Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Outgrown Those Basic Feelings Anyway

For the first time in 9 years - the first time since I moved here as an undergraduate - I'm leaving Oxford tomorrow without knowing if I'll be back for longer than a night or two here and there. Admittedly, I'll probably be back to teach - and hopefully play football - pretty regularily next academic year, but it's not really the same; even if I do find a spare bed or sofa, it'll only be for a night - I won't be settled here. I describe myself as a Londoner and, more, am quite prepared to attempt to police who gets to make that claim - the postcode plays a generally under-appreciated role: Richmond is, for example, not in the relevant sense in London - but in lots of important ways I was formed here and not there. That's not just because I first lived away from my parents here, and not so much because of the place in a general sense - this is a university town, and for 8 of the 9 years, I've been a student, so I've never really felt like I knew the town separately from being a student in it - but more because of people whom I've been close to: friends I made when I was an undergraduate and lived with when I was a masters student, various people in what I feel really is a community of political theorists, some others I've accumulated, more and less purposefully, along the way.

There was a time when I really wanted to leave, felt like I couldn't bear to be here any more, but even then, that was a fairly explicit piece of self-repudiation: what I thought I couldn't stand was the life I had made for myself here. Like it or not, here is a central piece of who I am: although surely other things underlie them, so much of what has shaped me into the person I am now happened here and in ways that I suspect are often would really only have happened in as a student - and perhaps particularly a postgraduate student - at an elite university in an otherwise rather nondescript provincial town. There are habits, even a habitus, that I've acquired here that it is difficult to imagine having acquired elsewhere; ways of thinking but also habits of mind in a broader sense, learned psycho-social behaviours. This isn't meant as a communitarian paean to the form of life I suppose I now know best - I hope I have the sense to be far more ambiguous about the value of that set of more and less conscious institutions and my way of negotiating them: after all, I did once want little more than to abandon them - but rather an acknowledgement that if I am to maintain a well-founded sense of integrity, of who and what I am and its significance, then I need to see Oxford's role in making me and how suited to it I am. I've not been away for more than 3 weeks for 6 years; it'll be odd to leave.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

By The Japanese War Memorial

From Geuss's 'Liberalism and its Discontents', Political Theory, 2002.

[I]f some of the deficiencies inherent in adopting a pure normative standpoint are visible even in a philosopher who has moved as far beyond Kant as Rawls has, this seems to me to give further weight to suspicions about the normative standpoint as a whole.

Setting aside the 'pure' for the time being, I think it's worth marvelling at just how perfect a piece of self-disembowelling this is. Our suspicions about the very idea of a normative standpoint and its deficiencies can have more and less weight; by what measures are we to establish this weight, and by what standards are we to judge these failings? Presumably not normative ones, since they ground suspicions about the very possibility of normativity, and so presumably not ones which are supposed to compel or even count in favour of agreement on them. I suppose anyone who disagrees with Geuss then has no reason to carry on reading him then.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Feel The Heat Around The Corner

Both Heat and Public Enemies open with crimes that go wrong, in both cases because one of the criminals loses their rag and is more violent than they have to be; in the first, the inexorable unravelling of the lives the rest of the film seems to document rather than force is begun by that loss of control, whereas in the second, so far as the film is concerned, that act is basically consequenceless, forgotten after the first five minutes or so. This is the problem with most of Public Enemies: not quite, I think, as Peter Bradshaw claims, that Johnny Depp is too taciturn, insufficiently flamboyant; it's hardly like De Niro or even Pacino, admittedly better and crucially older actors than Depp, chew up the scenery in Heat; they instead exude calm, world-bitten menace. It's that it's mostly very easy for Depp: he breaks out of a prison with a bit of metal shaped into a vaguely gun-like form before driving away past tens of soldiers without a shot being fired, bribes the police and buys souped-cars seemingly at whim, even goes out on the town, casually revealing what he does to strangers. There's no tension: if anything goes wrong, it doesn't seem to matter - there's not even a sense of the scale on which things can go wrong: it's just Depp, being weirdly unemotional in a world he seems to move through without any real effort at all - and so no sense of inexorable failure of everything really begins to build until the last half hour or so. Compare and contrast the romance in Heat with that in Public Enemies: admittedly Eady's as much of a cipher as Flechette is, but at least living in a world in which things do not just fall into his lap, De Niro has had the space to seem justly self-confident, competent, charismatic; you can see what's attractive about him, whereas Depp, notwithstanding being rather handsome, is at best a little boorish. Alternatively, think of the slow-burning disaster in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford: desperate hero worship gone sour and bitter in the face of what violence and mistrust will do to you in the end, and a much better film for it. There is one wonderful scene, where Depp is sitting in the cinema, watching Manhattan Melodrama, seemingly like he knows what he can't, that he'll die on the street outside when he leaves. And tension does build towards the end, as the mob refuses to provide support and he's left without a bolthole. Nonetheless, overall, flat and, from Mann, disappointing.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

No Reason Not To Try

Trying to do a careful analytical unpicking and undermining of Glen Newey's recent LRB piece on Raymond Geuss' new book would be mostly pretty tedious and anyway miss the point, which is its polemical character; I'm assuming, for example, that Newey doesn't really think that taking moralised stances about political arrangements makes one a supporter of the present Iranian state. More briefly, I note that even Bernard Williams, hardly friendly to Kantian-inspired liberalism, understood that the point of that liberalism is that it is about the conditions of the legitimate exercise of political power, so it can hardly be that it ignores the fact of the exercise of political power, since it is premised on it; that the presence of disagreement does not mean there is no right answer, and certainly not that there are not better and worse answers; and that if the problem is that ignoring the fact of political power generates undesirable results, then we better have something to say about the terms on which those results are undesirable. When one wants to say what political philosophy properly is, standards by which that properly can be assessed are necessary, and that pitches us right back into making evaluations of some sort or other; maybe not moral(ised) ones, but evaluations of some sort, and so the possibility of disagreement.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

You Can't Whistle It Either

From Ray Monk's 'How To Read Wittgenstein' - no, I haven't - discussing the later Wittgenstein's abandonment of the idea of "a single 'logical form' shared by thought, language and the world, which a philosopher might uncover and reveal":

During his first six months back in Cambridge in 1929... [Wittgenstein] fairly quickly came to the conclusion that the very notion of logical form had to be abandoned. In this, he was helped by conversations with Ramsey and, still more, by conversations with the Italian economist Piero Sraffa. In the preface to Philosophical Investigations that he wrote in 1945, Wittgenstein says that he is indebted to Sraffa for 'the most consequential ideas of this book'... Wittgenstein, soon after his return to Cambridge, was explaining his ideas to Sraffa and insisting - as he had insisted in Tractatus - that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same 'logical form'. To this, Sraffa made a Neapolitan gesture of brushing his chin with his fingertips, asking: 'What is the logical form of that?'

I'd describe the relevant gesture as more of a flick than a brush, but still; attention to life as it is lived, and in a wholly appropriate medium. In other news, I handed in two copies of my D.Phil to be sent off to examiners this afternoon; let us not ask about its logical form.