Monday, December 24, 2012

Knitting Was A Reserved Occupation Or, On Taking Oneself Too Seriously

I've never been quite clear how seriously Ian Hamilton Finlay, who has a small exhibition at the Tate, should be taken; putting a grenade, in meticulous pale stone, at the end of a row of finials or outlining, in white on red, a guillotine blade with 'laconic' written across it must be at least partly a joke, even if the joke may be that he is entirely serious. I have a print my mother gave me, of this, apparently held by the Government Art Collection, whose exact line is lovely, in part because giving a Fraserburgh fishing boat that kind of architectual, monumental stillness is really quite unexpected, has an air of unreality. That tension, between what Hamilton Finlay chose to give the full sonorous weight of his neo-classical references and those references themselves, seems to me crucial to its success; the success of a project to give things their due, to insist, quite without irony, in an idiom apparently incapable of it and quite alien to them, on the importance of very everyday things.

I like that, the idea that a democratic sensibility should have a high moral seriousness, that we should give a grandeur, a deontology, to the forgotten, small parts of life; that a craft has its place in the world and must be respected for it, is an end in itself. Fishing is the equal of statesmanship, not because it's as consequential, but it too has its rules, its virtues. It's a lesson I feel many of my colleagues could learn; not because they do not obey the profession's imperatives, though some, of course, through incapacity or what's worse, carelessness, do fail to do it justice, but because they don't see it's smallness. Academic political theory is not going to save the world. Perhaps fishing will, but political theory won't. That doesn't strip it of value. It doesn't need to be a crusade, all-encompassing, a way of making the world anew, to matter. At its best, it has its virtues, some of them, like an awareness of the fragility of order, distinctive, some of them, like interpretive charity, common to any intellectual activity. Live up to their demands, take satisfaction in that, and go home at the end of the day and do something else. Political theory, or indeed anything else, is not the whole world; there are other things worth doing and worth doing well. The discipline may well be corrupt; it may well fail to live up to its own values, and heap praise work that is too busy being clever to see how stupid it is; fine. Like a wise man once said, the job will not save you, not because you work 70 hour weeks, but because if you are working 70 hour weeks, the reason is because there's nothing else; if you hollow yourself out with work, if you sacrifice yourself to the job, what's left?

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