Saturday, March 04, 2006

Gilded Splinters

Dr. John, whom Spiritualized recruited to add piano to the echoing, languorous rhythms of Cop Shoot Cop, is allegedly an ex-drug dealer and still has DEA buckshot embedded in his buttocks. This quasi-knowledge almost certainly adds substantively to my enjoyment of that track. There's a romance to it, a sense in which it grants an authenticity to the song's narrative of blissed-out resistance to The Man collapsing into chaos and then dragging itself back into comprehensibility, but also a kind of playfulness, a ridiculousness about the story, which dissolves its particularity, makes it universal because it lacks authenticity. It helps that not only does Dr. John have a long history of self-created myths and sly winks at subverted and subversive traditions, but Jason Pierce's lyrics have often had a knowing edge to them, an awareness of the jokes his various obsessions are playing on him and his complicity in them. The song, and indeed almost all of that album, seems to embrace myths that it simultaneously punctures, mocking their foolishnesses and transparent contingency as it celebrates them.

Gordon Brown for a while now has been talking about Britishness, trying to articulate a vaguely Whiggish story of reform and progress, a story which he then tries to link to and use to flesh out the activities of the current government and the promises of any government he would lead. The temptation is to see this as an attempt at a rhetorical move, and little more: it seeks to tie Little Englanders to a political party which has traditionally been seen as more internationalist in temperament, if not necessarily actions, and to a leader who is rather obviously Scottish at a time when the powers of Scottish MPs are likely to have their legitimacy questioned. This may be a little too quick. It is easy to disparage the claims of Britishness to any politically normative content, particularly when, as I suppose is the case with almost any nationality, it can tie those who fall under its rubric to some rather unpleasant historical episodes. Equally, it is not difficult to ridicule the idea that the British have some particular claim to liberty in virtue of a series of historical events which no Briton alive experienced which those from other states lack, have, despite the common humanity of them all, a lesser entitlement to.

The pragmatist's insight, as I've said before, is a kind of acknowledgement of the limits of reason. The pragmatist has come to see that there is no way to escape totally from the particularities, the corruptions and biases, of the subject and the semantic web in which they are entangled, and so understands that to regard that inability as a disqualification from epistemic warrant is to hold an impossibly high standard. Objectivity and subjectivity become matters of degree, not of absolutes, that they circle each other constantly, engaging in cross-fertilisations, rather than act as polar opposites, driven apart by quasi-magnetic repulsion: the opposition between them is to a significant degree collapsed. Because of the way that that particular dichotomy repeats itself across the conceptual universe, disguises itself as other, related, concepts, other, similar, dichotomies are similarly weakened. That between the universal and the particular, whose relationship to the objective and the subjective ought to be self-evident, is perhaps most relevant here. It becomes clear that the universal, at the extreme, is empty because by containing everything it picks out nothing, whilst the particular, at its greatest extent, becomes a fetishism of small differences, a reification of existing power differentials.

The point about the celebratory cynicism, the cheerful irony, of Ladies And Gentlemen is that it looks clear-eyedly at a myth and realises it cannot escape it, that its allure continues to exert force even when the sources of that allure are exposed. A pragmatist should well understand this. Early on in my career as a purveyor of quasi-philosophical musing on the interweb, I got involved in an exchange about nationality with the eponymous proprietor of the now sadly defunct Pearsall's Books. I think the substance of the disagreement probably turned on my refusal, as a matter of principle, to acquiesce in the reification of myths of self-creation. Rather than actually discuss what I saw as inevitably incomplete narratives of how certain groups of people came to be those groups of people, I wanted to stress the way in which not only sub-groups of those groups would emphasise particular aspects of their history but also the group itself, as it changed, would see its past differently. Such narratives do, after all, have normative force. They add provide an architecture of normativity which sits, in many cases uneasily, on top of or alongside other, what is in most cases a more foundational, sets of moral norms grounded not in the particularity of nationality but in the universalism of common humanity. The self-understanding that membership, whether mediated through conformity or opposition to the dominant norms in question, of a necessarily particularistic group provides is to some degree evaluative. More bluntly, there are times when 'this is the way we do things here' is a perfectly reasonable answer, as indeed a pragmatist, concerned with the practices of attribution we are embedded in, ought well to understand.

That is not to say that 'this is the way we do things here' is the end of the matter. Politics doesn't stop as the structure emerges from the ground, where the foundations end, and the spires, the ornament, begins, but rather flows through that distinction, circling around it, re-shaping it. That reflexivity, that mutual subversion is exactly the kind of thing that the sly nods and cautious embraces of Spiritualized and Dr. John are doing to the traditions that they have found themselves in. Democrats should be particularly concerned with the possibilities for that kind of reshaping, for democracy, if it is about anything, is surely about having the capacity to exercise control over the environment in which one lives, and that environment must surely include one's membership of various cultural groups. This is not to take a stand about the best place to locate the distinction between the political and the personal, and certainly not to take one about the best place for the distinction between the use of legal force and other forms of incentive. It may turn out that the normative resources which any concept of Britishness will offer are of no distinctively normative use in shaping a party-political project in contemporary Britain, that the temptation to see Gordon Brown's intervention as a purely strategic move is ultimately correct.

That is not to preclude the possibility, though, that they could be of some use in a party-political sense in some other context, and certainly not to preclude the wider claim that they could be of some use in a non-party political sense. Critical reflection on the lacunae that the myths of self-creation the British tell themselves, on the blind spots in the narrative, on the gaps that the normative resources do not somehow extend to, I think could well be of serious normative worth, not only in the sense that the thus reconstructured superstructure would better reflect the underlying claims of its normative base, but would itself be a more coherent, finer thing. This is despite the fact that it could well be the case that the superstructure itself could reflect back on the base, that the apparently more ephemeral demands that it makes might well be of moment for the seemingly solid bedrock of the universal claims grounded in discourses about our common humanity. We could yet be picking gilded splinters from our feet.

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