Monday, May 26, 2008

When We Look At The World Rationally

So, apart from reading Hegel, I've also been reading commentaries on Hegel, including Fred Neuhouser's Foundations of Hegel's Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom, which I think is really rather good. Hegel, of course, has a reputation, much like Rousseau's, as being a kind of proto-totalitarian; states as organic wholes with lives above and beyond those of their members and all that kind of thing. Neuhouser, pretty persuasively so far as I'm concerned, describes a rather different Hegel, motivated by an almost Kantian worry about what it takes for a will to be self-determining and so free, one which both he and I think is also powerfully present in Rousseau. Obviously, there are some things that can't be wished away, and so he spends a fair bit of what I've read so far trying to both make sense of and make persuasive Hegel's apparent belief in a social whole with a life above and beyond those of its members, but he does a pretty good job: the thought seems to be that the social whole does have a life, but one which would be going wrong if it failed to secure individual freedom; the social whole is only universal in virtue of respecting particularity; it makes itself concrete in the different lives of its various members.

In general, then, what Neuhouser provides is a Hegel who is profoundly interested in the set of social conditions under which humans can be self-determining, and in two distinct senses. First, they need what we might call the objective conditions of agency: both the conditions that make them an agent, in the sense of someone with a reasonably stable sense of themselves, and the conditions that allow them to live that understanding of themselves out relatively unimpeded. Thus both the family, as the location of people's emotional formation, and the freedoms of civil society, where we encounter each other as fully autonomous agents, are required. Second, they need the what we might call the subjective conditions of agency: they must be at home in the world, see the set of institutions they live within as something that they are not alienated from, can be reconciled with. Those institutions cannot be persistently hostile to their sense of self, but rather must support it, by providing for its recognition, in some sense at least. Hegel and presumably Neuhouser - I've not got that far - with him thinks that there's something else on top of this that the provision of all these conditions provides, a kind of extra freedom of some sort, which pulls everything else together; a will which reproduces not only itself but the conditions of its existence. There might well be something to be said for that, too.

One of the things that Neuhouser has been hinting at so far - one of the earlier chapters is a more developed version of an article he wrote on Rousseau, in which he attributes something pretty similar to Hegel's view to Rousseau, but it's not just that (see here for other Rousseau-Hegel comparisons) - is that he thinks that Hegel's criticisms of social contract theory are misplaced, that Hegel and social contract theorists are both tied to a deep worry about whether or not peoples' wills can be made to align with the social system they live under, so that they can will the way in which the social system structures their world. I've said before that I think that the sensible bits of Hegel are in Kant, and there are interesting parallels, I think, between Hegel's two sorts of freedom and Rawls' two moral powers; the objective conditions of agency could be seen as the power to pursue a conception of the good, since both are concerned with personal freedom, and the subjective ones as the power for a sense of justice, as both deal with finding oneself at home in one's social world. At some point, I will get round to reading what Rawls has to say about Hegel - and Kant, it has to be said - in the posthumously published Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, but I haven't yet. What exactly he does say may depend on when exactly in his career they were written, but given Rawls' turn towards Hegelian ideas about reconciliation and realistic utopias in his later career, it's possible they'll be quite sympathetic.

Here, I suppose the question is what's of interest here; the thought that Rawlsians, despite being disciples of the person who probably did the most to revive the discipline, are in important ways marginal to contemporary analytical moral and political philosophy - and caring about Hegel is certainly to make yourself marginal in important ways to that discourse - is hardly a novel one, from me at least. I hardly need repeat Bernard Williams' line about modern moral philosophy have found new and distinctive ways of being boring, or point out that hammers make everything look like nails. One thing it may tell us is that Rawlsians may well be in the wrong business, if they understand themselves as doing contemporary analytical moral and political philosophy; they, and me with them, could be better off with a self-understanding which placed them in a tradition in which Hegel is more central; one in which it is not an acceptable joke to make that Hegel makes no sense, but is funny if you read him aloud, imitating Darth Vader's voice (thanks for that, Chris). Critical theorists, here we come, I suppose.

Perhaps more pertinent is one of the other things I spent my time doing today. Apart from watching the morning's play in the Test match - well done Strauss; I thought we'd probably lose at the beginning of the day - I also attended a seminar in which one prominent political theorist presented a paper in which they argued, fairly powerfully, that it'll never be instantiated is no good objection to a political theory. Their point was that people are, amongst other things, not morally perfect, and so they may well fail to live up to the quite proper demands of a moral theory. That's quite sad enough, in a way; the thought that you can specify what the quite proper demands of a moral theory are without thinking about the fact that people are morally perfect, have their own lives to live, lives that are after all what gives moral demands their weight. It is not aware enough, I think, of the importance of the relationship between peoples' wills and the social system they live under: it's at least prima facie evidence that some moral demand does not pay proper respect to that relationship that it would, at least by good-willed people, not be consistently met. What was really sad though, was that one person at the seminar, either deliberately or not, made use of their institutional power and particular personality to dominate it. They probably spoke more than the presenter. That's to forget what it is for there to be other wills at all, never mind worry about how to align them with other peoples' or the structure of the social system they live under.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Each Beautiful In Their Own Way

This and this. Delicately painted snails (via B3ta) and a deadpan-delivered history of the Depression partially re-written as comically bad sci-fi B-movie. Who says the internet isn't great?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Man's Gotta Do What A Man's Gotta Do

More Valve Wire-commentary. I don't think it's as reifying as they seem to, but the idea of Omar as outlaw lawman is interestingly developed.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

He Believes It's Not Coincidence

Hegel on Catholicism (from the Philosophy of Mind, paragraph 552). This would be one of the crazy bits in Hegel and so, in my mind at least, not like Kant:

...yet in Catholicism this spirit of all truth is in actuality set in rigid opposition to the self-conscious spirit. And, first of all, God is in the 'host' presented to religious adoration as an external thing. (In the Lutheran Church, on the contrary, the host as such is not at first consecrated, but in the moment of enjoyment, i.e. in the annhilation of its externality, and in the act of faith, i.e., in the self-certain spirit: only then is it consecrated and exlated to be present God.) From that first and supreme status of externalization flows every other phase of externality - of bondage, non-spirituality, and superstition. It leads to a laity, receiving its knowledge of divine truth, as well as the direction of its will and conscience from without and from another order - which order again does not get possession of that knowledge in a spiritual way only, but only to that end essentially requires an external consecration. It leads to the non-spiritual style of praying - partly as mere moving of the lips, partly in the way that the subject forgoes his right of directly addressing God, and prays others to pray - addressing his devotion to miracle-working images, even to bones, and expecting miracles from them. It leads, generally, to justification by external works, a merit which is supposed to be gained by acts, and even to be capable of being transferred to others. All this binds the spirit under an externalism by which the very meaning of spirit is perverted and misconceived at its source, and law and justice, morality and conscience, responsibility and duty are corrupted at their root.

So this maybe explains why Alasdair MacIntyre doesn't talk about Hegel in After Virtue, despite that book being in many ways very Hegelian - MacIntyre is after all a committed Catholic, and Hegel clearly totally despises Catholics and does not shy away from listing, at some length, their faults. What's more interesting than that though - at best a passing note in the history of political
thought - is what Hegel claims is at the root of all of Catholicism's ills; it's conception of the sacrament, and specifically the moment at which transubstantiation takes place. That is real lunacy; as if a minor theological point is central to the political manifestations of a religion in which that minor theological point became important several centuries after its foundation. Lunacy, I tell you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Not Quite An Apology

If no-one tells me to stop, I'm going to keep doing this.

Gli Occhi Devono Avere Loro Parte

No-one stuffed my mouth with gold:
Something glib, something easy, escaped instead;
No-one sighs, and I sigh back.

No-one shut my eyes with silver:
Something shadowed, something beyond, was seen;
No-one glanced, and I glanced back.

I only did what came naturally,
The second cigarette, quick, eager,
Riding the back of the first.

There should be more of a confession here.
The eyes must have their part;
If that’s what you want, and a quick laugh.

No-one gilded my eyes with lead
Or stuffed my mouth with rags.
I hoped and no-one looked back,
Reached and fell slowly away.

It was a winter count
Snow that fell snow upon snow,
Oubliettes, like dust on the wind,
An accumulation of increments, infinite.

For The Most Part Less Physically And Emotionally Expressive Than Neapolitan Dockers

As I've mentioned before, the Oxford graduate population is not particularly British, and so brings home to you the peculiarities of being British, makes you see that certain ways of doing and being that you accept as natural are in fact contingent, even if you could no more shake them off than your own skin. Of course, that cuts both ways: those members of Oxford's graduate population who did not grow up in the UK must find it odd and at least slightly disconcerting to be exposed to people who have different cultural specifities, since that is the understandable reaction to that experience, whether or not you are British. Indeed, it is undoubtedly much more disconcerting, since even if they are not totally hegemonic, typically British norms are dominant amongst that population, and that population is hardly the only one which people coming from abroad to study here will encounter. A foreign graduate student I know, for example, claimed that for much of the first year they were in the UK, they thought that everyone disliked them. They interpreted various forms of reserve, of awkwardness, forms of reserve and awkwardness which could all too easily have only been increased by failures to understand them as generic rather than directed, as a signal that they were not welcome. The turning point was apparently reading Kate Fox's Watching The English, which explained to them that all this apparent disinterest was perfectly normal.

I've not read Watching The English, and so perhaps it doesn't fall into the genre that I suspect it does, although any synchronic study risks doing so, because of the way time-slices ignore what has come before. Here, the sort of thing I'm thinking of is typified by what I remember of Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island, which I recall as being a artfully cobbled together collection of exercises in triple-distilled Daily Mail issue nostalgia, full of the glories of its common sense. As I've said before, this sort of thing, of which I'm sure Bryson's book is not the only example, naturalises existing social heirarchies, obliterates difference and opposition, gilds chains with flowers. It performs what I take to be the classic Orientalising maneouvre, and takes what it discusses out of history, placing a specific set of social relations, which redound to the advantage of those who occupy particular places in that structure, in statis, beyond the reach of change and so critique. It turns those who fall victim to it into patients, incapable of ruling themselves, trapped by their preordained and inescapable role. Unsurprisingly, I don't really like that kind of thing.

In a way, it's present in the attitude that the Labour Party has adopted to the power of the right-wing press in the UK whilst it has been in government. The attitude, notoriously, has been that there is nothing to be done about it, that the political centre-ground is where it is, cannot be moved, and must instead be placated. Achievement of traditional Labour objectives, if they're to be sought at all, is to be done stealthily, so that neither Murdoch nor the Daily Mail notice. Those who read those papers are turned into cultural dupes, and the formidable political resources Labour had at its disposal when it came to power in 1997 - a broken opposition, leaders unburdened by the mistakes and mishaps inevitably associated with a period in government, and not least a period of persistent economic growth - denied. Existing social relations are reified, and the power of particular actors - so obviously central to the long-term political success of Thatcherism - ignored. That failure to even seriously attempt to shift the terms of the political debate, as Chris says in comments here, is 'the great, great failure of the Labour government'.

It's also present in the attitude Paul Ginsbourg describes the leadership of the Italian Communist Party having in the aftermath of World War II in his history of contemporary Italy (and which I think Phil has described the continuation of into the Anni di Piombo and beyond). Terrified by the thought of Allied military intervention, either through proxies or directly, at any sign of communist take-over, Togliatti endorsed a policy of accommodation with the other anti-fascist parties, which seems to effectively meant that De Gasperi and the Christian Democrats got communist support for a series of measures which eliminated the institutional possibility of any serious disruption to the underlying Italian social heirarchies which formed the basis of their support. Land reform was designed to be both as sympathetic to the interests of big landowners as possible and to ensure that there remained a substantial class of small and marginal peasant proprietors, vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, while any idea of worker's control in industry was quickly squashed. More than that, the apparatus of the state and even the personnel manning it remained the same; Ginsbourg shows disturbing levels of continuity between the Fascist and post-Fascist police and judiciary, for example, lasting well into the sixties and seventies. The communists took themselves to be far more constrained by the situation than they were; even well after the peak of their post-war power, a failed assassination attempt on Togliatti was able to provoke a general strike which succeeded in taking over several Northern cities for days. They, like parts of the Labour Party, Orientalised both themselves and the population they found themselves amongst.

What's good about Ginsbourg's book in this context though is the way in which it's a counter to that sort of thinking. After having cast his hands up in the air at the Communists' refusal to make use of the power they had, Ginsbourg goes on to expose exactly the Christian Democrats did make use of the power they had, making sure that Italy had, insofar as they could control it, the character they wanted. Clientelism in the South, and forms of associationism often bound up with the Church in the North; the willed political acts which created those institutions for the benefit of the Christian Democrats in the fifties have shaped Italy since. To take that shape, that set of social relations, out of that history, in which groups and individuals exercised power, and could have done otherwise, is to misunderstand that social structure, to fail to see the ways in which it generated by the interplay of particular social forces. Likewise, Bryson-esque pieces of pop anthropology misdescribe their subject; we need to bring back the history, the history which exposes the way they are formed by political struggles and so the way in which they both encode power relations and can have new power relations encoded on them.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Unsurprisingly, I think Boris Johnson can f*ck right off. What's much more disturbing than him as such - casually racist, misogynist and elitist upper class snobs are likely to be with us for some time, and other than seek to minimise their role in public life, there's little practical to be done about them: fencing off various appropriate parts of the country - Henley'd obviously be a beginning - and refusing to allow anyone who has either worn a rugby shirt or tracksuit bottoms as causalwear out seems a bit much - is that people don't seem to see that he ought to. On the other hand, I went into my MCR to pinch some of the pastries they have left over from the May morning breakfast, and noticed that an integral part of their advertising for their bop tomorrow is offering anyone coming in a bikini a free shot. They also recently had an apparently serious motion to investigate the possibility of installing a dancing pole in the MCR, at least during bops. I wonder why they don't just go the whole hog and start hiring hookers with the bar proceeds. They could run a lottery or something. After all, when MCR newspaper subscriptions were voted on recently, we ended up with the Hate Mail, the International Herald Tribune, and the Times, so there'd clearly be plenty of takers. There are reasons I don't go there very often, and they're not exhausted by the fact that I'm a grumpy misanthrope.

Edit, 03/05/08: The Guardian today is quoting - although I can't find it on the website: presumably someone in Tory Central Office realised that even unattributed quotes comparing themselves to Mussolini might not be wise, and had it withdrawn - an unnamed but ecstatic Conservative frontbencher anticipating Johnson's victory by saying "this is like the March on Rome in 1922". Londoners have elected a racist incompetent toff, supported by the contemporary fascists of the BNP and whose own party members invoke previous fascist triumphs as benchmarks for their own success. Ken wasn't a saint, but this is disgusting. Oh, and in the end, apparently going in Speedos got you a free shot as well. Gigolos as well as hookers.