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“Juvenescence,” Robert Pogue Harrison, University of Chicago Press

By Paul Krainak

Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Juvenescence: A Cultural History of our Age,” may be a few years old, but it’s prescient. Its cover bears an image of Constantin Brancusi’s 1908 “Head of a Sleeping Infant,” suggesting, along with the title, a culture indulgent of youthful aspirants. Yet the bearing of the marble figure mirrors that of a toppled Greek sculpture, a wistful trope of antiquity humanist scholars know all too well. The choice of Brancusi’s work, better known for abstraction, is curious as it was the single such head in a series with naturalistic features. An added perplexity is that Brancusi was a critical modernist figure, one with significant use of primary, as well as ethnographic forms. Rather than the common modernist appropriation of African or Pacific Islander culture, his Eastern European folk and craft citations were anything but exploitative and would have made sense in Harrison’s historic survey, if it were more sympathetic to the tenets of modernism. The text, however, sidesteps a prime equation for cultural age and representation by seizing on the word and the ancients.

Harrison examines moments in the chaotic succession of Western civilizations to find patterns in ascent and descent, describing an extraordinary model with which he speculates about the world’s human age and “amor mundi” – world love. Concentrating on a lineage from Greece to present day America, his narrative omits a large cultural and geographic terrain – specifically Asia, Africa, and South America as well as European folk culture. While channeled through literary and philosophical close readings “Juvenescence” has enough corporeality to keep it from becoming academic or clannish.

Harrison begins with biology for a structural template. In the tentative model of neoteny, he finds a flexible and intellectually seductive sub-premise for evolution, which he then applies to histories of philosophy and the arts. Neoteny details how human and other primate development is organically similar from the womb until early childhood. Patterns of human maturation compare and then diverge tellingly with other primates in both morphological and intellectual terms. Cognitive features of children and chimpanzees are similar until a point where the humans begin a dramatical acceleration in perception and language around age four.

In neoteny the analysis of difference is not so simple. The devil’s in the details as in any science. Humans indeed have biological superiority but take decades to achieve it while other primates realize theirs in a fraction of the time. Humans are the proverbial tortoise, consuming much more of the calendar to develop, while the hare (chimp in this case) leaps from the starting gate fully capable, with some senses, instincts, and agility that humans will never have, but a bit too in-the-moment to progress to our idea of victory. According to neoteny, long-term human growth is actually a kind of retardation that requires much more care as the brain and body mature. Harrison adds that “…human neoteny is neither regression or arrestation but a modified type of development that brings juvenile traits to new levels of maturity where they are preserved in their youthful forms.”

Harrison uses neoteny as a broad metaphor for how lifelong youthful vitality and inquisitiveness may be the basis for re-invigorating stale or un-civil societies, but only – and this is the kicker – if there are elders with enough wisdom to adapt radical change into positive historical narratives. You can see how modern and contemporary artists, armed with the practice of independent critique, would find the idea of orderly sequential transitions beside the point, while the culture industry of art history programs, museums, galleries and journals would be fully on board.

A complication with Harrison’s theory of cultural consciousness is the binary logic used to define the young creative genius in relation to wise elders, an axis he indicates fueling necessary change. But it also requires a categorical overlap between creative elders who have maintained juvenescence and youngbloods who have wisdom. He attributes the generational divide to an unnatural apartheid-like social structure that traps the youth in schools, the middle-aged in work environments, and the elderly in nursing and elder-care homes.

The author seeks a more fluid cultural stratification to build dialogue between the ages, one that would provide some consensus on values through a constant reviving of cultural memory. He’s motivated by the fact that “…in the past two decades a staggering number of (inventions) – many of them equally consequential – have plunged us into a polyneistic vortex, the likes of which human culture has never before experienced.” He desires an educational system that mandates Western classics, not just to inspire and identify, but pilot the future. Harrison writes, “We are all beneficiaries of a history that recedes into the depths of time, no matter how insulated or monodimensional our experience of the present may be in our age of juvenescence.” He warns us about ruptures in our historical continuum, and new elements that become introduced into our “fitful history.”

Harrison is persuasive about many cultural issues. The West’s society and economy is inherited from Greece, Rome, and Egypt, yet most of us can’t recall how it affects our politics, our language, and our art, or the way it carved up nations on the world map. He takes great pains to explain why Latin was an absolute staple of education just a temporal eyelash ago, the reasons for that ignorance of cultural identity, and what he believes it portends for the future.

The difficulty with this isn’t the conceptualization of age, or social divisions, but the nomenclature. Wisdom and genius have long been contested terms in texts on modernism, which is where he locates the source of our amnesia. And even as he concedes that there is still generational and cultural overlap there is of course a bigger demographic that doesn’t fit either the vanguard or “wise men,” in a quasi-Great Man Theory. Genius and wisdom only apply to the properly educated for his re-configured future. The assumption that the old and the young are all that drive culture doesn’t acknowledge the middle-age population that reproduces unrepentant consumers.

There are also millions who occupy the top 10 percent who are neither young movers & shakers or wizened string-pullers, but have enough capital to be tremendously influential with no more than average intelligence or charisma, especially those that have inherited their wealth – and that’s sizable. Beneath them are countless laborers and middle-income administrators who impact everything even if through uniform banality. They live in anonymous neighborhoods in the least imposing and narrowly defined, under-recognized geographic locations in the country. Their lethargy was once hefty, but now they’re a prime representative of our age. They can throw their weight around a two-party political system, and muddy the codes of political scientists. They’re like viruses only visible to other viruses, yet have prominent spokespersons. We might rely on an occasional Neil Degrasse Tyson or Anthony Fauci to inspire reason, but you can never predict how quickly something like Joe Manchin’s pathological intransigence flattens the curve.

Harrison argues via case-study tutorials in pre-Christian, Christian, and Enlightenment histories. We hear of absolute antecedents, virtuous charioteers, prenatal memory (enabled by philosophy), and “supermyths of reason’s genetic appurtenance to the original transcendence in and through which the world and its universal soul first coming into being.” He doesn’t hold back either in his chat about Plato…“Philosophy, and philosophy alone, accedes to the realm of primal origins, since its logos belongs to, or derives from, the sparks of creation itself.” And he asserts “Neotenic revolutions work because they are logos applied to mythos – wisdom applied to genius.”

But we don’t live in an age of public intellectuals, icons whose intelligence and passion is widely known and respected, whose orientation is independent but humanist. The salad days of Modernism had them, but they’re siloed like mad today. Where does Harrison think the juvenescent youth are today? What disciplines do they occupy? Who are the widely recognized Philosophers? Academics? Artists? Architects? Eyebrow raising effects of today’s young “geniuses” are cursorily demographied and monetized. The author doesn’t name any because he doesn’t wish to “prophesy”.

Of course, they would have to be former students of the classics and masters of new technologies, inventors of new languages and lifestyles. Protagonists may exist, but not with willful or sustainable visibility. He discusses less than a dozen innovators and groundbreakers in the few historical narratives he rightly says are revolutionary over thousands of years. Change is unremittently more rapid today, but it could be another century before a juvenescent redeemer breaks through.

We live and work in highly specialized fields and the most we have in common, unfortunately, is entertainment and business. We’re not generous or egalitarian enough to make sure all students have an opportunity to experience and contextualize classic texts. So, by Harrison’s description genius and wisdom would only, arise from the most privileged class.

Modern artists found the Renaissance techniques of fresco painting or design schemes like 3-point perspective more significant than narrative. Retrieving the experience of craft and display and honing studio rituals showcased a more fundamental and more transparent context for imaging and thus complex communication. It released the avant-garde from ancient subjects and institutions that prejudiced authorship and creativity. The history of artworks begetting artworks, independent of patronage, is older than Modernism but it took radical steps in the 19th and 20th century to reveal how we now visualize democracy and inherited the values of labor and autonomy. It was a revolutionary epoch that still produces waves.

Harrison’s rightly concerned about a need for generational dialogue, a wariness of AI-generated anything, and a dread of a society that won’t read. The application of neoteny theory is inspired as are his homilies on all the heavy hitters in Western thought – Socrates, Plato, Vico, Dante, St. Paul, Kant, and Lincoln. His prose is righteous and so is the degree he’s alarmed about cultural stagnation.

However, it’s not that Western philosophy and its lineage haven’t had a thousand-plus years to make their case. Who could disagree that having an in-depth cultural memory is the best way to ensure a more worthwhile future? Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable to honor “amor mundi” if all universities required Asian, African, Latin, Slavic, and Indigenous civilizations as part of their core education? We’re decades from researching and respecting, let alone loving, those histories. We still don’t get Modernism – the last great age in which living participants contributed.

No question that we need to be more diligent educators. But is it really necessary to rely on Greek mythology to live our own dreams of democracy? Modern writers, artists and architects ditched the narrow subjectivity of the classic order and its aristocratic patronage so they could face the present.

Brancusi does represent juvenescence, but circulating in, and celebrating the moment, rather than as disembodied and adrift in nostalgia. The rest of the artist’s formidable children’s head series, are actually more to the writer’s point about cultural rejuvenation. They’re abstract which allows us to see culture as a debate, and a series of possibilities, rather than an approximation of nature. Brancusi’s vision has one foot in medieval fabrication with braces, augers, whetstones, and mallets and the other in Futurism. He connected the generational to epochal with real things in space – a mythmaker for our time and a paradigmatic antidote to anxieties about loss of identity and perils of autonomy.

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