Being and the Wack

History is the superstition of intellectuals. They are always trawling among the time’s Rorschach blots for analogies, and for the determinants among the innumerable skirmishes of the night's ignorant armies, and for our particular future in the past, which contains all futures except one: the one where before and after are abolished. That future annihilates itself.

LI is as superstition as any of them. We do cling to the “then.” The then is where logic ( the possibilities encoded in the if/then) crosses temporality (the then that sequences the narrative). We do believe that we can create modest structures around the then, and imagine that history is coordinate with event, and that events are real. The then is my repository for what Santayana called animal faith. And so I am led down the path that led up to this week, and will lead from this week. Before we endorse any ideology whatsoever, we want to have a lucid sense of the then.

We have been thinking about this because we have been thinking about agency and structure. During the vacation, we read a lot of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. This time, we did not read it with that undertone of Derridean derision we brought to our last reading of it. Sartre’s rewiring of the whole notion of transcendence, putting it in terms that resonate with the double face of the then, struck us as a pretty good project, even if the notion of liberty on which it is grounded is peculiar and unconvincing.

Which brings us by way of the backdoor to two comments about the drowning of New Orleans. Harry, in our comments section, objects to our instant personalization of the event in terms of Bush. Harry sees structure, here, as the overriding issue. My sense that Bush has made a difference – that there is a specific Bush signature to what we have seen happening – seems to him to be a bit naïve:

“Whoever comes after him [Bush] as the sockpuppet for his class and culture will fit that description too.”

The other comment is by Jim Henley at Unqualified offerings, who writes sarcastically that the drowning of New Orleans, like 9/11, has so far confirmed the liberal in his view, the conservative in his, and the libertarian in hers:

“From what I can tell in the last couple days’ reading, Katrina has chiefly served to confirm people in their previously held views. Liberals proclaim it proof of the need for a robust federal government (shades of Bill Moyers in September 2001), conservatives find themselves confirmed in their belief in the overriding importance of social order vigorously enforced, and libertarians regard the disaster and its aftermath as an exemplary failure of government. (Anarchists see government failing at even its core functions. State-accepting libertarians see government as having ignored its core functions for inappropriate pursuits.)”

Henley’s point is that the structure of the ideologies so determines the response as to make ideology an unfalsifiable structure – a thing no test can dent. It thus removes liberalism, conservatism and libertarianism from any real situation.

I grant that both of these points are valid, insofar as agency is largely determined by the background of the sense one makes of the world through structures one has neither created nor had any choice in assimilating. You can’t pull yourself out of your culture by the hair on your head. But I also think that they over-rely on the imperviousness and determinateness of structures which, to my mind, are always slightly out of equilibrium due to acts and events. Acts and events are the wack dimension (I would substitute wack for liberty in Sartre).

For instance: the liberal belief in a robust federal government doesn’t automatically translate into a liberal belief that we needed Homeland Security. LI, a liberal if there ever was one, for instance, thought it was a stupid idea when the Dems came up with it, and a scary idea when the GOP adopted it. That the increase in Government spending on Homeland security has gone up something like 22 percent per year since the boondoggle was started showed simply that the conservative critique of the robust federal roll stopped at its traditional limits, which are, not coincidentally, the limits of the economic interests of the conservative constituency. Like the robust Federal War Department, the robust Homeland Security department served to siphon off government money to a multitude of very GOP-ish military industrial corporations. Which is another way of saying that ideological structures aren’t necessarily homogenous and don’t necessarily serve as predictors of social action.

Those discrepancies and breaks create the Wack, which is where agency comes into play. And this is where I would have to protest against the idea that Bush is a sock puppet. Of course, we can trace a certain learning curve in Bush’s career and see how it corresponds to the culture he grew up in, but it is a mistake to think that you could put any man or woman from Bush’s class in that curve and come out with the same result.


Deleted said…
Roger, I think Henley was being facetious, and does not consider the people holding the various ideologies impervious to anything that might alter their outlook. The commentary cranked up in response to Katrina does follow scripts, and the scripts tend to lock in the faithful, but anyone is capable of reevaluation. As an isolated case, your assessment of my previous comment obliges me to consider whether negating Bush's agency is justifiable.