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.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Poet, Christ, and a Girl Called Pam

Always on the lookout for torn halves we came across this odd little juxtaposition in a short piece about the eminent British poet John Betjeman. This section begins by emphasising the religious faith of the poet.

"Betjeman longed for unthinking belief, for an end to reflection and doubt:

The church is just the same, though now I know
Fowler of Louth restored it.
Time, bring back
The rapturous ignorance of long ago,
The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts,
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.
(Norfolk, 1954)

"This yearning to be overwhelmed by something greater than himself sometimes took physical forms. His poetry often expresses a longing to be mastered by large, athletic women:

Pam, I adore you,
Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl,
Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength of five.
(Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1940)

Monday, 15 December 2008

(Not) Learning to live better on less

A book that made a massive impression on me was "Living Better on Less". I came across it during the Age of the Yuppie and it played a (small) part in persuading me to take a vow of voluntary poverty - one I have kept.

When the economy really started to fall apart recently I thought: "This is my chance - my chance to write a sequel, perhaps with the title 'Living (Even) Better on (Even) Less.'" For a moment it seemed as if the crisis might prompt a kind of globalised soul-searching and lead to a fundamental change of values, with people not just resentfully trying to get by on a falling income but embracing the idea of actually living better on less, warming to the idea of, for instance, darning a few socks instead of immediately binning them and buying new ones. People, it seemed, would soon find a pleasure in not having to buy so much, and in not having to work so hard to buy so much that just ends up on the scrap heap. With a forced halt to over-consumption, wouldn't people inevitably sit down and rework their old, unthought assumptions about the Good Life?

But I have just heard on the BBC world business report that HMV reports that although its book sales are declining, the meltdown has had no effect whatsoever on sales of electronic games. Figures are also out from, which, apparently, is reporting that this will be its best festive season ever for sales. With this my hopes are dashed. Global soul searching and the hoped-for rethink of the Good Life would require a little more reading (not much, but enough to give booksellers a bit of a lift in these hard times). Instead, people are flocking to the bright, pixel-lit world of digital distraction to take their mind off things while the economy bottoms out.

Conclusion: Nothing will change and I will be wasting my time writing the above-mentioned sequel.

Unfortunately I do not remember any of the poem by Holderlin except the fragment "von Klippe zu Klippe", which appears in his description of a terrible waterfall cascading down a hillside and crashing horribly from one rocky ledge to another (if I remember the image correctly). What a perfect depiction of our failure to learn absolutely anything whatsoever from mistakes made in the past.

Confession of a Sickly Lad

Why were we never encouraged to read Hazlitt's essays? Had we been so, we might have come across the following paragraph (from essay 8 "Of the Ignorance of the Learned" in the collection entitled "Table Talk"), and we might have realised how etiolated and sickly we were becoming before it was too late (and now, of course, it is far, far too late).

"Any one who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape. It is an old remark, that boys who shine at school do not make the greatest figure when they grow up and come out into the world. The things, in fact, which a boy is set to learn at school, and on which his success depends, are things which do not require the exercise either of the highest or the most useful faculties of the mind. Memory (and that of the lowest kind) is the chief faculty called into play in conning over and repeating lessons by rote in grammar, in languages, in geography, arithmetic, etc., so that he who has the most of this technical memory, with the least turn for other things, which have a stronger and more natural claim upon his childish attention, will make the most forward school-boy. The jargon containing the definitions of the parts of speech, the rules for casting up an account, or the inflections of a Greek verb, can have no attraction to the tyro of ten years old, except as they are imposed as a task upon him by others, or from his feeling the want of sufficient relish of amusement in other things. A lad with a sickly constitution and no very active mind, who can just retain what is pointed out to him, and has neither sagacity to distinguish nor spirit to enjoy for himself, will generally be at the head of his form. An idler at school, on the other hand, is one who has high health and spirits, who has the free use of his limbs, with all his wits about him, who feels the circulation of his blood and the motion of his heart, who is ready to laugh and cry in a breath, and who had rather chase a ball or a butterfly, feel the open air in his face, look at the fields or the sky, follow a winding path, or enter with eagerness into all the little conflicts and interests of his acquaintances and friends, than doze over a musty spelling-book, repeat barbarous distichs after his master, sit so many hours pinioned to a writing-desk, and receive his reward for the loss of time and pleasure in paltry prize-medals at Christmas and Midsummer."

Deconstruction as Nihilism

We always had this hunch that deconstruction was a rather sophisticated game played with words, not something that had any intrinsic connection with the critical impulse - the need to engage with what feels like a social malaise - which had originally led us to philosophy, having spent some time on the barricades and been troubled by questions concerning the truth of our protest. In short, it just seemed obvious that deconstruction was a form of nihilism. So we didn't see the point in spending much time wading through the turgid Derridean monologues, and consequently never actually came up with a cogent critique.

Still, it would be nice to have a critique, which is why we were delighted to come across (14 years too late) a lovely paper by Jack M. Balkin entitled "Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice." Balkin wants to rescue deconstruction and establish that it can be part of a movement for greater justice, and apparently it is in terms of justice that the moral/ethical/political/practical import of deconstruction can best be panned out, according to Derrida. Prior to rescuing deconstruction Balkin conveniently points out why it is need of a helping hand - and this is the bit we like.

Balkin picks up the argument in a lecture given at the Cardozo Law School in 1989, in which Derrida was responding specifically to criticisms of political quietism and irrelevance. In a nutshell, Derrida maintained that people fighting for justice were calling into question certain identities and differences in the prevailing discourse of justice enshrined in law, which is just the sort of thing deconstruction does. The deconstruction of the human/animal distinction would tie in, for instance, with the arguments and intentions of animal rights activists who want animals to be accorded rights previously reserved for persons. "Hence, Derrida wants to insist, deconstruction is relevant to justice because we can deconstruct the boundaries of who is considered a "person" or, more generally, a proper subject of justice. By challenging these boundaries, we can move from a world in which the conception of a subject of justice is wrongfully limited to one in which it receives a just expansion."

And now the criticism:

"Derrida has not shown that the only way in which these oppositions might be deconstructed leads to increasingly just results. If deconstruction calls into question the boundaries of subjects of justice, it does not follow that the only way to question these boundaries is to advocate their expansion. They may well be unstable, as Derrida insists. Yet their instability might be evidence that they are about to implode, rather than expand. Furthermore, even if there must be an expansion, one can expand the boundary in two opposite directions - by expanding the scope of what is assigned to the "human," who is a subject of justice, or by expanding the scope of what is assigned to the "nonhuman," which is not a proper subject of justice. In this way, the instability of these boundaries might well be used, as it has in the past, to show that blacks, or Asians, or women are not fully human beings, or that the distinction between women and animals, for example, is so unstable that it cannot fully be maintained.

"Indeed, one can understand the history of bigotry as the continuous deconstruction of an imagined unity of humankind. It is the perpetual claim that the unity of humankind is a pious fiction, a papered-over discontinuity and heterogeneity, and that the Other within this imagined unity must be located and understood in all of its difference and inferiority. The egalitarian claims to rediscover the true similarity of the subjects of justice by reclaiming those who were wrongly grouped with nonsubjects; the bigot claims to rediscover the true similarity of nonsubjects of justice by rejecting those who were wrongly grouped with the subjects of justice. Both deconstruct boundaries and categories, and the act of deconstruction does not decide between them."

So deconstruction is a tool that can be put in the service of both our favorite or our most hated social movements. Balkin tries to rescue deconstruction from this nihilistic conclusion by saying that both the discourse and practice of justice rely on and ultimately spring from an inchoate sense of justice - a sense that achieves its determinacy through our local cultural mediations - and this is just what the practice of deconstruction relies on and is guided by. And a deconstruction so guided could not be called nihilistic.

But this is singularly unconvincing. There are many inchoate senses - some of them nice and some not so nice - and my hunch is that deconstruction just doesn't have the resources to come down on one side or the other. The reason may be that it does not self-consciously speak out of and tie itself to a particular historical situation. A useful contrast here is with Adorno, who never hides the fact that his thinking is orientated by the experience of surviving the holocaust and of reacting to its horror. However general and philosophical the discourse becomes, Adorno insists on that connection with a particular historical situation. And Adorno continually comes back to the way philosophy is implicated in or complicit in that historical situation. There is nothing comparable - is there? - in Derrida's philosophical works.

By the way, Balkin's paper really is nice. He is sympathetic to Derrida but cuts through opaque generalities with ease and brings them face to face with the nitty gritty of trying to do justice in a court of law. He beautifully shows how the idea of an infinite responsibility to the Other, which sounds so unequivocally moral on first hearing, would promote injustice without some way of seeing that the victim is not duty-bound to see her situation from the point of view of the oppressor. This - another by the way - ties in with our immediate moral predicament of whether or not to carry on being a hunt saboteur.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Doubting Hegel #1

Hegel doesn't have to worry about the pineal gland because consciousness is, from the beginning, embodied. Is this not, though, just the idea of embodiment? "What else could it be?" you might reply. "Hegel is an ideas man and could not possibly paste the body itself into his text." No, the probem is otherwise: Hegel seems to do the sort of thing we see in Kant and try to rely on a super-thin notion of embodiment that might encompass all self-conscious historical agents – thin enough to capture merely the conditions for the possibility of self-consciousness. But does the particularity of the body not make some very important differences? Can Hegel really hold apart the ideal from the empirical?

For the married man the doubts might be prompted by the realisation that his domestic relationship bears so little resemblance to the master-slave dialectic. "Why is my wife not interested in the sort of struggle for recognition that Hegel describes? Why does she show no inclination to risk her life in a battle of wills, or just show an interest in doing something exciting like skydiving?" he might wonder. Is Hegel not describing a dynamic that is peculiarly patriarchal and ascribing it (falsely) to the eternal structure of self-consciousness?

Our hunch is that psychology does make a difference, and that Hegel errs in assuming he can write the phenomenology of spirit without relying on the empirical stuff that psychology tries to fathom.

Which is why – to be honest – we are more tempted to read Nietzsche now than Hegel. The strength of Nietzsche was to put the psyche – with all its abysmal opacity – at the centre.

Apocalypse Now... and again

Flashes of torn things keep coming back to us. One of them is a scene from the film "Apocalypse Now", in which Martin Sheen is on a small boat heading up a winding river into the dark depths of Vietnam in search of Kurt, played by the unforgettable Marlon Brando. Somehow Sheen is handed his mail along the way, begins reading a letter from his wife, and reflecting, which is when we hear him say that when he is in the jungle he thinks of his wife, and when he is with his wife he thinks of the jungle.

In our experience, it is not necessary to spend time in some God-foresaken Vietnamese jungle in order to experience this ambivalence towards both domestic life and its opposite.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Marx's complicity: a voice from the cave

Quite by chance we came across some biographical notes about Millican Dalton - the insurance clerk who, in his mid 30s sometime between the wars, dropped out of the rat race and went to live in a cave on a bed of bracken leaves in Borrowdale in the English Lake District. The vegetarian pacifist with an addiction to very strong coffee died in the winter of 1947 at the age of 79 when he had moved from his cave to a tent in the valley to escape the worst of the weather.

To say that his story strikes a chord with us is an understatement. If we were looking for a guru (which we definitely are not) Dalton would be our man (although Dalton was only really interested in taking people on walks through the wilder parts of the Lake District, not in becoming some hideous lifestyle coach).

We mention him here, though, for another reason - because the story of him and his cave in Borrowdale reminds us of a sort of Marxist blindspot. It is a source of immense sadness to us (and one reason why we left the country of our birth) that we could not follow in Dalton's footsteps even if we had wanted to. The entirety of the Lake District has been turned into a National Park with rules and men and women in uniform on patrol. And the hillside with the cave is now the property of the National Trust who have fixed a cast iron sign to the entrance of the cave forbidding fires (even, presumably on damp autumnal evenings when a man would have to light a fire in his cave just to survive). The collection of fallen branches as firewood is also prohibited, regardless of whether the collector ever puts a match to them.

Everywhere, it seems (and is it not so?) in that land that was once a haven for the eccentric has been fenced off and patroled so that there is absolutely nowhere left to escape to.

Now, from the point of view of the Marxist I imagine there is nothing to object to here. Nature is nothing of value until it is worked on, and Nature as a whole is there to be dominated in the great historical advance of the forces of production and their corresponding relations of production, and there must be more such domination because socialism or communism or whatever you want to call the Good Life will only be possible when those forces of production have reached a tremendous pitch. The idea that there should be things that are untouched and that should remain untouched - the idea that, in an act of humility, it might be good to lie down amongst them (on your bed of bracken leaves) or simply walk through in wonder - this just cannot make sense within the Marxist framework.

Of course the National Trust is not a Marxist organisation, but I guess the Marxist is duty bound to support it (or something similar to it) and affirm the historical neccessity and the trememdous progressive value of an organisation that will at last manage these natural resources and ensure that nothing - even what now passes for wilderness - is beyond social control and does not bear the stamp of society.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The mind and the arse

Another unformed idea that we will probably never follow up: There is a mysterious connection between the arse and the mind.

Background: Freud talks somewhere about phases in very early childhood development and in connection with this develops a typology of characters (people whose development has been arrested at one stage or another?). One phase is the anal. When I first read this I thought it was just the product of a truly perverse imagination. And then the recollection of some very odd bowel-related behaviour in my own youth (I will spare you the details – it was not nice).

Only now has it occurred to me that there might be some connection between being anal and my inability to stop this obsessive grappling with my ideas – holding onto them instead of letting them drift away as ideas naturally tend to do in order to take pleasure in less intellectual pursuits. Is this cogitation not repulsively anal? Was there, in the end, no need for Descartes to resort to the ridiculous idea of the pineal gland to link up the mind and the body because, in truth, they were one and the same thing – the mind being not the body in general but the part at the greatest poetic distance from the lofty seat of ratiocination: the arse?

Hang on, though. Am I not according some priority to the arse, as if it comes first and the mind is some outgrowth of it – some hideous protruberance? But, as any mother knows, the arse in its original form is an orifice with no self-control. It poses no obstruction to the natural evacuation of the bowels, hence the importance of wrapping the loins of the infant well when it is taken to the supermarket. If the natural evacuative process is interrupted, this only starts occuring later on. And could this not be the work of the nascent mind? Could this nether region not be the place where the mind first flexes its mental muscles – the first muscle being the sphincter – feeling for the first time its ability to go against nature, to arrest the otherwise relentless flow of nature?

Of course there can be no biological determinism here. At best, the anal sphincter can only be a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for the evolution of the mind, as we can see from another bearer of that important ring of muscle: the goldfish, which, if we are to judge from its behaviour, is a stranger to philosophical reflection.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Real people: Where are they?

Werther wrote a nice piece entitled The Grad Student about a meeting with someone nasty in academia and including a reference to real people beyond the confines of the college. That connected so strongly with the memory of a little epiphanic moment I had decades ago when it seemed, having wandered off campus, that I had found myself amongst truly real people. (Alas, how the mind plays tricks on one.) So I wrote a lengthy comment describing my little epiphany and my subsequent disillusion (although I don't think there was anything necessary about my disillusion or that any great generalisation can be made on the base of it).

By the way, Werther begins with an interesting comment about character. Yes, I am all for character (but my interest in it may be a function of my lack of it). More - much more - needs to be written about character. (And another by the way: one of my gripes about Marxism - or a Marxism that has ignored Nietzsche - is that it seems to say nothing about character. Too much forces of production and relations of production and surplus value and reification and commodification, but no character and no reflection on what happened to character and how we might get it back - assuming it could still be rescued.)

First thought about freedom

A thought to be followed up later (blogging, after all, seems to allow for just thinking off the top of your head): the political discourse over here puts freedom as the number one value (if I am not mistaken) but people seem to have very, very little interest in any meaningful notion of freedom (I doubt whether many people in those flag waving crowds at election rallies were thinking to themselves: "Hey, we're free" or "I'm so free" or "This is it - this is me free - at last - free at last") so it seems there are two choices: drop the nonsense about freedom because it just doesn't connect with social reality or damn well do something to get people interested in their freedom (but what would that be? a military coup? Mmm?).

That needs thinking through (or binning maybe).