Friday, June 28, 2013

Corey Robin's confusion.
Why would a liberal opposed to the Hobbesian vision of absolute power resort to such a Hobbesian style of argument? Because Montesquieu, like Hobbes, lacked a positive conception of human ends, true for all people, in which to ground his political vision. Montesquieu’s liberalism was not the egalitarian liberalism of the century to come, nor was it the conscience-stricken protoliberalism of the century it had left behind. Unlike Locke, whose argument for toleration was powered by a vision of religious truth, and unlike later figures such as Rousseau or Mill, whose arguments for freedom were driven by secular visions of human flourishing, Montesquieu pursued no beckoning light. 
"...Montesquieu pursued no beckoning light." And we're supposed to see that as a weakness.
In the same way that journalists call high-level leakers in the executive branch “White House officials” and low-level guys like Snowden “narcissists” or “losers,” so do they dole out accolades like “Secretary of State” to mass murderers like Henry Kissinger while holding the Snowden-like epithets in reserve for Al Qaeda, Communists, the Militia Movement, and the Weather Underground.
So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. As Jim Naureckas put it on my FB page: “Is the problem treating the retailers of violence as if they were psychotic or regarding violence wholesalers as though they were sane?
“On Language and Violence: From Pathology to Politics,” [PDF]
In 1965, George Steiner asked, ‘Is there any science-fiction pornography?” Mostly rhetorical, the question was a typically Steinerian prompt to a typically Steinerian rumination on the relationship between sex and language. With its ability to alter "the co-ordinates of space and time," to “set effect before cause," science fiction would
seem the natural workshop of pornographic invention. But it wasn't. “Despite all the lyric or obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of possible gestures, consummations. and imaginings is drastically limited," Steiner wrote. "There just aren't that many orifices." These limits necessarily meant there was precious little, and certainly nothing new, to say about erotic arousal. "The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series"—and thus there could be no science-fiction pornography, at least not in the sense of “something new, an invention by the human imagination of new sexual experience.” Yet, here we are, more than years later, swimming in porn...
Steiner was writing about porn, not sex. There will never be an end to love songs, but Robin's too stupid to notice.  Update:  I'm forgetting the history.  Steiner is to Robin as George Scialabba is to Henry Farrell.

Steiner
The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way.
Scialabba
… Search [in Shakespeare] for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde. As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse.
Robin
It should be no surprise that violence, sex's Siamese twin, should inspire a similar performative contradiction from our leading intellectuals. How many times have we been told by writers that violence is a nullity about which there is nothing interesting or new to be said, only to discover, from these very same writers, that there is much that is both interesting and new to be said about it? Throughout her career, Hannah Arendt spoke at length, often imaginatively, about violence, without ever questioning her notion that "mute violence" was sheer redundancy. Elaine Scarry began The Body in Pain with the claim that pain's "resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is"—and then spent more than three hundred pages demonstrating, sometimes inadvertently, that that was not the case.
...How can we square this notion of violence as a linguistic nullity with the riot of talk that surrounds it? The example of pornography might prove instructive. The sexually forbidden naturally provokes a sense of titillation and curiosity, which, when satisfied, is succeeded by feelings of mute depression—whether because it is only the taboo that makes the sexual act in question exciting or because a proper acquaintance with the act reveals that it is not all that one imagined it would be. Perhaps violence operates in a similar fashion: when we hurt or destroy a feared or hated object, we experience a sense of loss because the object that aroused such passion within us is now no more or is sufficiently subdued to claim our attention no longer. As Forster wrote in A Passage to India, "The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same; the latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand." And so we drift—from dirty talk to silence, from violence to the void.

...Why is it that when confronted with extremist violence and its defenders, whether on the right or the left, analysts resort to the categories of psychology as opposed to politics, economics, or ideology?  ...If we are to go down the road of psychoanalyzing violence, why not put Henry Kissinger or the RAND Corporation on the couch too?
As if Kissinger's psychology had not been the a great subject for analysts and comedians. And Forster's observations likewise concern psychology, not actions themselves but actors' internal states: the waxing and waning of desire.  More than anything Robin seems to argue from a need to guarantee his own moral purity.  Why else be so blind?  Freud would have a good time with his elisions.

"With due respect to Arendt, it is difficult to accept her proposition that violence is mute when philosophers expend so many words trying to figure out what it is." Robin dreams of clarity. He likes his problems solved, in hand. He wants to replace experience with its description. repeat: Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain is a stupid book.

Robin
I was recently reminded of this bifurcated approach to violence by two articles in the same issue of The New Yorker: In one, a profile of Oriana Fallaci, Margaret Talbot tells how Fallaci's father inspired and encouraged his teenage daughter to work against the Fascists in Italy. Roused by her fathers example, a pig-tailed Fallaci “carried explosives and delivered messages‘ and led escaping American and British POWs across dangerous minefields. When Fallaci's mother later discovered what her daughter had been doing, she scolded her husband, "You would have sacrificed newly born children! You and your ideas." But then she softened: “Well, but I had a feeling you were doing something like that.” Talbot relates this story without comment, allowing it to serve as the capstone of a charming—and entirely political—tale of one family's idealistic rebellion against evil.
At the back of the magazine, David Denby takes a different tack with a vaguely similar story. This time the setting is the Middle East, and the topic is a new documentary, “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber," a dense political history of suicide bombing. Denby is not interested, however, in the politics of the bombers: “The real center of interest, for me, at least, lies in the families of the young men who died.” But his interest is frustrated by the refusal of these families to express their grief in public, leading him to wonder whether they have any grief at all. One Iranian mother says of her son, who died in battle (presumably on a suicide mission during the Iran-Iraq War), “He became a martyr for God.” Such statements lead Denby to conclude that the parents “speak as if the boys had attained a purely official identity, as if they were not their own dead children.’ (How
these comments are any different from a Midwestem father telling a reporter, twenty years after the fact, that his son died defending his country in Vietnam, Denby does not explain.) Denby is equally frustrated by the fact that the parents insist on seeing their sons’ destruction through a political or religious lens and that "any kind of psychological explanation is ignored.”
Denby's mediocrity is just that, and hardly worth the effort.  From Margaret Talbot's New Yorker piece on Fallaci
They live at our expense, because they’ve got schools, hospitals, everything,” she said at one point, beginning to shout. “And they want to build damn mosques everywhere.” She spoke of a new mosque and Islamic center planned for Colle di Val d’Elsa, near Siena. She vowed that it would not remain standing. “If I’m alive, I will go to my friends in Carrara—you know, where there is the marble. They are all anarchists. With them, I take the explosives. I make you juuump in the air. I blow it up! With the anarchists of Carrara. I do not want to see this mosque—it’s very near my house in Tuscany. I do not want to see a twenty-four-metre minaret in the landscape of Giotto. When I cannot even wear a cross or carry a Bible in their country! So I BLOW IT UP! ”

The magnificently rebellious Oriana Fallaci now cultivates, it seems, the prejudices of the petite bourgeoisie. She is opposed to abortion, unless she “were raped and made pregnant by a bin Laden or a Zarqawi.” She is fiercely opposed to gay marriage (“In the same way that the Muslims would like us all to become Muslims, they would like us all to become homosexuals”), and suspicious of immigration in general. The demonstrations by immigrants in the United States these past few months “disgust” her, especially when protesters displayed the Mexican flag. “I don’t love the Mexicans,” Fallaci said, invoking her nasty treatment at the hands of Mexican police in 1968. “If you hold a gun and say, ‘Choose who is worse between the Muslims and the Mexicans,’ I have a moment of hesitation. Then I choose the Muslims, because they have broken my balls.”
Robin, in another article he links to
For whenever liberal intellectuals are confronted with political extremism, the knotty social intelligence that normally informs their work unravels. The radical is reduced to a true believer, his beliefs a litany of crazy proverbs, his personality an inscrutable paranoia. Whether the cause is communism or the Black Panthers, feminism or the abolitionists, the liberal resorts to a familiar ghost story - of the self, evacuated for the sake of an incoming ideology - where, as is true of all such tales, the main character is
never the ghost but always the teller.
In a recent post at CT, on Auschwitz, there's side discussion of Claude Lanzmann and his choice not to ask, "why?" [repeat: Adam Shatz on Lanzmann.] But Lanzmann's decision was based not on an opposition to psychology but a respect for it, and for what cannot be spoken: the specificity of events in individual lives. Robin refers to "sex's Siamese twin" but he doesn't understand either because he doesn't understand intimacy, at least as it can be made to manifest in language and in art.

Robin prefers ideas and generalizations.  It's true that whatever ideas we have of violence itself are bound to be repetition.  This was the point of the arguments he refers to, to rebut.  But questions revolve around context, justification and history. [update: Reflections on Violence, by Arendt, reposted on the main page this month in the NYRB]  And Robin ignores the value of testimony.  He says he's interested  in "positive conception[s] of human ends, true for all people",  and therefore can't be much interested in any individual voice.  The authors' caveats he denounces function as rhetorical statements of humility, made by people who have not themselves experienced the horror of violence but who have chosen to discuss it. Elaine Scarry has never been tortured and cannot claim to speak for those who have.  I'll give her credit for that.  Arendt was not a surviver of the camps.

Robin's not interested in individual voices, or even in his own voice; if he paid more attention he'd see its contradictions, flaws and frailties. Moralists are always hypocrites.
The reason I bring together Nietzsche and the Austrians (as opposed to other figures) is that a similar project animates their thinking: the effort to repulse the socialist challenge of the late 19th and 20th centuries and, behind socialism, the elevation of labor and the laborer as the centerpiece of modern civilization.
"Labor and the laborer" are ideas. They're a theme and object of study, a centerpiece on someone else's table.

More on psychology and politics in the next post

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