We might as well try: We do what we’re told, told to do

5 08 2012

Libertarianism and anarchism are necessary adjuncts to any theory, but as theories themselves, they are shit.

Now, if I were as clever as Nietzsche, I could leave it at that: the man knew that aphorisms are so much more delightful—for the writer of them, at least—than their elaborations.

But I am duller than the mad German, more (if only fitfully) dutiful in extending my pronunciamentos into argument.

Still, I am in an aphoristic mood, so allow me to miss the dot-and-cross of explanation in favor of elision and leap and speculation: after all, even political theorists have to play.

And so, declaration upon declaration, a piling up standing in for the more consequential lock of link by link:

I had stated previously that no theory of politics which cannot take account of how we humans are deserve the name of theory; I may even have used the term political science fiction.

And, alas, as much affection as I hold for anarchism, it is as fantastical as libertarianism in its approach to human being. If libertarianism can’t think of value beyond liberty, anarchism cannot imagine the irreconcilability of interests. Libertarianism conceives of humans as adults emerging fully formed from the mud, anarchism sees us instinctively in communion. They see the state, the corporation, as the obstacles to our true selves, the heavy gate locking us away from utopia.

In short, libertarianism is too small in its understanding of humans, while anarchism would have us floating above the ground. One thinks too little of humans, the other, too much; neither knows what to do with coercion.

And there’s the rub: there is no human polity without coercion, no human congress at all, so any political theory which is to direct us has to take coercion’s measure, calculate how to deploy and constrain coercion in a manner most congenial to that theory’s purpose.

Neither libertarianism nor anarchism is fitted to such calculations. Libertarianism falls into hysterics at the merest whisper of coercion, imagining itself Mel Gibson’s William Wallace rasping out “Freedom!” as it is gutted by the king’s men, while anarchism, too, imagines that if it gets rid of kings and bosses it gets rid of coercion. They share the delusion that if only individuals or the people were left alone, that if the state and the corporation were to disappear,  power and interest would disappear with them.

Forced to toil in service to real theory, however, these adjuncts serve a real purpose. Libertarianism reminds one of the massive accumulation of coercive power in the state, and how easily that state may justify to itself any use of that power; if one cares at all the liberty and integrity of the individual, it is good to have a counter-valence to the state. Anarchism remembers that these same individuals and the communities in which they live are capable, often more capable, than is the central state in providing, or at least arranging the provisions, for themselves.

To put this more simply, when serving as a minor chord in a major theory, they are forced to reckon with elements they would otherwise dismiss, and by this reckoning they provide a leavening necessary to the continued functioning of that theory. Their resistance creates breathing room that theory in its denseness would not otherwise provide.

Libertarianism and anarchism, then, are honorable resistance fighters, but it is best if they rarely, if ever, defeat what they resist.

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We might as well try: Here comes the future and you can’t run from it

24 07 2012

It is terrible not to know all that I want to know, a terribleness only counterbalanced by the pleasure of soaking up what others know.

This is as good a precis for this series as any:

If men have always been concerned with only one task—how to create a society fit to live in—the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again. The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind [or ahead of] us, is in us.

—Claude Levi-Strauss, from Triste Tropiques

Yes, I know Levi-Strauss, but no, I haven’t read him, don’t know if I’ll ever make the time to read him.

But this bit, this bit was worth the time.

h/t John Nichols’s obit for Alexander Cockburn, The Nation





We might as well try: what’s life?

22 07 2012

Is life good?

Is it something to be desired, a good in and of itself, something to be drawn out as long as possible?

I don’t know.

Yes, yesterday I noted that every killing lead to a smaller world, which, given my world-centric views, could reasonably be taken to be a bad thing. And it is. But I don’t think death itself is a bad thing, and if death itself isn’t a bad thing, then life itself may not be a good thing.

Not that life is a bad thing; it’s simply life and death are neither good nor bad, but part of the necessary conditions (biology, mortality) of our existence—conditions which themselves are, well, to repurpose a quote from a mad German, beyond good and evil. We enter the world through birth and exit through death, and neither the entrance nor the exit is a moral issue. We have no say in our births and that we die is inevitable; it is difficult to argue the morality of matters utterly beyond one’s control.

I didn’t always think this way; I once thought that my life was bad, and my ongoing existence both a symbol of my moral failure to and proof of the need to end it. I purchased days against weeks, weeks against months, months against years—until the years piled up and the credit ran out and spent from the running and loathing I lay myself out and whispered, finally, enough.

Funnily enough, the ending wasn’t the end. I claim no mastery over the moment; it was, simply, a moment, a leaf blown this way rather than that, life, not death. I picked the leaf up, that’s all; I would have picked that leaf up, regardless.

Did I “choose” life? No. I recognized it, recognized it as mine, and said, Well then. Enough.

Would killing myself have been a lessening? I didn’t see it that way, then, but, yes, I guess it would have been—not for me, but for those around me, who cared about me. My world prior to the turning had already been lessened; my suicide would simply have capped off the decades-long hollowing out of my world.

So now I live. I don’t think it’s good that I live or bad that I would have died, but I also don’t think that it’s bad that I live or good that I would have died. I take my life as a given—not a gift, but something simply there—and recognizing it as such, try to do something more with it.





We might as well try: stuck in the middle with you

19 07 2012

We’re a mess, a mortal, biological, social mess.

Now what?

Now. . . nothing. Or something, or everything—take yer pick.

I stated in the last post that any serious theory of human being has to take into account some basic facts about us, but having taking those basics into account does not lead in any particular moral or political direction. You can believe we’re m-b-s and believe in God (or not); hold to socialist, capitalist, fascist, monarchist, republican, and even many versions of libertarian beliefs; love, hate, or be indifferent to your fellow humans; love, hate, or be indifferent to the material and social conditions in which we live.

One could, for example, see our mortality as reason for despair, and seek release from life’s arbitrary limits, or see these limits as a reason to cram as much living in as one can while one can. (As an absurdist I both despair and seek to live—a change from my previous existence as a self-destructive depressive, in which I couldn’t even lift myself up to despair.) Mortality might lead him to a belief in the afterlife, and her to make sense of life on this earth as it is, and them to do both.

Some revel in our carnality, others are disgusted by it; some seek to augment our physicality, some to escape from it, some ignore it, some resign themselves to it; many, I’d guess, feel all of these urges over any given period in time. Sometimes our bodies are just bodies, other times sites of moral interrogation and feats of the will. We tend to and fret over our bodies, their shapes and sexualities and appetites and frailties; we boast what our bodies can do and bewail its insubordinations. We are and are not our bodies.

As for our sociality, well, that would seem to lead more directly to a particular politics, but outside of those who think we’re hatched as adults into our Randian lairs, every political ideology has some sense of the social and its own way of arranging our relationships to one another as humans. Anti-politics, too, as a view of the social, whether as something to be abandoned for a shack in the wilderness, or embraced in a particularistic way as a hedge against incursions of power—to which I can only say: good luck with that.

So what’s the point of laying out the ur-ontology if it doesn’t lead anywhere? Because it places us somewhere—and somewhere is a place to begin.

If you want to make sense of us you can’t skip over the elements of us. I’ve no beef with brain-in-a-jar philosophy, but if you want that to illuminate anything about us as people, you’ve got at some point to put the brain back in the skull, and then attach that skull to a body which requires food and water and other forms of care, which forms in turn depend to greater and lesser extents to the people and stuff around that body.

And if you want to develop a political theory of and for us, you have to understand how our limits and potentialities and requirements and desires under the basic conditions of our mortality, biology, and sociality create and constrain our possibilities. James Madison noted, famously, that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary”; since we’re not angels, but humans, we need a politics for us as humans.

You’d think this would be obvious, and in many ways it is, particularly when it comes to theories of our selfishness, but we also like to overlook the obvious when it’s convenient to do so, e.g., when it comes to global warming or the necessity of clean water to life. And in the US we have a weird relationship to the social: we tend toward friendliness and u-rah-rah and we have politicians who offer paeans to “communities coming together”, but talk about any kind of obligation we may have to one another or “taking a village” or “we’re in this together” is considered by many to be polarizing or pinko-talk and demeaning to the individual.

This attitude makes no sense: Capitalism requires social relationships, and forges those which work best in it, and scarcity is certainly a key component of basic capitalist theories. And social conservatives—well, duh, social—too often throw themselves to the floor wailing whenever someone points out that how we are social is matter of legitimate debate.

Anyway, I’m neither a capitalist nor a conservative (tho’ I do have a conservative temperament), so I’ll let them work out their own theories. The point is, is that nothing I’ve said so far about our basic conditions necessarily goes against any theories they may have.

Soon, however, very soon. . . .





We might as well try: You make the best of what’s still around

15 07 2012

We’re a mess.

You want to know why social scientists like models and abstractions and formalisms? It’s because we’re a mess, and it’s tough to know where and how to begin in a mess; impose order, and all of a sudden those messes reveal a clean kind of meaning, shorn of stray bits of paper and belly lint and someone suddenly slamming on the brakes for no apparent reason.

This isn’t a knock on modeling, and I’m a big fan of models precisely because they bring clarity, allow us to see patterns where, before, there was only mess. But when using models you can never forget that they are, in fact, models, a cleaned-up and edited version of reality, not reality itself.* Models are great for understanding a particular thing about a general phenomenon or a number of things about a particular phenomenon, but they can be both stretched out of shape trying to explain too much or so stingy in what they take in they explain nothing at all.**

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down*** in measurement or even conscious interpretation, especially since I’m trying to figure out what comes before said measurement or conscious interpretation.

Which is to say, the mess.

If I don’t have a theory or a model for this mess, I do have a direction—find damned-near-indisputably necessary bits to human being.

Damned-near-indisputably-necessary bit 1: We are mortal beings.

We’re born, we live, we die. No one enters life without having been born****, and no one stays forever. Whether there is something before or after life is disputed, as is the significance of that extra-life existence, but, today, every yesterday, and for the foreseeable future, our mortality is sufficiently indisputable as to be called a fact.

D-n-i-n bit 2: We are biological beings.

This goes along with our mortality: as far as is known, everything biological is of necessity mortal. But this has a particular meaning beyond our mortality, since as biological beings we have particular needs required to keep that biology working. We need food and water and protection from both the elements and predators. We can become ill, get better; we break, we mend; we live as physical beings within a particular environment and if we are not able to meet our biological needs within that environment, we either move or die.

D-n-i-n bit 3: We are social beings.

Some people dispute this; those people should be ignored.

This is not about a kumbaya vision of cooperative harmony, but a recognition that we are all helpless at the beginning of life (and many at the end); if we are not cared for during that extended period of helplessness, we die.

Furthermore, given that that period is so extended—ten years, minimum—the process of said care results in the child learning the basics of species-being, that is, language, which in turn allows one to interact with others of our kind.

I want to say more about the centrality of language to human sociality, but that would take me into less-than-indisputably-necessary bits, and the point in this post, at least, is to try to nail down something about us which any model or theory has to take into account if it is worth considering at all.

Do you remember my bit on epistemology-ontology-the practical? Of course you do! Well, I’ve hopped over the epistemological and landed us in the ontological, or, er, the proto-ontological(?!): If I won’t rely on FOUNDATIONS, then I have to at least tack a few boards together before we swing out over the abyss or float down the river or whatever metaphor doesn’t give you vertigo or make you seasick.

Where was I? Yes, the basics: We’re mortal, we’re biological, we’re social.

We’re also other things—important other things, which I’ll tack on in later posts—but I wanted to reiterate those basics on which I not only build my interpretations and theories, but upon which all interpretations and theories about human being should be built. Other people will legitimately tack on other things (that mess gives us a LOT to choose from) and swing or float in different directions, but if they start with such nonsense as “assume a can opener”, well, then they’re engaging in social-science fiction.

I got nothin’ against science fiction—I’m a fan, actually—but if you want to claim you’re saying something “real” about the world, then you better damned well deal with the damned-near-indisputable realities of this world, and our being human in it.

________

*Well, okay, this gets epistemologically tricky, insofar as the view through which one views a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. Reality is never just “there”; it’s always and unavoidably worked on. But there is a distinction between unavoidable oft-unconscious interpretation and the conscious imposition of a schema, which is what I’m trying get at, here. The distinction itself matters, and deserves further investigation—but not in this post.

**This goes for theory, as well, although theory tends to err on the side of trying to do too much than too little; a theory which does too little tends to lose its status as ‘theory’.

***That’s why this stuff is in the notes rather than the body. I’m one of those who thinks you ought to be able to skip the footnotes without missing anything important—notes are for sources and elaborations on basic points, not the introduction of novel material—so imma gonna just drop the whole shebang for now.

****What if we ever manage to figure out how to hatch a person or otherwise build one in a lab? What if we figure out how to live forever? Well, then the conditions of existence would have changed and we’d have to figure out what those new conditions mean. But we ain’t there yet.





We might as well try, 1: See how we are

12 07 2012

D’oh!

First, an error (which will nonetheless remain): I was thinking we might as well try was a Beth Orton lyric, but it is not; the line I was thinking of, from “Pass in time” is You might as well smile/cause tomorrow you just don’t know. Since we might as well try fits so well, however, it’s staying.

That’s how it is.

(That whole cd is fantastic, by the way. Central Reservation. I’ll post a vid, below, along with the X vid; I know that lyric is right.)

Anyway, to begin the beguine, the human.

Hannah Arendt’s admonition that we should pitch “human nature” in favor of the “human condition” made a kind of intuitive sense to me when I first read it, although I couldn’t put that sense into words.

The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum (“a question I have become for myself”) seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. . . . [I]f we have a nature or an essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a “who” as though it were a “what.” The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with “natural” qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?

She says, in effect, that we can’t get outside of ourselves, which is what is really sufficient to be able to determine any essential qualities; more to the point, even if we could determine an essential what, that helps us not at all with the how and who of us.

On the other hand, the conditions of human existence—life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth—can never “explain” what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely.

Arendt noted earlier that

The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. . . . In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same condition power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.

I know, right? Right?

Okay, so it was good that Arendt was such an acute thinker, because she wasn’t always the sharpest writer. Still, I wanted to give you the excerpts, if only to give you a base from which to jump off and all over my interpretation of that base.

Which is: we are whats, material beings, but not just whats. To  divine a human nature is, in a sense, to reduce us to a what, and since we can’t get outside of ourselves (which would be necessary for such a reduction), it makes no sense to try. We may, in fact, never fully understand even our whatness, much less the how and who (and don’t even bother with the why) of humanness, but we can look around and make sense of the world we live in, both given and constructed. Thus, to speak of the human condition is to refer to that double-existence: one (please forgive the Heideggerianism) always already there, and one we are constantly re-shaping and re-creating.

And of course you understand that even the givens are fluid—Heraclitus and all that, right?

I’m as bad as Arendt, aren’t I? To boil this nub into a nib: We live in a world made over by us, and which makes us over. We condition and are conditioned, and the best chance we have of making sense of our selves is to make sense of those conditions and conditionings.

And that nib into a bit: We live in our relations to the natural world, the world we make, and to one another; we cannot make sense outside of these relationships.

So what does that mean for this project? That we start in the world, with actual human beings in all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses and not in some abstracted stick-figure of what someone things we should be, if only we could get rid of all our messy whats and hows and who-nesses.

The mess is our condition; get rid of that, and you get rid of us.

~~~~~~

And now, as promised, Beth Orton:

And X:





We might as well try: the prelude

11 07 2012

I should just walk away.

The problem with being a theorist—with being a lazy theorist—is that one is supposed to chase down every last bit of an argument, and that if one doesn’t wish to do so, one if left wondering if this is because the argument doesn’t deserve the effort or because one is lazy?

I’ll take “Both” for two hundred, Alex.

There is a part of me that does think it worthwhile to scatter the arid bits of libertarianism to the wind, and another part that says, Why bother, it’s a shit theory promulgated largely by twitchy obsessives and freshwater economists, so why not leave the whole mess to the key-pounders* on the left and Paul Krugman?

(*This is not a criticism: Go go go!)

I’m certainly heading toward that conclusion, but there’s still a part of me that berates myself for not doing the work of shredding such terrible theory: Yeah, it is a shit theory—not even properly a theory— but I am also lazy and there is something to be gained in the meticulous dismantling of pernicious ideas.

Yet even as I carry that guilt-bag with me toward the off-ramp, I’m wondering if the best way to lighten my load is simply to swap it for a kit-bag full of stuff I can actually use.

Okay, now I’m going to lay that whimpering metaphor aside and get to the point: Why not talk about what does matter, and what ought to be taken into account in any discussion of politics, economics, and society?

I joked the other day that the problem with letting others go first is that they get to set the terms; why not set my own terms?

I’m disgusted with libertarianism because it bears almost no relation to humans or human being; isn’t this the place to begin? And so I will—but not until tomorrow.

Lazy, remember?