David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2007

P.F. Strawson: Freedom and Resentment

Let us consider, then, occasions for resentment: situations in which one person is offended or injured by the action of another and in which — in the absence of special considerations — the offended person might naturally or normally be expected to feel resentment. Then let us consider what sorts of special considerations might be expected to modify or mollify this feeling or remove it altogether. It needs no saying now how multifarious these considerations are. But, for my purpose, I think they can be roughly divided into two kinds. To the first group belong all those which might give occasion for the employment of such expressions as ‘He didn’t mean to’, ‘He hadn’t realized’, ‘He didn’t know’; and also all those which might give occasion for the use of the phrase ‘He couldn’t help it’, when this is supported by such phrases as ‘He was pushed’, ‘He had to do it’, ‘It was the only way’, ‘They left him no alternative’, etc. Obviously these various pleas, and the kinds of situations in which they would be appropriate, differ from each other in striking and important ways. But for my present purpose they have something still more important in common. None of them invites us to suspend towards the agent, either at the time of his action or in general, our ordinary reactive attitudes. They do not invite us to view the agent as one in respect of whom these attitudes are in any way inappropriate. They invite us to view the injury as one in respect of which a particular one of these attitudes is inappropriate. They do not invite us to see the agent as other than a fully responsible agent. They invite us to see the injury as one for which he was not fully, or at all, responsible. They do not suggest that the agent is in any way an inappropriate object of that kind of demand for goodwill or regard which is reflected in our ordinary reactive attitudes. They suggest instead that the fact of injury was not in this case incompatible with that demand’s being fulfilled, that the fact of injury was quite consistent with the agent’s attitude and intentions being just what we demand they should be. The agent was just ignorant of the injury he was causing, or had lost his balance through being pushed or had reluctantly to cause the injury for reasons which acceptably override his reluctance. The offering of such pleas by the agent and their acceptance by the sufferer is something in no way opposed to, or outside the context of, ordinary inter-personal relationships and the manifestation of ordinary reactive attitudes. Since things go wrong and situations are complicated, it is an essential and integral element in the transactions which are the life of these relationships.

The second group of considerations is very different. I shall take them in two subgroups of which the first is far less important than the second. In connection with the first subgroup we may think of such statements as ‘He wasn’t himself’, ‘He has been under very great strain recently’, ‘He was acting under post-hypnotic suggestion’; in connection with the second, we may think of ‘He’s only a child’, ‘He’s a hopeless schizophrenic’, ‘His mind has been systematically perverted’, ‘That’s purely compulsive behaviour on his part’. Such pleas as these do, as pleas of my first general group do not, invite us to suspend our ordinary reactive attitudes towards the agent, either at the time of his action or all the time. They do not invite us to see the agent’s action in a way consistent with the full retention of ordinary inter-personal attitudes and merely inconsistent with one particular attitude. They invite us to view the agent himself in a different light from the light in which we should normally view one who has acted as he has acted. I shall not linger over the first subgroup of cases. Though they perhaps raise, in the short term, questions akin to those raised, in the long term, by the second subgroup, we may dismiss them without considering those questions by taking that admirably suggestive phrase, ‘He wasn’t himself’, with the seriousness that — for all its being logically comic — it deserves. We shall not feel resentment against the man he is for the action done by the man he is not; or at least we shall feel less. We normally have to deal with him under normal stresses; so we shall not feel towards him, when he acts as he does under abnormal stresses, as we should have felt towards him had he acted as he did under normal stresses.

The second and more important subgroup of cases allows that the circumstances were normal, but presents the agent as psychologically abnormal — or as morally undeveloped. The agent was himself; but he is warped or deranged, neurotic or just a child. When we see someone in such a light as this, all our reactive attitudes tend to be profoundly modified. I must deal here in crude dichotomies and ignore the ever-interesting and ever-illuminating varieties of case. What I want to contrast is the attitude (or range of attitudes) of involvement or participation in a human relationship, on the one hand, and what might be called the objective attitude (or range of attitudes) to another human being, on the other. Even in the same situation, I must add, they are not altogether exclusive of each other; but they are, profoundly, opposed to each other. To adopt the objective attitude to another human being is to see him, perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account, of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided, though this gerundive is not peculiar to cases of objectivity of attitude. The objective attitude may be emotionally toned in many ways, but not in all ways: it may include repulsion or fear, it may include pity or even love, though not all kinds of love. But it cannot include the range of reactive feelings and attitudes which belong to involvement or participation with others in inter-personal human relationships; it cannot include resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger, or the sort of love which two adults can sometimes be said to feel reciprocally, for each other. If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you may fight him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel, or to reason, with him.

Seeing someone, then, as warped or deranged or compulsive in behaviour or peculiarly unfortunate in his formative circumstances — seeing someone so tends, at least to some extent, to set him apart from normal participant reactive attitudes on the part of one who so sees him, tends to promote, at least in the civilized, objective attitudes. But there is something curious to add to this. The objective attitude is not only something we naturally tend to fall into in cases like these, where participant attitudes are partially or wholly inhibited by abnormalities or by immaturity, It is also something which is available as a resource in other cases too. We look with an objective eye on the compulsive behaviour of the neurotic or the tiresome behaviour of a very young child, thinking in terms of treatment or training. But we can sometimes look with something like the same eye on the behaviour of the normal and the mature. We have this resource and can sometimes use it; as a refuge, say, from the strains of involvement; or as an aid to policy; or simply out of intellectual curiosity. Being human, we cannot, in the normal case, do this for long, or altogether. If the strains of involvement, say, continue to be too great, then we have to do something else — like severing a relationship. But what is above all interesting is the tension there is, in us, between the participant attitude and the objective attitude. One is tempted to say: between our humanity and our intelligence. But to say this would be to distort both notions.

P.F. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment”

It’s the second case which Strawson mentions and privileges–when we excuse someone’s behavior on the grounds of abnormality or lack of rational agency–that interests me. With the advance of neuroscience we see a burgeoning mass of excuses for behavior that place people firmly in the objective realm, and a corresponding scramble by the humanities to reserve some realm outside that of science in which the human still transcends the natural in some way. I don’t see either side “winning,” but if the resulting mindset brings to the fore the idea that so-called “rational” discourse may not be all that, then is that such a bad thing? I think it would be fitting if Strawson’s “objective” standpoint itself helped to destroy the myth of objective rationality. There are many “participants” in that game that hardly seem to merit the word rational; they broadcast their own voice to those like-minded individuals, who hear a declaration of solidarity or control rather than any rational statement. I’m not thinking of anyone in particular: politicians, critics, academics, businessmen; they all play the language game. So if your attitude is participatory but you aren’t really reasoning with someone, but merely deluding yourself into thinking so, what is the point of such an attitude? On the other hand, abandoning the idea that there can be any sort of negotiation will alienate you from every person you meet.

I suspect that any resolution would require abandoning the significance of intent and motive altogether. In this regard, the problem of moral responsibility vis a vis rationality is analogous to that of moral responsibility vis a vis circumstances (or “moral luck”)–that is, Strawson’s first case.

Georg Simmel on Love

During the first stages of the relationship there is a great temptation, both in marriage and in marriage-like free love, to let oneself be completely absorbed by the other, to send the last reserves of the soul after those of the body, to lose oneself to the other without reservation. Yet, in most cases, this abandon probably threatens the future of the relationship seriously. Only those individuals can give themselves wholly without danger who cannot wholly give themselves, because their wealth consists in a continuous development in which every abandon is at once followed by new treasures. Such individuals have an inexhaustible reservoir of latent psychological possessions, and hence can no more reveal and give them away at one stroke than a tree can give away next year’s fruits with those of the season. But other individuals are different. With every flight of feeling, with every unconditional abandonment, with every revelation of heir inner life, they make inroads (as it were) into their capital, because they lack the mainspring of ever renewed psychic affluence which can neither be exhaustively revealed nor be separated from the ego. In these cases, the spouses have a good chance of coming to face one another with empty hands; and the Dionysian bliss of giving may leave behind it an impoverishment which, unjustly, but no less bitterly for that, belies in retrospect even past abandons and their happiness.

We are, after all, made in such a way that we need not only a certain proportion of truth and error as the basis of our lives, but also a certain proportion of distinctness and indistinctness in the image of our life-elements. The other individual must give us not only gifts we may accept, but the possibility of our giving him–hopes, idealizations, hidden beauties, attractions of which not even he is conscious. But the place where we deposit all this, which we produce, but produce for him is the indistinct horizon of his personality, the interstitial realm, in which faith replaces knowledge. But it must be strongly emphasized that this is, by no means, only a matter of illusions and optimistic or amorous self-deceptions, but that portions even of the persons closest to us must be offered us in the form of indistinctness and unclarity, in order for their attractiveness to keep on the same high level.

Simmel, The Secret and the Secret Society

More on Gene Wolfe

Some good responses on my post on Gene Wolfe below. Just to be clear, I find plenty to mull over in Wolfe’s books, particularly with regard to his political and religious attitudes. What makes him so vexing is that I find his work substantively disappointing and yet cannot dismiss him. But I maintain that there’s an attitude brought to the work that makes the books less than they could be, and indeed, what I think Wolfe wants them to be. Some quotes:

LM: All this “showing” in “V.R.T.” is made intriguingly ambiguous by the confusion about who “Marsch” really is.

Wolfe: In the end, of course, it’s important that the reader not be confused about this, although part of the fun is supposed to be figuring out what’s happened. I leave a number of clues as to who the narrator actually is. For example, both V.R.T. and the narrator are shown to be very poor shots, whereas Marsch is a very good shot, and there’s other hints like that. If you hire a shape changer as a guide, there’s a definite possibility that he’s going to change into your shape at some point. Which is what happens.

Larry McCaffery interview

JJ: The Soldier of Arete is even more than
Soldier of the Mist a bit
hard to follow in terms of his plot. And I remember, in fact I
remember when it came out Orson Scott Card really complained that
(it was in Analog or Astounding; one of those magazines) he had a
review that said “Nobody reads Gene Wolfe with more care and
affection than I do but I can’t figure out what this book is about.”
What is wrong with this author? Does that kind of complaint
bother you or do you feel as if you wish you could leave more clues
or do you feel: Hey, read the book and look at it again and you
will find the answers.

Wolfe: I try not to leave a clue more than once. It bothers me a lot
when it is left more than once in somebody else’s book. If you told
me once that the hero is left handed, I have registered it or at
least I hope I have registered it or whatever this may be and if
you told me five times then I feel that you are writing to somebody
that is a lot dumber than I am. So I try and leave my clues once
and generally try and leave all the clues that I think the reader
is going to require, sometimes more than they require because you
don’t generally find situations in which you have exactly as much
information as you need to solve the thing. If it is solvable at
all you probably have more. If you have only a very few items then
it probably isn’t solvable with the information that you have. What
you need to do in a real life situation is to go out and get more
clues. If you know anything about actual police work very little of
it consists of reasoning from clues and the great majority or it
consists of finding more clues. Because when you have found enough
then you have got, you have very little difficulty in understanding
what they mean.

James B. Jordan interview

This talk of clues and confusion makes me suspect that yes, Wolfe does expect the reader to figure it out, and that the lacunae in his work are not meant to sustain indeterminacy, but to provide a framework for the reader to explore in search of answers. And since I am not the sort of person who remembers that a character is left-handed two hundred pages later, I find it frustrating, for example, that it would greatly aid my understanding of the book to realize that two characters with different names are actually one and the same by virtue of their handedness. This is just not what I read fiction for.

I did not consider this a problem in “V.R.T.,” where the crucial narrative trick is fairly obvious once you know what to look for. And, as Wolfe says, discovering this trick is necessary to understand the story. But by The Book of the New Sun, the elisions have multiplied beyond what I can manage, and I cannot convince myself that I can ignore them.

Now, I can enjoy Ulysses and draw much from it without knowing whether or not Bloom gives a condom to Alec Bannon at the impenetrable end of chapter 14. Unlike Joyce, Wolfe stakes so much of his book on these sorts of narrative obscurities that (a) in the absence of their resolution, the book does not reveal itself sufficiently, and (b) Wolfe subordinates thematic and conceptual integrity to the mere challenge of these games. Many people are content to enjoy the ride and pass over these issues, and Wolfe deserves the attention they give him, but this is not enough for Wolfe to satisfy his books’ ambitions.

[Special thanks to Spurious for articulating some of these issues better than I could. He brings up the even more perplexing subject of the correspondence or lack thereof to Christian deity and eschatology, then concludes that the book is sane. I agree, but I prefer a different phrasing. Wolfe was an industrial engineer by training and profession, and as with much science-fiction, a particular sort of engineer’s attitude goes into the functional and architectural construction of his work, and these attitudes are reflected in the methodologies of Severian and Silk. Like many of his characters, Wolfe’s books are machines, and it is only when looking for the animating spirit that one runs into trouble with them.]

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

I never thought I’d get the chance to see Partch’s Delusion of the Fury. The Japan Society’s production is the first since the premiere almost 40 years ago, and I get the feeling there’s not going to be another one anytime soon, since Partch wrote for his own unwieldy instruments and the requirements he placed on performers were rather strenuous. (Partch’s recommendation that his instruments be wheeled around on the stage during the performance, adding to their “corporeality,” was dropped in this production.) So I consider myself blessed to have the experience of getting some idea of what Partch had in mind, even if his full intentions were probably unrealizable. Partch was something of a magpie in stealing bits and pieces from other cultures–gamelan here, gagaku there–but the synthesis is so intensely personal as to be an unrecognizable miscegenation. His vaunted excursions into microtones are only a small part of Partch’s outre gestalt.

It’s because of the private nature of the work that I can’t easily assess my own reaction to it difficult. Partch may have thought that he was tapping into some universal mythos and music, but I have to say that at least in that regard, he failed. All of his work, and Delusion is perhaps the most fully realized work but not any more or less accessible than the others, springs from his willfully cultivated outsider status and mostly solitary development of his own musical theories and dogma. Partch was far from untrained, but he was not a social man, and it seems that estrangement came to him naturally, particularly from “The Establishment” and high culture in general. There are a number of other American composers that fall into this category, and they rank among the best the country has produced: Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese (not actually American, but tried his damnedest to be), Sun Ra, Lou Harrison, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton. All of them resisted (and continue to resist) easy assimilation into a larger historical context, and many actively tried to divorce themselves from being associated with any larger movement. (I do not think it’s a coincidence that many of them, including Partch, also happened to be queer, but that’s all I’m prepared to say on that subject. See also Percy Grainger, who ironically was too establishment to make the list.) Partch, himself quite the curmudgeon, extended this autonomy to the very instruments themselves, ensuring himself an even greater degree of personal control over performance. The resultant effect, no doubt intentional, is that there is more work to be done to get inside the corpus of these composers than those who exist closer to the mainstream horizon of recent times.

So here’s the plot, in Partch’s words:

It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The “Exordium” is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end — with the supplication “Pray for me!” — he finds reconciliation.

There is nowhere, from the beginning of the “Exordium” to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but — due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness — a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.

Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.

The near-total lack of narration and speech (partly for copyright reasons, apparently) does not make it easy to understand what is going on without the accompanying program notes, and the partial doubling of the actors in the main roles in the two parts is more puzzling than anything else. To the extent that Delusion reaches for universality, it is to a totality of musical performance. Watching it, I could only feel that narrative and thematic drive had been subordinated to the physical performance of music (and dance) itself, which struggled under the heavy responsibility of evoking those very traits. There’s a hint of this in Partch’s own description of his aesthetics:

The work that I have been doing these many years parallels much in the attitudes and actions of primitive man. He found sound-magic in the common materials around him. He then proceeded to make the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as he could. Finally, he involved the sound-magic and the visual beauty in his everyday words and experiences, his ritual and drama, in order to lend greater meaning to his life. This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.

Where one might expect narrative, there is only raw experience and ritual, which I gather Partch intended to place in a prior and more fundamental place than what constitutes modern storytelling. The Residents, hugely influenced by Partch, drew upon this aspect in their own early work, particularly in the nonsense narrative of Not Available and the instrumental “narratives” of Eskimo and above all “Six Things to a Cycle” (off of Fingerprince), which is so Partch-like as to constitute a tribute. The plot: “Man, represented as a primitive humanoid, is consumed by his self-created environment only to be replaced by a new creature, still primitive, still faulty, but destined to rule the world just as poorly.” Its (entire) lyrics?

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

[Smack Smack Smack]

So yeah, I think that says it all.

Words from a Capitalist

But the principles of laissez-faire have had other allies besides economic textbooks. It must be admitted that they have been confirmed in the minds of sound thinkers and the reasonable public by the poor quality of the opponent proposals – protectionism on one hand, and Marxian socialism on the other. Yet these doctrines are both characterised, not only or chiefly by their infringing the general presumption in favour of laissez-faire, but by mere logical fallacy. Both are examples of poor thinking, of inability to analyse a process and follow it out to its conclusion. The arguments against them, though reinforced by the principle of laissez-faire, do not strictly require it. Of the two, protectionism is at least plausible, and the forces making for its popularity are nothing to wonder at. But Marxian socialism must always remain a portent to the historians of opinion – how a doctrine so illogical and so dull can have exercised so powerful and enduring an influence over the minds of men and, through them, the events of history. At any rate, the obvious scientific deficiencies of these two schools greatly contributed to the prestige and authority of nineteenth-century laissez-faire.

Let us clear from the ground the metaphysical or general principles upon which, from time to time, laissez-faire has been founded. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities. There is no ‘compact’ conferring perpetual rights on those who Have or on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear-sighted than when they act separately.

We cannot therefore settle on abstract grounds, but must handle on its merits in detail what Burke termed “one of the finest problems in legislation,” namely, to determine what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion.

John Maynard Keynes, The End of Laissez-Faire (1926)

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