Friday, 6 November 2009

Response to Werther

Werther made some thought-provoking comments about neo-Stoicism on his Unabgeschlossenheit blog, with some interesting references to Martha Nussbaum, whose work we hadn't come across before. We wanted to leave a long comment but it turned out comments can't be longer than 4,096 characters (why 4,096?) so we are posting it here.

First of all, thanks for those pointers towards further reading. I have no access to the Harvard Law Journal but was able to find some Posner-related stuff on the web (but while the bandwidth allowed no Nussbaum or Kronman responses showed up on the search engine lists - so I am left guessing what the Aristotelian critique of that monster Posner might be. Any clues?).

Your point before the reference to Posner was that theory doesn't motivate - it always comes too late - and that it is therefore a practical irrelevance when considering social change. So, if we can't look forward to any positive social change as a result of our theoretical endeavours (which is not to say that change might not take place by other means), it might make more sense for me to use theory more therapeutically to help me live as well as I can in a world which is definitely not the best possible.

I guess you're right that theory is parasitic. Critical theory is doubtless parasitic on a pre-theoretical experience that the system as described by Posner sucks. You are right that no one's life ever takes an about-turn after reading some work of theory (certainly not after reading anything by Adorno). People obviously appropriate texts and use them to make sense of their situation, and that does influence the way people respond to contemporary unpleasantness. Religious interpretations are still popular even in this supposedly secular corner of Europe (I am talking about Greece here, and as someone living with a born-again Orthodox Christian who is preparing for the End of the World), and having swallowed the Apocalypse of St John hook, line and sinker, my partner's view of the way forward is rather different from mine (Oh, the joys of multi-cultural matrimony!).

You say that there have been enough critiques of the system. What has been lacking is the consideration of how we are to live as individuals within it. "What absolutely no one has come up with is a way for a person to live consistently with the principles that underlie those critiques. I think until that happens, nothing will change." Now, the demand for consitency doesn't sound very therapeutic. We must find a way of living a good life in a bad system (assuming we do agree that Posner sucks). That actually sounds quite hard.

Personally, I have been trying to do just that, on and off, for quite a while. In my case what happens is that I end up living less. Because I perceive the system to be bad and wish to lead a good life, I find myself withdrawing from it. The result is certainly not the Good Life, although it may be a less reproachable life. And I certainly don't see it as a way of life that might be a springboard for social change if more people followed suit, because in practise it just allows the Posners to carry on being nasty, and nastily weilding power in their conveniently pragmatic way over the rest of us.

Let me try to tie that into the discussion of Stoicism: The system tries to enslave us to our passions (for consumption primarily), and so I do what I can to overcome that, insisting on the same autonomy that was so crucial (as I gather) for the Stoics. I read that the Stoics wanted, not to moderate passion in an Aristotelian fashion, but to uproot it completely. Somehow, without ever having read a word of Zenon or Kleanthis, and against all my post-Marxist inclinations, I find myself struggling with my own interior life and letting the external world go its own sweet way (in true Stoic fashion). Now, of course, if the same happened to Posner and all his friends on Wall Street and at Halliburton and on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon and the Knesset and elsewhere, then things would change. But that just ain't gonna happen.

You are right that habits and desires have to change. But habits and desires are so utterly mediated by the system that it is hard to envisage a widespread change in them without some corresponding changes in the public sphere. For Marx and Lukacs and a few others the system was dysfunctional and would ultimately sow the seeds of its own destruction. Adorno disagreed.

Interestingly, Adorno came out in favour of a kind of quietism. In section 18 of Minima Moralia he says: "The best mode of conduct, in face of all this, still seems an uncommitted, suspended one: to lead a private life ... but not to attach weight to it as to something socially substantial and individually appropriate." A quiet private life. No bricks through the windows of banks. But Adorno's position is not Stoic. According to Francois Chatelet (whose book on ancient Greek philosophers is the only one I have to hand) the Greek Stoics insisted that everyone could lead a virtuous life (and a satisfying life, assuming that the highest good is the virtuous will) in this world. Adorno insists that the "wrong life cannot be lived rightly." Your desire for consistency in private life seems to imply that the wrong life can be lived rightly. Can it?

I don't want to split hairs with you about Stoicism. I see no point in getting academic about what was and what was not Stoic. I think the difficult issue lies elsewhere. There is something that needs to be challenged, and it is not the definition of Stoicism. It surfaces in one of those interviews with Nussbaum on one of those wellness blogs I mentioned ( Martha says in response to the well-being chaps who want to make everyone content: "I actually think, certainly in the US, that people should be a lot sadder than they are. The reason they're rather jolly is they don't think about the suffering of others, they don't think about the injustice suffered by others. I want to raise the level of sadness and anger in my students rather than diminish it." Nice. I like that. (And, by the way, she sees this inculcation of anger as non-Stoic.) Now, the tension I see is between this social agitation and her insistence elsewhere in the same interview that our political life retain its current liberal character. "The state should not be telling you how to live your life beyond a certain core of political principles." Here, for me, is THE problem. When my Stoic quietude falls away and I get angry about the sorts of things Martha wants us to get angry about, I start seeing the need for political intervention, collective action - not doing cartwheels into beenbags - but the sort of political intervention that would break up the corporate structure and loosen the current structure of power - the very structure that wreaks so much havoc with our habits and our desires. But that could only happen if we had a different conception - a non-liberal - conception of public life. Martha's comment (which may or may not be representative) implies that she sees her neo-Stoicism fitting quite nicely into the current liberal discourse (regardless of her objections to Posner, which unfortunately I don't have access to).

The crux, for me, is not to come up with a better guide to private life, but to finally see the need for a richer conception of the public. Heck, it might even be a bit Aristotelian. It certainly doesn't have to be the Stalinist one that Martha seems to see waving in the background.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The death of a cat

After the cat's week-long illness, and my sleeping on the floor to keep it company at night (on the floor partly because I didn't want the cat to fall on the hard tiles but also because it is so hard to clean cat piss out of a matress) the cat has died. This is not the first cat death. But no less painful for that.

To the childless middle-aged, a cat can take on an immense significance.

An observation: The dead cat was still not cold. As it lay on the white sheet covering the sofa you could see the fleas leaving en masse. Clearly, if you are a cat, you know you are dead when you see your fleas abandoning you.

An observation and a complaint: People say things like: "Cats get sick and die," or: "Think what it must be like for parents who lose, not kittens, but children," or: "Life goes on," or: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Why do people parrot inanities?

Everyone believes their misery is unique. They ought to be allowed to carry on thinking of it as unique and not be told by fools that their misery is really only a pale shade of a much richer misery felt by other people.

There are times when it seems that the greatest evil is to say to someone: "There are people far worse off than you."

Ethical irrationalism

Am I wrong? Is the case against rationalism and therefore the case for a kind of irrationalism (or arationalism) not very simple? For the rationalist the right action, the good life, the way forward (that kind of thing) is lit up by the best argument. The good life is one based on the best possible reasons. It is surely an old observation, though, that evil can find its own reasons - reasons that can doubtless be made, given sufficient cunning, to sound equally good, if not better. If (as Kant assumed and Habermas continues to assume) the criterion has to be formal (to avoid circularity), it is likely that the reasons for evil will seem as persuasive as those for good.

Conclusion: we can describe what is good (and any mother can do that), but we cannot justify it. Anyone who asks the stupid question that was (in my experience) so often set as a topic for undergraduate discussion: "Why should we be moral/good?" is making the wrong assumption. It simply is the wrong question. A better question for philosophy classes is: Why in the hell should we think that morality is grounded in pure reason? And the question for Habermas seminars is: Why in the hell should we think that morality is grounded in discursive/communicative reason?

Second conclusion: if we are good, we are not so because we are rational. As Rousseau suspected, rationality is more likely to be a cause of evil. But in the midst of evil rational beings wreaking havoc while trying to implement the New American Century and while trying to maximise the accumulation of virtual wealth, there is obviously no point hoping that such rationalism will somehow unwind itself or run out of steam and leave the way clear for a new kind of innocence.

No, the only way forward is for a kind of rationalism that is fully aware of its own guilt - a rationalism that knows there are no clean hands, and knows that from an ethical point of view it is vacuous, and only has a content in virtue of the memory of something prior to it.

Habermas's swipe at Lebensphilosophie

Somewhere in the "Philosophical Discourse of Modernity" (Mmm. Modernity as a discourse. Only a discourse? Essentially a discourse? Mmm.) Habermas (as translated into English) refers scathingly to a "hoary Lebensphilosophie". Although it is becoming harder and harder for me to remember what I have read, those two words are as firmly etched onto the tablet of my mind as all those juvenile pop tunes and TV jingles which refuse to be cleansed.

"Hoary Lebensphilosophie." How can anyone be so scathing about an attempt to do justice to the experience of life in philosophy (which, I assmume, is what Lebensphilosophie is all about)? How can anyone be so mistrustful of anything that smacks of life and is obviously not a stepping back from the flux of life to a theoretically constructed (discursively constructed, if you like) point from which the flux can be judged, can be found lacking, can be regrounded and rebuilt on something more stable, on something less life-like?

What I like about Minima Moralia (Adorno's early work) is its attempt to write about morality from a very temporal experience of our historical situation. Not sure that Adorno has a Lebensphilosophie (does he?) but he sees that philosophy (if it is not to delude itself) must appreciate the fact that it is bound by a certain kind of very human and very historical kind of life. Of course Habermas knows that everything is historical, but he seems to assume that within history a shared concern for truth (or validity - let's not split hairs) will make it possible for history to overcome itself - to bracket all other considerations and redirect the previously messy and bloody business of history in a direction that everyone can see is rationally justifiable- eveyone who buys into the discourse of Reason Uber Alles, that is. But if all claims but truth must be bracketed, the result is nihilism. And nihilism effectively opens the door even wider for the most messy and bloody chapters of history.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ethical buses and the economics of happiness

Apparently there are social scientists doing very scientific research about what makes people happy. To this end the World Values Survey Association has polled over 350,000 people and gathered together a bank of data that any scientist would be proud of. Apparently this sort of work is being packaged as something that might be called post-economics – work that pushes economics being a narrow fixation on alienating indicators like GDP, the money supply and other bars in the iron cage of reification.

One finding that has come out of the painstaking and costly research into human well-being is that talking to a stranger while traveling on public transport makes people happier. Ian Bullock picked up on this bit of somewhat fluffy science and wrote an interesting article for (a site we were delighted to come across). Most of the article is a refreshingly humorous unscientific account of his attempt to test this thesis for himself while traveling on local buses. His very personal and statistically insignificant data confirm the earlier findings.

Such findings are laughably unilluminating but the research is interesting insofar as it illustrates the failure of one attempt to go beyond the framework of traditional economics – a failure in the sense that it thinks it is breaking new ground while, in truth, it remains within the very same set of categories that bolster the system that was very nearly brought to its knees in September 2008.

Presumably the train of thought goes a bit like this: there is something brutal and inhumane about contemporary economic reality; economic theory lends support to this by insisting that all the arguments focus on impersonal indicators like the GDP; to go beyond this we ought to bring human happiness into the equation; there need be no sacrifice of scientific rigour because we can gather hard and fast data (and lots of it) about what makes people happy.

There is no denying the importance of human happiness. There is a problem, though, with the utilitarianism that is implicit in this attempt to humanise economics. Unwittingly, Ian Bullock illustrates this perfectly, as he gets on and off Vancouver buses measuring his happiness level on a scale of one to ten and trying various techniques suggested by the social scientists to increase it. Isn’t that what the liberal monads were already envisaged as doing within the market economy? What’s new here? The answer is surely: Nothing.

In rushing to embrace the individual as the missing token of humanity, the post-economists are simply repeating the same crazy oscillation we see elsewhere is society - the insane oscillation between inhumane calculation (e.g. the denial of affordable healthcare) and entertaining pseudo-humanity (e.g. the TV station telling the tear-jerking story of the diseased child and inspiring thousands to give blood). And, again, I don’t want to deny the value of chatting with strangers on the bus, but when we step back and see the bigger picture, does this really get beyond the level of pseudo-humanity? In all probability we will find ourselves chatting to someone on their way to the bank where they will have to beg to save their home from foreclosure. They will be slightly less unhappy when they walk into the bank. But they will still have to beg.

The really daring thing – the thing that would really break the taboos in economics - would be to insist on the need for some kind of ethics. These would be values; not use values or exchange values, but good, old-fashioned ethical values of the sort that Aristotle (and others) would have been proud of.

An alternative picture of Ian Bullock’s bus comes to mind. On a bus I always feel more optimistic about society (and perhaps therefore a tad happier) when I see someone get up to give their seat to someone in greater need. This might or might not make the person losing their seat happy, but it would make the bus a better place. It warms me to see that people still care and still have a sense of propriety (and the act of giving up one’s seat surely involves a mix of both empathy and propriety). Now, these good people surely don’t even begin to try to calculate whether the pleasure gained throught the self-consciousness of virtue outweighs the pain in the legs caused by standing up. They couldn’t. There is a logical hiatus between that kind of utilitarianism and the ethical world of the better bus.

The good bus is one that has shared values that both entrench and demand a concern for others. That concern is a concern for, amongst other things, the happiness of others, but the social order evident in the bus is not one that can be built up on the basis of utilitarian calculation.

In a sense, what needs to be reclaimed is not individual happiness but the idea of a social order – an order dismissed both by liberal economics and utilitarianism – not an order to be ossified and reified, but one that will allow people to be more human than a calculating utilitarian monad.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Gordon Finlayson on Adorno and Habermas

We were very happy when we found - quite by chance - Gordon Finlayson's blog. It has been a long time and Gordon doubtless no longer remembers us, but we were lucky enough to be present at a party once where Gordon, wearing one of those very Continental-looking striped T-shirts (where the stripes run horizontally and alternate between a very dark blue, if I remember correctly, and white), was playing the guitar, and playing it well. He is now - we gather from the address on his blog - working at the University of Sussex.

What led us to his blog was a link on the Habermasians blog to Gordon's article on the foundations of Critical Theory (published in Telos in Jan 2009). We were keen to read it.
But it is an odd article, though, and we are not sure what to make of it. The last paragraph was a bit disturbing, especially the following sentence:

"Insofar as Habermas, the social theorist, eschews broadly moral reasons as the basis of critical social theory, he stands squarely in the tradition of first generation Frankfurt School critical theory."

I don't think Gordon set out to put Habermas and Adorno in the same bag, but the fact that he ended up doing that makes us less than enthusiastic.

Apparently, the main aim of the piece is to argue that Adorno (forgive me while I identify Adorno with "first generation Frankfurt School critical theory") does not rely on moral grounds when he develops a critical theory that has, amongst other things, clearly moral conclusions. Gordon says there are six reasons why Critical Theory needs to eschew moral grounds:

1 The experience of WWII showed that culture in general and morality in particular failed to provide any resistance to evil.

2 The distinctively moral discourse is a dubious one, being a coercive imposition of reason on sensibility.

3 A morality of principles tends to undermine a person's affective ties to other people and things, giving rise to a cold, authoritarian mentality.

4 In a bad society we can have no (untainted? independent?) conception of the good, which would be central to any moral theory.

To Adorno's own reasons for eschewing a moral foundation, Gordon adds two other considerations.

5 Moral criticism is only really appropriate when criticising deeds for which individuals can be held responsible, but Critical Theory is more concerned with systemic trends that exceed individual responsibility.

6 In a multicultural society with its endemic value pluralism, a (suitably thick) moral theory would be rejected as too parochial.

More important for Gordon is the dilemma that Critical Theory then seems to be faced with. Since Critical Theory has moral conclusions it must have moral foundations, but if it resorts to those it is guilty of a self-contradiction (given the disavowal of a moral theory as a ground).
Isn't that just a little too neat, though? For one thing, the talk of conclusions and grounds fits Adorno's thinking into a mould that just isn't his. Gordon notes Adorno's antipathy to logic, but insists on forcing him into the square holes labelled "ground" and "conclusion". For another thing, there is a certain amount of linguistic juggling going on here. When arguing that Critical Theory has moral "conclusions" Gordon uses one understanding of "moral": "I use the term ‘moral’ here in the broadest sense to refer to the domain of norms and values that relate to and flow from the deepest and most central questions concerning the life, character and actions of social agents, and their relations to the lives, character and actions of others." But when arguing that Critical Theory can and must do without moral grounds, the concept becomes more specific, and is either the principled Moralitat (sorry no umlaut) or the tradition-bound Sittlichkeit.

Ending his reconstruction of Adorno's position, Gordon says Adorno leaves his conclusions unsupported by anything other than the description of our historical situation, which is meant to make it clear why a "healthy" set of moral/ethical/normative concepts are just not available to us.

Habermas said such a position was unacceptable. Does Gordon agree? Yes, he does. We must have, he implies, a foundation, and it needs to be (for the six reasons given above) non-moral and yet be capable of leading to moral conclusions. Does Habermas come up with the goods? Unfortunately not. The discourse ethic is empty. It abstracts from the language and concerns of the lifeworld, which happens to be the only source of the moral norms and ethical values that might be used to criticise current social practice.

On a different reading, what is genuinely critical in Habermas's work is a "diagnosis of social pathologies", where the pathology can be identified without making any moral judgments. Society is "sick" and in need of a spell in rehab, but it is not morally bad (or at least the logically consistent critic doesn't want to say it is). Does gordon think this is a fruitful line of thinking? He is not convinced. But he is glad to see that, either way, the discourse ethic (which, it turns out, is not really ethical - not in a nice thick sense anyway) and the social pathology approach both involve eschewing moral grounds, which is what Adorno did, and that makes Habermas a good torch bearer for this proud tradition of social critique.


My response in brief (because too much has been written already):

1 Anything that puts Hab and Adorno in the same bag is, prima facie, unpleasant.
2 What Adorno says, the way he says it, and our interest in reading the stuff (despite the tremendous effort required) just don't make sense unless we begin (or find somewhere pretty damn close to the beginning) concerns that have something moral/ethical/normative about them (concerns that certainly fit into the very general concept of "moral" that Gordon postulates, despite concept postulation being anathema in Frankfurt).

3 The insistence on logical consistency and the idea that Adorno might actually be a closet functionalist reduce thinking to theory. Adorno is a great thinker about the limits of rationality - the irrationality of rationality - not because of value pluralism but because of the entwinement of reason with the domination of nature. You get to a point - don't you? - where you see the need (psychological, social, political, historical) to loosen the grip of reason. Reason is put, once more, in the dock, and is found guilty. Of course, we can't just drop reason, because there is no alternative. But we can keep turning reason against itself to recall and keep in mind the injustice being done to the real substrate of life. To insist on the unreflective forms of systematising reason is to insist that the sad story of domination continue (even if the purported aim is to develop a "critique" of society).

4 Do we need grounds? Gordon seems to assume we do. Personally I feel quite happy without them. What I see in the Dialectic of Enlightenment is the best description yet of how fucked up we are. It is a description that chimes with my own sense of being out of joint and my own initial hunch that society went off the rails somewhere down the line. The description includes values - nature being the most prominent - and I can accept such a value-laden description without thinking that a grave abuse of logical propriety is being commited in mixing fact and value; and I accept it without thinking: "Hey, where's the argument for the principle that nature is a value? What's the Reason for thinking that nature is a value? And doesn't science tell us that nature is just a bunch of facts, and how do you get from that to those lofty values?" There is a sense in which questions like this keep us trapped within the circuit of self-agrandising, instrumental rationality. The point, though, is, without giving up on reason and without giving up on the historical project of liberation of which the development of rationality is so much a part, to see that reason risks denying the very real grounds (not premises) of a more fulfilling life and a more rational society.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Leiter on Nietzsche's Skepticism

Brian Leiter has written a piece about Nietzsche's moral skepticism (and thanks to Unabgeschlossenheit for putting us onto it). It is an odd combination of some very conscientious Nietzsche scholarship, and a lot of theorizing which causes this particular sympathetic reader of Nietzsche to take offense. With some philosophers (I would cite Heidegger or Derrida, since my sympathies are not with them) one tires of reading secondary texts which teeter on the edge of parody as they parrot the pseudo-poeticisms about the clearing, for instance, in order (supposedly) to clear up what Heidegger was on about. One wants someone - someone like Leiter perhaps - to come along and make it plain for us unpoetic types what the hell Heidegger was on about and whether there is actually anything substantial at the core of his thinking or whether it is all just a cry of pain at the absence of God. What one doesn't want, however, is a long academic thesis about whether Heidegger or Nietzsche were skeptics about the existence of moral facts. Rather than clear anything up, that just obscures things further by forcing one set of ideas into a theoretical framework in which they just don't belong.

But let us be scholarly for a moment (despite the unpleasant sensation that that arouses). What is wrong with the talk of moral facts that Leiter uses (and it is not just his discourse, of course)? Perhaps we are not sufficiently familiar with this discourse, and perhaps that is why it strikes us as odd that Leiter can talk so bluntly about moral facts when so much about that talk seems questionable. Leiter does not say that there are moral facts, but the discourse assumes that there might be, and Leiter goes on to reconstruct one possible argument for being skeptical about their existence: the argument from the universal disagreement in the field of moral philosophy.

What would a moral fact be? But that question only makes sense within a larger attempt to understand the phenomenon of morality. What is morality? Leiter's talk of moral facts implies that morality is either a cognition of something objective or simply a projection of the speaker's feelings. This either/or seems to imply that if morality isn't objective then moral talk is just a lot of hot air (with perhaps the further consequence that any moral critique of existing power structures is a priori untenable, which is definitely not what Nietzsche believed).

Let's take objectivity first. Here and there Leiter seems to suggest that objectivity is (or ought to be) as objective as it was for Plato for whom the Ideas are “pure, clear, unmixed—not infected withhuman flesh and color, and a lot of other mortal nonsense”. What we seem to have lost sight of here is the history of our discourse. Unlike Plato we are only too aware of how historical and therefore how opaque our discourse is. We are only too aware that our language is (as it was for Nietzsche) human, all too human. And so there is no way back to a Platonic concept of objectivity (for which language would have to be a perfectly transparent window on the world). Some kind of historical relativism is inevitable. And it's inevitability is evident in Leiter's article, for the way he sets up the problem only makes sense if you begin from an acceptance that the world is what it is for science: either there are facts to be known by one kind of science or there are feelings to be explained by another branch of science, and philosophy presumably decides which phenomena belong in which scientific pigeon hole.

What about feelings? There is something terribly unsubtle in the talk of the projection/expression of feelings that Leiter buys into. Nietzsche has an interesting history of how the bad conscience comes into being. It is a long and tortuous process. This historical and psychological complexity is completely glossed over by the reduction of morality to a projection of feelings. That kind of reductive talk implies (it seems to me) a kind of shrug of the shoulders: I feel this way, but, heck, I guess you feel differently and I guess that's just moral relativism, so let's live and let live. There is a phenomenon here in serious need of a diagnosis, when morality can be talked about with such a shrug of the shoulders; as there is when talk of morality can centre on idle chatter about flaming pussies.

So what of the either/or? For an old Hegelian-Marxist it is tempting to criticize this for being a tad undialiectical. Morality cannot just be feelings, but it cannot just be the stuff Leiter wants to call facts. Instead of the flaming pussy let's take a more pertinent phenomenon: sin. There is no sin without a historically evolved religious discourse maintained by a community that talks of sin and judges the immoral actions of its members, and judges them harshly. But that discourse will cease to have any currency if people do not feel that their actions and those of other are sinful. There is a unity here of history, language, thought and feeling which cannot come into view if we insist at the outset that morality must either be facts or feelings. Those of us who see in theocracy nothing but a dead hand know by its absence how important feeling must be to morality.

Enough on the either/or. Let me comment on why I prefer to read Nietzsche than Mr Leiter. Nietzsche has a burning sense of what is timely. I may disagree with his interpretation of what the epoch needs, but I appreciate that keeness to respond to the historical situation, and respond to it morally (leaving aside for now the difficulty with the word "morality"). We, too, live at a time when there is much of a moral nature to think about. In the West morality is excluded from so much of the public sphere as culture is handed over to commerce. It is almost tempting to talk about this as a form of repression, and then to see the Taliban as the return of the repressed, to whom the response is naked aggression. When thinking about morality, don't we have to begin from some understanding of what morality has become historically - from some understanding of how we (and that is a very historical we) are to narrate that history - and from some response to the present crisis? Philosophy, on this reading, does not begin from wonder (and certainly not from idle academic curiosity) but from a sense of unease - a sense that society is not a whole of which we are contented parts, but rather that it is fragmented. Philosophy should at least help us to delineate the lines of that fragmentation insofar as this touches on the most basic categories of our thinking, even if it cannot come up with a blueprint for a happier whole. However much I disagree with the details, I appreciate that this what Nietzsche addresses. He does criticize a Platonic theory of value, but not because it is a nice topic for an academic paper, but because it is a necessary prelude to a critique of a social self-delusion - a delusion bound up with a negation of what we feel (of what we FEEL) ought to be affirmed.

To put it another way. I like moral thinking to be not just thinking about morality but thinking that is itself moral - thinking that aims to be an intervention with moral purport in a situation (like ours) that cries out for a moral response. In such a context it strikes me that idle talk of flaming pussies is reprehensible.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Post-Modernism as Anti-Humanism? A Response to Reiner Schurmann

Back in 1979 Reiner Schurmann wrote an article entitled "Anti-Humanism: Reflections of the Turn Towards the Post-Modern Epoch." In it he purported to see in philosophy the signs of a move to a new epoch in which the human subject is no longer at the centre. Prior to this there was a "humanistic epochal economy" as Schurmann calls it, but the philosophies of Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger (the three he focuses on in the article) signal its expiration. Beneath the title of the article, a quote from Foucault's "Order of Things" sums up the main idea: "Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end."

The primary idea which has had its day is that of the subject as a point of origin. Epistemologically, the humanist idea is evident both in Plato and Descartes for whom knowledge can be based on clear and distinct ideas available to the private reflection of the subject. For the anti-humanist, knowledge rests on a historically shifting order of things - a transient order that the individual is subject to, not the origin of.

A similar shift occurs in the conception of the practical subject. As Schurmann puts it, the individual "even less appears as history-making, as a person responsible for his doings, as the initiator of a new order of things - in one phrase, as a moral agent."

Now there is definitely a shift in philosophy away from transcendental subjectivity, but to lump Marx and Nietzsche and Heidegger in the same bag and call them anti-humanists is just too much to swallow. Take Marx: one of the key quotes Schurmann relies upon includes the following comment about the proletariat being a class which "suffers the total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity." Clearly, when Marx criticises idealist notions of human subjectivity he does so for the sake of developing a theory to assist the redemption of humanity. Hardly anti-humanism.

Similarly with Nietzsche. On Schurmann's reading, Nietsche affirms "the radical fluidity of inorganic, organic, social and cultural forces, all treated as equal so long as one of them does not impose its temporary order upon the others." He makes it sound as if for Nietzsche human being dissolves completely into a play of forces. Is this so? Admittedly, Nietzsche does recall feeling himself to be "6,000 feet beyond man and time" (while out walking in the countryside in 1881) but does he not mean "beyond the motley humanity of the town square down in the valley" as opposed to "beyond humanity as such"? And was the point of thinking on his feet while walking across the hillsides not to gain a more lively sense of himself - a self more aware of its humanity than the Cartesian subject locked in darkness, imagining itself to be mere thought? Again and again, Nietzsche tries to point to a new type of man - and Zarathustra is meant to be the paragon. As he puts it a few pages after the quote that Schurmann lifts from Ecce Homo: he holds up "the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often appear inhuman - for example when it confronts all earthly seriousness so far, all solenmity in gesture, word, tone, eye, morality, and task so far, as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody - and in spite of all of this, it is perhaps only with him that great seriousness really begins, that the real question mark is posed for the first time, that the destiny of the soul changes, the hand moves forward, the tragedy begins."

Is there not an opposition to a certain kind - certain kinds - of humanity in the name the name of a better kind of humanity? This is blotted out completely by the term "anti-humanism".

What irritates most of all is Schurmann's apathy - his quiescent fatalism. He refers back to the Stoics in glowing terms, saying that the post-modern anti-humanists manifest the same wise equanimity. He also says that understanding "always comes ... once the battle is over. What gives rise to thinking thus totally escapes our grips." "Totally"! Now this might be true of Heidegger, but surely not Marx and Nietzsche. Doesn't Nietzsche's genealogy of morals aim to come to some kind of grip with the past in order to have a more confident attitude towards the present and the future? And there is a struggle here - hardly equanimity - one that arises out of a disgust with the present and a concern for the future. Similar traits are evident in Marx, although the focus is on property relations and the commodity form instead of psychology. And if Marx ends up being something of an economic determinist it is only because he thinks he can see a crisis brewing - a crisis which is perceived to offer a tremendous opportunity for humanity at last to realise its highest potential. This hardly amounts to equanimity.

What is most repugnant is this equanimity. It reminds us of Richard Rorty, who we saw on stage describing the liberal imaginary and shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly, brushing off our objections that there were things about that fragmentary and contradictory status quo that we couldn't just affirm with equanimity. If equanimity is the prevailing mood of post-modernism, we reject post-modernism. Although there is no simple humanism that we can fall back on, it looks to us as if this talk of anti-humanism, which initially looks like a bold negation, ends up implicitly affirming a world order that is, in fact, anti-human. In a sense, it is because anti-humanism is true that it must be rejected as false - the standpoint of the latter truth being some remnant of humanity that we are still aware of.

Monday, 27 April 2009

For the sake of pity: Why read Nietzsche?

There was a time when I could not stomach Nietzsche at all, but lately I want to read nothing else but Nietzsche (with the possible exception of Stendhal, and that only because I wanted to see if Nietzsche's glowing comments were justified - and they were).

Anyone who believes that our overriding moral obligation is to help the poor, the homeless, the refugees, the malnourished, the diseased, etc, etc MUST read Nietzsche. This is not to say that the morality of pity is defenseless; but it deserves to be challenged. Nietzsche suggests we look backwards at the genealogy of this morality and forwards to what it aims at.

As far as the aim is concerned, where is all this pity heading? Are we just trying to make sure that everyone is comfortable, with a warm meal and a bed and a TV and no sound of gunfire in the vicinity? But obviously it is not enough for those of us who pity to be content with their comfort, their warm meal, their bed, their TV and the absence of gunfire. No, we want there to be a crisis somewhere - a crisis that will be a call to action, that will get us up out of our armchairs and out into the streets knocking on doors to raise money for the moral effort. So if we achieved our goal and everyone was warm, comfortable and well-fed and well-entertained, would we be happy? Would we feel better? Or would we feel that something was missing? Are we do-gooders not ever so slightly parasitic - parasites of the poor and needy?

Am I alone in yearning to help others while suffering from a congenital inability to help myself or to help something that we might call "us" (a word - an object - completely alien to me)? Is this not - as Nietzsche suggests - a little decadent?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Learning from the Taliban: a lesson in zeal

James drew our attention to the news from Pakistan (from a region close to the one we visited in our youth):

Taliban fighters spilling out of the Swat Valley have swept across Buner, a district 60 miles from Islamabad, as Hillary Clinton warned the situation in Pakistan now poses a "mortal threat" to the security of the world.

The US secretary of state told Congress yesterday that Pakistan faced an "existential" threat from Islamist militants. "I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists," she said. Any further deterioration in the situation "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world", she said.
In Imam Dheri, the Taliban headquarters near Mingora, a Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, told the Guardian their goal was the establishment of an Islamic caliphate first in Pakistan and then across the Muslim world.

"Democracy is a system for European countries. It is not for Muslims," he said. "This is not just about justice. It should be in education, health, economics. Everything should be under sharia." The drive into Buner signals the next step in that strategy. Khan said Taliban fighters were being deployed to ensure sharia law was implemented there too.

Given that Pakistan is a kind of democracy and given that it has been an ally of the West, there is, if not a threat, at least a challenge. To which the response should be...what? Bomb Swat? We disagree. The rise of the Taliban in particular and Islam in general as the Other of the West should first lead to a little soul searching - a little introspection on our part.

There was an interesting documentary this afternoon on Press TV (a station which could have been called The Voice of Tehran, but wasn't). It showed the lives of a handful of young Muslim women in Sweden, looking especially at the difficulties they face being Muslim in a non-Muslim society. Perhaps this tiny sample was completely unrepresentative, but what was striking was the sharp contrast between strong Muslim women, on the one hand, who insisted on their firm beliefs despite the almost constant barage of unfavourable comments and, on the other hand, the terribly flabbly looking Swedes who didn't seem to have much of anything to believe in or insist upon. Far from being oppressive, the hijab was something that made these already strong women feel even stronger. The zeal in their voices and the sparks from their eyes as they talked about the significance of this otherwise flimsy square of fabric was something to behold.

Those women are not the Taliban, but they are both aspects - the one armed, the other unarmed - of the rise of Islam as a global counterforce.

But a counter to what? To democracy? The Guardian report unfortunately does not give me enough of Clinton's comments to know what the perceived object of the threat is exactly. Regardless of what she thinks, though, it is surely a fact that there is not much in the West, beside the sheer force of high-tech weaponry, to oppose.

Another image: The US military hiring shopping space in a busy mall to set up what is in essence an amusement arcade equipped to create the most dramatic war-gaming experience a kid with a Playstation could ever dream of. And this is supposed to be cutting-edge military recruitment. War is a thrill. War is adrenaline. War is power. Power is pleasure. The dubious equations follow one after the other, but they don't amount to anything that anyone with a mental age of more than 13 could seriously believe in, and stand up and eloquently defend in the face of criticism in the way that those Swedish Muslim women stood up and eloquently defended their insistence that the appearance, the sexuality, of a woman should not be a public issue.

Before we start shooting we need to think a little more about what we have lost - about how awfully flabby we have become. There is surely a case to be made for an intelligent and commited kind of moderatism - a firm belief in a separation of powers, and the constitution and the rule of law, etc. But there are times (like today) when it seems that that is not what we have. Instead we have this dreadfully adipose hedonism, which doesn't even deserve to be described using a term ending in -ism since that implies an ideology, which is nowhere to be seen.

Nietzsche - that great philosopher of anti-Facism - drew an enlightening distinction between weaker reactive cultures and stronger active ones. The West increasingly appears to be the weak reactive global player, only gaining strength by creating a media panic about an axis of evil. The Islamic world seems much les reactive. It has its faith, which the people would insist on and be inspired by even if Muslim families were not being blown up by unmanned aircraft controlled at a safe distance by timid post-Nintendo GIs. The Muslim is fired by ideas and beliefs that could be spread to others. What puts the fire in us that we could spread it to others. Wellness? Relaxation self-help techniques? A conscientious approach to dentistry? Hip-hop?

No, before we start shooting the misguided zealots of Swat we need to think long and hard about how there can be a cultural/ethical/moral/political renaissance in the West. Things have to be changed. Those who talk of dumbing down are not wide of the mark. But how are we to smarten up? I don't know, but I appreciate the way our zealous Muslim brothers and sisters are unwittingly making this a burning issue. A new standard is being set. Instead of trying to shoot it down, we need to rise up to it.

The IKEA test of the free spirit

Non-Europeans unfamilar with the IKEA phenomenon will need some background: IKEA is a Swedish manufacturing giant that no has huge warehouses outside every major European city (or so it seems). Hence my mother in a small town in northern England now has exactly (EXACTLY) the same furniture as a Greek family living in a suburb of Thessaloniki in northern Greece.

I went to IKEA. It was painful. I couldn't eat any of the traditional Swedish meatballs they were serving (because the idea is that you don't just go to IKEA to buy cheap flat-pack furniture - it is meant to be pretty much a day out for the family, hence the children's play area and the traditional Swedish meatballs).

What sprung to mind was the IKEA test of the free spirit (for readers of Nietzsche who might be wondering if they are, or are not, free spirits). To take the test you have to need furniture and really want to get it at the lowest possible price. You then go to IKEA, where there is such an abundance of cheap furniture (all so clevely flat-packed that it is virtually possible to furnish an entire dining room for a family of five with stuff that can be fitted into a small hatchback on a single run). And then you must see how you feel. Those who pass the test are those who genuinely feel an achingly deep nausea as horrible images of that Munchean scream come to mind again - a screaming figure on a bridge (as I recall) - a bridge to...nowhere?

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The tyranny of the focus group

Recently we met a rather naive woman weeping over the fate of her book. She had got a contract to write a book of educational materials, and she had assumed that this was due to her strong opinions about what would make a good book. She had a lot of experience in the field, she had thought long and hard about the room for improvement in this particular area, and felt she knew very well what would make a really good book. Her book would be different from all the other books in that particular market, which were all, to a greater or lesser degree, bad.

Then she found out that the plans for the book and the sample chapter had to be given to a series of focus groups - groups of teachers, ordinary teachers with no particular expertise, but teachers representing the vast majority of the market for the book. The feedback was not all positive. Changes had to be made. The book had to become more like all the other books on the market. It had to become more like what was already familiar.

The weeping author was dismayed. She had assumed that the publisher would organize a campaign to persuade potential buyers that this new kind of book was better and should be preferred over the familiar but inferior stuff. Clearly this would spark a debate about the pros and cons of different kinds of books. But it turned out that there was to be no debate and no attempt at persuasion. The focus group would decide, and there could be no questioning the anxieties, prejudices and narrow-minded ideas that doubtless underlay their decision.

Between sobs she described her previous conviction that the free market in goods could also be an arena in which ideas compete with each other, allowing the best to gain ascendance. But if the free market is all about companies looking for the lowest common denominator, there is no hope for a cultural aristocracy (in the good sense of a state in which the best - the aristos - holds sway).

After the sobs died down, what remained was a gnawing sense of the nihilism of what has come to pass - a nihilsm quite different from that of the blue-spectacled Russians, like Sergey Nechaev, but one that still treats all ideas of what is good and true with an indifference that is - to sensitive souls like the naive woman in question - as terrible as anything the nineteenth century nihilists dreamed of.

What hope is there now for a notion of the Good that means more than "that which sells"?

Friday, 20 March 2009

Socialising the losses

We just can't seem to concentrate on our rereading of Nietzsche's "The Genealogy of Morals", which we'd been planning on doing since Christmas. Partly it is the continuing sense that the world is on a historic brink and we just can't find the kind of Taoist inner calm to give our minds entirely over to a very difficult text from the 19th century. There are too many troubling things like Credit Default Swaps, which we still can't fathom out - things that are a real thorn in the flesh. It seems imperative to understand what Credit Default Swaps are, and what the other derivatives (derivatives of what?) might be, and how it could come to be that the value of all those derivates exceeds the total earnings of everyone on the planet. It seems that over the last decade, while we were tending our hillside vegetable plot and sleepily reading Rousseau's "Confessions" in the evenings, Finance was taking off in a historically unprecedented way and we were completely unaware of it until something hit the proverbial fan.

We've already mentioned the video Money as Debt, which was a real eye-opener and set a convincing agenda for monetary reform, and today, while trying to find out about Quantitative Easing, of which the BBC and Al Jazeera are full at the moment, we came across an oddly heart-warming blog - "oddly" because this is the blog of a trader who seems to have been led by a careful consideration of the numbers (which just don't add up any longer) to the conclusion that the free market needs a radical rethink, beginning with the banks and the money supply. Nathan Martin seems like a very sound chap.

Nathan has some charts. Some of them (because they touch on our evaporated pension funds) are too shocking for us to look at. But there is one that we would like to reprint here. It is a chart of the reserves held by banks. Now a sensible chap would assume that banks would actually have to keep quite a lot of money in the vault, and certainly not lend out more money than they have (although a sensible chap who has had a chat with a few bankers might end up thinking that maybe it's okay for banks to lend out - say - 10 times the amount of money they keep in the vault, as long as they do actually keep that tenth safe and sound). Am I just stupid, or does it not seem right if regular chaps are borrowing money to buy cars and houses and suchlike from insitutions that actually don't have a dime?

Did Marx foresee all of this, or was he so focused on the extraction of surplus value from the sweat of the worker that he paid insufficient attention to the way the whole show ended up being run for the benefit of the banks?

It is all so difficult to understand, though. We find ourselves scratching our heads like idiots and wishing we had studied some economics alongside our philosophy instead of spending so much time pouring over half-understood early 19th century German poetry. For one thing: If banks create 97% of the money out of thin air when they give loans, why does there seem to be so much pain when things go wrong? They never had the wealth in the first place, so they haven't really lost anything, have they? If the deposits of regular savers are such a small part of banking business, why can't the government just guarantee all those deposits and let the banks fail? And with the sub-prime people, why not just cancel the debts and let them keep their houses? There seems to be a choice between cancelling the debt (hitting the banks and other lenders, i.e. the culprits) and the government taking on the debt to relieve the banks (which effectively passes the debts to the tax payer, i.e. the victim). If that is the choice, surely it is better to let the banks take the hit.

Maybe we are just naive, but we want to see Obama set the tone for things by nationalizing savings and pensions, and closing the rest of the financial services sector down. A run on Wall St? Ban share trading and turn all shares into stakes in a state pension system, and offer companies loans of state-printed money in place of the funds raised by the sale of shares. The companies don't want to be hamstrung? Hey, that's not being hamstrung; that's democratic accountability. Pie in the sky?

Nathan reminded us of a nice commentary on the right-wing criticism that current government intervention smacks too much of socialism. What the government is doing, though, is socializing the losses, spreading the debts of the rich across the rest of the populus; during the good times, by contrast, the profits remain private.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Globalization or genuine economic and social development?

Please excuse the vagueness, but I dimly remember some fairly recent developments in the fishing business off the west coast of Africa. Let me sketch in the outlines of the story: for millennia families with small, home-made wooden boats fished the seas off the west African coast in a sustainable way, then a few decades ago huge trawlers from foreign ports started sweeping the coastline and taking a massive proportion of the fish stocks - stocks that were depleted to such an extent that the relevant authority (we forget which) had no choice but to ban foreign trawlers and pass a law allowing fishing only from the traditional small boats.

The reasons in this case were partly ecological but also partly an expression of the self-interest of business (because there can be no fishing business - either modern and globalized or sustainable and traditional - without fish). The point that we want to make is this: Why think that either ecology or this simplest form of business self-interest are the only reasons for putting the brakes on globalization and looking for some alternative form of development? The policy on the west African coast was great for the local population and fantastic for the economic autonomy (or let's just call it the autonomy) of the region. Are these not also extremely good reasons for putting on the brakes? Seeing the community in this part of west Africa flourishing, do you not see a reason for questioning the kind of globalization represented by the foreign trawlers?

Part of the resistance to this idea seems to come from an odd dynamic in the discourse of globalization itself - the way it has built into it a belief in both a technological imperative and what might be called an arithmetic fetish (the conviction that more or faster must be better than less or slower). Globalization of a certain sort (big foreign trawlers, in this case, and because they are much, much bigger and much, much more effective at catching fish, it goes without saying that they are - in a supposedly absolute sense - better) is identified with progress, and everyone wants progress, don't they? It just seems so self-evident that business must become big business, and that big business must become even bigger. Is this not progress? Is this not unquestionably good?

Another example: Opel in Germany. Opel make cars, a lot of cars, and they are a big player in the German economy. Some ridiculous percentage of the German economy revolves around the manufacture of cars (including all the associated car-related businesses). It's not just Opel, but Opel is one of the biggest. Entire German towns (one of which is Bochum) have grown up around Opel factories and depend on the continued existence of the business. Doubtless hundreds, if not thousands, of German youngsters go to technical schools in the hope that they will one day be able to find work with Opel.

Once upon a time Opel was bought by General Motors, whose headquarters, apparently, is on the 30-something floor of a tower in Detroit. In the midst of the crisis, the workers (and their bosses) in Germany hear that the board of directors in Detroit is thinking of closing the German operation down. Some of those at Opel argue that it makes no sense. It obviously looks different from Detroit.

Can it be right that the future of such an important part of the German economy is decided by a handful of guys enjoying the view from the top of a steel and glass tower in Detroit? Although there is a lot to be said for foreign investment (injecting capital into an economy that lacks it), there is something very dubious about investors then controlling the fate of entire communities - and controlling it without any meaningful accountability (because it seems that our wonderful form of globalization does not require the guys from Detroit to travel to Bochum and persuade everyone there that they must give up their jobs. Where is the justification for allowing a tiny group of people to have greater and greater control of larger and larger parts of foreign markets (and markets mean jobs, which mean communities)? This justification is especially difficult to grasp if we bear in mind the extent to which a company like GM was depending on things like the infrastructure in Germany and the local educational system to provide skilled workers and the health care system to keep them fit and healthy - all paid for, presumably, not by GM but by German tax payers.

I find myself looking for the most dubious assumption behind all of this. What is it? Is this the really dubious assumption: Only if we allow the unbridled pursuit of profit, will the economy develop? Now for that not to be an empty tautology about the accumulation of profit, it must mean the following: Only if we allow the unbridled pursuit of profit, will people's needs for goods be satisfied. (This is the message we were fed so often during the Cold War with footage of empty East European shelves, implying that only the free market can come up with the goods.) Isn't this a very, very dubious assumption? The trawlers (they may have been Spanish - forgive my terrible memory and laziness in checking the facts) off the coast of Africa did not improve the supply of fish to the local African market. And I wonder if GM's purchase of Opel all those years ago did anything to improve the manufacture of cars. Did more people get better cars as a result of it (assuming more people ought to have cars, which is itself a dubious assumption and unfortunately one whose serious discussion is discouraged by the principle of the free market that consumers will decide such things, not citizens through debate and democratic decision-making)?

This might be old socialist pie in the sky, but the opposite might sometimes be the case. If a car manufacturer did not have to worry so much about making a profit and fending off hostile take-over bids, it might be able to develop a better kind of car. I seem to remember reading a scurrilous article about a prototype of an electric car by Ford that was scrapped perhaps because it was too reliable and too easy to maintain (so that there would be little or no profit to be made from spare parts and frequent maintainance). By easing off the profit neurosis, the phenomenon of built-in obsolecence could be ended, which would be one good thing.

There is no reason here to make profit into a sin. I have my little book and it would be nice if I could make a profit out of it. I would also like to set up my own little publishing business so that I could publish my book and similar books myself. However, I would find it perfectly reasonable if I was looking, for instance, at publishing opportunities in Nigeria and found that the Nigerian government only allowed me either to lend money to Nigerian businessnes or to sell my expertise, not buy up a massive part of the Nigerian publishing industry. In a similar way, if there is a future in fishing off the west African coast, could the Spanish (instead of sending in the trawlers) not provide credit to local fishermen or sell their know-how so that the locals can improve their techniques (providing that the improved techniques are sustainable)? Even if we limit ourselves to ignorant and bovine economic motives, there are opportunities to make money in this way without, for instance, making a quick profit by scooping up pretty much every fish in the waters off west Africa. In this way, is the development of real and sustainable economies not possible without the expansion of irresponsible foreign ownership and control? Is it not possible to rethink globalization so that it doesn't become synonymous with the growth of a hideous international oligarchy (and it is a terrible contradiction that western democracy is effectively a tool for the growth of such an oligarchy)?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Democratic Banking

Doubltess everyone else saw Money As Debt years ago. I only got round to seeing it a couple of days ago. Hugely recommended, especially for those, like myself, who are economically illiterate.

We had previously considered it outrageous that our schools did not and do not organize a single meaningful classroom activity on our great democratic tradition. The same must now be said of money and banking and international finance. If it can be so effectively summed up in a 47 minute cartoon, it ought to be compulsory viewing for every 18-year-old still in full-time education.

The conclusion we draw is that monetary reform is imperative. The picture (which may or may not be quite accurate - we are not in a position to say) of a financial system dependent on an ever-expanding debt that can NEVER in principle be repaid is just as disturbing as the rape of the planet.

Our working hypothesis, while we hurriedly follow up some of Paul's interesting footnotes, is that the banks must all be nationalized and that banking must become politically/ethically/socially concerned. The idea that banking is a business that must be allowed to go its own sweet way while it wreaks havoc with our prospects for a pension so that we will probably now have to go on working until we drop dead at the lathe - this idea must be publicly vilified. We are surprised that in all the articles we previously read about democratic theory we never came across an injunction to democratize the banks (and democratization surely presupposes nationalization). It just seems glaringly obvious that the state (or state controled organisations) should issue the loans, and issue them WITHOUT interest (bring back the sin of usury, if necessary). Of course we have heard before that the state cannot be trusted. Now it is clear, though, that the banks certainly cannot be trusted. And if the state cannot be trusted, then democracy cannot be trusted, in which case let's scrap the charade of voting. No, we think the state can be trusted, but we feel that this presupposes not the rise of the technocrats (the Bernanke's of this world) but putting a stop to the anti-democratic dumbing down of the populus.

Of course the crisis ought to be a great opportunity for some radical change, now that there is no ignoring the political, social significance of the economy. What is almost as depressing as the loss of one's pension, however, are the signs that nothing essentially will change - everything will be geared to getting us back to the unethical, undemocratic, depressing and alienating mess we were in before.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Media Impartiality: the Polite Nihilism of the BBC

Two things cropped up recently which raised the issue of impartiality and made us question this extremely dubious value (the second we will leave for another post). One was the BBC's refusal to broadcast the charity appeal for the victims in the Gaza Strip. In the aftermath one of the editors of (which we had previously considered a thinking person's source of commentary in the few times we had come across it) was on Iranian TV (Press TV - the voice of Iran in English, and one of the few English language channels we can get on our satellite service) lambasting critics of the BBC who had been urging the BBC to take a stance and side with the Palestinians. The BBC must remain impartial, he said. The media, (in its editorial line? in choosing its mix of programming? in each individual programme? insofar as it purports to provide that hallowed thing called "the news"?) should remain impartial.

To some extent, impartiality has its attractions. One wouldn't want the sort of media which (apparently) Lebanon has. From what we gather each channel there is tied to a particular party, and can only be expected to toe the party line. (But is the problem here the mere attachment of a media channel to a social movement, or is the problem the narrowness, the unpleasantness, the pig-headedness and the lack of generosity of that social movement?).

But what is wrong with impartiality in the media? Isn't there something oddly empty about the concept of impartiality? Is there anything in impartiality to get excited about - something one really might want to defend, to promote? The negativity of impartiality is clear - we don't want to slip into a Lebanese situation. But what is the positive content of impartiality? Is there any?

In practice, does this discourse of impartiality connect with anything that actually matters to us?
I have just watched a programme on the staunchly impartial BBC, a documentary about the arms dealer Viktor Bout. The programme bore signs of trying to remain, to some extent, impartial. Russia, Britain, the US and other countries were mentioned, and there was no obvious attempt to besmirch the name of any of the countries involved. Bout is Russian and was obviously protected and aided by the Russian establishment, but nothing was made of this in the programme. Bout was also employed at one time by the British and at another time by the US, but this was mentioned in passing. The programme did not bash the British or the Americans. Were these things glossed over in the name of impartiality?

What was striking about the Bout documentary was the way it focussed entirely upon Bout as an individual - the so-called Merchant of Death, and entrepreneur without a conscience - and the way it then devoted so much time to telling and reconstructing the gripping story of how the man was tracked down and finally caught by a US team in Bankok. Was it impartiality that demanded this focus on the story of Bout as a wicked individual? Of course there was no impartiality with respect to Bout. Everyone on the programme agreed he was a man without a conscience who would sell arms wherever there was the money or the diamonds to pay for them. No time was devoted to the view of Bout as a victim or a pawn in a larger game. Was it out of a desire for impartiality that we got this very personal, this very partial view of Bout as the Merchant (the sole merchant working on his own initiative) of Death? Is this kind of partiality acceptable because it is so obviously the product of a media team doing its best to be impartial?

The Bout documentary is a perfect example of what the hailed value of impartiality means in practice. It means not rocking the boat. By construing Bout's story as the story of an evil individual - a story that appears to come to a complete end with his imprisonment - the programme avoids any of the boat-rocking that would have been involved in following up the Russian connection and the the business of Bout being employed by the British and the US after he was on record as someone acting in breach of international law (breaking arms embargos, money laundering, etc). There is also the phenomenon of the arms industry. Arms manufacturers sold arms to Bout. Who were they? Were one or two of them in NATO countries - countries supposedly unsullied by ties to the axis of evil? Some or all of these darker questions must have occured to the programme makers, but the decision was obviously taken to avoid them so as not to rock the boat.

A provisional conclusion: impartiality is defended so loudly to stop journalists feeling guilty for having glossed over so much that ought to have been brought to light, and to stop them feeling guilty about just doing their job (finding something pleasant to fill the gap between adverts). But behind the earnest talk about impartiality is not only the guilt of individuals but also corporate self-interest: boat-rocking would not chime well with advertisers (all of whom have a vested interested in leaving the boat unrocked). Personalised dramas (like the Bout documentary) that do not raise thorny issues about the social system make good sense from a business point of view.

So what is there to object to here? Is it a lack of truth? It cannot be. The Bout documentary, let's assume, told no lies during the 25 or 30 minutes alloted to it. The documentary did not tell the whole truth, but there was never any possibility of it doing so in such a short space of time. Truth cannot be the issue here. The BBC, we might assume, takes care to fill its schedule coveying information that has been checked for accuracy. And in all of this no party line is being toed. It is all truth (for the sake of argument) and it is all impartial (again, for the sake of argument).

The problem does not concern truth, it concerns power and ethics. The impartial avoidance of boat rocking places the present system of power and social control beyond criticism prior to any investigation. The exclamation: "I am impartial" means "I do not judge; I do not criticise." But what if our particular boat deserves to be rocked? In that case, does impartiality not start to lose the moral high ground?

There is an ethical imperative (let's call it that) to rock this particular boat. If there is something ethically questionable about the status quo (as there is with the arms industry and the whole business of fomenting and perpetuating international tensions, for instance) then there is nothing to be gained ethically/morally by espousing impartiality. Do you not agree that there is something questionable here? If so, you see an imperative not to be impartial.

How about a provisional sketch of the virtuous journalist? She is first and foremost a woman of convictions (far from the impartial man who is proud of apparently having no convictions), who sees that there are urgent issues that need to be dealt with, and who sees that there are things which are being covered up that ought to be brought into the clear light of public scrutiny. It is no good just being interested in the Truth. The truth is everywhere. The virtuous journalist hates deception, but she is not a lover of the Truth. She is engaged by the contemporary situation and the way deception becomes a force to perpetuate injustice (assuming injustice is the thorn in the flesh of this particular journalist). As well as being engaged by everything that is dubious in the status quo, the virtuous journalist has a keen sense of responsibility to the public, or (looking at it slightly differently) has a keen sense of her role in raising the level of public debate in our as yet infant democracy. Again, what is at issue is not so much the Truth but the public's ability to comprehend more of what shapes their lives, and their ability to make intelligent judgments. Just as uncovering deception involves an engagement with power, the contribution to the public debate touches on the issue of power - the power of the people in a democracy to genuinely shape their world. The virtuous journalist hates to see the public being bombarded with masses and masses of disconnected newbites that mystify rather than illuminate.

But perhaps the Viktor Bout documentary was a bad example. Let's look at another. I can imagine a spokesperson for the BBC reminding us that Stephen Sackur has his Hard Talk programme. Now there is a man who can often seem to rock the boat, and rock it while remaining absolutely impartial (perhaps the metaphor needs altering so that there are many boats and Stephen rocks each of them equally). One week Stephen will be interviewing a Zionist, and will be insisting on answers to the hardest questions about Israel's flouting of international law, for instance; and the following week he will be interviewing a Palestinian spokesperson, demanding with equal vigor an answer as to why the faction will not recognise the state of Israel. There is no pussy-footing around on Hard Talk. Stephen does look for the hardest questions and he insists on answers with a steely look in his eye, although the discussion always ends with an apparently warm hand shake. Is this not an example of impartiality in the media at its best?
Hard Talk is a good example of what passes for impartiality, but it is also an example of how this ends up being all but indistinguishable from nihilism. Stephen has all the air of a man who is earnest about the Truth. But he is only allowed to ask the questions. They are the hard questions, admittedly, but they are only questions. All the answers come from those being interrogated. One week the Zionist is given a platform and appears to be able to justify bombing a thousand Palestinians and seems to eloquently justify the idea that all of Palestine belongs to the children of the twelve tribes; the following week the Palestinians seem to be equally able to justify firing rockets into Israel and equally eloquent in defending their right to the land they occupied before it was handed by foreign powers to the Zionists. The effect of this in the long term is the exact opposite of Stephen's incisive questioning. Although with the incisive question Stephen seems to grab hold of the side of the boat (in readiness to give it a good rocking?), in the long term the inescapable conclusion is that there is no authoritative way of judging what ought to be done. Although the guests are allowed to make the most noise, it is Stephen's silence that ends up being the most notable. Stephen refrains from judging. All the other "impartial" programmes do likewise.

The media constitute not just one public space but THE public space in contemporary society. In this context the stance of Stephen and his colleagues takes on an epistemo-political significance. The message goes out that there are no values that we can come to rest on publicly, apart from the implied ones of maintaining a certain level of politeness, of being willing to shake the hand of anyone no matter how much blood is on it, and of always resisting the temptation to remove your shoes and throw them at someone. One must always be polite and one must always let the other chap have his say, but one must never be deluded that one's own criticism (if one is still capable of developing a critical position of any sophistication) will be anything other than just another futile point of view. This is the polite moral nihilism propagated by the BBC.

The upshot of this is that defenders of journalistic impartiality cannot be allowed to end the debate with their appeal either to impartiality or the Truth. Since in practice the pursuit of impartiality seems to involve avoiding anything that would rock the boat, they need to have a good reason for not rocking the boat. But how could they develop that argument and still remain impartial? And they need to have an argument as to why the media should continue to sap the public's ability to make intelligent judgments about the most important social developments. They need to have an argument to justify spreading the sort of polite nihilism spread so ably by the BBC.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Habermas's deafness to the call of pop

We tore a few chapters out of the Philosophical Discourses of Modernity and we promise to re-read them (our bags were already close to the 20kg limit and Habermas's hardback book was heavy) but in the meantime the same old thoughts keep floating into view. And they floated again just now as we were watching the Polish channel 4 Fun TV while eating our museli (because hearing about the latest wave of suicide bombings doesn't seem to aid the digestion of one's breakfast). And there was a new (to us) video of a song by Morandi (nationality unknown - never heard of them) entitled Save Me. Well photographed shots of young adults in work situations looking as if life is meaningless. People wanting to be saved. And the song is clear about how they are to be saved. Romance. If you are a boy, the apparent lack of meaning will evaporate - it seems - when the girl next door or the girl in the office or the girl in the field (a lot of the video is shot in a sunny wheat field) finally says "Yes".

It surprises us that less is said about the way the youth have this message drummed into them with an even greater idiotic frequency than the youth in North Korea are made to march in unison.

It also seems to us that Habermas should have watched more of this stuff while he was eating his museli. Maybe it would have made him think a little more about communicative action and about communication generally.

Long before young people get to the point where they have the education and the intellectual maturity to meaningfully participate in the kind of rigorously rational debate that Habermas thinks should govern social life they will have watched thousands of hours of pop videos - pop videos that communicate a message - a message which is immensely effective despite being crass, banal and just plain misleading.

There is very little variety in the message. At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, we will sum them up. Firstly, The Save Me video is an example of the love song in which an idealised girl/boy announces, "Love (boy-girl stuff) is the Truth, the Way, the Life" - romantic love (consummated, although this is generally left as an implication) is the Saviour. Secondly, there are the ego-tripping songs typified by rappers that objectify everything and praise only themselves and their possessions. Thirdly, there is the angry nihilism of rock where the ego is subsumed in a wave of hate and aggression. Finally, and this is probably the most important message, and one that probably underlies all the others, there is the deification of music itself. By chance, before we had a chance to finish our museli this morning 4 Fun TV played the Guru Josh Project video again - a piece with a DJ turned composer with a synthesizer and a saxophone solo and the words, "Trust in me and you will find infinity" - "me" being the music itself. Music says that only it can fill the gaps in reality. Music itself redeems, which implies that music itself is enough.

After a few thousand very carefully crafted pop videos it is difficult to ignore these messages - these semi-discursive forms of communication. Does this not constitute an immensely powerful force preventing the emergence of the kind of communicative action that Habermas was arguing for?

For Habermas's communicative action to finally take center stage (because up to now it has been in the depths of the wings) a culture would have to emerge for which Rational Truth is the highest social value. That great will to Truth would finally have to become hegemonic. Assuming that this is indeed desirable, the question is: How is it to be accomplished? It certainly won't be accomplished if the sentimental education of the youth is left to the culture industry. But How? In other words, how can the youth be persuaded to kill the DJ?

Habermas needed a theory of music. How does the call of reason chime with the call of music, including the call of pop? Habermas just seemed to dismiss pop, presumably because it is so banal. But there can be no doubt that pop is a massive force to be reckoned with. The Taliban outlawed it. That doesn't seem to be an option for us. But something needs to be done. What?

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Plum Pudding, Communicative Action and the Will to Truth

Apologies for the absence. Understandable, I hope, given the vaguely festive period maintained by the states still under the influence, albeit vestigial, of the Pauline message (and was it really St Paul who was to blame?). I will not waste space on details of the plum pudding for I know that they hold no interest for you. You are beyond them. In any case, plum puddings deserve to be written about in a certain way to bring out their real value. Since that value is nothing more than a dim memory to us, since it is no longer present for us, we must leave the description of it to others (and for some odd reason the name Garrison Keillor comes to mind - apologies for the spelling).

A sign of how bad we are with plum puddings is that even while pouring the burning brandy over them with the lights dimmed so that the kids gasp and others worry that the tablecloth might catch fire, we are mulling over the theory of communicative action. This is no doubt a sickness. Perhaps it wouldn't appear to be so much of a sickness if any progress were being made developing something that might be called a groundwork for the critique of the said theory. But it is not. Nearly 20 years later we are still treading the same stagnant waters while obsessively mulling over the same doubts and the same half-remembered quotations.

Here they are again:

Wasn't Habermas wrong to make everything revolve around speech? When we leave our hillside retreat we see that there really is too much speech. People talk a hell of a lot. From a Habermassian point of view that ought to be good, were it not for the fact that so much of what is said (and perhaps it reaches a few decimal points beyond 99%) is of zero cognitive value. Werther will tell me that Habermas was aware of this, despite being surrounded mainly by intellectuals and despite shunning music, and mentioned this fact in a little known letter to someone on the other side of the world. Doubtless he did, but the observation seems to me to be fatal for the theory. People generally don't give a toss about the truth. Let's not beat about the bush. The problem being, not a lack of speech, but a lack of thinking. People think so very little. Speech is easier. You do it with friends, and it can be very pleasant to get carried away by the back and forth of the banter, and you find yourself saying things that you really don't believe in just because those are things that need to be said to keep the conversation going in an appropriately chummy way. Did Habermas develop - as a sideline - a theory of banter, of chatter? We vaguely remember Heidegger's disparaging remarks about the "They" (and I have this impression that the they are those who are lost in chatter and banter and chanting and flag waving and other such activities). Of course there are a few clearings in society where people do seem to comport themselves in a more authentically Habermassian way - one thinks of law courts and the academies - but this is not the kind of speech that really keeps the whole social show on the road.

Hence, again, our fondness for Theo. For him, the only way forward was not for more speech, but more thinking. And does thinking not presuppose a certain ambivalence about the value of speech - a certain disinclination to say very much - an inclination to leave the room once the banter really starts to get going?

If Habermas believed that all speech implied, presupposed or in any way hinted at a will to truth or somehow obliged the speaker to damn well pay attention to the truth, he was wrong. Speech is much more about putting an end to loneliness - that terrible sense of isolation when one pulls up the drawbridge and remains alone with one's thoughts. And because so much of speech is chatter, rather than open people up to truth it continually reinforces the linguistic walls that block it out.

That pretty well sums up what we have been thinking about for nearly a month. Not a kind of thinking that breaks new ground, that moves things forward. More treading stagnant waters. There were fragments of other ideas (though, again, nothing new). The idea of the Homo Sapiens, for instance. Who the hell thought that one up? Who threw both logic and common sense to the wind by proposing that because people think (sometimes and badly) they are essentially thinking beings? True, Adorno makes a lot of thinking. More thinking is our only hope, but for Adorno there is no obvious ground for optimism about some global upsurge of thinking. Even we who do think (a little and badly) feel how unnatural the process is. We who have a field and like to potter around in it confess that pruning trees feels more natural than the more laborious cogitation. We really do enjoy pruning. Of course, even as we prune thoughts are humming around us like oddly lethargic but terribly persistent flies. We carry on pruning, though, because it is so much harder to stop and really think about and lay out in some sensible order those humming thoughts - thoughts that hint at truth, at some meaningful beyond, but actually contain so little, if anything, of it.

Another fragment: If Habermas had bought into Adorno's line that thinking is more important than speaking, what would he have done? Would he have tried to argue that we are all obliged to think, and to think about the truth, and that we are guilty of some cerebral pragmatic contradiction if we just carry on mulling over the same old cogitative rubbish instead of really and logically thinking about the matter in hand, developing our thoughts in the most extensive and systematic way possible? Instead of Descartes' dumb assertion: "I think", would he have tried to argue that I - that we - are morally obliged to think, and to think well - to think about the Truth, and to subsequently base our whole being on that? If so, it would have been another pointless exercise.

As a postfestive postscript, how about this for a conjunction? We came across this little quote in a book by Deleuze on Nietzsche (a book given to us ages ago that we have only just got round to reading - and a good read, as it turns out). The quote is from the third section of the Genealogy of Morals, and begins with an odd statement about the meaning of life, but the more interesting bit for us is what he predicts about the fate of the will to truth.

"What meaning would our whole being possess if it were not for this: that in us the will to truth becomes conscious of itself as a problem? As the will to truth thus gains self-consciousness - there can be no doubt of that - morality [and here Nietzsche seems to be thinking of an austere form of European Christianity] will gradually perish. This is the great spectacle in a hundred acts reserved for the next two centuries in Europe - the most terrible, most questionable and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles."

On almost the same day we read that, we saw Lilly Allen's latest pop video on the Polish channel 4Fun TV. Lilly's song (called Fear for some reason I can't fathom out yet) is a wonderfully British, and apparently sincere, expression of the silliness of stardom. It has its witty moments, one of which is the line: "I am a weapon of massive consumption."

It is clear that Nietzsche had no inkling whatsoever that the cultural pacemakers of the future would be the likes of Lilly Allen.