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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The vital center and the sage

The longing for the center has been a desire in the collective political consciousness at least since the age of the Atlantic revolutions. It is a desire that, at last, we discover the missing ‘no’ in the political unconscious. Although the desire for revolution has been tracked and interpreted and over-interpreted in political philosophy, the desire for the center, for ‘moderation’, has not been considered in itself. Rather, it is, mostly, considered parasitic on other forces – reactionary or revolutionary forces, in which the face of desire is not masked, even if the face itself, we discover sooner or later, is indeed a mask – there is no face behind it. Moderation, on this reading, is simply the desire that we not go so far, so quick, and above all that we avoid pain, instead of welcoming it – admittedly, usually the welcoming has to do with imposing it on others. And as the hastiest reading of history will show, the center almost always ends up finding its own targets to impose pain upon, often, o so often, on a large scale. But the thing is to normalize that imposition of pain as quickly as possible so that we can “get on with it.” It is, of course, that long digestion called life. This, for the moderate, is the best political use of speed – to entrench our social relations so that they can work by themselves, surround us with their workings, provide that artificial paradise, that womb, that isle of Synthetica which is our true and only utopia.

This desire for the center – the vital center, as Arthur Schlesinger called it back in 1950, rallying liberalism against the communist threat – has a philosophical correlate in the desire for the golden mean, the juste milieu. In Un sage est sans idée, Francois Jullien discusses the juste milieu in terms of two histories – one of the philosopher, one of the sage. Except that the latter, he claims, has no real history. In that sense, the sage could be seen as just another escapee, like the quicksilver cogito.

However, I will bracket my criticism of that claim – what interests me is Jullien’s contrast between the juste milieu and the demi-mesure. The half and half notion of the center – which, in this second year of the great Recession, has become the desire of so many, and seems to be the structural principle to which that demi-sage in the White House, Obama, has given all his heart.

Jullien, in this chapter as well as the book as a whole, shuttles between two registers – Ancient China and Ancient Greece. He begins with a history of the reputation of the sage, through the lens of philosophy: “For philosophy matured [after Plato], it could well vaunt itself for having a history, while the other didn’t. In consequence, wisdom was treated to an inversion, no longer above, as super- but as sub-philosophy: it would thenceforward be a thought that dared not risk itself (to attain the absolute, the truth), or rather which had renounced it – a soft thought, boneless, dulled, tempered. Flat thought, to put it bluntly, and purely residual (the commonplace), stagnating far from the fascinating flight of ideas: it will be the thought of the aging of desire – but does it even think any more? – at best resigned thought.”

At the center of this image is the notion of the just mean, the golden mean – something like Schlesinger’s vital center. Here we will measure our actions like good shopkeepers, matching advantage to the trade offs. Here the passions are purified until only one is left – the passion for being in the middle. In the middle, we are not too high (with all the risks and the vast energy that it takes to get too high) nor on the level of the slave – abject.

Jullien traces the notion of the juste milieu from Aristotle to that common place in a brief passage:
But more is necessary for establishing virtue, it is necessary to have a definition. To which Aristotle applies himself in distinguishing the medium (moyen) in the thing and that relative to us: the virtue will be the ‘equal’, understood as the just milieu between excess and default (thus, at the half way point between fear and temerity is courage, of prodigality and parcimony is liberality, etc.) With Aristotle, this medium still possesses a theoretical status, tied as it is to the nature of the continuum, and by consequence divisible, and communicating structurally with the totality of his thought, the knots of reasoning in logic as well as the mixtures in physics. But, successively, with the vulgarization of aristotelianism, the notion looses its vigor and wilts, it flattens into a counsel of prudence rejoining the ‘not too much’ of common opinion. The juste milieu becomes the demi-measure. Witness the Horace of the Satires, est modus in rebus (there’s a middle in things), etc. Still, the subtle Horace did not reduce it to this timorous juste milieu, he had too much of an Epicurean in him. But the tradition that referenced him approvingly has never stopped praising that wisdom of the middle – the aurea mediocritas (the Latins having that concrete mindset…) fleeing the extreme, fearing excess. A medium fearful enough to nauseate – “wisdom” to throw off.”

This may well be the story of the liberalism of the vital center. The alliance with the working class, welded in the New Deal; the alliance with civil rights movements, welded in the sixties and seventies; and the alliance with the new class of academics and symbol workers, welded in the eighties, has entered the age of extremes with the desire to find half measures not because these half measures work – who thinks, for instance, that Obama’s preservation of the complex system of medical insurance company rents would work better than raw socialized medicine? But because the solutions are “politically real.” Politics, for the once vital center, is now a fearful domain, populated by extremist lunatics, and it is best to tranquilize them by demi-measures. We no longer end wars – for to end a war is to operate fully and decisively, it is extreme – but we let them sink softly under the headlines. In the same way, huge bankrupt banks don’t go bankrupt, nor do shadow financial sectors, chock full of bad bets, go to the window and expose their losing tickets.

Jullien opposes this notion of golden mediocracy with what he takes to be the original Confucian impulse of the sage in China.

“1. while, on the greek side, the medium proper to virtue is envisioned under the aegis of action (ergon), which is conceived in a technical manner and according to a model posed as an end (of the mathematical type: by divisibility, equality, proportion – it is one, error is multiple – in the background is the cosmos, as already in the Gorgias 504a), the Chinese conception is inscribed in a logic of unfolding (deroulement), the real being conceived according to the category of process: this medium is the medium because, being able to vary from one extreme to another, regulation is continuous; 2. Aristotle has very much the idea of a variable medium, which is not only arithmetic (like 6 between 2 and 10) but relative to each (for instance, the amount of food is a lot for one and not very much for another), and proceeds by circumstantial adaptation (at the moment it is necessary in the case and in regard to what is necessary, etc.), but he does not have the idea of a medium by variation from one extreme to another, equally possible, as in the Chinese idea of two mediums; [Jullien is referring here to the idea that there is a “milieu” relative to each pole, the ying and the yang] 3. the Aristotelian just milieu concerns only the ethical virtue (and still there is no just milieu of moderation), while the juste milieu in the Chinese case corresponds to the logic of every process(which, in as much as it is continuous, must be regulated). There is not, in the Chinese case, on one side the real, and on the other side the good. But that from whence proceeds the real, and which is the condition of its emergence, as the just milieu of regulation, is also the norm of the good. Or, rather, it is not a norm, but only a way, by which the real is liveable – the tao.”
Notice how this applies to the current political atmosphere, in which solutions are not related to the real, but to the ‘good’ – that is, to the norms of the opinion-makers. The looseness at the heart of the decaying American empire is all in this suspended animation, this reign of postponement. It is the exhaustion of a centrism that is sure that the real can be dickered with, smoothed over, or, if nothing works, postponed for another couple of years.

But in reality, America is like a man who has leaped from the top of a tower- it has run out of postponements.

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