Thursday, November 25, 2021

Nagelian democracy: what is it like to be a voter?


I am, stripped of a few eccentricities, a standard issue Keynsian liberal in Marxist clothing - partly because there is no real Marxist movement or party to attach to, and I have long decided that politics without a movement or a party is an exercise in futility and depression. However, I think liberalism's attempt to shake the existential edge off politics is futile and ultimately damaging. The left, when it is healthy, and the right, when it is not, both know that politics is all about dread and ecstasy.
That politics might be an existentialist errand is very much part of what I take to be the salient characteristic of contemporary election-based democracies.
That politics might be an existentialist errand is very much part of what I take to be the salient characteristic of contemporary election-based democracies. If election based democracy is simply about input from those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, the Rousseauian impulse, which is non-cognitive in the technical sense that the will is non-cognitive, would seem fatally flawed. However, I don’t think election based democracy is about those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, at least if that grasp is defined in terms of having informed opinions about policy. In our opinion, a philosophical defense of democracy has to begin with a better description of how voting functions in a democracy in the first place. What kind of feed back is voting? I propose that we look for the answer to that question using Thomas Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat?
Now of course Nagel’s essay doesn’t seem like it is about politics at all. It is about the narrow set of questions that are posed by the cognitive sci school to frame the problem of consciousness. And, famously, Nagel suggests that these questions do not pose the central problem of consciousness at all : “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.”
What it is like questions grab hold of subjectivity, rather than deductive activity:
“We may call this the subjective character of experience. It is not captured by any of the familiar, recently devised reductive analyses of the mental, for all of them are logically compatible with its absence. It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing.2 It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons.3 I do not deny that conscious mental states and events cause behavior, nor that they may be given functional characterizations. I deny only that this kind of thing exhausts their analysis. Any reductionist program has to be based on an analysis of what is to be reduced. If the analysis leaves something out, the problem will be falsely posed. It is useless to base the defense of materialism on any analysis of mental phenomena that fails to deal explicitly with their subjective character. For there is no reason to suppose that a reduction which seems plausible when no attempt is made to account for consciousness can be extended to include consciousness. With out some idea, therefore, of what the subjective character of experience is, we cannot know what is required of physicalist theory.”
I find this passage inspiring as it applies to political philosophy.
The defense of the participation of the people in the government has traditionally been couched in terms of their education and their information about the policy issues. The Kantian dictum about enlightenment -- that it is the people treated as adults, or grown into their adulthood -- is often taken to be about the people educated. Relieved of their superstitions by some suitable immersion in the bath of facts. However, to me the "adulthood" does not stand for a list of facts known. It stands for a complicated system of controls on behavior, for the capacity for a range of emotions, for imagination, for empathy, etc., etc. In the same way, defining the voters participation in the government in terms of checking things off the list of things known is much like defining the consciousness solely in terms of deductive or inductive mechanisms. Or, at a stretch, in terms of intentionality.
The picture I am against is like this: your educated voter looks up candidate x’s view on the issue of lowering or raising tariffs on the import of bananas, and looks up candidate y’s view of same, and – deciding which view accords with his own intelligent view of banana importation – votes accordingly. Votes, in fact, can be reduced to a digital function: for/not for.
I think this is a bare and distorted view of what voting is about, and how it functions in a democracy. The voter, on this account, merely confirms or disconfirms views represented by x and y. On this basis, we think, democracy has no real strength that would explain not only its survival, but its survival in competition with its rivals of all sorts. It would simply be a system with a lag in the decision making process, called an election, as opposed to say tyranny, where the lags are unpredictable, and are called the hysterical fits of the ruler. Since it is unlikely that any voter has the amount of knowledge to make a competent judgment about not only the banana import issue, but, say, subsidies to the ethanol industry and car safety standards and the proper foreign policy to assume towards Gabon, if election based democracies depended on a set of voters with competent listable knowledge alone, I wouldn't give it much chance of survival.
The question of success, here, is often obscured by the rhetoric of morality. Democracies are supposed to possess some moral superiority. I have my doubts about this. Any time a political system becomes dominant, you find intellectuals busy justifying the system as morally superior. So far, the most long lasting governmental arrangement known to man involved the ruler marrying his sister and being acclaimed, at some point or another, a god, before his dead body was embalmed and interred under a certain tonnage of rock. In my opinion, this doesn’t sound like the height of morality, although it makes for very impressive postcards. We think that the success of democracy, given the success of other governmental arrangements in the past, probably does not have to do with its moral status, and probably has more to do with structural qualities it possesses.
This is the reason I don't think voting is well described by the Lockean model. I don’t think voters are like that. I prefer the Nagel voter. The Nagel voter votes, of course, in the for/against mode. But the Nagel voter votes from what it is like to be him or her. This is why the motives of the Nagel voter aren't simply confirming or disconfirming, and why the appeal to him or her is going to be about the emotions around the issues, or the issues as passions. And why the idea that is sometimes bruited about by liberal commentators about injecting ideas into a race and the scandal of not doing so is wrong – not wrong morally, but wrong organizationally. When, for instance, in the last election, the Swift boat veterans threw mud at Kerry, it was a perfectly legitimate ploy. After all, we are voting for someone who is going to have mud thrown at them constantly. The people who believed the mud were likely not going to vote for Kerry anyway. But the people who were persuaded by that ploy were not persuaded so much by the idea that Kerry was, I don’t know, a coward or a traitor – it wasn’t the ideational content, in other words, that moved them – as much as they were moved by the response. This isn't to say the better man was elected. It is to say that politics is about electing politicians, not better men. And that the system's success is peculiarly linked to what makes politicians successful.
Of course, polls are not sensitive to these things: polls ask questions about itemized issues, in a pre-digested sentiential form. There are, of course, millions of Lockean voters out there, and they are variously scandalized by the lack of intellectual content in American political campaigns. And I have enormous sympathy for that indignation. In fact, my indignation is easily aroused about what I see as gross stupidity on the part of politicians. Or about lies. Etc. Of course, the latter is a good instance of the situatedness of a political slant.
Just as I don’t want to throw deduction out as the enemy of consciousness, we don't want to entirely junk the image of the well informed voter. But eventually, the voting input is about what it is like to be an Irish ex-cop in New York city, or what it is like to be a embittered ex writer living in Paris, etc., etc.
So, in my example above, I am not as indignant about lies per se, due to my being well informed, as I am indignant because I am the type of person who gets indignant about certain lies at certain times, and that is finally due to my total situation. Now, if I am right about this, it still begs the question of the social nature of that tacit knowledge. Votes are additive, whereas tacit knowledge is emergent. That's a perhaps inevitable discrepancy in social action. But I will reserve pondering that question for another time.
I will round this off with a final comment: Nagel’s essay can potentially give us a defense of democracy that differs from the Lockean notion. The Lockean, remember, is one who, like the reductionist, believes the way to understand the functioning of a government is to find the elementary parts and their combinations. And, above all, to avoid the non-discursive. For the Lockean, the last sentence of the third paragraph in this quote contains an idea too shocking not to be wrong, since it seems to make it impossible to perfectly combine rationality and government. And, after all, if government is simply decision-making – with its past being a series of decisions made, and its future a series of decisions to be made - then the Lockean has to be right. But if what Nagel is calling experience is not a decision – if it is a style, a set of attitudes, unpredictable variations among language games – and if experience is what democracy depends on, then the decision to suspend a voter’s right to vote, or the decision to impeach the person voted for or in some other way suspend his voted upon term, has to be done with the utmost caution, since it injures the experiential core of democracy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Flaubert's agon - and ours

 One of the great modernist tropes is writing as the scene of the agon – Flaubert’s famous throes of despair on his sofa as he tears apart and rebuilds a single page in Madame Bovary is the hero, here. I think that moment has been insufficiently connected to the spread of literacy in the early modern era. Literacy did necessarily meanb the ability to write – in France, for instance, many girls were taught to read but not to write. However, that di-symmetry soon passed. Reading and writing, for us products of the nation state’s school system, seem irresistably attracted to each other, unlike, say, music and being able to read and write music. We have a hard time, now, imagining reading without writing.
This is why Flaubert’s case is something recognizable not only to the working novelist, but to all us itchers after the written word. As an editor of academic texts, I run into it in the highest reaches of the written. But the other side of the story is writing as an irresistable compulsion. Don’t take my word for it – look at the trillions of words freely poured out on the internet, writing that issues from no professional demand. Myself, I can step out from the billions who do this and offer my own not so unrepresentative experience of graphomania, in wh

ich the terms are reversed, and one suffers from the agon of not-writing.
I don’t know how far back my scribbling disease goes. I do know that by the tie the Internet reared up and ko-ed me, I was a definite notebook man, trailing acres of crabbed script around in all these ruled and unruled notebooks which promised, deceitfully, on the blank front page, to be the place, finally, where life and writing would converge. Most of those notebooks I’ve lost over the years – some I’ve stored here and there. There’s a shelf of them in the room in which I am typing this. They lay there, one heaped on top of the other, full, I know, of fervid, cribbed script in no particular order. I have learned, over the years, to write on the computer screen, but the fine flights of pixels there sometimes must start from a more traditional pen on the page. I’m not sure, any longer, which one is closer to my voice, or what my voice is, or sounds like.
I am not a “thought is language” mook – of course thought can exist unthought and unvoiced, just as an unfledged bird can exist in an egg. However, the more one writes, the more the transition from thought to writing begins to change. Or, rather, scratch that, the more the revolution takes place, the transvaluation of values. Thought, which was once the master of writing, becomes increasingly the excuse for writing – rather than boarding the train of the sentence, the sentence hijacks the train of the thought. It is as if, in the movie in my head, I’ve increasingly become more interested in the subtitles than the images. Give me the subtitles alone! I shout, sipping my coke and downing my popcorn there in the reaches of the velvet darkness, the illuminated womb.
I don’t think I am describing the existential position of an effete literatus here, either. Every self help book, at some point, advises writing things down, under the pretence that this will materialize one’s attention – as if that attention were some pre-existent, ambient thing. There are millions of live diaries, tweets, fb posts, comments in comments sections, etc., indicating to me that there are millions of people who write not only because it is required by whatever they do to bring home the bacon, but because they need to write.
Although email assassinated the US Postal service, I don’t accept the idea that it assassinated the letter. I have received thousands of letter-like emails – a thousand-fold more than the actual letters that I have received in my life. And children, my life has been long – I’m an ancient mariner who remembers the days of stamps and envelops.
Getting back to an earlier point – if in the 17th century there were thousands of people who could read and not write, perhaps more than could do both, in the Internet age a weird inversion has occurred. Of course, the people who write, now, can read, but I suspect the decline in reading that thumbsuckers so lachrymosely lament in the papers and the high concept journals is connected to the veritable explosion of writing. I read many e-books, they have long overtaken my reading of paper books, and I admit that it is a different experience. A less calm experience, a more crowded experience, more of an orgy than a monkish sitdown. There that certain current of impatience that nags the old placid, passive flow of the reading. Partly, of course, this is because my computer connects me up to the aforesaid trillions of words, so I suffer from over-choice. But partly too from the consciousness that I could be reading some irritating thing on the New Yorker blog and writing about it. It is as though I am chafed by the restraint of being a mere reader, a bystander.
This is writing as a pathological condition. We’ve moved on from Flaubert’s agon. We look back and envy him.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...