Friday, 19 December 2008

Habermas's Shoes

After seeing the footage of Al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at President Bush, who seemed to be almost smiling, I couldn't help wondering what Habermas would have made of it all. Shoe throwing is certainly not communicative action of the sort that Jurgen analysed at such great length; but then he never intended communicative action to be the only form of moral action. What would Habermas say? Would he say that we should always do what we can to promote dialogue, even if the other side recently decided to bomb your capital city without previously discussing the plan with the citizens and persuading them that it was indeed in their best interests to be bombed? At the time Al-Zaidi took his shoes off Bush was in Iraq and he was talking; a discourse of sorts was going on - a discourse which certainly wasn't improved by the throwing of the shoes. My guess is that this would be the crux for Habermas: as long as there is some kind of dialogue there is both hope and the obligation to continue it, however imperfect it might be. Al-Zaidi should have kept his shoes on and tried a little harder to put his case to the president, even if it had to be somehow distilled into the briefest of questions and even if it meant that he might not be admitted to any future press conferences.

But when so many of your fellow citizens have been killed or maimed or orphaned or turfed out of their property or forced into exile, and the man responsible is opposite you with a wry smile on his face and you feel the anger boiling within you and you expect him to say something dumb like: "Let's discuss this calmly," is it not completely reasonable to take your shoes off and throw them at that ridiculously smiling face? Surely the absence of a moral justification (assuming there isn't one) is no reason to condemn the act. The act is not only an act of violence; it is also an expression of the anger felt by someone who would be moral but who finds himself in a situation where morality is everywhere thwarted. Worse, he finds himself in a situation where the grossest immorality has been packaged and presented as a step forward for democracy, and where the conscientious participation in the little dialogue that is allowed inevitably lends a veneer of justification to the whole bloody episode. The virtuous man is not a man of the mildest emotions. Montaigne was quite right (in his essay on cruelty) that the virtuous man is one who can feel intense anger. In a situation like the one Al-Zaidi found himself in it is to be expected that the anger of the virtuous man will boil over (we are looking for virtuous men, not for saints). And we, as people concerned with the fate of virtue, should lend our support, even though we know that there is no moral justification for the act.


tony said...

The new video with him it is very funny i watch it with my new netbook

Werther said...

Two things: Habermas has a passage in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action where he brackets off all of these kinds of situations, basically conceding that they lie outside the realm of his theory, which I will quote for you when I have time to find it; and Edward Said once picked up on a statement Habermas made in an interview, roughly: "Critical theory has nothing to say to anti-imperial struggles in the Third World."

neoanchorite said...

Werther, thanks for the feedback. Two nice points (which seem to be two versions of the same point). My first fumbling reaction is this: Of course no theory - and no anti-theory, assuming we have a problem with Theory with a capital 'T', which is what I guess Habermas was up to - can reach beyond itself, grab the things themselves and paste them onto the page, but (prima facie) there seems to be something dubious about this apriori theoretical legislation of the proper bounds of theory. As I said, I warm a great deal to Adorno's making theory (or non-Theory) depend on experience and the ability to make sense of a historical experience, and it seems to me that if someone claims to have come up with the definitive formulation of Critical Theory or Moral Theory or something which is supposed to give a definitive orientation to a drifting (post-) modernity, and if it cannot make sense - if it cannot affirm - such paradigmatic acts of critical practice as shoe throwing in Iraq or other anti-imperialist gestures, then it is false.

Habermas seems to affirm a universality (the universality constitutive of a modern democratic discourse) at the expense of particularity (the particularities of communities, traditions, histories, environments, pleasure, etc). Here are THE torn halves. What I got from Adorno was the importance of putting this fragmentation at the centre of our (critical) thinking, and seeing it as the problem (a problem with the fundamental categories of modernity). If critical theory then insists on only one of the torn halves and says that the other is simply something that must be passed over in silence (by theory, at least), then critical theory really has lost its way.
But this is just fumbling.