Pessoa understood that sensations themselves are full of contradiction. The invention of Caeiro allowed Pessoa to embody that inherent contradiction and to mine it for all its interesting conflicts while writing poetry that allowed him, through the simple pose of a shepherd-poet, to act unaware or unconscious of it. In perfect illustration of this, Pessoa wrote of Caeiro, “In fact, he never contradicts himself, and when it seems that he does, there appears, in some other corner of his verse, the appropriate contrary argument.” In other words, Caeiro never contradicts himself, and when it looks as though he does, don't worry: there’s another contradiction somewhere else contradicting this contradiction.
More broadly, however, Winner’s book is an examination of the terms by which technology is conceived of, discussed, and reasoned about within Technopolis, the cultural and technological condition that, at the time of the first edition’s publication, many readers only dimmed perceived. Winner’s contention, novel in the eighties and still illuminating now, is that technologies are not only instruments handy for this or that task; they are “forms of life.” The adoption of a technology—especially on a widespread basis—brings with it all kinds of potential changes to our personal lifestyles, social relations, and perhaps even political institutions. “In the technical realm,” Winner writes, “we repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are revealed only after signing.”
This notion of the tacit “social contract” is memorably illustrated by one of the book’s first examples: certain conspicuously low-hanging overpasses on the Long Island Expressway. With clearance as slight as nine feet, these overpasses make the road inaccessible to large vehicles such as buses. That, Winner points out, was the point. Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder” of midcentury New York, purposefully kept the overpasses low so that buses wouldn’t ferry undesirables to destinations like Jones Beach, which Moses envisaged as a haven for polite, middle-class whites who could travel by car. Thus what might have just seemed like a quirky feature of the Long Island Expressway turns out to be a part of a system for discrimination predicated on technological access.
Moses’s scheme is, of course, an egregious, even diabolical, example of how technologies can be used to, in Winner’s phrasing, “make a world.” It was unequal by design. Winner’s argument, though, is that even when there’s no one actively managing the controls, the advent of a “technical system” can engender a new world, with its own problems. Indeed, such a world may be even more potent, and potentially pernicious, than one built to order.
The obvious contemporary example is the Internet. The “Open Web” imagined by the scientists who created it in the late eighties–one where anyone could build a website out of a few simple tools–hasn’t disappeared. But for so much of the populace, the Internet now boils down to a few so-called “walled gardens,” that is, such self-contained ecosystems as Facebook and Google where developers, service providers, or advertisers set up shop. In a THR piece two years ago (“Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future”), Alan Jacobs rightly argued that the garden metaphor is too benign. These are “walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell.”
There is much more to say on this topic, of course. But for present purposes, we need only recognize how superbly the history of the Internet illustrates Winner’s argument: Here is a technical system that has reshaped social roles and relationships in ways that we are at this point far from fully understanding. We are living out the terms of the new social contract.
What is it to be a good person? What is it to live well rather than badly? We might say, "It is to act in accordance with some true moral code." If we are Christians or Jews, we might mention the moral code of the ten commandments. If we say this, however, we will find at least one person who disagrees with us, and that is Thomas Aquinas. He did not think that living well consists in acting in accordance with the commandments. This is not because he thought (as some modern Christians do) that the commandments have been superseded by the law of love. He thought the ten commandments were just a common-sense account of what loving behavior is like (and especially what it is not like). He thought that any society which was indifferent to whether you broke the commandments or not couldn't be a community of friends. He thought these commandments were one of those things given to us by God in his revelation which we could have worked out for ourselves, if we thought hard and honestly enough about what a society based on friendship would be like.
But although Aquinas holds the moral code of the commandments in high esteem, he would still disagree with you if you said that living well is simply acting in accordance with the commandments. Why? Because, he says, living well is not just a matter of doing good things instead of bad things. It is a matter of doing them well, and that means doing them from the depths of your real character.
You may do an act of kindness, you may send a donation for the relief of famine, say, in Africa, because you have been momentarily swayed by television reporting or whatever, and that, of course, is a good thing to do. You may do it because you have been told that it is the right thing for a Christian to do. You may do it because you fear that God will punish you if you don't, and it is still a good thing to do. But Aquinas would say that this is still not what living well means. Living well means doing good because you want to do it, because you have become the kind of you that just naturally wants to do this. Then you are no longer just doing kind acts. You are a kind person:
Living well is not only doing good things, but doing them well, choosing them in a right way and not simply acting on impulse or emotion. Right choosing involves having a right goal and suitably acting to achieve that goal. The dispositions to right goals are the moral virtues in the appetites; the disposition to act suitably to achieve the goal must dispose reason to plan and decide well, and that is the virtue of prudence. Doing something good on another's advice rather than one's own judgment is not yet a perfect activity of one's own reasoning and desiring. One does the good but not altogether well, as living requires. Thinking in a theoretical way seeks the true match of mind to things . . . Thinking practically seeks the true match to right appetite, and that can only happen in . . . matters we have power to influence . . . So the virtues concerned with contingent matters are dispositions of practical thought: skill for making, prudence for doing. In the case of doing, man's practical reasoning makes plans and decisions just as his theoretical reasoning explores and arrives at conclusions, but then goes on to issue commands to do things, and that is its special role. If men made good decisions and then didn't implement them properly, reason's work would be incomplete (ST lallae, 57, 5-6).
Where the neoconservative sensibility comes from, and what it resembles in philosophic speculation, are fascinating questions, though inevitably indeterminable and complicated. There have been ingenious attempts to trace the origins to controversies in the 1930s, when the first generation of neoconservatives (let’s call them pre-neos) fought it out in the cafeterias of City College over arcane points of Marxist doctrine, featuring tenacious slugfests between Trotskyites and Stalinists. This history, however, was not especially significant for the first generation, who grew up during World War II and then came to consider their previous ideas as rather infantile. Those distant controversies on the left had no effect at all on the second generation of neoconservatives, people like Kagan or William Kristol or John Podhoretz, who generally came of age in the 1970s. They read about those disputes in Commentary or heard about them from their fathers, but that history had no real effect on them. If not that, then what?
Here I just have to blurt out my answer, one that would not have occurred to me to give five years ago. I think they are best seen as neo-Machiavellians, who view the world, as Machiavelli did, as hostile and forever bearing seeds of war, and who conclude, as he did as well, that odious means are sometimes required to achieve good results. Kagan relishes that insight and announces it with somber rectitude, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, but failing to note that Niebuhr made that allowance to embolden resistance to Hitler when he was staring down the throat of civilization, not to justify dirty tricks against less powerful nations. The steps from “we must do this out of dire necessity” to “we should do this for our advantage” to “we can do whatever we like, because we are better” are the easiest in the world for the powerful to take. It would have been exceptional in history if Americans did not take them. In doing so, they proved to be not so exceptional after all. God no longer reserves a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.
The parallel with Machiavelli goes beyond that of the immunity of evil deeds to condemnation when committed for a good cause. Machiavelli in his Discourses distinguished between the “Tuscan” and the “Roman” methods of expansion, the former favoring confederation, the latter empire, the former closely resembling in key respects the liberalism built into European institutions after World War II, the latter the Mars-like infatuation with armed overthrow that became emblematic of neoconservatism. Machiavelli pronounced emphatically for the latter choice, as does Kagan. What Machiavelli called “the Roman method” meant acting preemptively, never allowing your enemies a chance to coalesce against you. It meant holding out a false promise of equality, and then reducing your associates to subjects. It meant the acquisition of protectorates, the more the merrier if your purpose was expansion. No better method suggested itself than hitting hard, seeking more, but doing so under a smokescreen of pieties about the equality of your associates and the nature of your enterprise. Is this not Kagan and neoconservatism in a nutshell?
"This holistic idea of wealth, and this economic telos of life, led Ruskin to coin the term “illth.” “Illth” is un-wealth, the material possessions that do not contribute to fulfilling the responsibilities we owe to ourselves and our fellow citizens. A “Common-illth” exists alongside the “Common-wealth” of a nation."
What distinguishes Stoppard’s Herzen—which I think is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the real Herzen— from Marx and Chernyshevsky is simply that his thought is more historical than theirs. Both of them believed themselves to be deeply historical thinkers, but they had, in their different ways, settled on a complete and wholly enclosed understanding of the point that history is coming to, the point at which it will effectively conclude. They shared a sense of the telos, the goal, or end, of history. And as Isaiah Berlin, Herzen’s greatest champion and the writer who first alerted Tom Stoppard to Herzen’s importance, wrote at the outset of a famous essay about liberty:
Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. That is the meaning of Engels’s famous phrase (paraphrasing Saint-Simon) about “replacing the government of persons by the administration of things,” and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the State and the beginning of the true history of humanity.
Herzen, by contrast, didn’t know where history was going or how it would get there. He understands himself to be in the midst of a great procession, one of many both before and after him to take up the cause of justice and freedom. History is plurality, even among those who share a commitment, a cause.
Turning Bird-worship into the Birth of the Cool was an amazing knight’s move and one Miles would keep making, in one way or another, for the next forty years. Ralph Ellison identified this restlessness as in part a refusal to play to the crowd, noting how both Bird and Miles “struggled. . .to escape the entertainer’s role.” Parker, Powell, and Monk’s way of being artists (rather than background music for a cocktail party) was to write intricate bebop licks that sounded like the preceding era’s dance bands cut up and stuck back together at severe angles; but from Birth of the Cool onward Miles’s way was to play by implication, to elide and subtract, to move elliptically in and out of song structure, and, above all, to shift styles from record to record.
In an early section of the Poetics, Aristotle notes the curious fact that humans take pleasure in looking at images of things they would find painful to contemplate as actual objects or scenes. The philosopher is working toward an account of tragedy that explains why people go to the theater to watch kings tear out their eyes and mothers murder their children. Before he gets to the plays, Aristotle considers the satisfaction we get from examining pictures “of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies” (he seems to be thinking of anatomy books). Why do we like looking at things like that?
It is because of the delight we take in learning, Aristotle says. Looking at images or portraits, we take pleasure in recognizing someone: “Ah, that is he” (or, in another translation, “The man there is so-and-so”). It is through such acts of recognition, what the Greeks called anagnorisis, that we pass from ignorance to knowledge. Not coincidently, this is the same transformation Oedipus goes through at the end of Sophocles’ tragedy, which Aristotle particularly admired. In this case, the act of anagnorisis is one of self-recognition. The king, searching for the murderer of his father, discovers that it was himself, that the criminal and detective are one: “Ah, he is me.”
A variant of Aristotle’s question might be posed about the depiction of ruins, those images or verbal evocations of half-collapsed buildings and crumbling masonry that form such a durable theme in art history. Why is it, Susan Stewart asks in her deeply researched and gracefully written book The Ruins Lesson, that “we so often are drawn—in schadenfreude, terror, or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged, and decayed”?
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