Cold Sympathy: Adam Smith and the self-producing nanomachine
If “sympathy” was the key word for the long eighteenth century, that was because it could be contrasted with “enthusiasm.” In its contagious ability to spread across bodies and minds, enthusiasm seemed to prove that feelings can be shared, a disturbing prospect on many levels. By contrast, sympathy was cool, detached, rational, and cultured. What Adam Smith set out to prove, finally, was that enthusiasm is brute or primitive stimulation while sympathy is a higher abstract cognitive function. Smith’s political economy is built upon this premise of fundamental self-interest, or on the sanitary bounds of discrete individuals.
The Adam Smithian mind is literally “cut off”: specific sense-data enter the theater of its skull, a vacuum of private experience. If I sympathize with you, I do so only through conjecture, extrapolating what you must be feeling from my own experiences of pleasure and plain. Moreover, I take the trouble to sympathize purely out of calculating self-interest. For, if I fail to understand other’s feelings, and cause offense, it will harm my social standing and my interests. To that end, I must erect an “impartial spectator” in my own mind, an objective agency that I produce by exerting my imagination. This spectator tries to perfectly orchestrate my actions so that my selfishness does not ultimately conflict with my self-interest. In brief, Smith’s discourses of economic and political self-interest depend on the idea that we truly are cut off from one another.
Art, then, as Blake and Dickinson approach it, is not about producing novel forms of aesthetic experience, but of removing the conceptual line, the kind of self-centered and instrumental brain activity, that sanitizes our experience in the first place. They remind us that reality prior to “persons” is aesthetic and affective. Their art comes from an intense attention to an aesthetic experience that is an intense attention to reality. This intense attention is ethical. It challenges what Saree Makdisi calls the social constitution of mind-bodies as “biopsychological” units of production or what Blake called “Satanic mills.”
In sum, if we need disciplines like poetry and music to enhance our attention to uncodified reality, it is because, as socially constituted persons, as machines that produce themselves, we inhabit a curbed, normative aesthetic experience. One of our deepest prejudices, or most virulent orthodoxies, is that the aesthetic is not, cannot be, alive. The only intelligence out there is the “I,” the human thought process, self-generated, unrivaled.
When meditative nature poets speak of rousing us from our sleep of death, this “death” is none other than the dividing line that allows us to persist in the Urizenic notion that human consciousness is unique, privileged, higher, and ‘alone’ in (or circumscribed against) the inanimate universe.