Monday, September 28, 2009

Atheism and Hetero-theism

In Plato’s Apology, one of the charges against Socrates is that he preaches about different gods than those of the city, and in this respect doesn’t believe in God and is impious. During his defense, he points out that if he believes and teaches certain divinities, but not those of the city, than he can’t be said to be an atheist.

This episode was interesting to me, in part, because I encountered the same confusion when Spinoza is called an atheist during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. For it seemed so strange to me that one could be an atheist and yet at the same time so clearly and unequivocally speak repeatedly of God, even if it were “sive Natura”. Still, today, when philosophers write about Spinoza’s pantheism, this is immediately identified with a certain atheism. My own position on Spinoza’s pantheism and atheism I will here defer until another time.

But there is a certain necessary slippage in speaking of what I might call “hetero-theism” and its indistinction from “atheism.” The reason is this. If we are theists, then we must deny the existence of gods other than our own. Thus, all those whose gods are unlike ours are necessarily pagans, atheists. Whereas, were we to admit the existence of other gods, then we would be admitting doubt about the singular nature of our god. Thus, the hetero-theist shall always be an atheist.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Quickly: On a line of poetry, vaguely recalled, by Robert Hass

It goes:

Language is a moral cloud-chamber, through which the world passes, emerging charged with desire.

I love that line. It is lovely, perhaps for its imagery. I imagine that shiny earth passing into a mist, within staticky exchanges of electricity go back and forth. The earth comes out of the cloud, and the remaining films of the cloud pull away.

But what does Hass mean my "moral" cloud-chamber (and why do I insist on hyphenating it? and I do)? I like to think that it is an image meant to correct the notion of morality as something silent, like two orbs flitting through space, self-same and immutable. Whereas good and evil are always objects of desire--and repulsion. And the desire is not there by accident, but makes good and evil into what they are. The good is always an object of desire ... and the evil is always an object of desire.

And mediocrity is the neutralizing cloth that kills all life (and desire).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Quickly: The Myth of Equality and Plato's Republic

Perhaps this will be the format for a number of soon-to-be blog posts, but since time is short, they will take the form of "quickly."

Every now and again Y and I see children and I comment on their aptitude and say, oh, he's part of the bronze cast, or she's silver, recalling the "myth of the metals" described at the end of Book 3 of Plato's Republic. As you shall remember, according to the myth of the metals, individuals in the community are differentiated in their education, at birth, based on the metal in their soul. Should you have gold, you shall be trained to be a guardian; silver, an auxiliary; and bronze, a craftsperson. I think this is a funny joke, but Y mentioned the other day that it made her a bit anxious.

I explained to her that Socrates proposed this myth in order to best organize the city that he and his interlocutors are describing. In other words, it is not that Socrates necessarily thinks that there is such a differentiation of individuals according to metal (or blood), but that there needs to be in order to train people properly, create the just regime, etc. As well, I mentioned, the consequence of this myth is that each occupation is treated and valued for herself insofar as they fulfill their occupation, not in relation to other occupations. Namely, that the craftsperson is judged as a craftsperson and not as a guardian. I summarized, drawing from my lectures, that this is the myth of difference.

In my lectures I counterpose this to our own myth of equality. Namely, that all people are equally capable of doing anything, via bootstraps or saving their pennies or education or whatnot. Yet it seems to me, and I didn't realize this until the conversation with Y, that the myth of equality has the unforeseen and unintended consequence of devaluing the different occupations of others. Instead, it treats only the highest, most lucrative, most powerful, occupations as those worthy of esteem. Thus, the myth of equality has the unintended consequence of making all except those who have "succeeded"--which by nature must be a limited number--failures.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to Speak about the Affective Qualities of Film

Having just spent more than two hours watching "In the Valley of Elah" (2007), there are many things that I feel. The movie is about the story of a father trying to determine what has happened to his son, who is discovered dead shortly after arriving back from a tour of duty in Iraq. Because of the grief presented in the film, I find myself touched by this grief. I am very sad because of the loss of the main character, Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones. We quickly learn, in the first half-hour of the film, that he had also lost another son some ten years earlier. So now he and his wife have lost both of their children.

But the grief for the loss of a son is one thing, yet this narrative is more complex. It happens that the son was killed by one of his army buddies and that there is no good explanation for why the killing occurred. Instead, we are presented with the conditions that made the killing possible. Namely, the return of these young men from a tour of duty in land where there are no marks of achievement or signs of meaning in their actions. The son, we learn, was involved in the accidental death of a child in Iraq, yet this has nothing to do with the narrative, but to show the fragile mental state of the young man. Thus, our grief is accentuated by the lack of purpose and the moral confusion of the son's killing.

The director of the film frames the movie around two mirror episodes, where Deerfield explains to an immigrant how to hang the national flag. In the first episode, the immigrant has hung it upside down. Deerfield explains that this is a sign of "distress." Thus, he shows the immigrant how to hang it properly, signifying national honor, not distress ... turpitude. At the end of the film, in the second episode, after Deerfield has returned from his trip to uncover the mysterious end of his son's life, he reverses what he has done, hanging the flag for the immigrant upside down, to indicate "distress."

The world that we leave as the movie closes, is one of solitude and sadness and loss. It is a very powerful image, particularly for those who mourn the deaths of soldiers and those who love them, who sometimes fall into their way. The image is clearly also a critique, or better a commentary, on the state of American foreign politics, the conflict in Iraq in which we are entrapped. The film presents no answers and in this regard does not attempt to assuage the affect it provoked.

Is it necessary to identify with Deerfield in order to experience the grief and confusion the film presents? This would be difficult because he is an Army man, former military police, and it was because of his service that his sons both joined the armed forces. Thus, Deerfield has a unique responsibility for the deaths of his sons, because they followed him. Had he led them astray? The viewer is certainly not expected to be able to identify with his character. We feel a sadness and a confusion because we appreciate both Deerfield and another character that assists his search for answers.

Must the affective power be measured by my individual response? I am particularly interested in this topic, because I have read news stories like the one told in this film. I have also learned a little bit about the intense psychological trauma that soldiers suffer and wish that solutions existed to solve their problems. I wonder if they, like the soldiers of other wars, will bear that trauma their entire lives.

Falling into a pattern that is well-wrought by intellectual history preceding me, I am tempted to separate these affective events from the purported "content" of the film. Yet this would be an artificial distinction that would fail to comprehend the film in its breadth. But this then leads to the judgment that the affective qualities of the film cannot be separated from this particular story and its narrative unfolding. Thus, the judgment would not be limited to the individual response, that in this case I felt.

But how do we speak about the affective qualities of a film? We describe the conditions and events that provoke affective reactions. For example, how the moral clarity of Deerfield, which is represented by his well-organized and productive life, slowly devolves, like a man who at first is sitting up straight, but by and by begins to slump. We might remark the power of Jones' face, marked with lines of time and emotion and how they perfectly accept the emotional tasks that he has in presenting Deerfield's character. How he responds to finally hearing the confession of his son's killer, with a blank face that does not register reaction. In point of fact, during the confession the scene is dominated by shots of the killer describing the deed and his relation to the victim. Yet the fact that, at a crucial moment, the killer directs his account to Deerfield, is unmistakeable. The audience watches the killer from Deerfield's perspective and hears the killer apologize to Deerfield, the audience.

Can these affective qualities be put into words and must we separate ourselves from them in order to judge the film (is judgment necessary and is our emotional state, upon the completion of the film, that judgment itself)?

Monday, April 20, 2009

This Terrifying Novel: 2666

More than a month ago I began reading Roberto Bolaño's 2666, I suppose on a lark. In fact, my bookclub (perhaps presently defunct) selected it, after reading Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen (which I strongly recommend, particularly for one quotation: "Peculiarity is fact rumpling the bedsheets of assumption"). Around the same time I bought The Savage Detectives on my friend Jeff's suggestion. I recall him extoling the intensity of the novel and his surprise that through some 400 pages it could be maintained. I read the first 200 pages of that and then put it down, although not because of disinterest, but because I wanted to stick with one book at a time (a habit I have not cultivated well). The Savage Detectives is a beautiful record of a poet of perhaps middling talent and then an search for an infamous poetess bearing the appropriate first name Caesurea (what luck!). This vision of the literary world eclipses all televisual representations, which make authors into pompous, necessarily (because of the medium) empty talking heads.

After whatever had been keeping me from continuing with 2666 disappeared, I have been reading it fervently. It is a terrifying novel, whose center lies around the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez. It comprises the longest part of the book, although it does not begin until 353 pages into the text (practically 900 pages long). In fact, the first part leads one to think that this book is like others, about the world of literature, although seen from the perspective of a several European critics of the apocryphal, mysterious German writer Archimboldi. Only in the closing of the first section, more than 200 pages long, do we finally find ourselves in Santa Theresa (Ciudad Juárez). It is unmistakeably hell. The second part involves a Spanish philosopher professor with the bad luck to be teaching in Santa Theresa. The third part follows a black New York journalist named Oscar Fate (nom de plume, albeit) as he serendipitiously discovers Santa Theresa, ostensibly covering a uneventful boxing match. The fourth part is about the murders.

Bolaño here writes fragments of a consistent narrative that jump back and forth between different narrators or characters, without transition. It is not hard to follow and seems appropriate particularly in the fourth section, as the fragments jump from the account of the discovered bodies of one woman and then another. This kind of catalogue is ... I can't find the appropriate word for it. Terrifying, I suppose. Bolaño makes no attempt to bring these women back to life beyond to present their circumstances prior to their disappearance and subsequent (although sometimes separated by weeks) discovery, and I think this is a gesture of remarkable tact, given the temptations. He doesn't need to. I don't know what possesses one to read this part of the book, exactly. Bolaño is no fabulous writer, at least in translation. Which is not to say that his prose is lackluster. But the text compels you to continue reading, as you develop attachments to characters, seeing their shortcomings and intimations very clearly before even they are apprised of them. In the fourth section there are a few characters, most men peopling the police force. I have only reached 1995 or so, so the willful, incomprehensible incompetence of the police has yet to appear. Yet the investigations following the discoveries of bodies are so brief, it is clear that something is wrong. The facts, to which Bolaño is obliquely attached, indicate criminal neglect on the part of the Mexican authorities, at various levels.

The sheer volume of murders and the similarities of some leads one to conclude, as different journalists have, that serial murderers are at work. This is not to suggest, however, that only those murders indicating a pattern are included in 2666. In fact, the victims include many women killed by those closest to them, of which there is no doubt about the person responsible. Yet through the unfolding of this list a very different event begins to take focus, the kind which only large periods of time and vast areas of space can reveal. Namely, that those responsible for these murders are not just the men (and women) who have, through their individual action, taken the lives of their victims. Instead, everyone becomes a partner to the murders through the spectacle. There are two dangers to this realization: first, that the murders become inevitable, a cultural crime, and the possibility of ending them outstrips the efforts of collective action; second, that we fail to recognize the diverse forces leading to this event (NAFTA and the maquiladoras, a patriarchal culture where wife beating had been legal until 2002, the non-observance of the human rights of women).

To put this differently, there may be serial murderers as well as economically ravaged families ... but the crime of murder has been displaced by the crime of neglect, disinterest.