Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The uncanny philosopher

Philosophy makes no one happy. Except -- maybe -- philosophers. And one mark of the philosopher is that they are asking, a least privately, whether anyone else -- or maybe even they themselves -- can be called happy.

For many Plato exegetes, Socrates' supposed "willingness to learn from anyone" is an instance of his famous irony, an overstated pose. I am in a minority, in that I take this declared willingness seriously. Socrates' openness, I think, was part and parcel of his thoroughgoing seriousness about philosophy, a pursuit for which he was famously willing to die. One doesn't spend one's time taking on any and all comers for the sake of scoring cheap points. If it's worth your life, those points are not cheap.

But of course, this willingness did get Socrates into deep trouble, and his ironic stance in the world is part of what made this so sticky. It is true that Socrates does not conduct himself with perfect openness and candor. People -- even the well-disposed -- began to suspect that Socrates' stance might well be dangerous, and possibly not a "stance" but a pretense. Nor is this suspicion completely ill-founded, even if it misses the point in a sense; for in fact, the philosopher is suspect, ethically, if "plain speaking" is in question. The philosopher enacts in person the very tension between appearance and reality that is at issue in experience itself.

Ideally -- and I am going to talk about an ideal philosopher, as I conceive her, a thinker who conducts herself with just such Socratic openness but also the Socratic aim of understanding and bettering one's soul above all else -- ideally, the philosopher is able to begin to speak with anyone at all, of no matter what persuasion. She can even, in a certain sense, "pass the Turing test," mimicking the language of their concerns -- not, however, because in her case these memes have successfully replicated themselves in the philosopher's brain, but because she can find the validity of care which expresses itself in whatever language. She can talk like an off-the-grid hippie artist, or a blue-collar struggling taxpayer; a radical dreaming of or even planning the revolution, or a reactionary sure that the nation went off the rails fifty or a hundred years ago; a pessimist who preaches anti-natalism, or a technophile who's sure that science will unlock the charms of happiness tomorrow. Of course, anyone who already knows the philosopher -- who heard her talk yesterday with the radical gun-rights survivalist, when she now sounds so cozy with the tree-hugging vegan or the Black Lives Matter activist -- might expect her of being mealy-mouthed, of "wanting it both ways," or of simply dissimulating. And inevitably, at a certain point -- which may come soon or late -- a new acquaintance also becomes on guard. A certain note creeps into the conversation -- a hint that, whatever shibboleths are being pronounced, nonetheless a challenge is also being laid down as well -- to care about something else. The philosopher can speak whatever language (again, ideally), but does not share the same assumptions. At some point, it cannot fail to appear that the philosopher means something different. She gives a bit too much credit to "the other side," or seems to hold back on the brink of victory; she won't join in the laughs of character-assassination, or gets a far-away look in her eyes just when the fun is right here. Try to pin her down, and she won't deny it, won't lapse into incoherence; she might shrug, or start asking questions as if changing the subject, or posing a weird table-turning challenge. "Won't take their own side in an argument!" Sheesh! Or: "Always going meta-!" Yawn. Even nodding "Yes" when they are criticized! What the hell is the point?!

The philosopher looks agreeable -- "soft," even, at first. But at a certain point (again, it may occur within five mintues' time of meeting, or it may be months later) the "hard" appears, and changes the meaning of that "soft". Now it isn't agreeable -- it's just casual, or too easy, without the courage of conviction. Except that what provokes this shift is the indirect appearance of the philosopher's true conviction. And this conviction, this "hardness," looks alternately bull-headed and pointless, arguing-for-the-sake-of-arguing. Other adjectives that come to mind may be "slippery," "hair-splitting," "vague" ... all terms that have a tactile provenance, and that reduce, I think, to variations on "soft" and "hard."

I take these two terms -- duce et dure -- from Michel Serres, a philosopher of my parents' generation and one whom I esteem very highly, though I have written very little about him. One thing I love about Serres is his apparent nonchalance with regards to discursive distinctions like that between the sciences and the humanities, and between the moderns and the ancients. Serres deploys many sets of apparent oppositions in his rather sprawling oeuvre, but I am not alone in finding the hard/soft distinction to be an especially apt way in to his work. The best long introduction I know to Serres is the book of interviews between him and Bruno Latour, but the best short introduction is this essay by Steven Connor, which includes this passage:
One of the difficult things about the work of Michel Serres is that it shuns unilateralism, the taking of stands and occupation of positions. This means that it is almost impossible to say what his work might be for or in favour of, what in the end and all things considered would come down on the side of. This is certainly true in relation to the hard and the soft.... The opposition between the hard and the soft turns on and feeds back into itself.
Many are repelled by the philosopher at this point. Some the philosopher continues to know, and perhaps eventually stops provoking. Some turn away and don't much want to pursue the relationship. And sometimes it gets mean. Occasionally, charges are brought, even a conviction, and the philosopher goes into exile or under house arrest.... All because they won't go soft at the right time, for the right people.

In contemporary terms, the philosopher inhabits the "uncanny valley" -- resembling the interlocutor very much, so much that the residual dissimilarity provokes an instinctive recoil. Attraction builds up until suddenly it reverses -- almost as if some treason had been committed. The repulsion arises because the "soft" and the "hard" of the philosopher are functions of each other; but this is weird, and it can be almost a visceral turn-off. Interest, even affection, inverts into hostility.

It's not completely uncalled-for. Philosophy, as the pursuit of the vision of the Whole, may well be impossible, in a certain sense, and there are multiple dangers of multiple kinds -- perversity, delusions of grandeur, blind alleys -- that come along with an apparently impossible undertaking; abysses where the unwary do not suspect even a speed bump. "The crack in the tea-cup opens a lane to the land of the dead," warned Auden, and the interminability of those roads are perilous. The recoil one feels from the uncanny can be a sign of health, or at least a healthy instinct. I've mentioned some of this before. There's no virtue in uncanniness itself; and sometimes the exasperation with "going meta" or apparent failure to commit or eternal hairsplitting is well taken. The philosopher must, precisely qua philosopher, always listen to such warnings -- but even this listening does not really lessen the familiar strangeness (and vice-versa) of the philosopher in the eyes of others; even when apparently heeding the warnings, the philosopher is concerned about different dangers.

It can also happen that someone moves swiftly across the uncanny valley to a place of rekindled attraction, and loves the philosopher all the more. (Compare Alcibiades on Socrates and the Silenii). Part of what happens in this case is that the interlocutor makes a responsive movement of the soul. There is a choice, a decision. Part of this is also that the philosopher's risk-taking is genuine. They haven't merely a "hidden agenda," for -- pace Strauss -- Socrates would actually be (say I) willing to learn from Ion or Euthyphro or Anytus, had they any wisdom (perhaps even without knowing it -- if "unconscious wisdom," besides being an anachronism, is coherent for a Platonic view of things). The interlocutor passes to what Ricoeur calls a second naïveté, a renewed openness, wherein one takes again the philosopher at "face value," and yet also knows that at any moment one may be led beyond. One's "enchantment" here is akin to what happens when reading a poet -- the strangeness of a language one thought one knew; or the thrill, slightly unsettling but undeniably beautiful -- of the queer glamour of the sexually- or gender-ambiguous. Here too one stands in the glowing radius of the uncanny, the like-and-unlike. At this point one experiences either a mere perplexity, a kind of sour, what's-the-point irritation; or a sort of curiosity, even attraction, takes root. One can wonder about this attraction, be cautious or even suspicious, but so long as one doesn't foreclose it, one maintains oneself in potential likeness to it. For one "becomes like" what one sees, and here is the real point: one suspects that the philosopher may be closer to the "real" than oneself -- that it is one's own profile which is "uncanny", not the philosopher's. Here is at least one meaning of that fay-ery which is philosophy. Shape-shifting. Metamorphosis.

Needless to say, despite my invocation of Serres above, I've got no specific thinker in mind here. My figure of "the philosopher" is idealized, a fictional amalgam. Although Socrates may well be the first one you think of, in fact when I began to formulate this, I found myself reminded of St Paul: "I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."

Save. Because at play in the apparent tremendous leeway of opening positions the philosopher allows herself is the conviction that what really is at stake is the most important thing of all. This is part of what makes for the danger of philosophy. Not only is it alienating from those who won't go there with you; you are never sure yourself that you aren't prey to the worst hubris. Which is why you are well advised not to take your own side in an argument. Ideally, this leverages the alienation of philosophy into a step beyond it. Which is yet another reason why it's hard to say what the "point" of philosophy is; it points beyond pointing, beyond the question of "what's the point." Which is not the same as the negation of the question.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Against fake paradox

Over at Ombhurbhuva, I was pointed towards a post at Philosophy et cetera, by Richard Chappell, on deontology and consequentialism. On Ombhurbhuva I left a comment but deleted it when I decided I wanted to nuance it a bit, and when I tried to re-post, I got caught in an endless internet-reloading loop. Here is the slightly refurbished comment, with a bit of context.

Chappell's original post tries to give one a puzzle: suppose -- just posit this, don't trouble yourself about particulars -- that "unless you kill one innocent person, five other innocent people who you know and love will be killed." Open-and-shut case, supposedly, for the consequentialist (for whom things count as right or wrong depending on what follows from them) against the deontologist (for whom things just are right or wrong by definition.) (I'm leaving out all sorts of subtleties and qualifiers here in these positions, because I'm not really interested in them as abstractions.) The rationale proceeds along the following lines:
Impersonally: five murders are worse than one. Personally: there is a special moral cost to you in committing a murder, sure, but it is not so great a cost (we may suppose) as losing your five loved ones....
So the deontologist is supposedly left with an uncomfortable question: "if murder is so morally horrendous, why should we not be concerned to minimize its occurrence?" This is supposedly the puzzle which is called, in the post's title, the "Paradox of Deontology" (a paradox Chappell attributes to Samuel Scheffler, with reference to the his article "Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues" [I found a pdf here.]). At least in this formulation, though, I am at a loss to see the "paradox" here. If this were all paradoxes were, one could have a steady diet of them and be none the weirder. (At Ombhurbhuva, Michael R. spun Chappell's thought-experiment in the direction of time-travel paradoxes, but it seemed to me that the family resemblance was more in the direction of the Trolley Problem, an impression which was reinforced when I read Scheffler's article and realized he was responding in large part to Philipa Foot.)

Chappell asks,
How do you think the deontologist might best respond to this challenge?
Hmmm. How about with something a bit more ... paradoxical? One could start by denying both premises. In what sense are five murders worse than one? And indeed, in what sense is the "cost" of losing five friends greater than the "cost" of becoming a murderer?

I'm not arguing that this reversal makes for a suddenly obvious open-and-shut case for the deontologist, just that the premises for the consequentialist's argument, as Chappell puts it, are so patently open to question that the word "paradox" is being abused in being applied here. This matters not just because we need precision in terms. Paradox is among the most potent of rhetorical and dialectical indices -- a sign that things are becoming really interesting. It's important to know what we mean by it. (To be fair, Scheffler speaks more often of "appearance of paradox" or of "something paradoxical," which seem less strong claims).

Chappell gives an interesting suggestion here:
the deontologist must hold that you are morally special (to override the impersonal verdict and get that your murdering one is morally worse than allowing five other murders to occur), but you're not so special that your interest in saving your loved ones overrides your putative moral obligations. It's an awkward combination of claims."
This strikes me as an infelicitous way of putting things, but if we dig a little, just here is where a kind of paradox could be rightly held up to sparkle. If we dropped the attempt to find just the right amount (or "type") of specialness and instead went for both absolutely special and entirely not, we might be getting somewhere.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Between ruin and light, the work

On my post about how to address (insofar as I know anything) out national case of the DTs, I got a comment from a reader calling themselves "Wretched". I drafted my response but before I could post it, the comment was deleted. But since it pressed me to do some more thinking, I am posting some of it here -- without, however, quoting the words which the writer chose not to post. "Wretched" pointed out and voiced a legitimate fed-up-ness with trying to accommodate or understand racism or other forms of institutional or plain old personal hate, exploitation, and resentment. They were (acknowledgedly) angry; also eloquent, respectful, and -- though we didn't see things the same way -- certainly not wrong in any simple sense either. I sat for a while letting the discomfort and defensiveness pass. And upon thinking about it and continuing to read and think, I noted (what I ought to have predicted) that the account of the downtrodden white working-class coming out for DT is already being appropriated for the purposes of apologetics and normalizing. I want nothing to do with such trumpery. While I have seen all too clearly the unbecoming liberal disdain for and disconnect from what's being called "flyover America" (Seattle, where I live, is rife with it), I am wary of how this moment of breast-beating over this will be leveraged into a story that effectively minimalizes the real role that white fear has played and is likely going to continue to play in the next many years.

The exhaustion with "listening and understanding" is endemic, and small wonder. I'm at pains to distinguish (and I'm doing it clumsily) what I'm saying from calls to be patient, or put up with anything. The actual encounter I am speaking of would be something like Truth and Reconciliation, but it'll have to be far more informal; and as to whether it would even work -- well, I could be mistaken; we may "as a nation" be waaay beyond the time when any genuine listening was possible. Even if it is not too late, I do not believe that there is any way -- any good way -- to hurry anger, or frustration, or had-it-up-to-here disgust, off stage. It's got to be looked in the eye, both by those who have caused it and by those who feel it. I get, in a small way, why this is scary. I have a conflict-avoidant streak in me that I strive against. But I strive against it because it doesn't work.

This is a blog about philosophy, and philosophy, I hold, cannot be conflict-avoidant. Philosophy strives to apprehend the whole, and this means all attempts to keep emotions at a safe distance or under "laboratory conditions" are misguided. But it also means that philosophy cannot be run by emotions. Indignation is intoxicating, and that can make for a great high, and for a tremendous and seemingly unanswerable ferocity. To those on the receiving end it's sometimes upsetting, even terrifying, but it's awfully tempting, is it not, to ask: So what? Why should I care? Well, my own path doesn't have to be anyone else's. But I think there are reasons to care, that have nothing to do with protecting white fragility or accommodating injustice. I'm with Cornel West, who said with regard to HRC's characterization of DT's supporters as a "basket of deplorables":
I don’t like comments like that — that any person is thoroughly irredeemable. I mean, maybe it’s because I’ve got a Christian sensibility. We’ve all got gangster proclivities and all of us have the possibility of being transformed and changed, but I don’t like the idea of a huge slice of America just irredeemable. If they’re xenophobic, you call them xenophobic, but they can change. ...I don’t mind her saying that a significant slice of brother Donald Trump’s social base are deeply xenophobic and racist and misogynist because they are, but that’s just the truth. The truth is not static. It’s [not] stationary. People can change and be transformed, absolutely.
Now, one can ask whether it's reasonable to expect such a "change" as West decribes. One can ask whether it's even relevant to talk about this on the scale of voting blocs rather than individuals. (West's examples were all indivuduals: George Wallace, Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X). Perhaps this is one difference between politics and philosophy, between playing the game and looking beyond the endgame. But I hold that the only battle that really matters is the one that transpires within "that individual" (as Kierkegaard named them). And it is an unending battle.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What I said for my brother's funeral

(These are the words that I read at the funeral of my brother a month ago. I'm posting today in acknowledgment of International Suicide Survivors' Day.

I have spent a great deal of my life thinking about death -- ever since fourth grade when a classmate and her family died in the crash of their small plane. When confronted by my brother's suicide, I felt as if all that thinking had made me not one whit more ready to navigate the soul-crushing rapids of grief, regret, anger, and incomprehension -- to say nothing of family psychodrama and physical exhaustion -- that I was plunged into. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe as a philosopher I've been doing special ninja training for dealing with death, and without it I'd have been a puddle on the floor. I'm not sure. I know that if it hadn't been for others' kindness and willingness to sit openly with my emotions, I would have been hopeless. When finally I was sitting in the airport on my way home after the funeral, it dawned on me: this is just beginning. And I am still, and continuously, grateful for that support.

This text is almost unedited, aside from a few details for clarification. It bears all the marks of the occasion on which it was delivered.

I know I'm a decent writer, and at least part of why I'm decent, and that my brother would have wanted me to speak. It was the most difficult writing I've ever done.)


I am going to talk about Clayton and myself as little boys; and I’m going to talk about what we – any of us – do next; but I need to start with where I am , which has been a very dark and difficult place. Some of what I say will also seem kind of high-altitude; that's what you get when you have a philosopher talk at a funeral.

When Clay was about 3, and I was about 9, we played a game. We played games all growing up, into my high school years, but this was the very first. It was called Whee, and it was played by him standing on the top stair and me a few stairs down, or him on the couch and me on the floor, ready to catch him. He'd yell Whee! and jump. I’d catch him. That was the game. He did it over and over. He had the abandon of a little boy and he just laughed and laughed. I have no idea how many times but in my memory it lasted for months, every day.

And then one day, one time, I didn't catch him.

I don’t know why I did it. I might have had some wrongheaded idea about getting him an early start in the school of hard knocks, or I might have thought the surprise would be funny and even fun. It might have been sheer perversity. Maybe I was getting tired of the game.

The moment it happened I knew it was not funny, and not fun. He was shocked and frightened. I knew I was wrong, that I wanted to play the game again, the way we had been. I wanted it to go back to how it was before.

It never did. We never played it again. He never jumped into my arms again.

Now that's only one story; I have a lot of stories about Clay, and stories were a huge part of how we grew up. We listened to records with stories, I made up stories, we had a whole repertoire of games as we got older that were based on stories we made up. When I was going through his things this week, I found a folder with stories I wrote for him and gave him as presents for birthdays or Christmas or just because. He'd kept them this whole time. They were really about him and me because the stories were based on our make-believe. All of those stories were also games; we didn’t stop playing. But that game from when he was three, was lost.

And I have stories about Clay from when I was there and from when I wasn't. How he lugged my bands’ heavy sound and light equipment to and from our shows. How he traveled around Europe with his friends and almost got swept off a ship during a storm. How as a kid he was transfixed by the animatronic musical bears at Disneyland. How he plied visiting friends or relatives with endless courses of sushi and refused to pocket the tip himself. Stories about how smart he was; how funny; how beautiful. About his music – I’ve been listening to his album while I work on these words, one track in particular over and over, and it reminds me that back in the day when I was playing a lot of live music, people would sometimes say, Isn’t your little brother also a musician? and I would always answer, My brother is the real musician.

Because of where we are, though, there's this story that seems especially pertinent. I was newly adrift from the religion of my youth when my grandmother, my father’s mother, died. At the funeral, I was suddenly, palpably struck by a kind of certainty in the service. Everyone seemed to know -- to really Know where my grandmother was "now" -- and I didn't. I thought I might be the only one in the room who didn't “know.” And this weird juxtaposition seemed so strange that I really couldn’t be quiet. Wow, I kept saying, befuddled, kind of under my breath. Wow, Oh wow. And Clay, who was sitting next to me, kept looking at me sideways and finally leaned over and whispered to me, there at my grandmothers funeral,
Dude, are you stoned?!

It’s a story about how succinctly he related to my sort of baffled bemusement in the world; and there are a lot of stories like that too, and I keep smiling and laughing at them, and then something brings me up short and I think -- But he's dead.

And everything shuts down, and there seems no point or possibility of smiling or laughing. And I can't help but wonder if somehow the real story, the story that culminated last week, was the story I started with, the one where he jumped, and I didn’t catch him. It frightens me. I feel a kind of bottomless shame.

And the point isn’t whether I should or shouldn’t feel this. But I think some of you also are asking yourself questions like this; Did I miss anything? Was there something I should have seen, was there something I did see/ What if something – what if that one thing – had gone differently?. Or maybe you wonder whether anything will ever seem right. You wonder if you can laugh again. You can even find it a weird kind of affront that there is laughing, smiling, business as usual. That anything should still go on at all.

The best expression I know of this helpless ruined-feeling is the poem my niece asked to have read today. It's by W.H. Auden, and some of you will know it; it’s been heard at more than one funeral. Clay wrote so many lyrics; he understood the power and force of poetry; and as I said to my niece, it can be helpful sometimes to have someone else express what you feel:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos, and with muffled drum
bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message, He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the necks of the public doves.
Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my north, my south, my east and west
My working week, my Sunday rest
My noon my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon, dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
If anyone here has been feeling this, feels this right now, or feels this tomorrow or next week or month or into the future, whenever it comes on you, I won't try to tell you to feel a different way. I think that the way to feel better is to let yourself feel as bad as you feel; and it can feel completely disorienting that the sun comes up still. The poem starts with plans for some social and civil indication of mourning but it ends with a kind of apocalypse; and I absolutely get it. It doesn’t just feel like a personal or private catastrophe. It seems like the Election coverage should be suspended, businesses close-- the world just stop. Why shouldn't the landscape be wiped away? The stars extinguished. The stars are not wanted now. Put out every one.

But I want to talk about why I chose a different lyric for the back of the keepsake bookmark you can each take. The front has a lyric from Clay. The back has a line from a song by Sting, which I have a special reason for including: partly because Clay loved it; and partly because I remember the time he first played it for me. Clayton and I were roommates for a while in the mid 90s with a lot of other musicians, and we'd often push music on each other, recommending things, but it was rare for us to say, You gotta listen to this, Now. But one day he told me, Let me play you this song. He put it in, he turned it up loud. I was surprised; it's almost a country song, and not stand-out remarkable in Sting's work, but there came a moment when I understood what Clay loved about it. The song is about a divorce, and I've omitted a few lines that refer specifically to that, but I'll tell you about the story in the song. In this verse, the singer goes out under the stars at night, hurting, missing his wife and kids, hurting over how she's found someone new. Then he looks up and he chooses a star for himself, one for his wife's lover, one for her, one for each child. Then comes the last part that I've chosen. It's when he's seen, or made, this new constellation that he says

"Something made me smile. Something seemed to ease the pain."
And then as I was listening, Clay looked with his uncanny eyes into mine, and his huge smile broke over his face as he sang along,
"Something about the universe, and how it's all connected...",
fully expecting me to just get it, and I did, I heard exactly why he loved this moment; the way the music opens up right there and shows you how sorrow and pain will flower into something broader and deeper and more mysterious, a context that goes on and on ....

But how can that be? How can it be both that the stars are not wanted, and that the stars can ease our pain?

It’s a huge and hard question, and Clay sometimes asked me about it -- not in those terms, but it’s what we talked about the very last time I saw him. I don’t know how, and I cannot give anybody a recipe for making it work. I think it doesn’t work like a recipe. I think sometimes one poem is true, and sometimes the other poem, and we just have to be with wherever we are.

We're bewildered and disoriented. We want it to make sense and it doesn’t. It can feel that somehow everything that happened before was always leading here; that it not only hurts by ending, but that it somehow recasts everything that came before; as though. Did we even know Clay?

I’m saying this out loud because I've asked it inside and I’ve heard others ask it. They are real questions and real feelings and you can’t ignore them. But they aren’t the only feelings. This is one moment in Clay's story. It's not the summing up, not the culmination; it’s not the "meaning" of it.

We didn’t know things about him. Some of us knew more, or differently, but none of us knew everything; and none of us knew what it was like to be him We do not know what it is like to be each other. That we are all connected doesn’t make us all the same. Our stories open onto each other, and Clay’s story opens onto each of ours.

If there's a biggest story of all, a story that makes final sense of it all I don't know much about it, and Clayton was suspicious of claims to know very much about it. I don’t know any more than I did at my grandmother’s funeral. I have a faith that somehow all things can rest in the final word of love, that All Manner of Thing Shall be Well -- but I don't have a picture of what that looks like; it’s not a matter for argument, it’s a matter for prayer – which is another kind of lyric, unless lyric is really a kind of prayer. This is what we talked about the last time I saw Clay. He had a lot of questions for me about my faith, such as it is; we kept talking til they closed the café, and then we stood in the parking lot and kept talking. It was December, and cold, but Clay kept pressing; he preferred an honest longing to any too-pat answer. When Clay prayed at my father’s funeral, he struggled to find the prayer he could pray with integrity, and he prayed: God, if it’s possible, if it works this way, let him know now how many people love him.

The last story here I want to tell isn’t really a story; it just this. As I said, I've been listening to Clayton's album of course while I worked on this talk, and one song in particular, over and over. It's mostly instrumental; with a few lyrics that I won't read -- I'll let you go find them. But I can tell you the name of the song. It's called, I'll Catch You.

I don't really have an expectation of a scenario that in a different world my little brother will jump into my arms. I don’t know if things work that way. But I am sure, absolutely sure, that his story isn't over. Because
our story is still ongoing. I'm sure, because I still love him.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

After the snark, the ruin. After the ruin, the light?

There's a line from Annie Baker's play The Aliens:
The state of just having lost something is like the most enlightened state in the world.
By this measure, the American political left should now be on the brink of Nirvana. Somehow I think this is not the case. Why not? What's the difference between the smashing defeat that has just happened, and genuine realization?

Part of it must lie in reflection. We all suffer loss, and so we "know" that loss is endemic. But to parlay that knowing into a a sense of the always-incipient enlightenment of all sentient beings, one must catch oneself knowing it.

This question, or this distinction, arises in looking at the immediate past. Looking to the future, there is another distinction to be made. It is obvious that a great deal of watchfulness will be called for during the next four years (at least). This watchfulness can be primarily attentive and mindful, or it can be primarily suspicious; nepsis, or paranoia. Nepsis is a characteristic of the enlightened: clear-sighted, unjudging and unapologetic, the neptic adept can often answer questions you didn't know you had, but this is because they've troubled to be unflinchingly honest with themselves and with their own spiritual teachers. The paranoid, when you encounter them, churn up confusion and disorder and fear (unless you've got a really good filter, usually from training). Practice in nepsis is difficult and painful and whole-making; paranoia is easy and ruinous. And very tempting.

I don't say it is always easy to discern between them -- at least, not for me. Real spiritual masters can probably tell just by looking at you. It may be hard to fool them, but as Wittgenstein warns, it is perilously easy to fool oneself (Culture & Value p 34). Both forms of watchfulness imply a sort of vigilance. But whereas the one is ascetic, and primarily addressed first of all to oneself and one's own conduct, and is a honed attention to what is the case, the other is directed outward, is egoic, and finally delusional. Put that way, of course, they sound pretty different, but spend five minutes trying to work on the former, and you'll find yourself easily sliding into the latter. It's humbling. It hurts.

This brings us back to the first distinction, for "humble" is not how I would describe the left -- at least, let us say the "liberal" left -- either before the election, or afterwards. Before, the prevailing mood was clearly (with some exceptions) the confident anticipation of a very different outcome, to which it felt not only destined but entitled. Afterwards, there have been a few varieties of reactions. A panicked, rage-stricken, caught-in-the-headlights fury. Or, a benzodiazepine-flavored assurance that if, now, we agree to trust the system and maybe see each other as human we will all learn to get along. Or, analysis which (sometimes) stops just short of saying actually-we-saw-it-coming, because either (1) Racism, Homophobia, Sexism, or (2) idiots voting "against their own interests." As to the analyses, the only ones that are really worth listening to are the ones that acknowledge the near-complete disconnect between the culture of urban, liberal elites (even those who don't feel so very "elite", even those who work very hard) versus rural and small-town poor. (And yes, I am aware of good studies which show that voters for president-elect Delirium Tremens were not on average of lower income than those for HRC. I am talking about culture).

I don't have a general account of the election, or even of What To Do Next, aside from what one must always do: be at one's post. I share the alarm over our national case of the DTs, although I believe its causes are endemic and go back much further than our sequestering ourselves in social-media-bubbles, or the invention of political correctness, or the shameless exploitation of a hollowed-out evangelical "Christianity" by the GOP. I am aware that we may not get through this bottleneck. Yet we may.

Although real and bitter racism exists and is not to be yawned at, I do not believe that a half-century of sulking from white supremacists has been unleashed and swept the DTs into power (not all by itself, anyway). The causes of that are many, complex, stochastic, and all too easily still mis-read in hindsight; some of them may be mendacious or manipulative (restrictive voting laws); others are possibly random (weather, traffic, whether the home team won). It is certainly insufficient to blame voter indifference, or third parties (of whom we have too few, not too many). Those -- especially party leaders -- who want to blame third party voters should look to the beam in their own eye. The Democratic party nominated a candidate who was under criminal investigation for having been slapdash and cavalier with highly sensitive information, and by extension, with the lives of American citizens (to say nothing of others'). This was, how shall I put it, a choice whose prudence may be questioned, regardless of the merit of those charges. Moreover, her campaign clearly attempted to rig the primary against her challenger; and she was known to enjoy at best lukewarm support among many of the party's go-to supporters. This last point holds no matter what you attribute that lukewarm reception to -- voters' misogyny, the candidate's squirreliness, whatever. When voters tell you they hate the choice you are giving them, it is either disingenuous or tone deaf or both to be angry at them later for not voting the way you want them to. I do believe that a vote for HRC was a vote for the continued establishment (and I stand by my claim that she was not obviously the less hawk-ish candidate; she certainly was not in any way less tied to money). All of this indicates the way that the Democrats thought that in some sense their victory was in the bag. The polls! The numbers said so!

On the other hand, DT took the nomination after having snubbed every major interest in the GOP. Unless our unseen Bilderberdger-Illuminati-grey alien puppet-masters are playing a more cunning game than I gave them credit for, DT really does seem to have thrown the whole American political machine into disarray.

There is a genuine opportunity in this. To seize the moment, however, will take all of us working together -- or indeed, fighting together, and maybe with each other, but in genuine good faith. I hope we can remember what that felt like.

So yes, I am fairly squarely in the The-Left-Did-This-To-Itself camp. This only increases the nausea I feel, like a kick in the solar plexus, at the new license that bullying, barbarism, and hate have felt themselves granted. The anecdotes are plentiful and disturbing, and no, alt-right, they are not made up. Muslim women having their head scarves yanked off, brown children yelled at, gay couples being told with a sneer that soon their "fake marriage" will be annulled, graffiti clearly meant to intimidate -- all these tares have sprung up, almost overnight. An enemy hath done this. If the press does not ask President-elect Delirium Tremens, unrelentingly and at every opportunity, whether he disavows and condemns such actions, they are derelict of duty. But much more, it is the responsibility of every person of good faith to resolve to impede any such thing they see, and to live, by concrete action and confrontation especially of one's own residual biases, to make this new license wither. (This resolution may have to last a long, long time. It is important to remember that in the parable of the wheat and tares, the two crops grow up together.)

I want to remark upon just one aspect of this in a little more detail because it connects the watchfulness I commend to the opportunity for realization. Over and over I read of the astonishment felt over the fact that suddenly people "feel like they can say" things that had previously been taboo. The DTs' casualness with regards to demeaning language for women and his pandering to racism has given thirsted-for legitimacy to some of the worst and lowest behaviors and attitudes from the past century. This much is obvious and lamentable. But the language used to describe this new legitimacy is telling. "People feel like they can say these things now." This doesn't mean that these attitudes are being newly created; it means they are being given a new permission, a permission that had been withheld; that had hitherto been subject to sanction -- a sanction against which people chafed and strained, and that suddenly was lifted.

The source of this sanction, and the form under which it existed, is shame. What social liberals are discovering now -- what ought to have been obvious -- is that shame, and especially the shaming disapproval of others, is by itself woefully insufficient to eradicate these spasms of baseness. Shame can stifle, but it does not extinguish; it exacerbates. In their enforced silenced, those who are shamed will nurse on a festering resentment. Shame was never going to be a sufficient bulwark against wrong. To think it would be was naive, lazy, and indeed a symptom of (a word I choose carefully) privilege. Shame may be useful -- it's a universal emotion, and it could even be necessary; but it is not sufficient. To point this out is not to say anything about whose responsibility anyones shame is; I've no interest in guarding "white fragility," for instance, and I am aware that one reading of US history is that the disempowered have borne a hugely disproportionate share of collective shame for over two centuries. The question isn't whether shame can be deployed; no doubt it can. But it cannot be relied upon. It's too easy; and when it stops working, it stops with a vengeance.

One could have seen this fraying of the power of shame in the invention, a quarter-century or so ago, of political correctness, which tried to martial explicitly the social opprobrium that had always been the lever of shame. This sort of doubling-down should have been a clue. But I don't want to turn this post into an excavation into the past. Most importantly, for my purposes here: by liberalism's own values, which I broadly share, shaming is actually wrong. This is the crucial point in trying to think philosophically into the future about our politics.

Obviously I believe, at least on a good day, that a genuine leftist politics and a sort of small-c conservatism (Cornel West would prefer to say, "preservativism") can work together. I would even say, they have to -- if we're to have any chance at all of navigating this bottleneck (and I fear it may be very tight). Thinking forward will require a scathingly honest appraisal of the ways condescension and snark has poisoned us -- each of us*. This doesn't mean bleeding all discourse, or all political discourse, into a bland and inoffensive paste -- political correctness of a different (non)flavor. What I've said before of irony is true also of other little jabs, like sarcasm or caricature: they make a good spice, and a bad main course. (There is, you will have noticed, a sprinkling of them in this post.) Above all, it is -- to use a dangerous word -- a matter of authenticity. It has to be asked in the first person: do I need to say this this way? Do I have the relationship with this person that allows for this expression? We have ultimately no control over whether the other person agrees with us or not. But we have a great deal of control over whether we listen to them. And it turns out that listening actually does cultivate being heard.

I know this sounds very kumbaya. It's not. It will be every bit as tense and "confrontational" and conflicted as ever. But there is a difference between styles of combat. If the left, maybe even the radical left (if by "radical" we mean something like Sanders' new New Dealism) steels itself to "win next time," it may succeed -- next time. But if this is all that happens, it will have squandered the chance to catch itself knowing what can be known from loss. Of course, this is what will happen, on the large scale, for politics is not philosophy and "the left" does not exist as an entity that can "realize" in the same way that a Bodhisattva can. Nor, in any case, do I think it is the business of the political left, especially in the United States, to construe a metaphysics. But a few more gentle and more deep figures on the left would be a really, really good thing; and a broader shift in culture (what used to be called "a change in consciousness") can still develop, if we truly decide to eschew the vilification of each other and commit to seriously listen to those we find hard to understand, or to even want to understand. This is hard to get right, and we'll all fuck up, and need to start over. But rather than talking to ourselves about how obviously wrong the other is, we'll be talking to each other. Hearing, and seeing, not our preferences or our fears, but what is the case. Edging ever so slowly towards enlightenment.

I hope.

(Addendum: I got a comment from a reader (who later deleted it) which asked me some searching questions that I hope I dealt with honestly in this followup.)


* The best long take I've seen on this is this article by David Wong of Cracked. It's had approximately ten million hits by now so chances are good you've already seen it, but it really bears thinking about.

(Added later) Another take, from the always-smart Slate Star Codex here.

(Again added later) And how gratifying to see Slavoj Žižek vociferously arguing many of my same points.

(And still another), from The Archdruid.

(for contrast) This from Tablet, which underlines the fundamental moral seriousness of the situation. Despite my various caveats above, I think the basic circumstances are stark.

(again for contrast) The most sustained and well-put critiques of the poor-white-folk story I've seen have been from Kirsten West Savali, though I don't agree with her in every respect any more than I do with those I link to above.

(Still want more?) The unflinching and pacifist stance of Stan Goff.

(And last, for now) I agree, however, with Cornel West who described the choice between DT and HRC as that between neofascist catastrophe and neoliberal disaster (and has summed it up in the Guardian).

Some of these links were forwarded to me, some I found myself and some were added in response to feedback I got on this.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Long and Short of it

The huge tome is a sort of material icon of philosophy. Well do I remember myself as a thirteen-year-old stopping by the local branch of my county library, browsing though the small philosophy shelf and repeatedly taking down, and putting back, this huge thing called Being and Time.

On the other hand I also encountered this story about the Delphic Oracle saying that Socrates was the wisest of the Greeks, and Socrates shrugging and saying, Huh, Must be because I know I don't know. What I mainly think I remember about this was how it seemed to be bound up with the maxim carved in marble in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo: Gnothi s'auton, Know Thyself.

These two examples, the heavy heavy book and the brief proverb, are not just opposites, they are are like poles, or maybe inverses.

My own notebooks are comprised of one continuous "entry." There are paragraphs, but there are no dates, and no headings. The "subjects" change, of course, but each one turns into the next, they way one topic of conversation leads on to another. I chose this mode of expression long ago, foolishly or well, as a conscious attempt to marry "stream of consciousness" writing with crafted prose. It is one way of enacting my strong intuition that there is no difference in kind, no cutting-at-the-joints, between the so-called Big Questions and the ostensibly trivial concerns of our ordinary lives. It's also a way to try to use words to make an image of experience, which after all is continuous except for when we are completely unconscious. I suppose this "break" is itself shown in the fact that I have not been working all these years on a single, endless scroll, but individual notebooks, of which there are quite a number now. When I finish one, I start another. I pick up where I left off, but that may or may not be obvious -- it isn't always to me, when I look back. I don't assume anyone will ever want to read them (or maybe even be able to -- they are all in my cramped and sometimes hurried longhand).

It seems clear to me that behind this idiosyncratic way of writing lies the image of the "Big Book," something like The Phenomenology of Spirit, or Ulysses, or Newton's Principia, or The Faerie Queen. Doubtless, much too much verbiage is vomited out by people who think that an abundance of words is a sign of depth, or at least will disguise (from themselves especially) its lack. But there is a real truth and dignity to the idea of the magnum opus, even if few attain it. Schopenhauer insisted that The World as Will and Representation was in fact as short as it could possibly be, and I see no reason to doubt his good faith.

But lately I have been thinking about the other pole of articulate wisdom: the aphorism -- even the "fragment," that favorite form of the brothers Schlegel, among others. Those little jewels with hidden stings that Pascal, Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche, made. The single lines that everyone -- with good reason -- remembers from Wittgenstein, even if they get them wrong ("Whereof one cannot speak...") The lines from poems that have entered the language. Žižek likes to point out that proverbs and adages all cancel each other out (the classic example is "Look before you leap" versus "He who hesitates is lost"), but so what? Did anyone who coined such a phrase think they were establishing some never-controvertible bit of advice that would withstand every change in context?

I have a small collection of those I consider to be, not just memorable or clever, nor just a catchy way of enshrining practical advice, but real wisdom, summaries that could be engraved on a temple and could perhaps ensure that philosophy could be reinvented ten thousand years later. I've written about a few of these before: Kant's pairing-up of starry heaven and moral law. Lewis Thompson's remark that "You can escape in a moment; but only in a moment." Last year I mentioned my meditations on Exceptio probat regulam.

There are others. Most notably, the opening line of the Tao Te Ching --

The Tao that can be named
is not the eternal Tao
I don't care how often this is cited, or mis-appropriated; it remains a speck of articulate wisdom around which silence can actually be organized.

For a long time now my emails have gone out with a tag under the signature, a quote from John Berger: "Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.... If a writer is not driven by a desire for the most demanding verbal precision, the true ambiguity of events escapes him." The maxim, which Augustus supposedly liked and which became featured in the printer's trademark of the rennaissance printer Aldus, Festina Lente ("make haste slowly") has always seemed to me a beautiful summary of the synthesis of urgency and deliberation which is philosophy. And of late I have again been using a slogan, on the three-word pattern like the French Revolution's tricolor: Enquirie, Camaraderie, Faërie!

If anyone has their own favorites, I am interested to know of them.

Monday, September 26, 2016


I have never yet reblogged someone else's post, thought I have come close. This time I am coming very close indeed.

My last post but one commended a "politics above politics." That phrase may sound like a sort of in-the-air theoretical program, even though it specifically points to Aron's description of Cavaillès resistance work against the Occupation. I want to point to a particular instance of what I mean by it. It's a true story (though obviously it has been imagined in the text I'm pointing you to), about what the examined life means in practical terms. It has nothing to do with reading Spinoza, though it certainly has to do with "following necessity," with doing what must be done -- and not doing what must not be. It's an instance that may in fact (though experts argue) be responsible for your being around today.

So, go read this. It was published a year ago today, about a decision made 33 years ago today. If you already know the story, it's still a very beautiful and succinct re-telling. If you don't know it, you should.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Uses of indignation

This is a somewhat dashed-off response (which outgrew the comment box, whaddya know) to Kawingbird's comment on my previous post. This answer is somewhat scatter-shot, but I hope it addresses the points raised (if not adequately). Go read that comment for things here to make sense.

K. points out that "indignation," about which I cited Alexander Piatigorsky as saying that it must be avoided by a philosopher ("... he can be indignant only with himself"), is a standard translation of the term nemesis that Aristotle uses in the Nicomachean Ethics.

Now, a truly adequate response would need to address several other things. To begin with, Nemesis is also a goddess, and clearly a puzzling one; in pursuit of her, Zeus adopted the form of a swan and at least according to one myth thus fathered Helen. Nemesis is thus confused/conflated with Leda, just as Helen herself winds up confused with a phantom; and of course the whole tragic sage of the Trojan War follows ("...A shudder in the loins engenders there / the broken wall, the burning roof and tower / and Agamemnon dead..." as Yeats puts it.) Not an auspicious guardian deity for politics! And surely this is relevant, given the role anger plays in the Iliad from the first line on.

But n.b. that Piatigorsky does not rule out indignation per se; he insists that it find its proper object. Indignation seems to involve a sort of affront, how-dare-you. It implies (and this is tied into the etymology of "ought") that something else is owed. Is there then a debt that needs paying that is being forfeited or at least forestalled? Compare the fragment of Anaximander:
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
Now I don't want to run too blithely down the road to political ontology or vice-versa; I just want to register here the overlap between the implicit notion of debt in this context and the way the idea of [in]justice is deployed -- the way the ought and the is seem to interact in Anaximander in a way that is hard for moderns to take (i.e., "deriving "ought" from "is"). But this is also what one sees in someone like Cavailles, for whom Spinozism can be a metaphysical account of the world but clearly also indicates what we must do (and, after all, is unfolded in a book called "Ethics").

The problem however is not with the ought, i.e., with the falling short. This is indeed the meaning of "sin" as well. But the question is, to whom is this owed?

In answer to this question, indignation says: Me!! This is surely one admissible reading of the thumos of Achilles, and the corresponding, answering anger of Agamemnon. This "Me!" sounds through the world in a far different way than Hopkins means when he says:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself;
myself it speaks and spells,
Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
In Hopkins, the one note each thing sounds is "myself" in the sense of individuation. It's a message out into the world, rather than a demand for something from the world. Moreover, the context of Hopkins is expressly connected to the Aristotelian context K evokes, for the very next line Hopkins goes on to characterize this individuation: "I say more: the just man justices."

Now the indignant ego is not unconnected to the sense of justice, clearly; it is, after all, closely tied to the question of dignity, and one could ring the changes on this word philosophically for a long while: through all its resonance with decorum, praise, worth, worship, all the way to the theological anthropology implicit in the notion of imago dei. In my initial drafts for this post which I've now lost I had some excurses on the way megalopsychia in Aristotle interacts with dignity. This portion of the Ethics starts out almost seeming to promise that the reader has arrived at the hoped-for conclusion of an account of how to live; but by the end, it has gotten almost silly in its depiction of the bearing of the great-souled man (all the way down to his "slow, measured gait.") Contrast this with Socrates, always barefoot in the agora, or Diogenes in his tub!

Now I believe one can leverage a sense of indignation into philosophical insight, but the sucking force of the ego is extremely strong and dangerous. I am oversimplifying, but the ancient consensus seems to be that philosophers should basically eschew politics because it takes up too much time. I think there's a deeper, much more pertinent, reason behind that.

One further point: K characterizes me as saying one should air grievances, but keep a kind of emotional distance. I'm not merely calling for cooler heads prevailing here. I'm saying that naming the emotions is a crucial step in this process; not sufficient, but necessary. (As K writes, "it's always dangerous to think we've outgrown first steps.") I believe that a tremendous amount of ill follows from the fact that so much of our politics is conducted under the guise of bravado. I'm calling, I suppose, for a stance similar in certain ways to that advocated by Malcolm Bull in his Anti-Nietzsche: "read like a loser." I think that stopping being a victim requires first grasping how afraid one is of victimization.

Finally, Kawingbird writes:
I always find myself at this impasse when trying to think through politics. The general seems terribly relevant, the specific... rather philosophically dull.
As to the general and the specific: Yes. the post is torn in two directions, and it flounders as it tries to synthesize. This is one reason I re-wrote the post several times before I finally clicked 'publish' and I am still unsatisfied.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Politics above politics: beyond the endgame

I have a good friend whose wisdom, depth and acumen have informed my own perspectives in countless ways. We are no longer frequently in touch but for many years we lived in the same city and he was instrumental in nudging me away from a kind of no-name newage syncretism to something grounded and particular, without losing my universalist motives. He has now spent many years working in Africa, going between choked over-populated and poverty-ridden metropolises and rural villages with no wells or electricity. It's partly due to his updates that I know anything at all about the lives of populations (as opposed to individuals) that are truly in want. He tells me he's thinking seriously of relocating to Africa permanently. Why would he want to throw over our well-advertised American "prosperity" for African destitution just as he is beginning to have to take the measure of retirement and eventual old age? Well, he's about ten or fifteen years older than I am, and like many who have spent their lives really thinking rather than "getting ahead," his patchy employment history and itinerant life has left him with scant savings and little to look forward to in terms of any social safety net. But that's not the deciding factor. A bit less than two years ago, he wrote me:
I am getting really scared of America. I think this is Nazi Germany in 1934, so I want to get out, and I want to get my sister and nephew out.
This was in November of 2014. Note that date -- long before the pus of Presidential nomination campaigns had begun to ooze. Since my friend wrote this to me, the number of people comparing a four-times-bankrupt tycoon and T.V. "star" lately come to American politics with a certain figure from 1930's Germany has ballooned until the analogy is a depressingly predictable trope.

Despite myself, I cannot but be distracted by the U.S. Presidential campaign and the attendant great clouds of dust kicked up by the national commentariat. What's a philosopher to say about it all? (That philosophy is especially pertinent to this election is well argued by Amod Lele.) It feels, to be sure, like a time when one must "go on the record;" to name the "insanity of non-thinking" transpiring. This over-the-top phrase is used by the philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky to describe his impression of the world of the 1920s and '30s which ushered in the great dictatorships of the 20th century; and it surely seems apropos to our own moment. But the insanity has a span far wider than what we call politics.

That the current Republican candidate (I will refer to him by DT for "Delirium Tremens"), the buffoon no one took seriously until it was too late, is relatively accurately described by the conceptual penumbra pointed to by the word "narcissist," is, I take it, not worth arguing; it is either apparent to you, or you cannot be persuaded. (I do not believe in "narcissism" as an objective condition that exists in quite the same way as measles, or hunger, or even selfishness, but as a recognizable marker in contemporary clinical and pop psychology, it certainly serves to describe DT). His opponent, riding a wave of entitlement towards an apparent rendezvous with making history, is fulfilling a dream and a plan unofficially scheduled long ago ("eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill..."), despite her censure by the director of the FBI for extreme carelessness with State secrets (and leaving aside other "politically motivated" accusations). You can find the candidates' flaws incommensurable if you want; insist, if you like, that HRC is a standard-issue politician with ordinary drawbacks, and DT a wannabe dictator from whom the nation and the world could not recover. Or you can think that the nation needs defending from Islamism and "business as usual," HRC is a known and rotten quantity and DT a wild card and worth a gamble to "shake things up." You can even hold that we need to press things to get worse before they get better and one of the two is the sure way to worsen. I'm not trying to argue for or against any of these. I agree with some of these more than others but each of them has its appeal, is held to by people I respect (as well as many I don't), and I'm not sure I don't move from one to the other -- yes, any of them -- depending on the day and my mood. But none of this makes the political situation philosophically interesting. The real question is what "politics" counts for.

No doubt the election will have real consequences; among them will be -- already is, I think -- an inflated sense of the consequences of elections, especially as currently run in the United States. No matter what the outcome, it can be reliably predicted that approximately half the voters will think we dodged a bullet, and half will grit their teeth and mutter about a "legal" coup d'etat taking place under our noses. And if that's as deep as it goes, then absolutely no thinking will have transpired at all.

One hears a lot about how polarization is crippling American politics; that the two major parties are so entrenched in ideological disagreements that zero-sum gridlock is the logical conclusion; and the answer here is the praising of bridge-building and finding middle ground. The art of compromise, you know?

I think American politics is not crippled by disagreement; it's crippled by the fact that we do disagreement so extremely poorly. We need not less disagreement, but better disagreement. This has got little to do with any call for "civility" as well, though that would be a good thing. It is only tangentially related to the obvious fact that the "disagreements" of major parties are already mere surface squabbles, that huge swathes of possible political territory are entirely left out of the "conversation." It's more closely related to the fact that aside from whatever machinations happen in smoke-filled rooms (and I do not scoff at scenarios involving smoke-filled rooms), all current styles of political polemic involve each side in fueling the very "opposition" they ostensibly aim to combat.

This isn't about the content of any politics, whether overt (the "platform", talking points, etc.) or covert (the smoke-filled rooms). It's about the formal description of what happens when ideas compete for territory in what we might call "attention-space." When it comes to the mere memetic replication of ideas from one mind to another, disagreement need not be acrimonious, but acrimony is in fact a sort of adaptive mutation for an argument, because acrimony is loud, and loudness draws attention; it's the difference between an isolated guy with a cold, versus a guy with a cold in a stadium selling hot dogs. This is just boring old Dawkins-style memetics (though when Dawkins first formulated the notion, it was pretty innovative)*. If a mind does not think a thought, the thought disappears; but no sane mind is continually or even recurrently occupied with a single thought; so for ideas to continue to be thought, they need to move from mind to mind. (I believe that philosophy differs in certain crucial ways from this general memetic model, but I will let that pass for now.) One way to make thoughts get duplicated from mind to mind is via rational argument, appeal to reasons, evidence, and proof, but a much shorter route -- and therefore frequently exploited -- is to hack the system via emotions; emotional appeal clearly aids in the memetic spreading of ideas and of these emotions, anger is especially useful in helping the ideas get a foothold, because anger changes a the contest -- the competition between ideas for attention-space -- into an argument and arguments get loud.

The louder the argument -- the more people overhear it -- the more chance it has that some of them will be drawn into the argument themselves. You might think this is unlikely: when was the last time you cared about what the neighbors were fighting over? You just wanted them to shut up, right? And that's true; you need a certain degree of susceptibility to the idea qua idea in order for it to cross over to your mind as a thought instead of merely being an emotion. But for arguments that transpire in media -- and they can be stupid arguments over the best order in which to watch the Star Wars films, or important arguments about whose, if any, Lives Matter -- the situation is different because of scale. These get lots of exposure, lots of bystanders, lots of people sucked in, which makes them get bigger and bigger, and sometimes in a bewilderingly short time.

Often they also burn out, too. But not always. Sometimes it happens that an argument just goes on and on in apparently endless irreconcilability, the "sides" talking more and more not to each other but to themselves about each other. Anger needs something to be angry at, and in politics this is readily to hand, for as Carl Schmitt famously begins, the essential political distinction is: friend or enemy? Each "side" not only has its own positive platform, it also has a caricature blame-scapegoat of the "other side;" and it's this caricature that sparks the angry response, which then includes a counter-caricature, and so on. Our friends are fundamentally right; whatever disagreements we have with them are family squabbles. Our enemies are fundamentally wrong. Either we or they must triumph. When they by chance say something that is clearly correct, it is because they can't help it, but they never draw the consequences from it to see how wrong they are about everything else. Eventually the argument settles into a kind of uneasy interminable cold war with occasional hot flashes that change no one's mind but always confirm preconceptions.

When this happens, there is a real and relevant sense in which the respective sides are not (despite what they think) in competition at all; they are in a kind of systemic symbiosis. Equilibrium. By their in-tandem tug-of-war they together occupy far more of attention-space than either could by itself.

All the foregoing is essentially sociology, and does not tell us, by itself, whether this situation is merely to be observed, or deplored, or what. I don't pretend that it suffices to comprise a political philosophy, or even to give it an adequate starting-place. It certainly does not mean that the philosopher can shrug off politics as sub-philosophical. It is even arguable that the right way to understand philosophy is as Arvydas Šliogeris says:
[T]o a Greek, philosophy is inseparable from politics ... in the sense that philosophy like politics is an adequate-to-freedom existential realm of gestures of an autonomous individual.
(The Fate of Philosophy p 20 My emphasis.)
We can leave aside the question of the anachronism of "autonomous individual" applied to Greek thinking. Šliogeris' point, I take it, would be to say that both politics and philosophy concern us in our responsibility and insofar as we enter into them adequately our responsibility is engaged. There is in this endeavor absolutely no room for blame and complaint.

How then to disagree better?

One could do worse than to start with what is called in pop-psych circles "emotional intelligence." By all means, be afraid if you are afraid. Be angry if you are angry. Know your emotions, feel them, name them. And do not let them run you. This means having more of them out in the open, and acknowledging if you are not very competent yet at being unreactive when in their grip.

So, then, to name some feelings:

What I see from the Democratic candidate makes me uneasy, suspicious, and impatient, in the way I feel when confronted by someone who wants something from me. I don't give a damn about her "seeming aloof" or whatever; let's just stipulate that a woman in politics is struggling against all kinds of unspoken and unreflected-upon assumptions and that those having to do with emotional presentation are endemic and unfair. Fine. This does not change the fact that HRC is squirrely. I know I am part of a large and media-fueled population when I say this. I would welcome the breaking of the glass ceiling with a thrill of about-fucking-time. It is scandalous that it has taken this long for a major party to nominate a double-X chromosome human being for chief executive. It's doubly so that when they finally get around to doing it, the woman in question is so obviously a token and a tool of power. (For the record, I think her default setting is a largely unexamined basic set of liberal social values which she more or less would attempt to act upon if the cost was not too high; but her politics and political economy is standard-issue neoliberalism and she's clearly willing to compromise and do a great deal to get elected. Her well-known changes in position are often unacknowledged by her and seem far more motivated by convenience than owned as actually principled changes-of-mind.)

What I see from the Republican candidate fills me with dismay. He has the posturing of Mussolini, the bad taste of Franco, and yes, the xenophobia of Hitler -- or at least, he seems to think that acting like he does is a winning proposition, which is possibly even worse. More recent analogues are not hard to find either: the intellectual pretensions of Quadaffi, or Vlad Putin's pose as suave strongman, and DT's declared admiration for the same. I feel, also, a kind of disdain, which is probably an alibi for a different kind of fear. DT seems to me the most Žižekian candidate we have ever seen -- designedly outrageous, symptomatically grossly negligent of truth, he is the reflection of the American electorate's Caliban looking back at itself. There is no question but that if DT is elected president, we are indeed looking at a game-changing era in the short term, and that short term could be very, very unpleasant. Complete the picture with stock footage of jackboots coming for you or what-have-you. I do not think it is unreasonable to fear such things. The mischief and misery that can be wrought by bad people in high places is considerable, duh, and DT looks to be a bad person. Those he has fooled or manipulated into thinking otherwise are to be pitied. Those who look at him with a kind of envious projection are just sniffing the apparent alpha-dog's ass.

But just how decisive a binary are we considering? A look backward might give us a bit of perspective. In 1964, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, a deeply unpopular candidate among his own party, was downright terrifying to Democrats, who saw his anti-communist belligerence as the worst kind of drum-beating. Lyndon Johnson defeated Goldwater in part by virtue of the scare-tactics exemplified by the infamous "Daisy" advertisement, which successfully leveraged the (legitimate) fear of nuclear war into a reaction against Goldwater's "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" stance. Johnson (who signed the Civil Rights Act and wanted to be remembered as the architect of the Great Society) went on to entrench the nation in an unwinnable war against Communism in Vietnam, partly on false pretenses of a misleadingly spun "incident" in the Gulf of Tonkin. This should remind us that a vote against the momentarily more bellicose figure does not mean a vote against war.† A vote for HRC (who supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and who opines that Edward Snowden is a traitor to his country) does not assure us of peace in our time, or better jobs and higher wages, or a better life for the wretched of the earth. Remember that when we talk about "assuring Obama's legacy," we are also talking about kill lists, drone strikes, and NSA surveillance of American citizens.

I wrote and asked my friend what it was that had made him see parallels between the United States of 2014 and the Germany of eighty years previous. His explanation drove home just how parochial American political reflection usually is:
I saw what Fox News was — and the other outlets were not much different — and certainly I had seen at least since Iraq 1.0 how the media’s main purpose is to cover up what was really going on. The leftist press however showed what was really going on, and living in poverty makes you very sensitive to downward social trends. My connection with Africa and knowing about Darfur and World War 3 in the Congo (10 million dead and counting; not a peep in our press!) impressed upon me the incomprehensible enormity of the crimes we were committing. At some point I read Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback trilogy. And when you looked at the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech, at government secrecy, the militarizing of police, the "war on drugs”, surveillance, surveillance, surveillance.... How could anyone not realize where all this was going?
I don't cite this letter because I assume everyone will agree with it (though I do urge people to read Chalmers Johnson, whose books are still far from passé though the trilogy was all published during the Bush administration), but because it underscores how long are the roots of our current dilemma. The ruin of our politics is deep, and if we want to live politically in a responsible and philosophical way, we must think it through to the beginning -- which means (I am sorry for the newage sound of it, but I cannot find a more succinct formulation) to ourselves. The origins of the bad corner we find ourselves in now, with a choice between a candidate who probably thinks she means well but that the rules do not apply to her, and one who redefines the phrase "loose cannon," are not to be sought in the last year or the last eight, or even the debacle of the Bush II years. They go far back, and they implicate us.

(This, by the way, is why in the event of actual jackboots kicking in doors, or actual round-ups of immigrants, or etc., I will not be splitting the country. Any one who makes a different choice has my respect and good wishes. I'll try to leave a light on for you.)

A system with deep roots also has long branches. No matter who is elected, the future is not pretty. It is possible that one candidate or another can make the situation much worse; but the notion that a magic president can make it all better is ludicrous, in part because there are those for whom it is working very, very well already. The American day has passed. We are indeed rich, and privileged, but the center of political, intellectual, and indeed even scientific life is elsewhere. The USA is a declining Empire, and though it may take some while before this really is driven home, it is a matter of When, not of If. This is not, however, just a bit of "pessimism" about "our country's future," and those who react with the "this-is-part-of-the-problem" knee-jerk are themselves part of the problem.

It is possible that there may be some less-uncomfortable semi-soft landing option available to us as we fly into the mouth of the Long Emergency, but there are many, many potential crash-landing outcomes that are bad indeed. I am all for optimism and I do not sneer even at can-do technological ingenuity, let alone at attempts of people of good will to act freely, kindly, wisely. (Also, I am a teacher, which commits me professionally to a certain axiomatic optimism I do not always think is wholly warranted, but which both allows me to do my job and is subjectively rekindled by my job. Working with very young people is good for the soul.) I do anticipate that any workable course will involve the giving up of a great deal of American prestige. Current talk about reparations to African or Native Americans barely touches the surface of what might be called for. The lives to which most Americans, including the majority of the 99%, are accustomed, is premised upon the ruination of planet and people. The standard "left" account is that we can consume a bit less and a bit differently in order to keep consuming. The truth is that our consumption accelerates. I believe that human beings are free and capable of acting rationally, but I am not sanguine about the likelihood of people volunteering for having less, particularly if this implies a sort of losing face.

I emphasize, however, that this cannot be -- for the philosopher -- an occasion for mere despair or even impotent fury. Politics is by nature a short-term game; diplomacy, law-making, overseeing budgets -- these are the matters of today and tomorrow. The founders of constitutions -- the Enlightenment thinkers who imagined cosmopolitan civilization --were actually doing something fairly new and innovative; they were trying to imagine a workable social and governmental organization that would be able to persist beyond the short term, without depending on the assumption that the conditions of the short term would themselves persist. It was sort of hybrid project of philosophy and politics (and much of the critique of modernity found, for instance, in Leo Strauss, but also in Schmitt, is based on the question of whether or not this hybrid is viable). Philosophy itself looks to a far broader horizon still. By that measure, all nations are as grass, and the proudest empire may be a chapter in a book for a while. But this does not mean philosophy does not motivate politics.

In the short run, I am deeply dubious about the impact of elections, even this one; but there are certainly ways in which elections could be organized that would give them a far more realistic and meaningful impact upon longer-term prospects. If there is any single political cause I could urge upon people, it would be the boring-sounding one of election reform; not however as a crusade against "money in politics," as though that were possible (though clearly it could be far better managed than it is). I mean, rather, a fundamental restructuring of the ways votes are counted. There are, as far as I know, no perfect and irreproachable methods for this; there are however many much, much better ways of doing it than are done in the U.S. The chokehold of the two major parties; the stifling of and condescension towards Libertarians, Greens, Independents, and others; the absolute panic that sets in when something like the Tea Party happens in the midst of a major party -- all of this could be radically eased by adopting a sane and just manner of counting votes in participatory democracy which allowed people to indicate who their preferred candidates were in order of preference. It would put a brake on negative campaigning, assure that no one would be elected without genuine majority backing, and eliminate the need for defensive voting and the wails about choosing the lesser of two evils.‡

And, in the likely event that darker times are upon us before reform can transpire?

Jean Cavaillès -- one of Alain Badiou's heroes and favorite examples of the philosophe engagé -- wrote work on set theory, logic, and phenomenology, edited Cantor's letters with Emmy Noether, was strongly engaged by Barth's theology, and was shot in 1944 by the Vichy government for his work with the Resistance. (He had already escaped once; he wrote his last work On Logic and the Theory of Science, as a prisoner.) Badiou likes to cite Georges Canguilhem's description of Cavaillès:
A philosopher-mathematician stuffed with explosives, a man as lucid as he was courageous, a man both resolute and without optimism. If that isn't a hero, what is?
During a meeting with Raymond Aron in London after his first escape, Cavaillès told him:
I am a Spinozist; I believe we must submit to necessity everywhere. The sequences of the mathematicians are necessary; even the stages of mathematical science are necessary. This struggle that we carry out is necessary as well.
Knox Peden, from whose book on Spinozism in twentieth century French thought I quote this anecdote, comments (not wholly approvingly) that in telling this story Aron manages to politicize and depoliticize Cavaillès' thinking in the same stroke. Albeit connecting Cavaillès' heroism to his philosophy, he also holds that this heroism was unconnected to any specific politics -- "be they communist, socialist, or democratic" -- because Cavaillès was, he says, simply acting in accordance with necessity as he saw it. Says Peden:
This is a politics that is logical and pure; in a word, it is above politics.
I agree with Peden in his characterization, but I disagree with his evaluation. I think that Aron is right in a certain sense to praise Cavaillès for a dispassionate politics. Philosophically engaged, politics is bound to look like "a politics above politics." It is. The archetype of this was Socrates' trial. Or, to take a fictional instance:
Why does any martyr cooperate with his judases? ... We see a game beyond the endgame ... As Seneca warned Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor. (David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas p 349) §
Vote for who you want -- don't vote for either big party candidate if you can't hold your nose, but don't forget down-ticket issues and vote your conscience. Work for election reform to lessen the need for nose-holding everywhere; work for whatever other immediate and near-term ends you feel called to. This will suffice for politics; that is "the game." But in the end, the odds of the game are not good. And in light of that, philosophy must look to the game beyond the endgame, recalling what philosophy is. The only absolute political responsibility of philosophy is to assure that philosophy remains possible: not to survive, but to live the life worth living, the examined life. And this can only be done if philosophers continue to be philosophers. Politics is especially dangerous for this, not just because of the siren song of power (as supposedly exemplified by Plato's ill-fated "Syracusan adventure," or Heidegger's famous "blunder," as he called it, with Nazism), but because of the much more banal emotion I mentioned before: anger.

Towards the end of his life, after having lived in London since the 1970's, Piatigorsky returned for a visit to Moscow. A film crew followed him around recording his impressions for a documentary. As was inevitable, he was met by a city that had drastically changed since he had left. Bemused by the experience, he said:
I don’t know modern Moscow. Many things that I’ve seen make me sad. Just make me sad – in no case indignant. Generally speaking, you know, a philosopher must avoid being indignant. He can be indignant only with himself.


* For an amusing introduction to the memetics of argument, which covers many of the same points but with cute cartoons, I commend to you this video by the the always-entertaining and often correct CGP Grey.

† I was reminded of some of this history by the recent dramatic production of Daisy at ACT Theatre in Seattle.

‡ The aforementioned CGP Grey has a series of educational videos on this matter, which you really should watch, beginning with this one, and then this.

§ In this novel, the memetic mechanisms referred to above are also part of this meta-game:
Media has flooded Nea So Copros with my Catechisms. Every schoolchild in corpocracy knows my twelve “blasphemies” now.... My ideas have been reproduced a billionfold.
Nietzsche would say the same about Socrates' motivations.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The limits of "Just give me the arguments."

In a letter to Feuerbach, Marx in 1843 wrote
How cunningly Herr von Schelling enticed the French, first of all the weak, eclectic [Victor] Cousin, then even the gifted Leroux. For Pierre Leroux and his like still regard Schelling as the man who replaced transcendental idealism by rational realism, abstract thought by thought with flesh and blood, specialised philosophy by world philosophy! To the French romantics and mystics he cries: "I, the union of philosophy and theology," to the French materialists: "I, the union of flesh and idea," to the French skeptics: "I, the destroyer of dogmatism," in a word, "I ... Schelling!"

Schelling has not only been able to unite philosophy and theology, but philosophy and diplomacy too. He has turned philosophy into a general diplomatic science, into a diplomacy for all occasions. Thus an attack on Schelling is indirectly an attack on our entire policy, and especially on Prussian policy. Schelling's philosophy is Prussian policy
sub specie philosophiae.
When you first read this, you'd swear it was something from Nietzsche's nachlass. Suddenly you realize that all that shrewd poison and psychologizing was more or less just in the air in the latter half of the 19th century. This was one of the accepted and expected ways to think, and if you were an intellectual in that milieu, you picked it up and got good at it. (Of course, not everyone got as good at it as Nietzsche.)

This is one of the nuances (and no less crucial for being a nuance) that is lost when you read philosophers of the past out of context, as documents in a line of "arguments" about such-and-such a subject.

This could easily be mis-read as an argument for incorrigible historicism, or at the least that one requires a host of footnotes or some kind of sensitive antennae in order to "really read" thinkers of the past. A certain kind of impatient student is rightly suspicious of such implications. "Why should I care about the "historical context," they want to know. "Just give me the arguments." There is a certain prima facie plausibility to this objection, for surely, as Aquinas argued (and I have cited it before), "Philosophy does not consist in asking what men have said, but in asking after the truth of the matter." This argument looks like it is saying, "cut to the chase," or, more generously, it doesn't matter when and who said it and in what set of cultural assumptions, what matters is, is it true, or slightly more broadly, is it a good argument?

But when you read a thinker -- and it needn't be someone shelved in the philosophy section of the library -- you encounter not a set of arguments alone, but a person, a mind deploying arguments of diverse kinds, yes, but also other things than arguments: description, rhythm, trope; and always within a language and a context, an already-underway conversation.

To be aware of this is not (or ought not to be) to guard access to competence behind doorkeepers of learning. It is not that "you can't understand Kant without understanding the world he lived in," such that competence in the moves of the first critique would require an armature of previous certifications in Wolff and Leibniz, in Konigsbergian and Prussian politics, in Lutheranism and German typography. It's not even -- though this is truer -- that a grasp, or an appreciation, or an awareness, of any of these adds a dimension to one's feeling for Kant that may or may not be relevant to seeing what he's doing with the synthetic a priori. Talk like that tends to be intimidating, implying that to win the right to an opinion requires fighting ones way through a thicket of prerequisites. But dispel the shadow of the law from all of this, and you find instead the visage of the person. A thinker is a person to know, not a table of positions; they are a style, a stance, and indeed a career. No one knows a person out of context.

Collingwood insists that historical understanding consists in the re-enactment of thought. That re-enactment can't happen unless you are oriented, to some degree, in the same landscape of problems and accepted moves that the thinker inhabited.

The context does not explain, let alone explain away; it does not mean you shrug off Nietzsche's psychologistic readings of whoever, just because you've seen Marx do the trick before. But when you are confronted by the (let us admit) rather overwhelming personalities of "the great philosophers," it can help to see them in their element. Not to "take them down a notch," but to let us hear them better.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My bet, and Nietzsche's: What "Europe wants," Europe gets... Eventually

Don't usually post about politics here, and I think only once before about the E.U., but the recent vote in the UK and this as-always intelligent set of reflections (and follow-up) from The Poseidonian reminded me that I've been having a quote from Beyond Good and Evil knocking around in my head for the past week.

Poseidonian reminds us that there is a down-side to lots of little countries, and that one of those is war:
What, after all, characterized Europe for 1500 years before the EU? If you’re a Nietzschean a return to endless war would have its upside I suppose.
Yes, but if you are a Nietzschean, you believe (insofar as Nietzscheans "believe" things) that the EU is the future, whatever the growing pains of the present:
Thanks to the morbid estrangement which the lunacy of nationality has produced and continues to produce between the peoples of Europe, thanks likewise to the shortsighted and hasty-handed politicians who are with its aid on top today and have not the slightest notion to what extent the politics of disintegration they pursue must necessarily be only an interlude — thanks to all this, and to much else that is altogether unmentionable today, the most unambiguous signs are now being overlooked, or arbitrarily and lyingly misinterpreted, which declare that Europe wants to become one. In all the more profound and comprehensive men of this century the general tendency of the mysterious workings of their souls has really been to prepare the way to this new synthesis and to anticipate experimentally the European of the future: only in their foregrounds, or in hours of weakness, in old age perhaps, were they among the "men of the fatherland" — they were only taking a rest from themselves when they became "patriots." (BGE 256)
The Poseidonian goes on to (albeit unintentionally) describe, well, me:
If you are a real Marxist, then you will presumably agree with me that the EU is ultimately both an effect of and an instrument of capitalism and American power, and as a result anything that weakens it would be a good thing. I respect you, noble adversary! Not only are you honest, but you see certain things more clearly than your kumbaya-singing brothers and sisters who think that the EU is an effect of, and an instrument of niceness. Conversely, if you are a Christian pacifist, and you think that pragmatic compromise with power to enhance freedom is the the Devil’s way, and that the only right thing to do in the face of power is to surrender completely… and hope that at the end of history God will set it all to rights, I also respect you.
Yes, that's me both times, at least on good days, so I might (on the good days) claim a double portion of respect. But alas, I don't really hold to the pragmatic upshot. I am a localist, and I have no problem with the notion of "Italy for the Italians" or whatever (though I hope, too, for a hospitable localism); but I think Nietzsche was right about the direction of world history in this case. Yes, I do think the EU is a creature of Capital -- transparently so, in fact -- but my (Christian) resistance is far more passive; and in any case, I think the general case "for" Britain's exit from the E.U. just smells like Nietzsche describes it: arbitrary and lyingly misinterpreting. There are doubtless many for whom this was not the case, who had principled motives for voting to leave. Some are likely those that the Poseidonian attributes to the "real" Marxist or the pacifist Christian.

For the record, I suspect that there are many, many more growing pains to be gone through before we get a real US of E. But unless those pains just kill us (which I guess they could), that's what we will get in the long run.