Monday, January 30, 2012

Political Correctness is not Ethics

Mark Mirsky (who is having trouble posting comments) wrote to me in an email responding to my last post: "This question merits further discussion. It immediately summons the question, what would Musil have thought of "political correctness" the latest form of collective dictatorship and mass thinking, and what would he have thought of gender studies that are based on political correctness and so often humorless and jargon ridden. Musil is particularly relevant because in his uncanny way, he was able to assume the identity of his female characters, and in a sense, his wife, without losing his own, as a form of male adventure."

Indeed, Musil's defense of the intellectual was a defense against political correctness and any form of rules for "right thinking". It is, however, ironic, that Mark uses the phrase "male adventure," since this morning I was discussing with a friend the Jeanette Winterson review of a new biography of Henry Miller (NYT  Sunday book review <>) and her ideas about the damaging effects of his model of male "sexual adventurer" as romantic model for decades of young and not so young men. Miller's content does not make his sentences any less brilliant, but it is not irrelevant to whether or not his novels are going to be to my taste as a woman. Maybe he didn't care, and, indeed, his foremost goal was in pleasing himself (as much as possible with as many nameless even faceless women as possible). So be it. It strikes me that Modernism involved a sort of ethical imperative which was different than our currently ossifying and silencing political correction policing. The Modern novel wanted the reader to examine himself and herself, unmoor assumptions, engage in the uncertainty of existential despair even. It did not, I might even argue, intend to encourage a generation of unaware and self-romanticizing n'ere do wells who utilize what Sartre would call "bad faith" to justify their self-interest and immediate gratification (not naming any names here, but...).

While Musil was not a proponent of political correctness and certainly enjoyed erotic fantasies of all kinds, many surely verging on what some would find offensive or repressive, he was a fierce proponent of ethics and of the inherent connection between ethics and aesthetics, which is certainly different than censorship by self or society. Ethics for Musil was based on an openness of mind, an absence of a formal external  morality or world court of justice; but that certainly does not mean that he thought that anything goes. I have been wondering myself these days about the inherent opposition between ethics and eros. The only answer I have so far is the bridge of the aesthetic.

In further exegesis of my last post, I was also wondering about the irony of using women as proponents of individualism vs. collectivism, since individualism is so often seen as a male-dominant privilege or, at worst, as a problem because of  the " anxiety of influence." Women, on the other hand, are supposed to like to work together (or perhaps only have to like working together because there is power in numbers or because we haven't got a room of our own or because the babies are crying). Yet, we can see that any external attempt to squash expression (be it of an individual or a group) is an affront to the fundamental value of creativity and personal voice and vision. It might even be besides the point whether or not the vision is collective or individual,  except that it seems that the individual is more often silenced for the supposed good of the whole (state, group, cause, utilitarian purpose, efficiency), and the lowest common denominator is all we have time or space for, to the disservice of all, as Musil would say. 

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