Saturday, May 14, 2005

Archimboldian Philosophy

If only because it saves effort, we routinely overestimate the consistency of our world. In the formula of Mary Douglas, dirt is matter out of place, but if we don’t care to notice the disarray, the dirt doesn’t really matter. That there are chambermaids with the souls of duchesses and duchesses with the souls of chambermaids may occasion an observation or two in Proust, but it hardly threatens the class system. That our stream of consciousness is “a shitty run of category mistakes and non sequiturs” is equally inconsequential. Which is a good thing, because our Zeitgeist, like the clothes of the lady in the limerick, is surely in patches with everybody out of kilter in time, genre, register, and discipline. While there are certainly plenty of 21st Century polemicists with the outlook (and talents) of off-brand 18th Century philosophes, the serious discussion of real issues is sometimes reminiscent of that ancient precursor of the Internet, the Talmud, except that the sages aren’t talking with one another in the same language. Reading Brian Joseph and Richard Janda’s long and extremely eccentric introductory chapter to the Handbook of Historical Linguistics the other day, I couldn’t decide if I was more reminded of the Baroque splendor of the Nuova Scienza of Giambattista Vico or the oppressively relentless whimsy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The motley is not merely stylistic. Trying to come to terms with language change, Joseph and Janda manage to meander through the particulars of a half a dozen intricate debates in other fields including thermodynamics, history, paleontology, developmental biology, theology, and philosophy as if wrestling with the Great Vowel Shift or the etymology of “Bunk” requires a comprehensive theory of Time itself in the historical linguist. The first sentence of an Old Chronicle of the City of Barcelona reads “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Similar quirk. The odd thing about this performance, however, is its reasonableness under the circumstances. These guys are presumptuous, but they have as good a right to be presumptuous as anybody else. Hubris is sometimes a duty.

Joseph and Janda face the problem, ubiquitous in our age, of dealing with the general in the absence of the universal. Instead of relating linguistic change and (for example) evolutionary change by abstracting out a purified philosophical sense of change, the authors use professional-level concepts of each alternatively to traverse the broken ground of various theoretical and practical issues. Sometimes punctuated equilibrium is good to think with, sometimes the ergodic hypothesis, sometimes the properly linguistic notion of grammaticalization. The absence of a master level of discourse rules out the drafting of a map, but not the writing out of an itinerary, always provided we can put up with the inelegance of literary forms required to match such a jumpy methodology. It’s not that anybody who wants to deal seriously with great issues has much choice, after all. Veritable knowledge cannot be any more compact and homogeneous than the reality it addresses. Coming up against the real strangeness and multiplicity of the world, it has at last become necessary for thought to conform to its object at the cost of forgoing the dream of an integral knowing subjects or even of integral totalizing disciplines. In the Bible, God inflicted the confusion of tongues on the people for trying to build a tower to heaven. In this version, we’re actively promoting that same confusion precisely in order to build the tower.

By the way, the advent of what I’m call Archimboldian thought, hardly spells the end of traditional philosophy. Much of what professional philosophers do is appropriately specialized and technical and can be cannibalized to good purpose by the scavenging bricoleur. Meanwhile more traditional “Great Ideas” philosophy also endures and prospers as a specialized form of public relations that satisfies the public’s metaphysical needs. The whole is just another one of the parts, but that’s hardly fatal to the commercial prospects of the next dozen versions of retail holism.

—the Librarian

Friday, May 13, 2005

Stories Just So or So So

The air went out of the tire back in the early 70s when a generation of young people suddenly realized that their educations weren’t going to automatically result in a higher status or even necessarily pay the bills. The economy, rapidly cooling down from a once in a millennium growth spurt, simply didn’t have room for so many college-educated people. Besides, there was always something contradictory about the American project of democratizing privilege. The disappointment of so many individuals played itself out in a great many forms of self-destructive behavior over and beyond the obvious trio of drugs, disco, and deconstruction. Much of the continuing political prosperity of the Right derives from a search for psychic compensation for shipwrecked hopes.

Whether you call it a talking point, a meme, or just a commonplace, modern conservatives frequently claim that their liberal opponents are mediocre characters who like the idea of social safety nets because they aren’t up to the bracing struggle of life. Implicit in this bit are the assumptions that the only things worth fighting for are money and perhaps power and, on a deeper level, that fighting is the inevitable form of meaningful activity. Apparently, they find it astonishing that anybody might aspire to something different and perhaps better than wealth or that many people don’t want to obsess about stocks and bonds because they have better things to do. In fact, what we have here is a simply projection. Having renounced ambitions they themselves think are more worthwhile, they detect a failure of ambition in those who have made other choices.

I doubt if even the most of the promoters of the religion of the market really think that there is something particularly wonderful about getting rich. Their avidity is often just the public face of a fear of loosing out and becoming déclassé, a motive that has turned more than one child of well-educated hippies into a CFO. Perhaps that’s why our new billionaires are such notable flops as patrons of the high culture. Unlike other ruling classes, they haven’t figured out how to make an art out of being rich or even enjoy themselves very much. Lefties attack them for their greed, but perhaps even that isn’t quite authentic.

At some point in the future, if there is very much of a future, the mentality of our times is going to be a puzzle. One can understand how the figure of the saint, the sage, the artist, the statesmen, the builder, the warrior, the inventor or the industrialist can capture the imagination of an age. What can you say about a civilization whose hero is the crony capitalist?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

That’s More than We Know

This has got to be a rotten time to be an honorable soldier, spy, or bureaucrat. With the fix permanently in place, the guilty have every prospect of getting away with civil and military crimes so long as they are of sufficiently high rank. The innocent, however, can no longer be exonerated because the courts and commissions that might serve that purpose have no credibility. Once the government has solemnly announced that obvious malefactors such as Sanchez, Gonzalez, and Rumsfeld have no culpability for the mistreatment of prisoners, the presumption becomes that everyone is complicit, though the fairer conclusion is simply that we can no longer draw any conclusions about the behavior of individuals.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Risk and Integrity

Moral theories make history more or less unintelligible if they explain the fate of nations as the consequence of whether individuals act well or badly as if their choices were ultimate causes in themselves and not susceptible of further explanation. Though we’re the only actors in this play and what occurs is our doing, the consequences of our actions and therefore the meaning of what we do are at the mercy of a social context that escapes our control. It’s not that we aren’t free. We can do whatever we like inside the narrow set of options created by our cultural and social setting. Escaping that agenda is a vastly more difficult performance.

I love to rail against the mass-market journalists, but my petit bourgeois indignation is largely beside the point because their lack of integrity and competence is a consequence rather than a cause of the viciousness of the institutions they staff. It is perfectly possible for individuals to opt out of the propaganda machine. Indeed, many people do opt out; but whether or not absenting yourself from the scene of the crime is good for the soul, it is utterly inconsequential because thousands of replacements wait to carry on the thankless but hardly unrewarding task of corrupting public discourse. Dissident journalists are in the same boat as corporate whistleblowers. They can chose to tell the truth, but their actions are more likely to result in professional self-destruction than to effect change. The moral act thus becomes a gesture, theater without an audience. Indeed, the ruling professional mentality positively discourages such actions as juvenile acting out. If moral behavior has bad consequences for the moral agent, it cannot be moral. The categorical imperative is not a suicide pact.

America’s general lack of integrity is a consequence of other changes in our social and political system and does not imply that people have suffered an inexplicable loss of virtue. As Pravda used to put things, none of this is an accident. In 1950, many Americans had stable jobs in a growing economy. The government and the unions protected the rights of working people, and the college-educated could always teach. Since then, while most of us have not become impoverished, almost everybody’s livelihood and health are at much greater perceived risk and a bachelor’s degree guarantees nothing. At the same time, the level of income required to maintain a middle-class status has steadily increased and wealth and celebrity have replaced a plethora of other values as the bases for self-definition. To be sure, there are still scholars, poets, and even saints (of a sort); but the notion of respectable poverty is a museum piece. Certain criminals aside, one simply cannot be famous and poor—even Maya Angelou is a millionaire. Under these circumstances, people do what they have to do to win because coming in second has become disastrous while to live in a merely decent fashion is barely decent. The increase in social risk guarantees that the nation will be full of trimmers and ass kissers.