Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Fetishes

I think it is safe to say that I am generally of a fairly Kantian bent; I'm all for all that secularized puritanism - what's so bloody great about happiness anyway? So you'd have thought that I'd quite like Arthur Ripstein's Force and Freedom: Kant's Legal and Political Philosophy. I don't, and I think Ripstein may be a bit mad. Ripstein's reconstruction of Kant's view starts with an exploration of Kant's idea of innate right. I don't know whether Ripstein is right about the interpretation of the relevant bits of Kant, since I don't know the relevant bits of Kant, but what he says seems to me wrong, at least as claims about the coercively enforceable rights we have over our bodies. Ripstein's claim I think is that because we are entitled not to be subject to anyone else, we are entitled to set our own purposes, and that because we are entitled to set our own purposes, we are entitled to exclude others from any control over our own bodies. If others controlled our bodies at all, they would be setting our purposes by eliminating certain ways in which we could act and so making us unable to pursue certain ends.

Now, this, independently of anything else Ripstein says seems to me implausible. I do not lose my ability to act if you can choose whether to make my left ear twitch at five minutes intervals. I simply do not need full control rights over my body in order to be able to act as I please; some instances of control by others over my body are simply irrelevant to my ability to act, because there are many things my body does or can do which have no impact on my use of it to pursue any given project. If my left ear involuntarily twitches at five minutes intervals, this does not impact on my ability to act as I please and so it can hardly impact on it if you can choose whether it twitches or not. You may be using me as a means, but I can still set my own ends.

When added to other things that Ripstein says, it seems even more crazy. Ripstein apparently thinks that no-one else having control over your body is not only necessary but sufficient for you to be setting your own ends. If he did not, then he would not be able to restrict innate rights to rights against having your body controlled by others; indeed, he would have to admit some rights of others to control your body by requiring you to do provide others with control over objects other than their bodies necessary for them to act. Not only does Ripstein want to say that if I can make you twitch one ear, you are under my control, but also that I can set my own ends even if I am so crippingly hungry all I can think of is food. The distinction Ripstein draws between our capacity to act and the world in which we act in order to sustain this sort of claim clearly does exist - that I cannot achieve an end I set myself does not mean that I cannot set it - but it is either it is not as sharp as he imagines or not in the place he imagines. He says, for example, that although "[p]urposive beings that were unable to manipulate or modify physical objects could not have property in them, because those objects would not be available to them as means", such beings "would still have a right to their own person". What kind of right could this be? How could I have a right to a physical body that could not manipulate or modify physical objects? What could possibly explain or justify such a right?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Grindingly Awful Up Close

In his foreword to a recent translation of parts of Garibaldi's memoirs, Tim Parks says of Garibaldi that he appreciated that "only complete singleness of mind could make anything happen... he sacrificed every other consideration for Italian unity". Parks clearly thinks this is a virtue in Garibaldi. I'm pretty sure it's not: as Parks acknowledges, what sacrificing every other consideration for Italian unity meant was not just sacrificing himself - and let's not forget that Garibaldi lived to see Italian unification - but "the lives of thousands upon thousands of others". Garibaldi's own view seems to have been that anyone who wasn't prepared to take ill-equipped and untrained young men off to fight guerilla campaigns in the firm belief that, despite the hostile attitude of the two nearest Great Powers, the sheer glory of being prepared to kill and be killed to be united under a tinpot monarchy would be enough to ensure victory. For example, when criticizing the behaviour of Cavour in allowing French interference during his attack on Naples in 1860, he says of some of his own followers who assisted Cavour that they were

swayed by the hypocritical, terrible pretext of necessity. The necessity of being cowards! The necessity of abasing oneself in the mud before some ephemeral image of power instead of heeding and understanding the vigorous, forceful, virile will of the people who wish to exist at any cost and are prepared to destroy these insect-eating icons and bury them back in the dung from which they sprang.

This is just batshit crazy. This is not, it's a gamble and maybe it won't come off, but that doesn't make it not worth trying; this is, because we want it enough, it will happen. Never mind the fact that the book is full of the refusal of peasants in what was still a predominantly rural society to assist Garibaldi's troops; never mind that if it was true that merely wanting it was enough to make it so, it'd be hard to explain how it hadn't happened yet, or indeed why it would be wrong to try and stop it happening; never mind the price that both sides pay for showing that you want it enough; Garibaldi has seen the virile will of the people, appointed himself its tribune, and thereby licensed himself to demand that all others yoke their will to his, to throw away their plans and commitments in the service of some greater glory. Parks ends his encomium to Garibaldi's ability to drive the campaign for Italian unification out of the murky shadows of high politics and out into bloody fields and mountainsides up and down the country with a discussion of Garibaldi's instructions for his funeral:

He wanted his body to be cremated in a red shirt. 'Plenty of wood for the pyre', is his last exhortation. The remark is emblematic of his personality. He consumed his whole life and the lives of thousands upon thousands of others in a conflagration that is still the most illuminating moment in modern Italian history. Very few of those warming their hands at the bonfire look well in the weird light it casts.

Perhaps those who outlived Garibaldi, who embody the tendencies that he struggled against - for the backroom deal rather than the barriacdes in the street, for compromise and often deceit and even betrayal rather than plain-speaking - are emblematic of the forces of reaction in Italian politics, as Parks clearly thinks. But they are not the forces of reaction because of their methods; they are the forces of reaction because of the use they put them to. This is what politics is like, and without it, as the corpses strewn over the Italian penisula in Garibaldi's crimson wake show, whatever glories we may be fortunate enough to find, they will be cold comfort when we're lying in the mud trying to hold our guts in.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Cybermen On Heat

It turns out that discovering that Will Self regularly walks around the area you grew up in and know like the back of your hand is much more disturbing than his encounter with a dildo in a public place. Indeed, the fact that Will Self encountering a dildo in a public place is more or less exactly what you expect probably explains why the idea of him on buying paint the Northcote Road is quite so disturbing. It's a whole new level of uncanny for me: being disconcerted not by normality being not quite able to cover up the deep levels of weird that sustain it, but the reverse - the insertion of the normal into the typically weird. I'm sure some unfortunately-named French person has been talking about it for years; probably they'll be the subject of In Our Time next week.