Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Filing Her Nails While They're Dragging The Lake

One of the comments to this post claims that Elvis Costello was in his pomp better live than on record. On the limited evidence provided by the MP3s that it has in it, I think they're right: harnessing that source of some kind of combination of scorn, bitterness and downright rage in the right way would probably provide a solution for all the world's energy needs. Or at least those of a medium-sized country: Switzerland, say. Down with fossil fuels! Up with NHS specs and a deep sense of grievance!

Monday, February 25, 2008

When Did That Ever Stop Me?

I'm neither a Rousseau nor a Hegel scholar, so this may be spectacularly ill-starred, but this passage, from the end of the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality seems to me very Hegelian, as indeed the partly implied and of course admittedly hypothetical history of amour-propre in general I think is:

In reality, the source of all these differences [between humans in the state of nature and those in society] is, that the savage lives within himself, while social man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others concerning him.

Of course, this is only the second stage of the dialectic: you need to see that the other does and needs to do likewise to get the full, and at least so far as I understand it, for Hegel, the psychologically and morally satisfying effects of recognition. That said, though, I've read things which indicate that Rousseau's view of amour-propre changes between the second Discourse and both Emile and the Social Contract, written several years later, getting more sophisticated and allowing for a morally acceptable form of it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lazy Sunday Afternoon Post

Not much else the 13th Floor Elevators did was much cop, but this is genius (via).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Not Quite An Anti-Valentine

I suppose the expected thing for me to say about Valentine's Day, given my often publicly-expressed attitude towards Christmas, is that it is a massive scam invented solely for the benefit of the perhaps singularly exploitative and cheapening greeting cards industry, the frustrations of the over-inflated expectations it relies upon for its success illustrative of the way the hollowed-out moral existence of capitalism breeds wants it cannot and indeed must not satisfy. It's the perfect chocolate laxative, really. And of course that should be said, because it's true. But it doesn't have to only be that way. For all that the personal is political, it's also personal, and has to be, for the political to be worth anything at all. It has a kind of autonomy, an ability to partly transcend, to subvert, the circumstances it finds itself in, the limits of that power then marking out the significance of the political. For all, then, that Valentine's Day is part and parcel of late capitalist modernity, even in its debased form it reminds, half-askew I suppose, of the value of that particular kind of intimacy.

Appropriately enough, then, I saw two very Valentine's Day-ish films this week, Once and Juno, both of which are really very good. Neither are particularly substantial, but that's the joy of them: light-hearted, knowing that the heavy hand of history isn't necessarily what you want in films, respectively, about a busker sorting his life out and making a record, and a teenager in contemporary suburban America getting pregnant and deciding to give the baby up for adoption. Juno is mainstream American indie done perfectly: a too-articulate-to-be-real, vaguely alienated teenager learns some appropriate life lessons through never-too-traumatic misfortune, and is consequently reconciled with the world, which carries on much as it did before, but witty and endearing, even cheering, with it. The same plot could have given you a quite different film: even if all the major plots events remained the same, the confrontations with authority, the compromises that that requires, the way they end up shaping a life, could have been used to make it really quite political, even didactic. But it's not like that, and it has something worth having that would have been lost if it had been like that.

Once is much the same. Again, there's scope for the politicisation of what is basically a will-they-won't-they love story: half of the couple in question is a Czech immigrant to Ireland, cheap, globalised labour, and there appear to be unarticulated sacrifices she has made in order to grasp the opportunities EU expansion has given her. Although its tenderness isn't in the gradual softening of an over-confident front in the way that Juno's is, but rather in an already-learnt sense of what can and cannot be said - perhaps the best moment in the film is when she, I think, says 'I love you' in Czech, knowing he can't understand - similarly, making the story about politics would have, I think, destroyed that tenderness: it would have been bitter-sweet for all the wrong reasons. Of course, that itself is a kind of political lesson. Politics is not the only arena in which difficult choices have to be made, and politics needs to understand that. Living a life is in a certain sense about making accommodations with the world as it is, with other people's choices. Not only is the personal political, but the political is personal.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Meme Pinching

No-one tagged me with this meme. I'm doing it anyway, and anyone who wants it can have it.

1.1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

The closest thing to hand was Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. This is what I got, from a poem I haven't yet read properly, 'The Beast & Burden: Seven Improvisations'. It straddles the first two stanzas.

He sits under a floodlight
mumbling that a theory of ants
will finally deal with us,

& reading My Lord Rochester
to a golden sky of Johannesburg,
a stray dog beside him, Sirius
licking his combat boots.

2 The Decadent
Herr Scalawag, Esq.
dances the come-on
in Miss Misery's
spike heels.
He does a hellcat
high step stolen
from Josephine Baker,
holding a fake flower
like a flimsy excuse.

It's not quite his For You, Sweetheart, I'll Sell Plutonium Reactors. From that, I would have got:

You tapdance
on tabletops for me, while corporate bosses
arm wrestle in back rooms for your essential downfall.
I entice homosexuals into my basement butcher shop.
I put my hands around another sharecropper's throat
for that mink coat you want from Saks Fifth,
short-change another beggarwoman,
steal another hit song from Sleepy
John Estes, salt another gold mine in Cripple Creek,
drive another motorcycle up a circular ice wall,
face another public gunslinger like a bad chest wound,
just to slide hands under black silk.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Contract For Mutual Abuse

One of my favourite papers in moral philosophy is Onora O'Neill's 'Between Consenting Adults'. It should be required reading for anyone claiming that Kantian ethics are somehow necessarily distanced, alienated from, the phenomenology of lived moral experience. Its argument, as such, is an attempt to reorientate our understanding of what it is to not treat someone as a means around the thought that we must act towards in ways that they could, rather than do or would, consent to, but, although its argument is persuasive and penetrating, that's not really what's wonderful about it. What's wonderful about it is its humanity, appropriately enough for a paper written on Kant's Formula of Humanity; its sense of the way in which the subject matter of moral philosophy is human vulnerability, and how sensitively that needs to be explored, how, in a sense, moral philosophy must bind itself, be aware of the damage it itself can do, of how its demands for rigour and clarity can end up distorting what is not quite messy and awkward, but certainly subtle. Once you have a hammer, you must avoid the temptation to think that everything is a nail.

It ought to be tediously familiar that I think that too much contemporary analytical moral philosophy has taken its hammer to far too many things that aren't nails. Take Parfit's Non-Identity Problem. The Non-Identity Problem roughly runs that if you came into being through an injustice, some the effects of which are currently unpleasantly impacting on your life, it looks like you cannot sensibly complain of or even be wronged by that injustice, since absent its commission, you wouldn't exist at all. This, quite apart from the way that it would deny that children born with disabilities after the Bhopal disaster were wronged by anyone, for example would on what I take to be a sensible view about personal identity, make regret about features of one's own life nonsensical. If I now am in some way causally related to my past selves, then I can hardly regret their actions, since they produced me now and I would not be me now if they had not produced me. But that's bizarre: regret is surely a central part of human life. A world in which my acknowledgement of my own wrongdoing or foolishness was the same as my acknowledgement of the structure of formal logic is a world in which I relate to myself and my actions in a way which has gone radically wrong. I no longer have any sense of my life as a narrative I am shaping. I am alienated from myself.

That we must live after the reflection - more; that we live and reflect at the same time, so we must live during it - is, as I say, boringly familiar. Repeating it is only a roundabout way of praising O'Neill: she has all the virtues the kind of reasoning the Non-Identity Problem epitomises lacks. The point of bringing up O'Neill is that one of the things which makes the paper so humane, so illuminating of actual lived moral experience, is that she understands not just how you can go wrong, but how you can want to go wrong, perhaps even in knowledge that you are going wrong. Her discussions of the ways in which intimate relationships lend themselves to manipulation and paternalism make it clear that the reason this is so is that all the relevant parties have their lives and the projects which make up their lives to a greater or lesser degree intertwined; manipulation can take place because one party knows that another's happiness is directly dependent on theirs and so can use them as a tool to that end, whilst paternalism can because wanting another person to be happy is liable to make you want to take over, to capture and direct, their attempts to secure their own happiness.

It'd be a sad life in which you'd never been at least tempted to do either of those things, although that's maybe the only way of ever avoiding succumbing to that temptation. More than that, maybe seeing that it's a sad life which totally lacks any paternalism or manipulation is itself a reason for excusing at least some examples of them. That's not to say that anything goes: it is to recognise that human vulnerability, exactly the same vulnerability that makes paternalism and manipulation such a danger in intimate relationships, requires that some licence is given to temptation. That then implies that there are steps you must take against leaving yourself totally open to manipulation or paternalism: if we're going to permit some things which could be manipulative or paternalistic in other, similar, circumstances, then we have duties to ensure that others do not wrong us. The title of this post is taken from what I heard was Kant's description of marriage: a contract for the mutual abuse of each other's genitals. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far as a description of marriage, but we need to see that the acceptability of such agreements, implicit or otherwise, and so the acceptability of seeking them, means that certain steps need to be taken to protect ourselves from the kinds of misunderstandings and potential for exploitation which they can create. Sometimes, lies are too easy to tell. On that note, I am going to go away and think about whether or not I want to go on blind dates for charidee.