Brave companion of the road

28 05 2011

Is it better to be consistent than inconsistent? What about contradiction and hypocrisy: what is the merit or demerit of such concepts?

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been carrying on a long conversation with himself and the rest of us regarding the interpretation and understanding of the American Civil War; to that end, he tries to leave judgment behind and move into the experience—as much as is possible—of those living at the time. He reads historical accounts and letters and novels and requests that we “Talk to me like I’m stupid” regarding weaponry, battle tactics, wardrobe, John Locke, and hermeneutics.

He wants to understand.

I follow his wonderings in part because he often writes beautifully about these topics, in part because I learn something the Civil War, and in part because his attempt to shed enough of himself to enter into the mind of, say, a Confederate soldier, seems simultaneously brave, foolish, and in vain.

Brave: You do have to shed your armor, your clothes, sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

Foolish: You have to shed your armor, your clothes, and sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

In vain: As long as you can choose to come and go into another’s experience, you reinforce the separation between yourself and the other.

I am ambivalent about the limits and risks and possibilities and purposes of understanding, an ambivalence which tips sometimes more toward openness, sometimes more toward skepticism, but I am fascinated by the quest.This is not just philosophy; this is art.

And that’s where I return to the questions regarding consistency and contradiction. In  a recent post of George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All!, TNC noted that he appreciated not only Fitzhugh’s straightforward defense of slavery, but his willingness to extend it as far as it could logically take him—in Fitzhugh’s case, into the enslavement of the majority of humankind:

There’s something attractive about his willingness to game out all of his maniacal theories. He has moral courage that his double-talking, bullshitting, slaveholding friends lack. It’s the opposite of that Jeffersonian view of slavery which cowers from the awful implications of one’s beliefs.

It’s Howell Cobb’s, “If slaves make soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong,” versus Jefferson Davis’s legalistic bullshit about black Confederates. There’s something about the sheer clarity of these guys, even though they speak evil, that’s a breath of fresh air. Half the problem is cutting through the deliberate lying about one’s own theories.

At which point I (metaphorically) raised my hand and said, Um, wait a minute: why is straight talk better, here? Is this really courageous as opposed to, say, crackers?  I drilled down further to argue that there is no necessary moral content either to consistency or to contradiction.

Consider, as well, “double-talking”, “bullshitting”, “deliberate lying”: these are all moral judgments on those who, unlike Fitzhugh, do not make their arguments one logical smooth piece, but who cramp and crinkle and perhaps tear at the fabric of their own arguments regarding the justness of slavery or the conditions of those enslaved.

These moral judgments, in other words, are, if not at root, then at least also, aesthetic judgments: better to make the argument straight than kinked, better to untie all knots and iron the whole cloth of the argument, better there be no seams.

But why is this so? Why let the aesthetic stand in for the moral? Can the aesthetic stand in for the moral? (This is a very old argument, by the way.)

No, no, I’m really not demanding a thesis from TNC; he’s doing quite enough already. But his musings in this particular piece have thrown into sharp relief how tenacious are our unexamined judgments, how much of one’s own world—one’s own ontology, as it were—one brings to that quest for understanding.

There’s no easy way out of this: judgments are our bearings, and to leave them behind in an attempt to make sense of another risks losing them altogether, to the point where we can’t make sense to ourselves.

I don’t know where I’m going with this; perhaps I’m losing my own bearings. But this whole understanding gig, tch, it’s a real kick in the head.




7 responses

29 05 2011

I think that all along TNC has been wrestling with the mistaken idea (an all too common one) that we act out of a singular logic (some people now call it a Narrative) , a kind of cognitive-behavioral model, and so better thinking is more narrowly consistent thinking. Now at his best he has come to see the limits of this kind of debate club thinking and just fleshes out his experiences, I have giving him perspicuous reminders of hermeneutic phenomenology along the way but as you know these are not easy changes in folk-psychology to get one’s mind around except through indirect communication.

29 05 2011

for yer undergrads,brain as team of rivals:

30 05 2011

One of the first things you learn in writing fiction is that you character needs to be consistent, or if your character is inconsistent he must be consistently inconsistent. The point I really want to make though, or perhaps the question I wish to ask, is that if you write fiction and want to do it well, do you have any choice but to shed your own skin in an attempt to “enter the mind of, say, a Confederate soldier”? Otherwise it is a shallow story that you are telling. If your character is a Southern boy whose family owns no slaves, what is the reasoning that leads him to pick up arms to defend a system that has no direct benefit to him and his? That’s not the only question TNC is attempting to answer, as his explorations run the gamut from the poorest private to the loftiest slave-holding (or non-slave-holding) general…but for my purposes, it’s the most important.

I’ll have to make time, dmf, to view the video. The idea of the mind as a team of rivals hold interesting implications for writing POV (point of view) characters.

30 05 2011

mwj, surely you are right about fiction but what about when TNC, and others, shift to non-fiction? Fiction writing tends to have a very dated psychology so I would be interested in yer take on these updates on the research end.

30 05 2011

@dmf: Nicely put. I’ve been trying to find a way formulate that same idea—that we might think many things at once, or over time, in such a way that it is difficult to say what is THE motive or mover or whatever behind one’s actions, which is the “really real” sentiment or thought. Perhaps this is where Foucault’s genealogical approach comes in, as a way to trace understanding without having to declare that THIS (as opposed to THAT) is the “really real” reason.

@mwf: I write fiction, too, but it seems quite different, somehow. Huh, I can’t quite say why that would be, but I guess I inhabit my characters. . . well, shoot, I really can’t explain why it’s different. Is it about a level of consciousness? Or my position relative to the characters I write?

Maybe its that when I write fiction I’m not at all interested in judging them, nor am I at all bothered by their turnarounds and errors and hypocrisies and whatnot, because I’m unspooling those characters. I write them so that they can become their own, separate from me; I set them free.

Maybe that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s less about me getting inside of their heads than me letting them outside of my head.

31 05 2011

I think that the common thread is that our psyches are “polytheistic” whereas through our history (as you say Foucault was working this out when he died) we have come under christian regimes/disciplines that thru a variety of carrots and sticks have tried to impose a mono-theistic moral psychology of norms on us, which were reified into various philosophies and social/legal systems. New neuroscience now backs much of poly-psyche thinkers like Freud and William James (not in terms of repression tho plenty of narcissistic cognitive biases) but in terms of life being a flow of multiplicities. So after the death of the one true god the death of the mono-polized-subject, so to speak.

31 05 2011

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