pete willsher - alien tides - national, traditional, solo instruments and themes for a 3rd dimension
Observing the human things from the outside produces a stripped-down notion of humanity. Understanding man as conatus results in the Hobbesian state of nature as man’s “natural state.” This state consists of “individual[s] considered as distinct and separate by nature itself from other individuals, the individual as individuated by his biological nature, his nature as a living being.” Manent concisely summarizes: man “is this unit of life and quantity of being that wants to continue to live and to persevere in being.” Humans so conceived are perfectly equal, because they have been bleached of “all complexity or inner fullness.” This construct intentionally ignores the differentiating characteristics of actual humans, and therefore “has nothing to teach us concerning the human beings that we are.”
The state of nature models this notion of human nature in its individuated separateness. With the loss of all specifically human qualities, natural law as traditionally understood is rendered moot, for “natural law issued commands in the name of a teaching implicit in human nature, in a tendency of human nature to society and to knowledge, or in a natural difference among ages, sexes, and capacities, a tendency or difference that reason once made explicit and on the basis of which it founded its commandments and recommendations.” The rejection of the naturalness of human differences leads to an assault on nature that Manent finds particularly troubling, as in the movement for same-sex marriage.
Natural rights were meant to replace natural law in guiding our practical judgments. But law guides or commands; right, in contrast, is permissive—a kind of claim to freedom to do…whatever. Modern “rights…have no meaning except openness to an unlimited authorization of actions or behaviors with no rule or purpose.” Natural right largely reflects the absence of nature as a source of guiding norms. Being so thinly natural, such rights readily transformed into human rights, grounded not in our shared nature but in our radical individuation.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle ingeniously deadpans that “fire burns both here and in Persia” (1134b). It is this same singular insight that underlies the work of modern scientists such as Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program. The West, Khan saw, might indeed call the shots politically and economically, and as a result the ideology implicit in Western cultural products insinuates itself everywhere in an asymmetrical fashion. But in Pakistan as in America, fire burns the same, and nuclear fission works the same, and for this reason science is a great equalizer and leveller — it can level entire cities, in fact.
Khan would have no patience at all for talk of Pakistani tribal villagers’ traditional theories about what makes fire burn in, say, a lecture on nuclear physics at the University of Karachi. Arguably however, Khan is not a scientist in any rich sense that ought to be of interest to a philosopher of science, or in any sense that is continuous with the legacy of what was once called scientia, or yet in any sense that ought to be modeled to a future citizen-scientist contributing to the civic life of a free society. His concerns —though they are an Islamic and nationalist variant that on the surface have a distinct appearance— are rather continuous with those of the ideology we call, under neoliberalism, “STEM”. This ideology reduces science to engineering in the service of power.
It’s true, fire burns the same everywhere, but what is most interesting to me, as a philosopher and as a student of the remarkable varieties of human endeavor, are all the different ways human beings, in the face of this uniformity, are still able to conceptualize what fire is, and all the different ways they are able to incorporate it into their societies as a result of these different conceptualizations. I do not think I am merely expressing a me-centric idiosyncrasy when I say that this interest of mine should be shared by other philosophers.
Strauss was born into a German Jewish family in 1899, and came of age during the troubled years of the liberal Weimar Republic, which was beset by a multitude of forces on the Left and Right long before the rise of the Nazi Party. Strauss studied philosophy at a time of radicalising political differences. And, like many writers and intellectuals who fled the Nazis’ rise to power, Strauss took the conflicts of the Weimar years with him. In 1949, the politically conservative medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, then teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, refused to sign a loyalty oath proclaiming that he wasn’t a communist, but stated: ‘I have twice volunteered to fight actively, with rifle and gun, the Left-wing radicals in Germany; but I know also that by joining the White battalions I have prepared, if indirectly and against my intention, the road leading to National-Socialism and its rise to power.’ No esoteric writer, he objected on principle to an academic institution submitting its faculty to a political test.
‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’ was Strauss’s first mature statement of a theory of philosophical citizenship, which balanced the stringent demands of philosophy against the need for decorum in the shared context of the city. In his essay ‘The Spirit of Sparta, or, a Taste of Xenophon’ (1939), Strauss had described how the philosopher and historian Xenophon, in exile from Athens, adapted his mode of speech to suit the needs of the Spartans, who had been compelled to practise virtue in public. In ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’, Strauss examined ‘the effect of that compulsion, or persecution, on thoughts as well as actions’. ‘Persecution,’ he concluded, in an ambitious and bewildering line, ‘cannot prevent independent thinking. It cannot prevent even the expression of independent thought,’ because of the expedient of esoteric writing.
Strauss imagined a historian living in a totalitarian country who had been ‘led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion’. Such a person might pen an attack on the liberal view of the history of religion, which would provide a chance to recount that liberal view’s central argument – and, in the course of that recounting, the historian could drop clues that would alert intelligent readers ‘who love to think’ to the historian’s real sympathy for the liberal view. This is writing between the lines. It’s a way of reaching ‘trustworthy and intelligent readers only’, but ones beyond the author’s circle of correspondence. By writing this way, we preserve the possibility of recognition within an outer shell of misrecognition, even as the seeds blow far and wide.
Everything has changed—the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that artists such as Godard, Bergman, Kubrick, and Fellini, who once reigned over our great art form like gods, would eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time. But at this point, we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business,” and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property—in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the “Art Film” swim lane on a streaming platform. Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.
I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t. Federico Fellini is a good place to start. You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.
Sixteen years ago, Giandomenico Majone, an Italian professor of political science, made an astute observation: In the European Union, he wrote, the ends and the means of policymaking are reversed. In national states, the ends are the policies themselves, from raising wages for workers to reducing regional inequalities and attracting foreign investment. Governments pursue these ends, using the means at their disposal, because they have won elections on the promise to do so.
By contrast, voters in the E.U. have little direct say on the legislative direction of the bloc. As a result, policies become the means of accomplishing quite different ends. For example, the union’s common agricultural policy, introduced in 1962, used farming to demonstrate the feasibility of federal-style policymaking, in the hope it would lead to more. The vaccination program was no different. It was never just about getting shots into people’s arms.
So what was it about? One goal, clearly, was to increase the power of E.U. institutions — notably the European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen. By centralizing vaccine procurement in its hands, it sought greater control over the bloc’s health policy. Such transfers of responsibility are rarely reversed, even if the policies themselves are a failure. This is what Professor Majone called “integration by stealth.”
A centralized vaccine strategy would also, leaders suggested, give meaning to an E.U. struggling to find its place in a challenging geopolitical environment, demonstrating the bloc’s capacity to unite. Yet the attempt amounted to an enormous institutional experiment conducted amid a global health crisis. It was a breathtakingly reckless gamble that didn’t come off.
‘Bob once said, Kesey goes for life, but I’m going for art,’ Janice told Bell. ‘And I thought he made exactly the right decision, because all those great nights of back and forth, you know, they disappeared into the ether.’ She was speaking of the Perry Lane days when Stone was at Stanford and they lived in a low-rent, semi-rural student neighbourhood near the university. Master of revels on Perry Lane was Ken Kesey, who had just published the book that would make him famous, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His personality was large and unpredictable, and he attracted an excitable crowd of the mainly young who were ready to think, do or ingest anything. Stone was ready for anything too – tonight. But tomorrow he planned on being back at work on his Stegner project, the novel A Hall of Mirrors, which moved slowly. When Kesey, with his love for big gestures and adventure, set off in a gaudily painted, rattletrap school bus to visit the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, the wilder half of the Perry Lane crowd was on the bus too, and the man at the wheel was Neal Cassady, the legendary long-distance driver of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Stone was part of the Perry Lane crowd, but when the hijinks began to eat into his writing time he slipped away. Kesey’s voyage east with the Merry Pranksters was one of the signature moments of the decade, along with Altamont and Woodstock. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test conferred lifetime notoriety on the pranksters who made the trip.
Stone was not one of them. He had already moved back to New York to finish and publish A Hall of Mirrors, which appeared on his thirtieth birthday, 21 August 1967, and won a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship. The book’s reception was a first-time writer’s dream: glowing reviews in the best places, a contract for a British edition, solid sales and a quick agreement for a second novel. A Hall of Mirrors had literary energy and a strong narrative pull, but the quality that set the book apart was not strictly literary. Stone had a prescient sense of something dead ahead in the American road. He hadn’t figured it out in a bookish way, but simply smelled it on the wind, like a wolf in winter catching the scent of something injured and vulnerable. The novel’s main character is a heavy-drinking radio personality called Rheinhardt who lands a job with a New Orleans station: ‘WUSA – The Voice of an American’s America – The Truth Shall Make You Free.’
It is here that Stone’s genius takes hold. Rheinhardt’s hammering broadcast style and message prefigure the formula embraced by Rush Limbaugh two decades later: ranting, fact-free hostility to government, gays, welfare cheats, communists at home and abroad, American rich kids who don’t love the country but won’t leave it. The novel, like Rheinhardt’s mighty river of invective and resentment, lurches towards apocalypse. The owner of WUSA is a tycoon of sinister purpose who hopes to use the airwaves and Rheinhardt’s rants to trigger an anti-black bloodbath. What Stone imagined was radio’s potential to spark the explosion of hatreds that often seems just around the corner in American political life. ‘I put every single thing I thought I knew into it,’ Stone said much later. ‘I had taken America as my subject, and all my quarrels with America went into it.’
The language of potency and act provides metaphysical terminology to describe the relation between who we are as human beings and what well-designed furniture does to us. Human beings are in potency of being upright and at attention or slack and relaxed (both physically and morally). This is because rectitude and slackness are possibilities allowed for by our nature. If a person is actually upright, that potency is actualized (“in act”). We are indeed disciplined by the world around us, but this fact does not change our humanity. Rather, it makes us certain kinds of humans, by actualizing certain potencies in certain ways. Boot camp may lack soft chairs precisely because it aims to accentuate and develop a recruit’s potency for being at attention. A library has them because it wants to encourage the relaxation of the body that allows for intellectual focus.
The classical terminology of potency and act is relevant because Foucault is riding on its coattails with his language of “power.” He believed that the entire theory of the metaphysical structure of things—matter and form, potency and act, natures—is itself an artifact of cultural conditioning, given shape by power-relations in the Greco-Roman world and, later, in Christian societies. Foucault insists that there is nothing deeper than power. Nothing resides within us as an innate potency; there is only that which acts upon us from the outside, like the blacksmith’s hammer blows, which give form to the iron ingot. Thus, for Foucault, external power is the real and sole metaphysical structure, which replaces the potency of nature and its innate capacity to be actualized.
In a word, Foucault exchanges nature for artifice. The metaphysical interiority of the person is traded out for the actions of power in shaping the person. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a friend of Foucault, puts it this way: “The inside is an outside operation.”
"The debate on socialism continues, with Pater Edmund playing the socialist and Alan Fimister taking the anti-socialist side. Joel is joined by Chris to moderate the discussion."
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