Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday--Madonna and the Season

It is strange that in later life I take Madonna's song "Holiday" as worthwhile a post. After all, when Madonna first came out in the '80s I was in high school and jaded beyond belief. To my artificial worldly wisdom, Madonna seemed to be the mere passing parade (which remains the case today, except her huge influence over decades makes her more parade and less passing). Back then, what did I have to gain from being wiled by Madonna's obvious gifts? Nothing. It was the nerd in me or at least the unpopular guy's music of the day--such things as Husker Du and Black Flag--that made me deny Madonna's true excellence. But all this is a lie, because I was as virile as the next young man. Looking back I see that I was incapable of admitting that Madonna excited in me passions of which I wasn't sure what to make in my sixteen year old body. I secretly loved Madonna, but this was not considered to be cool as a male who listened to "serious" music outside the mainstream. Madonna was obviously popular amongst the girls in my circles, and cool guys didn't listen to popular music like that. Only gay guys admitted to listening to Madonna. So, given these factors, how could one ever listen to Madonna?

This became a problem for me because, as I've admitted, I secretly loved Madonna. She was obviously the version of some woman for whom I would have been willing to submit. There was something about Madonna that truly aroused my nascent sexual passion. No wonder I hated her so much--she introduced a pain in my life that would never know requite. Like Don Quixote in his argument that all knights errant require a fair lady, I felt that Madonna was a cruel mistress who would never know of my own noble love for her. To defray the costs against the Manchegan, I thought of her as some cheap slut, albeit with obvious charms. So I listened to Meat Puppets and Dead Kennedys because Madonna was beyond me and my desire, and following my interest in her would only cause me pain. The agony she would have caused me was beyond belief. It was best to deny it.

I suspect I'm not alone in this--i.e, straight white males who like to think of themselves as listening to "punk" or "college" music (later called "alternative"), but who secretly comprise a tribe of Madonna lovers encompassing every nerd from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. I have no empirical basis from which to make such a remark, but Madonna was secretly loved by me in Galveston, Texas. Maybe most nerds are happy with Marillion, but Madonna's song "Holiday" was and is a truly joyous song. To be sure, it's not a Christmas song, but it may as well be. Every time I've ever had a party with males and females of the human species in one room, the dance floor gets full fast when I put on "Holiday." Madonna's "Holiday" is truly a party song--and this happens twenty years after the song's release. I would call this feat brilliance.

As I listen to Madonna sing "Holiday"--with Jelly Bean Benitez providing his superb production--I think that there needs to be more music like this. And this comes from a guy who would rather admit to listening to Husker Du or Black Flag (as great as they are). Hell, I'd rather admit to listening to Marillion (at least in some moods).

That being said, Madonna's "Holiday" is superior to any of that so-called "deep" rock that I compare it to. In fact, in a minor respect Madonna's song suggests the same freedom that these Christian holidays provide for us. With the holiday's joy and blessings there is a moment in this song of Madonna that speaks to the most hopeful aspirations. While it may remain unspeakable, it represents a beautiful means to escape from our own insignificance. "If we took a holiday...just one day out of life. It would be so nice." I can't agree more, especially coupled with that song's funky beat.

Update: As is typical with Madonna, the live version is not as good as the studio/album version (pace Elton John on her lip-synching), but at least here you get a pre-concert prayer for the song which, in typical Madonna fashion, is ambiguous regarding her own humility or hubris--let alone narcissism.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Oh You Pretty Things--Random Thoughts on Avatar

So I could not resist the hype, and went to see James Cameron's new flick Avatar. To state the basics, it was a decent film as an entertainment, and in 3D it was beautifully filmed. The back and forth between CGI and "real" filmed cinema flowed nearly seamlessly. It must be said that at over three hours in length, it was far too long. It almost ruined the entire film for me. Not being a fan of James Cameron in the first place (Terminator is decent, Aliens is overrated, and Titanic is sheer nonsense), I can see why the movie was hyped to such a great extent, viz. its production must have been so damned expensive that only hype could hope to recoup the costs. However, that is an unfair criticism because the film is in many ways remarkable even if it is merely decent as a whole. I'm glad I saw it.

Let me start with the title Avatar. The name for an incarnation of a divinity in Hinduism, it is also a term used by video gamers for their on-screen personae. This is problematic for the film. We are never clear if we are watching a video game, or rather if we are to understand the humans--the oft mentioned "sky people"--as being, from the point of view of the Na'vi people who live on the ominously titled planet Pandora, a manifestation of the divine. For in terms of the film, we are to believe that through the prowess of biotechnology, humans have become capable of genetically engineering actual body doubles which are similar in shape and form to the actual Na'vi. Each particular Na'vi double can be operated and controlled subjectively by its particular human genotypic original. When a particular human original lies in some futuristic version of a tanning bed (albeit a tanning bed with all sorts of fancy electronic wiring) he becomes fully functional as an other to himself, i.e., as a Na'vi. In terms of the film, as you lie in a futuristic tanning booth, you can also live in cyber reality (but in this case the real planet of Pandora) through the genetically engineered body double of yourself as a real Na'vi. This is the dream of all gamers--a dream that was well expressed (if more darkly) in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer. James Cameron has put such a dream to film in Avatar with different but just as dark implications. Either way, Cameron appeals to the longing for divinity of all video game players--the player becomes a veritable Jesus minus the cross and with restart functions and everything else to boot. So once again, I must ask if we are watching a video game or the incarnation of some sort a divinity (Christian, Hindu or otherwise)?

I say this because the movie, at least from the perspective of the scientists in the film, want you to believe that the the Na'vi theology or religion has a basis in science. Sigourney Weaver--back from the dead past of James Cameron--tells her unbelieving higher ups that the Na'vi religion is not "paganism" but instead "biology." So while we play this video game of a movie, we have no need to worry about the unfortunate changeableness of the Greek gods. You may have always thought that paganism was natural--well so much for St. Augustine. No Leda and the Swan here. Rather, in this film we are dealing a new age "force" a la George Lucas that apparently can be explained by biological science. Thank god there are no gods, because this would ruin the whole premise of the film in terms of its science (more on this later). It would be an insult to thinking audiences that god was god. Avatar, like most literal science fiction, avoids the age old question regarding how life emerges from not life. It's biology. For that matter, it's chemistry before it's biology. Of course if one is honest, it's physics before its chemistry. It seems that the question of life or soul can't be answered in terms of the science asking it. Nonetheless, Avatar sticks to its biology. It's like the proverbial Descartes with the cadaver on the autopsy table asking where's the soul. Luckily we live on Pandora which has proof of the biological basis of divinity which is nature itself (Pandora must be where Christopher Hitchens lives in his ode to the Burgess shale). In this view, the higher emerges from the lower, and you're an ignoramus to question it. This movie throws this argument in your face with its inexorable imagery and argument. To me it weakened the film in many ways.

Nonetheless, let's move beyond such polemics, and let's remind ourselves that in terms of the film bodies can be doubled--human and Na'vi. With this premise, the movie presents Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine and war veteran, as the protagonist. His human body (and soul?) operates as a Na'vi double. We "miraculously" see him running, jumping and flying in a Na'vi replicant version of himself while he lamely lies in his tanning bed. Like a wheelchair bound Jimmy Stewart as the voyeur to his neighbors in Rear Window, our protagonist lives vicariously as a Na'vi. Except in this case, the villain is not Raymond Burr but you yourself--or more abstractly stated, the villain is the species being human who resembles yourself in the tanning bed. On these terms, it was odd to hear the audience applaud the defeat of human beings by the non-human Na'vi (more on this later).

In the end Avatar has us believe that the Na'vi are not truly alien. They are completely at home in their world and live with justice and peace until the humans invade. No humans have ever had this luxury. Instead, the humans have set up a mining camp on planet Pandora, and in so doing they become the true aliens. The film doesn't initially state this theme, but it becomes obvious pretty early on. I can't remember the exact name of the mined mineral the humans seek after, but it is ridiculously titled something like "unobtainablite." The humans have invaded the Na'vi idyll on Pandora, and they seek this mineral with a pecuniary lust that knows no bounds. The human military is there to protect the procurement of this mineral with the most extreme prejudice. It is a frontier, and humans represent an immense danger to the way of life of the Na'vi, and likewise the Na'vi stand in the way of the "quarterly" bottom-line statement of some large and humanly owned greedy mining corporation back on Earth. This frontier may be a distinction between civilization and savagery, but in good revisionist western style the film presents the humans as the savages (as if the Indians were ever presented in film as being as ruthless as this bunch of humans).

However, it must be said that the scenes with the human soldiers show them to be a multiracial bunch--at least by human standards. So apparently race relations have improved, but then again in this movie the business and military leaders are still white. That doesn't matter because whether black, white, or brown the soldiers remain all too human and other than Na'vi. This is the main problem with them--their humanness not their race. At least the Na'vi supply an answer to the mere human problem of race relations.

When the film begins, there has already been much conflict between the humans and Na'vi on Pandora. Since our protagonist is a war veteran thrown into this frontier landscape, I am almost of the opinion that Avatar is another version of Dances With Wolves--albeit one that takes place in the future and on another planet instead of the post American Civil War western frontier. After all, about ten minutes into the movie, you know Jake is going to side with the Na'vi over his own human kind. What does he have to lose? He is a forgotten, wheelchair bound veteran. He suffers ridicule from all sides, but the scientists eventually come to respect him. His military superior lays down an ultimatum whereby Jake must give him secrets of the Na'vi way of life in exchange for a paraplegic rejuvenation surgery, which apparently exists at this time. Jake will allegedly play a video game, cyber-bio-technological-body-double, "fifth column" in order to provide the necessary information to facilitate the further mining of "unobtainablite." This doesn't happen. The predictability of the plot was another big problem in this movie, especially given its length. Of course Jake will side against his superior military hard ass. To indicate his excessive humanness, the superior even has scars on his head like Captain Ahab. Avatar would have been more interesting if it had upset these expectations, but it followed them to a tee.

In spite of their apparent alienness, the Na'vi are quite human. They are humanoid. Throughout the film we come to learn much about the Na'vi. These nonhumans have speech--a language which a bunch of "tree-hugging" (as the film terms them) human environmentalist scientists have mastered over years of study. We see the Na'vi communicate and deliberate with each other and with themselves. In fact, speech provides them the opportunity for choice. With speech, they exhibit all sorts of virtue, where they make distinctions between the right way and the wrong way. Furthermore, with speech they recognize their ancestors, as well as a tradition that has been handed down to them. They have concern for the preservation of their progeny, as well as handing down the way of life which the present generation holds in custodianship. When confronted with the presence of humans--the "sky people"--the Na'vi also express love of their own and hatred for the threat that is posed to it. They defend their own way of life with a "human" spiritedness. Consequently, it is no surprise that they live in political communities, and that they even make a distinction between public and private in terms of distinctive families. While primitive by human standards, they even exercise technological prowess. They make tools, use animals for their own ends, and even hunt some beasts in order to kill and eat them. Lastly, being aware of their mortality they are pious, and worship a divinity (or natural force) called Erya (or something like that).

Apart from the fact that they are aqua blue in color, three times the size of humans, and have tails, it makes you wonder what makes the Na'vi truly alien to humankind. They are simply strange, but oddly beautiful human beings. They have all of the attributes of Rousseau's so-called noble savages, uncorrupted by the vanity of civil society (albeit they have tails). In fact they exhibit many of the qualities that civilized humans ordinarily praise in speech and seek to make real in their own corrupted lives. However, in this film humans (with the exception of a few scientists, a paraplegic former Marine, and an ambivalent helicopter pilot) are completely corrupted. They are shown to be a godless race of savage insects bent on unlimited domination. The cruel Captain Ahab character exhibits all the vices of civilization--let alone the America of George W. Bush--in his speech of "pre-emptive strikes," "shock and awe" campaigns, and fighting "terrorism with terror" (the latter claim Bush never made). All these modes were to be used against the blameless Na'vi. Horrifically, the Na'vi are defeated in one battle when the humans blast out their giant tree home with missile after missile. The tree falls in a manner eerily reminiscent of the falling twin towers on 9/11. While the Na'vi lose this battle, they win the war (at least up to the end of the movie).

Throughout the film we hear of the Na'vi religion, and the human military and business leaders do nothing but ridicule it. The Na'vi religion is an Earth (or Pandora) religion. In this religion there is a hierarchy whereby the Na'vi hold a superior relation to all that exists on Pandora, but it is a superiority held in a way that shows their complete enmeshment with nature. Na'vi and nature are one--there is no distinction between beast and Na'vi. For instance, in order to win over and ride a particular "gorgon" flying fighter (or whatever it is called), one Na'vi fighter must be chosen by it. It will try to kill you, but then if you can make it submit to you as a Na'vi, then you have a "St. Francis of Assisi-type" pony tail that when you connect it to the beasts' similar extended receptacle you become one with nature (albeit, this tail is entirely natural not supernatural). When joined together, you and it unite in a mother Earth/Pandora gaia harmony. No wonder this movie was released simultaneously with the Copenhagen conference.

Unfortunately nature was not so kind for the humans as it was for the Na'vi. Humans cannot speak with the animals. As a consequence, humans in their ontological poverty must come to Pandora in order to extract all the "unobtainabalite" as standing reserve for their own use. The Na'vi may be at home in pantheism, but humans (with their "sky" gods) must ultimately rely on techne to bring about their own self-sufficiency. They have no tail with which they can commune with nature. Avatar suggests that humans are a dying breed on account of this theological need that results in their technological world picture. In contrast, Avatar advocates some sort of extra-planetary pantheistic religion.

Humans can't be pantheistic like the Na'vi, but ironically Avatar shows that Jake Sully not only overcomes his own paralysis, but also his humanness through the human technology that makes his body double. Yes the "tree of ancestors" (or whatever it is called) helps him to become Na'vi, but he would have never become Na'vi in the first place if it weren't for human technology. His Na'viness is a product of human technology. It is human technology that provides him with a fully functioning Na'vi tail. So at the end of the movie, while he may be fully at home in nature when he is transformed completely into a Na'vi, one wonders if he has nonetheless not retained his human memory (and Marine training).

The Na'vi likewise have surely not forgotten the recent past. They remember being almost conquered by the humans. They now realize that they need a foreign policy. They will need to learn of Jake's human technology, as well as about the "sky" god that allows him to manipulate the earth to his own ends. If the Na'vi don't learn these things, the humans will come back with full force. So like Twain's Connecticut Yankee, Jake will teach the Na'vi about the uses of gun powder. At which point, the typically "human" spiritedness of the Na'vi will find new outlets to not be at home on Pandora. The Na'vi will then fight each other to the the death, and over time some of them will master the arts of war. Hopefully, when the humans come back, there will be a fair fight even if escalated on a massive scale. Otherwise the humans will come back with a renewed vigor and a more advanced technology. Either way, it doesn't look good as long a humans remain. After all, the humans need their "unobtainablite." This would not occur if humans only knew how to direct their technology toward obtainable ends, but that would require a new religion and theology.

One last note of the religion in Avatar. It is true that the god or goddess Erya (sp?) responds to a personal prayer for a personal end. However, this all seems to be smokescreen to me. All of a sudden the god (or force) which was merely a biological "god" of nature--a god that was an abstract force holding and maintaining the balance of all things--becomes a personal god taking the Na'vi side in the war against the humans. This god judges their human lust, greed, violence and lack of attunement with nature. In being personal, it is like the Christian god, but god forbid it be the Christ himself. In Avatar one must simply have faith in nature, human technology, and the wise post-human scientists who will guide it to its proper ends. One's own subjective faith that all things will turn out for the best with this arrangement seems to me the definition of the stupidity of faith for James Cameron.

Faith to mean anything must be of something greater than oneself. James Cameron may be imaginative, but with his film he can't even distinguish between a human being and a dog. In his pride, he doesn't have a standard greater than himself. Human technology, like his own filmmaking, reveals the truth and goodness of the posthuman future described by himself. Since Cameron doesn't know what a human being is, he thinks the Na'vi are not human simply because they have tails. Lord knows what he thinks of people who aren't white like himself (yes, this is an unfair statement). This is the stupidity of his whole film.

So it is strange that the humans in my local theater all applauded the defeat of the humans. As their asses sat in the theater munching on popcorn and artificial butter, who did they think they were rooting for? As they drove home in their gas guzzling SUVs on the mega-highways, who did they think was the bad guy? Are they the ones who Jimmy Stewart like (or Jake Sully like) must remain voyeurs to their own obsolescence. (On a side note, Jake Sully's name could be an allusion to the Jake Scully character in Brian De Palma's Body Double--another cinematic weak and ineffectual voyeur. Like Body Double, it seemed to me that Avatar was an elaborate set-up intended to make the viewer an unwitting witness to the murder of his own species).

Avatar was ultimately bad because it was so overtly partisan. In this movie, the humans as we now know them are presented as nothing but bad. Apparently we must use technology to overcome our own corruption which is only our own fault anyway. This technological fix to the human problem is dehumanizing, and besides humans (including Americans) are not actually as godless and lacking in virtue as James Cameron would have us believe. Sometimes the "sky" god shows himself as a personal loving god--a god that offers an example for individual virtue and for salvation. This is in part what Christianity is about. Christianity reveals a God made man who is of such virtue that he points toward individual self-government as the true basis for any righteous life. This is the true avatar. To Cameron, on the other hand, humans remain chained to their belief in "sky" gods, and this accounts for all their "human" brutality, their confusion and their injustice.

So I'm glad I saw Avatar, but it was three hours of bad politics, bad theology, and a dubious belief in the possibilities of the technological fix. The best to be said is that it gave me something to think and write about. William Gibson's Neuromancer is more realistic to human nature. So if you want to read a book about avatars as doubles of oneself, then read it.

In the meantime, David Bowie sang about this post-humanism way back in 1972 when he said, "Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use."

UPDATE: Peter Suderman has a good take down of Avatar at Reason, and James Poulos has this interesting comment. The NYT review is here. Roger Ebert here. Ross Douthat here. John Podhoretz here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Begin the Beguine in the Throes of Passion

After what I write here you may say I need to get a life, or at least get a mortgage for a home with some distance from my neighbors. So be it.

A couple of weekends ago I was asleep at about 4 AM on the clock, and I was awakened by a woman's crying voice. I rose from bed in panic and looked out the window. As I came to consciousness, I realized that the noise came from my neighbor who was in the midst of passion with some gal who did not mind letting others know that she was where she was. It was quite annoying to me, and became more so when it happened a week later. At that point it became more than annoying, in fact it was ridiculous. The second time I turned on my TV set so loud that it drowned out any noise, and I think they got the message.

I should say that I live in a place where "singles" mostly reside. I have no contact with any of my neighbors. I mind my own business and they do so likewise. Having lived here for over a year, I recognize that none of these singles want to double with me--nor do I want to double with any of them. The feeling is mutual.

I am not so stupid that I can't recognize that when I was awakened with the screams of passion there was probably envy involved (even when it happened the second time). But having lived in this domicile for over a year, it was strange that all of a sudden my neighbor decided to throw caution to the wind and let his adventures disrupt my sleep. I don't even know the dude. He seems pretty ordinary, but I don't want to hear him busting a nut in the midst of my sweet dreams.

Don't get me wrong. I suppose I would do the same if I were in love. I hope he finds love with this loud girl and lives happily ever after. Nor do I fault the guy for getting what he can get when he gets it. I hate to be a Malvolio and say that no one can have fun. But apart from waking me up--and freaking me out thinking that there is some woman crying alone in the parking lot--I would advocate the age old advice which says that one must try to demonstrate some self restraint. Have some respect for your neighbors.

I recognize that in the year and some more months that I have lived here my sleep has not been disrupted. Perhaps my neighbor has had a dry spell, and he is letting it all hang out--but I speculate. Perhaps this new girl likes my neighbor so much that she feels she must make such a racket to show him that she loves him. Nonetheless, why live down to such porno video standards? I can think of all kinds of reasons to ameliorate this situation, but in the end he is playing the role of some erstwhile Hugh Hefner and I'm trying to get some sleep. Either my neighbor is a porn star, or he needs to stop making such noise in his one night stand (I suspect it is the latter).

Of course, I am a hypocrite. These are the same people who complain when I get drunk and play Art Pepper too loud at 2 AM. In response I must say, "Fuck 'em--and leave me alone."

Meanwhile, it is true that I sleep alone. Poor me. But my neighbor needs to put a lid on it too--otherwise it's a 4 AM session of Art Pepper's version of "Begin the Beguine." And this time it will be played at 11--if you know what I mean.

In defense of my neighbor, let me play this song by the '80s one hit wonders JoBoxers--Just Got Lucky.

Then in retailiation--it's Art Pepper.

UPDATE: I was reading Lester Bangs' Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and he claimed this was the best "piss off your neighbors" music. I would agree, but you would have to play the whole album through to "Sister Ray."

Monday, December 14, 2009

On the Erosion of the Public

Kalev Pehme provided this gem over at the Leo Strauss Yahoo Group. In the midst of a discussion regarding the role of religion in the founding of the U.S. (and regarding the role of religion in American public/political life in general) he gave an arresting account of American political theology--or lack thereof.

Mr. Pehme writes--

The discussion we have had over religion points to the general erosion of the public in this country. When satisfaction is sought simply in making money and in social conformity in the acquisition of goods through shopping, while at the same time people no longer care or understand anything to do with politics, there is a general decay of the public realm, and with it any way for Americans to fulfill themselves though public life.

With the erosion of the public, of necessity, there has to be an erosion of the private as well. The basic problem that I see is that subjectivity is now truth, whether that subjectivity is religious, moral, or in practically every form of social interaction.

List members who disagreed with me on my contention that there is no religion in the US, because religion is a public matter, a public institution, and cannot be simple belief in a god or the precepts of a religion that is privately or subjectively held, were attempting to validate the subjectivity of belief over the public domain.

When there is religion in a country, the religion both as an institution and as a director of institutions gains its validity through the objectivity that is gained by the religion's very publicity. Frequently, that religion is not only tied to the regulation of behavior and thought, but also various cosmic schemes that assume metaphysical truth and inform public institutions. For example, the seemingly naive notion of the Medieval "great chain of being" brings not only a harmony to the cosmos as well as to social institutions, but it provides every person meaning no matter what his station in life. The serf and the king are social obligations and public roles that have a divine standing that provides both the king and the serf fulfillment, provided that these roles are well performed. This kind of meaning is denied to Americans, because religion has been reduced to private belief and subjective truth.

However, that there is no religion in the US is not the only erosion of the public there is today. There is very little essential dignity to public life. Sarah Palin wants to be a celebrity, rather than a politician. The former pays better; the latter requires a public dedication that does not provide her any real fulfillment. The realm of experience that politics could provide Palin or anyone like her has been so degraded that Palin herself would rather be feted in tabloids and on entertainment television. One would have expected that conservatives would be bulwark against this cheapening of the public domain, but we even have Tom DeLay dancing with the stars for celebrity recognition.

Moreover, when we combine subjectivity as truth with television, we get the horrible spectacle of people trying to authenticate their emotional lives on television by acting out their problems and emotions on the tube. People now want to be personalities whose personal characteristics are to be recognized in "reality" television when being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Authenticity and to become authenticated is truly a pursuit of life today. Thank you, Martin Heidegger. People want to reveal who they are and want others to reveal themselves to them. Everybody wants to show that they are a real person. All this authenticity has also eroded the erotic life (a big point made by Allan Bloom, but has been recognized by many others as well). The divorce of any personal or social commitment from sexuality has only reduced eroticism to sexuality, with no fulfillment.

Private life, which was a special realm in and of itself, separate and apart from public life, has also suffered, as private life is made public in the most stupid ways. Cheetah Woods and his faithlessness only shows the kind of beings that are put forth for admiration today and then torn down, because he was not authentically faithful to his wife and his image. It seems to me that the authenticity factor is very Puritanical, where [there are] people who [wish] to show themselves as being good enough, adequate enough, and so on.

In any event, to get back to my original problem: The lack of religion of the United States and the emphasis on private belief, personal salvation through personal subjective truth, has provided public peace, but it comes with a price in the erosion of public life, especially with the growth of capitalism in the US that has people in the US so narcissistic and self-absorbed as well. It was not the intent of the Founders of this nation for that to have happened. But it did. There may be no way out from it either.

Best regards,

Kalev Pehme

I only note that Allan Bloom himself appeared on Oprah after the publication of Closing of the American Mind. To be sure, there were no TV tears for Oprah, but indeed there was laughter twice or thrice (I surmise all this as I've actually never seen the said episode).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Burke and the Inevitability of Back Stabbing

"To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greater part of mankind—indeed, the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar. Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself, in distinguishing that complaint which only characterises the general infirmity of human nature from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season."

--Edmund Burke, "Thoughts on the Present Discontents."

Regarding thoughts on the images on the wall, no more judicious remark could have ever been uttered in the English language. Edmund Burke had a genius which is to articulate the good and the right in the midst of the most bitter of partisan warfare without seeming to be naïve, nor without being a sucker to the most passionate and partisan version of the good. He understood partisanship, and its inevitable indignities. Partisanship leads to taking sides--even against one's friends. Politics is a nasty and ugly business, but for Burke, political "sagacity" manifested itself in the ability separate temporary delusion from long standing grievance. This was and is no easy task.

Nonetheless, Burke provides hope that one can maintain the respect of one's true friends by putting into speech the reasons for one's own partisan position. This means that one must be willing to take a stand against one's friends, but one must do it vis a vis argument and speech. At the end of the day, such speech may not be persuasive, and accusations of selling out to the powers that be (whether to the many or few) will abound, but at least one has something to stand upon at that point.

That stance is one's own reasoned defense of oneself in a way that points beyond oneself and addresses the "general infirmity." This stance gives one a position from which to defend oneself to any friends that may have been lost in the heat of battle. After the battle has subsided, one can say to them that perhaps all is not lost. If they cannot ultimately see this, then they are not true friends. If this is the case, then so be it. In that case there will be pain and tears at the loss. However, in order to emphasize the serious nature of the dispute, it may also mean war. And never forget, one may be on the losing side of the settlement. The stakes are indeed high, so perhaps one should err on the side of caution.

Politics is not for the tender hearted, but Burke is exemplary of the hope that it need not be purely spiritedness without reason. Rather politics offers an opportunity to point toward a defense of what is one’s own (i.e., one's opinions passions and interests as the Federalist has it) with a broad and noble spirit. Burke's speeches are performative of this very principle. Sometimes he won the battle, but more often he lost. Either way he never gave up.

It is true that as a man of practical political action, Burke had a problem with any abstract appeal to natural right. He criticized the French revolutionaries for their reason in the guise of public atheism. It may be true that such an appeal to abstract right provides the necessary surety of a guide while charting the course of political action amid the arbitrary winds of circumstance. However, for Burke, such appeals always upset all that which has already shown itself to be necessary and good, and they lead to nothing but disorder and anarchy. So Burke had no abstract appeal, and at times one wonders if he were merely defending his own private situation when defending the ancient constitution.

This lack of natural right in Burke is indeed a problem, but I don't think it is a situation that ultimately ignores the problem of abstract right. Rather, for Burke, the right must be stated in terms of tradition, but tradition is always somewhat of an abstraction anyway. It must be described and defined, and Burke provides this. Little platoons do indeed exist everywhere at all times--especially in England--and they provide a place for the perfection of one's political nature. In then end, it is nearly impossible to describe tradition without relying on nature--let alone God. These may be vague--even abstract-- concepts, but they are available to appeal to. There is the added benefit that there exists a real concrete manifestation of the thing that one defends. It is there, it is good, and it is undeniable--except to those who espouse atheism as a public doctrine. This tradition of right is what "we" always already know to be true through custom. It has the sanction of history and the ratification of time. In this way, Burke sticks with what is known by all without being in the least bit timid. This is a general abstract standard of right.

To be sure, this is not a Machiavellian politics of "new modes and orders," but it may speak to moderns in its residual Machiavellian flexibility and adaptability.

The figure of Burke and the thoughts he relates about political action are internal to modern politics itself. How does one keep what is worthwhile for a dignified human life in the midst of the continuous change of modernity? Burke provides a sensible reminder of prudence (phronesis). This is the virtue exhibited in an ability to deliberate well, which gives rise to the ability to choose well--choosing without being reliant on as the Federalist puts it "accident and force." With a calculated recognition of the possible consequences of any action, and in a sure foresight of what is possible in the present circumstance, one exhibits true statesmanship when it is itself the result of what is decidedly best from what has been given from one's forefathers. In this defense of the past, Burke had a sure hand on the helm--if only that were the model for today's erstwhile statesmen.

I suppose at this point I should relate a personal story to make this discussion less abstract, but experience has taught me to remain mum on such issues. I'll leave it to you to fill in the blanks. No doubt, we could look at public life. Are the centralizing, commercializing, incorporating, bureaucratizing aspects of American life, in their technocratic efficiency, for the good? What is being lost in the continual refinement of social organization according to scientific standards? One could also look to specific public figures. Were Sarah Palin's handlers fair in their post-election treatment of her? Not at all it seems to me, but since I can't imagine reading her book anytime soon, I don't know if she handled it with the equanimity which diffuses the "particular distemperature" of the current air in a way which points toward the nobility of the good.

So I'm sorry, I have no particulars I care to relate (for now) as exemplary of Burkean politics personal or public.

The question regarding the arbitrary changes in political life remains, viz. did Burke think backstabbing was our lot? I suppose the answer is “yes,” but only because others backstab too. Where can one hold steady amidst such apparent madness--that is, hold steady in a way that preserves one’s own dignity while distinguishing between the particular distemperature and the general infirmity? It requires true statesmanship with the knowledge, dexterity, and flexibility of the good surgeon, but in this case for the body politic. It ain’t easy. As the O'Jays sing, "They smile in your face. They're backstabbers." See here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Striving after the Wind

The book Ecclesiastes speaks of the vanity of vanities. It speaks of striving after wind--this beats spitting into the wind, let alone Richard Rorty's pissing in the wind. Rorty would have it that all modes of community (or solidarity) are mere contingent piss winds. Rorty is so bleak that it is not the old joke that you can't tell me it's raining when you are pissing on my leg. Rather, given the fortuitousness of everything that one holds dear "all the way down," one should be as lucky to have someone or anyone pissing on one's leg because otherwise it is mere rain. It is simply wet, and it is from the sky--why question it? Rorty leads one to the assertion, "please piss on my leg and let me know my life matters." Unfortunately he tells you that piss is merely rain. This sounds like President Obama's policies--a rain that feels like piss. Vanity of vanities indeed!

So let's stick with the Ecclesiastes motif--it is much more profound (or at least more ancient) than Rorty--let alone Obama. You may think that in mentioning Ecclesiastes (or Qoholet to be more precise) I'm in tune with the Pete Seeger a la the Byrds version of turn, turn, turn. However, I must say that this song (as beautiful as it it is) is the most asinine version of Ecclesiastes ever. In Ecclesiastes, God does not give two shits whether it rains or whether we hug each other. There is no Obama style (or Jim Wallis style) social gospel gotta help out the poor with more state action theology here. Rather, there is an understanding that God does not care for anyone or everyone. In this theology we're all too poor. It is a natural theology that says the world is indifferent and that that is the way God made it.

Now one may think such divine indifference is grounds for our own rebellion against it--and what power this rebellion has shown indeed. If God does not provide then we can provide for ourselves. Modern thinkers as diverse as Bacon and Locke and Marx speak of the ability of us humans to make for ourselves what nature does not provide--including the ability to make ourselves. Allegedly, we can make a world where we are no longer subject to the arbitrariness of nature or the vicissitudes of history. It will be a world where we are fully at home, and its progress cannot end until we are there (wherever "there" may be--even if we've come a long way).

Nowadays we in the West--individuals who are ensconced in a middle class life--live into our eighties. That is, we live this long if we don't smoke or drink too much. We conquer diseases left and right, and with biotechnology who can say what the limits of human ingenuity can make? But for what end? Why do we (some of us) continue to drink and smoke too much? It must be a disease that science can conquer because we know (as studies show) that no one finds happiness in booze or tobacco. However I remember one of Walker Percy's more beguiling questions in Lost in the Cosmos regarding why people take drugs, and one of his more interesting answers, viz. life is painful and at times exceedingly boring, and drugs make you feel better. Life is hard and confusing, filled with pain and failure, and drugs at least offer a relief from such a blunt monotony.

Perhaps the pursuit of happiness has no definition other than what human happiness makes for itself. I have friends who find happiness in monastic tranquility, others who find it in exploring (and testing) the boundaries of conventional morality, and still others who (Ismene-like) say you better find your pleasure in the ordinary limits or else you will pay too much with suffering. Each and every way has its peculiar nobility, but who's to say what is best? Surely there is some version of the noble human life that is beyond the relativistic answers. However, it is surely not found in the answer of a science which cannot provide a notion of the good other than a power that consists in the continual overcoming of endless discovery.

I remember working with an Irish doctor (proud of his Irishness) who had never read James Joyce. I was reading The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and he thought it was silly to waste my time in such nonsense. He thought that reading such particular visions of the whole from a real basis was nonsense--even if that peculiarity was shared with his own Irishness. It had nothing to do with science which was the cosmopolitan language which allowed him to move from Ireland to Galveston, Texas and beyond. Nonetheless, I think James Joyce dealt with questions this "idiot" doctor could never deal with. This doctor told me that he desired to live to 100 years old--that was his sole ambition. The true meaning of mortality, however, was how that issue alone makes itself felt in an individual life. This doctor meant a lot to me (as a negative example), but his decision in terms of scientific and technological prowess and my decision in terms of reading Joyce seemed to presuppose some sort of shared community. One can strive to live forever, but then one can never live a full human life in terms of excellence. His community was life at all costs, and mine had to do with a life worth living. Strangely enough, his life and the way he lived it was one that seemed worth living to me in my bookish youth.

What does this have to do with President Obama (since I mentioned him earlier)? Everything. In domestic policy, he offers health care without any striving for the bare life beyond itself. He wants a life administered by experts from beginning to end. Life at all costs is worth living because death is the worst thing that can happen. However, in foreign policy, he puts up for risk several thousand lives in Afghanistan in a manner that precludes any victory. Steering between his left and right he offers a mere striving for striving's sake. He has no problem leading soldiers to their death in a calculus that seems to be equalized with his health care program.

Of course, none of this ultimately has anything to do with President Obama. It has everything to do with my own loneliness and its inability to reach outside of itself.

Ecclesisates speaks of an indifferent God--ineffable, if not absent from one's own life. To be sure, this revelation needs to be coupled with many other versions (e.g., Job, Song of Songs, the entirety of the New Testament), but in its own inevitability it cannot be denied.

I suppose I should end this post with a reference from "pop culture," and a band with the appropriate name, The Primitives. In their song "Crash" they sing--"Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na, Slow down you're gonna crash." See here.