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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Mars

When LI was toiling away, learning philosophy back in Grad school, I pretty much focused on Western philosophy. That’s a vast amount of material there, bucko, and I figured that if – by the time I was doddering on the lip of the grave – I understood some of it, that would be enough of an achievement.

But such projects belong to the long ago of academia. Since LI became a pirate intellectual – or, less boldly, a dilettante eclectist – we operate under the proud slogan: fuck the context, show me the beef. Or something like that.

Which brings us to Mencius’ marvelous question, which is quoted in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance and Affection: the making of pets: “Mencisu asked, “Is it right to force water to leap up?” He was taking the position that human nature is inclined to act in certain ways and not others, using the movement of water as an analogy. “Water,” he said, “will flow indifferently to east or west, but it will not flow indifferently up and down.” Now of course, he added, “by striking water you can make it leap up over your forehead and by damming and leading it you may force it up a hill, but do such movements accord with the nature of water?”

It is one index of the fundamental disposition of modernity, over the last three hundred years, that this question simply has no discursive space in which it can be uttered. The discovery of the nature of water is a project we can all recognize, as part of science. But the idea of respecting the nature of water thus discovered forms no part of the world of ideas and actions we inhabit. Mencius’ question is simply weird. We have so little sense that there might be a nature to be respected, there, that we can only view the question as an analogy for the one nature we do respect, human nature, as Yi-Fu Tuan says. And as the Sayings of Mencius, I should add, also say. Even when Mencius uttered the question in China, the questions was such that it had to be normalized. And remember, the Chinese invented the prototype of industrial power.

Which returns me to the intermittent theme of this blog, over the past year: what I’ve been calling the war culture. Well, an anonymous commentator last week poked a little fun at my penchant for using that term. And it is true, I use the term culture too indiscriminately. The Bush culture. The war culture. Etc. My use of culture is meant to emphasize the connection between a systematic, but not formalized, way of thinking and a systematic way of doing. By contention has been that the system of production we deal with every day, beyond its characteristics as capitalist or socialist, has certain uniform characteristics that flow into the great project of perpetual aggression. One of those characteristics, I think, is the conceptual outlawing of Mencius’ question. It makes no sense to apologize to water for damming it up, or making it flow up over our heads. Mencius must be crazy to think that – or he is thinking of human beings, and making an analogy.

Well, I’ll return to that question later. (And no, I am certainly not going to argue for deep ecology, to prefigure my ponderings). But here’s my stylistic solution to my tiresome use of culture all the time. Instead of war culture, I’m going to steal a leaf from Ryszard Kapuscinski, who uses the sterling, scary word Imperium to denote the Soviet Union. So instead of talking about the Soviet occupation of his hometown in Poland in 1940, he talks of the arrival of the Imperium. I am now going to baptize the war culture “Mars”. As in the God of War and the planet. Since Mars is planetary, and since it is my nutty idea that the state is subordinate to war in our present arrangement of things, I think Mars is entirely appropriate. Also, it has a nice, sci fi ring to it. Mars. I can hear the intro movie music swelling!

PS PS, here is the entire quote:

Kao Tzu said, ‘Human nature is like whirling water. Give it an outlet in the east and it will flow east; give it an outlet in the west and it will flow west. Human nature does not show any preference for either good or bad just as water does not show any preference for either east or west.’

‘It certainly is the case,’ said Mencius, ‘that water does not show any preference for wither east or west, but does it show the same indifference to high and low? Human nature is good just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good; there is no water that does not flow downwards.

‘Now in the case of water, by splashing it one can make it shoot up higher than one’s forehead, and by forcing it one can make it stay on a hill. How can that be the nature of water? It is the circumstances being what they are. That man can be made bad shows that his nature is no different from that of water in this respect.’
- Translation of D.C. Lau

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