Friday, January 18, 2008

Perhaps He Wants A T-Shirt

From this LRB article, interesting of itself, a quote from Baraka Obama (full text here, which actually isn't quite so politically liberal).

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all . . . Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

Might Obama have read a certain work by a certain political theorist? I wouldn't like to speculate.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Yet Tell Me My Name Again

This is actually an extended metaphor about political philosophy. Really.

For John

They say you must know human weakness,
a hand raised without quite finding its grasp.

'All I see is Paris';
how helpless it sounded, how mythical.
The masochism of that loss,
its not quite willed, perfected captivity.

It is an easy lie, that supplication:
it can always be helped,
is always a kind of fabrication,
a choice to be burnt up.

It cauterizes, in its way,
seals shut in each others arms
where all that can be made
is from the touch of lips on lips.

How very blind.
This is what it loses:
Imperfection, the crooked slant
that makes the straight edge true.

They say you must know human weakness,
a hand raised without quite finding its grasp.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Destroy Every F*cking Grammar School, Or, A Provocative Way Of Putting It

Despite having quoted from it earlier today, Maurizio Viroli's book on Machiavelli rather annoyed me. You do not rebut the accusation that a man who ended his most famous book with an exhortation to use physical violence towards someone simply in virtue of the fact that she is a woman might have been a bit misogynist by pointing out that he was friendly with and not overly patronising to some women in his personal life, mostly because if you think it's appropriate to use physical violence towards someone simply in virtue of the fact that she is a woman, that's kind of definitionally misogynist. There also seemed to me to be rather a lot of handwaving in the general direction of an idea of rhetoric designed to quite purposely avoid actually giving Machiavelli any real political theory, rather than clever-clever handbooks on public speaking particularly cunningly disguised as bits of advice for would-be princes and republicans. Somehow this was supposed to be a challenge to the dominant paradigm in political theory of trying, patiently and with the careful application of conceptual and normative analysis, to work out how it might be a good idea to resolve political questions and arrange political institutions. I'm not saying it wouldn't be nice to have rousing political speeches, I just think applying some thought to what they might want to rouse us to first - or even as well - would be an idea.

What's really annoying about this is that actually I have a degree of sympathy with Viroli about this, and there's little more annoying than a really piss-awful argument for a position you hold, because it makes you look like an idiot by association. A sensible version of Viroli's scepticism about the abstraction and formalism of a lot of contemporary political theory would, rather than doing some relativist hand-waving or dismissing anything which didn't, and wasn't designed to, have immediate practical implications - the two usual moves against hard, analytical political theory - ask whether thinking about highly simplified, single-shot, typically two person cases could really tell us anything about the structures of coercion in which all of our lives are lived out. It would ask, for example, how it is that lots of apparently leftwing political theorists have ended up thinking that what is objectionable about the heirarchies of domination and subordination we call the class system is not that they are heirarchies of domination and subordination, but that people's places within those heirarchies are arbitrarily distributed. Because if we all had a chance to go to Eton and all that entails, then everything'd be fine. When Kantian liberals care more about class then people whose first book was a defence of Marx's theory of history, something has gone wrong.

Premodern Postmodern Distance

From Maurizio Viroli's Machiavelli:

If repentance and penitence were not [Machiavelli's] way to find shelter or relief from the miseries of life and the horror of death, what then were his defences?

One was irony. To laugh at one's own and others' weaknesses alleviates 'the pains that every man bears'. Life 'is short', and 'many ills and strange events crush almost all mortals': it makes no sense to live only with labour and toil. When life is miserable, when we are powerless against men's stupidity and meanness, it is time to look at the world and ourselves with irony.

Whatever else you might think about him - for example, the casual misogyny of the thought that it followed from fortune being a woman that the best way to deal with her was to "beat and ill-use her"; the archpriest of evil politicking view is a bit old-hat, these days - apparently Machiavelli at least had a sense of the absurdity of life.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

On The Importance Of The Canon

Shamefully, until the last week or so, despite possessing two degrees partly in philosophy, I have never read a philosopher earlier than Hobbes. The Greeks, Thomism, disputes over nominalism, it all passed me by - unless MacIntyre talked about it in 'After Virtue' or 'A Short History of Ethics', in which case I might be able to summarise roughly what he thinks about it, which is probably not much use at all. Now, though, since I need to be able to teach it, I am reading Plato's Republic. Now, obviously, Plato is a hectoring, life-denying, totalitarian, conservative loon, or at least he is in The Republic, and so reading him is very tedious. However, it does make a whole load of other stuff that goes on in political theory make more sense: if you think of much of philosophy as debating questions which Plato asked, then of course hammering home the thought that what Plato said is hectoring, life-denying, totalitarian, conservative, and loony, is going to be important. Indeed, anything which looks even remotely like Plato is going to bring back visions of a utopia apparently as imagined by someone whose intellectual diet consisted solely of the headlines of Daily Mail editorials - banning all forms of story-telling in which anything other than the neutral recounting of narrative occurs, since it's lying, for f*ck's sake - and so provoke repulsion in much the same way. Thus, the thought that philosophy involves disengagement from the world; the thought, particularly current in [cue generalised handwaving] more Continental circles, that saying there are answers of some sort is a kind of authoritarianism; the thought, current in the same kind of circles, that saying that there are answers of some sort involves crazy metaphysics; and probably a whole load of other things that I can't think of off the top of my head. I once prompted the description of Richard Rorty as being tedious partly because he was constantly kicking at Plato's shins: once you've read him, kicking is clearly insufficient.

Addendum, 06/01/08: Obviously, to understand is not to justify. It may not even really be to understand. For example, even if you hated Plato, and justly so, it's not entirely clear why you'd write Vol. 1 of 'The Open Society And Its Enemies'. For one thing, the effacement of various subtleties involved in the analogy of city and soul in a shitstorm of accusations of collectivism and the associated granting of moral personality to the state is just so obviously wrong that it's totally counterproductive. Plato thought that it was best for the mass of the people to be ruled by the guardians; that's the point of all the 'to each according to their nature' stuff. What's offensive about that isn't that the state acquires moral standing separately from its citizens, because that doesn't give moral standing to the state separately from its citizens, it's that someone else gets to impose this really, really crazily reactionary idea of your nature on you for own good.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Horribly Meta

Everyone knows The Wire is the greatest piece of TV ever. Read its creator intervening in blog discussion of its greatness here.