Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ethics and Political Engagement; Thoreau, Musil, and the Great Unwashed

Henry David Thoreau
This morning I am thinking about ethics, and how ethics is different from an immediately self-interested castigation of injustice. "Not in My Back Yard" is an ethos often criticized by those who want to belittle the concerns of protesters; and in a way this criticism is justified--but mostly insofar as it might be used against those whose backyard is, for the moment, spared, and who, thus, do not have the imagination to see that someday it will not be, that someday their lawns, their jobs, their rights, the air they breathe, will be taken from them too. My yard is your yard, or your yard is my yard may be another way of spelling the categorical imperative.

Ethics, then, implies a way of thinking not inspired by NIMBY, and thus those operating from immediate outrage about their own discomfort may be inspired to protest for reasons that are not motivated by strictly ethical considerations. Ethics implies a consciousness of justice beyond self interest, and motivated by a sense of what is right, a sense of what one cannot, as a human being, countenance in one's own name as citizen, person, neighbor.

Having spent the last few days involved in an uncharacteristic flurry of political engagement in little Burlington, Vermont, I am struck by a number of unfortunate realities and questions about what factors do and do not induce people to become politically engaged in our society.  I read "Civil Disobedience" on the steps of City Hall yesterday with a number of brave and beautiful people in honor of and defense of a number of our fellow citizens who were shot at with rubber pellet-bullets on July 29th by Burlington police. These concerned citizens were engaging in a peaceful blockade during the Governor's Conference. They were protesting devastating plans to destroy land  and  eco-systems reaching from Canadian Inuit populations into Vermont, plans in the interest of profit for the few.

 Few of the people who read "Civil Disobedience" yesterday were at the original protest and some of us who joined the protesters later for a march to the police station and back to City Hall were disturbed and put off by the tone and the inarticulate message of the protesters whose fundamental right to protest we had been defending. "The Burlington Police Department is Fucked Up" was not exactly a sign we felt proud to stand behind, nor were we practitioners of the nuances and power of language comfortable chanting slogans whose ill-considered meanings we could not get behind. So we left them to their own devices,  and went off to drink a glass of wine before the City Council meeting that same night, where we hoped to hear more articulate voices of dissent and concern. Indeed, there were more articulate voices, a great many, which was encouraging, but also a good deal more ranting and incoherence; and I am left wondering about why people who might have something meaningful and considered to say so often stay home from such things, while the extremely disenfranchised and wretched of the earth come out in larger more visible numbers.

This morning I am thinking about ethics, and about the role and responsibility of the intellectual, or "Geist" in Musil's sense, in society. Is it possible, as Musil asked during the Paris Conference of  Writers in Defense of Culture, to engage in complex discourse about such questions, or must we devolve to chanting simplistic slogans and a polarized celebration of one brand of right-thinking over another? Must we choose between non-participation and participation in things we can't whole-heartedly stand behind? And finally, why is it that the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth are the first ones to speak out against injustice while the relatively comfortable (like myself) so often sit by and criticize their tactics? Is it really because we are as-yet inured to the pains that they already feel everyday, and because our ethical imagination is so weak that we do not yet see or believe in the imminent dangers of which they warn us? Or is it because we don't want to associate with the great unwashed, the half-mad, the angry and resentful mob? They certainly have good reason to be angry, to feel disenfranchised, to feel that they have no voice, to feel betrayed and unheard. We only wish they had something better to say once they are given a platform upon which to say it. But perhaps it is our fault for not lending our voices to the discussion more often.

Thoreau and Musil present powerful models of independent ethical voices, who neither compromised nor watered down their complicated intellectual analyses and who were able to remain true to themselves while still making significant statements about what they deemed unjust and insupportable. Clearly, Musil suffered for his adamant resistance to the lure of the Soviet Republic (he was booed off the stage at the Paris conference and called a Fascist sympathizer because he predicted that the Soviet brand of thought-control was not so very different from that of  his German and Austrian oppressors), although he tried, in his way, to bear witness and to speak against the horrors of Nazism; and Thoreau was never a member of any club (though he was surrounded in his own home by active abolitionists and himself helped in the escape plans of several fugitive slaves). Thoreau maintained the individual's imperative to be true to himself, as an acorn grows into an oak, while seeing to it that he does not sit on the shoulders of others or steal a plank from a drowning man. They both had the imagination to consider the suffering of others and to understand that in all the great world, we share one back yard.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Great Cathedral of Cologne, Moby Dick, and Montrous Novels

I just read in Moby Dick this sentiment, kindred to Musil's own infinite mood:

"I now leave my cetological system standing unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"

More on Monsieur Teste

My friend Kenneth Harrison sent me a lovely explication of M. Teste which reminded me of why I am of two minds (and bodies!) about the question of disembodied heads. For there is something attractive indeed in the conception of a mind floating and free from the stings and arrows that flesh is heir to, that may transcend the limitations of physical walls, that may, with the help of imagination, travel to distant lands and happier days, and, of course, this is part of what literature and art provide for us---a separate realm untouched by the indignities and prosaic dullness of the everyday. A world of dreaming.

"The great French poet and thinker Paul Valéry invented the character Monsieur Teste. ‘A mystic without God’, Teste was committed to uninterrupted, undistracted thought. His whole life’s work was “to kill the puppet,” the automaton, inside himself. In the famous An Evening With M. Teste (1896), Valéry leaves his hero drifting off to sleep, observing the stages of his own gradual extinction, and murmuring “Let’s think very closely… You can fall asleep on any subject… Sleep can continue any idea…” as his self-awareness fades into suspension points. Valéry himself kept a diary for over fifty years (collected as the Cahiers [Notebooks]). One of his central concerns was to observe the successive phases of his awakening, as in the early hours of the morning he annotated his mind-rise. Naturally, dreams preoccupied him as much as the daily resurrection of the self. He suggested that dreams might be an attempt to make sense of the body’s passage from sleep to wakefulness. Like me, he was unimpressed by Freud’s evidence-impoverished claims about dreams being the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ – that multi-storied jerry-built word-castle which so many otherwise intelligent people have taken for a scientific idea. Nor did Valéry buy the notion that dreams could be prophetic, the mind slipping along loops in time to enable us to see the future of the world or the will of God."

from: http://philosophynow.org/

The idea of a "mind-rise," observed as a passage from dream to wakefulness, is suggestive, and I am also reminded of William Beckford's imperious resentment of the encroachments by vulgar reality upon his rapturous dreaming and imagining. And yet, and yet, the physical world, even in its most humble exempla, may be a conduit to the most heavenly blisses.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Embodied Mind, Aesthetics, Transcendence

I am reading a fascinating book by Mark Johnson called The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics and Human Understanding that argues against mind-body dualism and affirms the essential connection of aesthetics as a general activity of human awareness and intentionality that is not limited to Art, though Art, according to Johnson, is a vital  model of the sort of acute attention toward meaning-making we might follow to make our lives more meaningful. The connections to Musil's explorations of feeling and reason, and his struggles to map out the keys to how to live through aesthetic experience,  his search for a "day-bright mysticism" which did not devolve into wishy-washy anti-intellectualism, and his quest for a meaningful grounding for ethical behavior should be obvious.
In contrast to Monsieur Teste's disembodied mind (discussed below) and the whole tradition of separation of thought and experience, reason and emotion, Johnson spells out what it would mean to embrace what he calls an embodied mind theory, whereby "the apparatus of meaning, conceptualization, and reasoning" are "intrinsically shaped by the body" and its sensory relationship to the environment, to others, and to nature.  Johnson exposes the treacherous consequences of centuries of maligning the body and the feelings with which its "impure" reason is associated. There is, according to Johnson, no such thing as "pure reason, " and the desire to "free oneself from the body" is called a "dangerous idea". The consequences of adopting an embodied mind view include the acceptance that there is no such thing as a disembodied soul, "no transcendent soul or ego," that meaning is grounded in physical, bodily, environmental experience, which is always shifting, that reason is a series of embodied "processes by which our experience is explored, criticized, and transformed in inquiry...[Reason] is tied to structures of our perceptual and motor capacities and ... it is inextricably linked to feeling," that "imagination is tied to our bodily processes and can also be creative and transformative of experience". "Our ability to make new meaning, to enlarge our concepts, and to arrive at new ways of making sense of things must be explained without reference to miracles, irrational leaps of thought, or blind impulse. We have to explain how our experience can grow and how the new can emerge from the old without merely replicating what has gone before". "New meaning," he concludes suggestively, "arises from and remains connected to preexisting patterns, qualities, and feelings".  Another particularly thorny consequence of embracing  the embodied mind theory would be to acknowledge that there is no such thing as "radical freedom,"i.e., "no transcendental self, no disembodied ego, to serve as the agent of free choice...". This embrace, Johnson notes, calls us to discover a "view of choice that is consistent with cognitive neuroscience and its insistence on the embodied mind and yet which doesn't make a shambles of our notions of moral responsibility".  This begins to be partly answered by Johnson's seventh consequence, a consequence which challenges many of our most cherished views of imagination, creativity, and transcendental freedom,even though we no longer rely on otherworldly visions of the divine, heavens, or disembodied souls: "Human spirituality is embodied" and not "vertically" transcendent. The dream of vertical transcendence, of escape above and outside of the body,  attempted to "solve the basic human problems that stem from the fact of human finiteness" out of a feeling that "the body must somehow be transcended if there are to be any satisfactory answers to the human condition of limitation, helplessness, and finiteness". The embodied mind theory, in contrast, suggests a glorious embodiment, a spirituality "grounded in our relation to the human and more-than-human world that we inhabit" ...a horizontal transcendence, "namely our ability both to transform experience and to be transformed ourselves by something that transcends us: the whole ongoing, ever-developing natural process of which we are a part".  Amen to that.