Monday, 30 April 2012

Anarchism and Authority

I'm becoming increasingly fascinated with the philosophical questions about 'authority': What is it? Where does it come from? Can it be rationally justified? It seems like anarchism can't answer a trivial 'no' to that last question, since parental authority seems thoroughly rational. So why can some forms of submission to authority be justifiable and some can't?

Habermas tried to rehabilitate the post-Enlightenment concept of authority by claiming that it makes sense to submit one's judgment to a person of superior insight - that, rationally, there are times when we ought to recognize the limits of our own reason and let somebody else think for us. Habermas was no anarchist (in the same essay, he describes the anarchistic utopia as a 'hermeneutically false consciousness', which certainly sounds bad), but can anarchists make use of his take on authority? On the surface, it seems like it might give reasonable criteria for 'justified authority': superior knowledge, for instance, or moral judgment.

And is authority such a necessarily poisonous concept, anyway? If there are forms of it that don't necessarily entail coercion - as the Abonilox suggests in the comments of my previous post - might anarchists embrace some form of authority without any problems at all?

I'm asking a lot of questions here, so I beg your patience. I've got no answers yet.


One final note: I notice that I'm rehashing a lot of the same ground that Helen Rittelmeyer covered years ago here. I don't want to immediately agree with the claim that authority and individuality aren't at odds - it sounds too similar to the 'freedom through submission' doublespeak of Christianity - but it is an excellent post.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Anarchism and Parenting

Anarchists generally believe that the use of force to coerce others is unnecessary at best and evil at worst. If they deal with the obvious rejoinder - what about murder/bad people/war - at all, they argue that the solution is to change the culture: to create a world where violence is a last resort instead of a constant way of life. To this, I'd respond by asking about parenting.

What about raising children? Here it seems like a degree of coercion is necessary, and even morally praiseworthy. While it's probably true that the less coercion, the better, I agree with Louis CK that you can't always explain everything (relevant part starts at 6:20):

So here's my question: how do you create a culture where coercion is considered unacceptable when you're using coercion as an integral part of raising children? And if coercion is necessary for such a basic part of life, does the anarchist's rejection of coercion make sense at all?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Last Huzzah

Despite sharing mainstream rap's problematic attitude to women, although to a lesser extent than some music videos, this whole thing is pretty incredible. Opinions may differ, but I think the first member of Das Racist (soft-spoken guy with the beard) and EL-P (second-last guy with cap and sunglasses) totally killed it. Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of Danny Brown - his voice grates on me like nothing else.

Listen to the second-last verse, how EL-P works the numbers 1-16 into his sixteen lines, growing more creative with each. 11 becomes 'I'll vent', 13 shifts into an 'inverted 31' to avoid bad luck, and 14 becomes a mixed drink: '7 and 7'. Repeated feminine endings pack extra syllables onto the line, and he lazily sits just a fraction behind the beat. EL-P is Aesop Rock's producer, and you can see the similarities in flow.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Dick Diver

A change of pace from all the hip-hop and stuff I've been posting lately. Dick Diver are kind of Pavement-y: sloppy, melodic and very fun.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Hume On Stoicism

David Hume, of course, did not think of himself as a Stoic. Traditionally, a strong concept of God or Natural Law is central to Stoic philosophy, and Hume had neither. Moreover, Hume famously declared that reason ought to be "the slave of passion", which at least superficially seems to be a direct contradiction of Stoic thought. Now, a Stoic who wanted to reclaim Hume (in the same way that every single Greek philosopher ever tried to recruit Socrates' ghost to his cause) might argue that you could construct a secular Stoicism, and that Hume defined 'reason' and 'passion' in a different way to the Stoics. I'm tempted to do that myself.

However, first I want to call attention to an area where Hume seems at least to empathize with Stoic thought. In his essay 'Delicacy of Taste and Delicacy of Passion', he says this:

SOME People are subject to a certain delicacy of passion, which makes them extremely sensible to all the accidents of life, and gives them a lively joy upon every prosperous event, as well as a piercing grief, when they meet with misfortunes and adversity. Favours and good offices easily engage their friendship; while the smallest injury provokes their resentment. Any honour or mark of distinction elevates them above measure; but they are as sensibly touched with contempt. People of this character have, no doubt, more lively enjoyments, as well as more pungent sorrows, than men of cool and sedate tempers: But, I believe, when every thing is balanced, there is no one, who would not rather be of the latter character, were he entirely master of his own disposition. Good or ill fortune is very little at our disposal: And when a person, that has this sensibility of temper, meets with any misfortune, his sorrow or resentment takes entire possession of him, and deprives him of all relish in the common occurrences of life; the right enjoyment of which forms the chief part of our happiness. Great pleasures are much less frequent than great pains; so that a sensible temper must meet with fewer trials in the former way than in the latter. Not to mention, that men of such lively passions are apt to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which are often irretrievable.

Compared to many other philosophers, Hume is an absolute pleasure to read, but for those who can't be bothered wading through the italicized paragraph, he says something like this: some people are prone to great happiness and great sadness, reacting to small good events with ecstasy and small setbacks with despair, but this isn't a good way to live. The kind of person he's talking about is the ultimate non-Stoic: somebody who's enormously and constantly affected by outside events. Hume shares the Stoic judgement on such a person, claiming that it's better to be of "cool and sedate temper". Why does he say this? Well, his two main points are thus:

1) "Good or ill fortune is very little at our disposal", so a person of strong passion basically lives with a sword over their head.
2) "Great pleasures are much less frequent than great pains", so a person of strong passion is going to be unhappy more often than not.

I contend that the whole practical element of Stoic thought can be spun out from these two points, if you grant the further assumption that we can control our passions. Unfortunately, Hume doesn't immediately grant that assumption (or at least appears not to in his other essays.) If you disagree with Hume here and think that we are "masters of [our] own disposition", then Stoicism might be for you!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Lurking In Your Pocket

"Prophet (Better Watch It)" by the pretty well-known Rizzle Kicks. I posted this just to comment on how perfect a name 'Rizzle Kicks' is; it is just as fun to read as it is to say. Three syllables, strong weak strong, descending through the double 'z' then finishing on the combination of hard 'k' and soft 's'. It's punchy and trails off well at the same time. Also:

Dennis is not even half what this menace is

is a lyric that is impossible to hate.

Friday, 13 April 2012

On Suicide

I've been reading Hume's essay 'On Suicide', where he tries to dispel the notion that suicide is a sin in the eyes of the Christian God. His argument seems to run (very roughly) like this:

People claim that suicide is a sin because it unnaturally counters God's will for us.
They say it counters God's will for us because only God can take human life and death into His hands.
But when we act to unnaturally preserve our life with medicine, we're not sinning.
Moreover, God causes the situations in life that make us want to commit suicide in the first place.
Therefore suicide does not inherently counter God's will and is not automatically a sin.

This aligns pretty well with my long-standing suspicion of claims that modern science and medicine is somehow 'unnatural'. If you're going to call human artifice unnatural, you've got to call all animal artifice unnatural, including bird nests and anthills, or justify a meaningful distinction between human and animal artifice.

Still, I find I prefer Schopenhauer's argument for why suicide is morally permissible (that we have ultimate rights to our own body; and that suicide is inherently and obviously a brave act.) It's a delight to read, like Hume's argument, but only deals with religion at the very end when it tries to explain why Christians decry suicide as a terrible sin.

'Modern' Christianity - or 'weak Christianity', Kierkegaard's false 'Christendom' - poses a loving God and a world that is essentially benevolent. Suicide is the ultimate refutation of that position, a person's whole life put behind the claim that the world is harsh and unfair. This, Schopenhauer says, bothers followers of the One who looked down at the world and "saw that it was good".

Monday, 9 April 2012

Anarchism As Useless Political Philosophy

People say that anarchism is useless as a political philosophy: whether you hold it or not isn't going to change anything. Leaving aside the question of whether anarchism is, well, correct, I find it interesting that the charge of uselessness is leveled against anarchism in particular and not, say, socialism or a belief in representative democracy.

Political philosophy is practically descriptive, not prescriptive: it has no power to change the way things are. At its most influential, it might be seized upon as a fig leaf to cover up the machinery of power, like how feminism is used to justify the invasion of poor Muslim countries.  Usually, however, the great twin forces of money and violence roll on, forming and shaping our political systems, totally unhindered by the bloviating of philosophers or, god help us, bloggers.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Don't Get Well

Learn some secrets; never tell.
Stay sick. Don't get well.

This is 'Transcendental Youth', off the Mountain Goats' new album, and it is growing on me like nothing else.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Poems I Like #5: Wild Swans

Wild Swans
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Attentive readers will know that I am a long-time Millay fan - hence the title of this blog - and, were I willing, I could post a poem of hers that I love every day for basically forever. She comes from that wonderful era where poetry was thought of as song, and clarity of expression was actually valued. Wild Swans is a poem that grabs you by the throat.

The poem is devoid of regular metrical structure, but still manages to evoke a rhythmic feel through judicious use of sound-repetition. "Wild swans went" repeats the "w" sound; "see" mirrors "seen", "flight" mirrors "flying", and so on. The "o" sound in "House without air, I leave you and lock your door" rolls on through the latter half of the poem. Wild  Swans' rhyme structure is interesting, as well: abbccbac. It echoes within itself, if you will permit me some unclear phrasing. Rhymes a and b - "over" and "before" - are similar enough to blend each line into the next, like a song or chant.

The poet emerges from her house and sees a flock of wild swans in the sky, honking. In the fine tradition of all poetry ever, she looks "in her heart", setting the reader up for a traditional swan-inspired sonnet: "I saw the wild swans, and thought about my love/freedom/whatever for ten lines in iambic pentameter". The work of writing poetry is fundamentally narcissistic, a process of peeling away layers of the self - to say nothing of the absurd self-confidence needed to actually believe your poetry is worth reading.

In the next line, Millay blows this to bits. "What did I see", she asks, "I had not seen before?" Certainly there's nothing in her heart that compares to the pure sensory experience of wild birds flying overhead. This is not a poem of introspection; rather, this is a poem about the limits of introspection. Endless self-interrogation, Millay writes, is suffocating, "tiresome". Hearts live and die and live again, blossom with pointless questions. She leaves introspection behind and calls out to the wild swans: "come over the town again, trailing your legs and crying!" She wants experience, she cries out, something visceral and wordless.

And yes, there's irony.  When she yearns for the wordless, she cries out in words - in an eight-line poem that is meticulously crafted.  She's a poet. What else can she do?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Mountain Goats

The rituals of the Church are meant to draw us out of our usual lack of focus and into a focus that sharpens our blurry edges and makes us more ourselves.

In the rituals of addiction, we seek to do the opposite: to sink ourselves and lose ourselves so that we don't have to think too hard about what we're doing. I'm not entirely sure if this is the language I want to use, but provisionally I'll say that there are ecstasies of eros ("the paradoxical desire for union with what is different") and ecstasies of thanatos, self-destruction; and addiction rituals draw us into the latter. Addiction rituals are meant to fragment the self, muffle the conscience, and blank out the mind.
That's from Eve Tushnet, via the excellent Cigarette Smoking Blog. Thanatos is my new favourite concept - the fascination with destruction, especially the destruction of the self. For some people I imagine it serves as a refuge from anguish; for others it is the unavoidable source of anguish; for some it is the source of creative endeavour; for some it shuts down all creativity, and so on. Certainly I don't understand it, not fully.

But I do not trust anybody who hasn't in some measure touched the ecstasies of thanatos. Kierkegaard, the great Dane himself, talks in Fear and Trembling about "a person who has grasped the horror of life, has grasped the meaning of Daub's statement that a soldier standing alone with a loaded rifle at his post near a powder magazine on a stormy night thinks strange thoughts". Now Kierkegaard is talking about somebody who has achieved an understanding - or at least a recognition - of the skull behind the skin, and so on, which is difficult. Few people do this and, like I said, I certainly haven't. But I can touch it at least. Like Helen Rittelmeyer at CSB, I appreciate the desire towards self-destruction. Anybody who doesn't harbour a similar desire (to some extent or other, at some time or other) is alien to me.

Ecstasies of thanatos and addiction rituals are common themes of the Mountain Goats' music. I contend that the primary theme of the Mountain Goats' work is love as thanatos, an all-consuming, destructive addiction. Look at the images of the lyrics: empty gin bottles, stick pins and cotton, cigarettes stubbed out against walls, and so forth. When John Darnielle sings  I hope you die, I hope we both die, or I hope the stars don't even come out tonight, I hope we both freeze to death, it's not hatred or self-pity so much as an attempt, as Eve Tushnet says, to "fragment the self". It's like a sailor clinging to the mast of his ship as it rounds the whirlpool who decides what the hell, if I have to go I may as well go, and swan-dives into the center of the swirling waters.

I've rambled on long enough in this post, but here is an excellent (and hilarious) example of this kind of art, in comic form. And here's an example of the Mountain Goats' embrace of thanatos:

I think that love of thanatos stems, as Kierkegaard suggests, from existentialism and the recognition that we are, in all important respects, fucked. Correspondingly, the lack of such love goes along with self-deception, Sartre's bad faith, and the belief that everything is, of course, going to turn out pretty well. I can get on board with hope, or with thinking that all will be well against all odds, but I find the 'of course' alternately pitiable and disgusting.