Saturday, November 26, 2022

lynyrd skynyrd and Proust

 Unexpectedly, a bit of my teen years in suburban Atlanta visited my son's French elementary school yesterday. As part of a show and tell, one of his roommates brought a guitar and played a riff from Freebird. Freebird! I looked down my seventeen year old nose at Lynyrd Skynnyrd and basically all Southern rock of the seventies. But perhaps that music had its revenge on me, for I can, actually, in a mesmeric trance, lipsync Freebird.

I wonder what Proust would do with this material? The agents of the memory that unleashes In Search of Lost Time are taste and smell - the taste of madeleines, the most common cookie, and the smell of various perfumes and flowers. If, however, the young Marcel had lived in Clarkston, Georgia, I'm pretty sure the agent of memory would be sound - the sound on the radio of pop songs. Some station in Atlanta, in the seventies, got the kids up to go to high school by playing, every day, Dylan's Rainy Day women song (they stone you when you're going to make a buck...). Lynyrd Skynyrd was everywhere in my high school. Or I should say at the white end of my high school - though the school was officially de-segregated, there were few black students in my classes.
If you look at American pop culture and the way it acts as a memory agent, you see some interesting things. Every aging truck driver and secretary is in search of lost time, and they pursue it through the songs of their teen years. Now, we have infinite numbers of concert films from the seventies on YouTube, so you can even wallow in the high with which you went to see the Allman Brothers at Piedmont Park, or whatever. Myself, thinking I was quite the outlaw, never went to any of these concerts, and yet here I am, washed up in France, remembering "and this bird you cannot chaaaange (or is it chain?)" and thinking of comrades, now retiring, who sat next to me in classes that I can barely remember the purpose of. All the ships at sea eventually go down to the bottom.
But this bird you cannot chain.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The expulsion of the giants


There is a valiant but small tradition of scholars who see the connection between the so called Western tradition and that of the “East”: among whom the most famous is, perhaps, Martin Buber. Before writing his masterpiece in the twenties, I and Thou, Buber published a “translation” of the Chuang-Tzu that was really a translation of the English translation of the Chuang-Tzu made by James Legge. In a wonderful essay by Jonathan Herman, “The Mysterious Mr. Wang: the search for Martin Buber’s Confucian Ghostwriter” (one of those rare academic titles that evokes the Fu Manchu series by Sax-Rohmer), the background of Buber’s effort is exposed. Sinology was constructed in the German speaking countries in the 19th century on terms that were consistent with a long theme in German culture stemming from Herder, which on one reading promoted a basic equality between cultural productions around the globe. The idea that one should accept the Chinese philosopher as an equal in the dialogue of philosophy is still more valued in theory than in practice. Few really put in that work. But in the German countries, perhaps partly due to German imperial designs on China after the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese studies held a special place. One remembers that Canetti’s Peter Kien, the protagonist of Auto-de-Fe, is a Sinologist. It is through these grids – Sinology and Hassidic Tales – that Buber was enabled to think through the metaphysics of communication that is at the center of the I – thou book. Kafka, too, in The Great Wall of China, sees China through - perhaps - Buber's eyes.

This direct link, in the early twentieth century, and other links going back to Leibniz, should be backgrounded by a certain community of motifs. For instance: the giant. A too often forgotten figure in Western philosophy.

The first chapter of the Chuang-Tzu consists of a comparison between the giant and the small, beginning with the famed fish, K’un:

“IN THE NORTHERN DARKNESS there is a fish and his name is K'un.1 The K'un is so huge I don't know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P'eng. The back of the P'eng measures I don't know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move,2 this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven. (Burton Watson translation)
Against the wonder of the P’eng is set the laughter of the dove and the cicada:
“The cicada and the little dove laugh at this, saying, "When we make an effort and fly up, we can get as far as the elm or the sapanwood tree, but sometimes we don't make it and just fall down on the ground. Now how is anyone going to go ninety thousand li to the south!”
The chapter then proceeds through other giant/small contrasts in the style peculiar to it – each passage being at once unlinked from the proceeding one and yet bearing the distinct resemblance that one hand of cards bears to another. So giant and small face off against each other in wisdom, in status, in miraculous powers. The final contrast is between Hui Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Hui Tzu, given giant gourd seeds, plants and grows them, but the gourds are too big, so he smashes them Chuang Tzu laughs at this, saying that Hui Tzu, seems to be in thrall to the outward show of the gourds only: “Now you had a gourd big enough to hold five piculs. Why didn't you think of making it into a great tub so you could go floating around the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying because it was too big and unwieldy to dip into things! Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!"
So: what is the Daoist attitude towards the giant – are we looking at things from the perspective of the P’eng or the cicada? Surely Chuang Tzu’s tone of mockery is supposed to release us from the first impression of the giant – the impression of sheer wonder. And that is a motif that has references pointing to the early modern era in Europe: this is when, as a sly maneuver, the writers who were inventing the “novel” used it to attack wonder itself , the glue that officially kept the sacred system together. Rabelais’ mock giants, the windmills that Don Quixote attacks, thinking that they are giants – this is about, in one sense, chasing the giants from the culture. Giordano Bruno uses the same mock heroic means in the Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast. In the Ash Wednesday colloquy, Nolan (Bruno himself) is extolled in terms that could plug into the Chuang Tzu:
“Now here is he who has pierced the air, penetrated the sky, toured the realm of stars, traversed the boundaries of the world, dissipated the fictitious walls of the first, eighth, ninth, tenth spheres, and whatever else might have been attached to these by the devices of vain mathematicians and by the blind vision of popular philosophers. Thus aided by the fullness of sense and reason, lie opened with the key of most industrious inquiry those enclosures of truth that can be opened to us at all, by presenting naked the shrouded and veiled nature; he gave eyes to moles, illumined the blind who cannot fix their eyes and admire their own images in so many mirrors which surround them from every side. He untied the tongue of the mute who do not know [how to] and did not dare to express their intricate sentiments. He restored strength to the lame who were unable to make that progress in spirit which the ignoble and dissolvable compound [body] cannot make. He provided them with no less a presence [vantage point] than if they were the very inhabitants of the sun, of the moon, and of other nomadic [wandering] stars [planets]. He showed how similar or dissimilar, greater or worse [smaller] are those bodies [stars, planets) which we see afar, compared with that [earth] which is right here and to which we are united. And he opened their eyes to see this deity, this mother of ours, which on her back feeds them and nourishes them after she has produced them from her bosom into which she always gathers them again -- who is not to be considered a body without soul and life, [33. This animistic world view precedes a slightly veiled affirmation of pantheism.] let alone the trash of all bodily substances.”

The moment of mockery, of the exorcism of the giants, gets its juice, its scoffing power, from the practical, from the peasant’s p.o.v. – it is, after all, through Sancho Panza that we know the giants are windmills in Don Quixote. What James Scott calls the Little Tradition – the culture of the peasant and its characteristic skepticism – penetrates the Big Tradition – the tradition of the metropole, with its merchants, scholars, and natural philosophers, all bound together through an intricate system of patronage.
However, it would be a retarded enlightenment indeed that remained frozen in the moment of mockery. The movement, as in the quote from Bruno above, is to another and more abstract view. In the Chuang Tzu, the scale by which the K’un is gigantic and the dove is small is itself neither gigantic nor small. The scale has no size. In Bruno, the attack on the giants is done in the name of a notion of infinity with which Bruno’s name is still associated. When Newton applies the laws of motion on earth to the heavenly bodies, his idea is related to this same notion of a scale of no size – of a force. Newton famously wrote that he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants – showing that he had learned something that would make him free from the reproach Chuang Tzu gives to Hui Tzu: "You certainly are dense when it comes to using big things!” In fact, there is a certain slyness to Newton’s phrase – he does not, as is usual with the phrase (tracked through every maze by Robert Merton in his book) call himself a dwarf – his own stature is, as it were, for the observer to determine.
Although there are many Enlightenment tropes that return us again and again to light, to seeing, to emancipation, the deepest trope, I think, is that which uses the chasses aux geants to make us think of the scale that has no scale – a viewpoint outside the divine.

Monday, November 21, 2022

the murder on trolley track b


From my piker’s point of view, moral philosophy can be illuminated by imaginary scenarios, but it can’t be based on imaginary scenarios. If we treat these scenarios like "experiments" -and if we grant there can be experiments that are, by design, possible only in the imagination - than we have to have some idea of what narration is about, and what varying a narrative does. I think the recent riot of utilitarians all exercising their effective altruism is a case of thought experiment poisoning. Too much depends on the “trolley problem”, and not enough interest is put into analysing the narrative of the “trolley problem” – including the odd use of the word “save” which pops up in trolley prob discussions.  When people start to talk about “saving” others, I start to ask about the psychopathology of the saviour complex.

I saved no body today by not driving up on sidewalks and ramming into people. That is a bad, but comic, description of driving down the street. 

If a scenario becomes stereotypical, it limits the imagination, which is why philosophers who indulge too much in imaginary scenarios should definitely read  Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

When I first heard tell of the trolley problem, I laughed. My aesthetic instinct, as opposed to my moral one, thought that the narrative structure was joke-like. However, the trolley story has had such a large afterlife since it was formulated by Phillipa Foot that I have given this doubtful scenario a little bit more thought. It does seem like an  illuminating scenario about the “vocational instinct” that causes  philosophers to place themselves automatically in the managerial class and to make moral judgments within that position. The standard scenario is of a driver of a brakeless trolly who can go down track a and hit five people or swerve and go down track b and hit one person. This is often contrasted with the scenario of a surgeon who can “save” lives with some transplants. Here is a version taken from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s The Trolley Problem:

“Now consider a second hypothetical case. This time you are to imagine yourself to be a surgeon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. At the moment you have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die; if you find organs for them today, you can transplant the organs and they will all live. But where to find the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is almost up when a report is brought to you that a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute his parts among the five who need them. You ask, but he says, "Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no." Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway? Everybody to whom I have put this second hypothetical case says, No, it would not be morally permissible for you to proceed. Here then is Mrs. Foot's problem: Why is it that the trolley driver may turn his trolley, though the surgeon may not remove the young man's lungs, kidneys, and heart?"

The philosophy story, with some exceptions, puts the philosopher (pace Nietzsche) in the role of the operator, not the operated upon. In the trolley story, we have no input from the operated upon – the laborers – they would be laborers – upon the track. The surgeon, it is emphasized, is a great surgeon. Of course! At least here the patient has some say – namely, I would prefer not to.

The lack of curiosity about the narrating business spoils the moral fun, in my opinion. Phillipa Foot definitely needs to meet Raymond Queneau – the Queneau of Exercises in Style. That little book takes a commonplace and rather drab situation that happens, as it happens, on a trolly – or rather, on busline S. He gets jostled  by another passage, almost sobbingly reproaches the latter, jumps for a recently empty seat, gets off, and is seen two hours later at the gare St. Lazaire, talking to a comrade about a lost button on his overcoat.

From that situation, Queneau extracts 98 other ways of telling this story, ranging from shifting to the first person to a generalizing tone – dubbed philosophique – that seeks to find the phenomenology of coincidence adumbrated in this story – to  a medical account, etc. You could stretch out the trolley problem easily -for instance, while the trolley driver runs over the one person on track two, it turns out the six laborers are part-time circus artists and were well prepared to squeeze into the margins of the track if the trolley came by. Or you could place yourself in the head of the one person, looking down from the afterlife, and wondering if his death was preferable to the possible deaths of the others, or if his death had to do with him being the head of the union of railroad workers and his recent conflict with the management. Or perhaps the one man on the b  track, hated by one of the men on the a track, was murdered through the agency of the trolley driver, as the man on the first track sabotaged the brake and knew the instincts of the trolly driver. A true experiment follows just such a course – you vary the variables. The imaginative scenario is meant to provoke an “instinct”, but it is unclear why this is called an instinct rather than a judgment that depends on the circumstances not only of the imaginary scenario but of its telling. And that narrative plasticity is just the way to put in question the managerial suppositions of the imagined scenario. The philosopher not as king, but as a scribe with labor class sentiments.

Phillipa Foot was, in her youth, Iris Murdoch’s roommate. Murdoch knew Queneau, met him in 1946, and wrote letters to him in which she said various lovely things to him. According to Foot, she and Murdoch read Queneau’s Pierrot, Mon Ami in 1944. I wonder if she read the Exercises in Style?


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...