Mesocosm

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Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”

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Before I begin on Hegel, I want to note that Terry Pinkard’s recent translation of this work is a vast improvement over the previous standard translation by A. V. Miller. It is better, more readable, closer to the original, and more consistent, and should be heavily preferred. I do not agree with every choice Pinkard makes – for example, rendering “die Sache selbst” as “the crux of the matter,” his dubious rendering of “Bildung” as “cultural formation,” or his somewhat distracting rendering of “überhaupt” as “full stop” – but when his translation makes a contestable choice, he nearly always calls it out in footnotes, and includes a valuable translation glossary.

Photo of Hegel's grave, Berlin
Hegel’s grave in Berlin, a two-minute walk from my first office in the city

Now on to Hegel.

I have tried to read this book many times before, and have always been blocked by Hegel’s prose, which is atrocious, at times because of the nature of the subject matter, but most often because of his penchant for impenetrable jargon, and most especially, because he very rarely tells you what he’s doing, or what he’s even talking about. For example, when he tells you that the spirit has projected itself back into indeterminacy driven by its newly-adopted ironic stance, it is left entirely to you to figure out that he’s talking about the society of manners that prevailed at the Valois court of France, and never once uses the words “Valois” or “France.” And that is how the book is written.

It is wearisome, and it is my belief that this book is literally incomprehensible without the assistance of commentary – either that, or spend 10 years on it. I myself relied heavily on four commentaries, by Terry Pinkard, J. M. Bernstein, Walter Kaufmann, and Charles Taylor, and availed myself of many additional articles, essays, and references, and I believe that is about what is minimally necessary to have a sense of it. I would warn against using a single commentary, because the more sources you use, the more you understand the various ways that Hegel has been understood, and especially the degree to which every key term and idea in this book has been contested.

I would add that before beginning I had read Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Kant’s three Critiques, Goethe and Schiller, Fichte and Schelling, Heidegger and Derrida. If, armed with that background, I was incapable of understanding Hegel without considerable assistance, it raises real questions about who exactly he thought he was writing for.

The narrator of Proust’s Remembrance observed that people tend to think that geniuses are like everybody else, only with some additional power or faculty grafted on to their otherwise-normal person, sort of like they have a third arm or eye. In fact, he reflects, people are generally misshapen or even deranged by genius in ways that make them intolerable to other people. I thought of this several times reading Hegel, wondering if it is possible he could have found a better language for his ideas, while remaining who he was.

I dwell on this aspect of the book for two reasons. First, it is a fact of the book that will continually confront any reader who dares to attempt to plumb its depths, and they must be prepared. Second, it is unfortunately part of the book’s negative legacy. Hegel helped inaugurate certain obscure tendencies of style in Germany and France that have haunted philosophy to this day.

So why read it at all, then? For myself, the answer is, I found after long years of trying to avoid it that Hegel remains at the center of many corners of the Great Conversation that I want to be in on, and it increasingly occurred to me as a great hole in my education. And I was not wrong – now that I have read it, I have recognized just how colossal his influence is, and it has turned up in places where I didn’t expect to find it. For example, it seems to me that Nietzsche owes a great debt to Hegel in his historical treatment of philosophy, and readers of Nietzsche may be surprised to find the phrase “God is dead” in the Phenomenology. And Jürgen Habermas, whom I have long thought of as largely a Kantian-type cosmopolitan, I now see as equally influenced by Hegel’s work in his theory of communicative action.

And so I set out to cross the sunless sea of this book, armed with commentaries, about which a word is essential.

As far as I can make out, Hegel interpretation in the last 40 years in the English-speaking world has been primarily divided into two camps, based largely, I would argue, on how they understand the idea of “spirit.” The older camp is dominated by Charles Taylor, and its primary commitment is the belief that the spirit is something “real”, a kind of self-positing collective consciousness that knows itself by virtue of individuals, who are its instruments or means of knowing. Essentially, spirit is a kind of semi-secularized stand-in for deity in a neo-pantheistic or neo-romantic interpretation of culture and the world.

The second camp is often referred to as Neo-Kantian in the literature, though I’m not sure which figures would actually claim that term. It seems to include Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, Paul Redding, and J. M. Bernstein, the latter of whom has referred to his own reading of Hegel as “deflationary.” This approach regards spirit not as a kind of super-being, but more like the totality of what human beings do with respect to the intersubjective character of their lives and experience, and particularly how they collectively deliberate about the basis of their own consciousness, intersubjectivity, and sense of meaning through art, philosophy, and religion.

I was surprised to come down rather strongly on the Neo-Kantian side of this issue, although I was initially skeptical. Certainly one advantage that the Neo-Kantians have is that their commentary is much clearer and more useful than that of the Taylor camp. I found Taylor’s classic study of Hegel, for example, to not be very useful or well-written, though one thing I did really admire was Taylor’s insistence on the importance of Herder for situating Hegel’s thought. I think this is quite correct, and that a serious reappraisal of Herder’s value and influence is past-due.

Detail from "Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers" by Johan Christian Dahl
Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers (detail), Johan Christian Dahl

Based on my own careful reading of Phenomenology, I believe spirit is in fact something like a faculty – specifically, the faculty that enables and requires human cognition to function intersubjectively. As to the question of its ontological status, in my view, spirit is analogous to a language, which, on one level, it is nothing more than the sum total of practices and capabilities of its actual speakers, but we nonetheless have a strong concept of language as if it had its own autonomous being. It would be hard to conceive of language without that conceit – we want to say, for example, that German verb tenses are easier to learn than English verb tenses, as if German is a “thing,” even if we don’t believe that German is somehow floating around “out there”.

Indeed, as J. M. Bernstein correctly insists, one of the whole points of Hegel’s thought is that we have to jettison any concept of the transcendent, which Hegel continually refers to as a contentless “other-worldly beyond,” and identifies as one of the most destructive bad ideas that has haunted the history of philosophy. Hegel wants to drive us out of the cloud-cuckoo land of the thing-in-itself and back into historical actuality, because the very idea of the transcendent keeps us locked in what he calls the “inverted world,” in which we insanely insist that what is least real is in fact what is most real, and vice versa.

What does this mean? A key example may be found in Kant, who argues that the unknowable thing-in-itself ultimately serves as the basis for all experience. He thereby keeps us forever locked out of any satisfying possibility of getting at the truth, or of knowing the world as it is, because the thing-in-itself is forever unavailable. That is to say, what is most real, or the concrete actuality of our lived experience, is for Kant what is least real, and the most contentless of all possible concepts, the thing-in-itself, is what is actual.

This is the general structure that inevitably falls out of subject-object dualism, and the first half of Hegel’s book is largely focused on criticizing the structure of that dualism, which casts us back again and again into the inverted world and keeps us locked out of the possibility of truth. Hegel defines this problem as the situation of modern philosophy, ever since Descartes argued that epistemology is first philosophy, and that the foundation of philosophy is to understand how we reconstruct a mental image of the world and determine if those reconstructions are correct.

Hegel has two ways of dealing with this problem, and his solution constitutes one of his main contributions to philosophy. The first is to jettison the idea of the self as fundamentally a knower of objects out there in the world, and to replace it with an idea of human beings as actors, who live in a world that is given to them, and who know it not through consciousness of an external world, but through self-consciousness of their own lives. The second is to jettison the idea of subjective atomism and to argue – quite persuasively, I think – that human experience is fundamentally intersubjective; specifically, that all forms of experience are always already permeated by concepts, and that concepts are fundamentally intersubjective in their character.

In my reading, it is this intersubjective faculty that Hegel refers to as spirit, and this book, as we well know, is the phenomenology of spirit. Hegel uses the term “phenomenology” in a rather different way than later phenomenologists like Bergson and Husserl – he uses it to refer to the understanding of knowing as self-consciousness.

This conceptual analysis of self-consciousness is part of Hegel’s program for making philosophy “scientific,” by which he means that spirit will give a full account of itself to itself using concepts. It will turn out in his fascinating chapter on religion that Hegel believes spirit has always attempted to work out an understanding of itself through religion, using images and representations, and that this is in fact what religion is. Religion, however, cannot recognize that this is what it is actually doing. It serves the spirit as a procedure for collectively deliberating about itself – that is, on the very ways that we collectively define our own ultimate sources of authority and value and then take them as binding – but it thinks it is actually discovering a truly-existent transcendent basis for its value and existence, which it calls God or the gods, or what have you.

It is only by preserving the concept that spirit can reflect on the ways in which ultimate values are collectively posited without losing hold of what it is actually doing and becoming confused, and taking the representations for the thing itself, thereby getting lost in the inverted world. Hegel argues, and I agree, that this requires conceptual analysis, and that this very process itself has only recently become possible for human beings. Prior to, say, the 18th century, it was possible to deliberate in sophisticated ways on the nature of the ultimate, but it is only after the Enlightenment that we have been able to deliberate on these matters self-reflectively, instead of doing so from within the closed framework of a particular value system.

The two tasks of Hegel’s book, then, are to explicate the way that spirit comes to know itself, and to trace the evolution of its various historical forms or moments – to consider the various historically-bound shapes of spirit’s self-understanding – in order to see how it is that we have now arrived at the point where we are at last able to do this work self-reflectively for the first time, not only grasping the spirit, but grasping it through concepts, philosophically – or, in Hegel’s language, scientifically – so that the richness of its manifold content can be preserved and known, and not dissolved into some kind of generalalized fuzzy idea of an absolute that contains everything but explains nothing.

Viewed from one perspective, what Hegel is doing is philosophically anticipating what was about to happen in the nineteenth century, and providing an account of it in advance. I think even he would have been surprised by the degree to which the European tradition’s understanding of itself would, in the next 200 years, be taken over by psychology, anthropology, modern historiography, economics, sociology, and so forth – by all of the conceptual disciplines which have taken up the problems historically dealt with by narrative history and religion.

As to its uniqueness – if you believe, as I do, that Hegel is right in saying that Kant towers over Descartes, but nonetheless could be considered a kind of modification of Descartes, Hegel replaces the entire core structure of the problematic in a fundamental way, and in so doing gives us conceptual tools to bring to light various social, historical, and existential phenomena that would be extremely difficult to explicate using a prior framework. When Hegel begins his chapter on spirit half way through the book, we suddenly see the payoff – how easy it is for him to talk about phenomena like social movements, politics, world views, religion, and the history of ideas, which you could address from a strictly Kantian framework only with great difficulty. I think this can be seen by a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, where he begins pushing in that direction, and you can feel the whole fabric of his approach straining with the difficulty of managing to provide an account for complex phenomena.

I have seen countless versions of what I would call a perennial philosophy, which says we’re all islands of structured consciousness on a sea of the inchoate absolute. Hegel decidedly does not provide yet another version of that account, because consciousness, for him, is intersubjective, and because the impossibility of fully grasping the ultimate is not because it is transcendent, but because it unfolds historically, over time, and it must be comprehended in its totality of forms, as the sum of its history. This argument is, to my knowledge, wholly new, and an astonishingly creative approach.

This is the shortest account I can give of what Hegel is up to in this book, and I think it suggests something of its novelty. It has been called a Bildungsroman of consciousness-as-such, and not without good reason – it does in fact comprise an attempt to retrace the evolution of consciousness from within, as it were, and to apply a consistent phenomenological frame for explicating its various moments in terms of the larger project.

As much as I loathe Hegel’s style, this is a towering work of creative and philosophical genius, and one of the very greatest works of philosophy I have ever seen. His project and execution are staggeringly original, and terrifically exciting, and he gives an account that is wholly new and extremely productive. It has already deeply shaped my thinking, and I expect it will be one of my primary intellectual reference points for the rest of my life.

Written by Mesocosm

July 10, 2022 at 4:19 am

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews

“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” by Bill Gates

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Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates knows a lot about climate change. He ought to, after investing more than a billion dollars over the last twenty year to help us get to the zero-emissions goal he believes we must reach. During that time, he’s met with top researchers, scientists, and policy makers, and has focused his own intellectual resources on understanding the problem and analyzing possible solutions. I was excited to read this book to see what I could learn from someone who has been in this fight for such a long time, and what I came away with was both useful and problematic.

Rebrandt engraving: Three Trees.
Three Trees, Rembrandt

First and foremost, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a primer that gives us a helpful conceptual framework for thinking about climate change.

Here’s an example: 51 billion tons. That’s the amount of greenhouse gases we need to stop adding to the atmosphere each year in order to reach zero emissions. And this is a really useful number to know. Now when you read about a new carbon capture technology that can remove 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere a year, you’re in a position to answer the question “Is that a lot?” A thousand tons of anything is a lot, but compared to what we’re pumping into the atmosphere every year, it’s a tiny fraction. With our handy reference figure, we know that this new capture technology could be a useful, but it’s probably not a game changer.

Of course it’s not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we produce – that’s an estimate from recent years, I think. Gates doesn’t tell us where he got this number, just that it’s based on the “latest available data.” (Our emissions go up almost every year, with 2021 being the largest emissions year in history.) I’d kind of like to know, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a pretty good number.

It’s also not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we’re producing – it’s carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). That’s a way of lumping together greenhouse gases of different strengths so they can be expressed as a single value. Take methane – it’s about 120 times more effective at capturing heat than carbon dioxide, so one ton of it is 120 tons of CO2e.

In short, the 51 billion tons figure is a useful approximation that masks the underlying variability and complexity. It is one of many such reference values we’re given to better understand the climate change conversation. This is something the book does really, really well. Some of the credit for this probably goes to Gates’s writing partner Josh Daniel (uncredited on the cover but given a shout-out in the acknowledgements). This is a very well-crafted book.

What else do we come away with? Well, the book breaks down what creates greenhouse gases:

  • Electricity (27%)
  • Manufacturing and construction (31%)
  • Agriculture and land use (19%)
  • Transportation (16%)
  • Cooling and heating (7%)

You may be surprised to learn that more greenhouse gases are produced by manufacturing than by electricity production or transport – producing steel and concrete are the main culprits here. Making one ton of steel means creating about two tons of CO2, and we produce a lot of steel – in the US, tons of it per person, every year.

Each sector gets its own chapter, in which Gates walks us through the landscape, looking at where the greenhouse gases come from and what, if anything, can be done about it.

So what’s his plan? In short, his answer is to innovate, invest, and develop on a huge scale. What we need is new technologies that can not only meet our existing needs, but address the markets for energy, manufacturing, and the rest that are projected to keep growing for the next several decades. Gates argues we have to meet those needs even as we move toward our goal of zero emissions.

One thing I liked about this book is that he gives a good sense of just how complicated any solution will have to be, at least in terms of the technology. For example, I was convinced by his argument that no single solution can provide enough renewable energy to meet our power needs. Instead of focusing on a silver bullet, we need to look for comprehensive sets of solutions, including intermediate solutions to meet our needs as we go.

The book provides a useful survey of the state of the technology in all of the major sectors he has identified, along with an assessment of the likely prospects and the gambles that could pay off but will probably come to nothing. His main point is we need to be investing in all of it, a lot more than we do now, and he has a lot of opinions on which options we should be pursuing, and why.

Now, this is a good place to segue into my criticisms of the book.

In focusing overwhelmingly on technology and investment, Gates has a lot of faith in market-based solutions to the climate crisis. In effect, he argues that we don’t have to fundamentally change the industrial, economic, or political conditions of the world – we just need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in high-tech ventures over many years to solve these problems. And not only do we not need to change our current habits, he argues, but it would be unethical to address climate change by radically rethinking our current model of growth and consumption. Everyone in the world should have the same basic rights to the kinds of security and comfort such development allows.

For example, in his chapter on electricity, we read:

[E]ven more people should be getting and using electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of the population has reliable power at home. And if you don’t have access to any electricity at all, even a simple task like recharging your mobile phone is difficult and expensive. You have to walk to a store and pay 25 cents or more to plug your phone into an outlet, hundreds of times more than people pay in developed countries.

Now, wait just a minute. Of course we don’t want to lock the poorest people in the world into material deprivation. But some quick internet research tells me that in 2010, residents of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) used an average of 514 kilowatt-hours of energy per year, compared to 6,264 kilowatt-hours in the EU, and 13,395 in the US. You could quadruple energy consumption in the poorest parts of Africa and still use a fraction of what is being used in the United States today, per capita.

And this is an important point – agreeing that the developing world should have greater access to electricity and resources is not the same as agreeing that consumption patterns in the developed world do not need to change. But every time the question of reducing consumption comes up, Gates argues that it wouldn’t be right to do so because it would be unfair to the developing world. He treats those two claims as equivalent throughout the book, and this is a serious problem – at best, it’s deeply misleading.

Glossing over this distinction particularly raises questions when the author has personally invested a fortune in these speculative technologies. Rather than adjusting use patterns that have led us to a global crisis, he consistently favors investment in the precisely the kind of enterprise that equipped him with one of the world’s largest fortunes. The words “reduce” or “recycle” scarcely appear in this book, except in a passing comment in which Gates notes that he used to think trying to reduce consumption at all was pointless, but now has come to think there may be some benefit to it.

For what it’s worth, the IPCC, the gold-standard body for climate research, stated in their most recent Synthesis Report (AR5):

Efficiency enhancements and behavioural changes, in order to reduce energy demand compared to baseline scenarios without compromising development, are a key mitigation strategy in scenarios reaching atmospheric CO2-eq concentrations of about 450 to about 500 ppm by 2100 (robust evidence, high agreement). … Emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns (e.g., mobility demand and mode, energy use in households, choice of longer-lasting products) and dietary change and reduction in food wastes.

One could argue that this criticism is unfair, since Gates has personally invested so much time, energy, and money in addressing global poverty. But it is precisely because of his public role as a philanthropist that some of these dissonances resonate in such a sour key.

Given that he is clearly genuinely concerned with global poverty, for example, why does he never meaningfully address the question of who should pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars of investments he ask for? The plan sounds plainly regressive to me, to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of public funds to back public-private partnerships and R&D, a lot of which will go on to enrich private companies. It could easily lead to a situation in which some of the companies that have profited the most from carbon emissions in the first place would shoulder a relatively small burden in paying for the solution, which would be distributed across tax payers.

Gates mostly prefers to set aside questions of politics, policy, and financing, to focus on technical solutions. I can certainly understand why. Why shouldn’t he, when the status quo has served him so well? It’s also an ugly, complex topic, and he presumably doesn’t want to add fuel to the partisan fire, or to alienate the same future administrations he’ll be asking for money to do this work in years ahead.

But it’s not obvious to me that a serious stakeholder in the climate debate has the right to opt out of the relevant economic and political questions, not least because they have immediate, concrete relevance. During an administration that bans discussion of climate change, most of his proposals would be non-starters.

Gates is concerned about climate change, but I’m not convinced that he’s concerned enough. The IPCC Synthesis Report also states:

Stabilizing temperature increase to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels will require an urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual [emphasis added]. Moreover, the longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost and the greater the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges we will face.

This is consistent with the tone I see among scientists and journalists who specialize in the problem – major changes are needed now, including rethinking the way we think about consumption and growth.

So it concerns me to see Gates write things like this:

Science tells us that in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, rich countries should reach net-zero emissions by 2050. You’ve probably heard people say we should decarbonize deeply even sooner – by 2030.

Unfortunately, for all the reasons I’ve laid out in this book, 2030 is not realistic. Considering how fundamental fossil fuels are in our lives, there’s simply no way we’ll stop using them widely within a decade.

It’s true, I have heard people say we should decarbonize deeply by 2030 – namely, the IPCC scientists who warned that if we want to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C , our emissions will have to peak before 2025, and to be reduced by 43% by 2030.

Do we care about keeping the increase under 1.5°C? How much worse would it be to get to 2°C? Well, according to Scientific American, 2.0°C instead of 1.5 “could spell the difference between the Arctic being ice-free once a decade and once a century; between coral reefs being almost entirely wiped out and up to 30 percent hanging on; and between a third of the world’s population being exposed to extreme heat waves and a tenth.”

Whether or not our reduction targets are achievable is a fair question, but I think Gates is soft-selling the urgency of the problem. I don’t believe he mentions plants or animals in this book at all, except in the context of farming, but coral reefs are home to 25% of ocean wildlife species. There are urgent questions about our moral responsibility to life on this planet, as well as practical questions about the viability of human civilization as we know it if the major ecosystems around us collapse.

How much are we willing to change in order to avoid these kinds of outcomes? So far, looking at what goes on the in world, the collective answer appears to be “not very much.” As David Wallace-Wells noted, in 2020 there was not a single country that was on track to meet the emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement. In the last two weeks, Germany blocked EU plans to eliminate internal-combustion car engines in the Union by 2035, the EU moved to classify nuclear power and natural gas as a “green,” and the US Supreme Court ruled on West Virginia et al. vs. the EPA.

At the end of the day, Bill Gates is who he is – he’s a philanthropic tech billionaire who has done a lot of good, and in my opinion that includes writing this book. I believe there are real problems with it, but they are mostly sins of omission, and if we need a range of technological solutions to help us fight climate change, surely we also need a diversity of opinions and emphases in the coalition of those who take the fight seriously. We have to critically engage with ourselves and with one another, but at the end of the day, Gates is on the side of taking climate change seriously and taking it on, and he puts his money where his mouth is. This is a useful book, and it could change some minds in the right way.

Written by Mesocosm

July 8, 2022 at 6:19 am

Posted in Climate, Reviews

Wendy Brown’s ‘In the Ruins of Neoliberalism’

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After decades of conflict, democracy had emerged by 1992 as the undisputed winner of the Cold War, holding a position of dominance so universal that the term “democracy” became synonymous with political legitimacy. Even authoritarian states often imitate its discourse to justify rule, using sham elections and fraudulent polls to shore up their legitimacy. 

Theo Balden's sculpture "Newspaper Reader"
Newspaper Reader, Theo Balden

Yet a few decades later, despite the complete absence of any serious external challenge or internal crisis, democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and France are awash with anti-democratic popular movements. Some of them openly flirt with abandoning democracy altogether, others have already done so. 

In the United States, the Republican party has openly embraced an anti-democratic platform on the national level. To take one of countless examples, in October 2020, GOP Senator Mike Lee from Utah tweeted “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

“Rank democracy”? 

Yet this statement from a US senator, which would have recently been regarded as inflammatory and shocking, provoked no controversy whatsoever. The question a lot of us are asking with increasing urgency is: “How the hell did this happen?” 

In seeking to provide a social-theoretical account of the historical process that led us to our current situation, Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism; The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West offers an indispensable contribution to the growing body of literature on the subject. I believe this important book deserves careful consideration and discussion, and I recommend it very highly. 

Brown’s argument is complex and wide-ranging, so in this review I will restrict myself to highlighting some of its principle features. 

Brown begins by sketching a typical account of the process leading to the 2016 election, highlighting factors like racial resentment, the government’s failure to redress inequality and misconduct following 2008 economic crisis, and the growing gulf dividing a globalized, urban, highly-literate majority from a displaced rural minority. She* argues that while such an account is useful, it has important omissions that fail to account for the novel characteristics of what we are seeing now.

The current wave of reactionary politics does not always accord with familiar political categories. Indeed, many of its features are difficult to account for with any coherent ideology, and as such, they have defied analysis and frustrated opposition: 

Failure to predict, understand, or effectively contest these developments is due partly to blinding assumptions about perduring Western values and institutions, especially progress and Enlightenment and liberal democracy, and partly to the unfamiliar agglomeration of elements in the rising Right – its curious combination of libertarianism, moralism, authoritarianism, nationalism, hatred of the state, Christian conservativism, and racism. These new forces conjoin familiar elements of neoliberalism (licensing capital, leashing labor, demonizing the social state and the political, attacking equality, promulgating freedom) with their seeming opposites (nationalism, enforcement of traditional morality, populist antielitism, and demands for state solutions to economic and social problems). They conjoin moral righteousness with nearly celebratory amoral and uncivil conduct. They endorse authority while featuring unprecedented public disinhibition and aggression. They rage against relativism, but also against science and reason, and spur evidence-based claims, rational argumentation, credibility, and accountability. They disdain politicians and politics while evincing a ferocious will to power and political ambition. Where are we?

Where, indeed? 

Cold-War-era tools of political analysis are insufficient to account for this nihilistic witch’s brew of characteristics, and understanding why that is so is an urgent task of theory, for the conventional responses that the left has reflexively relied upon have been ineffective. The rhetorical appeal to a putative sense of shared values of a kind exemplified by the editorial missives of Dan Rather have fallen on deaf ears, as have charges of hypocrisy leveled against the evangelists who enthusiastically support a man who has illegally misused campaign funds to silence a porn star with whom he had an affair. Countless attempts to replicate the moment of Joseph Welch’s “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” have failed, and we need to understand why. Specifically, we need to understand the ways in which such appeals no longer connect with their audience, psychologically or ideologically. 

It is this gap in understanding that Brown endeavors to fill, so that we can, at last, identify the real ideological battleground, and shift our focus there. Otherwise we will be left to ask Senator Lee in disbelief, “Surely you can’t be saying that democracy is secondary!” But he can, and he did, and we need to understand why. 

Democracy is the foundation of Brown’s analysis. Her initial salvo on this point neatly suggests the conceptual clarity and rhetorical precision that typifies her book: 

Political equality is democracy’s foundation. Everything else is optional – from constitutions to personal liberty, from specific economic forms to specific political institutions. Political equality alone ensures that the composition and exercise of political power is authorized by the whole and accountable to the whole. When political equality is absent, whether from explicit political exclusions or privileges, from extreme social or economic disparities, or from the manipulation of the electoral system, political power will inevitably be exercised by and for a part, rather than the whole. The demos ceases to rule.

The importance of political equality to democracy is why Rousseau insisted that differences in power among a democratic people must “not be so great that they can be wielded as violence” and also that none may “be so rich that he can buy another and none so poor that he is compelled to sell himself.” Rousseau’s point was that more than a matter of injustice or suffering, systematization of group violence or destitution puts an end to democracy. 

In Brown’s account, the novel attack on democracy that we see today is largely the unanticipated consequence of neoliberal economic theory, which she primarily interprets through analysis of the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Neoliberalism refers to a nebulous branch of social and economic thought associated with economists such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and exemplified in the political arena by the anti-regulatory regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The movement is also associated with reduced government and laissez-faire economic policies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, with globalist policies intended to reduce international barriers to trade. 

In Brown’s analysis, two distinct features of Hayek’s neoliberal theory pave the way to today’s populist authoritarianism: his attack on the concept of the social as such; and his desire to drastically curtail the reach of the state as much as possible. Through aggressively promoting these viewpoints, neoliberalism has substantially helped to foster a social and economic climate that Hayek himself would have despised, in which the government is largely captured by economic titans, rather than markets and government functioning independently and autonomously. 

Hayek directly opposes his conception of freedom to the very idea of the social. Any situation in which individuals are “compelled” by the state to act against their will (or “against their interests” as he put it) is eo ipso a curtailment of their liberty. The concept of the social gives rise to a kind of tyranny of the majority. In his view, the only free society is one in which individuals are bound only by the traditional moral codes to which they voluntarily adhere. 

Neoliberalism, then, is not economically liberal, in the sense of advocating for state regulation of markets, it is politically liberal in the sense of aggressively seeking to curtail the reach of the state to intervene in individual choice. 

Like libertarian economic theory, an account of freedom that focuses exclusively on the individual right to chose completely disregards the problem of externalities. That is to say, my freedom to dump toxic chemicals into the river curtails your freedom to grow crops and to live cancer-free. When people share resources or a physical environment, it is not so easy to disentangle where one peron’s zone of autonomy ends and another person’s begins. 

This obvious fact can only become obscured by a willful act of ideological repression, which, in the case of neoliberalism, occurs largely by automatically resisting any act of mediated social compromise as transgressive against liberty as such. In the light of a neoliberal theory, the need to mediate competing rights and claims in the spirit of compromise is simply excluded, and, as a consequence, the realm of the social is abandoned. Attempts to appeal to the interests of society appear to be nothing more than content-free complaints by “social justice warriors.” As Brown put it: 

If there is no such thing as society, but only individuals and families oriented by markets and morals, then there is no such thing as social power generating hierarchies, exclusion, and violence, let alone subjectivity at the site of class, gender, or race. Outside of a neoliberal frame, of course, the language of the social is what makes inequalities manifest; the domain of the social is where subjugations, abjections, and exclusions are lived, identified, protested, and potentially rectified.… As every serious student of inequality knows, the social is a vital domain of justice because it is where the potted histories and hierarchies of a particular region, nation, or civilization are reproduced. Appreciation of social powers is the only way to understand ‘taking a knee’ or the claim that black lives matter, the high suicide rates among queer teens, or women working more for less. Moreover, the social is what binds us in ways that exceed personal ties, market exchange, or abstract citizenship. It is where we, as individuals or a nation, practice or fail to practice justice, decency, civility, and care beyond the codes of market instrumentalism and familialism. And it is where political equality, essential to democracy, is made or unmade. 

If we want the social to exist as a meaningful framework for understanding and evaluating experience and action, we are now in a position in which we have to explicitly defend it as such. Welcome to our wonderful future. 

As with the social, Hayek repudiated the concept of the political as such. Grounding political legitimacy exclusively in a concept of individual freedom constrained solely by voluntarily-accepted traditional moral codes and free markets, Hayek distinguishes between “liberal democracy” and “social or totalitarian democracy” and regards the concept of popular sovereignty as a “ nonsense notion.” To “protect democracy against itself,” the powers of “so-called legislators” must be restrained, and the coercion of individuals by the state must be absolutely minimized. Indeed, Hayek identifies an inherent paradox in the notion of a liberal democracy, as liberalism is concerned with “‘limiting the coercive powers of all government’ while democracy limits government only according to majority opinion.” 

It may be hard to believe that the near-equation of any legislative act with totalitarian coercion has much traction in society at large, but Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom sold more than two million copies, and both Hayek and Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their theories. 

Now we are at a point where we can begin to understand how an anti-regulatory and anti-government political theory such as neoliberalism can help explain the seemingly-contradictory co-occurrence of anti-government and authoritarian ideologies in contemporary right-wing movements. 

Above all, Hayek argues, democracy and liberalism have radically different opposites. Democracy’s opposite is authoritarianism, concentrated but not necessarily unlimited political power. Liberalism’s opposite is totalitarianism, complete control over every aspect of life. This makes authoritarianism compatible with a liberal society – freedom, traditional morals, a protected private sphere. And totalitarianism can be brought into being and administered by democratic majorities. 

Senator Lee’s opposition of “rank democracy” to “liberty” now makes more sense. We can also understand why so many appeals to shared values falls on deaf ears. The terms “freedom” and “liberty” mean substantially different things to different people, and the consensus on the essential nature of the American political system has fractured between the left and the right to a degree never seen since World War II. 

With a critique of the social and the political in hand, the neoliberal is in a position to argue that the sole legitimate spheres for deliberating and adjudicating values are the domains of the family and of the individual, and not in any kind of larger interpersonal domain, which has been rejected as such. This conception of values and their proper domain has increasingly become the basis for attacking laws or policies intended to redress inequalities or protect minorities. Such attempts are framed as an encroachment by the tyrannical majority into the private conscience of individuals, and are treated as an intolerable violation of the sanctity of moral, and, especially, of religious freedoms.

In one of the most disturbing sections of the book, Brown analyzes how this theory has been developed into a novel legal strategy which has been designed to advance a dangerous new legal framework, as seen in two cases that recently appeared before the Supreme Court: Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and National Institute of Family Life Advocates, DBA NIFLA, et al. v. Becerra, Attorney General of California

In the former case, a baker in Colorado claimed that a combination of his rights to free speech and his right to free exercise of religion excuse him from being compelled to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. 

In the latter case, a network of so-called Pregnancy Crisis Centers sued the state of California, which passed a law requiring such institutions to post notices stating that they are not medical centers, and to refer people to nearby free and low-cost reproductive medicine facilities. This law was passed in response to the fact that Pregnancy Crisis Centers, according to their own unambiguous claims, attempt to confuse pregnant woman into thinking they are neutral providers of health services, when they are in fact conservative Christian organizations that exist for the sole purpose of persuading women not to have abortions. 

Brown’s full analysis is essential reading, but the upshot is this – both cases were carefully designed by the claimants to provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity to affirm a novel reading of free speech and free exercise which would dramatically curtail the government’s ability to enforce a wide range of laws and regulations intended to protect vulnerable populations. As with Citizens United, the very concept of speech has been expansively redefined not just to include corporate political contributions, but the baking of cakes and the freedom not to post legally-mandated disclaimers. 

The cases are carefully formulated to invite this interpretation, and the conservative majority has shown itself more than willing to go along with this approach: 

Indeed, only through the artful conjoining of free speech and free exercise can one make sense of this otherwise bewildering summary of [Masterpiece Cake claimant] Phillips’s claim by the court: ‘requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion.’ 

In this sentence, the sheer number of prepositions and verbs and lack of subordinate clauses makes it nearly impossible to specify the site of the violation. Where, precisely, is the action? Requiring the creation of a cake does not violate a right to free speech. Compelling exercise of artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees does not violate one’s First Amendment rights. (Commercial artists presumably do this all the time at the behest of their bosses or managers.) And creating a cake for a  wedding does not violate one’s free exercise of religion any more than being required, commercially, to exercise one’s artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees. However, all of these phenomena pressed tougher – required creation of art expressing a message contrary to one’s religious beliefs – bolstered by the unmentioned right of commercial ownership, sets free exercise loose in the public and commercial sphere and generates the scene of its entitlement to discriminate, indeed, to abridge laws of equality. This is more than constitutional constructivism. This is the U. S. Supreme Court empowering a revolutionary antidemocratic force through a novel joining together of ownership, religion, and speech. 

In Masterpiece, the Supreme Court opted to rule narrowly, finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not weigh the facts in a neutral and fashion. But in National Institute they took the bait, striking down a clearly-warranted public health and safety law on the grounds that requiring any disclaimer of any anti-abortion group whatsoever was tantamount to coercing compliance with one side of a matter of public controversy, as though a woman’s right to choose were not settled law and a guaranteed right, but merely a matter of disagreement. This is a terrifically ominous sign of things to come, and I think it’s likely the conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court is likely to reshape the American legal landscape to a degree that is currently difficult to imagine. 

In her final chapter, Brown leverages Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment from his Toward a Genealogy of Morals and Macruse’s theory of repressive sublimation from his One-Dimensional Man to analyze the psychology of anger, resentment, and naked hatred motivating so much political discourse on the right. As this review has already gone long, I’ll mention only two key movements of this argument. In the first, Brown unpacks the relationship between resentment and a nihilistic crisis of values: 

It is significant that Trump himself identifies revenge as his sole philosophy of life: revenge and nothing else, revenge without end, because there is nothing else. Beyond efforts to destroy anyone who questions or opposes him, revenge saturates his so-called agenda and is also what satisfies the basest part of his base. It animates the drive to overturn every Obama-era achievement, of course, from climate accords to the Iran deal, but also to destroy what those policies aimed at protecting or preserving: the earth and its many species, the rights and protections of the vulnerable (LGBT, women, minorities), and the health of Americans secured through Obamacare. 

It is also significant that many Trump supporters, when interviewed about his lies, affairs, and flouting of truth or law, say ‘I don’t care. I’m tired of the disrespect his opponents have for him and for me.’ What kind of defense of your man is this? … In confessing that Trump embodies a retort to their pain, it explains why it does not matter what policies he pursues, only that he opposes those they hold responsible for their suffering. 

In describing the unique character of contemporary nihilism, Brown argues that the crisis of values that motivated so many philosophers and theorists in nineteenth-century Europe pales in comparison to the nihilism that haunts us today: 

Today … nihilism intensifies in a world that reflects humanity as having brought the species to the bring of destruction. ‘Man’ has not merely lost values or stable meaning, but is indicted by myriad powers generated, but not controlled by humans, powers that diminish, mock, reproach, and endanger us, not only devalue us. We appear not only without nobility and greatness, but without even the ability to provide for ourselves or clean up after ourselves. A species of giant toddlers, appetitive for power, pleasure, and play, we have yet to become responsible for our own creations, our history. 

There are no solutions suggested in this book, only an invitation to think and respond creatively and aggressively to the novel constellation of ideas that we oppose. 

As a final note, Brown does not do any of the hard work that would be required to extend this analysis beyond the borders of the United States. Despite her early assertion that her engagement with neoliberal theory is applicable to authoritarian movements around the world, she doesn’t spare a word for how it applies, say, to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or to Modi’s BJP. 

The closest she comes is a half-hearted attempts to generalize her arguments to ordoliberal theory in Germany, which, she argues, is analogous to neoliberal theory insofar as it mandates a political administration of technocratic experts who are not directly accountable to the public. Having lived in both in Germany and the United States, I found those arguments half-baked. I have little patience for her characterization of ordoliberalism as “a type of neoliberalism,” and the degree to which the actual operation of the government and the formation of policy must be directly representative is a question that she has not taken up on in this work. Certainly when it comes to democratic representation, the electoral system in Germany is far more representative than that of the United States. 

That said, as I have repeatedly urged, this short book contains many powerful ideas and is written with great clarity and force. I highly recommend it. 

* Brown has publicly invited the use of “she” or “they”. 

Written by Mesocosm

October 30, 2020 at 6:29 am

Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”

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Die Passion Christi – Hieronymus Bosch

Goethe’s final novel is often described as “experimental;” a description which, I think, primarily reflects its puzzling character. Like Beethoven’s late quartets or Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, it’s hard to know how to take it, or how it wants to be taken. Its readers have long struggled to articulate a coherent response to this book, and I daresay my own response – a mix of admiration, frustration, and confusion – puts me in good company.

Most of the action occurs beneath the level of story and must be extrapolated from the events. The plot, such as it is, is relatively simple. Eduard and Charlotte are a happily-married couple who live on an estate in the country. As part the leisure class, they have the luxury of pursuing their personal interests, which primarily consist of directing a series of continual and ever-incomplete improvements and modifications to the buildings and the grounds.

Like a Japanese gardener, they attempt to collaborate with nature, and to coax the world around them toward their ideals. The wanderer on their lands should have the experience of chancing upon inspiring, meditative vistas in a series of perfectly-timed disclosures as they move through a landscape of controlled epiphany. To this end, paths are modified or closed off, views are opened up through the pruning of trees or the removal of rocks, and buildings are reworked to provide rest at just the right point on a steep path.

Before long, Eduard and Charlotte are joined in their endeavors by an old friend of Eduard’s called “the Captain”, and later by Charlotte’s charming foster-daughter Ottilie. The newcomers take to the estate work with inspired passion, and quickly join the rhythm of the house.

One night in the drawing room, where they come together to read and to play music, Charlotte comes across the esoteric topic of “elective affinities.” She and the reader subsequently learn that this term refers to a theory in chemistry that accounts for the tendency of certain pairs of compound substances to break their stable bonds and “trade dance partners,” as it were. That is, stable compound AB is introduced to stable compound CD, and, after a sudden, destructive reaction, you end up with AC and BD, which are united by even stronger bonds.

The characters and the reader quickly pick up on the amusing possibility that such reactions could also affect human couples, and the author thereby sets the stage for the complicated emotional entanglements which play out for the remainder of the book. As Eduard and the young Ottilie become closer, so too do the Captain and Charlotte, which leads headlong into a conflict between two competing views of marriage – as a socially-recognized and regulated bond, and as the epitome of passion, intimacy, and choice.

**

One of the core concerns of this book is the irreconcilable conflicts that result from regarding the same situation from competing systems of values. Take, for example, the theory of landscaping which preoccupies the protagonists. On a superficial level, their work celebrates the Romantic ideals of free wandering and the unadulterated experience of nature. Someone walking through their grounds is meant to feel the wonder of vistas encountered by chance.

Ironically, we know that the landscape is highly controlled, with the heavily-planned paths subtly directing the wanderer to the illusion of happenstance. Choice only plays out within an invisibly-regulated landscape.

On one level, this is presumably a critique of the Romantics, who may conceal their own elaborate techniques for producing the controlled aesthetic effects which are celebrated as the experience of natural spontaneity.

On another level, this is an arresting image of how people shape their lives, acting not just on the level of conscious choice, but working in dialog with their inner selves, and with their societies, to affect the context in which they live. It is probably worth noting that this, in the language of the book, is the prerogative of the leisure class.

The book is fundamentally concerned with the hidden rules that shape choice. Through altering the landscape, as in altering their relationships, the characters shape their own context for action, and thereby experiment with the possibilities of life.

The book functions as a kind of scientific experiment or laboratory in which the mechanics of human choice become more visible. Here, the fact that the landscaping is always a work-in-progress becomes significant. We follow as the characters experiment with the very framework for their own action and experience, just as people build their lives: gradually, playing out different possibilities, and then course-correcting, in a never-ending process of trial and error.

The link between this work as an examination of human nature and as a kind of laboratory experiment is called out by the title. This laboratory provides indirect access to the characters’ inner lives, which can only be extrapolated, just like the bonds that unite various compounds. The governing patterns that regulate the dynamics lie under the surface.

In another sense, the book functions as a laboratory by presenting life on a remote estate as a microcosm of their society as a whole. The use of a mini-society as a device for depicting core dynamics of human interaction has a long tradition. It has been pointed out, for example, that nearly every comedy of Shakespeare’s involves some version of characters going outside the city walls and creating an alternative social order.

The link between the language of chemistry and the language of the unconscious tells us this is a sort of alchemical laboratory. We have known since Carl Jung that when the alchemist speaks in a hybrid language of chemistry and metaphysics – describing, for example, the mystical marriage of chemical substances that unites and reconciles opposites – they present an image of their own unconscious process of psychic integration, using the vocabulary of the natural sciences, which is noticeably hijacked by the twilight language of dream and myth.

The question posed by the motif of elective affinities, then, is to what degree our choices are free, and how do we gain insight into the invisible rules. I see this as a kind of naturalistic antetype to the modernist use of myth, such as we find in Wagner, Joyce, Eliot, or Thomas Mann. For these great artists, myth sheds light on the hidden patterns that shape conscious action and intention.

Thomas Mann described “Elective Affinities” as “a perfect book,” and its profound influence on his own work is readily apparent. In “The Magic Mountain”, for example, we also find characters trapped together in a miniature world, which functions as a microcosm of society and nature, and as a macrocosm of the individual psyche. The ordering patterns of life are examined as if in a Petri dish or alembic, where they are reduced, extracted, and sublimated to an archetypal plane.

**

Green Man, Bode Museum

It must be noted that the character Ottilie is the chief catalyst for the action that drives the plot forward. Eduard is the principle agent of action, but he is motivated by his passion for Ottilie, which she elicits through the unique qualities of her character. It is no surprise, then, that we find her at the heart of the book’s pivotal events.

Ottilie embodies on the level of character the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the co-occurrence of orders of value. She drives the action, but indirectly; she is both conscious and unconscious of the economy of passion she is inscribed within; she is both guilty and innocent of transgression. She guarantees the contradictions that come forth from the collision of passion and social regulation, but by her being, not through her action or choice.

One can say much about this special status, but what most illuminates her function in the novel is knowing that Goethe had a daughter-in-law named Ottilie, with whom he was much enamored. As Rüdiger Safranski notes in his recent Goethe; Kunstwerk des Lebens: “It should here be remembered, without making too much of a fuss over it, that in 1816, Goethe pushed hard in support of the liaison between his son [August von Goethe] and Ottilie von Pogwisch, so that he should have this fetching and clever young woman in his vicinity” (pg. 579, my translation). Ottilie and August would marry a year later.

In my opinion, in the context of “Elective Affinities”, it would actually be difficult to make too much fuss over this fact, which is the single most important key we have to understanding what happens in the novel and why. I have been genuinely surprised by how gingerly this is held by many interpreters, who sometimes give the impression that it would be in poor taste to recognize it. But Goethe could hardly have called more attention to this point than by naming this key character after his daughter-in-law.

It would be a mistake to reduce the entirety of this complex book to an autobiographical study of the author’s obvious infatuation with his son’s wife, but it would also be obtuse to fail to recognize that the book reproduces the same logic of ambivalence that Goethe presumably felt. By this reading, Goethe blames her for his own attraction, yet cannot find fault with her, because he is the agent of his own passions, even if she is the catalyst. He wants her and cannot have her, and he feels trapped between the irreconcilable dictates of the logic of passion and the social code of marriage and fidelity. Ottilie von Goethe, like Ottilie in the novel, embodies the conflicts that governs this novel.

Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2019 at 2:45 am

Posted in Literature, Reviews

Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

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Over the last few years I’ve been reading a group of loosely-associated German conservative philosophers and theorists from the twentieth century – specifically Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and, most recently, the jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. These authors share an interest in formulating a critique of the Enlightenment based on a sense of the limited capacity of analytical reason to account for the complete register of human experience, and an objection to the tendency for Enlightenment advocates to demonize the nonrational element of consciousness.

This is a critique that I share to a certain degree. In my view, rationalist thinkers share a tendency to pre-reflexively identify the rational with progress, science, social justice, and political freedom, while identifying the irrational with the historical past, religion and superstition, economic exploitation, and servitude or authoritarianism. To the degree that such a posture is pre-reflexive, many self-styled defenders of Enlightenment rationalism regard themselves as eo ipso rational, even when advancing plainly irrational, angry polemics at the targets of their ire. 

Where I have generally parted ways with some of these conservatives is in what I find to be three very serious liabilities: 1) a drive toward a metaphysical essentialism that places the source of its own authority beyond the reach of critical analysis as such; 2) a tendency to assert a monolithic political identity as the essence of the body politic, which usually segues into or takes pains to defend xenophobic nationalism based on an ahistorical concept of the people or Volk; and 3) a general poverty in providing a basis for the legitimate formation of policy other than by the fiat of a sovereign.

This is the context in which I read Carl Schmitt’s seminal essay The Concept of the Political. Initially written in 1927 as part of a sustained critique on liberalism and Weimar constitutionalism, this book remains a cornerstone of conservative and anti-constitutionalist political theory. Although barred from teaching by the Allies for his unrepentant defense of Nazi procedures, Schmitt continued to exert a substantial influence on conservative political thought until his death in 1985, and also motivated an energetic response by German liberal theorists whose arguments took shape in part as an answer to his stance. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt purports to take up the task of defining the political and fixing its proper bounds – a task he accuses leftist theorists of ignoring, in favor of producing bungled analyses that confuse the political with the economic and the ethical.

In Schmitt’s view, to understand the political, we have to grasp its essence (Wesen). He discovers the essence of the political in a fundamental criterion he derives from the antithetical terms that describe its limits. Just as we delineate the aesthetic as the field concerned with the beautiful and the ugly, and delineate ethics as the domain concerned with the good and the evil, politics is delineated by the distinction between friend and enemy (Freund und Feind).

A system or action is political insofar as it pertains to the determination by a sovereign that another group threatens its way of life. Schmitt leaves this key term entirely unexamined, but generally speaking, it refers to the degree to which another body constitutes an existential threat. Once that determination of enmity has been made, the sovereign possesses the sole authority to require members of the polity to kill and risk death in war. No individual or social group is capable of making such an imperative on its own authority, and individuals have no authority to exempt themselves from their binding duty to comply, once such a determination has been made. Determinations of “friend and enemy” may be analyzed by ethical and pragmatic criteria, but such analyses are by definition outside the scope of the purely political. 

Schmitt’s metaphysical realism – his belief that the political has an actual essence that may be discovered and described – is one of the most visible signs of his heavy debt to Plato’s Republic; another being Schmitt’s agreement that the central duty of the polity consists in defense and attack. Readers of Republic will recall that Plato returned again and again to the watchman or guardian as the exemplar, paradigm, and embodiment of the state.

The manifold links Plato draws between essence, purity, goodness, simplicity, and self-givenness cohere in a normative determination of the character of the sovereign. This set of thematic associations was carried over wholesale by Schmitt. When I browse through Plato’s discussion of the guardian in Republic, I find a clear articulation of the core values that Schmitt affirms or embraces in his own approach. The ideal guardian is possessed of unity in thought and action, unclouded by distraction or plurality of character, and masculine and forceful in temperament. I note that Plato’s guardian is also sober and not given to “fits of laughter” – and is there a single moment of lightheartedness in Schmitt’s glowering corpus

One of my many fundamental differences with Schmitt is my rejection of the belief that a complex social phenomenon like “the political” derives from an essence, and that it must be delineated by simple criteria, or else it becomes intellectually muddied. This insistence on simplicity, directness, unity, actuality, and purity is clearly one of Schmitt’s primary intellectual commitment.

I will not the first to note there is a link between conservative theory and a drive toward epistemic closure, which I would gloss as an intolerance for uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity, and dynamism. In my frame of reference, the imperative toward epistemic closure can find no theoretical basis, and merely reflects a psychological posture rather than a motivated conclusion. Complex social phenomena require complex, multifactorial, interdisciplinary descriptions, which often have a provisional rather than final character. To certain personalities, such accounts are intolerable. 

In my view, the drive to epistemic closure is developmentally immature and leads to theoretical confusion. In this I am in agreement with Jürgen Habermas, who characterized a such a posture as a mythological engagement with the world in The Theory of Communicative Action in the following way, based on Jean Piaget’s developmental theory:

If we assess cultural systems of interpretation from this [developmental] standpoint, we can see why mythical worldviews represent an instructive limit case. To the degree that the lifeworld of a social group is interpreted through a mythical worldview, the burden of interpretation is removed from the individual member, as well as the chance for him to bring about an agreement open to criticism. To the extent that the worldview remains sociocentric in Piaget’s sense, it does not permit differentiation between the world of existing states of affairs, valid norms and expressible subjective experiences. The linguistic worldview is reified as the world order and cannot be seen as an interpretive system open to criticism.

This exactly characterizes Schmitt’s approach, which systematically elides distinctions between his own normative determinations about the character of the state and his project of recovering the essence from the political, which is largely divorced from any empirical determination of the actual state of affairs. His normative judgments are interpreted as discoveries about the actual state of affairs, and people like myself, who believe that complex historical phenomena require complex explanations, are dismissed as obfuscationists. 

To illustrate the extent of Schmitt’s commitment to his essentialist procedure, I would note that, in his view, not only is a hypothetical enemy the basis for positing political bodies, but enemies must in fact actually exist, or there is no political sphere. He says, for example, “The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity.”

The specific form of his argument deriving an essential definition of the political based on his dichotomous criterion reads to me like sophistry of a weak and archaic type, as unpersuasive to the uninitiated as a medieval proof of God’s existence. Such an argument does not convince, and does not seek to convince, but uses the form reason as a kind of ritualized affirmation for political determinations based solely on power. It is the philosophical equivalent of a show trial in a totalitarian state where the verdict has already been decided before the trial begins. The question of political legitimacy does not arise for Schmitt, other than as a sign of intellectual confusion. 

Schmitt focuses resolutely on the antagonistic character of politics, completely ignoring its cooperative character. Although he claims the political is based on the friend-enemy distinction, he focuses entirely on the enemy. I do not believe he even defines “friend” in this work.

This focus offers no account for the cooperative functions of the state, which are universally considered “political” functions. These include, for example, collective deliberation, the selection of executives and officers, legislation, common planning, and infrastructure management. 

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense,” Schmitt argues, “not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.”

“Mixed and weakened.” You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a pervasive attitude of hostility to heterogeneity of every kind, and the distance between his theoretical complaints about heterogeneity and his openly antisemitic writings of the same period is not great. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible.” Such characterizations are, of course, dehumanizing in precisely the way practitioners of genocide have always dehumanized their victims, though not always with such clarity and candor. Schmitt provides a general model validating such procedures.

It should also be noted that Schmitt’s motive for deriving a concept of the political from such a “first philosophy” of Platonic essences stems from his interest in justifying a theory of sovereign power that doesn’t rely on an underlying constitutional or legislative framework. In Schmitt’s view in this essay, political authority derives directly from the self-interest of communities in defending themselves against existential threats, and legal justifications for sovereign legitimacy are post facto. This became the theoretical basis for his attack on Weimar democracy.

From Schmitt’s essay:

[Thomas Hobbes] emphasized time and again that the sovereignty of law means only the sovereignty of men who draw up and administer this law. The rule of a higher order, according to Hobbes, is an empty phrase if it does not signify politically that certain men of this higher order rule over men of a lower order. The independence and completeness of political thought is here irrefutable. There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings in the name of justice, humanity, order, or peace. When being reproached for immortality and cynicism, the spectator of political phenomena can always recognize in such reproaches a political weapon used in actual combat.

Schmitt’s argument here is that the political does not exist in the abstract, but always arises on the basis of the interests of actual groups of people. In this view, a liberal viewpoint which sublimates political concerns into an abstract field of universal values divorces it from its own essence, and in so doing either neutralizes the political as such, or covertly transforms its own value-determinations into the political realm and wields it as a political weapon.

Of the conservative thinkers I have read in the last few years, Schmitt is by far the worst. I disagree with him on every level – philosophical, ethical, practical, formal, psychological, and empirical. He epitomizes what Nietzsche describes as the worst characteristics of German intellectual life – ponderous, metaphysical, impatient, hostile, totalizing in his rigid framework, and completely humorless. I haven’t disagreed with a work so completely since I read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is not altogether dissimilar from Schmitt’s essay in spirit.  

Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2018 at 12:45 am

Leipzig Bach Fest, 2018

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thomas2This past weekend kicked off the Leipzig Bachfest 2018, which features performances of dozens of major works by Bach and other one-time Leipzig residents Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. Many of the concerts were performed at historic venues, including the churches where Bach premiered the bulk of his sacred music, and the Mendelsssohn House, where that composer lived until his death in 1847.

Leipzig is a beautiful and storied city south and west of Berlin in the federal state of Saxony. Situated at the crossroads of important trade routes, Leipzig boasts centuries of prosperous Bürgerlich culture and a fine university – Germany’s second oldest, founded in 1409.  This is where the young Goethe studied law – at least, when he wasn’t carousing at Auerbach’s Keller, a local tavern that he praised for its excellent wines and used as a setting for an episode of Faust:

keller2

Mephisto:
Above all else, it seems to me,
You need some jolly company
To see life can be fun – to say the least:
The people here make every day a feast.
With little wit and boisterous noise,
They dance and circle in their narrow trails
Like kittens playing with their tails.
When hangovers don’t vex these boys,
And while their credits holding out,
They have no cares and drink and shout.
(trans. Walter Kaufmann)

The establishment is still running today, though it’s now more of a high-end tourist trap than Bohemian student waren. 

Johann Sebastian Bach lived and worked for 27 years in Leipzig, where he wrote music for several churches, including the two large Protestant churches that still flank the east and west ends of the Old City: the Nikolaikirche in the east, and the Thomaskirche in the west.

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I had an incredible opportunity to hear my two favorite Bach ensembles perform cantata concerts in the “Cantata Ring” ten-concert series: Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan at the Thomaskirche, and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir at the Nikolaikirche.

The Thomaskirche is a beautiful late-Gothic-style building with a superficial exterior resemblance to Chartres. The interior is fairly sparse in traditional Protestant mode, with minimal decoration that could seduce the heart to an impure love of beauty. The Master himself is interred in the choir.

Mrs. O’Cosm and I sat toward the rear of the nave, while the Bach Collegium Japan performed in a balcony directly above and about 10 meters behind us. It was an interesting effect, hearing the music without being able to see the musicians – I was reminded a bit of Freudian therapy where the therapist is to be seated behind the patient and out of their field of view.

I wonder if this is how music would have been performed during services in Bach’s time. The invisibility of the performers highlighted the liturgical and sacramental qualities of the music.

I also experienced the invisibility of the performers as an extension of the ego-decentering effect I have often felt listening to Renaissance and Baroque polyphonic music. In contrast to the classical and Romantic ideals of virtuosity, with their emphasis on concerto soloists and coloratura arias, Bach’s music presupposes constant virtuosity by all musicians and singers, who are rarely singled out or brought into individual focus. Instead of the individualistic classical and Romantic celebration of the musician as a Promethean hero-creator, the complex, shimmering weave of polyphonic sacred music evokes a distributed, patterned, cosmological order, and immerses the listener within it.

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Thomaskirche

One intriguing component of the Bachfest Canata Cycle was that the appropriate Bible readings were read aloud before each piece was performed, which illuminated the ways the texts commented on the liturgy as a kind of musical sermon.

The acoustics in the Thomaskirche were echoey with fair amount of reverb – not like what you would get at Notre Dame in Paris, but there was a noticeable blending that was different from the clear, crisp disambiguation of voices you would hear in a studio mix.

The Bach Collegium Japan performed with their customary virtuosity, clarity, and beauty. For years their recordings of Bach’s cantatas have served as my standard edition – for my tastes, they are simply perfect. Melodic lines rendered smoothly, untroubled by the anachronistic ornamentation of vibrato and rubato that sometimes bog down Bach interpreters like Otto von Klemperer. In my mind such an approach is wholly unsuited to Baroque polyphony. Give me clarity of line, and save the throbbing vibrato for Mahler.

The Monteverdi Choir concert I attended in the NIkolaikirche was the final concert of the ten-concert Cantata Ring, and, as principle organizer of the cycle, Gardiner saved for himself the best for last. In his selection, he took the audience on a splendidly-conceived journey, opening with two dark, chromatic cantatas that plumb the depths of spiritual anguish and uncertainty.

The first piece, “Es erhaub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19) (follow link for Ton Koopman’s interpretation), followed a weekly reading from Revelation describing Saint Michael’s defeat of the celestial dragon in the war of heaven (Rev 12, 7-12):

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

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Nikolaikirche

The cantata beings with a thrilling chorus depicting the battle in heaven with a densely-saturated tableau of melismatic agitation. It resolves into simpler lines, but uses chords built from disquieting, sour intervals that would sound perfectly at home in a work of Carlo Gesualdo. The battle of heaven is thereby internalized into inward spiritual distress. 

My favorite moment of this piece was the moving tenor aria “Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir,” in which a disconsolate singer calls to the angel to remain by his side.

The mood of the concert gradually ascended, like Dante in the Comedia, from the depths of despair to the heights of spiritual exultation, concluding with the jubilant “Wachtet Auf, Ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140) (follow link for a recording of Gardiner’s interpretation). One of the the unquestionable highlights of the concert was the gorgeous soprano/bass aria “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?”, a dialog between spirit and Christ in which the spirit, evoking the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins, longs for salvation:

Seele: Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?
Jesus: Ich komme, dein Teil.
Seele: Ich warte mit brennendem Öle.

Soul: When are you coming, my salvation?
Jesus: I am coming, your portion.
Soul: I wait with burning oil.

nikolai

The drama of this duet is unsurpassed in Bach’s oeuvre.

The concluding “Gloria sei dir gesungen” is a splendid apotheosis of harmonization – a sonic image of the realization of Jerusalem and the reunion between the sinful soul and the loving father. 

The Nikolaikriche was a bit muddier in its acoustics than the Thomaskirche, but the interior is rather lovelier, done out in a gorgeous, gentle pastel botanical motif with the columns flowering in the upper reaches. It may be the most beautiful Protestant church I’ve ever been in.

It also has powerful contemporary resonance in the global story of nonviolence, having served as the epicenter for peaceful candlelight vigils calling for an end to Communist rule in the late 1980s. These demonstrations are now remembered as some of the pivotal events that led to to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Reunification.

The Monteverdi Choir performed to perfection. The setting and selection of compelling and dramatic top-tier works from Bach’s legacy combined to provide one of the finest evening’s of music I’ve been able to attend.

Written by Mesocosm

June 12, 2018 at 1:41 am

Posted in Music, Reviews

Wanderlust and the German Romantic

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I recently caught the Wanderlust exhibit at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which showcases German painting celebrating solitary wandering in nature. These motifs found common expression in the paintings of the Romantics, who used images of solitary figures exploring the natural world to depict the relationship between the individual and the Absolute that I looked at in my last post.

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Landschaft mit Flusstal, Richard Wilson, ca. 1755

The exhibition begins with this work by Richard Wilson, a pre-Romantic pioneer of British landscape painting. One can already intuit in Landscape with River Valley how nature is perceived as the primary field of life and awareness in a way that anticipates Romantic philosophy.

This painting’s focus on nature entails a corresponding reduction in the human figures in the foreground, who perhaps suggest the individual level of conscious awareness with which we typically identify. Notice how all sense of life and movement in this work are given by the contours of the land, water, and sky. The small, rigidly posed people in the foreground appear more like minor features of the landscape than the principle point of identification with the scene. This reduction is reinforced by the ruins on the left, which suggest the primacy of nature over artificial forms. When left to natural processes, the landscape actively reclaims and swallows up the artifacts of human civilization.

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Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, Caspar David Friedrich, 1817

These themes move explicitly to the fore in the work of the Romantics, as you can see in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog. Unfortunately my picture here has some artifacts from the reflective glass on the frame, but you can still get a sense of it.

Here we see the epitome of the Romantic conception of the knowing subject: an individual who has fought and won their way to the solitary mountaintop, driven by an inner compulsion to experience – to know and to feel. This crowning moment of vision simultaneously renders the apotheosis of the individual personality, whose hard work has led them alone to the apex of experience, and the corresponding submersion of the individual in the Absolute, suggested by the anonymizing pose of this figure. The ego leads to the Absolute, and then falls away.

I think of these lines from Wordsworth’s The Prelude (ca. 1800):

Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth–and with what motion moved the clouds!

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society.

Seen from the back, we’re invited to identify with the anonymous subject, suggesting the aesthetic experience of art offers a window into the infinite that parallels the experience of this lofty view. These ideas will be familiar to anyone who has explored Kant’s analysis of the sublime.

Der Mönch am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich, 1808

This relationship between art and ideas is made clear by Friedrich himself in his writings. In a discussion of his painting Monk by the Sea, Friedrich wrote:

On the beach, walking deep in thought, is a man in a black robe. Gulls circle him anxiously, as if to warn him not to venture out on the rough sea. And if you pondered from morning to evening, from evening to the sinking dead of night, you would still not comprehend, not fathom the inscrutable Beyond.

One is reminded of Novalis and his dark night of the Absolute.

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Alexander von Humboldt und der Botaniker Aimé Bonpland im Urwald Südamerikas, Ferdinand Keller, 1875

Nineteenth century German art is often absorbed in the possibilities of human greatness of distinct but related types: the greatness of the creative individual, of discovery, of achievement, and of the development of one’s own unique perspective.

One interesting stock figure of the scholar-hero who exemplifies all of these forms is the natural scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose vivid writing chronicling his discovery and research inspired generations of artists and thinkers. In this Ferdinand Keller painting, we see Humboldt as a kind of Romantic hero.

Humboldt’s project of discovery and study has something of a Romantic quality about it, as we can see in this excerpt from his 1847 book Kosmos:

The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My intercourse with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that, without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion.

Here are a few standouts from the exhibition that explore the wanderer and Romanticism in striking ways:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the themes of the wanderer and the landscape began to be developed with a different inflection. In his 1882 poem “Prince Vogelfrei,” for example, Friedrich Nietzsche depicted the wanderer with many of the familiar ingredients, but with a far more confident and autonomous sense of self – one that is perhaps augmented instead of diminished or negated by their achievement. There is little sense here of the individual dissolving into the Absolute. I took a pass at translating it as follows:

Prince Vogelfrei

So I hang from crooked branches
High above sea and hill;
A bird invited me to visit –
I flew and followed, raced and raced
And pounded with little wings.

The wide sea has gone to sleep
And rests my every hurt and sigh
I have forgotten goal and harbor,
Fear and praise and punishment –
Now I fly after every bird.

Step by step – that’s no life!
One foot before the other is weary toil.
I let the wind carry me
I love to float with wings
behind every bird.

Reason? – a wicked business:
Many stumble over reason and tongue!
Flight gives me new powers
And teaches me a lovelier occupation,
Song and joke and songplay.

To think alone – that is wise.
To sing alone – that is stupid!
Listen then to my wisdom,
Sit around me in a circle,
Come, you beautiful birds!

By the early twentieth century, the primary field of philosophical and aesthetic concern had moved on. This painting of the wanderer by Ernst Kirchner shows no trace of the post-Kantian meditation on subjectivity.

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Sertigtal, Ernst Kirchner, 1926

Written by Mesocosm

May 29, 2018 at 1:23 am

Posted in Art, Reviews

Totentanz, the Dance of Death

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Great is the matter of birth and death
Time is fleeting, gone, gone
Awake! Awake! Each one!
Don’t waste this life!

This short poem is written on a wooden plank at the San Francisco Zen Center called a han, which is struck by a mallet to call the monks to meditation. It echoes a common call made by masters of many traditions to recollect death as a way of disentangling the mind from its usual attitude of immersion in the minutiae of day-to-day struggle and gratification, so we can see our lives, if only briefly, from a loftier perspective.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that it is ironic, that while death destroys us, the knowledge of death saves us. Tsong Khapa wrote in a similar vein that the source of all suffering is the belief “I will not die today.”

In Europe of the High Middle Ages, the recollection of death was called forth with great power by the Totentanz, or Dance of Death. Often depicted in sweeping murals, the Dance illustrates the grisly specter of death in a pas de deux with people of all walks of life, from the highest emperor to the lowliest peasant. The message is as simple and direct as it is profound – the time of death comes to all, rich or poor, great or small.

toten

Many individual scenes are deeply affecting, such as this frame from a Totentanz I saw in the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Switzerland. It’s a moving touch, seeing how the child holds to the hem of his mother’s gown, not wanting to go.

Hans Holbein created one of the great exemplars of the Dance of Death in a series of woodblock prints, which you can browse here. Many of them have great expressive and dramatic impact – some of my favorites are the nobleman, the rich man, and the abbess.

Holbein’s collection has recently been published in a very fine Penguin Classics edition with a commentary by Ulinka Rublack, which I highly recommend.

One of my favorite contemporary composers, Thomas Adès, recently wrote an  oratorio called Totentanz based on this motif. For the libretto, he takes a modern German translation of a fifteenth-century poem that accompanied the great Totentanz engraved in the Lübeck cathedral. If you’re curious you can find the original early German poem here, and you’ll find the modern libretto in the program notes of the performance I saw a few weeks ago here.

It opens roughly thus:

The Preacher: Oh upright creature, whether poor or rich,
See now the play, young and old alike,
And think you all upon it;
that none can live forever.

Death: To this dance I summon all,
Pope, emperor, monk, and peasant!
If I come, great or small,
No grief will avail you.
Always remember to do good works
To absolve your sins.
You must leap to my piping tune!

Adès’s oratorio is an extraordinary achievement, and a compelling modern take on the age-old motif. It is a work of uncommon artistic power and profundity, and it’s well worth exploring, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear it performed live.

This motif always reminds me of the early English folksong Lyke-Wake Dirge:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.
And Christe receive thy saule….

Check out this deeply uncanny rendition:

Written by Mesocosm

May 8, 2018 at 1:40 am

Posted in Music, Reviews

A brief response to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

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I have a confession to make – I have never until quite recently read Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It’s an embarrassing admission for me – akin to a film buff admitting that they’ve never seen The Godfather, or worse. If you haven’t read it yourself and would like to, you can find it here in English and here in German.

Now that I’ve read it and spent some time analyzing it I can understand why it attracts so much discussion. It seems to me that much of the productive appeal of The Work of Art lies largely in its beguiling invitation to the reader to try to understand and resolve the hermeneutic fissures that cleave it. In my reading, Benjamin was averse to comprehensive systematization, and preferred to apply and juxtapose new analytical frameworks on problems of perennial interest, and in this work we encounter fault lines where he has applied dissimilar systems to his persisting interest in a certain kind of experience – to wit, a disclosure of what he characterized in his early writings on Romantic aesthetics as the immanent absolute. One of the primary tensions that drives The Work of Art is the contradiction between this mystical-existential modality and his burgeoning interest in Marxist ideology criticism.

In my reading, this work has two primary interpretive challenges. The first is understanding what he means by this statement in the introduction:

[T]heses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.

On the surface, Benjamin appears to associate the concepts of genius and creativity with fascism and warns against their “uncontrolled application,” suggesting that a social criticism of aesthetics prevents his analysis from being misappropriated by fascists. The meaning of this statement, to which he returns to in the epilog, remains largely unexplained, and is to me somewhat inexplicable.

The second interpretive dilemma pertains to what exactly he means by “aura,” which the work of art has hitherto possessed, but which now “decays” in the age of mechanical reproduction. For reasons of his own, he refrains from analyzing or explaining this core concept, and much ink has been spilled in trying to elucidate its meaning.

So what does he tell us about it, exactly? I read in secondary literature that Benjamin’s earliest extant discussion of the concept of aura is preserved in a notebook describing the influence of hashish. This makes a certain amount of sense.

In an earlier work on photography, he defines the aura as “A strange weave of space and time; the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” In The Work of Art he distinguishes between the natural aura, repeating this definition, and the artificial aura, which primarily refers to the “uniqueness” of the work of art – the fact of its having only one historical actuality. In this sense, the loss of “aura” means nothing more than the fact that our traditional aesthetic categories, which have depended on the uniqueness of works of art, have been displaced by new considerations, and will have to be reevaluated.

I have argued at ponderous length with other readers of this text on this point, but it’s clear to me from how he uses the term “aura” that he means much more by it than historical singularity, and conceives the loss of aura as a phenomenon tied to a decline of certain kinds of existential experiences of profound value that he is deeply concerned with. The narrative he describes of the various ways that works of art have claimed autonomy and authority for themselves is one of movement from the cultic ritual value of art to the veneration of “art pour l’art” aesthetics to the logic of mass manipulation that he sees exemplified by film, which “shocks” and motivates the masses, and replaces the act of art criticism which he has elsewhere described as a kind of mystical or sacred office of truth-disclosure into a kind of mass-market “anyone with a blog can say anything these days” situation.

It’s my view that it is precisely by refraining from critically analyzing the aura, he posits it as an irreducible category of direct experience and a locus of value, thus insisting upon its givenness and non-rational character.

In another writing, Benjamin claims that regarding the loss of aura as “merely a symptom of decay” would be “fatuous,” which would seem to suggest he doesn’t see it as a kind of nostalgia for a more innocent time. But he left me with little doubt in his application of the term in this essay that this is how he uses it, whether or not it’s what it necessarily means.

I found his discussion of reproduction a little thin – for example, in his analysis of the cult he neglected what I would consider an important precursor to mechanical reproduction, and in so doing, misread the character of cult art substantially. Specifically, I would argue that the production of iconic art is a form of reproduction.

In this sense, iconic art refers to works of art that are valued not in terms of their unique content, but insofar as they duplicate established types. Anyone who has walked through a gallery of Italian Renaissance art and seen canvas after canvas depicting with formulaic fidelity the Annunciation or the Virgin Enthroned with Child will recognize that was is principally salient about many of these paintings is their expression of a sacred formula. This is a characteristic of most cult art, from the thangkas of Tibet, with their rigorously-determined proportions and attributes, to the cases of Cycladic Bronze Age goddess sculptures you can view in the Louvre, displaying dozens of nearly-identical design created over the span of centuries. I think it opens up the concept of reproduction to recognize that it occurs on many different planes.

 

May 2018 note: I substantially re-wrote this post after additional close readings of the essay and several useful discussions about it with a study group. 

Written by Mesocosm

April 14, 2018 at 3:32 am

Posted in Art, Philosophy, Reviews

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason

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The question that practical reason asks us is, what ought I to do? In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant offers his analysis of how pure reason, which relies on no empirical input whatsoever, can help us answer that question.

As a follow up to Critique of Pure Reason, this book is a grave disappointment. Altogether abandoning the exacting critical standards he established in his earlier, better work, Kant argues on behalf of an ethical theory that I find intellectually flawed and personally repugnant. It is a morality of pious bureaucrats who distrust anything emotional (for Kant, feelings are “pathological”), contingent (i.e., “real” or “actual”), or human.

In brief, Kant argues that the proper standard for evaluating the moral merit of an action is twofold. First, the act must conform to a maxim of pure reason that is universally binding on all rational agents in all times and in all places (a “categorical imperative”). Such an imperative follows from pure reason, which can only deal with the form of argument, and not with particulars, which are by definition derived from empirical experience. Second, the act must be undertaken only and exactly because it is judged by a rational agent to follow from pure reason, not from any kind of desire or expectation about the outcome.

Kant’s argument suffers from several extremely serious problems.

First, Kant never establishes why maxims derived from pure reason are eo ipso laudable. It is not at all obvious to me that any action that is good for all people to do always is necessarily better than any action that is good for some people to do sometimes.

In his eagerness to eschew all sentiment and human response to ethical evaluation, he in fact does quite the opposite, and reveals again and again his own profound personal obedience to the idea of reason. That it should not also be equally valued by all never occurs to him.

Second, his theory demands that moral agents freely choose to comply with the directives of pure practical reason, but his theory establishing freewill is extremely weak. Readers of the Critique of Pure Reason may in fact remember that the question of determinism is one of his antimonies of pure reason, and is used in that book as an example of a pseudo-problem that philosophy can never either prove or disprove.

Third, his attempt to dodge that problem by arguing that freedom of the subject is a postulate of pure reason is completely unconvincing, and is a transparent attempt to circumvent the limits he himself persuasively established. He offers a whole series of additional postulates, offered as hypotheses that reason cannot do without, and all of them just happen to conform to the Pietist dogma he subscribes to.

In other words, these are postulates that he cannot do without, for reasons that have nothing to do with logic.

Fourth, he brazenly ignores his own dialectical analysis of virtue and happiness by positing them in this very work as an antimony, and then siding with the theory of virtue nonetheless. “Practical” in actual usage, here and throughout the work, consists primarily in ignoring the limits established by critical reason when they conflict with his deeply-held convictions.

Fifth, his conception of a categorical imperative is underdeveloped. In Critique of Pure Reason he famously derides philosophers who condescend to give examples, but I sure could have used a few here. I genuinely have no idea what he thinks a good example of a categorical imperative would be. “One ought to do the right thing”? “Always tell the truth”? “Never take what is not freely given”? “Be kind to your parents”? No idea.

Sixth, his theory substantially relies on the claim that the theory he describes conforms to what is usually meant by “morality.” That is far from true. Although impartiality and generality are common parts of what people generally mean by the term, they are at best necessary but not sufficient.

In addition to being philosophically problematic, I recoil from the ugly spirit of Kant’s vision, which reminds me of the very worst excesses of Calvin and Luther – the hushed awe before the altar of solemnity, grandeur, majesty, duty, obligation, and obedience, and moral terror at the idea that people somewhere may actually be enjoying themselves.

Kant is not the first great thinker to apply himself to the problem of practical reason. Thomas Aquinas, for example, also distinguished between speculative and practical reason, and elaborated his own theory of how people should act. For Aquinas, this answer is rooted in his concept of synderesis, an inner faculty of what we might today call “moral intuition,” which directly perceives the rightness or wrongness of a thing.

For all of Kant’s fetishization of reason, I actually find Aquinas’ approach more rational, and more honest, for he freely admits that his determinations are based in part on intuition, sentiment, and his belief in the truth of revelation. Kant relies just as much as Aquinas on these factors, but wrote this book to persuade us otherwise.

Update: From Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (“Skirmishes,” 42): “The philosophers are merely another kind of saint, and their whole craft is such that they admit only certain truths – namely those for the sake of which their craft is according public sanction – in Kantian terms, truths of practical reason. They know what they must prove; in this they are practical. They recognize each other by their agreement about ‘the truths.’ ‘Thou shalt not lie’: in other words, beware, my dear philosopher, of telling the truth.”

Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2018 at 11:46 pm

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews