The Grand Hotel Abyss

"The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption." T.W. Adorno - Minima Moralia

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Gramsci and the Breakdown of Modern Morality

I found this on comedian Melanie Phillips site.

It's the Enlightenment, stupid!

I have been forced back into the blogsphere by my irritation, firstly at getting round to reading Francis Wheen's "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World" and a recent post on Harry's Place which displays a similar crude Enlightenment fetishism.

Wheen's book is often on target - taking apart the culture of new age mysticism, pseudo Buddhism and generally quackiness. Actually, as an aside, I find Zizek funnier and more astute on these matters - particularly his suggestion that, were Max Weber alive today, he would be writing "Western Buddhism and the Spirit of Late Capitalism" instead of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism".

Anyway - it was only really two pages of Wheen's book that really caught my attention - where he suggests that Adorno blames the Enlightenment for all modern ills and fails to recognise that it is really only through the Enlightenment that modern ideas of rights, justice etc. came about. Moreover, he berates the idea of their being a connection between Enlightenment thinking and the Holocaust. Wheen follows in the tradition of those whom have obviously failed to get through the preface to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, where Adorno and Horkheimer say the following.

"We are wholly convinced...that social freedom is inseparable from enlightened thought. Nevertheless...we have just as clearly recognised that the notion of this very way of thinking, no less than the actual historic forms - the social institutions - with which it is interwoven, already contains the seed of the reversal universally apparent today."

Adorno wants to rescue the Enlightenment project from itself. As he says elsewhere, invoking Wagner's Parcifal narrative,

"reified and rationalized society... could become a society worthy of human beings...but only by applying its rationality to itself, in other words, only through a healing awareness of the marks of unreason in its own reason...[O]nly the spear that inflicted the wound can heal it"

Enlightenment has three general features which Adorno sees as connected to a world capable of atrocities such as Auschwitz. These are, firstly, "the explanation of every event as repetition" -i.e. knowledge of particular phenomena can only be attained through general laws or categories - secondly, the separation of knowing subject from object - i.e. that which is most objective is that which can be furthest separated from the distorting influence of human beings - and thirdly, the principle of instrumentality - i.e. that which is most valuable is that which is most useful to the control and manipulation of nature. It is the combination of Enlightenment's distancing mechanism from the particular with the principle of instrumentality that Adorno sees as intimately bound up with the cold, calculating nature of the modern world. The world is one of Weber's "Iron Cage", and sinks into...

"legal codes and administrative organisations that promise order, predictable decisions, regularity of procedures, and responsible, objective and qualified officials; into economics that operate according to principles of calculated advantage, efficiency and means-end strategies; into technologies that promote standardisation, mechanical behaviors and uniform tastes."

Fundamentally, within the Iron Cage we are left unable to respond ethically to each other - through an authentic somatic reaction to the hurt or neediness of others. We can only relate to each other through calculating and abstract legal or moral codes - whether deontological or consequentialist. It is this - what Adorno describes as "Bourgeois Coldness" - that is a necessary condition of the bureaucratised and technological genocides of the 20th Century.

Adorno does not want to reverse the Enlightenment - seeing freedom from fear, ignorance and want as the central goal of humanity. His concern is that the mechanisms of Enlightened thinking actually come to undermine this project itself, creating a certain arrogance and indifference towards both the natural world and human beings.

The struggle remains not one between the post and pre 18th Century brigades but between those interested in creating a meaningfull existence for human beings free from want and suffering and those defending the

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Temporary closure for renovation

No posting until the weekend, I'm afraid, as my work load is too great.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Wonders of Capitalist "Development"

So, immersion into the global market is the cure for global poverty and degradation?

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Marxists and Liberals pt 1

I've been re-reading Marx's "Critique of the Gotha Programme" recently and have been struck by the degree of urgency that it should instill amongst those committed to combating pseudo-leftist liberalism.

There is something disquieting in the suggestion, made by many who claim to be "on the left", that it is a necessary condition that we, in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, take as our starting point a basic commitment to rights, enlightenment rationalism and (negative) liberty. More substantive questions of social justice, genuine democratic control and the creation of a meaningful existence for human beings are, apparently, now subsidiary.

Before the usual knee-jerk, mudslinging starts - I happen to agree with many of the accusations directed against some of the more shameful accommodations which sections of the left have made - the Al-Qaradawi fiasco, the animosity directed against Tatchell and the tolerance of anti-Semitism. If being a liberal just means not jumping into bed with bigoted or authoritarian arseholes - then I'm happy to be called a liberal.

However, what strikes me as worrying is the baggage that comes with using liberal vocabulary and the enthusiastic adoption of such terminology by those claiming leftist credentials.

The target of this particular post is the growing adoption of the language of rights on the left. As a qualification, I do think that there is an important thought motivating the notion of rights - that human beings cannot be placed into some grand utilitarian calculation of cost and benefit. It should be a basic commitment of anyone on the left that cruelty, torture or persecution (for example) are wrongs which cannot be evaded in some sort of calculation of the greater good. My contention, instead, would be that we can make this claim, without getting into the whole rights business. Indeed - rights discourse significantly devalues the ethical orientation of the left.

My objections (briefly stated) would be threefold -

1) There is something of a religious zeal with which people appeal to rights.
Take this example from Nozick's opening lines to Anarchy, State and Utopia -"Individuals have rights , and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)." This strikes me as no different in form to an appeal to an omnipotent god. "Rights" seem to figure as some sort of self-evident truth - detached from the actual form of social organisation which constitutes the way in which we conceive of our obligations to one another.
Moreover, pace Macintyre, one cannot refute the belief that rights exist - yet nor can one categorically refute a belief in "witches and unicorns".

2) More fundamentally, the specific form that rights discourse takes abstracts (as self-evidently true) specific features of the capitalist market. This was, surely, Marx's point in the "Critique of the Gotha Programme" - describing rights as "ideological nonsense". A situation is assumed in which individual goods are independent and whereby individuals can only advance themselves at the expense of others. "Rights" set limits to the self-seeking actions of individuals - assuming this state of affairs to be the only possible form of political community. Marx, of course, famously envisages a state in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".

3) The language of rights devalues our experience of the suffering or pain to which we are responding. It formalises or legalises the response to human cruelty and seems to give no value to the ethical significance of the moment of revulsion at experiencing such acts.

As Teddy sez, "One ought not to torture: there ought to be no concentration camps...These sentences are only true as impulses, when it is reported that somewhere torture is taking place. They should not be rationalised. As abstract principles they lapse into the bad infinity of their derivation and validity."

The very fact that we feel the need for such abstract rules of morality is indicative of the debased society within which we live.

Because of this, I can see the mileage in appeals to "human rights" - and, in no way, would I want to discredit the genuine attempts of organisations such as "amnesty" or "human rights watch" in highlighting instances of human degradation. In spite of this, however, I think that rights discourse is severely limiting to anyone on the left in terms of closing off the potential for thinking about a less alienated and more humane means of relating to one another.

Derrida Dead

The world has lost yet another seminal thinker. I've always tended to treat Derrida's work as a long and elaborate path to a very small house. I'm sure this is just my ignorance shining through - given that I have no grounding in French nor the French philosophical tradition.

However, there is no doubting the inter-disciplinary influence of his work - bringing together literary studies, ethics, politics, cultural studies and philosophy - and the life he injected into the grey realms of accademia through his playful undermining of philosophical convention.

Bernard Williams on The Internet

"[T]he internet shows signs of creating for the first time what Marshall McLuhan prophesised as a consequence of television, a global village, something that has the disadvantages both of globilization and of a village. Certainly it does offer some reliable sources of information for those that want it and know what they are looking for, but equally it supports that mainstay of all villages, gossip. It constructs proliferating meeting places for the free and unstructured exchange of messages which bear a variety of claims, fancies, and suspicions, entertaining, superstitious, scandalous, or malign. The chances that many of these messages will be true are low, and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones is even lower. In this respect, post-modern technology may have returned us dialectically to a transmuted vision of the pre-modern world, and the chances of aquiring true beliefs by these means, except for those who already have knowledge to guide them will be much like those in the Middle Ages. At the same time, the global nature of these conversations makes the situation worse than in a village, where at least you might encounter and perhaps be forced to listen to some people who had different opinions and obsessions. As critics concerned for the future of democratic discussion have pointed out, the Internet makes it easy for large numbers of previously isolated extremists to find each other and talk only among themselves"