patients, rather than their readers no doubt. But some degree of health is postulated in the reader of this book” (Italics his). WOW. What an interesting opening, considering cultural productions as a sort of medicine for the ill reading it. I found myself wondering, though, if his readers are not in need of such a panacea, then what is the text? I’m still not sure, but it seems more like a cultural diagnosis than a cure for its ills.
Lewis ruminates, at length, on the complex interplay between culture, science, and politics, and how that combines to change our perceptions and definitions of life, the body, and the mind, as well as how we live through them. This observation, while still very relevant and prescient today, seems to be the source of Lewis’ uneasiness. He doesn’t like the way politics changes science — he sees it as the root of abuses of power. He also seems uneasy at the way science, painted by politics, is painting culture and life — “making us regard our life as a machine” and giving us “the itch to improve it,” “science makes us strangers to ourselves” (23-24).
He sees the massification/vulgarization of culture as at least related to standardization and uniformity carried over from science, which he thinks is working to erase individuality and liberty. So, I guess cyborg subjectivities seemed more like Star Trek’s “Borg” than the binary shattering, world opening cyborg of Donna Haraway… but while we’re on the subject, HOLY CAT does Lewis ever say some enigmatically sexist things in this book.
His sexism is so enigmatic, because he will say he is for woman, and the rights and equalities of women on one page, and explain how the oppression and many stereotypical characterizations of the feminine are the result of social and cultural indoctrination and oppression. YET he also stands for the masculine and against the feminine, aligning men and women with them, explicitly… before he explains this social construction. Now, this causes me to read and think in circles, because I can’t wrap my head around just how sexist this is… it appears at best to claim that there is nothing essential NOR positive about the feminine.
Okay, I better put that aside, I’m pulling the text out and looking at passages again, which is never a good recipe for clarity when you’re working with Wyndham Lewis (though, it does improve precision).
Lewis gets pretty interesting and sharp with his explanation of the interconnectedness of class and race, as well. He claims that “class always takes with it the idea of race, then, and of some distant or recent conquest” (110). This intrigues me, because it could easily slip into either direction, as a fascist thought on race and purity, or as a progressive thought on race, social oppression, and class construction. I lean towards the latter explanation, despite Lewis’ fascist sympathies, because of another throw away line discussing the need for racial fusion (rather than purity, thank the stars). I know, though, I have to temper my reaction because race in this context is likely referring to ethnic and national heritage and not so much to the notion of it we hold today.
The end of the book focuses on what I would definitely call the rise of the immune paradigm, and in some ways Lewis’ fears are related to the rise of a cultural autoimmune reaction(I’ll be writing about this in the first chapter of my dissertation, so I won’t tip my hand too much).
Instead of teasing this out for you let me just give you some closing quotes:
“Make yourself weak, make yourself ill, in order to survive, whispers the spirit of the species.” 346
Anticipating Foucault? Justifying the concentration of my dissertation?
“Again, the biological sciences, which usually attract [art] most, eventually hand it over to the doctor, psychiatrist, etc. The doctor’s clients are the sick and imperfect, and they become the artist’s clients too. That is how it may get its present bias for disease.”
Thanks as always for reading.