“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, October 28, 2011

Hume and the political philosopher 1

There is a famous dispute, among the intellectual historians of the early American Republic, about the extent to which Madison borrowed from Hume. The dispute may, on the surface, be about ‘borrowing’ ideas, but underneath it is about the mechanisms by which nations are formed, and the place of ‘ideas’ in history, one of the great arguments in the White Mythology.

It was Douglass Adair who gave the dispute its modern form by emphasizing, against the economicist views of Charles Beard, the effect of intellectual history on the shaping of the Constitution. Adair pointed to the borrowings from Hume in the Federalist 10. Adair pictured Madison with a book of Hume’s essays, opened to “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”, in which Hume wrote:

“Though it is more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than in a city; there is more facility, when once it is formed, of preserving it steady and uniform, without tumult and faction.”

Hume goes on to suggest a two fold process, in which the people, including the lowest, vote, followed by the work of the highest magistrates, presumably the representatives of the people, who then do something like forming a government – which is exactly how the American Senate was first instituted.

Edward Morgan, coming after Adair, admitted the intertext, but debated the inference: to him, Hume’s passage was about a community without faction, whereas Madison, reaching back to his Montesquieu, advocated a community in which party would block party. This, Morgan claimed, was a trope of a different color. [I take this general history from Mark Spencer’s “Madison and Hume on Faction (2002)]

I’m going to leave behind the argument about Hume’s influence on Madison and focus on Hume’s very negative image of the political intellectual. This type seems to function in two incompatible ways in Hume’s thinking – on the one hand, we cannot credit the political theorist with forming the commonwealth – all Platonic Republics are born and die in the heads of their creators – because the commonwealth is the result of the struggles of the interest and passions of different parts of the population. But if the philospher cannot positively shape the commonwealth according to his ideas, he can, on the other hand, introduce factional strife into the commonwealth.

This sums up a sense of the intellectual that is very much part of the Anglo culture.

James Buchan, in Crowded with Genius, summed up Hume’s dissent from Whig historiography as follows:

“In essays such as ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’, he portrayed Britain as a precarious equilibrium of often disreputable forces – Court patronage, parliamentary corruption, a free press,commercial competition – that were the residue of the violent political conflicts of the seventeenth century. For all his Scottish origins and friendships, he had no time for Whig or indeed any ideology: there was rarely, he later wrote, any ‘philosophical origin to government’.3 The British constitution was for Hume the
product of violence, and its form was both unintended and precarious.It was also, as might have been expected, civilian: a creation, as he also later wrote, of ‘that middling rank of men, who are the best and firmest basis of public liberty’.(86)

Hume anticipates Burke’s acidic view of the ‘theory men’ who, in his view, were dissolving the organic order of France in order to institute a structure unfounded in custom or piety – one that could only legitimate itself by the appeal to raw economic self-interest. But Hume moves in a different direction than Burke later did, and his eyes were on a story that Burke would have preferred be shrouded in reverent obscurity: that of the rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Lockian subject in Lilliput

I'm recycling this post from 2005. It is certainly pertinent to my character under capitalism theme.

There’s a tradition in the literature about Gulliver’s Travel that extracts the Lockean Gull in Gulliver. The argument goes back to a very fine essay by W. B. Carnochan entitled, Gulliver’s Travels: An Essay on the Human Understanding?

Carnochan’s argument is straightforward: “Lemuel Gulliver, like the mad projector of the Modest Proposal, appears to be a version of the Lockean man.” Carnochan is probably on solid ground in thinking that the perceptual changes on which Swift plays like a jazz xylophonist are suggested by Locke’s theory that the human mind is shaped by sensation – ideas themselves being the end product of an experience that begins
externally (mysterious as that beginning may be) with the encounter of a sense instrument and an object. As is well known, this theory leads elsewhere in the empirical tradition – that moment of non-experience hardening into a thing that can’t be, logically, experienced, meaning that the perceived object must be usurped by the philosopher and put in the mind – some mind. Berkeley suggested God’s. This is a theory that a writer like Swift is bound to squeeze all the absurdities out of. Which is why Denis Donoghue takes the Lockean suggestion one step further,
and claims that what we are seeing, in Gulliver’s Travels, is how easily the Lockean subject falls prey to the Stockholm syndrome. He is continually captured, and continually acclimated so to the point of view of his captors that he begins to adopt it. Historically, there's also warrant for this -
Swift lived in a time when English men and women were always getting captured, by Moors, Indians and other heathen, and were continually shocking their countrymen by converting to pagan or Islamic ways.
In other words, Gulliver’s typical peripeteia is that of a man who goes from one ‘brainwashing” to another – and he gets to it by going through funk, animal fear, and his own tradesman’s capacity for fawning, with the power of the mind, here, being wholly in the power of the powers that be.

Donoghue’s thesis seems to explain a larger pattern in Gulliver’s Travels, until one notices that Gulliver seems much too aware of his brainwashing to be merely one of the brainwashed. At least in the Lilliput section, where Gulliver is critical enough of thread dancing and the like. He is not, however, critical of titles – and no matter how small the Liliputians are, the emperor carries a title as big as Louis XIV’s.

To my mind, the way to get a-hold of Gulliver is to see him as the double of M.B. Drapier.

In the first Drapier letter, the narrator (who is, after all, a fiction) says this:

“I will therefore first tell you the plain story of the fact; and then I will lay before you how you ought to act in common prudence, and according to the laws of your country.”

This is in the clear as water style of Gulliver himself. And yet, Drapier’s
letters are all warnings, and the satire runs to that point. Whereas what is
Gulliver writing for? In the letter from Captain Gulliver that prefaces the
book, he does claim that the book is intended as a warning:

“I do in the next Place complain of my own great Want of Judgment, in being prevailed upon by the Intreaties and false Reasonings of you and some others, very much against mine own Opinion, to suffer my Travels to be published.

Pray bring to your Mind how often I desired you to consider, when you
insisted on the Motive of publick good; that the Yahoos were a species
of Animals utterly incapable of Amendment by Precepts or Examples: And so it hath proved; for instead of seeing a full Stop put to all Abuses and
Corruptions, at least in this little Island, as I had Reason to expect:
Behold, after above six Months Warning, I cannot learn that my Book hath
produced one single Effect according to mine Intentions: I desired you
would let me know by a Letter, when Party and Faction were extinguished;
Judges learned and upright; Pleaders honest and modest, with some Tincture of common Sense; and Smithfield blazing with Pyramids of Law-Books; the young Nobility's Education entirely changed; the Physicians banished; the female Yahoos abounding in Virtue, Honour, Truth and good Sense; Courts and Levees of great Ministers thoroughly weeded and swept; Wit, Merit and Learning rewarded; all Disgracers of the Press in Prose and Verse condemned to eat nothing but their own Cotten, and quench their Thirst with their own Ink. These, and a Thousand other Reformations, I firmly counted upon by your Encouragement; as indeed they were plainly deducible from the Precepts delivered in my Book.”

This is a mixture of the satirist’s targets since Aristophanes and Swift’s
fictitious creatures, the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, who are very close to making any system of virtue and vice absurd by embodying it in impossible extremities of the disgusting and ... well, it is hard to find one term to describe the Houyhnhnms, although the idea of these equine stoics is both alarming and funny. It is like the most impossibly inbred English aristocracy. And Swift adds a sentence that seems pointed at his own self: “And, it must be owned that seven Months were a sufficient Time to correct every Vice and Folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their Natures had been capable of the least Disposition to Virtue or Wisdom.”

Is this Gulliver sticking out his tongue at Mr. Drapier?
And is Mr. Drapier Jonathan Swift as tradesman?

The satirist needs a preliminary sketch, acquaintance with the primogenitive caricature. And that caricature happens to be the self.

But Mr. Drapier, too, exists – in fact, his fictiveness is oddly blurred by his entrance into the all too real exploitation of Ireland, which is forever locked in Swift’s unwavering field of vision, a thing to see, a raree show of instituted vice. He feels about it … well, as LI feels about Bush’s America. Bush’s America degrades my mockery by casting itself into forms of such pitiful tastelessness, hypocrisies that have been exposed for so long that the exposures are growing moss, bluster that wouldn’t frighten a sheep, that mockery has to seek restraint – has to seek other tangents to make indignation feel-able. If not to reform the Yahoos, at least to relieve the writer's own spleen.

Mr. Drapier’s way is simply to tell the plain story of fact.
The meta-story is that the British Prime Minister, out of every venal motive, conspires to allow William Wood the right to coin money for use
in Ireland. The contract costs Wood money, and he proposes to make up
that money and make a profit by chiseling on the composition of the coin
– in other words, creating half pence on the cheap, which could be exchanged for good coin. This was at a time when the matter of the coin
was important – a penny should contain a penny’s worth of metal. A gold coin should contain an amount of gold equal to the worth of the coin.
Of course, the coins were routinely shaved, by everybody. But to coin them
pre-shaved, so to speak, was to go one step beyond. The intro to the edition of the Drapier’s Letters on the Gutenberg site says this:

“The patent was really granted to the King's mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, who sold it to William Wood for the sum of £10,000, and (as it was reported with, probably, much truth) for a share in the profits of the coining. The job was alluded to by Swift when he wrote:

"When late a feminine magician,
Join'd with a brazen politician,
Expos'd, to blind a nation's eyes,
A parchment of prodigious size."

Coxe [a Swift commentator] endeavors to exonerate Walpole from the disgrace attached to this business, by expatiating on Carteret's opposition to Walpole, an opposition which went so far as to attempt to injure the financial minister's reputation by fomenting jealousies and using the Wood patent agitation to arouse against him the popular indignation; but this does not explain away the fact itself. He lays some blame for the agitation on Wood's indiscretion in flaunting his rights and publicly boasting of what the great minister would do for him. At the same time he takes care to censure the government for its misconduct in not consulting with the Lord Lieutenant and his Privy Council before granting the patent. His censure, however, is founded on the consideration that this want of attention was injudicious and was the cause of the spread of exaggerated rumours of the patent's evil tendency. He has nothing to say of the rights and liberties of a people which had thereby been infringed and ignored.”

If you have not read the Drapier’s letter, go to the intro to get some sense of the controversy, and then go to the fourth letter. That’s the hair-raising letter – a blow against the colonial system, a cry against the infamy, a rush at the system that’s truly in rare company. I suppose Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is the American counterpart, except that King is never bitter. Swift’s letter begins like this:

“Having already written three letters upon so disagreeable a subject as
Mr. Wood and his halfpence; I conceived my task was at an end: But I
find, that cordials must be frequently applied to weak constitutions,
political as well as natural. A people long used to hardships, lose by
degrees the very notions of liberty, they look upon themselves as
creatures at mercy, and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger
hand, are, in the phrase of the Report, legal and obligatory. Hence
proceeds that poverty and lowness of spirit, to which a kingdom may
be subject as well as a particular person. And when Esau came fainting from the field at the point to die, it is no wonder that he sold his
birthright for a mess of pottage.”

Every blow in this letter lands. Gulliver’s Travels – with its Gull for a mockery – plays a double game with its moral points, making them and denying them in the same gesture. One remembers that the point is the wholesale reformation of Yahoo nature in seven months time. This is Jonah waiting for the fire to consume Ninevah, and being bitterly disappointed that it never comes. Or rather, this is taking that spirit of Jonah and both inhabiting the prophet’s disgust and taking up a position outside it to observe with clinical precision the prophet’s vanity. But Drapier is a character who has been transported beyond vanity. In a passage that was considered treasonable, Swift considers that Ireland is no ‘depending kingdom’ with England, but equal in its freedoms. This casts doubt on the charnel foundation of colonialism, which is currently being implemented in Iraq on just the ground that the Iraqis are incorrigible children and the Americans are paragons to be mimicked. Ireland, after all, was the template for all English colonial ventures to follow. This is the Drapier at his most intense. One wants to say that this is the crescendo of the letter, but the rhythm, here, disallows crescendos:

“For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the
very definition of slavery: But in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly
subdue one single man in his shirt. But I have done. For those who have used power to cramp liberty have gone so far as to resent even the liberty
of complaining, although a man upon the rack was never known to be refused the liberty of roaring as loud as he thought fit.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for the Holocene!

In his nobel prize speech, Faulkner, at his most Polonian, said that man will ‘not only endure. He will prevail…” This may have made some sense at the dawn of the nuclear bomb age, and perhaps these words have to be set as a sort of defiant humanism against a global war that killed 50 million people.

However, the hope of man prevailing has steadily lost altitude over the last couple of decades, and will, I think, continue to seem more and more the long shot. Man prevailing has meant man creating a treadmill of production and a treadmill of consumption that now seems both unstoppable and disastrous. Parents, today, calmly expect the fish to disappear from the oceans by the time their children have achieved middle age. The elephant, the tiger, and the rain forest are all marked down to be remembered as theme park accessories.

As man prevails, he destroys the Holocene in which he was born, nourished and flourished, and he does this with the calm lack of attention with which a person, say, cleans the lint and old tickets out of his coat pocket. After all, the Holocene might go, but at least BP is back and ready for business – and has purchased its first new lease in the Gulf, thanks to the anti-Holocene Obama administration. Which, as we know, will be succeeded by the anti-Holocene Romney administration, which will basically pursue the same policies.

Thoughts of the Holocene have been with me since last night, when A. and I traveled up to the Cinema St. Michel by bus, forked over an amazing 10.5 Euros each, picked up two clunky dark glasses, and plunged, 3-d-ily, into the depths of the Chauvet cave. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the Herzog film since I first read about it, since I am a big fan of caves. One of my favorite interviews, when I still interviewed – ever since interviewing Gregory Curtis, the ex editor of Texas Monthly who wrote a fascinating book on the subject after having immersed himself in the literature (which is, by all accounts, oddly polemical – every generation seems to have a dominant theories about the Paleolithic people that are then overturned, with maximum contempt, by the next generation) and gone and visited the caves, or those he could. Oh, to go from cave to cave! What a blissful idea.

Here’s what I wrote after reading Curtis, back in 2006:

Reading it, we were struck like by 100 000 volts that during the Upper Paleolithic – that wonderful time when there were, max, 150 000 people in Europe, and life was good for around twenty thousand years - the cave artists generally didn’t draw or paint or engrave people. There were your stray vulvas, the masked bird man, many hand prints, but generally – no people. Instead, there were mammoths. There were lions. There were rhinos and horses. Oddly, much fewer reindeer, even though reindeer meat was the spam of the Paleolithic – it was always poached reindeer for breakfast, fricasseed reindeer for lunch, and reindeer pudding for dinner. We are often told how to evolution stories about this or that human habit, but in reality, the way those how to stories are formed is that evo psychologists extrapolate back from ‘primitive people’ of today to those wandering around 200,000 years ago. However, this habit is in serious disconnect from archeologists, who have long held that ethnography of people today, in no matter what state of society they live in, is essentially unhelpful when trying to reconstruct the way the inhabits of the Eurasia 30,000 years ago lived. It is impossible not to imagine back using our PBS/National Geographic images, but what tribe do we know of that doesn’t draw people? Deleuze and Guattari talk of the special faciality of the West – this seems right, on all accounts – but to show so little interest in people when one has mastered perspective, and the expressive character of animals? That seems quite significant. But of what? Well, this is where speculation is dumb, but irresistible.”

My speculative position is that the cave art of 30,000 years ago, with its absence of the human, marks the time when – just perhaps – humans did not assume they would prevail. They did not even assume they were superior, since of course they knew – the horse was superior for speed, the lion and tiger and bear was superior for strength, the bird for flight, and so on.
There wasn’t - I would speculate, in this scene still dotted with other hominid candidates for most likely to survive - the sense that homo sapiens was superior in any department at all.

Given this sense of an overwhelmingly un-human world, the Chauvet paintings are all the more incredible. But I watched not just for the painting, but for something Curtis’s book had mentioned, which is also mentioned in Judith Thurman’s account of Chauvet:
“Twenty-six thousand years ago (six millennia after the first paintings were created), a lone adolescent left his footprints and torch swipes in the furthest reaches of the western horn, the Gallery of the Crosshatching.”

I don’t know why this stray detail effects me so much, but it does. When Herzog finally showed the footprints, I got dreadfully tearful.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

notes on the treason of the clerks

Let’s make a square:

Eternal ---------- Partial

Contemporary-------- Universal

These are the parameters of Benda’s conception of the clerk, or the intellectual, in the 20th century. They also fit, to a degree, Gramsci’s reflection on organic intellectuals – which runs counter to Benda’s notion of the clerk - and Mann’s 1919 idea of the Non-political intellectual.

Mann’s non-political intellectual is the most complex case, because Mann’s irony creates odd combinations, linking the partial (German values) to the eternal (transcendent cultural values), which is an inherently unstable pairing – irony, here, is not simply a rhetorical trope, but a shy conceptual synthesis, one that never quite gets made.

In fact, from the point of view of the contemporary (say, the engaged Intellectual against which Benda fought), it is rather easy to ‘unmask’ the eternal and the universal. After all, these two categories are identified, in the end, very much with a locale and a history. They are identified with the “West”, that semi-region that really designates the continual process of Westernization – a process that operates on the agricultural populations of France as well as on the Nahuatl speaking populations of Mexico.

And yet, when the contemporary critique has done its unmasking, one can, from the point of view of the eternal, unmask the unmasker – for what is this unmasking done in the name of? It is not made outside of universal history- it is, on the contrary, an event within universal history, within modernism, and is inseperable from the development of the world market. It, too, is a carrier of Westernization.

From the Marxist point of view, the contemporary develops its sense of the eternal in the concept of revolution, which is paired with a new universal – one that is made after the World market has created, indeed, a world. This would be the universal working class, which is the only class with a real interest in abolishing class – in, that is, the revolution. Again, these are uneasy pairings.

I don’t mean to imprison the topic of the ‘intellectual’ or clerk in a structural cage: but rather to show the broad semantic elements of the narrative of the intellectual as it was put together in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and its disappointments.