Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest Post: Re: The Moral "das Ding"

Here it is in the rough;

The dichotomy seems to be between, in my estimation a false one, a priori notions or levels of productivity. A priori notions; which relate to concepts like the categorical imperative. Then questions of productivity (Social, economic, otherwise) relating to utilitarian or consequentialism, which still exist with abstractions filled in with a priori assumptions.

If we are to assume that the axiomatical understandings of moral structures exist under the pretext of economic productivity, for example, it is unhealthy for the economy of a civil society to create a general distrust amongst all the people by allowing murder to go unrecognized, this would undoubtedly cause a massive rupture in the fluidity of productive forces; no one is going to go to work and produce things if there exists a very real fear of getting killed the second they leave their home. But what if we turn this on its head? What if the threat of violence serves as the productive element of society? PRC serves as an example of this, if we are to assume a functioning and, for the most part, legitimate government structure is necessary to mediate the material relations between people; that a working economy cannot exist without a working government, can it not be stated that if we are to have at the foundation of any moral structure the issue of its productive and economic impacts, we then cannot condemn exploitation, state violence, corporate violence, corruption, etc. on moral grounds. The condemnation only exists within its speculative productive impacts, so were we to see that, in certain places, under certain regimes, where heavy exploitation brings in massive amounts of foreign capitol, we then are stripped of a moral argument against this practice because morality serves productivity.

It seems impossible to avoid filling in the spaces of abstraction without resorting to simplistic a priori estimations. A little something inside you that just tells you this is wrong or this is right. It is also seems impossible to avoid, without a God, to avoid postmodern speculations about how you define "good" and "bad". Hitchens I've noticed tends to fall into this trap, the only time when he debates theologians and his argument crumbles, when he makes a very categorical statement, "this behavior is evil!" to which the theologian then replies "Where do you draw your conclusion of what is evil and good without a God to lay out the very definitions for both?" Other than simply stating the source of it comes from a priori subjectivity, where do we have grounds to make such assumptions about the validity of moral statements (or indignations)? The Kantian notion of "duty" and the categorical imperative become the obvious and all too easy reply. Which, in my opinion, crumbles the instant someone recognizes that their categorical "duty" will undeniably lead to something destructive, that occasionally a space opens up where to lie seems completely morally justifiable. Thus, confusing the importance of which to attach ones moral compass to, "duty" or consequence, does morality lie in ones behavior and acts in accordance to duty or is it contingent on the outcome of amoral actions directed towards a moral outcome?

But similarly, consequentialism seems to require a level of immediacy. If the ends justify the means, and since there is no specific "duty" or categorical imperative which insures one is going to make the most utilitarian judgment, then it seems to me that the individual would then need a certain closeness to the outcome of the particularly morally driven behavior. A visible consequent of the action. Though, as the space expands; with the action driven by utilitarian speculation as the epicenter of this space, and the effects of this action go beyond the visible, unseen consequences of otherwise immoral behavior go unnoticed. Purchasing clothes that were made in sweatshops because you not purchasing it is not going to close the sweatshops anyways and it is economically smart on your part. The lack of a categorical imperative here rings loudly. If morality existed in action and not outcome, then duty dictates the behavior.

The trouble with the above is not the lack of understanding of morality, drawing from good ol' Witty here, but paradox in the human "understanding" or morality. It is a metaphysic, its understanding seems to be nothing more than a dialectic without a rational synthesis, its validity seems to lie in the capricious behavior of human beings. Part of it seems to me that Zizek's "materialist theology", while not satisfactory by any means, provides us enough space to say "genocide is wrong" "rape is wrong". We must engage with each other as if such a thing like morality actually did exist, while recognizing the subjectivity of it.

Beyond that, as unsatisfying and open-ended as all that was, my ideas of "morality" get stuck there, and I can't seem to push past it.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Guest Post: Hermit in Paris

Hermit In Paris, by Italo Calvino
2003, 255 pp.

One need read only a few books by the great man to realize that while he may have been a hermit in Paris, Calvino is a giant in literature. Born on the 15 October 1923 in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, two months after which his family moved back to their native Italy, we find our protagonist spending his first 25 years in San Remo, Italy, fighting along side the partisans against fascism, and finally moving to Turin to join the ranks of returning combatants seeking a university degree. His rushed thesis was on ‘the Opera Omnia of Joseph Conrad’. In twenty days in December of 1946 Calvino wrote his first novel The Path to the Spider’s Nest. A novel which his mentor and fellow author Cesar Pavese passed along to a publisher, and went on to sell 6,000 copies in post-war Italy, no small feat. If one was active in Politics in Italy in the 40’s and 50’s one had few options, on the one hand was fascism on the other was communism. Calvino gravitated toward communism, and broke with it in 1957 in light of the failure of Khrushchev to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union, the exit of one of the leading communists in the Italian party, and in the Soviet’s response to Hungary and Budapest (as well as the support for these actions by the PCI leadership).

The book itself is a collection of interviews, essays, and critical reflections upon the travels of the human through the mediums of life, literature, and politics. We follow Calvino as he fought the Nazi’s in one of the most important regions for the Germans the Maritime Alps, ‘a back route to the font lines’ where “Even in the final days of the war the Germans had reappeared by surprise and we had suffered mortalities.” He writes tellingly of war, “As long as our lives hung by a thread, it was pointless conjuring up even the notion that a new life was about to dawn, one without machine-gun fire, reprisal raids, the fear of being caught and tortured. And even afterwards when peace had come, rediscovering the habit of functioning in a different way would take time.”

In “American Diary 1959-1960” he describes his time in America in perhaps one of the greatest series of letters, here collected and presented with subtitled journal entries, and insightful accounts of the US. Calvino’s trip across country led him to conclude, rightly I might add as testified by my own car trip across country, “A few outings on the motorway are enough… you realize that 95 per cent of America is a country of ugliness, oppressiveness, and sameness, in short of relentless monotony.” He actually met Martin Luther King during his sojourn in Alabama. He was there on the 6th of March, 1960 and witnessed, “what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of society’s fundamental rules.” This passage of a Calvino merits an extended quotation, Calvino writes of the day’s proceedings when racial tensions flared their ugly ways as black people simply were exiting a meeting at a Baptist church,
‘The most admirable ones are the black girls: they come down the road in twos or threes, and those thugs spit on the ground before their feet standing in the middle of the pavement and forcing the girls to zigzag past them, shouting abuse at them and making as though to trip them up, and the black girls continue to chat among themselves, never do they move in such a way as to suggest they want to avoid them, never do they alter their route when they see them blocking their path, as though they were used to these scenes right from birth.’
He speaks about Texas and the Texan mentality in incisive terms as well reminding us that they in fact went into WW2 a year before the rest of the country following along with a Canadian bomber squadron. He was present during Mardi Gras in Louisiana, and found a home in New York, the city that of all the cities he lived in Calvino immediately felt in possession of and at home in.

In one interview we find out that Calvino knew people who were particularly close to Gramsci, he met the Hungarian literary critic and Marxist Gyogry Lukác’s in the Summer of’56, and that he was a diligent communist who actually fought as one, worked as one in a publishing house, and believed in it with a youthful zeal. He faced the continuing failure of communism in praxis, and gradually grew less interested in Politics as an active participant. However, Calvino points out two things that are immediately relevant to our understanding of what this means. “One is the passion for a global culture, and the rejection of the lack of content caused through excessive specialization: I want to keep alive an image of culture as a unified whole, which is composed of every aspect of what we know and do, and in which the various discourses of every area of research and production become part of that general discourse which is the history of humanity, which we must manage to seize and develop ultimately in a human direction. (And literature should of course be in the middle of these different languages and keep alive the communication between them.” And “My other passion is for a political struggle and a culture (and literature) which will be the education of a new ruling class … if class means only that which has class consciousness, as in Marx. I have always worked and continue to work with this in mind: seeing the new ruling class taking shape, and contributing to give it a shape and profile.” Thankfully, as a result of this combination of factors he did not leave us with a scant amount of literature. If I quote in length it is because the erudition of Calvino is such that I do not want to cheapen it by paraphrasing his lifetime of deep thinking and articulations.

I could go on quoting and write about what to me is largely the pivot point of the book, his Hermitude in Paris, how his living in different cities as a writer contributed to the concept of Invisible Cities, but I’d prefer to simply say read the damn book. One is never cheapened by reading Italo Calvino, he wrote each book in a different way and he can only enhance one’s understanding of the world by showing us the multitudinous forms of his narrators, his imagination, his fantasy, and his exploration of what literature can and should be. He writes this advice, “First of all live, and then philosophize and write. Writers above all should live with an attitude towards the world which effects a greater acquisition of truth.” And he reminds us, “What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To the Finland Station

To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson
1940, 509 pp.

When life has become particularly difficult, when you flounder amid indecision and uncertainty, when you feel you have lost your way, you can do no better than to read a good book about communists. We, all of us, move through life assailed by information, much of it contradictory or irrelevant or fraudulent, with no governing principle for its assimilation and evaluation, and marooned in our solitude as the communicability of experience diminishes. How, then, are we to organize our experience of the world, especially in a manner effective enough to allow us to take meaningful action in it? A long and healthy dose of Marx, with his unparalleled ability to marshal and organize vast amounts of information into an argument which is both cogent and forceful, will immediately set you aright, and make whatever difficult tasks lie ahead appear to be small, simple things. All that had appeared solid will melt into air, and the way ahead will be revealed. Only ask yourself: What Would Marx Do?

I have therefore arrived at To the Finland Station after a long Marxist bath which began with the hundred-page introduction to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, then proceeded through a volume of Hobsbawm and a short piece by Tony Cliff. My appraisal might be affected by this prolonged exposure, but I found this book to be extremely enjoyable. Wilson, a gifted literary critic and close friend of Vladimir Nabokov, is a splendid writer. His Axel’s Castle is an intelligent, accessible approach to most of the important artists of the Modernist period, and is a good place to start for an accurate, logical description of what exactly happens in Ulysses. Here he is a sort of curious sidekick to Leszek Kolakowski. To the Finland Station mirrors much of Kolakowski’s monumental Main Currents of Marxism quite closely: there are the various pre-Marx socialists, then Marx himself as the centerpiece, then Lenin and Trotsky emerge in the third act. But in many ways Wilson is the exact opposite, and perhaps perfect companion piece. Kolakowski is an intellectual and scholarly juggernaut, an immense whirling combine of knowledge and analysis, with sentences like mechanical threshers, shredding all that stands before him. He knows everything that has ever happened or ever will happen, and has compressed it all into his work. He is the Alpha and the Omega, and he can flatten the life’s work of a poseur like Althusser in one withering sentence. His work is less a book and more like an entymologist’s catalogue, with innumerable obscure Marxists preserved, impaled, in careful boxes. Wilson, on the other hand, has no scholarly apparatus. There are no footnotes, no bibliography. Naturally, I found this a bit annoying. Much of his material is biographical and conversational, to the point where he seems often to be writing a novel. The book is easy and quick to read because of this: I may read Kolakowski before bed, but I bet you don’t. This is much more manageable.
In fact, if I am ever absurd enough to have a child, it is highly likely that this will indeed be her bedtime reading: “Now, next door to the Marxes in Trier there lived a family named von Westphalen…”

Like Kolakowski, though, the stuff before Marx turns up is often desperate. The book opens well, with an enthralling account of Michelet, the great (and often utterly forgotten) French historian, who was the first (and in many senses the only) writer to use the actual documents and archives to write a multi-volume history of the French Revolution. Within two chapters Wilson had me on Amazon, pricing full sets. The chapter on Gracchus Babeuf is excellent, and a more efficient introduction to that essential character than Robert Rose’s full-length biography.

The chapter headings are a good summary of Wilson's approach: Karl Marx Decides to Change the World, Marx and Engels Take a Hand at Making History, Marx and Engels Go Back to Writing History, Trotsky Identifies History With Himself, Lenin Identifies Himself With History.

Wilson’s avuncular conversationalism does have its drawbacks. Particularly when describing the misery of Marx’s life in London, Wilson’s sense of humor works against him. He seems to be laughing at Marx and his three dead children, adopting a position of superiority which is hardly warranted. That said, the chapters on Marx are mostly very good, and though they are lighter on detail than David McClellan’s excellent biography, they are quicker, smoother, and probably better written. Anyone interested in the great man’s life, but pressed for time and without access to a university library could do no better than to seek out To the Finland Station and read pp. 112-345. Wilson has clearly read Marx widely and deeply, even to the extent of translating some of Marx and Engels’ odd polyglot correspondence and sending copies of Marx’s mathematical manuscripts to a distinguished professor for commentary. He is great fun and displays contagious enthusiasm when he talks about the good bits of Marx’s work, and has a sharp eye for the problems which are now so familiar.

In particular, he has an entire chapter called “The Myth of the Dialectic,” which, while he annoyingly fails to trace the origin of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis vulgarism to Fichte rather than Hegel, does make an important point. Hegel was an idealist and a mystic, and the concepts of the dialectic and the Absolute Idea are holdovers from the great age of German mysticism. Marx never was able to get away from metaphysics, and they are often his undoing. His love for abstraction and grounding in classical German philosophy led him down dark alleys which he plunged into so heedlessly that he never found his way back out. Hence we have the inescapable problem of the Labour Theory of Value, which in Volume III of Das Kapital turns out to be separate from actual prices and demand functions and turns out to have been mysticism all along. This may explain why the best of Marx’s work are the most materialist, the most immediate responses to actual political events rather than the products of long years of abstract rumination.

Wilson is also sharp on Marx’s other weaknesses: his enormous hatreds, his domineering nature, the misery he inflicted on his family, his tendency to factionalism. All manner of contradictions are revealed: Marx’s ambivalence towards science while espousing scientific socialism, his inability to reconcile his great hatred of capitalism with his sober economic analysis of its necessity. And so on. Wilson’s Marx is a fascinating character memorably presented, but an altogether smaller figure than you expect. His Engels, however, emerges as quite a sympathetic character. There is none of the rage of some Marxists who accuse Engels of simplifying and distorting the subtle gradations of Marx’s thought into the sort of vulgarity which has been used to justify violence and repression. Wilson’s picture of Engels is of a loyal, amiable guy who likes to have a good time and when he is away from Marx’s drive and cynicism, likes to go horseback riding and eat grapes. Weighed against this sympathetic portrayal of Engels, Wilson’s Marx seems all the more limited. There is a touching passage about their only real falling-out, occasioned by the sudden death of Engels’ lover Mary Burns. Marx started out to write a sympathetic letter, but didn’t quite know how, so he ended up complaining for several pages about his own life. Engels, understandably, replied coldly. Marx tried to apologize, and apparently cast about for something to cheer Engels up. He seems to have concluded that the best thing would be to get Engels talking about something he knows well but that Marx doesn’t, apparently on the grounds that what Marx himself enjoys is expounding at length on topics that others are ignorant of. So Marx writes to Engels about factory machinery, and only succeeds in alienating Engels more. Two more of Marx’s letters go unanswered, and we begin to see just how much Marx needs his friend and how limited he was in the world of personal relations. Marx’s daughter later wrote of how her father would get immensely excited when Engels was coming to visit London, but be all to business when Engels actually arrived. These letters are an angle on Marx we don’t often see: the lonely exile, the great intellectual whose passionate hatred and pedantic insistence on subtle distinctions drove away all his comrades, the old man afraid that he has driven away his only friend. Here, and later during his account of the death of Marx’s wife, Wilson is quite moving.

Instead it is Lenin who is the hero of To the Finland Station. Wilson has quite a glowing assessment of Lenin, who he sees as above petty politics, as a charming, charismatic statesman of the future. Most of the violence of the Revolution and the Red Terror Wilson ascribes to Trotsky, who he sees as a bit of an egotist, a dilettante, and a man prone to violence and cruelty. Wilson later recanted a bit and published as Appendix E to a later edition of To the Finland Station a correction in which he acknowledged that virtually all of the institutions of Stalin’s repression were set up by Lenin himself. But for the main narrative, Lenin seems almost a messiah, and Wilson faithfully reports all of the best stories from Trotsky’s biography of Lenin, but leaves out the carping, contemptuous tone of Lenin’s polemics and the gleeful cruelty of Lenin’s telegrams.

Wilson, of course, has his problems. While he is an effective and engaging popularizer of history and ideas, he is less convincing when he expresses his own ideas. He is given to some unconvincing psychologizing, and he has some peculiar ideas about Jews. The book suffers from the absence of the 1844 manuscripts, but it is not Wilson’s fault he could not have access to them during his writing. We probably could have done with less of Fourier and Owen and a bit more of Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Plekhanov. If read as an interesting, thoughtful, and enthusiastic account of a great and fascinating drama, the book is a rousing success, it just must not be taken as a critical, scholarly opus, or as the last word on any point of controversy.