Friday, February 29, 2008
Robert uses a certain trick which, though perhaps not uncommon, seems to threaten the formal boundaries of history painting: though the scenes depicted are presumably modern (ruins marking the already complete departure of the classical), the human figures are almost invariably clad in "ancient" multicolored robes. It would make more sense, of course, for the young women and card players and old men to be dressed in modern fashion, to set off their distance from the ruins; but the cognitive dissonance employed here suggests that the portrayed are the survivors of some apocalypse. Among them, there are generally two reactions to the setting: one is an anguished handwringing about the surrounding destruction, the other a joyful and pragmatic engagement with the consequences of collapse. (You can see this particularly in his depiction of the ruined Louvre).
This ethos is a compelling approach to one of the eighteenth century's most gripping moral dilemmas: if there were to be no posterity because of some catastrophe, how could a non-Christian justify "his" intellectual labors? The monuments in Robert's paintings do not evoke fascination in character and viewer alike merely because they are decayed versions of something much more pleasing. Rather, the ruins as such have an instability and an openness that makes them appealing, beyond the conventional Ozymandias or reactionary interpretations. The collapse undermines their integrity as fixed or created works, enabling precisely the kind of bricolage visible throughout Robert's paintings. In the project for the Louvre, the poses are dutiful and reverent, the people reduced to spectators; in the ruins, there is more flexibility of attitude, more agency, more engagement. In short, the collapse itself promises the artist a fuller realization of his own work.
Robert painted these two as the Revolution was being supplanted by the Directory, as the years of chaos gave way to bourgeois stolidity; he himself had been first imprisoned by the Jacobins, then elevated to the directorship of the national gallery. It is possible, it seems, to read his paintings as an ambivalent sort of tribute to the Revolutionary crisis--a recognition both of its costs and of its liberations.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Libération : Pourquoi 68 revient-il tous les dix ans comme un leitmotiv obsédant ? Est-ce un mythe ? Un modèle ? Un repoussoir ?
Jean-Pierre Le Goff : C’est un peu tout cela à la fois. La société française oscille entre fascination et rejet, ne parvient pas à trouver la bonne distance, à insérer 68 dans l’histoire. La fascination, c’est d’abord celle d’une génération qui a vécu sa jeunesse comme un moment fort de transgression et qui, depuis, a eu du mal à vieillir. L’imaginaire bloqué sur le passé, une partie de cette génération a saturé l’espace public d’images et de discours - c’est l’effet «arrêt sur images». S’y ajoute une autre génération, celle qui suit, les «héritiers impossibles», qui n’ont pas connu directement l’événement, qui en ont une image mythifiée et se font les gardiens du temple d’un événement qu’ils n’ont pas vécu. Pour ces deux catégories, 68 est une question identitaire, difficile à aborder sans susciter immédiatement un réflexe qui empêche tout recul réflexif et critique : «Ne touchez pas à 68 !» ... Ainsi 68 est-il devenu au fil des ans un mythe. Les médias y ont largement contribué. La diffusion en boucle d’images de barricades et de charges de CRS donne la fausse impression d’une vraie révolution. ... Enfin, le discours dominant attribue à Mai 68 des courants qui ne lui appartiennent pas en propre, comme le féminisme, qui n’est venu qu’après - 68 fut assez macho - ou l’écologie. On peut donc parler d’une mise en récit médiatique qui réduit l’événement à une série de clichés.
- Libération, Feb. 23, 2008
It has now been forty years since May '68, and yet we still haven't gotten over it. The intellectual legacies--in critical theory, New Left history, etc.--are still with us, as are the endless revolutionary appeals to the spirit of May. For Frenchmen, those few weeks are a metonymy for the whole complex of political and social changes brought on by the reaction to postwar capitalism; Americans use the vaguer designation "The Sixties," which loses in vividness what it gains in verisimilitude. Intellectuals, for a change, follow the French practice--how could they not, given Debord and Foucault?
What is implied in treating those events as a watershed of such tremendous significance? Politically, the suggestion is that May could somehow exculpate all the sins of dreary communists, bureaucratic anarchists, self-satisfied existentialists. May proves that it is still okay to be a Marxist, as long as you're only "tendance Groucho"! The revolution was so close, and that might mean we could swing it again, for real this time! These subtexts are in the end the only reason we think the events of '68 are even relevant in the first place.
That is problematic. The enragés were fond of saying that those who make a revolution halfway only dig their own graves; that is precisely what happened. May's failure ensured that it would be turned into a spectacle--that the mediating image of the revolution would be substituted for the genuine liberation sought by the Situationists. Indeed, all the vaunted consequences and cultural shockwaves touched off by May, all its attendant hopes and fears, are the result of the image, not the fact. The latter should have produced pessimism rather than euphoria--surely it is not much of an encouragement to see a new Paris Commune crushed as easily as the old. But the intelligentsia swallowed the spectacle hook, line, and sinker.
There is some irony here. In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord criticized the anarchists for putting too much trust in "the mirage of a definitive solution that will supposedly be achieved by a single blow ... on the day of the general strike or the insurrection." The inevitable result of such a strategy was that the anarchist critique had to remain merely ideological, since that magical day of the general strike could not be realizable. The application to May is obvious: a revolution for a week is not a revolution, and pretending that it is is ideology.
Yet would-be radicals continue to gaze longingly back to those days, as if they could have anything to teach us. If it were not for the false optimism of the May generation, perhaps the baleful Marxist juggernaut would have finally broken down by now and been replaced with something more compelling. (For all the talk about the end of Marxism, intellectuals sure have a hard time getting rid of its ingrown idiocies). The alternative to May is to give up on revolutions--to give up on politics.
Friday, February 15, 2008
But for such as have strong bodies the case is otherwise; they are to be forced to work; and to avoid the excuse of not finding employment, there ought to be such Lawes, as may encourage all manner of Arts; as Navigation, Agriculture, Fishing, and all manner of Manifacture that requires labour. The multitude of poor and yet strong people still increasing, they are to be transplanted into Countries not sufficiently inhabited; where nevertheless they are not to exterminate those they find there; but constrain them to inhabit closer together, and not range a great deal of ground to snatch what they find, but to court each little Plot with art and labour, to give them their sustenance in due season. And when all the world is overcharged with Inhabitants, then the last remedy of all is Warre; which provideth for every man, by Victory, or Death.The revulsion that Leviathan produced upon its release in 1651, and continues to produce today, is not grounded in just misgivings about its argument. Rather, it seems to be purely a desire to draw back the veil over the naked face of power; for what most instinctively feel is that the book does not describe an optimal or potential commonwealth but the undeniable fundament of the actually existing State. There are numerous rationalizations of this move, including the pervasive, Intentional Fallacy-baiting claim that Hobbes's book was merely the product of his anxieties about the English Civil War, but the veil continues to gape open, defying all later ages.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
This fear of confronting the Hobbesian abyss has driven innumerable attempts at revising his account of the original contract--foremost among them being, of course, Locke's Second Treatise. If we read Locke from a Hobbesian point of departure, we find a critical inadequacy, namely, that the social contract might never be effective at all. Why? Locke claims that in cases of conquest and usurpation the people are released from their allegiance and must give explicit consent to fall under the social contract again. Now, in the murky historical state of nature, it is possible to posit that at some point the allegiance was explicitly given--a fact we can extrapolate from the existence of government without any positive evidence in that regard. But considering that every polity since then has been the victim of conquest or usurpation, it becomes necessary to establish a precise historical moment (post-dating the conquest) at which this allegiance was explicitly reestablished by the people independently of the existing governmental structure, which is conquered and thus divested of contractual privileges. Locke makes no attempt to do so, which fits his immediate political goals but not his philosophical ones.
For Hobbes, who has no truck with questions of legitimacy, there is no problem here: conquest establishes as firm a right to rule as anything else, since the vanquished accept the foreign rule of the sovereign to avoid getting enslaved or slaughtered instead. This is characteristic of the Hobbesian approach, the opposite of Locke's: he is perfectly willing to make his theory maximally unpalatable and politically incorrect if it yields him some analytic leverage. (Heterodox religious ideas may be harmful to the polity. Lockean solution: the government must promote toleration except insofar as there is a concrete illegality taking place. Hobbesian solution: the sovereign has the right and obligation to control thought!)
But the cited passage suggests that Hobbes also faces a collapse of the contract, though not in the form of conquest. Hobbes is saying that it is the sovereign's obligation to ensure that the unemployed be cared for by the commonwealth, not left to the uncertainty of private charity. The able-bodied are sent to colonize distant shores (a very Greek solution to Malthusian crises). What happens when there is nothing left to colonize? "Warre; which provideth for every man, by Victory, or Death." In other words, Hobbes' political theory leads directly to its own negation! The sovereign is instituted to avoid the war of all against all; he is obligated to care for the health of the polity; yet these obligations inevitably entail a state of war against all. Remember, too, that this is not optional or ancillary: Hobbes is a determinist, so if he says something ought to happen in his commonwealth, by God, it will happen. By moving on to a discussion of laws, Hobbes just leaves the conclusion hanging and undeveloped, with nary a hint of what is really at issue.
If we keep in mind the Straussian dictum that we should always be suspicious of accidental slip-ups in a great philosophical text, we find a much broader vista of anguish opens up before us. It seems that for Hobbes, Leviathan can never be more than a temporary solution to the permanent condition of war: the state of nature whence we arose is where we will return. It's unsurprising, then, that Charles II proved so ungrateful for the gift Hobbes gave him--an elaborately handwritten manuscript copy of the text.
Monday, February 11, 2008
You pretend to make me happy by reason, and by rules of art. You must, then, create me anew by rules of art. For on my original frame and structure does my happiness depend. But you want power to effect this; and skill too, I am afraid: Nor can I entertain a less opinion of nature's wisdom than of yours. And let her conduct the machine, which she has so wisely framed. I find, that I should only spoil it by my tampering.Hume's project in these essays is, nominally, to "deliver the sentiments of sects, that naturally form themselves in the world, and entertain different ideas of human life and of happiness." To some extent, that seems to be true: the ancients are lined up in their classical four-school succession, though the Cynics are excluded in favor of the Platonists (Epicureans, Stoics, Platonists, Skeptics). But Hume seems to be selling himself short when he says that he aims merely to deliver their sentiments; the essay, in Humean terms, is always a product of his status as an "ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation": an inevitably individual fancy. Hume, it seems, finds much to like in each position he defends. So a paradox arises: how can a man write essays of such incomparable passion and felicity about belief systems that disagree with one another so drastically? The Epicurean focus on enjoying the present jibes neither with the Stoic project of reshaping the self nor with the Platonist contemplation of the ideal, while the Skeptic militates against all three. Can they be reconciled?
To what purpose should I pretend to regulate, refine, or invigorate any of those springs or principles, which nature has implanted in me? Is this the road by which I must reach happiness? But happiness implies ease, contentment, repose, and pleasure; not watchfulness, care, and fatigue. The health of my body consists in the facility, with which all its operations are performed. The stomach digests the aliments: The heart circulates the blood: The brain separates and refines the spirits: And all this without my concerning myself in the matter. When by my will alone I can stop the blood, as it runs with impetuosity along its canals, then may I hope to change the course of my sentiments and passions. In vain should I strain my faculties, and endeavour to receive pleasure from an object, which is not fitted by nature to affect my organs with delight. I may give myself pain by my fruitless endeavours; but shall never reach any pleasure ...
In our chearful discourses, better than in the formal reasonings of the schools, is true wisdom to be found. In our friendly endearments, better than in the hollow debates of statesmen and pretended patriots, does true virtue display itself. Forgetful of the past, secure of the future, let us here enjoy the present; and while we yet possess a being, let us fix some good, beyond the power of fate or fortune.
- David Hume, "The Epicurean" (1742)
They can, I think, but not in the way we usually understand "reconciliation"--both in conventional and Hegelian terms. If there is a "Humean synthesis" of the ancient philosophers, it is inevitably an agonistic one. Hume is a man who, as Barthes once wrote of himself, can live the contradiction of his time and thus make sarcasm a condition of truth. Yes, virtue and self-shaping are vital tasks; but nature forms both limit and ideal; but all general statements are false, or at least deserve skepticism--none of these commitments are negotiable, yet they must be maintained against one another.
Hume can accomplish this only because he is devoted to conversation as a discursive practice; more specifically, the conversation of politeness, the flow of talk. The most bilious critiques of eighteenth-century politeness came from Tory writers, who linked it with the flow of money and attacked it as a world where fixed principles and morals had no weight. It is this negotiability of conversationally-maintained ideas that allows them to subsist alongside one another, because no final triumph can ever be achieved: the measure of success in polite conversation is the strength and liveliness of the flow of talk, which is only inhibited by the rigorous indubitabilities of conventional learning.
Hume's contribution to this genre/worldview is an ethics. Each of the four essays, for all their disagreements, is concerned with a fundamentally ethical project--ethical, moreover, in an Aristotelian sense: happiness through a yet undefined virtue. Hume is essentially writing a series of prize essays on the question, "How can I shape my persona to achieve the greatest happiness?" And this ethics of experiment is constantly opposed to the scholastic striving for rationality above all and the political desire for fixed and actionable truths. Hume's successive answers together form a guide to a praxis that can produce a theory, if perhaps a shaky, uncertain, epiphenomenal one.
This pseudo-totality suggests that the Cynics are not absent after all. For was not the Cynical project an attempt to discover the possibilities of virtue through action? The assault on pieties, the mockery of Platonism, the self-conscious striving for total unfetteredness, are all efforts at shaking loose virtue from its entangling a-prioris, creating an ethics "against the grain." Hence it was said:
Diogenes was walking backwards across the Agora, affecting a studied indifference to all who laughed at him. Finally, when he had collected a large following he stopped and announced, "You are laughing at me walking just a little distance backwards while you all lead your entire lives arse-about." "And what's more," he asked, "can you change your way of living as easily as this?" Whereupon, he turned on his heel and walked off in normal fashion.That Cynical about-face is for Hume the source of the deepest joy. For that is what gives value to life:
In a word, human life is more governed by fortune than by reason; is to be regarded more as a dull pastime than as a serious occupation; and is more influenced by particular humour, than by general principles. Shall we engage ourselves in it with passion and anxiety? It is not worthy of so much concern. Shall we be indifferent about what happens? We lose all the pleasure of the game by our phlegm and carelessness. While we are reasoning concerning life, life is gone; and death, though perhaps they receive him differently, yet treats alike the fool and the philosopher. To reduce life to exact rule and method, is commonly a painful, oft a fruitless occupation: And is it not also a proof, that we overvalue the prize for which we contend? Even to reason so carefully concerning it, and to fix with accuracy its just idea, would be overvaluing it, were it not that, to some tempers, this occupation is one of the most amusing, in which life could possibly be employed.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Philosophers have differed in all ages; but the discreetest among them have always differed as became philosophers. Scurrility and passion, in a controversy among scholars, is just so much of nothing to the purpose, and at best, a tacit confession of a weak cause: My concern is not so much for my own reputation, as that of the Republick of Letters, which Mr. Partridge hath endeavoured to wound through my sides. If men of publick spirit must be superciliously treated for their ingenious attempts, how will true useful knowledge be ever advanced? I wish Mr. Partridge knew the thoughts which foreign universities have conceived of his ungenerous proceedings with me; but I am too tender of his reputation to publish them to the world.
...Without entering into criticisms of chronology about the hour of his death, I shall only prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive. And my first argument is thus: Above a thousand gentelmen having bought his almanacks for this year, merely to find what he said against me; at every line they read, they would lift up their eyes, and cry out, betwixt rage and laughter, "They were sure no man alive ever writ such damn'd stuff as this."
- A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. (1709)
Jon Swift's April Fools' joke--perhaps one of the most successful such stunts in history--tells us much about what it was like to live and write in the Augustan Age. Londoners, who eagerly lapped up astrology and all sorts of mysticism, gloated over Swift's prank just as easily, even though Swift hated their folly as much as he hated Partridge. This very eagerness suggests a certain writerly dynamic: a public sphere hungry for texts of any kind, for entertainment, for "wit" in the Elizabethan sense. This hunger meant not only a widespread economy of texts, but also a willingness to play with the relationship between text and reality, text and text. We might say, in fact, that Isaac Bickerstaff and his ilk killed off the Author along with Partridge, long before we epigones got to him.
In his "Vindication," Swift plays a highly telling move: he makes of himself a public sphere ("the Republick of Letters, which Mr. Partridge hath endeavoured to wound through my sides"). Some might say this makes his text "embodied," but what it's really doing is foregrounding the question of authorial identity--staking a claim for his own existence as an author. Whose sides, after all, are we talking about? Isaac Bickerstaff's, of course; but he's a mere persona, a pseudonym with a history and a personality. One reason Bickerstaff can mock Partridge so heartily is that the latter's own identity--as something tied to a physical body and an authorial reputation--is not able to play the game as well as a persona that's pure text. (Michael Warner has argued that this textuality of the self is precisely what made Benjamin Franklin so successful).
For, after all, what separates Bickerstaff from Partridge? Swift's more naive readers would be unable to distinguish between them, since the substance of their authorship is their corpus of work--"legitimate" in both cases. Actually existing--actually being alive--does not offer any benefits in the textual arena of the public sphere. As Bickerstaff himself suggests, if your corpus sucks, you may as well be dead! This, I think, is why Foucault could write "What Is an Author?" specifically as an eighteenth-century historian: historians' own access to the personalities of the past is often limited to the corpus, one that in the eighteenth century is problematic and constantly undermined; labored attempts at establishing a flesh/text correspondence often lose both value and coherence. Authorship is more than bare life.
Consider this: the corpus, the textual "body" of Isaac Bickerstaff, was in no way contingent on Swift's continued existence. Bickerstaff achieved maturity as an author only when he came to write The Tatler, and swapping Swift for Steele could hardly hurt his credibility. It is certainly plausible that Bickerstaff was entirely different in Addison and Steele's hands than he was in Swift's--but isn't the opposite true as well? The Spectator is not the same author as Bickerstaff; he has different commitments, a different style. Indeed, he puts paid to attempts to interpret him as merely a creation of Addison in Spectator #46, where the author loses his notes--but upon their being publicly read at the coffee-house pulpit, refuses to acknowledge them, complacent and satisfied with the un-fleshliness of his authorial persona.
For Romantics, pedants, and philistines, such an attitude to authorship constitutes blasphemy. But in reading the Augustans, we have no other choice. Insisting on seeing pseudonyms as mere transparent screens for authorial intent is a sure way to garble any message, whether Swift's or Addison's--they rely so intensely on the interplay between author and writer, even, occasionally, text and imprint. Getting rid of the flesh qualification altogether doesn't seem like much of a sacrifice.
Monday, February 4, 2008
There is also a doubt as to what is to be the supreme power in the state: Is it the multitude? Or the wealthy? Or the good? Or the one best man? Or a tyrant? Any of these alternatives seems to involve disagreeable consequences. If the poor, for example, because they are more in number, divide among themselves the property of the rich -- is not this unjust? No, by heaven (will be the reply), for the supreme authority justly willed it. But if this is not injustice, pray what is? Again, when in the first division all has been taken, and the majority divide anew the property of the minority, is it not evident, if this goes on, that they will ruin the state? Yet surely, virtue is not the ruin of those who possess her, nor is justice destructive of a state; and therefore this law of confiscation clearly cannot be just. If it were, all the acts of a tyrant must of necessity be just; for he only coerces other men by superior power, just as the multitude coerce the rich. But is it just then that the few and the wealthy should be the rulers? And what if they, in like manner, rob and plunder the people -- is this just? if so, the other case will likewise be just. But there can be no doubt that all these things are wrong and unjust.The form/content distinction Aristotle sets up in the Politics seems simple at first glance: the constitution is the form of the state, and the laws are its content (Zizek says the same thing somewhere, but less aptly). Aristotle, here, is taking the formalist position and maintaining that past authors have written too much about laws and not enough about constitutions. The Aristotelian turn involves a recognition that the content in fact depends on the form, because laws can only be evaluated within their constitutional context. So far, this is familiar stuff--an interpretive style known to us mostly through the structuralist literature of the middle of the last century.
... The discussion of the first question shows nothing so clearly as that laws, when good, should be supreme; and that the magistrate or magistrates should regulate those matters only on which the laws are unable to speak with precision owing to the difficulty of any general principle embracing all particulars. But what are good laws has not yet been clearly explained; the old difficulty remains. The goodness or badness, justice or injustice, of laws varies of necessity with the constitutions of states.
- Aristotle, Politics, III
However, Aristotle's mission is not merely interpretive: he is concerned with the Good, in this case with the virtue of the state. This becomes problematic. If the virtue of any given law is the quality with which it fulfills the mission of the constitution, how can laws be evaluated from the perspective of the Good--assuming the three types of constitution are not easily rankable in order of virtue? For if the latter premise is true, then it is not possible to identify the enforcement of any given constitution with a movement towards a Good.
Aristotle solves this problem by inventing (or repurposing) the degenerate constitutions. What separates the degenerate constitution from the ideal is that the ideal are ruled by Law while the degenerate are ruled merely by the men who happen to be in power. In short, the laws are now to be evaluated on the basis of their enthronement of the Law (nomos rather than thesmos). Conformity to the Law is the virtue of the constitution as well. There is thus a tripartite structure in the Politics: laws/content, constitution/form, and Law.
Is there a more general ontological or epistemological category we can ascribe to Nomos on the basis of its structural position? The association with the structuralism debates suggests that there is: Law is the Transcendental Signified which guarantees the integrity of the binary opposition. The very haziness, the deliberate non-signification of the concept seems to mark it as a classic self-concealing center (which, as everyone now knows, is not the center). Ultimately, that very quality deprives it of its ability to perform its role, for there is still no clear relationship between the Law and the Good. On the one hand, the Law is the Good: Aristotle doesn't acknowledge the possibility of a bad rule of Law. On the other, however, it is a transcendental principle removed from human experience and hence from human virtue. Virtue determines the Good, but it cannot access the Law.
Anyone who maintains a form/content distinction in the political sphere must recognize the analytic origins and necessity of Nomos. But doing away with Nomos altogether requires a wholly un-Aristotelian approach, a gesture which has nothing to do with the political as we have known it for two thousand years. It may even mean smashing the Law's mirror--the Good itself.