Monday, February 27, 2006

Less Stupid Than A Number Of American Teenagers

You Passed 8th Grade Math
Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!
Could You Pass 8th Grade Math?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Oxford Bloggers Meeting

Running a blog, and reading and commenting on other people's blogs, a sense gradually builds up of the character of some of the people encountered more regularly in the course of doing these things, and an inquisitiveness about what it'd be like to encounter these people in a different setting can grow. So there's a certain irony in that the first physical encounter I have with people known through their online presence is with people whose online presence was mostly, until I met them, unknown to me. I had fun, and we - how easily it is slip into collectivities - should do it again. Also, more blogs to read, but this time, interestingly, with some of the curiousity about the otherwise shadowy figures behind them satiated: Milan, Seth, Tony, Mike, and Andy. I of course knew Ben already.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Lenin has up long sections of a description of the detention when returning from an awards ceremony of those involved in a film about the internment of three British residents, later released without charge, in Guantanamo Bay. It illustrates excellently the dangers of unaccountable power: veiled and not so veiled threats made out of the sight of the public, and so impossible to check. The simple fact of the possession of these powers of secrecy, of stealth, of disguise is itself revealing. In James Wood's excellent piece on a new translation of the Pentateuch - the scathing with which he treats the insipid modern versions alone is wonderful - he discusses the description of Joseph receiving his brothers in his capacity as Pharaoh's right hand man, and twice leaving to weep before breaking down in front of them and revealing his 'true' identity.

"[T]he laconic report of Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information...Three times he weeps, twice turning away from them and a third time openly. The first time, ‘he turned himself about from them, and wept.’ The second time is more agitated: ‘And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there.’ Finally, after various ruses, he can stand it no longer, and asks his servants to leave him alone while he ‘made himself known unto his brethren. And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.’ The beauty is that the final episode, the apparent climax, is as terse as the first: secret weeping is no different in this account from public weeping, and revelation is as hidden as disguise... And note, too, how our desire to witness this open crying, to bathe in authorial emotion, is reticently, and very movingly, transferred to another, less involved audience: ‘and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.’"

One wonders what Joseph's brothers thought of this great magnate turning from them, fleeing in a panic from them. When Wood says that "secret weeping is no different in this account from public weeping, and revelation is as hidden as disguise", the equivalence of course implies that to disguise something does not necessarily hide any more than to reveal it. The choice to hide something implies that it is shameful, not to be seen publicly. When officers of the state, whose power is for the public good, choose to hide something, it therefore implies they are perhaps not working towards the goals they ought, since there are few other grounds for concealing their actions from those for whose betterment they work.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Cats, Republicans, Asylum Seekers and Science

Four links to things that might be of interest.

First, just to prove my life has more in it than philosophical musing on the nature of violence and periodic rages at the state of the world, a really good post about cats in art. I like cats. I like their inscrutability, their grace and their arrogance. Actually, this is returning to philosophical musing on the nature of violence. Bollocks.

Second, Europhobia has up a pertinent quote from Locke's Second Treatise. I'm finding it increasingly depressing to comment directly on the series of events that prompted the use of the quote, so I'm going to restrict myself to comment on the quote itself. Quentin Skinner has had this project of attempting to revive parts of an English Republican tradition, and particularly its discourse of freedom, represented well by this article. Locke's claim that to be under arbitrary power is to fall into the state, slavery, which defines what it is to be unfree is taken from that tradition. I find myself increasingly in agreement with Skinner, despite some (practically irrelevant) differences about what it takes for unaccountable power to become a threat to freedom. The absence of oversight of the exercise of power is always a loss of freedom, because it is always the loss of the ability to control one's environment.

Third, the possibility of arbitrary power being checked. I know that writing to MPs about this kind of thing works, because when I was at school, one of my fellow students was going to be deported, quite obviously ridiculously given the murders of much of his family, back to Sierra Leone, still then rather a violent country, and a campaign of writing to local MPs got him the indefinite leave to remain. I think it was indefinite leave to remain: he got to stay.

Finally, waste electricity and thus engage in something of a vast cosmic joke by donating spare computational resources to investigate the extent of climate change over the past century or so here.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Gravity Always Wins

I like Nick Cave. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I like Nick Cave a lot. He has turned the fact that he can't really sing to his advantage by developing this kind of hectoring, barking style of declamation which fits excellently with the Old Testament, southern Gothic subject-matter of so much of his music. What he and the Bad Seeds are really good at is creating a sense of menace, of physical and spiritual or moral violence kept at bay by a series of unconvincing chinese walls, of a world of predestination and unavoidable fate, yet drawing on a series of traditions to provide that ultimately rather unappealing account of the world with an aesthetic if not quite a moral compass. The music lurches, stumbles and crashes, swayes uneasily, explodes, a queasy adaptation of various demotic forms, and Cave himself overacts gloriously as the freakish, marginalised, and dispossessed who populate his jealous God imaginings. Although they do it particularly well, are attuned in the necessary way to the horror of the picture he presents to use it to create the contrast needed to give it its grandeur, the appeal of violence, of a hardness in the face of a world that is not only unresponsive but apparently vindictive, is not only widely known but widely used.

There's a recurrent image in Schindler's List which I've always had problems with. The clearance of the ghetto is shot in black and white, except for a single young girl, wearing a vividly red coat, around whom all the violence of the forcible removal of thousands of desperate people occurs. She re-appears in one of the death camps, as I remember, when children are separated from their parents to be sent to the gas chambers, again, I think, picked out in colour in a shot otherwise full of muted greys. As if we couldn't understand the horror of these events without recourse to the sloppy and unsophisticated embodiment of it in the figure of a perfect moral innocent. As if Spielberg didn't trust his abilities enough to try and wring sympathy out of characters who were human, fallible. As if he didn't trust the viewers to be able to sympathise with such characters, as if he thought that we felt pain was only pain when it was inflicted on confused little girls or other similarly prelapsarian icons.

Sam Mendes' recent first Iraqi war film, Jarhead, is in part driven by a narrative about the boredom of hyperpower warfare: the sniper unit of which the star Jake Gyllenhall is part never fire a shot in anger, and Gyllenhall and his spotter have their opportunity to use their skills frustrated by the decision of an officer to, on a whim, obliterate an airfield with high explosive rather than give them the order to assassinate its commander.

There is a Nick Cave song on the album Murder Ballads called Stagger Lee. Although it is not quite in central Cave territory, lacking as it does any reference to the motivational power of guilt and fate, the theme of the quite irresistable transcendent force of violence, as well as the utter gratuitity of the whole thing and the reinterpretation and radicalisation of a tradition, make it quite recognisably part of the landscape. It begins with a repeated stuttering guitar chord that sounds just like a gun being cocked and gets better from there on in, with the exercise of power through extreme violence always an end in itself. As the description of Keyser Soze's act of radical self-creation in The Usual Suspects puts it, he showed these men of will what will really was.

I saw the first episode of the Spielberg-produced TV series Band of Brothers, about American airborne troops involvement in the invasion of France in 1944, a couple of days ago. It is very professionally done, and to damn it with faint praise like that is in a way to be cruel. It is part of a tradition though of the glorification of the Atlantic Alliance participants in the quasi-industrialised slaughter of millions that was the Western Front of the Second World War. That casts it in terms that, again, are perhaps unfairly critical. However, the beatification of what Americans have for some time being referring to as the Glorious Generation is, I think, in a way of a piece with Spielberg's crude attempt at emotional manipulation in Schindler's List. It is a rejection of ambivalence, of contingency, of unpredictability, of unmanaged conflict. The first episode deals largely with training, and has a plot line about a disciplinarian officer who, despite having made the company under his command incredibly fit, cannot command them because he is essentially utterly incompetent: he gets hopelessly lost on exercises, and in the end is removed and sent back to put recruits through their paces because his non-commissioned officers resign en masse.

Other than the officer, though, played as a camp, nervous yet quite butch New York Jew by David Schwimmer, the whole thing is remarkably consensual. Schwimmer is removed, and sent back to doing what he does best, as soon as the protest is made and thus the information received by the benevolent dictatorship of the higher-ups, while the relationship of the other officers to the ranks seems totally untroubled. Even Schwimmer is not vindictive, but a well-meaning victim of the Peter Principle. There is no exultation in the phenomenology of the exercise of power, but rather a grave sense of responsibility. The picture presented is not quite of the US Army coming as close to a perfectly oiled machine guided by morally perfect men as is possible, in the sense that Schwimmer is obviously imperfect, and there is, in an aside, reference to Western anti-semitism, but the plot is of the suppression and smoothing out of these imperfections, these conflicts, and of gliding on, a paternal hand at the tiller. Nothing, for example, is made of the total absence of blacks from the unit, of the presence of racial segregation in the armies which invaded Europe to destroy a racist state.

None of this is to say that I didn't enjoy it: I did, although I still think the most eloquent comment I have ever seen on the experience of the Second World War is in David Lynch's The Straight Story, where, in an otherwise empty bar, two men in their seventies, both of an age to have fought, are sitting talking, having, gingerly, a solitary beer, and one of them says to the other, a lot of men who came back drank. Nothing else on the subject is said. The restraint of it is wonderful. That comment, in a film about an elderly man travelling on a lawnmower to see his estranged sister, has more awareness of what institutional violence on a massive scale does to a person than an hour of Spielberg's mini-series about the largest war the world has ever seen. It is open about the transformations it makes, the brutalisations, and yet does not condemn: there but for the grace of God go I.

Cave's attitude towards violence, not of war but of the social order in general, shares this awareness, even if it is expressed quite differently. Cave's depictions depend for their strength on the appeal of the idea that violence has the power to transcend, to cut through and open, mundanity, that to be a man of will is a noble aim, that the violence of the social (dis)order ought to be met in kind, while in The Straight Story it is equally the escape from regularity and practice that is identified as the distinctive mark of violence, although it is the disorientating, shocking, disturbing effects that are highlighted. Both of those strike me as considerably more honest, more clear-eyed, than Spielberg's contribution to myth, where violence effectively disappears. Jarhead, I am not sure how intentionally, begins to illustrate the difficulties associated with this conjurer's trick. Just as Cave's characters cannot escape from violence and its costs, cannot totally transcend the practices in which they are embedded, in Jarhead attempts for power, for violence, to become utterly disentangled from actual human actors, to transcend them, only result in petty acts of disobedience, in violence bubbling back up. A social order without violence is shown to be impossible, and it's denial a diversion. The queston becomes where is the violence exercised, and how much of it.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Reichstag Fire Postponed (Mostly)

This (via) seems to be in the early stages of becoming a righteous ire-creating cause celebre amongst the civil libertarian and/or anti-Blair parts of the blogosphere: see here and here, for example. I think this might be based on a mistake. I am fairly sure that it may be an attempt to tidy up the use of statutory instruments, because of the restrictions which the content of section 4 makes:

(1) Provision under section 2(1) may not confer a function of legislating on a Minister of the Crown (alone or otherwise) unless the conditions in subsections (2) and (3) are satisfied.

(2) The condition in this subsection is that the function is exercisable by statutory instrument.

(3) The condition in this subsection is that such a statutory instrument—

(a) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament; or

(b) is not to be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.

Section 2 (1) is the one which grants the power to make

[a]n order under section 1 may for either purpose specified in subsection (1) of that section make provision amending, repealing or replacing any legislation.

So that power presumably only applies to statutory instruments, which are bits of legislation granting the Crown discretionary powers. Since the discretionary powers granted through statutory instruments are already limited by the primary legislation they are a part of, which the bill would not grant the power to alter, this wouldn't, if I am right, grant huge powers it doesn't already possess to the Crown. Unfortunately, as satisfying as it would be for this to be a neat next escalating step in a trajectory of much-railed-against creeping totalitarianism, I don't think it is.

Update, 18/02/06: There's a Clifford Chance client brief on the Bill here, which does make it seem quite worrying. The gist seems to be that there has been pressure on Government to amend regulation without the lengthy process of new primary legislation for some time, and that the Bill is the latest in a series of attempts stretching back to the mid-nineties to do so. However, it goes further than any previous legislation by removing or attenuating the safeguards of limitations on the content of the legislation that could be passed in this manner, requirements for consultation and scrutiny by committee, and a prohibition on the use of the powers granted to create powers to make further delegated legislation. In particular, the brief claims, plausibly I think, that the last of these three restrictions is absent from the Bill. All this is very worrying, for although all orders under this legislation would have to be approved by Parliament by simple up-and-down votes, the lack of time for consideration available and the difficulty and in some cases impossibility of amending the orders would seriously impede Parliamentary oversight. I do find it somewhat ironic though that in an environment which creates substanial opportunity for the exploitation of supposedly existential threats, it is, if anyone does, plagues of well-meaning bureacrats brandishing forms that play the role of van der Lubbe.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Periodic Table Will Never Be Complete

A little story. Think of it as a thought experiment.

Undeniably, there are certain virtues associated with certain professions. A soldier will typically have quite different virtues than a priest, even if both are virtuous and without that casting doubt on whether or not they are virtuous. Being a soldier and being virtuous, at least qua soldier, means being courageous, being prepared to make certain kinds of sacrifices
that one would not expect that a priest, qua priest, would make. Let us think of someone who is choosing either to become a soldier or a priest. If it is easier, think of Sartre's example of the tragic choice where the choice is between caring for one's mother or joining the resistance. In either case, there are reasons for doing both and reasons against doing both. The patterns of
behaviour that each requires exclude some of the patterns of behaviour required by the other. Since those patterns of behaviour are associated with particular virtues, or particular
instantiations of virtues, the choice involves moral loss. There is a gap between what could have been and what is: not everything can be achieved within the same life, or the same society. The gap certainly is not always the same size, and may on occasion be obliterated by the moral horror of what could have been, but within a broad framework of forms of life, it lingers, potentially nagging away at us.

Alisdair MacIntyre wrote, in a book I have rather mixed feelings about, that Neitzsche's Ubermensch and Sartre's Existentialist both "belong in the pages of a philosophical bestiary rather than in serious discussion". To a certain degree he is right. His point is that ethical choices cannot be regarded simply as matters of personal preference, but rather that there are some real standards by which such choices should be judged, and that they can fail to live up to these standards. He judges, perhaps correctly in both cases but almost certainly in Sartre's, that holding to either of these views involves a denial of standards in some sense external to the simple preferences of the chooser.

There is a tendency, one which MacIntyre falls victim to, amongst the illiberal to assume that liberals tend towards the view held by Sartre. This is not the case. Caring about liberty does not mean endorsement of unreasoned choice. It means believing that the proper locus of choice is the individual, that they are, usually, best placed to assess the applicability of reasons for themselves, that they ought to have the resources and freedom in which to make and live out choices for themselves. The language games which structure reasons, the practices of meaning in which we all participate, as they structure reasons, also structure the actions of individuals. This is as true of the reasons which a liberal takes as decisive as the reasons anyone else might. Unreasoned choice is, in this sense, impossible, which is not of course to say that unreasonable choice is impossible: to make a bad assessment of reasons is still to make an assessment of reasons.

This is to fall slightly away from the point though. The attitude of an ethical, as opposed to a political, liberal is a distinctive one. An individual is to shape their life for themselves, not for others, although of course they must not prevent others from shaping their lives. That means accepting a degree of flexibility, of heterogeneity, in our ethical lives, as people choose to take different paths according to their different assessments of the worth of those paths. That heterogeneity, that affirmation of difference, has costs attached to it though, and for its own sake, the costs should not be dismissed or waved away. A society which tends to govern itself by those kinds of principles will generate outcomes in which other kinds of principles suffer. The solid, almost staid, virtues of close-knit communities, which are virtues, virtues which, like all other virtues, have corresponding costs, shrink from public view in a society which is structured around ethical liberalism.

I am not saying, all things considered, we ought to be fighting to save those virtues - as a something of an ethical liberal, I know the pull of Brett Anderson's paeans to the virtues of licentiousness and anonymity, to the goods that can be achieved out of, but whilst aware of, a disapproving public gaze perfectly well. Still, we should not dismiss those costs out of hand. They are costs, and they are costs that ethical liberalism ought to acknowledge, because if it doesn't acknowledge them, it will struggle to explain why we value individual choice at all. In the absence of genuine value pluralism, and the moral loss that comes with it, it becomes unclear why anyone should have the right to make choices for themselves. Freedom becomes unreasoned.

Phil of Actually Existing writes here about the costs of the ban on smoking in public places for a particular sort of pub, and that sort of pub's clientele - not a word they would choose to use themselves, I suspect, except perhaps in irony. I think the decision as a whole is analogous to asbestos, provided the medical risks can be established: it is unreasonable to expose people to that kind of threat in their work, and that's, more or less, the end of it. That doesn't, however, mean that the costs Phil describes don't exist. They do, and they tell against the decision, just not enough. Likewise, worries about the growth of supermarkets, for all that supermarkets are on balance probably a good thing compared to what went before, have a point: strip-lit temples to pointless consumption thinly varnished with a veneer of branding efforts disguised as ultimately patronising attempts at charm and character are hardly morally perfect, for all the advantages of not having to buy condoms from someone who knows your mum.

Equally, I would argue, democrats should take seriously people's attempts to try and control those costs. That is probably another argument though. I should be satisfied with this: there are virtues I, and certainly this post, will never have.

The Glorification of Terrorism

It is a common practice in academic philosophy to use thought experiments to buttress arguments. The idea is that by designing and then imagining a case with relevance to the the specific aspect of the problem at hand, clear lines of distinction can be drawn, which can then articulate the reasons which motivate one solution rather than another. These thought experiments often, particularly in moral philosophy, involve people doing one thing or another, and, in order to distinguish between the various actors, names are required. For some reason, these names are almost invariably generic or at least could not be used to identify any private individual: A and B or John and Jane are perhaps typical. I have even heard people talking about whether they ought to have gender balance in the names of the fictional actors in their entirely imaginary thought experiments. There are a set of ethical norms governing the use of names, of public identification, in thought experiments.

The American leftish blogosphere has got into a debate about what might constitute a fair division of household labour, started by Matthew Yglesias making what I take to be a rather banal series of quasi-feminist points about gender roles and their effects on the division of household labour, and getting comments which ascribed gender roles to some form of morally legitimating choice. A lot of the debate since then has focused on the problem of free-riding, of misrepresenting preferences so as to exploit the greater willingness of others to complete some task, in particular the phenomenon of men being trained to expect that women will tidy up for them. Free-riding, conscious or otherwise, is undoubtedly a problem, simply because most people are both lazy and like tidiness. Notice though, that free-riding, as a moral critique, depends on the thought that it is exploitative to allow someone else to bear the burdens of keeping a space clean. If someone else is more willing than I am to use their time to keep a space we share clean, why should I waste my time, which I'd rather spend some other way, helping them? Why should I be making a sacrifice so as to allow them to be happy in that space? Why should I be concerned about how they feel about a space which we share, about the norms which govern the use of common assets?

In the 1992 US Supreme Court case R.A.V. vs. St Paul, Antonin Scalia wrote a majority opinion overturning a St. Paul Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance on the grounds that although prohibiting what are in US jurisprudence known as 'fighting words' is constitutionally acceptable, attaching extra penalties to sub-categories of fighting words which are based on the meaning of those words is unacceptable. Judith Butler said of the Supreme Court's ruling

The burning of the cross which is, after all, on the black family's lawn, is thus made strictly analogous--and morally equivalent--to an individual speaking in public on whether or not there ought to be a fifty-cent tax on gasoline...the historical correlation between cross-burning and marking a community, a family, or an individual for further violence is also ignored...

Incitement to violence is currently a criminal offence, and rightly so, in British law. As of last night, glorification of terrorism, as long as the act of terrorism in question took place less than twenty years ago, will soon also become a criminal offence in British law. Thus, praise for the IRA's attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in 1984 will not be criminalised, whilst praise for its campaign of bombings following the resumption of armed activities after the collapse of first ceasefire in the early nineties will be. It is unclear why murdering stockbrokers is worse than trying to eliminate an entire democratically elected government. The bombing of civilians by states, rather than other armed groups, seems to have escaped the remit of the bill totally. It is unclear why the use of violence in the pursuit of one political project is acceptable when it is not in the pursuit of another. Finally, it is unclear why, when there is a long tradition of art which undeniably glorifies political violence by non-state actors (via), actors who have killed thousands and militarised significantly-sized areas of the state during their campaign, this suddenly became so vital.

Public spaces can take a variety of forms. The living room of my shared house is a public space, at least for the public of those who live in my shared house. The fora in which political debate in Britain takes place are public spaces, or at least, collectively a public space. Both of them require, in order to respect the interests that all of members of the respective publics have in the structure and content of those spaces, that there are rules, a category which obviously includes both legally enforceable commands and simple norms of behaviour, which govern the structure and content of the spaces in question. To single out particular groups for discrimination, to ignore the ways in which the rules can make the burdens of entry and occupation excessively high, can prevent those ought to be members having the right to have their interests considered, is wrong in both cases. To do so is to effectively deny that those discriminated against are members of the public in question, to create a sphere of publicly-displayed privacy that they alone occupy where their opinion is diminished, explained away, made inconsequential. Sometimes it is possible to trace that privacy back to those who created it, to expose the technologies they manufactured it with, and sometimes not. We return to the thought experiments.

Update: it would appear that the time limit on which acts of terrorism it is legally permissible to glorify was eliminated during the course of removing a series of Lords amendments. So, as Nosemonkey points out, subscribing to a Whiggish theory of British constitutional history would appear to be in principle punishable by a spell at her majesty's pleasure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Yay, Crusade!

Just to prove that I really can't leave an argument, even when it's obviously Not A Good Idea, the Fafblog take on the cartoons, which is not only quite funny, but has A Serious Point, as much Fafblog does.

Update: Just in case Fafblog is a bit obtuse, I say to you, virulently right-wing nationalist member of the Italian government Roberto Calderoli, indeed, we are a civilisation made of butter and the hot knife of Islamic fundamentalist jihad will doubtless soon spread us all across the crunchy toast of the New Caliphate. Oh yeah, oh yeah.


Everyone has doubtless seen this already, but it is quite a good idea anyway, so consider it given the dubious distinction of my seal of approval, even if I don't think the categories don't really capture the content of what I am kind of trying to do here particularly well. I'll probably totally forget about it by the end of next week though, so. That is a problem with these sorts of things, as Chris of Qwghlm points out: anything which relies on you actually doing stuff, stuff that's basically not very interesting, struggles, because unless doing that stuff can be tied to doing something you actually want to do, not enough people are going to bother to make it work., for example, is excellent, since all you have to do is upload your recently played list, yet even that works only reasonably well for me, because I don't bother updating my IPod that often, and so the record it keeps of what I've listened to isn't totally accurate. Also, it'd be preferable if I didn't have to listen to the various Radio stations through the crappy speakers on my laptop, as well. Still, I shouldn't carp: both and BlogCode are basically really good ideas, and far cleverer than anything I've ever come up with, so, kudos.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Bending The Truth

Martin Kettle's piece in today's Guardian, approvingly quoted by both Tim Worstall and Harry's Place, reiterates the smear that opposition to the new moral order, in which Things Have Changed, is the result of some kind of realpolitik calculation by equally hidebound Stalinists and Islamofascists to join forces so as to achieve their common goal of destroying our precious bodily fluids. Yeah, well, hardly a huge surprise. The idea that principled opposition to foreign policy misadventures on the grounds that violence is bad, whomever commits it, might be possible evidently escapes him, just as the thought that locking people up without good public evidence for doing so is hardly the apogee of moral rectitude does. Again, hardly a huge surprise.

There are two things that are interesting about it, though. The first is that it reveals, which I didn't know, that Kettle, like a number of other figures on the decent left, comes from a genuinely hard left background. I return to the point I made about horseshoes a while ago. There are common dreams, aspirations, most obviously of a transcending of politics, a sweeping aside of the messy business of justified disagreement, of conflict, of compromise, of an age where a moral law is flawlessly and totally enacted. That step from one tip to another is not so hard to make, I think. The second is how obvious Kettle makes his own realpolitik. If we agree on the danger of politics, that the supression of dissent is necessary, how easy it must be to come to an agreement with those who share some other goals on the grounds that, well, there have been stranger bedfellows.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Look, Society Is Even More Disgusting Than I Am

This is a rather good assessment of Michel Houellebecq. I remember reading Atomised the summer I turned 21, and was for a variety of reasons really rather depressed. It was like a burning brand. That sense of utter self-loathing which permeates the novels, the raging against the de-mystification of the world, can be really rather attractive, and Houellebecq often expresses it well. Still, though, the more I think about it, the more I think he's a terrible self-dramatist. The novels, as the article makes clear, are transparently based on and motivated by Houellebecq's undeniably unpleasant autobiography and particularly childhood, all of which rather undermines much of his quasi-sociological musings. Since so much of his appeal rests on the idea that he speaks awkward yet necessary truths, the idea of him as Nietzsche's prophet in the marketplace, telling people they've killed God before the smell has quite reached them, this provides something of a deflation. Presumably, much the same sorts of things could be said of J. G. Ballard, whose later fiction in particular is obsessed with, and sees the growth of as a all-pervasive trend, closed communities which define themselves in opposition to groups around them.

An Ironic Distance

From the most recent LRB:

Instead of destroying museums, dissenters... set out to parasitise and subvert them. Duchamp sidestepped the museum when he distributed multiple sets of miniatures of his work, packed in suitcases. Chris Burden's Samson attacks (or at least pretends to attack) the bricks and mortar. His piece consists of a turnstile, a winch, worm gear, a 100-ton jack, timbers and steel plates, designed to be placed in the entrance to a museum. Visitors to the museum drive a glacially slow extension of the timbers which, in theory, threaten to knock down the walls.

I particularly like the idea of Samson. It satirises the idea of the museum by threatening to do exactly what the museum is supposed to be doing: giving public access to the experience of art, in this case by literally exposing them to public view after the collapse of the building. That it does this by the mechanism by which museum itself attempts to achieve this end - visitors coming in, to see the art, and then going out, to take that experience into the world outside the museum - is of course particularly sweet.

Notice though that this depends on the acceptance of the museum's ostensible end. If the joke works, it works because it exposes and exploits a gap between expectation and reality: it relies on the idea that museum exhibitions typically structure the experience of art as passive rather than active, exercise a rather deliberate control over the context in which art is seen and the connections it makes, and that the experience of art shouldn't be like that, as argued for by Phil here. Armando Ianucci is currently giving a series of lectures on British TV Comedy in Oxford (link needed), and I was talking to - or at, more properly, perhaps - one of the people I went with about the way that The Office - or what little I've seen of it - doesn't work because it lacks that gap. Ricky Gervais just is, so far as I can see, David Brent: he doesn't have any appreciation of how he's failed to live up to some norm or moral standard, which means that he can't play with the gap between the actual and the ideal at all, because there doesn't seem to be one.

I suppose this explains much of different people finding different things funny. What's funny depends on the moral universe you inhabit, because it depends on what counts as failing to live up to expectations. Your moral universe, I think, also structures who you think of as the legitimate source material for jokes, who should be exposed for failing to live up to the relevant moral expectations. After all, each joke uses the critical resources of that moral universe to launch an implicit attack on whomever it mocks, and whom you think is a legitimate target of public condemnation, by whom, and on what grounds are a series of interlinked and explicitly moral questions.

Friday, February 03, 2006

They Offer You A Future On Stockings And Suspenders

From the Guardian's letters today:

It's time for the Guardian and other newspapers to stand up firmly for freedom of expression and to show us the offending cartoons.

So freedom of expression is protected by demanding that a particular item is published regardless of whether the publication thinks it should or not, apparently. To be honest, I find the whole furore really rather ridiculous, because all of those most exercised about it have lost sight of an important point, that it is an essential part of any given freedom to have the freedom to do wrong, or else the freedom in question rather collapses. I've not seen the cartoons, and have no desire to see them, but what I understand from other people's discussion of them, they're really rather gratuitously offensive. That doesn't necessarily mean that it should be illegal to publish them: I might favour preventing publishing them if they were an incitement to racial hatred, but even if I'd seen them, I wouldn't really be in a position to judge that. That they are gratuitously offensive may of course mean that those who published them, initially at least, did something wrong in doing so, and consequently that condemnations of them for doing so would be entirely justified. People would be entitled to criticise someone for infidelities, but not establish legal prohibitions against them. The analogy with this situation is surely, ignoring for the time being Millian questions of the point at which general social action comes to have the same moral standing as a law, perfect.

Addendum, 05/02/06: Everyone, grow the f*ck up. This is not interesting. No one in countries which generally respect freedom of speech has been prevented, by the law, from publishing the cartoons, nor has anyone in such countries been prosecuted for doing so. Some people have exercised their right to freedom of speech to complain about the cartoons. So far, freedom of speech is not obviously being threatened. A really rather small number of the people who protested about the cartoons in Britain did so in a manner which any sane person would unreservedly condemn, and have been widely condemned for it, and will probably also be the subject of a police investigation to see whether they broke laws on incitement to violence, which, as no legal expert, I suspect they did. This is not a remotely serious threat to freedom of speech either. Alright, some repressive regimes doubtless desperate for any crumb of legitimacy have scrambled rather undignifiedly onto the bandwagon, but was there freedom of speech in any of these places in the first place, or indeed, was this much of a surprise? Hardly.

Addendum Addendum, 05/02/06: What Jamie said. And Chris too. Finally, what Ken said (now everywhere, but originally seen via)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

I've Had Relations

Doug Muir has a post up at A Fistful of Euros today which discusses Wilsonian ideas of self-determination, in which, I think, he is rightly skeptical of them. I am pre-disposed towards skepticism towards any form of group rights generally, in the sense that it is not obvious to me that groups have any moral standing as such, which of course makes it difficult for them to be the bearers of rights, and the supposed rights of Wilsonian self-determination looks like a paradigm case of the sort of group rights that'd lead you to be skeptical about. It looks rather to me like any moral standing Wilsonian self-determination has in any individual case comes from harms which are conceptually separate from violations of an alleged right to self-determination.

Muir's case of the Kosovars is illustrative here. If the Kosovars ought to be independent of Serbia, that is because the Serbs have systemically and grossly violated a number of basic rights of Kosovars simply because they are Kosovars, and the Kosovars have every reason to suspect that they would be leaving themselves at grave risk of similar treatment were they to remain part of Serbia. That does not obviously have anything to do with the Kosovars being a nation, other than it being the basis on which their oppressors picked them out. Muir's claim, which seems to be something like a collectivity's right to self-determination being activated by the violation of other rights, is I think the best a Wilsonian is going to get out of cases like Kosovo and even decolonisation struggles. Even that though seems to privilege nationality, in some broad sense, as a basis for the formation of polities, and I don't see, non-pragmatically, why that should be the case.

If there are any rights to collective self-determination, it seems obvious to me that they must flow from some individual rights to self-determination. Presumably the argument runs along the lines that in order to achieve and maintain levels of security of environment to enable individuals to be self-determining - to have the freedom to shape their own lives - collective action to provide a series of goods through a number of institutions is necessary. The collectivity has rights in the sense that all its members have a right to assign certain powers to a collectivity in order to secure certain institutional environments which provide them, the members, with the means to certain rights. The Wilsonian position, which emphasises nationality, seems to me to restrict, for no obvious reason, the use of those individual rights. It is not clear that the only collectivity to which I might want to assign those rights is the nation. I might hate my nation, and prefer to live in another nation altogether, or a sub- or supra-national group.

More importantly, a polity shaped around my nation might not necessarily be the best place for me to achieve the ends of individual self-determination that serve to justify its existence, most obviously in the sense that it might not be economically viable. National self-determination in such a case would then at least be ill-advised, in the sense that it would make people worse off than they need be. That's not to say, of course, that it would be impermissible. The problem that the Wilsonian has is that they abitrarily restrict the kind of groups to which the right of individual self-determination can be partially handed to. My position is much broader than that: you can hand your right to create a polity to any group you so desire, including nations.

Obviously, given that the vast majority of people are members of some recognised polity or other, there are restrictions on the exercise of that right because of its effects on the other members of the polity in question. It would be a clearly illegitimate exercise of the right to use it to extract tax concessions, for example, by threatening to leave unless they were granted. Still, my view does imply that if a group in general wants to leave, is prepared to relocate or compensate in some way those who do not, can be trusted to uphold the rights of the members of that group, and will not have a seriously detrimental effect on the remainder of the state, they should be able to, regardless of what kind of group they are. I'm not even sure that they should necessarily be territorially continuous.