Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Leg Measurements And The Size Of My Cock

I know celebrity is odd, and I also know that lots of other people know that. Still, I hope it isn't only me that thinks that it's pretty bizarre if there's a real need for an eight-page supplement on the life of an only just cold musician who had made no new music of any note for well over a decade or that satisfying that alleged need is anything but a bafflingly vicarious exercise in sanctimonious intrusion. I suppose I can make sense of a regret that there'll be no more music, but the thought that there's anything more than a passive consumption of product, however wonderful that product was, to the relationship is quite alien to me. What otherwise unsatisfied need is being met by projecting the features of a real, mutual, in some way intimate, relationship on to the surely long-mad one-time purveyor of pop music whose genius after all lay in the way it was polished out of all reality? And if anyone mentions Diana, Obergruppenfurher of our hearts, I'll claw my own eyes out, or at least theirs.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Not Here And Not Now

There was a time when I would have found this little local dispute a cue for immediate, confident, intervention. Partly I don't - except when applying for jobs - think of myself as a philosopher any more really: sometimes I think of myself as a political theorist, but more often as a Rawlsian, and more often even than that as a graduate student who's grant has run out and is about to submit and, in all probability, be more or less unemployed. Some hard-nosed and pithy, ideally Marxian, aphorism along the lines of not being able to live on bread alone telling you something important about bread, and its sources, would presumably be appropriate here. That's not all of it: political theorists are not wholly a subset of philosophers; our canon is different, which means we ask slightly different questions and expect answers to begin from slightly different places.

For what it's worth, I can find philosophers and the more philosophically inclined amongst political theorists quite annoying, but not because they present themselves in ways which I find rude, although some of them do tend towards distinctly socially awkward - which I'm hardly one to be casting aspersions on the basis of, I suppose - and like any discipline, philosophy has its share of shits. I find them annoying because - which may not be unconnected to the social awkwardness and the share of shits - I don't think asking highly abstracted questions about increasingly denatured cases is actually a particularly sensible way of going about answering questions, at least in moral and political philosophy. Who are those questions for? Perhaps philosophers qua philosophers, but less often, it seems to me, philosophers qua human beings with lives that go on in a world characterised not by questions about the precise character of the betterness of this state of affairs from some universal perspective but ones about considerably more situated and uncomfortable difficulties. Certainly not for ordinary people whom one would hope do not spend their time being crippled by agonising over the infinite varieties of trolley problem.

I went to a presentation a while ago by a friend who is - to my mind at least - a little too interested in right-libertarianism; here, one wants to paraphrase Linda Smith and say if not the oxygen of oxygen, at least the oxygen of academic respectability; a fellow attendee described right-libertarians as the gift that just keeps giving, which I think expresses just the right amount of scorn. Anyway, the friend argues - fairly convincingly to my mind, but that's not really the point - that right-libertarians need the first property-owners to have been individuals for their claims about individual rights to follow, and that all the evidence from anthropology indicates that that's not the case: actually, the first property-owners were almost certainly collectives of various sorts, who then passed over their property to individuals later on.

What's interesting about this is that this was well-known to, say, the Scottish Enlightenment, as was pointed out during the presentation, begging the question of how that richer, more humane, understanding of how we go about political philosophy in particular has disappeared. What presumably structural forces have caused us to forget that sort of knowledge? Bernard Williams had a view about this, contrasting the "intense moralism of much American political and indeed legal theory" with what he thought was its predictable counterpart, a concentration in American political science on "the coordination of private or group interests": "a Manichean dualism of soul and body, high-mindedness and the pork barrel... [where]... the existence of each explains how anyone could have accepted the other". He goes on to contrast that combination of piety and sordidness with a view in which conflict is central but contained; where what a political decision announces is not that someone is wrong, but "that they have lost", where of course that implies acceptance of some rules under which they lose.

Predictably, I find that view congenial, if wrong in its reading of Rawls. Whether it's generalizable I'm not sure. I tend to think so, although I've no real evidence to base that claim on. It seems to me that just as idealism lives under the shadow of Tamanay Hall and vice versa, the colonization of the social sciences in general by various forms of physics envy, with economics typically in the vanguard of this assault, will similarly generate attempts in philosophy to both distance oneself from and approximate those degrees of precision through abstraction. If that's true though, then it could well be the driving force explaining philosophers' apparent comparative failure at the grant stage and the general hostility of both humanists and social scientists to philosophers: social scientists because after all, philosophers end up behaving like their poor cousins, faffing about ineffectually with third-hand pieces of maths and no real sense of life as lived, and humanists because, really, they'd like them to be talking about actual people. Rudeness doesn't come into it: it's that they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing; illuminating, through careful conceptual analysis, the conditions of life as we have to live it without in doing so destroying the possibility of it. Eh; of course, that's over-general and, more, unkind, bitter. There'll always be exceptions; what's important though, is whether they are exceptions.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Their Predominant Colourings Would Be Melancholy And Gloom

I would write about the European elections, and the fact that the good people of Lancashire and Cumbria and Yorkshire and Humberside have elected fascists, but what would I say? That when James Purnell is a major figure in the Labour Party this is hardly surprising? That if no major political party is prepared to say that "reasonable concerns of the (white) working class" are that they don't see their real incomes stagnate and even drop during a period of economic growth and not a euphemism for badly concealed racism, this is what you get? None of that is really very illuminating: it's a grindingly familiar story. I'm reminded of James Fenton's crepuscular journalism. It seems appropriate: formulated in response to the despondency and incompetence of South Vietnamese troops just before the fall of Saigon, it deals in the little defeats of the half-light, in shrugs, in guard posts no-one bothers to man and truths no-one tries to conceal any more. Its defining feature is its lack of bravado; appropriate for a government whose ministers can't even conduct a decent assassination on a leader so cripplingly useless that you wince each time he comes on television.