Notes

By Peter Wall

A Disparity of Ideational Fantasies

Much as I like the idea of science fiction, I can’t help sharing with the late snob of letters Kingsley Amis a qualified sneer at the mechanics of its execution:

With [Jules] Verne we reach the first great progenitor of modern science fiction. In its literary aspect his work is, of course, of poor quality, a feature certainly reproduced with great fidelity by most of his successors.

. . .

The literary critic with traditional aesthetic concerns, Amis declares, will find less to engage him than will “the cultural diagnostician, or trend-hound.” Amis was born sneering and couldn’t resist the chance to mint such a taunt; but he quickly takes pains to point out that an approach to science fiction by way of the history of ideas is “worthy enough, or even praiseworthy.”

From Algis Valiunas, “Fantastic Voyage: The literary (?) career of Jules Verne” in The Weekly Standard, July 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42.

How else to explain why it took me three years to choke down the relatively straightforward Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, but only a month or two to race through the complex Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell?

Let’s compare first paragraphs. You can guess which is which.

“Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of that happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses—except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had.”

Thursday, 7th November—Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon  a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ’tis not down on any map I ever saw.”

Kim Stanley Robinson is the one that writes like a government committee. Which is not to say government committees can’t do good work, or express important and complex ideas. They just don’t produce the kind of thing that goes well with a glass of Laphroaig.

And in case you’re wondering, the two books are not especially distant, thematically. They’re both meditations on freedom, persistence, and politics across generations and foreign landscapes.

Mars

Symphonic Thrill

Begin with this 1991 recording of Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal” by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of David Zinman. Nobody gallops better.

And then experience the 1982 recording of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto by Marta Argerich with the Radio Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Riccardo Chailly.

There’s nothing anywhere that deserves cranking up the volume as much as those last two minutes do. It’s like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

Sierra Meadow, May 24, 2014

Alpine Meadow

Glimpses of the Undercurrent

“Never mind whether ‘truth will out’; just concern yourself with whether you’re locked in oppositional embrace. [That's] the ultimate in discursive nihilism and political cynicism: the contents of your ideas mean nothing; what matters is whether you are deploying them to execute political power, or to balance perceived inequalities in political power. But that’s not free speech; it’s just free utterance—words reduced to vocal and orthographical bullets.” [1]

“Why should a citizen bother to consider whether we are making just laws for ourselves, or raise a voice one way or the other, if that citizen can just obtain an exemption from participation? Quieting people with exemptions from laws only kills the conversation and divides the populace into subcultures. In the long view, that segmentation can’t be good. When laws don’t apply equally to everyone, then there is no ‘everyone.’” [2]

People are free to disagree on values, and to formulate moral arguments between their differences. And we ought to examine and critique each other’s arguments. But calling an argument ‘religious,’ at least in our society, is usually just a rhetorical device to mask what is really going on. It conceals the underlying values with presumed certainty, usually in the form of received dogma. If we disagree about whether to value reproduction over the autonomy of the persons in whom it occurs, then what’s called for is a frank examination of those values.” [3]

“If we are to give any content to the notion of good faith, we need to refocus on the ‘I’—the ‘I’ that is willing to stand in judgement on itself, on you and on the world in which we both live. For in this judging, we create and strengthen the relationship between us. If I act in bad faith and refuse to judge then I remain indifferent to you. You do not matter. Nor I to you. But in judging, I assert my difference from you but recognise you in the process. There is a shared nature of moral judgement that relies on a common-sense—a common sense rooted in our shared awareness of our freedom and our duty.” [4]

[1] “Repression, Conformity, and Free Speech.”

[2] “A Few Thoughts on Law, Freedom, and Commitment.”

[3] “Life and Personhood.”

[4] Angus Kennedy, “The Vital Importance of Being Moral.

What counts as knowledge?

Pablo Picasso painted Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in 1910:

Picasso, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910)

Karl Heinz Hargesheimer (Chargesheimer) photographed him in 1956:

Chargesheimer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler (1956)

Is either image more real?

Life and Personhood

Jeffrey Weiss is right that personhood is not a scientific idea. But he doesn’t make much sense when he says that “almost everyone who takes a position [on personhood] does so on the basis of religious belief.” That’s partly because “religious belief” just isn’t a useful category for human behavior—as Brent Nongbri has observed, determining whether something is a “religious belief” is usually just an exercise in determining whether something is “sufficiently similar to modern Protestant Christianity.” [1] It’s also because people use “religious belief,” coherent or not, to conceal the contingencies of their positions.

For personhood, consider instead that people’s positions are moral arguments, which we generate based on our values. And comparing different moral arguments might reveal something about the differences between the underlying values. Why, for example, do some people argue that personhood begins at “conception” (when a sperm joins an egg to form a zygote), while others argue that personhood begins sometime later, based on the decision of the people in a position to support the organism (first the mother exclusively, and then others)? No matter how people dress up their positions in rhetorical finery, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable interpretation of the dispute to see it as a conflict between valuing the process of reproduction and valuing the autonomy of the persons in whom it occurs. That is, it has nothing to do with “life,” which is always there anyway, or the dispute wouldn’t exist.

To be continued...

In other words, life continues at conception; personhood begins when people decide it begins, for whatever reason. And personhood doesn’t have to begin instantaneously; it might begin gradually. (It can end at once or incrementally, too. Consider, for example, the difference between immediate death and the loss of “capacity” to make decisions in the advance of dementia.) We have these values, and we make decisions about the ways to promote them, and then we try to persuade others to agree. The purpose of the exercise is to decide how our society ought to work (or, as the wonks would say, to “formulate policy”).

People are free to disagree on values, and to formulate moral arguments between their differences. And we ought to examine and critique each other’s arguments. But calling an argument “religious,” at least in our society, is usually just a rhetorical device to mask what is really going on. It conceals the underlying values with presumed certainty, usually in the form of received dogma. If we disagree about whether to value reproduction over the autonomy of the persons in whom it occurs, then what’s called for is a frank examination of those values.

[1] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press 2013) p. 18.

Thomas Paine and Aquaman

The best sentence I’ve read all week:

“In the comic-book version of history that serves as our national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna-Barbera SuperFriends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington’s Superman and Jefferson’s Batman; we never find out how he got his superpowers, and he shows up only when they need someone who can swim.”

From Jill Lepore, “A World of Paine,” in Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation.

Thomas Paine

Aquaman

A Few Thoughts on Law, Freedom, and Commitment

In the United States, we afford each other certain rights. One of those is the freedom to speak out on matters of public concern. If you you find a law repugnant, but wish to retain your credibility as a citizen, your options are to comply under protest, or to take your chances against enforcement with civil disobedience. In any case, a law that offends you deserves the best denunciation you can muster. And it deserves your work to persuade others, to help them understand your perspective. That’s hard work, and most of us will fail at it most of the time. But we prize the freedom of speech in this country because we agree, or used to agree, that the only way to determine which laws are just is to ensure that everyone and anyone may speak on them, to them, for them, and against them—against them even in compliance.

Here is the flip side of that principle: we understand, or we used to, that compliance is not endorsement. Sooner or later, everyone is stuck between preference or conscience on one side and a distasteful or offensive law on the other. But we understand, or we used to, that following a law that you hate is not a forfeiture of your hatred, or of your disagreement, or even of your personal integrity; it is not a statement of agreement, but an opportunity for condemnation, argument, and maybe even persuasion. And it is a demonstration of your commitment, not to the substance of the law, but to everyone else in this project of our society. If you think we’re failing each other by making bad laws, then the thing to do is to speak out and say why, to persuade the others into different laws, if you can. To improve the laws by respecting them enough to criticize them.

But demanding exemptions from enforcement serves no one. It only demonstrates your lack of commitment to our shared project, and to each other. And obtaining exemptions only removes your incentive to speak out and persuade. Who needs to think freely, or contribute to the project by argumentation, if the laws apply differently, according to preference? Why bother to join in society at all?

Today our Supreme Court has once again interpreted a weirdly nihilistic act of Congress and diminished the strength of our society, not by enhancing our freedom, but by removing an incentive to exercise it. The expectation of compliance, even in opposition, is what stokes the fires of protest and disputation. Why should a citizen bother to consider whether we are making just laws for ourselves, or raise a voice one way or the other, if that citizen can just obtain an exemption from participation? Quieting people with exemptions from laws only kills the conversation and divides the populace into subcultures. In the long view, that segmentation can’t be good. When laws don’t apply equally to everyone, then there is no “everyone.”

The Supreme Court is not the only problem with the Hobby Lobby case; Congress shares the blame, with its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as RFRA. We all share the blame, for letting laws like this exist. I think that complying with a law like RFRA can only have pernicious effects on the structure of our society, and the rule of law. Maybe in that respect my concerns are like those of the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs. But I’m not asking for an exemption. And if I happened to be a lawyer for the federal government, then I would advise compliance with RFRA despite my detestation of that law—just as I have, on many occasions, advised my clients to comply with laws, even when I believe, sometimes strongly, that those laws are wrong, unjust, or worse. Because like it or not we are all in this together.

Around the Circle of Purpose

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.” [1]

“Let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that a hundred years hence we are all of us, on the average, eight times better off in the economic sense than we are to-day. . . .  I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or a be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. . . . Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well. . . . Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.” [2]

“Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. . . . Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life-cycle. Work provides an ‘artificial’ world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. . . .  Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition—not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam—of all political life.” [3]

“Since World War II . . . millions of rural people [are] moving from country to city in a stream that has not slackened from the war’s end until now. . . . The great question that hovers over this issue, one that we have dealt with mainly by indifference, is the question of what people are for. Is their greatest dignity in unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? One would conclude so from our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary to the long-term preservation of the land, and from our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization. In a country that puts an absolute premium on labor-saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why should there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions.” [4]

[1] Henry David Thoreau in 1854, “Walden,” in Henry David Thoreau: Essays, Journals, and Poems, edited by Dean Flower (Fawcett Crest 1975), p. 170.

[2] John Maynard Keynes in 1930, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”

[4] Hannah Arendt in 1958, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1998), p. 7.

[4] Wendell Berry in 1985, “What Are People For?” in What Are People For? (North Point Press 1997)) pp. 123–125.

Labor, Work, Body, and Mind

Ever since the beginning of the industrial era, we have known both the benefits and the drawbacks of dividing jobs into ever smaller and more tedious ones. Riches must be balanced against boredom and misery. But as long as a boring job retains an element of physicality, one can find a rhythm, entering a ‘flow’ state wherein time passes easily and the hard labour is followed by a sense of accomplishment. In Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur (1962) there is a marvellous description of Neal Cassady working like a demon, changing tyres in a tyre shop and finding himself uplifted rather than diminished by the work. Industrialism tends toward monopathy because of the growth of divided labour, but it is only when the physical element is removed that the real problems begin. When the body remains still and the mind is forced to do something repetitive, the human inside us rebels.” [1]

“Karl Bücher’s well-known compilation of rhythmic labor songs in 1897 (Arbeit und Rhythmus [Labor and Rhythm] [6th ed.; 1924]) has been followed by a voluminous literature of a more scientific nature. One of the best of these studies (Joseph Schopp, Das deutsche Arbeitslied [The German Labor Song] [1935]) stresses that there exist only labor songs, but no work songs. The songs of the craftsmen are social; they are sung after work. The fact is, of course, that there exists no ‘natural’ rhythm for work. The striking resemblance between the ‘natural’ rhythm inherent in every laboring operation and the rhythm of the machines is sometimes noticed, apart from the repeated complaints about the ‘artificial’ rhythm which the machines impose upon the laborer. Such complaints, characteristically, are relatively rare among the laborers themselves, who, on the contrary, seem to find the same amount of pleasure in repetitive machine work as in other repetitive labor [citation]. This confirms observations which were already made in the Ford factories at the beginning of [the 20th] century. Karl Bücher, who believed that ‘rhythmic labor is highly spiritual labor’ (vergeistigt), already stated: “Aufreibend werden nur solche einförmigen Arbeiten, die sich nicht rhythmisch gestalten lassen’ ["Only monotonous labor that cannot be done rhythmically is stressful"] (op. cit., p. 433). For though the speed of machine work undoubtedly is much higher and more repetitive than that of ‘natural’ spontaneous labor, the fact of a rhythmic performance as such makes that machine labor and pre-industrial labor have more in common with each other than either of them has with work. . . .

“All these theories appear highly questionable in view of the fact that the workers themselves give an altogether different reason for their preference for repetitive labor. They prefer it because it is mechanical and does not demand attention, so that while performing it they can think of something else (They can ‘geistig wegtreten’ ["mentally step away"], as Berlin workers formulated it. See Thielicke and Pentzlin, Mensch und Arbeit im technischen Zeitalter: Zum Problem der Rationalisierung [People and Work in the Age of Technology: The Problem of Rationalization] [1954], pp. 35 ff., who also report that according to an investigation of the Max Planck Institute für Arbeitspsychologie, about 90 per cent of the workers prefer monotonous tasks.) This explanation is all the more noteworthy, as it coincides with very early Christian recommendations of the merits of manual labor, which, because it demands less attention, is less likely to interfere with contemplation than other occupations and professions (see Étienne Delaruelle, “Le travail dans les règles monastiques occidentales du 4e au 9e siècle” ["Work in the Western Monastic Rules from the 4th to the 9th Centuries"],  Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique, Vol. XLI, No. 1 [1948]).” [2]

“Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, bring on the peculiar infirmity of the trade. If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate, than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.” [3]

[1] Robert Twigger, “Master of many trades,” in Aeon Magazine, November 4, 2013.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1998), pp. 145–146, footnote 8. The translations are my own best guesses, with the help of Google Translate. Keep in mind that Arendt distinguishes between “labor” and “work”: “Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is life itself. [¶] Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an ‘artificial’ world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. The human condition of work is worldliness.” (Id. at page 7.)

[3] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter VIII (Modern Library 1994) p. 94.

« Older posts

© 2014 Notes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑