Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci was one of the unlikely heroes of twentieth century. Though I object to his overly Stalinistic activism, he never waivered in his own intellectual explorations which make his letters and notebooks a testament to innovative political analysis and thought. During eleven years of incarceration by the Italian government he developed interesting critiques of power and hierarchy that make him much more than a simple Marxist. And he held on through his years of prison writing and though I don’t always agree with him, his determination is a great inspiration. One of the things for which Gramsci is famous for is his often quoted dictum “I have pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.” I would love to say that I live up to this important tenet but I confess that I almost always fall short. Though, in my early years, I was even blessed with an optimism of the intellect, that faded sometime in my twenties, and I have maintained an optimism of the will whenever I have been able, I feel that my life has been a gradual deterioration of optimism, and I am struck by Nietzsche’s words that honesty “leads to nausea and suicide.” (Honesty, that is, with oneself about the terrible realities of our condition) Sometimes I am not sure how much longer I can hold it together and when I laugh it is only diabolically in the face of a certain hopelessness. Unfortunately, (again quoting Nietzsche) “there are no experiences other than moral ones” and the more one knows this the more clear it is that the centre will not hold. I long to be a cartoon character like Bugs Bunny, adequately cynical but irreverently full of my own sense of pleasure. But if I am a cartoon character I can only be Ignatz the mouse in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, senselessly throwing bricks in a surreal world that I cannot understand. 

Poor pale pitiable form 

That I follow in a storm

Iron tears & groans of lead 

Bind around my akeing head 

Mock on Mock on Voltaire Rousseau

Mock on Mock on! tis all in vain! 

You throw the sand against the wind 

And the wind blows it back again

                                -William Blake

I am no more than the Ghost of a Flea. Good luck to all.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some Thoughts on Power

I recently became engaged in an internet argument with someone who had accused Emma Goldman of being an agent of British Imperialism. This struck me as a particularly odd accusation and I tried to get to the bottom of it through a discourse with the accuser, always a difficult thing to do through email. But I did this because the person who had made the accusation seemed like a normally cogent and rational person. Perhaps it is needless to say that I received no satisfaction. The person continually failed to make it clear if he really thought Goldman was an actual ‘agent’ of British Imperial forces or just a dupe of that system. I thought that perhaps he were really just claiming that the actions of the US anarchists somehow played into the hands of British interests, and I waited for some evidence for this claim but none was forthcoming, instead I just condescended to with the claim that I didn’t understand the subtleties of British Imperialism. Even in the face of no evidence, I proceeded to argue that even if anarchists like Goldman had somehow played into the hands of the British, it was an entirely unintended consequence of their actions. Similarly, I said, if Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia had served to strengthen the position of the Russian aristocracy, this did not mean that the French Emperor was somehow an agent, or even dupe, of the Czar; it just means that the flow of power is a complex and tricky thing and any action, dissent in particular, can have deeply influential unintended consequences. After a number of emails and condemnations of British Imperialism, I finally realized that this person was just a disgruntled US citizen who saw red whenever he thought of Goldman because he thought she was involved in the assassination of President McKinley for whom he seemed to have a soft spot. Funny enough, this is another accusation for which there is no real evidence. Anyway, I thought it was funny that he would be upset about British Imperialism when one considers the role that McKinley played in US imperialism; it was under McKinley’s rule, after all, that the US annexed Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The sad fact is that many Americans, and I grew up as an American, simply cannot see that US policy has been a clear form of Imperialism for over a hundred years.

But even if my internet adversary does not, I understand mixed effects of actions, even Imperialism. I have opposed US actions in the Middle East since I first became politically involved. And the recent events are typical examples of US Imperial actions. Even right-wing commentators like Eric Margolis continue to point out that the US invasion of Afghanistan has largely been a front for their efforts to find a cheap and reliable way of drawing oil out of the former Soviet states to the north of Afghanistan. Recently the government of Tajikistan gave notice to the US that they have to close the Manas airbase on their territory. But even here one finds mixed results. For example large numbers of Tajik farmers have accused the US of destroying their crops through land grabs, pollution, and carelessness. On the other hand members of the US forces in the country have raised funds to build schools and give healthcare to poor children. Overall, I think one has to opposed Imperialism, whether it is of the British or US variety, because its goals and effects are overwhelmingly problematic. But it should be clear to everyone who is willing to look carefully at any geo-political event that the power flows in multiple directions at once, particularly in advanced Capitalist states, and conceptions of it should be oversimplified. This is the greatest lesson of Antonio Gramsci’s work on Cultural Hegemony which should be read and enjoyed by all.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Force vs Violence

For a long time now I have thought it would be useful to have a rigorous definitional distinction between ‘violence’ and ‘force.’ And to this end I have, in my head, been trying to come up with a conceptual distinction that would stand up to scrutiny. I am not sure that I have completed this task but here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Violence is a willful act which is intended to harm someone (including, of course, animals) either physically or mentally. Force, on the other hand, is an organized act of coercion (within the context of a significant imbalance of power) which draws upon either violence, the threat of violence, compulsion or incarceration. Keep in mind that I am not suggesting at this point that force is always necessarily a bad thing.

Force is obviously involved when someone, say, takes another person hostage at gun point. However, as a concept I believe it is more useful in understanding the act of force within a social or institutional context. It is the ‘imbalance of power’ referred to the in the definition that gives force its real weight and it is this imbalance that is most acutely felt when institutions are involved. A kindergarten teacher, for example, may be using force to control her students and compeling to act in certain ways. The significant imbalance of power and the potential threat of compulsion and even incarceration involves a fairly basic act of coercion. Now, this coercion is arguably, in many cases, necessary and good (in that the outcomes are favorable for the person using force and the person against whom force is used.)

The more obvious and complex example of force is involved when the State acts in a military or paramilitary capacity (I include the police in this context). The State can easily draw upon violence, the threat of violence, or compulsion and incarceration to coerce people to act in a fashion that is perceived to be in the State’s interest. The imbalance of power between the State and an individual or the State and a group of individuals who are pursuing a specific goal is obvious and can be overwhelming.

Where this issue becomes interesting is in the context of a blatantly oppressed group of individuals who might employ acts of violence against a powerful state in order to assert their independence and the advantages that flow from such independence. A group, for example, that has asserted a national identity, may use a level of organized violence to achieve its goals. However, the extreme imbalance of power in the relationship implies, in my mind, that a distinction must, at some level, be made between the actors in the conflict. This is largely because those who possess the balance of power in such a context have a significant advantage concerning their ability to settle such a conflict amicably. In other words, those who use force, whether exercised individually or institutionally, are always at an advantage when it comes to potentially bringing about a state of peace and satisfaction. Those who have ‘force’ at their disposal are at an advantage over those who can only exercise violence.

The real problems arise, or course, because institutions which exercise force can be entirely guided by individuals who have a particular, often dangerous and problematic agenda. Violence, can also be used by people who are pursuing a dangerous and wrong-headed agenda. But what particularly interests me is the conflicts involved in the assertions of National Identities. Those who pursue a National identity often have only some level of organized violence at their disposal. Those resisting the assertion of the National group, on the other hand usually have a myriad of techniques at their disposal, many of them involving the excessive use of force at the cultural, educational, and military levels.

More on the implications of this later. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Reply to C.

Oh, come on C. If you don't think it is morbid then you just aren't paying enough attention. And as for Q, it is not awkwardly Hip, Gomeshi just thinks he is hip when he isn't. The entire paradigm of art and philosophy has shifted and Gomeshi and his cohorts are stuck in the past. Canada reads for example is like people getting together 50 years after Gutenberg started the printing-press revolution and talking about what were the year's best illuminated manuscripts. There has been a fundamental paradigm change in western civilization which started sometime around the beginning of the Victorian Era and its implications are just now becoming clear. The entire notion of art in all its forms grew into crisis because of the decline in religion was not met with any equivalent project which could define the purpose of aesthetic expression. The Romantics seemed to point to a way out but with the industrial revolution this got lost. Some Victorian authors used social activism in art as a kind of guiding light but this could not sustain the aesthetic project for very long because Capitalism effectively turns everything into a spectacle. Anyway, we are now on ground which is shifting so fast and unevenly that it many people are holding on to aesthetic paradigms which were vital a hundred years ago, as though to be comforted in their traditions. But these will not protect them and Q will only be a comfort for so long.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Morbid CBC.

Ok, it must be said. Another important critique of CBC radio. I already took the cathartic step of saying how pathetic I thought the continual barrage of “Canada reads” was. But more needs to be said. Now I appreciate the importance of a public broadcaster as much as anyone. Such institutions play a vital role in the public discourse and help to maintain a small degree of balance in the media. However, as important as this issue is, CBC radio is slowly deteriorating to the point where it is really becoming something of a joke. Besides the decreasing amount  of real news that you actually get on CBC radio (with the notable exception Dispatches by Rick Macinnis Rae), and the sickeningly ‘hip’ Jian Gomeshi, the worst thing is that I am increasingly under the impression that CBC radio is being programmed by a sadist, a masochist, or both. Has anyone else noticed this? Hour after hour of CBC radio is taking up by a morbid amount of long depressing, horrifying, unbelievably negative stories. Just yesterday on ‘Out Front’ they tried what they called an ‘experiment’ in story-telling which consisted of listeners’ stories of how they “chipped, lost, or otherwise damaged their teeth.” So we just heard stories of childhood accidents of people knocking their teeth out on bicycles or chipping their teeth on beer bottles! This is Radio!? And then at the end of the episode they promoted an upcoming special on the best stories of ‘revenge’ that listeners call in! And it just goes on like this day after day and month after month. I have taken to playing a little game. Try turning on the CBC radio and keeping a note of the first complete sentence you hear. I have taken to writing these down and have such gems as “His death was slow and painful,” “She lost her entire family,” and “Aids continues to kill.”

I believe that this morbid tendency derives from the widespread belief that seriousness equals quality. This is a commonly held notion by most people in the arts and media. When was the last time a comedy one the Oscar for best picture? It very seldom happens because the majority of people believe that a story, a novel, a film, or any other kind of media entertainment must be extremely serious, even morbidly so, to be considered important or valuable. Of course, comedy and amusement has its place, but that place in on the margins of real artistic achievement. Instead, a serious, morbid story doesn’t need to reflect any real artistic quality; as though its morbidity is itself a sign of quality.  

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Harper continues his flip-flops

How fast can a Prime Minister completely abandon his positions? Well, if you listen to our dear Stephen Harper, a position can be abandoned faster than you can say Afghanistan. Not only is Harper now a great believer in deficit spending, his big issue of the war in Afghanistan is now that little war that we can't win. Not that long ago if anyone even wanted to ask questions about Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, Harper essentially suggested they were a Taliban supporter. Now the Taliban has largely disappeared from his discourse and he is just talking about an 'insurgency' that cannot really be defeated. This grand flip-flop wouldn't be quite so painful if Harper had not questioned the 'patriotism' of anyone who didn't agree with him only a few months ago. 

Is this really the guy who had the gall to establish a web site called 'Notaleader.com' attacking Dion?"

A Thomas Hood Poem

Little Cairo was Cuddling up to me last night as I put her to sleep and this morning I read this poem by Thomas Hood entitled Lines On Seeing my Wife and two Children Sleeping in the Same Chamber. 

And has the earth lost its so spacious round, 
The sky its blue circumference above, 
That in this little chamber, there is found
Both earth and Heaven - my universe of love ! 
All that my God can give me or remove,
Here sleeping, save myself, in mimic death.
Sweet that in this small compass I behove
To live their living and to breath their breath!
Almost I wish that with one common sigh 
We might resign all mundane care and strife,
And seek together that transcendent sky,
Where father, mother, children, Husband, Wife, 
Together pant in everlasting life. 

Peace to all. 

We cannot give in!

Those in the left who have let their egos rule over the compassion and love that is at the heart of our social conscience, they will pay the highest price in karma. They can control and attack those whom they find under their power and their evil deeds will slowly rot them from the inside and, even if they live a long life, they will be nothing but empty shells of inhumanity.  Like Dorian Gray, their flesh is only the illusion. Behind this they are the monsters that we know them to be. The price they pay is not that their souls go to hell, but it is the loss of their soul itself, it withers and dies and they can no longer live in the realm of humanity. Despite the actions of those who parade around as left wing activists yet are sad, soulless creatures, we cannot lose our the faith because we cannot be dragged down with them. 

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Canada Reads

I find it amazing that his charade of ‘Canada Reads’ continues the way it does. A group of pseudo-intellectuals pontificating as though they are authorities on literature. And what makes it truly intolerable is that they do this as though they are ‘contemporary’ and ‘hip’, all the while mired in a 19th century paradigm of literature that exhausted itself more than 50 years ago but is kept on life support by bourgeois, college mis-educated, self-aggrandizers who read glorified soap-operas  in book form that they imagine raise them to a level above  the viewers of Days of our Lives. And so they ramble off psycho-babble about novels that could have been written a hundred years ago, nauseatingly speaking as though the characters are real people, all the while boosting their egos and placing themselves in the role of ‘cultural commentators.’ The German critical theorist Theodore Adorno once wrote that “philosophy continues to exist because the moment to realize it was missed.” Similarly, your Canada Reads segment shows that “the Novel lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Harper and History

The unusual  events of history brought Stephen Harper to power, and soon I believe history will take that power away from him. First Harper was lucky enough to come across the rather ineffectual Peter Mackay who was willing, despite written promises to the contrary, to give the entire Tory party away. Then the Sponsorship scandal landed right in his lap coupled with an unusually honest Prime Minister in the guise of Paul Martin who, instead of brushing it under the rug, was willing to start a genuine independent investigation. (Unlike Harper who would never have investigated  such a scandal) And with the Sponsorship issue in the air, Harper had no need to run a genuine election campaign but just kept telling us that the Liberals were ‘corrupt’ and we should get rid of the bums. Yet even with one of the worst scandals in Canadian politics Harper still couldn’t come close to a majority. They managed to play this out for nearly two years, and any time they were caught in their own scandals they simply pointed at the opposition and told us that the Liberals did worse things. Then they broke their own electoral laws and in a vain attempt to get their much sought after majority. But despite their relentless attacks on Dion which worked remarkably well on a gullible electorate, the Conservatives were still unable to win a majority. Then came Harper’s two biggest mistakes; a denial that there was a looming economic crisis, and his disastrous fall economic statement which finally exposed the depth of his partisanship. But the real spanner in the works for Harper is the economic slowdown which he reacted to by abandoning his entire economic oeuvre.  In his master’s thesis Harper condemned all deficit spending as an attempt by governments to get reelected. Now suddenly when his political power was threatened, he is a great convert to government intervention. This conversion seems hollow to just about everyone. But despite the abandonment of his so-called principles, the economy will wrench Harper from power as it has done to so many politicians before him. Oh, the Conservatives will fall back on their old tactics; they will begin relentless attacks on Ignatieff, but one can only cry wolf so many times and these attacks in the midst of a depression will appear to most people as particularly unseemly. Bullying will only take you so far even in politics. Indeed, the conditions of history will oust Harper from power just as it brought him to power. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Is-Ought problem continued

It seems to me to found any objective notion of philosophy in general or ethics in particular, you would have to solve the is-ought problem. I see no indication that this has been done or, indeed, could be done. This seems clear for two reasons: one, agreement cannot be reached on the is; two, the ought always implies a value claim. If the equation is; if  x then y, then surely the x must be agreed upon if y is to meaningful, objective, or in any way proscriptive. I have to tell you, I just don’t see that happening.

If one makes a claim such as, humans have a primary biological imperative  toward survival, therefore we should act in this manner. Here we have an is and an ought. Furthermore, this is a widely held view. But many people simply would not agree upon the is to begin with, and even if they did there could still be wide disagreement concerning how people should act in response to this supposed imperative. I  don’t believe that there is any overriding motivation for human behavior.  Given how self-destructive humans can be, I certainly don’t believe that there is an overriding imperative toward self, or species, survival. I think people are motivated by countless different things, to the point where I would say it is ‘over –determined.’ Being over-determined, I don’t believe that we can establish an is concerning human needs or motivations. If this is true, then we cannot establish any kind of objective ethics or even objective philosophy. I believe it is hopelessly simplistic to reduce human needs or motivations given how complex society and history appears to be.

The problem is made even more complex when we come to the ought part of the equation. Now, even if you get people to agree to the is, they may disagree with the ought. For example, if people agreed on the idea of an overriding motivation of survival, I think a pretty strong case could then be made that excessive cooperation would be the ought that would follow from this. And given certain evolutionary processes like say, the evolution of canine societies, (which many experts claim is similar to human evolution), then this could be a very strong argument to cooperatives. I am not claiming that it is an open and shut case myself, I am just raising the spectre of reasonable doubt, which is all that needs to be done against any kind of objectivist claim. But even more significant than the simple spectre of doubt is the fact that the ought that people endorse will flow naturally out of their values. This can be seen very clearly when one realizes that people are free to reject any ‘natural’ imperative. Someone may claim that individual survival, for example, is an overriding and necessary instinct to human life, and I might say that I choose to reject and attempt to overcome that instinct. This is just a very simple example that could be applied to any supposed imperative. Ultimately, you can accept or reject a course of action according to you values (and arguably everyone does) which renders, quite simply, any notion of objective action absurd.  

Instead what I believe happens is that narrowly define the is and then infuse their ought with a reflection of their own values. In other words, I don’t think that we can define a human nature in anyway that is proscriptively meaningful, therefore we are compelled to imbue our oughts with our own values. It sound very convenient, for example, to say that Humans have a nature, and that they ought to act in accordance with it. But I don’t think we have a definable nature (in any strict  or proscriptively useful sense), and even if I did, people could simply say “I don’t think we should act in accordance with it.” And the argument quickly fall apart.

At a slightly more complex level, one might make a proscriptive plan like: All people are compelled to survive, survival demands this kind of action, you ought, therefore, act in this way. Well even if we agreed to the first and second claim (an agreement that I don’t think will obtain) then you might find that some people simply might reject their own survival. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

So-called objectivist philosophy, but more generally any philosophy that claims to constitute an objective ontology, rests in part on a claim to have settled the is-ought problem. Hume's guillotine as it is sometime called, puts forward the premise that one cannot move from an observation of what one believes exists, or is, to what one ought to do. What this premise basically says is that experience of the world cannot proscribe actions to us. In other words, even if we know what is, we don't necessarily therefore know what ought to be. Since Hume, this has been one of the central problems of all Western philosophy and I believe in some sense that the failure to find a way through this is the reason that one of the very strong currents of philosophy fell into a fairly relativistic strain that we associate with writers like Lyotard and Derrida. 

And I must admit that when talking philosophy I find it difficult to imagine any serious way that an objective philosophy can be constituted. Despite simplistic claims to common sense philosophy or the so-called objectivism of people like Ayn Rand and her followers, I see no way to settle the is-ought problem. Some form of 'value-pluralism' as explained by Isaiah Berlin certainly makes a lot more sense to me. 

More on this tomorrow.