Interview with Eduardo Velásquez
author of A Consumer's Guide to the Apocalypse
Why did you write this book?
Why do regimes perish? And why should we in the United States think our own regime immune? What are the features that make up the American regime? As a creature of modern natural science and Protestant theology, how do these seemingly irreconcilable features go together? How do they accommodate one another? In spite of being mortal enemies, I should both Enlightenment science and theology are of the same parentage: a willful assertion in a dark universe beyond good and evil.
To speak more intimately, I have my own personal questions: do we have souls? What is the relationship between good and evil? Are there cosmic supports for either or both? How do we understand the human propensity to self-slaughter? Transcendence? The fundamental spiritual questions remain questions for me and I wrote this book as a journey through their contemporary expressions. The popular culture angle is borne of an appreciation that spiritual yearnings have been deflected in the modern age toward music, fiction, and film. Art and aesthetics generally have replaced morals – which is to say that morality is a matter of style, as in a “life-style,” or fashion which we don as the mood suits. Doing so allows us to attach to any and whatever moral code we choose without having to burden ourselves with thoughts about the propriety of our actions. But aesthetics and morals are connected and this book illustrates why. The book explains the source of our fascination with and devotion to the language of commitment and the consequences of thinking that moral life is so derived and prosecuted.
This book is unique. There has not been anything like this published before, something that takes seriously what "pop-culture" is saying.
This book does not take cultural theory and then apples it to an artifact. The book begins by allowing each artist to speak for him or herself. I allow their voices to come through. I provide an introduction that frames the various artifacts as they emerge to my understanding, not as I would impose an understanding on them. Unlike contemporary cultural studies, this book takes seriously the age old questions and problems expressed in the enduring classics of Western thought. I see in the Western canon the wide range of possibilities available to us as we chart a course to determine what it means to be human. I do not deny the change brought by time and place. But those differences do not seem to eclipse the enduring questions even as those questions are posed in different ways with different solutions, resolutions, and accommodations. Some might rightly argue that science in the process of altering what we mean by the human condition. We cannot be so naïve as to look back to antiquated books for guidance. But this is true only insofar as we fail to understand, say, the differences between science and the scientific method. The scientific method cannot explain why we have science or I dare say sciences. Nor can the scientific method answer the question of whether science is in the service of good or evil. We must step away from the scientific method to contemplate these issues and in so doing we enter a realm occupied by these supposedly antiquated thinkers. A reading of say Bacon’s New Atlantis, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound has much to teach us about the nature of science and the ends it should serve.
What was the hardest part of writing a book like A Consumer's Guide to the Apocalypse
In decisive ways the struggles depicted in this book are my own. I am not a detached observer even as I make every effort to allow artists to speak for themselves. The current existential crisis is my own. In writing this book I feel as if I was dragged to the depths of Hades and back. I emerged with an appreciation that contemporary artists while adept at giving expression to the spirit of the age, are ill-equipped to provide answers. If we seek clarity about our times and about ourselves, we have to return to those enduring books that seem to capture truths about the human situation not confined to time and place. The book also depicts a tension between the requirements of thought and the requirements of faith, whether there is thought without faith or faith without thought. How to give expression to this tension was one of the central challenges of the book. There is a semblance of a Socratic alternative to contemporary nihilism that echoes quietly throughout this book. It does so quietly because of the nature of the book. It is not a philosophical treatise. It is also muted because I cannot say with any confidence that I fully understand what the Socratic alternative is. What does it mean to know what one does not know? If this a species of faith? Perhaps there is a virtue in not being dogmatic about faith itself? But what could this possibly mean?
Who would you most like to read this?
The book is written for the lay reader. To be sure, the book is a challenge. It takes the reader to heights that may not be obvious when engaging a cultural artifact on its own terms. But it does so by staying very close to the artifact itself. My interpretation draws heavily from what each artists says. There are no long excursions to this or that philosopher or theologian du jour. The questions I pose emerge from the common sense of the matter even if subsequently they do not seem to be about the common sense of the matter.
The book is of interest to high school and college students and their parents, to the consumers of popular culture who are themselves informed about the character of the American regime. It is easily read by those who are not pop culture aficionados who nonetheless seek insights about current trends in American public life. There is no technical jargon. Even though emerging from the academy the book is not written for academicians though they would surely find some light were they interested in contemporary culture.
Who are your intellectual influences?
One is not always aware of who one’s influences. I am persuaded I have never had an original thought. So many good authors shape my mind that I am convinced that no thought of mine came in the absence of a consideration of what others have to say. As to the manner of writing, I learned a great deal from Paul Cantor, Peter Lawler, and Mary Nichols. The longer story of my debts is told in the bibliographic essay at the end of the book. Chiefly I would say, I am forever in the debt of teachers who allowed me to penetrate the great books and in them find sustenance for thought and living. I will not incriminate them. They know who they are. They taught me how to read for myself which is very different from being taught how to read so as to serve this or that pet theory. I do not claim independence of mind. I am not sure there is such a thing. I do however feel grateful for having been taught how to understand my debts to the past and to others at the same time that I make an effort to understand myself as distinct from them.