Sunday, 24 February 2013

When the Model Doesn't Exist

or, Why Should We Find the Invisible Book of Invisibility?

Eve Tushnet just wrote a wonderful post comparing natural law theology and equality feminism (contra choice feminism), indicating that both rely on an ideal which will never directly encounter.

She describes natural law theology as an ethics based on an ideal body:
One cheap but useful definition of natural law is that it’s the belief that there is a universal human nature which is knowable by reason (and here we fight about what we mean by “reason,” but ignore that for now), and so our desires can be rightly ordered based on what would express and support this nature, even though we have never seen this nature instantiated anywhere in our lives or history, ever. You can see why this is both a tempting place to ground your ethics, and a tough sell to people who don’t agree!
After some discussion of the disagreement between choice and equality feminisms, she describes the latter as being based on an ideal (but nonexistent) society:
This is a vision of how the world should be–how men and women would be “if we had equality”–which we have never, ever actually seen. There are AFAIK literally no societies in which men and women make interchangeable choices around questions of sex, work, and family; there are societies with more than two genders but not less. It’s not a statement about how great the Peopleihaventheardof are, and how we should emulate them. It’s a statement about how men and women inherently are, according to their universal, precultural nature.
Tushnet goes on to argue that something like natural law is often used to explain that universal nature.

I generally get excited about this kind of theoretical work, making connections between seemingly unrelated lines of inquiry. This is particular caught my interest, though, because I find natural law theology incomprehensible and irresponsible, but the kind of vision given by equality feminism is one that I find very attractive. As much as I dismiss many telos-sightings as too blurry to be plausible, I am very guilty of positing ideal societies and offering them as a collective goal, despite the absence of any historical precedent. (Maybe this is why appealing to a lost Golden Age is popular; you can at least pretend to have a historical model.)

Human nature in its natural habitat!

In the end I'm not sure the comparison between natural law theology and equality feminism holds, however. I react negatively to natural law theology because it seems to make a mockery of the actual diversity of people's bodies and minds, and could very well require that people with notably atypical bodies or atypical psychologies act in ways that are not safe, possible, or sometimes even comprehensible given their bodily or mental situation. The problem here is that acting towards a counter-factual will never produce that counter-factual. No matter how much I act as if I were not near-sighted, or possessed of bad knees, or whatnot, I will never actually achieve such a state (and here I'm taking as given that there is a "right" eye strength, or a "right" way to have knees, or a "right" way to have a mind, for that matter, which I don't actually think is true). Of course there are particular things (mental illness, broken bones) which, in order to achieve a desired state, require you to act differently than you would if you were in that desired state. (So, in order for your leg to heal, you need to wear a cast and let it rest, etc.) But there are other cases in which the goal is merely surviving your current state, not achieving a desired one, because it is entirely unclear that the desired one will ever be possible (for instance, there is no way to make an autistic person non-autistic).

The reason the comparison doesn't hold is that equality feminism is talking about behaviour, not embodiment; as far as we can tell, all of its concerns are like broken legs and not like missing legs. They can all be brought toward the ideal, whether by acting as though the counter-factual were true or acting according to the current state of things. Either way, the primary focus is that the unseen-ideal will eventually be achieved, will eventually be see-able, which can not be said of natural law theology. Finding the Invisible Book of Invisibility is difficult to do, why bother if it is too invisible to read anyway?

Of course, I might be off topic slightly; Tushnet was describing the source of our ideal, not so much the desirability of either philosophy. Is equality feminism's ideal society actually based on a universal, precultural nature? I am not sure. I don't think that's the only option available. You could claim that there is a biological equality of some kind between men and women that is, therefore, empirically measurable; or you repudiate all claims that men and women are unequal (through, for instance, deconstruction) and come to the conclusion that we must act as though men and women are equal, even in absence of positive evidence of that fact. But this question is interesting to me not least because I find Platonism to be so absurd that I always find it shocking to see its face, or the illusion of its face, in my own thought.

Still, I want to draw a line between Platonism and Christian ideas of becoming Christ-like and ushering in the Kingdom of God. While the Christian ideas can be understood in Platonic terms, they needn't be; Platonism implies that the telos of a thing inheres in the thing itself, while trying to become like Christ, or trying to bring in the Kingdom, only requires that we can observe a difference between is and ought, and the movement from one to the other is possible. It does not need the mechanic of a thing's nature to operate. And I am not abashed to say that one reason I find equality feminism so attractive is that it follows the narrative of Kingdom-building.

(As a final caveat: I find choice feminism attractive as well. If I were a real activist, I would probably try to switch strategically between them in ultimate service of something like equality-feminism. But then, if I were a real activist I would be better educated in these questions, too.)

Friday, 22 February 2013

How Should We Criticize Art?

An Art's Four Campfires Redux

While looking at my stats today I discovered that a computer game blogger has recently picked up my post about Art's Four Campfires, in which I explain Scott McCloud's idea that there are four distinct sets of values which motivate artists and shape the work they create. I was excited that someone was finally trying to answer the open question I had about how one could apply these campfires to computer games; while I sometimes play computer games (I recently played through Bastion and quite enjoyed it), I do not have nearly enough experience with them, or with even close to enough genres, to be able to talk intelligently about their form in a way that a Four Campfires analysis would require. However, I could not remember why I had found McCloud's idea interesting in the first place, so I re-read my other posts on the issue (here and here) and realized that the Four Campfires can support, and provide a partial vocabulary for, the kind of discussions of art (books, movies, etc.) that I would like to see happen instead of the ones that often do happen.

In case you either forget or weren't around when I first wrote my first Four Campfires post , I'll encourage you to take the link back (here again) and skip to the summary I gave of the Four Campfires. (They have bold headings and are rather short, so don't be daunted by the length of the post.) For the rest of this post I will assume that you know what the Campfires are.

The first thing I want to note is that the Four Campfires are of very little use in a proper literary criticism setting.* While once upon a time literary criticism was, on an institutional level, at least partly about deciding which works are good and which works are bad, which works canonical and which works non-canonical, that is no longer the case. So in my employment of the Four Campfires, I am departing from my department, so to speak, at least temporarily, because I think the Four Campfires are most useful when making value-judgements.

One of my pet peeves when reading a discussion of art (whether books, television, movies, etc.) is when the critic devalues the art for failing to do what that critic wants the art to do. So, for instance, if a person criticizes a television show because its storyline is incoherent or because its visuals are sub-par, I can get annoyed. Specifically, I get annoyed when someone criticizes a work because it fails to do something other than what the work appears to be trying to do. If a work seems guided by a Classicist ethic, supported by Animism, then expecting it to push boundaries is unfair. If a work seems guided by a Formalist or Iconoclastic ethic, then expecting it to have engaging characters or a coherent plot is unfair. Enjoying a particular experience more than another is perfectly fine, but to criticize a work for being a different kind of work than you enjoy is not.

I do not, however, think that criticizing is never warranted.** I think there are two kinds of situation—and, joyously, they are frequent—where criticizing is warranted. The first is when a work is seems to be attempting a particular goal—say, an Animist one—and fails to do so. In this case, you can discuss how the work seems to fail at its own goal. As an example, many people feel that shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica failed in their final seasons to tell compelling stories, and I would take compelling storytelling to be a primary goal of both shows. Alternately, I found 300 to be an astoundingly ugly movie; my brother assures me that the composition of each frame is nearly perfect, and so if I can take that to be an indication that the director had Classicist goals, I can feel comfortable criticizing 300 for its failure to meet those goals. (I could of course be wrong in that assessment—maybe I have poor taste—but in that case my criticizing will be inaccurate rather than misplaced.)

The second kind of situation in which criticizing makes sense is when a work has negative ideological content. It is in this sort of situation that criticism overlaps with criticizing: in literary criticism, one of the things we do most often (though there is a lot more to it than this) is read texts as embodying and/or containing ideological content. The contention is that absolutely all texts have some discoverable relationship to ideology (or, if you don't like ideology, to worldview or cosmology or belief). Not all authors intend to make claims about the universe with their texts, but nonetheless their texts do make some claims. One of the functions of criticism is to uncover this content. Often scholars in literary criticism will make explicit or implicit value judgements about that content. In this sense, the criticism of and the criticizing of a text overlap.

For instance, I find 300 an ugly movie, but if I'm going to criticize it (which I sometimes do) I'm probably going to do so on ideological grounds. To wit, it is not only sexist, but it also overwrites classical history in order to disguise its misogyny. Furthermore, I often make long arguments about the movie's abuse of history in order to promote ideals, obviously of an “American” character, that are mainly used to justify imperial violence. (I had written out that argument in a draft this post, but it took up too much space and is not necessary for this conversation). Whether or not the director intended to justify American foreign violence is beside the point; 300 does it anyway and someone needs to criticize it for doing that. If a piece of art is sexist, racist, homophobic, or whatever, criticizing the text for that ideology is warranted regardless of the artist's goals. That said, I will not criticize a work for failing to espouse the particular claims about the world or ask the particular questions about the world that I would like it to espouse or ask; my criticizing is reserved for what the work does do or tries but fails to do, not what I would have like it to do.

To summarize, I get annoyed when people criticize art for not attempting the same goals, or holding the same aesthetic values, as themselves, but I am all for criticizing art for failing to achieve its apparent goals or for espousing, intentionally or otherwise, dangerous ideology. To bring this back to McCloud's idea (which was really just a pretext for ranting on this topic), what I like about the Four Campfires are that they produce a vocabulary for the kinds of values which an artist can try to achieve; if I were to start criticizing the Four Campfires (more than I already have), I would say that they simply do not produce enough of a vocabulary. But maybe they don't have to. Maybe they are just a starting point.

(And now that I've thought this through, I'm noticing that I'm doing for aesthetics in this post what I tried to do for ethics in a recent set of posts. Oddly—or maybe not oddly, since aesthetics and ethics are different things—I am much more willing to come to clear conclusions in art than I am in morality. What is odd, I guess, is that in aesthetics I derive my certainty from ethical grounds, which I shouldn't be able to do when I am less certain about those very ethics. But it's only an apparent contradiction, not a real one; while I am not sure how I can be certain of particular ethical beliefs, I know that I am certain of them.)

*On the note of number, I'm not sure whether to treat “the Four Campfires” as plural (because there are four) or singular (because it's one conceptual tool). I'm going with plural because it makes more sense syntactically, but it's maybe worth pointing out that I'm thinking about it as a singular tool. Also, if I missed an instance of singular use when editing, at least you'll know why it was singular in the first place. It has nothing to do with my usual habit of writing too quickly and not editing it enough.

**I am using “criticizing” instead of “criticism” because, in my vocabulary, “criticism” is the kind of thing that scholars do in English departments, and it bears more resemblance to the colloquial meaning of “analysis” than to the colloquial meaning of “criticism.” I repeat that reviewing books and determining their artistic merit is not that discipline's primary function. I realize the verbal "criticizing" is awkward but it's all I've got.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Does Communism Need a Better Aesthetics?

In talking with a friend of mine who identifies as Marxist, I realized that my position on communism is fairly muddled. While I generally consider myself a socialist rather than a communist, I realized that I had no particular reason to choose socialism over communism besides complacency. Part of my preference for socialism is probably quite unlike most people's criticisms of communism: I grudgingly endorse strong state control as a means of enforcing environmental and anti-discrimination initiatives (largely because I'm cynical about the efficacy of grassroots activism to make any difference), and socialism requires a centralized state in ways that communism does not (or, at least, I tend to associate socialism with a centralized state and communism with communes and collectives). However, I do not think that that really explains why I dislike communism.

The real reason I dislike communism is that I find it ugly.

For me, the communist aesthetic is founded entirely in the realm of labour. Of course this makes sense, since communist thought has historically been a critique of capitalism and the particular labour relations within capitalist economics. It is perfectly logical that communism would return repeatedly to labour, and given Marx's historical position, that labour tends to be imagined as industrial. The images of communism are of factory-work and by extension of automation. At times, the images might be agricultural, but they are not particularly pastoral. Thanks perhaps to Soviet Russian propaganda but almost certainly to the reality of farm work as well, agricultural work in communist aesthetics appears mechanized and labour-intensive. Not only is none of this pretty, it is also undesirable. In truth, I dislike both the idea of difficult manual labour and the idea of work in a factory setting. (As Northrop Frye explicitly puts it, the world of labour is not the worst of all worlds, but it is closer to the world we reject than the world we desire. I don't think I need to lean on Frye for such a claim, though. Among other things, I am only making claims about my imagining of these economic systems; I am not making claims about a universal imagination.)

Of course it is the case that unpleasant working conditions are even more characteristic of capitalism than of communism; uncovering that fact is one of communism's chief critiques. But because communism makes the reality of hard work, industrialization, and mechanization apparent, it is communism that I associate with those realities. Capitalism, meanwhile, promotes an appealing fiction as its aesthetic, one of hygienic consumption, choice, and leisure. Of course, all of these are fictions: we work more, destroy more, have fewer meaningful options under capitalism. However, capitalism appears pleasant, especially to those of us in the middle class.

Let's look at that word “pleasant,” because it's also important. The primary emotions promoted by capitalism (or, I should say, capitalist advertising, because I'm reifying capitalism and I shouldn't do that) is pleasure, satisfaction, and admiration. The emotions that I associate with communism are much different. In fact, I don't associate many emotions at all with communism, since I think of it as largely dehumanized and mechanized. But when I think of communism I also think of revolution, and I associate revolution with anger or some similar passion. And I also think of union meetings, and I associate union meetings with frustration and discomfort.

Of course I know that advertising is a lie and I am at times able to return to capitalism the aesthetics of labour, alienation, struggle, anger, and destruction, but it is ordinarily free-market capitalism that I think of in those senses. Socialism, or the kind of socialism practised in Canada, at any rate, is really capitalism with sort-of-communist aspirations, and it ought to be subject to many of the same critiques as free-market capitalism. However, since socialism is certainly less subject to some of those critiques, I associate socialism with other, more attractive aesthetics: trees and clean water (ie. environmentalism), the redemption of criminals (ie. rehabilitative programs), the rescue of the downtrodden (ie. welfare, public health care), the inculcation of culture (ie. public education), the connections that connect and thereby produce a nation (ie. postal system, roads). Socialism obviously looks better than capitalism (as it should!), but somehow it manages to dodge the trap that caught communism by not directly critiquing capitalism itself, instead appearing as an improved form of capitalism.

A political position's aesthetics is a very silly basis on which to judge it, but I think I'm right in attributing my preference to aesthetics, and I suspect I'm not the only one to do so. The problem isn't just understanding that advertisers, and others invested in a capitalist economy, have produced an aesthetic of capitalism that is fictitious. The problem is with the aesthetics I associate with communism: perhaps communism needs a better PR job, but perhaps it is also true that I need to re-think my own conception of communism's aesthetics.

I am not stating that I now am a communist; rather, I am noting that in order to think through economic systems I need to first address how concerns about aesthetics are impeding the clarity of my thought. It also occurs to me that in other countries, or even other parts of this country, or even other demographics in this part of Canada, such aesthetics might differ.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

That Tyrant Called Time

These are just some off-the-cuff thoughts I had last night.

At what point did people use "five minutes" or "twenty minutes" as colloquial measures of time? It's not just that I am being excessively and inaccurately precise when I say, "Just give me five minutes." It's that I do not think five minutes would be an interval of time that would be meaningful to humans for, well, probably most of our history and prehistory.

I remember the teacher in my Grade 12 history class saying that one of the big impacts of the Industrial Revolution and the movement of workers from cottages to factories was that, for the first time ever, people were expected to arrange their day according to the clock, not the sun. Of course this applied more to factory-workers than to non-factory-workers, so I wonder at what rate the reliance of clocks to structure life spread into other facets of a person's life.

When did people schedule not just work but social appointments according to the clock rather than the sun?
When did people begin to carry watches?
At what point did timepiece technology become reliable enough that you could reasonably expect another person's watch to be within five minutes of your own?

In other words, when did promptness become a virtue? And tardiness a sign of disrespect? When did we become slaves to the clock?

Of course, I am being misleading when I make this only about watches and clocks. The church bells or the muezzin would measure time in many parts of the world (as I think it was Joan Chittester who said, time of day used to be sacred). While those of us in the north are used to the sun's movements fluctuating across seasons, in equatorial regions the sun is as regular a time-piece as you could want. Sundials and hourglasses are very old time-keepers. But I still wonder about those phrases and the attached virtue of promptness.

(And as far as the virtue of promptness goes, I think that reliable transportation also has something to do with it.)

Friday, 8 February 2013

7 Animals

I have not done the 7 Quick Takes genre in a while now, and do not intend to take it up again. However, I have a possible replacement. For a few months now I have posted a link on Facebook to an article on a different animal each day. I will gather those together and post them here on Fridays, if I remember.


Feb 2's animal was the sea potato, a kind of temperate-water sea urchin. They have a commensal relationship with certain bivalves.


Feb. 3's animal was the four-horned antelope. The small antelope's most unique feature is right there in the name: it is the only mammal to have four horns.


Feb. 4's animal was the shocking pink dragon millipede. Despite looking like a centipede, it is a millipede, and like many of its kin it secretes cyanide when nervous. Those are warning colours.


Feb. 5's animal was the resplendent quetzal. They are part of a family of birds called trogons, which sound to me like something out of the Monster Manual. (Also, they are gorgeous birds.)


Feb. 6's animal was the mud dauber. When I was a kid I quite enjoyed watching these guys fly through the air clutching balls of mud.


Feb. 7's animal was the salp. Salps look a lot like jellyfish, but they are actually chordates These animals are very strange, with a two-stage life cycle; in one stage, they are solitary and reproduce asexually, thus becoming aggregate and reproducing sexually. It's worth reading about salps.


Today's animal is the freshwater pearl mussel. They have negligible senescence, which means that they do not age or hardly age. For this reason some of these mussels will almost certainly live longer than I will.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Is Judgement Ethical?

Good People and Going Wrong, Part 6

This is going to be a placeholder post because I am not sure at all about how to proceed. I feel intuitively like I could have an arguement for this last piece, but I also know that that's a terrible reason to support something. So I will lay out how I'm feeling, but let it be said beforehand that I might well be completely incorrect. Maybe even wrong!

One place where I feel really unstable in all of this is whether I should be making such assessments at all. Of course, there is one person of whom I absolutely must make such assessment, and that is myself. Beyond myself, though, I have generally been told that you should not judge others, and I find pretty much every reason for this prohibition to be compelling: Lewis and Chesterton claim that we do not know what others are going through or why they act, so we cannot know whether their actions are justified; actor-observer asymmetry and similar psychological biases indicate that we are utterly terrible at making fair assessments of other's motives and behaviours (especially when compared to our own); the very real possibility that I might be incorrect about what is moral or immoral should give me pause before judging another. So I feel like rendering judgement is unethical, pretty much always.

But I also feel like rendering judgement is necessary. For example, I do not think I am misguided for wanting to marry a good person, when the day comes. I want to be able to assess whether I am entering this partnership with someone I can rely on. Whether she earnestly attempts to be an ethical person is more important to me than the particular values or philosophical system...within the range I am trying to discover in these posts. Similarly, as much as I might be willing to expose myself to hurt by trusting those who seem untrustworthy, I would not expose someone else to such a person. Some of this is more related to predicting behaviour than judging how good a person is...but I don't think the second assessment is entirely out of place here, either. More, who do I turn to for advice about ethics. I am absolutely shoddy for finding such a confidante, so this is a living question for me. All told, I feel like rendering judgement is a necessary part of responsible and ethical action.

Let's recap: I feel that judgement is unethical and I feel that judgement is ethically necessary. So I really don't know what to do. I think the place to proceed is to figure out what I really mean by "judge," because I suspect that there are actually different actions going on here: there's a difference between assigning blame and deciding whether a person has arrived at their incorrect ethical system honestly and whether that system is tolerable.

Three parting comments:

1. I will say that I am not concerned at all about folks' salvatory status. That is not why I might be concerned if someone is a good person. I might be concerned, though, because I want to know where they are on their journey to being more Christ-like--though whether I have any role in helping them on that journey is another important question I have not answered.

2. I want to tell a terrible joke that I made up. The problem a utilitarian has choosing between two groups who have mutually exclusive happiness is called the Large Hedon Collider. :D

3. I generally find virtue ethics more admirable than anything else, and consequentialism more sensible than deontology, and deontology more tolerable than consequentialism (because consequentialism fails to articulate justice, stuff like "don't punish the guilty at the expense of the innocent" and "killing a handful of people for an increase in the already-comfortable majority's pleasure is not acceptable, even if it does maximize happiness for the greatest number of people"). But then again, I don't pretend to be much good at meta-ethics, so feel free to prove me wrong! (I place the burden of proof pretty high, though. I'll pick uncertainty over unfounded certainty.)

Friday, 1 February 2013

How Much Tolerance Can We Tolerate?

Good People and Going Wrong, Part 5

My brother once had a coworker with whom he frequently disagreed. My brother was perfectly OK with gay marriage and women who were preachers. His coworker was not especially OK with these things. If the Bible says that women can only preach if there are no men to do it, then he says he does not intend for it to come to that.

One day the coworker came to work with the root of their difference figured out. "You are tolerant," he said. "I am intolerant."

My brother was fairly accepting of this assessment because he thought he was getting the better end of that deal. However, he told me, his coworker did not agree. To his coworker, it would be better to be intolerant than tolerant. And this struck us as being alien, though kind of understandable: what the coworker thought my brother was tolerating was very bad, and of course you should not tolerate something terrible.

It is a commonplace now to say that part of the problem preceding the Second World War was that the world tolerated Hitler's actions. If the world were not so tolerant of Nazism, perhaps fewer atrocities would have occurred. I think most of us on the political left would agree that certain things must not be tolerated. Indeed, the left generally tries not to tolerate racism, sexism, etc.* So when the left talks about tolerance and mutual respect, clearly what we want to tolerate is a different kind of difference than certain ethical differences. Right?

I’m going to be rather writerly right now. I don't know what to write next. This seems like a meta-ethical problem: tolerance is clearly a value in the sense I've been using the word as much as it is part of a philosophical ethical system. But on the other hand this value is about how we conduct ourselves towards other people's values. It is a meta-value, and for all that it seems to be one of the most deeply rooted values that my segment of the culture holds. On the other hand, it seems to be only certain kinds of difference that are tolerated: difference in sexual behaviour, difference in language, difference in degree of socialism/communism. Social and fiscal conservatism are not especially tolerable, at least not among some.

To continue being writerly, indicated by my italics, it is exactly this problem that this series is supposed to be about. I want to agree with my brother, that tolerance is a good thing and intolerance is a bad thing. I also want to say that good people sometimes do what I would consider bad things specifically because they are well-intentioned (but incorrect about what is the "right" thing to do). But I want to say that even so there are people who maybe aren't "bad people," but who certainly aren't really good people, either. So I want to say that tolerance is a value, but that I am intolerant of some things. I know there is an act of equivocation here, and I think it’s that what is meant by “tolerance” in the leftist sense is not actual tolerance after all. Tolerance suggests that something about the tolerated behaviour is inconvenient, and I do not think of gay marriage as being inconvenient. But are there inconvenient things I am willing to tolerate? This particular problem is an instance of the general problem I am wrestling with.

Series Index

*I want to emphasize again that I don't believe that the left-right continuum, or even the political compass, are sufficient. My hackles rise whenever I am placed on it, or asked to place myself on it. But I do know that political opinion tests most recently place me as a Leftist Libertarian (but not by very much). I kind of bridle under that label, but at least you'll know where I'm coming from if I tell you that.
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