Sunday, April 20, 2008

To Act Always As We Have A Mind To Act

It is both easy and often appropriate to be scornful about euphenism and other imprecise language, and indeed, a central part of more or less any philosophical enterprise is clearing that sort of thing away, a kind of bureaucratic rationalization of meanings, bringing structure to a formless mess. But the power to name things is a power like any other, and the insistence on a certain kind of straight-talking, a hard-nosed refusal to tell it any way but the way it is, is a kind of insensitivity to the costs of the exercise of that power, a demand that the world be a particular way for everyone. Evasions, compromises, and equivocations can be the only way to speak to an audience of more than one, particularly politically: the mutual comprehension that making power's exercise acceptable to those who live under it involves requires needs give and take, needs us to bite our tongues. Which is of course what I found so attractive about that Obama speech: it cuts both ways, aims at a reconciliation. If it were completely honest, it could not help but take sides, and if it did that, it'd be impossible for it to find a common language in which to make power's exercise acceptable. If it adopted the attitude that, say, Orwell does in 'Politics and the English Language', it could not work and that would be a loss.

I've always been pretty sceptical about that essay: it's so tempted by an authoritarian machismo, not quite able to shake itself from the thrall of a moral universe exactly the opposite of that which animates a worry about public reason. Telling it like it is can be reifying, a denial of other people's right to interpret the world around them within certain reasonable canons, to make sense of it for themselves. Of course, there are limits to the acceptability of Unspeak: dead children are always dead children, and dead children killed by bombs are always dead children killed by bombs, just as simulated drowning is a form of torture and not a mere aggressive interrogation technique. There's no room for reasonable disagreement there. Likewise, I think, the existence of climate change, and the damage it's likely to do. But that leaves a lot where Orwell's demand for the elimination of euphenism and obfuscation is a step too far: having agreed that climate change is to be avoided does not decide how to achieve that goal. Even more than that, as a general demand about how to use language, it's totalitarian: it destroys the possibility of so many different forms of literary expression. Presumably one reason Shakespeare never described his characters speech with verbs other than say is because he never described his characters speech directly: one would hope that actors could convey a variety of modes of speech. Equally, Elmore Leonard writes in a particular genre, with particular stylistic conventions. He might as well demand that all other forms of fiction employ only variants on the weary cynic waiting to be roused into a last burst of idealism as a central character. English has a number of different verbs for the act of speech for a reason: people have found it useful to pick out particular ways of speaking.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Something You Can Touch

In preparation for beginning on the fourth season, I've been re-watching the earlier seasons of The Wire. I'm about halfway through the second at the monent, which the first time round I liked the most: as this post at The Valve points out, the most obvious categorisation of the seasons is by the institutions they provide an account of, and the disenchanted old-school social democrat in me can't really resist the various tragedies of the dockers union and the Sobotkas in particular; the aristocracy of labour and all that. The Valve post claims - it's not quite a criticism, I think, since part of the point is that the institutional focus provides other goods: value pluralism a-go-go - that characters in The Wire lack interiority, in the sense that individual psychological explanations are never really provided for their behaviour: we never quite know why McNulty is McNulty, in the sense that there is no backstory which tells us how he got to have the in many ways quite familiar collection of vices and virtues he has. Now, I have good Kantian objections to the kind of reductionism those kind of explanations can suppose, but that's another post. What's more interesting is the sense in which it's not quite true, I think, of the Sobotkas, and particularly Frank and Ziggy.

Indeed, The Valve post says of Frank and Ziggy that Ziggy

sees the hopelessness of the situation feelingly, in a way Frank cannot. Instead Frank just keeps going, trying to make it all cohere, until he winds up dead.

but that's just not right. Frank knows how hopeless the situation is. He knows the way which he is trying to save what he cares about it destroys it. He does not want to be doing what he is doing: he repeatedly demands to see The Greek, and has to be bought off with more and more money to pour into the lobbying he cannot help but see is getting nowhere. The way he is satisfied with Ziggy's explanation for being such a publicly useless f*ck-up - they are walking down by the docks, and go back to the bar together after it's given - shows that he thinks it's a perfectly adequate explanation: invoking the virtues, the senses both of community and self-reliance, of working hard with your mates for a decent living, of world both of them can see disappearing makes sense as an excuse for Frank. If it didn't, he could hardly justify his part in smuggling hookers and drugs into his city to himself. Frank's motivations, at least in a generic sense, are pretty transparent to us, even in the absence of an individual psychological backstory: what he cares about, what animates him, is participation in a community of honest labour and the opportunity for others to carry on in that tradition. You don't need a psychological backstory to explain why that might matter, especially when you add Frank's sense of persecution.

Ziggy is different, because, unlike Frank, you can see his past written in his relations with people in the present. He's the union boss's son, and so he has always has a ticket into the formal institution, but everyone knows that's why he has a ticket into the formal institution, and so he never really penetrates any further than that formal acceptance: it's all on suffrance, particularly against a background of fewer and fewer opportunities as de-industrialisation bites. He can't f*ck up, but neither can he succeed, or not there at least. So he tries elsewhere, but because he lacks the skills to see where institutions deny him access or somehow slide past him - he's always had a free pass to the ones he knows best - he f*cks it up. This is why what The Greek says to Frank, urging him to

[s]pend some on a little something you can touch. A new car, a new’s why we get up in the morning

is so poignant. Frank, like Ziggy, isn't really interested in a little something you can touch. For all that Ziggy is a mess of outrageous conspicuous consumption, when Nicky keeps trying to sweeten him to having lost the dope distribution racket he'd nearly got killed over, he ostentaiously refuses, throwing thousands of dollars away in front of his would-be benefactor. Likewise Frank: he has a shoebox of money under his desk, and he works out the police are onto him because the phone company don't cut him off after three months of not having paid his bill. What both of them want is respect, Ziggy for himself, and Frank for the community he's a part of. Which of course returns me to what I like so much about that season in the first place: the social democratic vision, undeniably exclusionary - it's so very masculine, after all - but nonetheless with a kind of nobility to it, of an aristocracy of labour. What that vision provides, what Frank and Ziggy are worried about the loss of, is not money, not something you can touch: it's what Rawls called the social bases of self-respect, of being understood to be a fully participating member of society, with the powers to realise one's moral agency. That is a good as much as money is, and the Sobotkas illustrate just why.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Fafblog is back!

Also, someone has issued money in the name of Antarctica, which isn't really as impressive as you'd hope: it needs more - appropriately enough given the reappearance of the masters of ironic overstatement - of a sense of its own absurdity, I feel.

But Fafblog!

PS: Also, if anyone more competent with HTML than me can explain how to un-f*ck the fonts in the sidebar after the addition of the tags, I'd be grateful.