“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, December 29, 2006

part 2: paine and political ethics

As we pointed out in our last post, there is a certain psychopathic subtext in Paine’s The Rights of Man – or, rather, there is a psychopathic subtext that Paine digs out of Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. The psychopathology takes the shape of a mind machine – a machine for controlling the minds and actions of others. It isn’t a fully articulated mind machine, but – we think – it prefigures the much more elaborate Air Loom visualized by James Tilley Matthews, psychology’s first fully fledged paranoid schizophrenic.

However, there is much more to Paine’s reproof of Burke than this. LI believes that one can find, in Paine’s argument, the lineaments of a political ethics that is pertinent to the question of how to change the treadmill of production, which is leading us to the seediest kind of apocalypse – an apocalypse of cocooned silkworms. An apocalypse in Pampers. For the threat to the planet doesn’t come as the result of a lifestyle which, upon ceasing or radical modification, would seriously harm the human race – it comes, instead, as a result of the affluence effect. It comes about as a result of the social logic of invulnerability, which entails building ever more McMansions ever further from workplaces requiring ever more heavy machines to transport ever more heavy human beings. It comes from an almost absent minded scouring of the ocean, devastating fish populations. It comes from a stubborn refusal to modify engines that were designed, basically, one hundred years ago for a world awash in potential carbon based fuels. It comes from having nursed a war culture to the point where life without the war culture is unimaginable.

So, here is what Paine wrote that has recently excited me:

“There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controuling posterity to the "end of time," or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.”

When Paine wrote that he was thinking, according to all the evidence, that the living generation should cast off the religious, economic and political trammels put upon it by the generations of the dead. However, there is another dimension to Paine’s thought – and here, it helps to have read too much Heidegger. LI has read too much Heidegger, so we are just the man for the job. Heidegger, of course, in Being and Time writes extensively about the orientation towards Death in everydayness – and the orientation towards death that does not evade Death. The latter is the leading edge that turns us towards authenticity. Now, LI used to take the Mekon song (never want to work/always want to play/pleasure, pleasure every day) as a better guide to ethics than Heidegger’s turn to authenticity, since we felt that a certain evident fascism, a certain unanalyzed seriousness, is encoded in this turn. However, reading Heidegger in the context of Paine’s point makes for an interesting variation here. This is Heidegger:

“The explication of everyday being-toward-death stayed with the idle talk of the they [Man]; one also dies sometime, but for the time being not yet. Up to now we solely interpreted the “one dies” as such. In the “also some, but for the time being not yet,” everydayness acknowledges something like a certainty of death. Nobody doubts that one dies. But this “not doubting” need not already imply that kind of being-certain that corresponds to the way death – in the sense of the eminent possibility characterized above – enters into Da-sein. Everydayness gets stuck in this ambiguous acknowledgment of the “certainty” of death – in order to weaken the certainty by covering dying over still more and alleviating its own thrownness into death.” [Stambaugh translation]

The double gesture – the acknowledgment of the certainty of death and the weakening of that certainty – was materialized, in the post-World War II system, in the dialectic of vulnerability – the building of the weapons of mass, planetary death – the amplification of vulnerability to an historically new level - as a way of avoiding vulnerability. That double gesture has now grown old – it has become an ingrown habit, and is in the food we eat and the highways we travel down. It worked, too. Yet the system that was built up, as we know now, makes unsustainable demands on the future. And this is where Paine’s insight comes in – for the living generation, now, is presuming on governing from the grave in a whole new way – the presumption being materialized in the real exploitation and exhaustion of those elements that make this a living planet – air, earth and water.

Hmm. This post is sketchy. The idea I have in mind needs a lot of refinement and clarification. But sketchy as it is, I want to get it down now. I will be returning to this later.


Amie said...

I've read the two posts on Paine and all a couple of times and however 'sketchy' they might be, as you say, I do hope you'll continue.
I love Paine railing against Burke and the eternal reign of the dead, the government from the grave.
And the juxtaposition with Heidegger and the question of (in)vulnerability and planetary death seems to me really striking and apt.
Why and how is it that - pardon the expression - everyday Dasein in its cocoon of SUVs etc is so immune or immured against destruction and death, and all the more so because it is totally caught up - governed - by a cult(ure) of death?
(The execution of Saddam could furnish another instance, along with the question of capital punishment which is, let's call it for what is, state sanctioned murder.)
But it's not just joe dasein who falls prey to the cult of death, the grand philosophers are hardly immune to it, no? Tome upon tome on death!
But what of birth?!
In a curious way, your posts have me thinking of birth. Perhaps also because of an impending 'new year'?

Que jamais la voix de l'enfant en lui ne se taise, qu'elle tombe comme un don du ciel offrant aux mots desséchés l'éclat de son rire, le sel de ses larmes, sa toute-puissante sauvagerie.

(Louis-René Des Forêts, Ostinato)

Happy New Year!

roger said...

Amie, I am not sure why philosophers say so little about birth, since Socrates, father of them all, claimed to be a sort of midwife. But I suspect it is because there is so little merit in birth. Though I manfully shouldered my way down my mother’s vaginal canal and made it to this world of light and darkness, nobody gives me credit for this. On the other hand, there are certainly births in which the babe can be praised – for instance, Gargantua’s birth – or was it Pantagruel who moved around so much?

There’s a phrase of Bakhtin’s:

“And all carnivalistic symbols are of such a sort: they always include within themselves a perspective of negation (death) or vice vesa. Birth is fraught with death, and death with new birth.”

Well, LI and the mystery Russian are as blood brothers on this issue. I emphasize that the living generation has a moral obligation to envision itself as potentially dead in order that the generation after it enjoy life more abundantly, on a planet in which life is to be enjoyed abundantly, as far as I can tell. This is a birth-friendly perspective, as you would expect from the negation of the negation, or the witch’s instance, that gives rise to it – witches being recruited from sage women, I believe. The death that the living imagine is fraught with the births that succeed it, one generation after another. Now, I’m not going to start whistling a happy fucking song here and pass out cigars, but you get the drift that underneath all the crow’s cawing there’s a fundamental optimism, connecting LI, Tom Paine, and you, and all the merry Gentlemen god ever rested, and Little Tommie Cratchett too, bless his bleeding crutches!

PS - I have only read a little Des Forets, but should read a lot more - even though he didn't write a lot more. Tell me what else, besides that novel about the chatterbox.