Saturday, April 03, 2021

The limits of clarity


Clarity – or clearness, a word that blemishes the clear, slightly, with the -ness – has an almost universal claque. It is the rare soul who says anything against it. Such applause for something that is at once so direct and so... hard to define, even vague, is a phenomenon that is worth looking at. There are few papers out there entitled: against clarity. Alison Stone wrote a paper entitled the “Politics of Clarity” (2015) which tries to sort out the utilization of clarity concerns by “analytics” to deflate “continentals”. It is a good paper, and it makes good points about how the call for “clearness” is often used to enforce an ultimately patriarchal norm.

“Pushing this concern further, we might say that the notion of clarity is itself a myth. "Clear" thinking is merely thinking that fits in with, embodies, and fails to challenge the hegemonic power relations of the surrounding society. Such thinking seems "clear" merely because it is familiar, and this is because it is thinking in which dominant power relations are naturalized. To celebrate clarity is to mask the real issue: power.

Stone’s paper is built on an opposition between “transparency” and the “mask”. Clarity has long been caught up in this opposition – it easily shifts to transparency. It is interesting that the clarity-transparency terminology, when applied to speaking, only work as “masked” metaphors – as metaphors referencing light and vision. Joyful things, one would think. So why is it that clarity so often comes with a ruler to rap the student’s blundering hand – or the continental philosopher’s?

Bryan Magee, writing about clarity in philosophy, makes the argument that clarity is a property of the structure of the philosophical text, and not of the elements – the sentences – that make it up (which sentences instead of paragraphs is one of the unclear things about the essay.) He also inserts a rather astonishing  understanding of these issues through the example of Kant:

“Some philosophers, most importantly Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, lay out a structure like this with the utmost clarity, yet in unclear sentences. In his case it was because he had spent many years thinking his critical philosophy through, but then wrote it down hurriedly because he was afraid of dying before he finished writing the book. The result is clear thinking expressed in unclear sentences.

I am not sure what this account references. Kant spent years “thinking his critical philosophy” would seem, to me, to mean Kant spent years writing notes on what he was thinking. But for Magee it seems to mean, literally, that Kant built it up in his head, like it is said that Mozart heard his compositions – although unlike Mozart, who supposedly wrote down his compositions without an erasure, Kant, afraid of death, rushed his work. This might be the most doubtful account of the Critique of Pure Reason I’ve ever read – especially in as much as Kant made significant changes in the editions of the Critique, not a thing a man fleeing death tends to do. If Magee were correct, the correlary would be that Kant’s Vor-kritische Schriften are probably written more clearly than his Critical work. I don’t know who claims this – I doubt Magee has actually made the comparison.

However, the notion that the approach of death tends to lend a premonitory obscurity to one’s writing is very much part of the “myth of clarity”. Clarity requires some lifting of stress – a bourgeois insight that, I think, could help us think about what clarity is, why its desireable, and what its limits are.

In Stone’s essay, she points to a classic instance of polemical “clarity-making” – Carnap’s analysis of Heidegger’s phrase, Nichts nichtet – nothing nothings. Stone moves from this to Adorno’s notion that clarity, attached to “common sense”, has a repressive function. It should be noted, though, that Adorno was quite as convinced that Heidegger was speaking “jargon’.

This points to the problem with taking the “analytic” and “continental” schools as homogenous blocks, rather than didactic fictions that arose in the post World War II academic scene. Jargon, Adorno’s word, points to the connection between slangs and subcultures – Adorno’s own prose, to a certain ear, is incorrigibly Weimar-ish, the mixture of Karl Kraus’ attempt to discipline all thought into the bounds of the epigram and sociological terms derived from not only the Marxist but the Simmelian and Weberian traditions.

Am I saying the limits of clarity are the limits of my own subcultural group? This goes too far, I think, exaggerating how far from the main these subcultures are. I admit that Heidegger’s riff on nothing can be danced upon with some glee, but that “analytical” philosophers go all reverent with admiration when Tarksi comes out with the news that a metalogical truth is possible

“A materially correct truth-definition logically entails all instances of the form: (T) «(A) is true if and only if A*, where '«(A)' is a name of the sentence A and 'A*' is its translation into a metalanguage.”

A veritable font of unclarity for the laity,  starting with “materially correct” and moving onto “translation” and “metalanguage.” The notion of the translation seems, uh, to make this whole thing rather  circular – in the best Heideggerian tradition.

Is there a form of clarity that can take into itself our deathhauntedness and our tendency to make explanations more important, and more cumbersome, than the object of explanations? A question for philosophers.  


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

note on the cold war: the defector

In Sir Thomas Ellyot’s dictionary of English from 1559, there is an entry for defector: “he that so departeth or rebelleth, or goth from one to an other.” It goes back to a group of latin words that mean weakness, lack, or desertion – relating the word to defect. It is, to say the least, interesting that desertion, going from one to an other side, and lack are so conjoined. The word lies there in the general linguistic bank, from Ellyot’s time to the 1940s, when suddenly its time arrives. New words or phrases, I have found, can be plucked from the archives of the New York Times by their quotation marks. They are swaddled in these marks (“defector”) due to the New York Time’s linguistic gentility – they have not yet grown up enough to walk around without quote marks. Other newspapers and magazines will either use the baby word enough that the quotes disappear, or the word itself disappears.

In Russian, similarly, there is a word that applies to the set of agents covered by “defector” – “the one who does not return”, nevorzvrashchenets. Which implies a going forth – a movement. I have no idea if the etymological journey of that word is similar to that of defector, or it is was brought it into prominence in the late forties. It would not surprise me.
The cold war was many things to many people – newspaper articles, the spread of automatic military rifles, the triumphant entry into colonial capitals of victorious, ragtag guerillas, oil pipelines, synthetics, planned economies, missile building, the stretch from the concentration camp Dora to the walk on the moon, etc. - and one of the things it was was a period of defectors. The defector and the cold war are twins. Of course, I am tempted to say: every period gets the heretics it deserves. Which is the kind remark that is also rooted in a cold war thematic: the identification of ideology with religion. This was considered, at the beginning of the cold war, a decisive and cutting insight – communism is a religion! The idea being that the atheists were deceiving themselves. And, of course, you can’t build a social order on a deception. It also explained the stubborn adherence of smart individuals to evidently illogical and horrific ideologies. It was that irrational thing, faith.
A little of this can dissolve more than its users orginally intended. One could begin to doubt that any social order can be built on foundational logic and rationality. This doubt started to bubble up from the depths in the 60 in America and Europe.
What need did the word “defector” meet?
It seems prima facie that the two “camps” – the non-communists and the communists – needed a word to convey something a bit different than traitor for those who came over, went forth to their side. The grinding gears of presenting a soviet defector in the press as a ‘traitor” made a softer word necessary. However, this was more than a case of Orwellian manipulation; for, indeed, the notion of treason in the cold war was under pressure, along with the notion of the unilateral state.
It might seem easy to label Klaus Fuchs giving the Soviets America’s “atom bomb secrets” an act of treason. But this would imply a relationship between the soviets and the U.S. that was certainly in play in the forties, due to the fact of their military alliance. Furthermore, the whole base of the atom bomb program was built by, among others, exiles who technically were “betraying” their various countries of origin, which countries had fallen into Naziism or fascism. As twentieth century states grew bigger, developed elaborate intelligence agencies, militaries, and welfare agencies of all kinds, making it harder and harder to “locate” the state, particularly as it intersected with giant corporations and other states. If Klaus Fuchs is a traitor for giving America’s nuclear secrets away, what are we to say of the method by which Israel developed its nuclear bombs? The relatively unknown Zalman Shapiro, who helped build the first nuclear powered American subs, is suspected by some of having smuggled uranium to Israel from his Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo Pa. Others, namely Seymour Hersch, suspects that it was material that was just carelessly lost in Apollo – a much worse crime, in my opinion.
I imagine that if Shapiro did smuggle the uranium, he did not do it, in his own mind, as a traitor.Just as I imagine – and imagination is important here – that Harry Dexter White, who gave documents to the Soviets while he was at the State department, did not think of himself as a traitor. Rather, in both cases, there was a sense of do it yourself foreign policy. There's a long tradition of this in the U.S. - and in other countries undergoing radical political change, defined by one of another faction in the country.
What happened at Apollo is interesting. Here's a link.
Defector arose as an answer to a conceptual puzzle about sovereignty, but it never really provided a satisfactory answer. Oddly, as the corporation globalized and the wall fell, the defector also retreated as a figure of current interest. Straight out for money sales of arms and secrets seem not quite to fit the defector imago – nor do they speak to the revenge of the traitor.
As the state gets mistier, the betrayal of the state gets mistier. We defect, now, from Amazon, not the free world, and we defect to other media platforms, in a world that is same as it ever was.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...