Thursday, August 25, 2005

Manic Random Linkage

Some of these are old. I point out I had no internet access for three weeks. Enjoy.

A Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford says the kind of erudite, reasonable things one would expect a Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford to say about proposals to criminalise speech which could be construed as attempting to justify terrorism and excuse killings of civilians as long as they are committed by the police, i.e., he rips the piss, but in a very calm and collected way. This pleases me (I've forgotten where I found this link: apologies to whoever).

Andrew Bartlett gets quite annoyed about people trying to erase or diminish the point that it's not really the done thing in a country which allegedly prides itself on its adherence to the rule of law for the police to extra-judicial executions. Especially when those people include the police. One might be tempted to think that they didn't always have our best interests at heart. Phil of Actually Existing had some stuff to say about this as well.

Brian Leiter, wholly reasonable man that he is, reproduces the text of a statement by Cindy Sheehan which is just quite appropriately vitrolic about the absolute moral vacuum that is George Dubya Bush and his government. Then he notes that Pat Robertson - as I'm sure several others have also done - may have some difficulty getting into Britain if Charles Clarke gets his way. On this note, I think it could probably be rather important that the legislation is well drafted, as, for example, I'd be quite happy to describe the US assault on Falluja as terrorism, and since doing something seemingly without qualms and not then apologising for it is presumably a kind of attempt at justification, we could be ending up deporting, well, the leader of the free world.

Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling is his typically provocative self, and proposes a new use for Saddam Hussein in light of the difficulties for animal testing created by various animal rights organisations, who, frankly, should be picketing halal butchers instead. I'm not sure that this isn't a 'Modest Proposal' type satire, but if it's not, I think there may be very good reasons why we shouldn't do what Chris suggests, but it depends on how bad the testing would be for the convicted criminals who would replace the animals. If it would be relevantly like torture, then I think the argument I made here stands against it. I'm not even going to get started on David f*cking Gauthier (count to ten, then all after me: to each according to his threat advantage is not a principle of justice).

Next, Chris asks about the role of intuitions in ethics, which he must know is a whole big can of worms. Without going into it in any great depth, I think intuitions must be central to any ethical theory, to the extent that it tells fatally against utilitarianism, for example, that it counts the pleasure of the torturer as equal to that of the tortured, because intuitions are closest thing we have to evidence in ethics. This is because I tend to think of ethics - or at least, what philosophers mean by ethics - as a kind of tidying-up exercise, the goal of which is to produce increasingly coherent, holistic accounts of our ethical thinking. This is for epistemological reasons I have outlined here, amongst other places.

Chris also wonders about the extent of our obligations to those we don't share a polity with. I tend to think Pogge, is probably right about this. Pogge's argument is something like the claim that we have an obligation to ensure that any institutions we participate in treat other whom they affect reasonably, and that various institutions - or indeed, institutionalised lack of institutions - which connect the global North to the global South fail to do that, meaning we have an obligation to rectify the situation. That seems like a good Rawlsian argument to me, although I haven't read 'The Law of Peoples', where Rawls denies the implications that Pogge draws from his work.

Finally, things which I'm not going to say anything about: Blimpish gainfully tries to make conservatism sound plausible, again, and the Law West of Ealing Broadway sets another one of their quizes.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Technical Thing

Think I might have discovered the cause of the evil comments spam, and hopefully got rid of it. Just in case though, you know have to write some weird thing before commenting. Sorry. If anyone's got a better way of dealing with comment spam, which the semi-computer literate can understanding, let me know.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


Tebbit's been making a song and dance about his Cricket test again. All I'm going to say about this is, why wasn't it a problem - and I'm assuming it wasn't - that the Oval was a home test match for the West Indies in the from the sixties until the eighties?

Marxism, The Philosophy of History, and How To Write A Novel

One of the things I have occupied myself with whilst living in the absence of recreational use of the internet is China Mieville’s most recent novel, ‘The Iron Council’. I’ve written in the past about Mieville’s quite excellent evocation of a wholly imagined yet somehow recognisable, somehow real, place, and the philosophically alive yet thoroughly gripping plots, and I am not about to withdraw that praise. However, I will temper it. ‘The Iron Council’ just isn’t as good as either ‘The Scar’ or ‘Perdido Street Station’, and it isn’t as good because it tries to do too much. Mieville is a Marxist, and as such, is particularly interested in the philosophy of history, or at least so it seems from reading ‘The Iron Council’, which, while reasonably compelling, and generally approaching the standard of descriptive writing and characterisation as the two other Bas Lag novels, is too interested and somehow not interested enough in that topic to be as good a novel as the other two.

‘The Iron Council’ tells the story – that’s a spoiler alert, if you want one – of a kind of worker’s collective which escapes first from the grinding oppression of capitalist exploitation, then from the crushing inevitability of its annihilation by the agents of that exploitation, and finally from history altogether, if only by renouncing, in concrete form, the first two victories over its relentless slog through time. It’s not entirely clear – to me at least – what point Mieville means to make with this ending, with the preservation, in an aspic of a sort, of the revolutionary hope that the train, hurtling towards the futile hope of rescuing an already defeated rebellion, represents. Yet he does mean something by it, for it is the climax of a novel which is clearly bordering on obsession with the philosophy of history.

Now, at this point, it is probably tempting to think that the wilfully obscurantist amateur philosopher has been reading far too much into what is, after all, a genre novel. Yet one of the main characters in the novel is, I think, a personification of history: always present, always doing things, without quite ever participating in the sense that the things that are done become a kind of lived experience for him. He is a key motor of the plot, yet he is constantly absent, outside of concrete experience, Other, almost utterly, in a sense, without character, inhuman. He helps create and sustain – by defeating or, in the end, curiously stymieing opposing forces – the train and the possibilities it represents, but only be grasping, in a somehow inevitable way, at opportunities which other genuine actors have created, while the rest of the time being any one of a number of effectively interchangeable extras: either he is a myth or a nonentity, neither of which are truly real. He is not concrete enough, too elsewhere, to be in history, yet through things he does, it advances. He is history.

The other characters in the novel know this: his lover is constantly infuriated by embraces which are not joyless but somehow disengaged, as if there is something larger, greater, which strips them of their immediacy, as if they are not lived but merely passed through, however benignly. This is of course without even mentioning his acquisition of a new and unexpectedly powerful ability to shape the material world to his will, if the inscrutable thing he has could be described as a will, a characteristic of history in Marxism if there ever were one, or his role as envoy of the forces which destroy a less developed community early on in the novel.

This is at points well-done: Judah’s time with the quite alien, uncomprehending, Stiltspear, and his unease at the inevitability of their destruction by the coming railway and his participation in it, is pitched perfectly, for example. However that is not always the case. The moment where the Iron Council is frozen – Judah in the end learns to manipulate time, as he has been able to manipulate physical substance throughout the novel, and takes the train out of time – is clumsy and ill-expressed, visibly only there to make whatever point it is that Mieville is grasping at. It is this – the clumsiness and the obviousness of the philosophical points – that grates, especially when it is in such contrast to the grace and ease with which similar questions dealt with in the other two novels.

In ‘Perdido Street Station’, a crucial moment of the plot – again, that’s a spoiler alert – turns on a number of points about the nature of mind. The central thread of the plot concerns the main characters efforts to deal with a set of rather predatory creatures they accidentally released which strip-mine the minds of their victims for food. In the end, they are defeated by exploiting the fact that whilst human – and in the novel, relevantly similar sentient creatures – minds are both coldly rational calculating machines and structureless streams of magpie conscousness, they are not just the marriage of those two things: the whole is greater than, or at least different to, the sum of its parts. The novel contains characters whose minds – of we would be comfortable describing them as minds – are coldly rational calculating machines and structureless streams of magpie consciousness respectively, yet they have a life in the plot beyond the fact that they are crucial to its denouement. This just isn’t always the case in ‘The Iron Council’ – Judah is too transparent, for one thing, and the weird inevitability of the fate of the train itself is too telegraphed, too unsure of itself, most obviously – and it suffers because of that. This isn’t to say it’s not good: it’s compelling, and I had to ration myself it, to stop myself consuming it all in a couple of sittings. It’s just not as good as I’d have liked.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Charlie Boy, Sir Ian, Dracula, The Infinite Futures and The Rule of Law

First, apologies for the absence. I’d probably be misleading myself if I said I was much missed, but bizarrely, comments continue to appear even when I don’t write anything for three weeks, so there are people out there who spend time reading and apparently thinking about things I’ve written, despite me not actually writing anything. Clearly from these small beginnings, a meteoric rise towards the position of, oh I don’t know, staff writer at the local free rag, one of those that masquerades as a newspaper, a pretence given the lie by the padding-out of used car and furniture sale adverts with the most banal possible items of alleged human interest, and which goes straight into the recycling after it has been appropriately mocked, beckons. I do have a proper excuse – I’ve not had internet access, apart from at work, where I suspect blogging might be frowned upon, for the past three weeks – but still, sorry.

Now, some proper thoughts, rather than just attempts at mocking my increasingly embarrassing lack of much resembling a career path. Well, thoughts is a little of an exaggeration: observations would probably be better. I noticed on Tuesday Charlie the Safety Elephant, when interviewed on the Today Programme, thinks that it is appropriate to deport people on the grounds that they might be a threat to national security. Leaving aside the issue of what exactly national security might be as excessive Tory-baiting – we’ll get to that later – the important thing here is that they might. Remember that a threat is, definitionally, a potentiality: blowing yourself up on the tube does not constitute a threat to national security, because it’s been done, and so is a harm to national security (whatever national security means anyway). Anyone who might blow themselves up on the tube is a threat to national security, because they contain the potentiality of a harm to national security.

So, what Charlie the Safety Elephant – what a gift those ears are – thinks now is that we should be deporting people who might, at some point, do or come to believe things which would led the government to decide that they might do other things which would harm national security. I’d say that’s a fairly wide ranging brief. I mean, it’s theoretically possible that we could go to war with any other country, and then, maybe, that country’s nationals living here would be a threat to national security. Let’s deport all foreigners! It’s a matter of urgency! They might, after all, at some point, be a threat – note, not actually do something, just be in a state that they might do something – to national security. That would be a truly terrible thing, to have tens, nay hundreds, of thousands of people wandering our streets who might, one day in one of the infinite number of possible futures, come to be in such a state as for it to be possible that they might do something to harm national security. The mind boggles at the possibility of these potential, potential harmers of our beloved national security, free to maybe, one day, maybe do something.

Why stop with foreigners in fact? Maybe we all might be threats to national security. Anyone of us could, at any time, for example, decide that maybe Charlie the Safety Elephant is a ridiculous idiot, and lampoon him, and since he and his plans are an essential part of the War on Abstract Nouns, and hence the safeguarding of national security, that would be not just a threat, but a definite harm to national security. We’ll have to deport everyone, just in case they might come to be in such a state where they might do such a thing.

I suppose though Charlie is just following, hesitantly admittedly, but still following the indisputable logic of the policemen who shot Jean Charles de Menezes. Anyone who leaves their house – in fact anyone who does anything, or doesn’t do anything either, but that leap of logic appears too sudden, too excessive, a step too far, for the unfortunately cramped minds directing our security forces – might be a suicide bomber, even if they give no actual outward sign of being one, and so, clearly, the only step is to kill them. But only after they have calmly taken a bus, and walked to the tube, picking up a free newspaper as they went, as if they had for all the world something totally different in their minds from the doom soon to crash down on the infidel, because, as we all know, they’re cunning buggers, these suicide bombers.

It is of course completely in line with proper procedure to let potential suicide bombers on buses, for two reasons: firstly, because they are cunning buggers, and only reveal themselves through their tactics of diversion, through their outwardly utterly normal and banal behaviour, like travelling on buses without blowing themselves up; and secondly, because if potential suicide bombers were shot when boarding buses, then, since, as already mentioned, anyone who leaves their house is a potential suicide bomber, anyone who got on a bus would run the very real risk of being shot by police, and that would clearly be a violation so severe as to be beyond the ridiculous of the most fundamental rights of the rule of law and due process.

Michael Howard mentioned the rule of law and due process in his opinion piece in the Grauniad on the same day as Charlie Boy decided to engage in his metaphysical speculations about the contents of the infinite number of possible futures. Howard claimed that commitment to the value of these institutions was a central part of the British identity that he thought was being swamped by the dread hordes of foreigners flocking to and tearing apart our beloved country like vultures round a corpse. Well, he didn’t say that part about vultures and corpses, but that’s what he meant, even though it was in the Guardian. Howard also mentioned the value of tolerance, which he thought said dread hordes might lack, which, along with their lack of the various other quasi-liberal but essentially meant to be meaningless pieties he invoked, created grounds for measures to assimilate into this British culture said dread hordes where they were already here, and presumably prevent any more getting in.

This combined with the invoking of the rule of law as part of British identity– if of course we take Howard literally, which would almost always be unwise (see rants passim but in particular this one) – seems to create a problem for Howard, because, if we respect the rule of law, and we’re tolerant of difference, where people don’t break the law, which is of course non-arbitrary, because we believe in the rule of law, we have an attitude of benign neglect towards any cultural identity they may adopt. But what Howard’s calling for is adopting an attitude of something other than benign neglect towards people even though they have broken no law, and would break no law, other than an arbitrarily applied one which picked them out on the grounds of their cultural background, for, surely, had these people actually broken any laws, under Charlie Boy’s regime, they’d be being tortured in some despotism far, far away by now (if only because Howard and his disgusting right-wing cronies had demanded it, but still). I think that’s contradictory, but then, I seem to think that deporting people just because they might be a threat and the police killing innocent people is a more than a little outrageous, so I’m obviously out of step with the sentiments of our times.