Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, June 24, 2019

Deleuze, Wittgenstein, history, and madness


I have been re-reading Deleuze, Dialogues (w/ Claire Parnet). The book again confirms my impression that I can't go along with him substantively -- I don't reject Transcendence; indeed I reject this rejection (which is not to say I "defend" Transcendence, I simply think in light of it) -- but I am coming to think I am closer to him (in some ways) in spirit than nearly all his exegetes & fans. I relate strongly to his improvisation. I can't quite love him -- because I can't quite trust him. But I might have, had I known him. In this, he is almost the opposite of Wittgenstein, who I fell in love with, but perhaps would have been driven mad by in person.

Interestingly, the fault in both Wittgenstein and Deleuze is the same: an indifference, indeed almost a hostility, to history. One cannot really picture either of them talking with Leo Strauss and having the conversation go well. But this manifests in different ways: Wittgenstein simply goes his own dogged way -- one can imagine him saying, after Luther, "I can do no other." (In Derek Jarman's eponymous 1993 film -- not always to be trusted, but accurate enough, in spirit, on this score -- there's a moment where Wittgenstein asks, "Aristotle? Why would I want to read Aristotle?") Deleuze, on the other hand, is brusque and suspicious. This is what I don't love / trust -- his suspicion calls forth my own. But I do "get" it -- his refusal to prostrate himself before the August Authorities. (I have tried before to say something of what this gets right and gets wrong.) It is as if, for almost any reference to the tradition, the onus is on the referrer to prove that they are not making some power-play. Deleuze is quite explicit:
The history of philosophy has always been the agent of power in philosophy, and even in thought. It has played the represser's role: how can you think without having read Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Heidegger, and so-&-so's book about them? A formidable school of intimidation which manufactures specialists in thought -- but which also makes those who stay outside conform all the more to this specialism which they despise. (p13)
As a teacher pf philosophy to the very young (my classes start as young as 8 years old -- and I know those who are brave enough to start with age 5) -- I am extremely careful to avoid swathing philosophy in a glossy coat of proper names, or pre-existing arguments. This is not just because of pedagogical concerns -- a desire not to intimidate. Philosophy is new every time.

I have heard, all too often, outsiders' surprise (with sometimes a hint of indignation): but don't you get exhausted with hearing the same old points? Some undergraduate rediscovers a quasi-Cartesian "Maybe it's all a dream" or a relativistic "who are you to say...?," or a righteous indignation at slavery or Stonewall; doesn't it get just a little tiresome? Don't you want to just say, Let me spare you the trouble -- these things have been thought about before?

Pointing students to their predecessors can be done with a light touch, if (and perhaps only if) one sees oneself as a student as well. This has nothing to do with false humility. One has a familiarity with the texts -- maybe with Greek or Chinese, even -- and some experience in thinking about the questions, including a sense of the lay of the land -- places where, or ways that, one is likely to go wrong. But those lessons are lessons in cleverness. It is easy to lose patience with cleverness (even Plato warns against it), but in my experience, the best way to make it irrelevant is to keep doing philosophy -- the examined life (life right now, not past-won laurels) and knowledge of ignorance.

I think Deleuze (wrongly) thought -- at least he implies -- that erudition is almost always cleverness. But he is not wrong that cleverness is, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Indeed, he is himself possessed of an overabundance of cleverness, and indeed of erudition; and although he is cheeky to a fault, I like arguing with him. Wittgenstein's cheek, on the other hand, is a sort of intense seriousness and curious impatience with pseudo-problems -- by which I think he means -- if one pushes ever so gently -- the sort of problems that philosophers themselves do not take seriously, but pretend to. (Again, I believe there is effectively no difference in fundamental concern between the "early" Wittgenstein (who famously refused to acknowledge to Russell that there could not be a rhinoceros in the room) and the "late" Wittgenstein, who wants to critique "pseudo-problems." Both are concerned with the limits of theory and of articulability. No 180-degree reorientation; but there is a relationship: The late Wittgensetin wants to ask: what shall we do with the early Wittgenstein? What would it meant to really take him, or someone like him, seriously? Wittgenstein's greatest impatience is reserved for those who pretend to consider the problem on a theoretical plane, without ever asking what would happen in practice.)

Unlike Wittgenstein (who was a late-, untimely-born Ancient, bereft of history), Deleuze was, despite his quasi-animism, a Modern -- a conflicted (like all moderns) heir to the Enlightenment (in somewhat the way Nietzsche is as well). Alternatively, one might also construe Deleuze as an untimely-born early Modern; one who willingly accepts the challenge of modernity to start anew, and by this very token refuses to be bound by the supposed game-changing new regime of the three Critiques. Deleuze the self-described metaphysician is, on this reading, a sort of pre-Kantian -- as opposed to Wittgenstein's (arguably Kantian) critique of metaphysics-as-mistake, and his equally Kantian insistence on staying with what "can be said."

Perhaps I could not have gotten close enough to Deleuze to have good conversation, but I cannot shake the sense that if I could have, some real sparks might have lit. Deleuze famously dismissed Wittgenstein's legacy as destructive (despite Wittgenstein's own wholesale disavowal of any intention or indeed capacity to "found a school"); I would unhesitatingly say the same of roughly 80-90 percent of the Deleuzoscholastic flood which shows no sign of abating. But Deleuze himself is a different matter. He is (I am bound to say) wrong, but he has a kind of madness to him -- the more obvious but not necessarily most telling indices of which are the neologisms, the strange conflations of material and ideal terms, the methodic and methodological experimentalism (the authorship with Guattari, to say nothing of his engagement (alone and with Guattari) with schizophrenia and other guises of madness itself as a matter of inquiry. It's this madness (divine madness, as Socrates describes philosophy) that marks him as touched by the real philosophical fire, and which indeed is perhaps the most crucial way in which he resembles Wittgenstein -- and differs from (nearly) every "Deleuzian."

To be sure, Deleuze's madness is itself also modern -- it is philosophical, but it cannot conceive itself as divine.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

And/Or


I deeply dislike the question “What do you really want?” – a demand to name your desire. It has always seemed to me to have an impatience to it, a cut-to-the-chase subtext. And yet, if one cannot offer a reason for the hope that is within you, as the Epistle of Peter urges, something is clearly lacking. In short, the demand for demands may be motivated by all sorts of suspicious agendas, but it is not in itself an illegitimate query. What are the stakes?

I was asked it the other day. What is it you want out of philosophy? It wasn’t so difficult to answer – indeed, had I been a little more careful I would have realized the answer came too easily: I really do want to know. What is the biggest context-of-all-contexts, and how does that work, all-the-way-down? I want the truth.

And – I want to know how, and to dare, to act rightly. To “be a good person,” I believe is the way this is usually put.

The true, the good …. Belatedly, I recognized the terms I was using. I decided to embrace the obvious. Yes, the beautiful: I want to make something, something conducive to this only-life-worth-living, some kind of apt image of the whole. A work. A beautiful work. Maybe that would just be the examined life itself. Or maybe, an artefact. What have I been doing with all these notebooks all these years if not laboring at art?

Alas, I’m not really the sort of person who can leave something alone, when it looks as neat and pat as a made-to-order trinity. A host of reservations flooded in. The truth? Really? This was not just my inner Nietzschean sniggering at me, nor the Darwinian shaking his head: “That’s not really what we’re made for…” Of course I flinch at the truth. Suppose that it is terrible? As for the Good: Leaving aside the fact that I am, as far as I can tell, no further along the path than when I started, the fact is, being ethical costs me, and I balk at that cost about as often as I notice it at all. The balking costs me something too – that is what it means for this to be a question of the Good – but still, I balk. “The evil I would not do, that I do, and the good I would do, I do not.” Leave aside the questions of why this might be the case or how seemly (or not) it is to discuss (for myself I suspect that the less said outside the confessional, the better), but I am pretty much persuaded, by experience as well as by thought, that Father Stephen Freeman is right: I am not, in fact, improving, and moral improvement is not the point of Christianity, at least. (Perhaps it is the point of philosophy. Maybe that’s one difference. Maybe…)

And the beautiful? I want to make a beautiful work, do I? Closer to the truth would be: I want to have made one. Writing – to say nothing of thinking – is a chore, a tedium, is hard. I would far, far rather sit back with friends and a drink at my elbow having spent the day actively and productively writing, than actually spend the day writing. Most days in which I “write” are spent looking out of windows, staring into the middle-distance, frowning at notebooks, rifling through papers, pacing the stacks in the bookstore or library, moving between café counter and restroom.

In short, there’s nothing simple about these desires. They are more a form of conflict than a driving, life-filling passion. Or, maybe better: the way they motivate my life is by way of this conflict.

Moreover, this seems right to me. Insofar as thinking itself, thinking per se, involves a sort of esotericism, it seems to mean a prescinding from every easy shortcut to resolution. Isaiah Berlin famously suggested that it was perfectly plausible that certain goods might be incommensurable. Strauss names some questions “perennial problems;” they have perhaps a limited family of possible “solutions” but no solution has ever been able to persuasively hold the field in perpetuity. Perhaps then there are some conflicts which need to be maintained as such, precisely as agon. Moreover, these terms foreground something that a word like “problem” or “question” does not: there is something difficult, something struggling, about conflict; and this, too, is why there is such a strong impetus – even an ethical impetus – to solve the conflict. Does pursuit of the good entail that we might have to put ourselves in harm’s way or to relinquish something upon which we had set our heart? Suppose the true does turn out to be terrible – why should I let the abyss stare into me? Is there a “best” form of social order – and what if it meant we must forego – or submit to – something less than best? Can a work of poetry or music or painting reveal to us die sachen selbst, or are we left only with a play of images that construe us as much as we them?

To leave these as mere “questions” would be to curate a number of possible answers, hold each curious sample up and turn it so it catches the light, always without that crucial quality the existentialists insisted upon: engagement. Or, for that matter, the Marxists and the conservatives alike: taking sides. The ivory tower armchair is a foolish and reductionist cliché, but it gets at something right: without commitment, philosophy becomes not a game, but not even a game; something idle, frivolous, with no stakes at all. “It is never enough to split the difference,” a friend said to me; “somehow we have to both answer and not.” Or as Michael Stipe put it: “I’ve said too much; I haven’t said enough.”

The whole tangle reminds me of nothing so much as the fourteenth case from the Mumokoan:
Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls disputing over which hall would keep a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: “If any of you can say a word, you will save the cat.” No one answered. Nansen cut the cat in two. That evening Joshu returned to the monastery and Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out. Nansen said: “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat.”
Mumon comments:
Why did Joshu put his sandals on his head? If you can answer this, you will understand why Nansen’s deed was not in vain. If not, beware!

Had Joshu been there
He would have taken charge.
Joshu snatches the sword
And Nansen begs for his life.
This story has always called to my mind – for what seem to me obvious reasons – two others: the judgment of Solomon, and Schrodinger’s parable of the cat. As is well known, Schrodinger intended his thought experiment not as an illustration but a reductio ad absurdum of the Copenhagen interpretation; he was trying to call Copenhagen’s bluff. Since then, Copenhagen has called his.

In I Kings ch 3, the famous story goes, two women – “harlots,” says the KJV – are brought, along with an infant, before King Solomon. One of them has lost a child. Each one claims that the living child is her own. Solomon declares the child shall be divided between them; one woman acquiesces, and the other begs the king to give the child unharmed to the other; whereupon Solomon, discerning true motherly kindness, awards the child to the woman who begged for the child’s life. The story – and its many parallels from China to Pompeii, from the Jataka stories to Brecht (and even elsewhere within the Bible itself) – is again one about calling a bluff, indeed about more than one bluff-calling. (In the course of writing this post, I have read a number of feminist engagements with the Biblical story which seek to call its bluff. Some of them seem to me to manifest the worse characteristics of bad deconstructive readings, but it seems to me only fair to note that there are minority reports out there which want to contest the king’s wisdom, or the narrator’s.)

Overlay these stories on each other in a kind of narrative superimposition, and you find something interesting. The necessity of choice becomes a way of making a different choice. One contemporary commentary I discovered, which to my amusement also refers to the Biblical story (confirming my acumen, of course), imagined the “true” mother in the Biblical story scolding Nansen: Oh, you will kill the cat, will you?! You call yourself a monk! You ought to be ashamed! You know very well your vows do not permit you to take a life, any life. Nansen might have responded: break the vow, or break the cat; the vow remains, the cat escapes. In fact, the Blue Cliff Record, which also preserves the story, says that Nansen did not kill the cat; so too the Babylonian Talmud (Makkot 23b) actually ascribes the declaration “she is the mother” not to Solomon but to a voice from heaven. Textual tradition is always self-revisionary. There is saying, and saying.

Schrodinger wanted to insist: the refusal to choose works only so far, and no further. Bohr might have responded: the choice gets made willy-nilly. All you need is a Geiger counter. Nansen might have said: the cat is already dead-and-alive. So are you.

The either/or of the dilemma is supposed to press us to a moment where we cannot not speak. “Say a word,” Nansen commands the monks – dotoku, “express.” (It is also the name of a chapter from Dogen’s Shobogenzo). “Speak a word to me,” the disciples are always asking the elders in the Apophthegmata of the Desert Fathers. It is not just any utterance that is intended; it is a word meant for them; the request is also an act of obeisance.

Dogen also says:
when you use words to express what you have realized, you will leave unsaid whatever is inexpressible through words. Even if you can see that you have indeed expressed what you have realized, if you have not realized that not all things can be verbally expressed, then you will lack the look of the Buddhas and Ancestors, and you will lack the Bones and Marrow of the Buddhas and Ancestors.
C.S. Lewis opens his introduction to The Great Divorce with a clarification of his intention, self-consciously answering Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
[T]his is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable "either-or"; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found.
The great dilemma is not between Either and Or, whatever those may be. It is between And and Or; between no-dilemma and dilemma, between absolute reconciliation and insistence on discrimination. I know of almost no thinker who has embraced the former, though Erich Unger comes close here:
The genuine, and for a long time to come, the main activity of the mind consists in doing the exact opposite of what is commonly supposed. It is not to criticize or find out what is faulty, but to find out that which is true in any and every philosophical view that is put forward, or at least every view of historical repute. This means refusing to accept as ‘final’ any contradiction between conflicting views, since final contradictions properly belong to the end of philosophical enquiry. Consistency can never be achieved through an analytical or a merely critical procedure; consistency or systematicallity is the joint product of two faculties, differentiation and imagination. (“Do Philosophers Disagree?”)
It might seem that Hegel is the ultimate reconciler in the history of philosophy, at least in the West, and indeed, in his claim to have not philosophy but wisdom, he does seem to stake a claim to be beyond conflict. But the figure I know of who goes furthest in this direction is Brook Ziporyn, whose neo-Tiantai stance claims to offer grounds for asserting any claim whatsoever; a remarkable attempt to make Dadaism rigorous, or rigor Dadaistic... In Ziporyn's words,
“the differentiations between things, their conventional designations, as well as any cockamamie philosophical or religious theory or personal illusion about them, are just as ultimately true and untrue as their Emptiness … both of these aspects are just as ultimate as the fact that these two aspects are simply aspects of one another.”(Being and Ambiguity p 16)
To put things in a very rough-and-ready way, And/Or can be posed in terms of content or in terms of form.

And/Or is a choice between conflict and reconciliation, tension and synthesis. To choose reconciliation, (“And”) would thus not be to choose both sides, but only one side -- the side of “not choosing” -- but because one has chosen, one has willy-nilly chosen “Or”. And yet: if to insist upon decision (“Or”) is to claim that there is an irresolvable conflict or tension, responsive to no synthesis, this suggests that the other side (“And”) is never refuted. It has a strange status as a perpetually possible illusion, known to be an illusion and yet never able to be dispelled. Choosing one side implies choosing the other side. This is why And/Or remains a dilemma. The cat escapes. Which is doubtless what it really wanted; but it seems to escape by being split.

This game is not a game.

Monday, April 22, 2019

R.I.P. Robert Firmage, 1944-2019


Robert Firmage, who I interviewed on this blog two years ago, has died. Robert called himself a Platonist, a Taoist, and a Christian, not always in that order; I knew him as a philosopher; but he wanted above all to give his service to poetry and to that end he labored on translations from German, French, and Latin, from the Augustan era, the Middle Ages, the 19th and 20th centuries.

Robert's service to poetry and to philosophy were two aspects of a single devotion, to a world that always exceeds our capacity to say it, but which by that very token calls forth gesture after gesture, because we are called to love it, and love does not expend itself in its expression. Robert underscored this: "Only if we approach it with love can we understand the world," he insisted, in direct opposition to the scientistic demand for disengagement. This privileging of love, grounded in Plato and in the New Testament, and above all in experience, may sound cliché, but for Robert it was exacting and unsentimental. He worked on his translations with utmost attention to nuance; his philosophy, informed by Einstein, Heidegger, and the I Ching, was attuned to a dispassion as scrupulous any laboratory protocol. But he was also kind and grateful (for all his apparent gruffness); he was devoted to his wife Gertrud -- during every conversation I had on the phone with him, he would mention some care she had shown him, or some detail of their life together which incidentally illustrated his other thinking. And whenever we got together, it was in a cafe where he knew everyone behind the counter by name.

Poetry and philosophy: the praise of life and the study of how to die. I have no doubt that the attention Robert brought to this throughout his life stood him in good stead through the end. I am very grateful for the chance I had to share in his self-effacement and good-humor.

Memory eternal.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Drunken Philosophy in the Seattle Times


No long post this month -- between other commitments, writing, and a shoulder in a sling after tripping on some basement stairs, I have found lots of typing to be beyond me.

Here though is a brief write-up from the Seattle Times of the Seattle chapter of Drunken Philosophy, founded by Michael Shepherd, a conversation with whom I posted in two different parts a couple of years ago.

It's been a while since I was a regular at these, but I still go occasionally, and the article seems to get things about right: conversations are broad-ranging, engaging, civil, and yes, deep, at least sometimes. The story does not mention that the group is still among the largest philosophy meetup groups in the country (when I interviewed Shepherd, it was second. Not sure if things have changed since then.) The detail about tending millennial and male is accurate too, though I have never gone to a DP event and not met someone who was neither. I'd say the same about "white," too, although the photo(s), seem to show a number of white guys, and some of the twitter comments I've seen remark -- a bit dismissively, though not inaccurately -- upon this.

The real issue, though, is depth. I'm not persuaded that one can do much genuine philosophizing with folks you just met; this takes time and a longer arc of friendship. But if you want to encounter people who might become such friends, this is a good spot in the agora to hang out in.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Let no one enter here who has not studied Conspiracy Theory


I am a conspiracy theorist, of the common-sense variety: I "theorize" that shared interests make for alliances; and if those interests are served by secrecy, then secrecy there will be. The larger the stakes, the greater the interests, and so too the greater the need for secrecy. Because high stakes tend to be available only to players who are already powerful, they will also tend to have greater opportunities for secrecy. But conversely: the greater the stakes, so too the greater the likelihood of alliances breaking, and greater the difficulty of secrecy.

Those could be a sort of rough-and-ready set of axioms of any Conspiracy Theory 101. They aptly sum up both why it is reasonable to expect conspiracies, why they are likely to succeed in the short- to medium-run, likely to be unstable in the long run, and why they are likely to eventually come to light. And they do come to light: everyone knows what the Mafia is, and everyone knows what the Illuminati is too. The fact that most people believe in the one and few people believe in the other is incidental.

Conspiracy theory is fun to malign, until you need it. The notion that Democratic Party officials were complicit in a child-sex-trade cartel under a pizza restaurant seemed a little too good/horrible to be true, but the notion that Russian trolls have conspired with certain renegade wannabe movers-&-shakers on the political right, abetted by a cartoon frog, to place a New York pretend-billionaire in the Oval Office has become the bread and butter of the 24-hour news cycle. As I type, rumors are again rife that this-week-for-sure, we'll see the long-promised Mueller Report. I have no doubt that when it finally drops, the report will be full of Important Findings; those who have the patience and the obsession will be kept busy for a long time filling in the gaps. But while all of this has happened, it has remained sufficient to call someone a conspiracy theorist to discredit them -- as though nothing else need be said. What we believe in are collusion, and cover-ups, and maybe, when pressed, conspiracy. What we disdain is conspiracy theory.

I started reading conspiracy theory in the late 1980's and early '90s, before the X-Files, and before the internet dialed all this stuff up to eleven. I am entertained by it, but not dogmatic about it. Among my friends, at various times, have been a bitcoin-buying anarchist who refused to talk with me while my cellphone lay on the table; a former intelligence operative who has assured me that threatening messages had reached him via little details in the daily press; and fellow who looked me in the eye with an if-you-have-to-ask-you'll-never-know sigh, and told me, from his own personal experience, that once you have seen proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, it changes your life. Well that, at least, I could well believe.

I also was once invited along to drop off Richard Hoagland, author of The Monuments of Mars, at the airport after a presentation he'd given. Hoagland had not expected me, however, and when my friend who was driving took an unexpected detour, Hoagland became notably alarmed. "Wait -- what? -- where are we going?" There followed an awkward moment when it was suddenly very clear that he found it completely plausible that my friend and I might intend to murder him. How we moved past that uncomfortable impasse I don't remember; we wound up having a very interesting conversation about Bode's law, Copernicus' cosmology (all those nested platonic solids) and what it would take for Hoagland to acknowledge that his hypothesis of ancient Martian civilization had, Karl Popper-style, been falsified. (I was relieved to discover that there was indeed an answer to this -- he assured me that a complete absence of "lawn furniture"-sized artifacts on the Martian surface would convince him he'd been wrong).

Hoagland's scare underscores something, though. After all, one rises to prominence in the world of conspiracy theory by fostering suspicion and paranoia. This means that the higher one's profile, arguably the more paranoid you are; and the more warily you must regard everyone else, including -- perhaps especially -- your compatriots in the conspiracy-theory subculture. These, in turn, must of course regard you with the same arm's-length wariness. Thus Alex Jones, Jim Keith, David Icke, Robert Anton Wilson, Jim Marrs, Mae Brussel, Miles Mathis, Whitley Strieber, Art Bell, and on and on, have each been publicly suspected (not infrequently by one another) of being a psy-ops provocateur. (Mathis has voiced this suspicion of pretty much everyone). In a milieu in which paranoia is the modus operandi, atomization is a natural side effect. After all, if THEY are so powerful, then the higher your profile, the more you must be useful to THEM. Otherwise, why are they letting you make so much noise? Why haven't they offed you yet? The only real street-cred legitimization is -- death; not just any death, but the bullet-with-your-name-on-it kind. Don't trust anyone above the ground. Thus William Cooper, author of Behold a Pale Horse, gunned down by the Feds in true you'll-never-take-me-alive style, and Danny Casolaro, found with his wrists slashed ten times each when hot upon the trail of the sprawling conspiracy he called The Octopus, are among the only near-untouchables in this subculture. (Even they have not been immune.)

Well, then: Call no man reliable until he is dead.

That's one side of the paradox. The other side is more liberating. Like all theory, conspiracy theory aspires to explain; its explanatory mechanism, however, also conceals. A conspiracy must act in secret. The more powerful the (postulated) conspiracy, the greater the explanatory power; but also the greater its (hypothetical) capacity to deceive. And thus, the more your conspiracy theory explains, the less you can know; and a conspiracy powerful enough to control everything would undermine your capacity to trust anything, including the rationale that leads you to believe in the conspiracy.

The low-hanging fruit here would be: conspiracy theory is nonsense. This critique is easily parried: conspiracies are not regarded as all-powerful (indeed, narratively speaking, their allure partly depends upon the critics being scrappy, indefatigable heroes who could win; the meddling kids to the Illuminati's woulda-gotten-away-with-it); but the deeper point, beyond the betcha-never-though-of-that, is further-reaching, a kind of immanent critique: go deep enough into paranoia, and you cannot help but come out the other side. Ultimately, fear can contain the seeds of its own dissolution.

I thought of all this, again, in the wake of the death of Lyndon LaRouche. LaRouche is a splendid cautionary figure for political philosophy, and maybe for philosophy as a whole, and if this claim is puzzling it is because philosophy has become too tame. Whatever his (sometime) weirdness and blame-mongering, LaRouche clearly aspired to be taken for a genuine intellectual. Look through the publications of his foundation, the Schiller Institute. That's Friedrich Schiller, my friends, not Adam Smith or Edmund Burke or any of a dozen likelier candidates for patron saint if you were aiming for a respectable-sounding political movement. What first strikes you when you flip through any copy of Fidelio (the Institute's glossy magazine) isn't the politics; it's the undeniable breadth of topics: Lincoln's presidency, the Newton-Leibniz dispute, cold fusion, Bach's compositions. This breadth is a sign of far more than middlebrows aspiring to high culture; there are good guys and bad guys in LaRouche's account of history, and those who are not for us are against us. Nothing is neutral. Euler's mathematics is evil, Riemann's is good. Bach's music is not just uplifting, it's a force for truth; Russell's philosophy is the opposite. And remarking upon any of it is, obviously, relevant to the cause. The same is clear from the dozens of essays produced by Miles Mathis: the ruin of culture since modernism turns out to be part and parcel of how everything you know from science and math is wrong (pi=4, for instance), and that almost nothing you read in the national news actually happened. That is: everything is connected.

I was first discovering this stuff at the same time as Derrida was crossing my radar, and I couldn't help but see the way Derrida would turn a stray comment from Rousseau into the lynchpin of a whole essay that seemed to show that everything you thought you knew was subtly undermined. Later I read Agamben, and there it was again: an obscure figure in Roman law becomes the thread that when pulled turns out to drag the entirety of European civilization behind it, from Byzantine theology to the architecture of Auschwitz. But you didn't have to be a cool European thinker that got cited in all the right grad programs; the same point had been made by Freud, after all (to say nothing of Jung and his eye for synchronicity): everything could turn on the most inoffensive-looking little detail. Or, as Richard Weaver (who was certainly not getting cited in all the right grad programs) had already said: ideas have consequences. But because history never proceeds in a straight line, tracing those consequences always looks a little ... paranoid. Guido Preparata is right to say: conspiracy theory is too important to be left to conspiracy theorists. The only thing that differentiates paranoia from the Socratic following the logos wherever it leads, is that Socrates is not afraid.

"Everything is connected" is both a banal bit of pseudo-profundity, and a truth the full weight of which no one really feels in their soul unless they are in the throes of a bout of enlightenment. It is, to be sure, not just easy to roll your eyes at; it practically elicits this response just by being said aloud. At least one reason for this reaction is not the pseudo-profundity but the fact that when acted upon, this truth winds up creating a lot of paranoid effects.

I don't presume to know whether LaRouche ever got within spitting distance of satori; that's certainly not my claim here. All I want to emphasize is that philosophy can look crazy from the outside. (Indeed, Socrates would say, it is crazy; but madness -- the right kind of madness -- is the greatest of all gifts.) It looks crazy because it's trying to do the impossible: to think the Whole. The more you attempt this, the more you get tangled in epicycles, which are not a bug but a feature of the very notion of system. Philosophy deploys system against systematicity. Most paranoia, alas, stops with the tangle.

Besides paranoia, the other extreme of fear is panic. Right away this name is a clue: panic is the all-encompassing, paralyzing or dissolving, fear in the face of Pan, the All. Of course. The All overwhelms.

Paranoia, the "it's-all-connected,-man" urge, is the attempt to hold panic at bay, to tame the threat by mapping it. To be sure, one can decide it was all a waste of energy, and return to a healthy agnosticism or one of the more standard-issue forms of paranoia peddled by the brand-name "Major Parties" ("Yay Republicans;" "Yay Democrats;" "Yay CNN;" "Yay FOX;" "Yay Science;" "Yay Family Values;" "Yay, Jihad;" "Yay Jesus;" "Yay [insert pop idol];" and so on). But if you want to really get out of paranoia, you have to go through, and that means it gets worse before it gets better.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

privilege


This year SCT will be one decade old. It is likely to be a year of scant posting here, but I am not closing shop. My aim is to finalize plans for a (small) book and to have made a significant beginning on the material therein. I will occasionally post some drafts that will perhaps be more rough than my usual work here.

Daniel Dennett says, I think in an interview, that he resents every moment he must devote to politics because it is time stolen from projects he'd rather be working on -- presumably the philosophy of consciousness. A friend who is pretty solidly rooted in the Straussian tradition held up this remark as a sort of smoking gun for the apparent bankruptcy (my words, not his) of the analytic scientism (ditto) he sees in Dennett. "Politics has to be where we start," he said. My own stance is far closer to my friend's than to Dennett's, but I have to say I see Dennett's point. The last several posts I wrote here feel far removed from my own immediate concerns; they are my way of trying to ward off the siren-call that "everybody's shouting," now as in 1965 when Dylan sang about it: "Which side are you on?" I will of course have more to say on this -- it is not so easily exorcised -- but I truly hope to spend more time on the questions that the crises of the day distract from. This is not to say that they are not crises. And if any one wants to say that it is from a "position of privilege" that one may put one's attention elsewhere, well, how could I demur? I am not in a refugee camp or fleeing from civil war or criminal cartels, and (so far) I am spared the worst effects of ecological catastrophe and the Ponzi scheme we call the national (or global) economy. But I take with absolute seriousness the claim of philosophy, the examined life, to be the life worth living.

We are told in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, that when Musonius Rufus was sentenced under the Emperor Nero to hard labor, digging a canal across the isthmus of Corinth, he was met by Demetrius, a fellow philosopher, who was dismayed to see him in such a state. Musonius responded to him:
"You are distraught, Demetrius, to find me digging across the isthmus for Greece? But what, I wonder, would you have thought, if you saw me playing the cithara like Nero?"
Or, if one wants a testimony from some less remote era:

When Jacques Lusseyran was imprisoned at Buchenwald, he discovered that reciting poetry kept him and his fellow inmates alive. In his essay Poetry in Buchenwald, Lusseyran is emphatic that "this is not just a manner of speaking;"
for us these were sensations ... poetry was completely lived by us, and not simply evaluated[.] We didn’t say, “It’s beautiful,” an expression which only has meaning for those who are happy, the sated. We said, “You see how much good it does!”

I hear skeptics growling, “He’s not going to tell us that they were
fed by poetry.” Of course not. We were nourished by a watery soup and a bitter bread. And by hope. Let skeptics not forget this! It was precisely in this matter of hope that poetry acted upon us. And it was in the thick of these most completely physical, material circumstances which I endured even to the point of suffocation, that I understood how utterly tangible are these things without weight which we call hope, poetry, life. ... To nourish the desire to live, to make it burn: only this counted. Because it was this that deportation threatened with death. It was essential to keep reminding oneself that it is always the soul which dies first – even if its departure goes unnoticed – and it always carries the body along with it. It was the soul which first had to be nourished. Morality was powerless. All moralities. As if they had been created by artificial conditions of existence: provisional peace, provisional social equilibrium. Ideas, knowledge, could do nothing either: they left despair intact. Only religion nourished. And next to it, the sensation of human warmth, the physical presence of other human beings. And poetry.
It is incidental that Lusseyran does not name "philosophy" here, though the secret ongoing trysts between Poetry and Philosophy in the course of their ancient lovers' quarrel are beyond the scope of this post. (Part of what esotericism means is playing liaison between them.) The crucial thing is to note that the life worth living can be lived in a prison as well as in a gated community. Maybe -- though one should not say such things breezily -- even better.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The fetishism of positions


“OK, but what do you believe? Do you think abortion should be illegal?”
“Do you think a trans person is the gender they say they are?”
“Do you think Israel should get out of the West Bank and Gaza?”
“Should pro athletes be able to kneel during the national anthem?”
“Doesn’t everyone have a right to health care?”
“Of course immigration should be done legally or not at all, right?”
“Do you or don’t you agree that there is such a thing as White Privilege?”
“Should public school curriculum be multicultural?”
“So what are the limits on free speech?”
“Come on, what would you do with a terrorist in a ticking time-bomb scenario?”
“Are you a Marxist? A Libertarian? Do you even care?”
“Wait – who are you going to vote for? -- You're voting, right?”

Policy questions, foundational questions, questions of the moment, “purely theoretical” questions…. But always the insistence: OK, but after all the weighing-the-options, what do you think? “What is your position on ----?”

Of course anyone can be the target of such interrogation, but I am going to consider the case of the philosopher. There are at least three (or four) ways that this question, this making-it-personal, arises. There’s an aggressive mode, an “OK, wise guy, if you’re so smart, you tell us how it oughta be done. What do you even want, anyway?” At worst, this is a mode of revenge for making us think off of our own beaten track. It’s an attempt to change the subject, or even to turn the tables; to impose a shift from the implicit questioning that happens in thinking-out-loud, to an explicit demand for some kind of “actionable proposal.” It really means “put up or shut up,” or sometimes just “shut up.” It’s a shaming mode: you and your armchair, your ivory tower. Get your hands dirty! It can also be a demand to “stop hiding,” quite dancing around behind “suppose” and “what-if;” in other words: Come out and fight if you dare.

There is also an abdicating mode; a mode that says, OK, Yes, I understand the options, but what has your imprimatur? Yes, there’s this way or this way to think about it, you can be a utilitarian or a communitarian, you can say some things are right or wrong no matter what; you can think there are tragic choices or that the idea of tragedy always serves the status quo. And on the ground, you can show how question after question can be asked in multiple ways. But after all of this “teaching the controversy,” aren’t you afraid you’ve legitimated the wrong thing with implying a false equivalence? Mightn’t you be dignifying some options just by giving them airplay at all? Don’t let me make the wrong choice! In other words, Tell me what to think; or even, what to want.

Sometimes there's an unstable hybrid mode that says: Please tell me you don't think this wrong thing.

These modes fetishize positions. They are not, of course, usually put forward in the stark and, admittedly, caricaturized forms I have sketched. Moreover, each of them is right about something, whether it knows it or not. The aggressive mode senses that philosophy is indeed “hedging,” in a sense. It thinks that by naming this “elephant in the room,” it can render the philosopher nonplussed – a breach of decorum! – and that this will save it, or at least buy some time. Sometimes, as rhetoric goes, it works.

The abdicating mode, too, sees something true: there is a real risk involved. One may well be, as Levinas says in the very first sentence of Totality and Infinity, "duped by morality."

The aggressive mode casts the philosopher as having no skin in the game, or as playing for hidden stakes – a different sort of “skin,” and not the kind everyone else has in the game. On the other hand, the abdicating mode sees “stakes” very clearly, and is panicked by them.

I say that these wrong modes fetishize position because they imagine that if the philosopher will just “state clearly” their position on such-and-such, something will have happened And they know what will have happened: the philosopher will be knocked off their high-horse; or the student will have been given a hand up. In the case of the hybrid, the fear may be that the student will be pulled down, though usually the conscious worry is that they "won't be able to respect" the philosopher any more.

The philosopher cannot answer any of these modes, because the philosopher knows that nothing will have happened if they answer. (Of course, plenty of teachers, and plenty of thinkers, do answer; they too can be prone to alienation and fetishizing. None of us is immune to to this.) Or, perhaps, they can and do answer, and they know that nothing has happened – because under the circumstances imposed by the assumption, nothing can happen. OK, you know that there are many, many people, doubtless very intelligent, who think such-&-such, as well as many others, equally intelligent, who think the opposite, and half a hundred shades in between. I have now told you my own intelligent opinion; now you have one more grain of doxa to add to one pile or another on the various scales. Or again: You are quite right: I have a different game to play in addition to the game about policy or about foundational principles. You challenge me to make a move about policy, or foundational principles. Here is my move. Now, what does that tell you about this other game?

The last mode of asking this question is personal. It just wants to know the philosopher as a fellow, as a comrade. It is not worried about getting the answer “right,” though it may well think there is or could be a right answer, and that this rightness is not a point of indifference. But what it is after is something like intimacy, or shall we say, encounter. Beyond all critiquable motives, beyond all “conservatism” or following-the-question-wherever, there remains the naïve and pre-legitimate (pre- because it comes before any criteria of legitimation) desire to know, Who are you? (Are you indeed “just asking questions?” Are you enjoying some subtle frisson that comes with provocation – and doing so under cover? Do you have a wish, a hope, of your own?) And this question arises in part because one is finding ones own way, and wants – hopes for – what? Guidance? Collaboration? Provocation? Company?

This mode sees the philosopher as pretty much the opposite of a troll. A troll is someone who is just fucking with you; they have no interest in you, only in your reactions; but in order to get your reactions, they must seem to have an interest in the subject at hand. In a certain sense (and put perhaps hyperbolically), the philosopher has an interest solely in you; the subject at hand is always the medium. And this in turn means that this third mode, this personal mode, itself begins already to take on this anti-trolling stance, by which one cares provisionally about the questions as they come up, but really these are all occasions for hanging out. This, by the way, is called friendship. It is not as casual as it sounds.

In the previous two posts I laid out a long double list of “positions.” They really have very little philosophical interest in themselves; they are meant only to be a lot of cumulative evidence for why I do not feel well-placed as either a “Progressive” or a “Conservative,” and that, after all, is a matter that really need only concern me – if anyone. But since I am not really all that atypical, I assume that there must be dozens, nay thousands, of ways in which someone could realistically be a halfway-thoughtful, semi-engaged political participant and not fit with the "political binary" of contemporary American lingua franca.

More or less missing from all of those lists were any extensive rationale. What I was presenting wasn’t a political theory; it was just a jumbled pile of stances, more or less raw, more or less without justification. This was partly from necessity -- I needed to provide a big-enough panorama to make the point I wanted to make: to wit, that it is possible (because it is a fait accompli) to maintain a number of positions that are at least prima facie at odds with the left-right spectrum. This is not a very revolutionary claim, of course. But it does press us towards an interesting question. Why, if someone like me is obviously possible, and on the assumption that I am not a freakish outlier (hmmm...), is the popular account of the "political spectrum" so pervasive? Has "the wisdom of crowds" just found the optimal way of sorting positions into a two-big-baskets setup? Or are there perhaps other interests that are served by the system that leaves so many other permutations out of consideration?

In the first edition of Capital, Marx uses a phrase which Zizek later appropriates as a brief definition of ideology: They do not know it, but they are doing it. True to form, Zizek cannot help but reverse this into “They know it very well, yet they do it.” Marx does not actually use the word ideology here – a word that by now has arguably become so overdetermined as to be useless, if only there was another (because those overdeterminations are part of the use), but the phrase is still a good brief pointer to this tangle of overdeterminations. In any case, in later editions, Marx considerably revised this chapter, but he kept the phrase – more or less. It is now, “We are unaware of this, but we do it,” and he is referring to the way we allow human relationships to be mediated by things. Soon thereafter comes the famous discussion of the fetishizing of commodities. I’m going to allow myself a gloss from the unlikely source Wallace Shawn, whose play The Fever I staged a bit over a year ago:
People say that about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things—one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money—as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat’s price comes from its history, the history of all the people involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. “I like this coat,” we say, “It’s not expensive,” as if that were a fact about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it.
Because the interpretation of Marx is fraught with difficulty, Shawn may not get Marx right in every respect; but I think he grasps the essence, which is brought out in a footnote Marx appends to the very phrase I mentioned before: We do not know it, but we do it. The footnote is to Galiani’s treatise On Money, and says:
When, therefore, Galiani says: Value is a relation between persons – “La Ricchezza e una ragione tra due persone,” – he ought to have added: a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things.
Positions get lumped into more or less ready-made ensembles precisely because positions are fetishized; in exactly the way Marx spoke of the fetishism of commodities. It is not a coincidence; this fetishizing of positions occurs because “positions” come to us as commodities. A pre-given position is a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things expressed as a relation between persons. It looks like two people having a conversation, and so it is, or would be, but the conversation cannot happen, because the people involved have given over their interaction to the mediation of things: readymade notional ensembles.

A dozen objections arise at this point. What? am I imagining some unfiltered, unimpeded "encounter" that would happen if only those pesky "positions" didn't interfere? Where is this golden age supposed to have occurred? How naive! Didn't I ever read Derrida? Wittgenstein? Nietzsche?

As it happens, I do think philosophy involves a sort of naïveté; but let's come back to that. It could also be objected: I said earlier that philosophy was interested in “you,” and that every “subject matter” was just an occasion or even a medium; what, then, is the difference between this, and the ideological deformation I am criticizing now? Part of the difference is in that phrase of Marx’s – they do not know it but they are doing it; for Socrates is to be taken at his word when he says that the difference between him and his fellow Athenians is that he knows that he does not know. Zizek’s inversion of Marx (“they know very well, and yet…”) rightly heightens the tension, because under late capitalism, irony – made into a mode of style and in some sense collapsed into style itself – has become a commodity like all others, and indeed the very mark of the self-knowing commodity – because in this setting, the ultimate commodity, the ur-commodity, is style.

But irony is only necessary, not sufficient, for philosophy. There is also a kind of earnestness, or what I referred to above as naïveté. "In all their actions men do in fact aim at what they think good," Aristotle says at the beginning of the Politics, and this what they think is where they – and we – start, though we may have grounds to revise this later. Philosophy is saved from meta- and hyper-ironism by this naïveté, which however is different from the insistence of either the aggressive or the abdicatory demand for “positions” because that demand wants those positions as an end, an answer, whereas philosophy starts there – and that is where the labor of building a position finds its raw material.

If the fetishizing of the commodity is a forgetting of and repression of the labor involved in making it, we forget, too, the labor involved in the making of a position. Philosophy reminds us and says: you want to understand? Roll up your sleeves. But the point is not to "make" a position. Positions have their meaning in the context of life. The examined life entails an examined politics (which means, also: law, civics, economics, education, culture...); and there is of course no politics without policies. Whether, in any given context, there are particular policies entailed by philosophy per se, is – like so many issues – another question. But I am dubious – if you really want to know what I think.

Friday, December 7, 2018

And No, Not a "Conservative" either


Well, if anyone cared enough to read the whole of last post about Why I Am Not A (capital-P) "Progressive," the first thing I have to say is.... Why? Why would some one guy's "positions" be of the remotest interest? Sure, if you know me IRL, as the kids (used to) say, perhaps this kind of matters (and those are the ones I initially drafted this for, before I started getting all writer-y with it); but what could possibly be the fascination otherwise?

Here's one guess (though even here, "fascination" will be a strong word). Maybe you, too, are "not a Progressive" -- but, too, are not put off by my obvious hedging. If so, you too might also be "not a Conservative," and want to think a bit about how these things, or not-things, fit together. I will be of almost no assistance on the theoretical level, but maybe just enumerating examples will help -- ways in which positions don't match up with either "side" of this shadow-boxing match. We can extrapolate from the examples later, maybe.

I'm leaving completely out of account for the moment the "immediate context" of American politics -- our national case of the DTs. Going after the low-hanging fruit of the latest presidential tweet is impoverishing what was left of the smart liberal free press; we don't need more of that. That the current White House is a new low -- which is saying quite a lot -- is a point that I think needs no demonstration. That it has mouthed a number of points that were popular on the left within waking memory (especially in anti-globalist quarters) is less frequently mentioned, but I don't think this demonstrates anything beyond the administration's semi-incoherence and the way much of the left is a weathervane. In any case, I have been known to show up at demonstrations, sign petitions, and even strategically vote for Democrats lately -- all purely tactical decisions, which may be correct or mistaken or meaningless; but for the purposes of this post, I'm leaving the Narcissist-in-Chief off to one side. I hope he will soon be relegated there for everybody. (If and when that happens, we will see more clearly how much of a distraction from the real issues DT has been -- and how important this distraction will turn out to have been.) If the best the Left had to offer was "We're not D.T.," we would be in deep, deep trouble. Of course, we are in deep trouble anyway, but....

This is (a little) more brief than the last post, partly because that was a low bar, and partly because my critiques of the Left are internal critiques; these are made from without. I was raised in a conservative household in a conservative state (Utah), so I cannot take seriously the demonization of ordinary-folks conservatism (even the much-maligned "DT Supporter", though I was so proud of my home state for the lost-cause candidacy of Evan McMullin), and I still have a fondness for red-white-&-blue bunting, and small towns with lots of front porches; but I left the Republican Party behind even longer ago than I left the Democrats. If anything, I am more "small-c conservative" (not "further right") than most of the GOP; but I'm definitely "further left" (not "more liberal") than nearly every Democrat I know.

OK, then. If I'm not a Progressive, why not, the other thing, whatever that is? (Again, even more than last post, these positions here are not presented as full-blown arguments. They are, at most, indices. Or maybe symptoms. Note, too, the frequent recurrence of variations on the phrase "....but that is a different issue.")

1. I am an artist -- mostly a musician, but I do graphic art and, if you haven't noticed, a lot of writing too -- and sometimes art offends the shit out of people, with bad taste, irreverence, whatever. Oh well. I'm not saying the artist shouldn't care about codes, mores, standards, consequences, norms, canons, and so on; nor that being offended is somehow morally salutary or snaps a person out of their little cozy close-mindedness. I too have been turned off, offended, and repulsed by someone's "art." I'm just saying I would prefer that the law should pretty much stay the Hell out of this.

2. I have yet to see an account of social conflict that has persuaded me that the lion's share doesn't come down to class. (The closest has been Stan Goff, who argues that gender is even more basic, and sometimes he almost tips me over to his side.) This all by itself makes me a Marxist, in some senses. Though of course, aristocrats also know it comes down to class.

3. Speaking of Marx: Late-capitalist economics is clearly a pyramid scheme. I believe that human beings are free, and therefore we can decide to behave better; that we are not fated to be determined by the "laws" of the market. (This doesn't mean I think markets cannot be treated as an object of a kind of science).

4. I am a localist; I believe in community -- its value, its indispensibility, for the good life. You might think this makes me a likely conservative -- and in small-c terms, this is close enough to true; but by the same token, I am therefore in a certain sense not an "individualist," in the sense of the individual posited (or constructed) by Lockeanism, and thus the whole modern small-"l" liberal idea of modern society or can-do, go-it-alone pull-yrself-up-by-yr-bootstraps nonsense which underlies a certain sort of conservative critique of social safety nets. (I am not sure I want my safety nets to be administered by the state, but that's a separate question.)

5. I am deeply suspicious of profit motives, and the venality of power. As far as I am concerned, beyond a certain threshold, The Bigger, The Worse.

6. I am persuaded by the critiques that show how comfort here is too often underwritten by misery elsewhere; and I think that we are under spiritual obligation to change this. How we live with (engaging or evading) this responsibility isn't simple, but there is a difference between engagement and evasion.

7. Despite my remarks about Identity Politics, I am deeply sympathetic to critiques of racism on large scales and small, and I am disgusted by it whether it is overt or covert. I am likewise moved by complaints of women who have to deal with guys being jerks, and systemic arrangements that enable and abet this. And likewise by the obvious ick-recoil that gays and lesbians had to deal with in my youth. I supported marriage equality in civil terms because I believe (on more or less libertarian grounds) that mutually-consenting people can do what they want with each other. (Should they? is another question, but it isn't one that I want decided by legislation.) This is not the same as endorsing religious marriages as a sacrament for same-sex couples; if you believe in sacraments at all, you have a whole different set of considerations to include in such a query. (I.e., that's another other question.)

I do not idolize "Diversity" for its own sake, nor Equality either, but in my encounters with other people individually and other groups, I genuinely try to lead with my curiosity and openness and not with defensiveness. There is a place for defense; it's not up in front. In short, while I may have all sorts of criticisms about specific behaviors of minorities and marginalized groups, about the tactics of activism within / on behalf of those groups, and indeed about the theoretical ramifications of thinking in terms of "marginalized groups" as the go-to first and last theoretical stop -- reservations about all sorts of aspects of the typical Social Justice itinerary and its theoretical underpinnings -- I do want to ask myself hard questions, catch myself at residual prejudices, and cultivate empathy for people who have a different and difficult row to hoe. And those empathizing efforts make me want to cultivate kindness -- which is just, obviously, lacking when you listen to the defensive postures (and derisive snorts) on the right.

I am quite sure that "kindness" sounds to others, at times, either like a laughably/woefully inadequate response, or just the wrong word entirely for how I articulate my stances. That's a different matter; but I take it seriously. The biggest example these days seems to be so-called gender-nonconformity. Is it really necessary to underscore that people no matter how they comport themselves (i.e., how they "present") should be treated with dignity? It is true that not agreeing -- however tentatively -- with someone can itself be construed (wrongly, I hold, of course) as an affront to their dignity; can, indeed, be (mis!)characterized as questioning their right to exist. That is, however, no reason to throw the game and just forget about kindness and respect. If my stance is not accepted as respectful, I may not be able to control this; but I'm certainly not going to act disrespectfully by my lights.

8. I loathe trolls. (Lowest-grade Dada. Ugh.) Trolling I define (leaving aside, for now, the problematic question of actual propagandists or agents provocateurs) as willfully provoking the emotions of another for no reason other than to provoke; what is known as "fucking with people." (There can be such provocation that does have other, or further, rationale, and here the line can blur, but it does not vanish.) The troll is akin to the bullshitter -- they do not care about the correctness of their position; being right, or persuading someone, is not the point. But while the bullshitter is invested in seeming as if they are saying "something", and producing an effect of confusion or a vague impression that the bullshitter has said Something Important, the troll is invested in getting a rise out of the other side. This makes trolling (and this is not news) very much like bullying, and it brings out an icy fire of cold wrath in me. My severest judgment is reserved for cruelty and humiliation. I know humiliation from the other side; and I also know the temptation to it.

I see far more trolling on the "right" than on the "left." Since the troll qua troll does not care about the issue, it's an interesting question why one side of the binary attracts them more, and I think a prima facie case can be made for the argument that the Left, bleeding-heart that is is, makes itself an easy target. But n.b., since the troll doesn't care about the issue (the troll simply enjoys the spectacle of anti-racist righteous indignation; they are not making a principled case for the right to wear blackface), the troll can be accidentally associated with a an argument that has some abstract plausibility. Also, certain moves in serious argument (or in serious art -- see (1) above) can look like trolling, because sometimes an emotional effect -- even offense -- can be part of a set of argumentative (or artistic) moves. They cannot be the point of the argument, however. (The case of art can be interestingly different, but -- though this is a longer argument -- even here offense as the primary end undermines the integrity of art qua art, I think.)

9. I don't have a scientific degree, but I value the (loosely so-called) scientific method, and I am a scientific optimist in the sense that I think science is good. Technology... well, we can have that conversation. And the one about how to tell the difference or separate them. Anyway, what this means is that I don't foreclose (though I may be dubious about) the possibility of real solutions coming out of research; and I don't believe in "forbidden questions." (This can also set me apart from the left, of course, depending on which question we're talking about.)

10. I am, as mentioned, ambivalent about the military. I'm just dispositionally not a hawk, and lots on the right are -- unless they are isolationist, which I'm not either.

11. I'm genuinely unsure what to do about the oncoming ecological ruin that we have wrought, but I'm absolutely sure that the rapaciousness of industry and capital own the lion's share of the blame for the damage we could have seen (and indeed did see) coming. There may be plenty more blame to go around as well, but in this at least, we could have used for the last century some actual conservatism -- with, you know, some real conservation in it. And yes, desperate times make for desperate measures, and at this point I'd be happy to give the EPA carte blanche within certain to-be-determined (but broad) parameters.

12. I started out my explanation of Not Being a Progressive with an account of how and why I value existing goods over possible but imaginary ones; and I mentioned there that this can make me look like an apologist for the status quo. I'm not. And far less am I merely in the grip of nostalgia. I am religious, yes; I am a "traditionalist", yes (tradition refers to something real); but I'm neither a triumphalist nor a fundamentalist, for the very good reason that they are not traditional (that "real" that tradition is about is not "literal", it is more than literal -- though if pressed, I will take the humble submission of "literal" over the arrogant subtlety of "you know, spiritual" any day). I love culture, but culture, like everything human -- like everything created -- is temporary and passing. I understand nostalgia, and I do not think it is either stupid or inevitably "reactionary;" but I understand that it is nostalgia. As Ivan Illich said when facing similar charges of crypto-conservativism, "I'm not endorsing the past. It's past; it's gone. Even less am I endorsing the present." One should be able to speak well of the past without being accused of "wanting to turn the clock back," or some such foolishness. I can name, and mourn, what is being lost, try to salvage what can be salvaged, or even "stand athwart history yelling 'Stop!'", without trying to use the force of the state (as if there was anything "conservative" about that) to enforce a delusion.

13. I am not eager for, but I do expect, the Revolution. Probably too late.

The proper attitude to take towards that, however, is another post.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Why I am not a "Progressive"


Last post but one, I offered a kind of apologia for a weaselly apolitical politics, of a sort. Partly because it could have been mis-read as a defense of political indifference, I concluded with a promise to mention "some things to which I am not indifferent." The interest of such a list of positions is certainly limited, but my hope is to indicate some of my pre-existing biases or instincts which are supposedly more-or-less correlated with "Progressive" and "Conservative" labels in the current American political scene, and which (cumulatively) serve to dis-align me with either such wing. Why such correlations even happen is partly understandable, and partly at least explicable; but it is also partly opaque. After all, why should a general hawkish military stance be aligned with lip-service to balanced budgets ("fiscal responsibility"), an enthusiasm for charter schools, or a desire to repeal Roe v. Wade? Why should a high degree of comfort with proposals of bureaucratic "oversight" go along with championing gay marriage, or (supposed) anti-gerrymandering? I understand how these things have made common cause from time to time; what I don't grasp is why they are held to be deeply, philosophically aligned. I still don't have a full-blown theory of political coherence, descriptive or prescriptive. About five years ago, Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex offered a sketch, on a roughly sociological level, of such a rationale, and I think it's fairly good as such accounts go; it's purely descriptive but you gotta start somewhere. I'm not going to argue for or against Alexander's theory here, or offer an alternative, but I commend it as the beginning of a conversation. What I am going to do, in this post and the next, is toss out some positions -- some of them are close to what you'd call "policy" positions, others are much higher-altitude (or foundational, depending on your point of view). All they really have in common is that they are mine. These two posts are not an attempt at a coherent platform. They are just a sort of pile of pieces of an incomplete mosaic of some of my socio-political concerns. To show that the mosaic is even completable would be a further project, worthwhile (for me, anyway) but of far larger ambition. The "pieces" here are just picked up and described one by one. They are indices (not causes) of whatever it is that makes me feel alienated from, not at home with, and (sometimes) unable to talk with, those who call themselves Progressives (this post), or (next post) Conservatives. We'll see if anyone is still reading by then.

Well then: Why am I not a Progressive?

First off, what is it I'm claiming Not to be? Well, it's kinda vague, actually, since there's no one place where you go to see what "The" Progressive Platform is, but I have in mind here a cloud of attitudes, styles, and default positions, which quite possibly no single self-described Progressive actually maintains, but all of which I encounter routinely here in Blue-Bubble Seattle. Some of these positions are actually further left than mainstream Progressivism, but they're all more or less in the left-liberal or left-radical zeitgeist. If anyone wants to argue that I've got this wrong, I'm interested.

The following numbered points are not intended as single-sentence theses with some subsidiary commentary. Each one is, rather, a little cluster of concerns that are related (and sometimes also related among each other) but don't always reduce to a neat summary. The fact that I have called them "biases" above does not mean they are unconsidered, or held merely out of stubbornness or inertia. I've thought a lot, and continue to think, about each of them. But it will be obvious that no item below is presented here as a full-blown argument. Each is, at most, a statement of position from which an argument would be mounted, or for which an argument is called. Usually (and with some of the items more than others) I have included some of the pieces of what such an argument would be, and any one of them could be expanded into a full post, or more than one.

1: I value existing goods -- things and situations that are real, concrete, and working for people, even if imperfect; and so I always tend to ask: what are the costs to the imagined reform / innovation / shiny new thing you are proposing? Because the imaginary new thing -- no matter how "necessary" it is by someone's lights -- is not going to be as good, in some ways for sure and maybe in all ways, as the thing we actually have that is good.

This is essentially what is at play in people's concerns over (say) "gentrification" of a beloved old neighborhood; or in the "development" of a piece of "empty" land; or the replacement of one set of practices with another. I think liberals and further-left folk alike are often pretty cavalier, if not in outright denial, of those costs, though of course they are also ready to marshal a long list of such costs when it suits them. ("Gentrification" is sometimes one such.) Sometimes those costs are worth it; sometimes they are revealed to have been worth it in retrospect. It is rarely absolutely clear.

These questions arise in all sorts of situations. Should we build a mass-transit system? Seattle decided No, back in the 1960s, and arguably is now paying the price. The San Francisco Bay area decided Yes, and has a different set of problems. Should we ban salmon fishing to save Orca whales (another current question in my corner of the US) -- a question that has profound and immediate ramifications for the viability of native tribal culture? Should lobster fishing, or coal mining, or logging be banned? I don't say there can be no right answer about this, given the competing costs; I'm saying costs are real in any event.

In worrying about what gets lost, I am aware that this can look like status-quo'ism, or "privilege", from the outside. I take seriously the possibility that I could be missing something relevant -- this is just what is entailed by humility -- and that one reason I could be missing it is a degree of comfort. But that possibility is not the end of the conversation, and I do not like the frequent attempt to weaponize it.

This love of existing goods means that I am less ready to jump aboard with ideas that sound great, or even ideal. I believe in the inevitability of many, many unforeseen consequences of the best-laid-plans. Therefore, while I expect the Revolution, and not with dread, neither am I eager for it.

2. Related to the foregoing: I think Progressivism can be extremely casual about discarding cultural forms, in the name of (ostensible) justice or equity. I am an ecological conservationist (at least), and my ecological concerns go hand in hand with my cultural ones.

A good example of this is gender: after a lot of (still ongoing) reading, I just do not believe that most of the arguments against the so-called "gender binary" hold water (in fact, I often don't think they are even intended to hold water); but more than this, I think it is extremely perilous to try to eject a feature of cultural discourse -- the cultural ecology, if you will -- that has structured our experience since there was culture at all; and arguably since before we attained consciousness. A similar argument may be made (more limited in historical scope) about "marriage equality." The denial of the American left (liberal and radical), a few years ago, that this involved a "redefinition of marriage" was astounding to me. That's exactly what it was, and if people cannot see it, or do not have the courage to admit it, this merely bespeaks how gravely marooned we are from our own past, or how in thrall we are to rhetorical tactics that are indifferent to truth. Say that marriage has been redefined before; say that the past is well lost, if you like; but don't deny that it is real, and really different.

Now, on the off-chance that it might surprise you (having just read the above paragraph) to learn that I voted for same-sex legal marriages in the state of Washington, I want to respectfully submit that it is a mistake to extrapolate from high-altitude considerations to on-the-ground tactics -- or vice-versa. Alternatively, you may take it as a case study in how weaselly or vexing or "hard-to-pin-down" my "politics" is. Again, though, I swear this is not because I'm just that subtle and interesting -- or that I delight in being perverse. It's that the link between "theory" and "practice" is itself not straightforward.

The two foregoing examples (the "gender binary" and gay marriage) might imply that this critique about being casual with cultural forms has mainly to do with sex and gender. This is not the case; these examples (I have written somewhat about gender, at least indirectly, earlier this year) just happen to get so much attention that they are hard to ignore. (The reasons for this attention are doubtless interesting in their own right.) In fact, this critique of being cavalier about received cultural forms pertains (in my opinion) across all kinds of categories: art; commerce; property; class; etc. The short version of this is: Progressivism, probably as a function of its apparent prizing of egalitarianism above all, strikes me as being fundamentally (though often unconsciously) opposed to hierarchy. I am not so opposed. In fact I think this opposition is incoherent and impossible. (If I was developing arguments, here would be the place to venture into the very problematic distinction sometimes offered on the right between equality "of opportunity" and "of outcome," a distinction I think is too rough-and-ready to be of much help after the opening moves.)

3. Among these cultural forms is, above all, religion. I see a crucial place, an irreducible, central and non-negotiable place, for religion in human affairs, which when vacated leaves something like a cross between an amputee's stump and a black hole. This place is not the individual place of "worshiping according to one's conscience," though that is an acceptable if limping liberal modern shorthand if no other language is at hand. Because of this, I am fundamentally at odds with modernity, and therefore with progressivism which is in some sense its logical conclusion. I have often noticed that when you scratch a progressive you will find a fundamentalist -- usually an anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist. Even my good irreligious friends who acknowledge the over-the-top disdain and bile in the (no longer so "new") New Atheists ("Oh sure, Dawkins and Dennett are really abrasive about this," or even just "People don't need to be so fucking arrogant") do not really seem to me to grasp what I mean when I talk about faith. Doubtless most of the responsibility for this conversational impasse lies with me, if it is a question of responsibility.

I am a believer in -- not a fetishizer of -- tradition. Things that have been around for multiple generations probably are embedded in a cultural ecosystem in ways that escape immediate notice, especially when the ones who are doing (or not doing) the noticing are enamored of the latest loud fashion. This doesn't mean that traditions should enjoy some immune-to-critique status; but I think it is very short-sighted to be cavalier about them. For all this embeddedness, traditions are also, in a crucial sense, fragile. They can be broken in a single generation, and once they are gone, they are gone -- maybe rebootable (and this is not nothing), but no longer organically connected.

There's a practical, policy-impacting aspect to this orientation of mine: very often, in a contest between "religious values" and other interests, I'm going to side with the former. Of course such legal "victories" as these contests afford are Pyrrhic ("... according to one's conscience"), or, at best, temporary stays against defeat. But they may count for the individual.

4. For the better part of a decade I have found the excesses of "Identity Politics" frustrating, and increasingly impossible to engage -- hence, increasingly dangerous. (And please, see above (1) under remarks on "privilege".) I am deeply turned off by rebellion for its own sake, and I see this a lot -- under the just-enough excuse of righteous indignation. It's like going after low-hanging fruit by burning down the orchard -- the stupidest of both worlds. That these excesses are often turned against fellow, but not-woke-enough leftists, increasingly raises concerns that the Left is devouring itself; but they are also (of course) aimed against conservatives of whatever stripe, who are really looked upon as an enemy. We need to think about this. I think there is room for the idea of enmity, but this is the wrong place to look for it. Snark, tone-deafness, self-righteousness, disdain, and contempt are all at play in such characterizations, and it ought not take me pointing it out to see that they are wrong.

5. Here's an opportunity for some to exercise, or exorcise, your choice, some of that aforementioned self-righteousness. I do not condone the availability of abortion on demand, and I see the left as fairly incoherent on this matter. I am not exactly "pro-Life" (though I have used this as a self-description, it's really a placeholder, sort of like "worshipping according to one's conscience" (see above under (3)) -- in other words, not very good). As I read the history of this question, the notion of "Life" as it is deployed here is of very recent mint, and I am pretty persuaded by the genealogy Ivan Illich has traced for it; it is a kind of secular feel-good word, and possibly a kind of idol. In any case, my position here stems not from a high-level desire to honor Life, but from garden-variety a distaste for killing people. If there is any high-falutin' philosophical principle at work here it is a commitment to the irreducibility of personhood, a stance I found in kindergarten well summarized by Horton the elephant: A person's a person, no matter how small. There are, however, other small things besides small persons. Conveniently, Stan Goff has written recently on this, noting that in Christian and specifically Roman Catholic theology,
more than a thousand years after the Pentecost, the modern “fetus” had not yet been invented. The unborn were seen in two phases: pre-ensoulment and post-ensoulment. Ensoulment was signaled by the quickening, the sensation of the baby’s movement in the womb, something that happens as early as fifteen weeks into a pregnancy, and as late as twenty weeks. Abortion was not considered murder until after ensoulment, or the quickening.
That at some point abortion is the killing of a person I consider not up for debate -- at least, I really cannot imagine what would make me entertain such a debate. But the insistence that this point was the moment of conception is a very late development (see Goff's post for some orienting landmarks here), and I think it bears questioning whether the whole rationale for it is the "progress of science."

I am not a Roman Catholic and I do not take my thinking orders from the Magisterium; but I would understand if anyone suspected this. I am opposed to the death penalty, opposed to torture, deeply ambivalent about the "permissability" of suicide under any circumstances. (My stance on this pre-dates my brother's suicide, but of course there are all sorts of debates to be had on this question -- because, among other reasons, suicide is not just one thing.) I am undecided about the coherence of just-war theory, but in any case support only defensive -- or at most extremely surgical offensive, guerrilla-style -- strikes. My belief regarding combat (not just armed combat but yes, especially this) is that it ought to be like T'ai chi ch'üan -- you give your opponent the dance they need to trip themselves up and lay themselves flat. Sometimes that requires making contact, sometimes even making contact first, but you know the difference between doing this judiciously and doing it viciously. In my own life, while I may go back to being vegetarian, at present I eat because animals are killed; and even were I to go back to vegetarianism, given our economic and ecological realities, there is no end of the violence upon which I am indirectly implicated. Nonetheless, I cannot square my stance on violence with abortion on demand. I grant that in this fallen world sometimes the least-bad way forward -- at least by our lights -- is still violent. I would settle for the Clintonian line of abortion being "cheap, legal, and rare," but show me a Progressive who really means this (that's a serious request, I may have overlooked someone), and backs policy to realize the rare part. Because of tactical concerns (see (1) on "privilege") I tend to let the pro-life women do the talking on this one (a lot of words got cut out of this entry on the list before I posted), but the tactical question has not very much to do with the issue itself. I do not dispute that abortion has been historically, and especially recently, bound up with a hell of a lot of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny, because it obviously has. I'm also aware that this stance ought to commit me to other positions about women's health, childcare, and so on, and I'm down for those. And, because this issue is such dry tinder, I will add that not only do I not regard abortion as the same thing as "murder" (which in this case is a legal term, not a moral one). I know and love people who have had abortions or been party to them. I am deeply opposed to and repulsed by the shaming of anyone who has had an abortion, as I would be opposed to shaming military veterans (or, for that matter, convicted murderers.) This does not mean I am on board with recent name-it-claim-it-wear-it-on-a-T-shirt fashion; but people should be able to tell the truth without being derided.

6. Speaking of combat: I think Progressivism is a bit casual and blasé about Islamic terrorism, starting with a squirmy discomfort with calling it "Islamic terrorism," which needless to say is not a synonym for Islam. I'm not saying the Right, in whichever stance, has got this right either, but Progressives seem to me to lack much theoretical ground to stand on. Part of the reason is that the Left is just a little bit incapacitated when thinking about religion (see above under (3)), so it tries to change the subject to something else (this is happening right now in the minds of some readers of these very words). I don't think those other subjects are irrelevant. But leaving religion out (and for conflicting reasons at that) reveals a kind of bankruptcy.

7. On a related note, Progressives are also, in my experience, at best conflicted when it comes to the military. This is a conflictedness I happen to share, so I don't claim to have worked out a consistent stance here (let alone a "workable" one), but I think most Progressives shove this down into the memory hole with a pretense that they'll "deal with that later".

8. I think the far Left (Marxist and Anarchist alike) is often far too casual about the actual processes of production -- about what is involved in creating prosperity and thriving. I don't have a full-fledged account of this either, and I certainly share the critique of capitalist rapaciousness, but I'm unpersuaded by the positive accounts of economic growth or technological innovation offered on the further left, which suffer from a kind of reductionism that is just inevitable when you think culture is all a symptom of, well, blind material forces. On the nearer-left, among most "Progressives" who reject anarchism or Marxism, you find the opposite problem -- an under-theorizing of business as usual, a satisfaction with band-aids or an unreasonable hope in oversight and intervention, which all amount to kicking-the-can.

9. I am deeply turned off by collectivist superstructures. I'm enough of an individualist (despite what I said above about religion) to chafe at being told how to think -- or to act. When faced by need, I do not want my help (which I will sometimes willingly give) to be coerced. This means I'm less friendly to the idea of tax-funded and bureaucratically-managed social services than many progressives. I am, moreover, very skeptical of human over-reach, which has occasioned many of our current woes -- especially in other parts of the world where our best intentions led us to stage numerous interventions that fucked things up. (The establishment of obligatory charity and manifest-destiny noblesse oblige has been a moral catastrophe. See, on this point, Ivan Illich, who argues that such doing-good-in-the-third-world makes things worse pretty much every time, and more recently Anand Giridharadas who suggests that it's actually pretty self-serving.)

10. I believe in the relevance of Dunbar's number. I'm a localist. Which means I don't buy the tenability of large-scale "solutions". I also (for similar reasons) believe that certain utopian promises ("Universal Health Care") are likely to have promised way too much; others ("Universal Basic Income" -- though it seems better than many alternatives) are likely to create as many problems as they solve. That doesn't mean we can't dream big -- but we are mortal, and we need to 'fess up to this.

11. I find groupthink distasteful, and overweening confidence abetted by groupthink downright creepy. I don't always succeed, but I try hard to eschew the usual vocabulary for social and political questions; too often it serves as a substitute for thought. It conceals prejudices -- or wears them on its sleeve (which is worse). And, like all default settings, it is subject to parody; and when you live in a parodic age, it is best not to make oneself a target. (The young people I work with sense this parodic potential instinctively. They dutifully attend to the lessons in microaggression or the gender-spectrum that are placed before them by well-meaning adults who are trying to raise them to be on the right side of history; but in their off-hours, which I get to see as an after-school "supervisor," they veer towards parody, employing terms like "racist" or "oppressive" or "stereotype" or "identifies as ___" in as over-the-top a manner as they can. They also instinctively sense, and avoid, the border between this parody and mean-spiritedness.)

When the right parodies the left, when (say) the language of wokeness gets turned for comedic effect into a joke, it shows that the users of the language have not thought about the weak points. (Sometimes. Other times, it's just a bad joke.) Just because the take-down was of a straw man, does not mean you don't have a lot of straw yourself. That straw is the padding provided by shared assumptions, by having recourse to terms accepted by the like-minded; if your reaction to having those terms disregarded is simply "that's not funny," you may be right, but that rightness may still be getting in your way. I am genuinely perplexed about politics, in a way that (to judge by their "it's-just-obvious" tone) many Progressives are not. I am often persuaded by Nietzschean or Platonic critiques of democracy. But you don't have to be a name-dropping philosopher to be kind of sickened by the in- and out-grouping social dynamics of political tribalism, and to want to listen to the other side(s).

12. I am largely convinced that the story told by Progressivism about history is incoherent and in many ways in bad faith. To put things very baldly: Progressivism tells a Whig version of history -- what has happened was bound to happen, because Progress! -- which nevertheless casts itself as embattled and heroically striving against the Powers That Be. Each of these aspects of the tale seems to me extremely unlikely to be true without exception; together, they almost cancel each other out. It is clear to me that the "direction" called "progress" is often accidental, and not at all always progress towards what I call Good. On the other hand, for the last hundred and fifty or so years (at least in the so-called First World), "Progressivism" has in fact, as I read the record, been ascendant, and gradually consolidating its position, in a feedback loop between academia, government, media/entertainment, industry, and the military, with a little inter-caste warfare keeping things interesting.

That is not an argument, only the outline of an intuition (call it a prejudice if you like, I won't argue.) It would take a long excursus to spell out the whole critique, which would be complicated, and possibly (given the state of my thinking at present) involve contradictions or aporiae. That's politics for you.

*

OK, so there you have it, a sketch of where I see my significant divergences from Progressivism, with some addenda about other left-liberal and outright genuine Left positions thrown in for good measure.

These are critiques from within. I am not a capital-P Progressive, but if we are still using the Left-Right distinction (I don't see why we have to, but that's another argument), I am a man of the Left (OK, sure, I'm a "centrist," but a radical one). And, since I am not the smartest person on the Left, of course there are many other folks, who may well call themselves progressives, who share some variety of these criticisms. The worries about identity politics are becoming widespread; the critique of "callout culture" and the righteous indignation of various movements is gathering force. I know left-wingers who are pro-life, who are for genuinely responsible gun ownership, who are "fiscal conservatives," and so on.

So it's only fair to give some counter-point: Why am I not, then, that other thing, whatever it is, on the right?

Well... if you are still with me, stay tuned.