Everyone's so darn wise

I find myself out and about more these days. And this makes me privy to more snippets of random conversation, to more group interactions (not as a participant, mind you — I remain anathema to the social body), to the prevailing pyschosexual dynamics of San Francisco.

Beyond the obvious micropolitics that prevail between so-called friends — it is unseemly when witnessed at a remove — and, yes, I am aware of my misanthropy — there is something else that stands out: everyone is so fucking wise. No, not actually wise. But everyone seems to come equipped with beliefs, quotes, and cliches that justify their respective existences.

We live amidst a culture of popular wisdom that professes a certain kind of certainty, a relentless self-justification. It is the culture of Oprah and Dr. Phil, of book after book — some more snide than others, books that claim to really understand men, women, sex, love, life. All this information, all these claims, seek to calm and justify people's lives.

But what happened to a different kind of wisdom? Think of Socrates: his wisdom comes from his lack of certainty. The only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. While no doubt being an incredible nudge, Socrates proffered a profound humility, a willingness to question (ad nauseum, but still).

Or Nietzsche: his wisdom demands self-alienation. He may write about why he is so wise, why he is so clever, why he writes such good books but his self-justification is not based in platitudes about the way of men and women. His self-justification is radically particular. And leaves him an alien — it leaves him not justified to the world.

There seems such little taste for the risks of alienation. Everything — personal and public wisdom — seems to steer people towards justifying their roles in the world. No doubt, this is the way of capitalism, its infinite speed: fold alienation back into the spectacle before it even arises. Keep 'em happy — and if you can't keep 'em happy, keep 'em self-justified.


what the Tee Vee taught said...

Hey Coffeen,

Your shtick has galvanized me to do some writing. Perhaps I am, in fact, other people — and so on.

I seem to be having fun with it, you have my gratitude.

Check it out if you like:


Daniel Coffeen said...

Excellent! I enjoyed your posts immensely. Instant publication is oddly liberating, don't you think?

Vlad said...

how this average wisdom appears in everyday life? if a man say something from history about politics or economics - other people who heard him assume that he is smart and wise...because they don't know "that fact about the world"...and man sees that other think he is wise..so he starts think in that way too :) probably that how it is work? :)

or it's all about advisors who think they know much better about someone's situation then he does? :)

Lindsay Meisel said...

i guess because they're not yet steeped in common wisdom, kids are really good at hearing the strangeness and backwardness that we later get used to.

when i was little i overheard one of my mom's friends mention that her new diet wouldn't let her eat fruit. what the fuck? i hated her. i refused to enter the adult world, if that's what it held in store for me.

around the same time, my middle school girlfriends and i made a pact to never give a blowjob. what were we thinking?

it's hard to remember life before sex, just like it's hard to remember life before cliché. i guess maybe blowjobs reeked of that same fruitless adult world.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Ah, you enjoyed. Very cool.

Yes, liberating. For me, the ideas and observations of the day tend to get tangled up, lost in the disruptions. I suppose the writing allows for a leisurely untangling — or something else.


The ability to forget: perhaps one of our most undervalued treasures?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Vlad: it's not knowledge or opinion I write of. It's that sanctimonious nonsense of so-called self-knowledge which is actually just "fruitless cliche" — to borrow a phrase.

LM: Your wisdom, however, is always — always — a welcome respite from the inanity. I thank you for it.

Nathan said...

Long time reader, first time poster.

I think you’re raising an important point here. The issue is not simply that our culture produces ready to wear pop psychology in order to obscure our sense of alienation. The role of popular wisdom here is differential. In addition to the false positivism of the Oprah, Dr. Phil milieu, there is also the false skepticism of their detractors. Whereas one uncritically accepts the pseudo-scientific dogma, the other raises a sort of weak suspicion to the prevailing discourse. Of course, this suspicion quickly calcifies into a dogmatic acceptance of one’s having figured it all out. Subsequent conclusions that “everything is bullshit,” or variations thereof, in turn serve to justify the baser injunctions of the status quo: just look out for yourself, make lots of money etc. Thus, as you rightfully point out, the capitalist mode of production prevails regardless. What’s significant is that, take it or leave it, popular wisdom provides the illusion of an easy win for everyone involved. For this reason, at the very least, actual critical thinking can serve as a legitimate form of resistance: thoroughgoing thought against the bumper sticker mentality of the status quo.

Thanks for your contribution to the Cause!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Nathan: excellent, excellent points. The very terms of the discourse of self-wisdom — from Oprah to anti-Oprah — all serve the save function: placation. Capitalism is crafty like that.

And, yes, this is why I keep coming back to complexity and critical thinking as the only viable terms of resistance.

And very happy to find your blog.

@PierreDDN said...

from mysanthropy to socrate's questioning and then Nietzsche.

from sad memories, to peacefull speeches and then the cliff.

from the first sure point, to the unexpected spring afternoon, to the fear of the day after.

from where I go, I follow something I dicover, to find that beer is bitter.

Vlad said...

Daniel Coffeen, Nathan: can you give some examples?

Nathan said...


If you're just looking for examples of psuedo-scientific pop psychology and psueo-philosophical skepticism, that's simple enough. For the first, I suggest the advice page on Dr. Phil's website: http://drphil.com/advice_main/. For the second, Ayn Rand is really the mother of them all. You might check her wiki page to get a general sense of how she re-casts the issue of personal fulfillment in terms of egoism and productivity.

Providing examples to support the argument for a self-wisdom industry as a strategy of capitalist reproduction is a bit more complicated. If you're interested, I would consider pursuing this in a post on my own blog: http://compendiumtremendium.blogspot.com/

Vlad said...

Nathan: yes, thanks...there was examples in a previous comments (Oprah, and Dr.Phil) I just never have seen their shows..and I didn't take them as examples :)
Oprah is a kind of a life coach? And a whole life-coaching is a pop psychology?

I checked out Dr. Phil's website..and yes..I got the idea of a pop psychology :)
But that is can't be even putted together with the other wisdoms. It's like I put the pop-magazine near the Nietzsche's book. But to understand the pop-psychology the person shouldn't think at all :) ("understand" is not the write word here....probably "read"?) It's like watching Hollywood movies and something "not-Hollywood" :) ....or I getting it's all wrong :)

And thanks for the link to your blog, you write intersting, and it's interesting to read you :)

Osric said...

Are you familiar with the Buddhist concept of don't-know mind?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Osric: No, but I love the term. Is it akin to beginner's mind?

Osric said...

Daniel Coffeen: It's in some sense similar, but refers more specifically to having equanimity with confusion to prevent suffering.

This talk--http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcTqXAD7pvM--explains it more completely than I can.

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