Synthesis :: thesis
What ever happened to the rolling, detail-laden essay of personal pilgrimage through the purgatories of contemporary society? On vacation I bought along Derrida's Acts of Religion and McLuhan The Medium is the Message. And I was trying to process something like how the kind of deep Hilaire Belloc / Huxley / McLuhan / JB Jackson synthetic essay represented a certain mid-20th c moment of trying to understand the entire universe in one blow, switching from detail to detail at lightening speed, in much the same way as Derrida, Foucault, and Lefebvre were doing in France. John Stilgoe's essays on landscape, personality, history, and visual culture are one deliberate culmination of that tradition. Richard Sennett's essays on how all of history has oppressed the repressed represent everything broad-brush and paranoid about the same synthetic impulse.
But in the generation after Stilgoe and Sennett, the synthesis vanished. Academic essays became about the details of identity politics on the one hand, on a detailed delimitation of the Enlightenment on the other : which makes sense, all of these movements contributed a rigor that the previous writers had neglected.
People can get art from other places than synthetic essays, and they probably are. Synthetic essays assumed that popular culture and educated culture could both enjoy a swath of beautifully crafted prose and noble ideals. But we know very well that gone are the days when the classes pretended to enjoy the same entertainments, in that late-Victorian orgy of respectability.
I think a very thin sliver elite will continue (does continue) to read McLuhan, Sontag, Jackson, Stilgoe, Allen Bloom, sorting out oall the various possibilities for the ways self and individual can interface with the wealth of material it must perceive. And everyone else reads Camus, Sartre, Arendt, Foucault: which is to say, they look for easy answers, and as Auden would say, in the prison of themselves each almost convinces himself that he is alone. They limit how much of themselves they use to engage the world. They limit how much they sympathize with others. It's a personal strategy for immediate action with limited feedback, and it's appropriate to the majority in an era when the majority is losing power, becoming homogenized, even losing control over its own choices. Don't hate them or pity them for limiting their perceptions to what they can deal with appropriately.