Eclecticism 1/4

[As an experiment, I have set the remaining three parts of this essay to run over the next three days. If any reader prefers this to posting long essays of several parts at once; or prefers the other way; let me know.]


Eclecticism is becoming one of those words—like empiricism or enthusiasm—that it is difficult to remember could ever have been insults. The popular use of the word now subsumes encyclopedic and unpredictable; and its vogue use comes close to subsuming interesting and attentionworthy.

From about the 1830s through the 1970s, the centers of gravity of Western intellectual life were social movements, with subcultures for their satellites. To belong to more than one was possible only by following a freakish, solitary orbit peripheral to all. Eclecticism then seemed antisocial: a bourgeois trait, the miscellaneous knickknacks on the parlor mantle that the Revolution would sweep clean or the Reaction would tastefully make over.

But this net is made of niches (and Dr. Johnson might be pleased to find that there are interstices at all the intersections). Even the smallest—the least consequential subculture, the most obscure fandom—can give full intellectual absorption. The centrifugal pressure on thinking life is thus intense and constant. Now eclecticism, as the counterpoise of narrowness and thus the condition of social participation, has become a virtue. (I think it always was—the eclecticism of intellectuals being a quality like the courage of women that has always existed, though not always had room to show.)

Eclecticism is our atmosphere, not because anyone appoints or promotes it, but because no more particular worldview or theory of human nature can find a competitive advantage while the ease of forming societies between the likeminded via the Internet, lets off the pressure to reform society in general.

Even as public thought has declined into modes of the thought-like performance, every subculture—from the largest divisions, of religions and races, down through sexual identities, professions, and hobbies to scenes and fandoms—has developed its own body of remarkably sophisticated thought. The underlying debates and discussions have since moved behind various kinds of variably surmountable walls, but they may been witnessed taking place out in the open in the archives of Usenet.

The only division of society that has not been brought together by the Internet is class. Why so? Why should that very line of organizational least resistance before the Internet, become the only basis for association which the Internet does not touch at all? Indeed, in those little bodies of thought, we find everything brought under discussion except their role in society—that is, they may have more or less conservative or progressive affiliation; but however highly organized, unless conceived for politics, they have, as organizations, no political significance. What earlier generations took for granted is almost unthinkable to us—that all meeting was a political act; that your circle could or should be the type of a future society; even that your club might meet the Mayor, and march in the parade. The most sophisticated and energetic controversies take place within these subcultures without brushing up against anything outside. (Subcultures continuous with older and politically active groups only seem to confirm this—nothing is commoner than to hear how the young no longer join, no longer care, how they take for granted.)

All of this, though not often said, is still however somehow familiar. Though we live it without codifying it, it is not hidden from us by some false theory. Yet I think there is some good in writing it out. To criticize or analyze something in society or culture is usually preparatory to proposing some alternative; but my purpose is only to answer for myself: if ours is an age of eclecticism, what are we getting into? I want also to escape what I take for a common assumption: that eclecticism is the outcome of history, the sea where all rivers run out. I want to look at it as something in and part of history, and follow its course as far as I can by my own resources.