‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Landor's Cleanness

Out now. It's £50 in hardback, and though I'm proud of it (I might say 'I don't know of a better critical book about Landor', which in turn might look rather deplorably self-regarding, except that, really, there are no other critical books about Landor) I can hardy ask you, individually, to shell out such a sum. But if you have ordering rights at a University, or even a Public, Library I might beseech you to invoke them. Landor deserves to be better known.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

On Frege On Numbers, or: '135664 Fingers'

I've been trying to get a sense of Frege's critique of Kant's transcendental inductions by reading Anthony Kenny's book, which, had it been me, I'd have called Frege, Frege Against The Dying Of The Light.* The point of this post, though, is not puns; it's to notate a few thoughts and objections that occurred to me. Since these are second-hand, thoughts on Kenny's summary of Frege, I'll need at some point to go to the source if I ever want to firm them up. But this's close enough for government work for now (I'm sure Frege scholars have rehearsed all these points many times, and it's very possible I'm being boneheaded and myopic in my criticism. Let that stand for now).

1. So: Frege denies that numbers 'refer' to actual objects in the world; or rather (since number obviously do this: 'two dogs', 'three bananas') he wants to deny that this is all there is to numbers. Logic and arithmetic, he says, are realms of a priori truth. In The Foundation of Arithmetic, he insists that 'nobody can give a coherent answer to the question of what the number one is, or what the numeral "one" signifies.' To bring this out he imagines the following dialogue' [K, 50]
A. What is the number one?
B. It is a thing.
A, But what thing?
B. Anything you like.
A. So in an equation I can replace '1' with whatever I like?
B.Just as in 'x + x - x = x' you can replace x with any number.
A. In '1 + 1 = 2' can we replace '1' with 'the Moon'?
My objection here is the one I presume (I don't know) critics of Frege have already made: that there is semantic slippage away from 'replace "1" with any item I like' and towards 'replace "1" with a singular, non-additive object of my choice'. We could summarise this as the veiled shift from 'a' thing to 'the' thing. If cheeky little 'A' had decided to replace 1 with 'a' moon, there would be no problem. To spell this out, let's imagine that numbers refer not to 'the' thing but to accumulations of 'a' thing (apples, dogs, moons). A moon plus a moon equals two moons -- for instance, in orbit around Mars. This is clear enough, even in Kenny's summary: 'if we put "the Moon" in place of "1" both times, we seem to produce a falsehood: there is only one Moon circling the earth, not two. On the other hand, if we put something else in the second place, say "the Sun", we are doing exactly what we would not be allowed to do in B's parallel case. The algebraic formula expresses a truth only if we always substitute the same numeral for the same letter.' But this isn't right ('only' isn't right, I mean). It makes more sense to treat this shift from number to thing as following a particular grammar. So let's substitute the Moon for the first "1" and the Sun for the second. We get:
The Moon + The Sun = ...?
We're only puzzled because we haven't grasped the way plural forms inflect expression. So to preserve the 'truth' Frege thinks so paramount, we need only complete the 'sum':
The Moon + The Sun = Two astronomical objects.
Frege's unhappiness here is akin to the man who says 'one goose plus one goose equals two gooses, but gooses is not correct English usage, so there can only be one goose!' on account of not knowing that the plural for goose is geese.

2. What else? Well, Frege adapts Kant's distinctions between a priori and a posteriori, synthetic and analytic. There's some interesting stuff in Kenny here, not least this:
Frege allied himself with Kant in stating that the truths of geometry are synthetic and a priori. Geometry is a priori because geometrical theorems are provable from general laws (for example, from the axioms of Euclid) and make no appeal to any particular lines, figures or solid. Bodies. But geometry is not analytic, because its axioms involve spatial concepts; and these concepts are not applicable in all disciplines, since not everything we can think about is spatial. As non-Euclidian geometries show, some of the geometrical axioms can be denied without self-contradiction. [58]
So: a triangle may have straight edges and still not sum its angles to 180-degrees is it is drawn between two points on the equator and the north pole of our globe. Fair enough.
The great question to which Frege addresses himself is whether arithmetic, like geometry, depends upon specific non-logical laws, or whether it can be proved purely from general laws of logic. This question can only be satisfactorily answered only if arithmetic, like geometry, can be successfully axiomatised. ... Well, can arithmetic be axiomatized? Can, for instance, the formulae
7 + 5 = 12
135664 + 37863 = 173527
and infinitely many other similar sums be reduced to a handful of self-evident truths?
That first sum is there because Kant cites it in the Critique of Pure Reason: he says there's nothing 'in' 7 or 5 that can logically lead us to 12; that the fact that we know 7 + 5 = 12 is an intuition. To this Kenny (ventriloquizing Frege) makes the following interesting comment:
Kant claims each arithmetical proposition is known by intuition. In adding together 7 and 5, he says, we 'call to our aid the intuition corresponding to one of them, say our five fingers' ... But do we really have an intuition of 37863 fingers? Or of 135664 fingers? And if we did, would not the value of 135664 + 37863 be immediately obvious without needing to be worked out? Perhaps Kant meant his thesis to apply only to small numbers. But even in the case of ten fingers, many different images come to mind, depending on the positioning of the fingers. And how can we make a fundamental distinction between small and large numbers? [K.60]
This gives me pause. It is interesting; I almost wonder if Kant is tacitly working with a sense of human 'intuition' that resembles the 'one, two, many' mode of counting supposedly prevalent in early tribal cultures. Maybe '1, 2, 3 .... 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, many'. At any rate:

3. Frege thinks arithmetic prior to everything else. 'Physics and psychology deal with the active world of cause and effect; geometry deals with the world of the imaginable; arithmetic deals with the world of thought. Everything that is thinkable is also countable, and the laws of numbers cannot be denied without calling into question the laws of thought' [64]. The woahh! part of this is
Everything that is thinkable is also countable ...
as if my love for my kids, my aesthetic appreciation of King Lear or Quadrophenia, or the dread in the pit of my stomach that afflicts me as I try to fall asleep and which relates to my increasing sense of existential confinement ... as if these things are all countable. As for the 'laws of numbers', though Frege doesn't admit it, these are predicated on the Wittgensteinian language-game context, the getting behind of which there is none, and the which determines that '7 + 5 = 10' is perfectly true in base-12.

4. We lumber on. Frege insists that number is 'not a property', and he has this to say on the 'difference between numbers and properties such as colour'.
We speak of a tree as having 1000 leaves and as having green leaves; but there is this difference, that each leaf is green, whereas each leaf is not 1000. The leaves collectively form the foliage of the tree; the foliage, like the leaves is green, but again the foliage is not 1000. So 1000 considered as a property seems to belong neither to any single leaf nor to the totality of them all. [67]
I don't see this. Picture an autumnal tree with 500 blue and 500 yellow leaves, equally spaced about the foliage. From a distance this tree would look green. 'Each leaf is green, whereas each leaf is not 1000' speaks only to the vagueness of expression. We might easily rephrase: 'each leaf is a little bit green, and each leaf is a little bit of 1000; all the leaves together are very green, and all the leaves together are 1000'. It's almost as if Frege isn't trying, here.
While I cannot alter the colour of a thing by thinking of it differently, I can think of the Iliad as one poem, or as 24 books, or as 1154777 words. [68]
Well now I have to assume he's just taking the piss. Because we can (of course) and do (often) talk of a blue object as 'the colour of my lover's eyes', or as 'sea-blue', or as 'dark (as opposed to light)', as 'Chelsea kit', as 'true blue' and so on.

5. 'The idea that numbers are something subjective, like a mental image, leads to absurd results. Mental images are private in the sense that my mental images are not your mental images, and your mental images are not mine, then it would have to be private to individuals' [K. 69] -- Frege mocks this notion:
We should then have it might be many millions of twos in our hands. We should have to speak of my two and your two, of one two and all twos ... as new generations of children grew up, new generations of twos would continually be being born, and in the course of millennia these might evolve, for all we could tell, to such a pitch that two of them wold make five.
This is a restatement of Kant's Transcendental Unity of Apperception, concerning which I have expressed my doubts in another place. Saying 'my mental images are not your mental images, and your mental images are not mine' ignores the myriad way that my mental images can copy themselves into your head, by me telling you about them. William Blake had a mental image privately in his head of a sick rose, in which the invisible worm that flies in the night in the howling storm has made its bed. He writes the image into his poem. Now it is in the heads of millions of readers. It continues to be duplicated into millions more, and yet in none of them does the Frege reduction absurdum come to pass, such that the sick rose evolves into a sick tulip, sick iPhone or sick Ford Mondeo. Funny, that.

* Yes, I know the name is pronounced with a hard 'g'. Pun still works.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Kant's Transcendental Deduction of the Categories: ILLUSTRATED EDITION

I'm engaged in some Kant-related business, now and through til Christmas at least. Trying fully to grasp the transcendental deduction of the categories is, well, fun fun fun. Til our daddy takes the T-Bird away, at any rate. I recommend interested parties do a Google Image Search on 'Kant's transcendental categories'. It's a blast. My two favourite:

I think we can agree that makes matters clearer. Then there's this adorable chap, wandering the suburbs of Cairo with a weird Pringles-tube funnel where his face should be, through which he takes in all his sense data. I say 'he'. Maybe this person is a she.

And people say philosophy is dull.

Saturday, 22 November 2014


Reading this John MacFarlane paper (on Frege, Kant and versions of 'logic'), I came across the following sentence:
By arguing that the Begriffsschrift fits a characterization of logic that Kant accepts, Frege could blunt one edge of Wang’s double-edged sword.
Philosophers, eh? In other news, 'Wang’s double-edged sword' is the name of my new band.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Jane Porter, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803)

Scholars from Lukacs on have insisted that Walter Scott 'invented' the form of the modern Historical Novel; but here, more than a decade before Waverley, is an internationally successful exercise in precisely the mode that Scott made his own: Jane Porter's Thaddeus of Warsaw. The earliest edition Google Books has is the fourth edition of 1806:

(Here's a link to the in-one-volume revised edition of 1831). Wikipedia draws on the NDNB to tell the rather mournful tale:
It went through at least 84 editions, including translations into French and German. The German edition was praised by Tadeusz Kościuszko, the inspiration for the "Thaddeus" of the title and a hero of the American Revolution, and earned Porter a ladyship from the King of Württemberg. The book was responsible for the name of Warsaw, North Carolina (founded c. 1838). The character of Thaddeus Sobieski was the namesake of Thaddeus Lowe (b. 1832), the father of aerial reconnaissance in the United States, and Pembroke Somerset was the namesake of Pembroke, Kentucky (est. 1836). Nonetheless, in the shadow of Walter Scott's Waverley and the general dismissal of early female novelists by late Victorian critics,[2] Porter came to be so disregarded that the editor of an 1897 edition of Porter's diary took it for granted that her readers would not have heard of her and an 1905 edition of Thaddeus was published as part of a series on Half-Forgotten Books. By 1947, the Marxist critic Lukács felt entitled to argue that Scott's was the first "true" historical novel, which presented the past as a distinct social and cultural setting.
Booo! Porter, in her courteously phrased but still damning preface to the 1831 edition, is quite well aware of her rights of precedence, for all that Scott shot past her in fame:

The novel is set during the Second Partition of Poland. The novel deserves to be rediscovered.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Revolutionary Plutarch (1805)

Dedicated (a touch hauntologically) to the ghosts of Louis XVI and Edmund Burke, the preface to this collection of French capsule biographies leaves us no doubt as to its ideological orientation:
The Corsican adventurer continues, almost daily to inflict new, deep, and almost incurable wounds on the civil rights of individuals, on the prerogatives of sovereigns, as well as on that system of public morals called the law of nations. He, therefore, who is destined to relate the present wretchedness of society, if actuated by the spirit of truth, honour, and independence, will have to recapitulate such a multitude of enormities, that the reigns of Nero, Caligula, Domitian, and Robespierre must appear less intolerable and less tyrannical than the usurpation of Napoleone Buonaparte. Slavery, in its most odious hue, as well as in its gloomy shades, continues still to degrade most of the continental nations; but though outraged nature, ever intent to uphold her dominion, constantly haunts the offender, by means of the demon of never-ceasing suspicion, and not unfrequently torments him with the scorpion of never-dying revenge, no prospect is visible of modern bondsmen possessing courage and energy enough to break their chains on the head of their guilty and cruel master.
I like the spelling 'Napoleone Buonaparte' used here; a nice rocking-horse rhythm to the name: Na-POLE-ee-oh-nee Bu-OHN-ah-par-tee. A shame it didn't catch on, really. (It goes on in this Gothic mode: "Backed by accomplices, by gaolers, dungeons, racks, executioners, and gibbets, Buonaparte with one hand tears the social compact of civilized people, and with the other seizes a privileged British agent! with one hand he stabs a Bourbon, and with the other drags a trembling pontiff sacrilegiously to place the crown of the Bourbons on the head of their assassin!")

Sunday, 16 November 2014

[G W M Reynolds], A Sequel To Don Juan (1843)

Reynolds' name is in square brackets, in the title to this blogpost, because it's suspected but hasn't, I think, been proven he's the author. It is what it says it is: an (unauthorised, of course) sequel to Byron's Don Juan, five cantos with a further eleven promised if the work prove popular. We assume it didn't.

I've owned this for many years, although now I am selling it -- it's on ebay, although I'll do a discount for readers of this blog. *grins* (Lord knows how painful it is for me to part with any of my books, but needs must when the devil of financial squeezing drives, and a bunch of books have gone into the e-marketplace. *sigh*) You can get a sense of the versification easily enough:

Never a good sign when an author feels he has to explain his jokes. So: in keeping with the through-line of the poem (viz., the redemption of Juan into polite society), the volume is illustrated throughout with contemporary society beauties posing as characters in the poem. Frontispiece:

And the rest:

I don't want to give the impression it's all well-bred politesse. For an 1843 publication it gets pretty racy, although in the soft-focus rather dishonest mode of 1970s porn rather than the honest obscenity of Byron's original:

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Divinanimality 3: Eric Daryl Meyer, 'Giorgio Agamben and the Gospel of John'

Quite properly rebuked (very politely) by Eric Daryl Meyer for generalising about the Divinanimality volume [in the comments to this post], I read his essay: 'The Logos of God and the End of Humanity: Giorgio Agamben and the Gospel of John on Animality as Light and Life'. It does, as he notes, pose the question that seems to me so crucial in the 'divinanimality' discussion:
Should God's incarnation be understood as a celestial endorsement of the exceptional status of humanity over against all other creatures or as the deconstruction of humanity from within, a salvifically subversive maneuver undertaken for the sake of all God's beloved creatures? [148]
Meyer goes with option B. He starts by deftly sketching in the traditional readings of St John's Logos, from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianus up (bit of a leap, but OK) to Agamben and Derrida. The thesis is intricate, but very roughly: there are two logoi, the divine and the human. 'Human life (ζωή) radiates as light from the Logos of God ... but John writes of a darkness that refuses the light. The world of humanity, the kosmos, is the site of this darkness; humanity fails to recognise the Logos as its very life' [146]. Some thinkers see these two logoi as congruent, either actually or potentially. Meyer wants to argue, via Agamben, that not only are they not so, but that the divine logos works (if we understand it properly) precisely to undermine the complacencies of the peignoir of our own beings-in-the-world. So: one of Agamben's more famous distinctions is between βίος ('political life', fully realised human life) and ζωή ('the bare life of eating, sleeping, breathing and procreation'). Meyer notes that this distinction is tricksier than you might think:
For Agamben, it is not the case that one finds ζωή out in the world in order to organize it and found a city. Agamben inverts the commonsense political myth of origins, arguing that the production of the category ζωή is the fundamental business of political life. So βίος is not so much an improvement on a ζωή that was already there, but an operation that is suspended over ζωή as a rhetorically necessary category. ... Political life (βίος) produces bare life (ζωή), then, in two ways: First, bare life functions as a mythical Ur-concept that marks political life as better than the brute life that preceded it, even if no concrete memory of such a life exists. Second, political life produces bare life by exclusion, by occasionally denuding somebody of the protection of the law and exposing him or her to whatever death or misfortune might befall him or her. [152]
Hence homo sacer. Meyer agrees with Derrida that Agamben can't really claim to have discovered this 'Foucauldian biopolitics' already fully formed in Aristotle (as he does). But what he wants to do, broadly, in this essay is constellate 'animal' and 'human' in ways analogous to this ζωή/βίος distinction. 'The Logos of God is no longer the Master Signifier', he insists. A slightly longer quotation:
It will be helpful to locate the divine Logos within each of the three aligned distinctions from Agamben's text. First, with regard to the distinction between bare life and political life, it is commonplace to recognize Jesus as the figure of the outcast, the scapegoat, the refugee, whose life cannot be assimilated to the order of his society. ... In this regard Jesus the Logos clearly stands on the side of ζωή rather than citizenship Second, with regard to the human-animal distinction, the Logos obviously bears human flesh, but his alignment with humanity rather than animality is less secure than it might first appear ... One might ask whether the Logos of God appears in the place of the animal [Meyer has been arguing eg as the lamb-to-the-slaughter] to endorse eating, slaughter and experimentation, or to loose the knots holding these cultural structures together? Third, where is the Logos situated with regard to the interior distinction between humanity proper and human animality? Does the incarnation of the Logos as a human being underwrite or undermine the workings of the anthropological machine? ... I suggest that the Logosas the very ζωή of human beingsis aligned with human animality against humanity's proprietary logos as it disavows animality through the anthropological machine. [158-9]
This is cogently thought-through, but I don't think I agree with it. Taking 'one' first: isn't it one-sided to read Christ as (in effect) the scapegoated solitary homo sacer? He was sacrificed, its true, and scapegoated; but considering his ministry as a whole, isn't it closer to the truth to see him at the centre of a community (the disciples and the larger group that formed around them) instead of outcast from community? Isn't one of the main thrusts of Christ in the gospels congregrationalist (I mean, in the neutral, not the sectarian, sense of that word)? His preaching gathers many people together, and its that gathering-together that is the real point. Two I think is on even shakier ground, as it happens. Thinking contextually, one of the most distinctive breaks Christianity makes with the religious practice that preceded it was not only to anthropomorphise the incarnation, but to exclude the divine animals that form so prominent a part of the pantheons of the Ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks and so on. Around this time everybody was worshipping divine animals. Rather than being some special sign of divine respect for the animal kingdom, one of the newnesses of Christianity was to mark out a radical new divine-conceptual territory: humans only. (The counter point here is that, in doing this, it was only following in the footsteps of Judaism: which is a fair point. But Jews were still sacrificing animals to their non-animal God; Christianity substituted a human being even for that sacred role.)

I'm being polemical, of course; but I do detect a subtle gravitational pull at work (in this essay, and the others from this volume that I've read) tugging the gospels in order to draw them closer towards 21st-century Green (and further away from 1st-century tribal) mores. Maybe that's fine. Maybe that's the best thing to do with the gospels. But it leaves me pulling my 'not sure I agree' face when I read things like this:
God is present as the incarnate ζωή-Logos of creation, but the human form of the Logos does not validate humanity's ideological projects, but presents God's most personal judgment upon them. In Barthian terms the Logos of God sounds out a thundering "Nein!" to humanity precisely by taking on human flesh. [159]
I dig the Barth line, of course; but I don't see why God is present as the incarnate ζωή-Logos of creation. Wouldn't it make more sense (as per Agamben) to think of God as the βίος-Logos of creation, suspended over the human ζωή as an ontologically necessary category? The pre-existent βίος needful such that the ζωή can come into its fullest being?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Sophocles Long Ago ...

Here's an old chestnut of 19th-century scholarship. It's an unidentified allusion in Arnold's 'Dover Beach' (probably written 1851), one of the most famous short poems of the 19th-century:

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
So 'Sophocles long ago ...' Where in Sophocles? Nowhere, according to scholarship: 'Sophocles was Arnold's favorite Greek dramatist, but no passage in the plays is strictly applicable. See Baum 88: "the alleged parallels simply do not meet the case; they are irrelevant".' [Kenneth Allott, The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longman 1965), 255]. But that edition is as old as I am: surely somebody has something more, now? Apparently not. ('The passage most often adduced,' said Richard Cronin in 2012, 'is from the third chorus in the Antigone.' But that hardly fits. Check for yourself.)

Well, I have a suggestion. I recently chanced upon William Crowe's Lewesdon Hill (1788) and noticed that it, from the first edition through to later ones, carried the following epigraph on the title page:

Click to embiggen. That must be the passage Arnold has in mind, yes? I think it fits. Here's the Greek as Crowe quotes it:
Χαιρ’ ω ϖεδον αγχιαλον,
Και μ’ ευπλοιᾳ ϖεμψον αμεμπτως
Ενθ’ ἡ μεγαλη μοιρα χομιζει,
————— χψῶανδαματωρ
Δαιμων, ος ταυτ’ επεκρανεν.
The Greek is Englished, presumably by Crowe himself, as:
Farewell thy printless sands and pebbly shore!
I hear the white surge beat thy coast no more,
Pure, gentle source of the high, rapturous mood!
Where'er, like the great Flood, by thy dread force
Propelled—shape Thou my calm, my blameless course,
Heaven, Earth and Ocean's Lord!—and Father of the Good!

So, it turns out that this is a slightly mangled version of Philoctetes' last speech in Sophocles' play of that name:
χαῖρ᾽, ὦ Λήμνου πέδον ἀμφίαλον,
καί μ᾽ εὐπλοίᾳ πέμψον ἀμέμπτως,
ἔνθ᾽ ἡ μεγάλη Μοῖρα κομίζει
γνώμη τε φίλων χὠ πανδαμάτωρ
δαίμων, ὃς ταῦτ᾽ ἐπέκρανεν.
Here's Gregory McNamee's 1986 translation:
Farewell, Lemnos, bound by waves [Crowe changes this to 'Farewell shores of Lemnos'], give me no further cause to mourn, but send me off on fair seas to win my glory where fate now carries me, to the judgment of friends [Crowe omits these last five words] and the all-governing spirit that rules these events.
Part of the issue here is that Crowe reads 'αγχιαλος' ('maritime, of the sea shore') for 'ἀμφίαλος' ('place where two seas meet, headland'). He also reads 'χψῶανδαματωρ', which isn't a word in any Greek Lexicon, but which we can take as a typo for [χὠ] πανδαμάτωρ, 'all-governing'.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Dog-headed Saint Christopher

A 17th-century icon (from here). *sings* Wah-OOOOO! Were-wolves of Russian Orthodox Christianity.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Two-Step-of-Terrific-Triviality: Animal Studies Edition

One last notation on this, before I turn to writing up my ideas properly (not for blogging, I mean: for a paying market). I was looking again at Stephen Moore's Divinanimality collection. Now one of the problems I had, here (as I blogged previously), was with the way 'divinanimality' theorists draw on the experiential world of humans and pets, whilst simultaneously stressing the radical alterity of animals. The former, it seems to me, is a complex relationship established over tens (possibly) hundreds of thousands of years, in order precisely to erode the latter. Part of the problem is the fatuity inherent in assuming that the 'special bond' and a quasi-spiritual connection you really believe you share with your beloved pet scales up. My go-to counterexample is poor old Timothy Treadwell (I mention him twice in the various blogposts I've posted this month on this topic). This in turn means I'm interested in theoretical questions of predation. There is a kind of principled vegetarianism that regards humans eating animals as a profound betrayal of our responsibilities of care, trust, community and so on. That seems to me (a) asymmetrical, to put it mildly and (b) to entail practical consequences few animal lovers would embrace, given the scale of the diminution of the number of animals that would be alive on earth if humankind stopped growing them for food.

Anyway, given all this, I was intrigued by the title of Erika Murphy's Divinanimality essay: 'Devouring the Human: Digestion of a Corporeal Soteriology'. But I was disappointed. Murphy identifies a promising area: Christianity of course does have a foundational relationship with the idea of a (divine) man being eaten, the lamb-of-god sacrificed upon the cross, communicants eating his flesh and drinking his blood. But this essay does not persuade me that this speaks to a broader logic of 'the edible human', the human being as preyed upon, and so on. Murphy starts:
Acknowledging that human beings are a consumable product, I contend, is not just a point of ecological correctness: Recognising our fleshy vulnerability may be vital to creating an opening for the divine. [51]
That 'may' is a bit foggy, there. 'Ecological correctness' is odd, too: it is ecologically correct to recycle as much of our waste as we can, in the sense that we ought to do this; but it's surely not the case that we 'ought' to be eaten by bears. I suppose Murphy is implying that a man or woman who considered themselves, somehow, perfectly invulnerable might be closed-off to the possibilities of the divine ('I don't need God: I'm immortal, flawless and impervious to pain!'). So s/he might; but s/he is also a straw wo/man, never to be found in the actual world. Then the turn to bathos:
The philosopher Hélène Cixous draws our attention to human corporeality when she recounts being bitten by the family dog, Fips. After Fips releases his grip from her ankle, she tells us, "I saw the meat we are. We came out of the mortal spasms broken lame and delirious. Unrecognizable." ... Strikingly, the bite draws this atheistic postmodern thinker into the world of the biblical: the experience with Fips echoes for Cixous the narratives of both Job and Jesus.
Muprhy takes this at face value: there's a long discussion of the crucifixion and the eucharist, before she cycles back to 'Fips as Christ figure ... both the attacker and persecuted teacher, the wolf and the lamb' [61].

I found this essay most provoking. Murphy can see there's something interesting about the theological implications of predation and devouring, but hangs back, gesturing in the direction of significance rather than engeging. There's nothing to link the awakening she discusses (the awakening of one's awareness of corporeal frailty I mean) specifically to animals. It might proceed, as with Cixous, via a nip on the heel by Fips; but presumably it might also happen via a broken arm, a skinned knee, a fever; a car crash or a bike accident; or even by observing somebody else experiencing one of these things. Where's the specific animal connection? And the sheer banality of the Fips' nip, the great gulf between what Cixous experienced and what Timothy Treadwell experienced, seems to me entirely to undo the force of the main argument.

It is, I thought, another example of John Holbo's celebrated 'Two-Step-of-Terrific-Triviality'. Viz.:
Say something that is ambiguous between something so strong it is absurd and so weak that it would be absurd even to mention it. When attacked, hop from foot to foot as necessary, keeping a serious expression on your face. With luck, you will be able to generate the mistaken impression that you haven’t been knocked flat, by rights. As a result, the thing that you said which was absurdly strong will appear to have some obscure grain of truth in it. Even though you have provided no reason to think so.
The two steps here are 'being nipped on the heel by a dog makes one aware of the vulnerability of the flesh' on the one hand, and 'Fips is Christ' on the other. It's naked enough, in this essay, for Murphy to anticipate resistance ('Although Cixous never claims Fips is Christ ...'), doing so to row-back only far enough to leave the desired 'obscure grain of truth': 'Although Cixous never claims Fips is Christ his strong somatic presence and grief-stricken bite do lead Cixous to approach the transcendent through the animal etc etc' [61].

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Edmund Dulac and the Unerotic Banknote

Famous as an illustrator of children's stories, especially fairy tales, I was reminded of Edmund Dulac's work today when Francis Spufford blogged this lovely image: 'Princess in the Fields at Twilight'

I especially like the as-it-were visual pun between the princess's flowing red-gold hair (running away in the wind towards the top right), and the flowing silver of the stream at her feet, running off towards the bottom left. Indeed, the colour palate of the image is rather remarkable altogether. There's something moneyed about the world Dulac portrays: a lavishness that finds a sensual, even erotic sheen in the fineness of its surfaces.

Then browsing idly online, I discovered this Wikipedia factoid about the French-born, English-naturalised Dulac: after WWI the market for expensively illustrated children's book contracted sharply and he moved onto magazine work and designing stamps. Then: 'in the early 1940s Edmund Dulac also prepared a project for a Polish 20-zlotych note for the Bank of Poland (Bank Polski). This banknote (printed in England in 1942 but dated 1939) was ordered by the Polish Government in Exile and was never issued.' Not only did he design images of a moneyed world, he designed actual money! This intrigued me enough to want to track these banknote designs down, so here they are:

Well well. If I had more time (which I don't) I'd say something more about the visual aesthetic of the banknote, of which this striking but rather dour and charmless design is exemplary. Why would it be so counter-intuitive to talk about the erotics of banknote art, given the well-established libidinal dynamic of money as such? It's odd. It's certainly a long way from this:

Friday, 7 November 2014

Stephen D Moore (ed), Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology (2014)

Mournful kitty is mournful. This collection of essays from Fordham University Press brings together proceedings from 'the eleventh Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium held at Drew Theological School in 2011'. It's animal studies from a Green-Christian bent, mostly, and the prime jumping-off-point, in terms of Theory, is Derrida's late writing about animals, most especially his essay 'L'animal que donc je suis (à suivre)' [which first appeared in L'animal autobiographique (1999), and subsequently appeared in English in 2002 as 'The Animals That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)']. One particular moment from that essay is cited by a number of contributors here, more than once paired with Donna Haraway's critique of it. It is Nude Derrida Meeting A Cat, also coincidentally the name of my next band. Jacques encounters the cat, and is aware of the cat's radical alterity, and the wrongness of seeking to assimilate the cat to a human paradigm. This he styles the cat's 'divinanimality', deploying one of his double-meaning pun phrases (which when I was an undergraduate I thought were so clever, but which now I tend to think are mostly just vexing). There's another, too: 'animot'. Since animals are named in the 'mot', or word, and that we need to give the word back to the animals and so on (or not that latter, precisely: 'it would not be a matter of "giving speech back" to animals but perhaps acceding to thinking that thinks the absence of the name and of the word otherwise, and as something other than a privation'). Thankee, Jacques.
When I feel so naked in front of a cat, facing it, and when, meeting its gaze, I hear the cat or God ask itself, ask me: Is he going to call me, is he going to address me? What name is he going to call me by, this naked man, before I give him woman?' [Derrida, 'The Animals That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)', 18]
Moore's collection returns to this 'primal scene' repeatedly, to spin various cogitations about what it tells us concerning the abyssal alterity and heterontology of the animals as in some sense expressive of the divine, not only underwritten by but in some sense the truth of God. Which is all fair enough. Contributors also tend to see this Derridean encounter as insufficient, after the manner of Haraway's engagement with the passage.
Yet Haraway, who is thoroughly familiar with Derrida's animality work, is also deeply critical of it. She gives him credit for much, not least that when he encountered that little black cat in his bathroom it was not as a Cartesian that he appraised her ...[but] the philosopher faced with the cat however was able apparently only to philosophize. [Stephen Moore, 'Introduction: from Animal Theory to Creaturely Theology.', 7]
Bad philosopher! Naughty philosopher! On your bed!
For Haraway, "Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking." In this regard, Derrida, for all his philosophical profundity, fell short of "a Gregory Bateson or Jane Goodall ... or many others [who] have met the living gaze of living, diverse animals and in response undone and redone themselves and their sciences. Derrida's full human male frontal nudity before an Other, which was of such interest in his philosophical tradition, was of no consequence to [the cat], except as the distraction that kept her human from giving or receiving an ordinary polite greeting." [8]
That Haraway's response seems to me fatuous would, if ever brought to their attention, surely alienate me from the authors of the essays in this collection. Is fatuous too strong a word? There Haraway is quoted from the beginning of the collection. Here she is quoted from the end, in an essay that reads two examples of New Testament apochrypha, the Acts of Peter, where St Peter meets and chats with a talking dog, and the Acts of Paul where Paul meets and chats with a talking lioness. Laura Hobgood-Oster elaborates.
Haraway states that "Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking or perhaps making available to him in looking back at him that morning." Peter and Paul were more curious; they did not miss the invitation. And, it must be added, neither did the dog or the lion. The lion even initiated the invitation by speaking first. [Hobgood-Oster, 'And Say The Animal Really Responded', 219]
'It must be added', must it? Well, it must be added that, unlike Derrida's encounter with an actual dumb cat, these two encounters are stories, fables; and (it must be added) didn't really happen. Talking animals, of which there are of course a vast number in human culture, literature and film, are animals that have already had their alterity violated by being assimilated to human mores and attitudes. This is what strikes me as fatuous about Haraway's insistence that it is a failure for a human being not to grasp that the cat wants to swap polite greetings. Projecting human social protocols onto cats, like this, is to do violence to the very otherness that is the premise of the entire collection. And, actually, I'd say it's the smugness of Haraway's position that annoys me, her placid felinophilic insistence that if a philosopher 'opened himself' to the loveliness of communing with cats the encounter would 'undo and redo' all his/her basic assumptions. I am wary of snarking: I know a great many cat owners who genuinely love their cats, and who find solace and emotional security and strength in their relationships with their pets. Many people consider cats 'beautiful', and take pleasure in stroking them, feeding them and so on. There's nothing wrong with that. But kindness to others is not in itself reciprocity. The gesture of reciprocity being posited by Haraway is, as she suggests it, perfectly open. It could just as well be that properly opening herself to her cat would undo and redo her preconceptions -- maybe her cat holds her in contempt, loathes her, endures her company for purely practical reasons of food and a warm place to shelter. It could be that the cat is perfectly, flawlessly indifferent to her: a more profound alterity than the anthropomorphic assumption that cats are basically like people and want to be treated with such human values as courtesy and respect. To make only the most obvious point: Derrida's 'failures of courtesy' when he shared his space with a small carnivorous predator are functions of their respective sizes. Timothy Treadwell shared his personal space with a rather larger carnivorous predator, and was only too courteous and respectful of his ursine Other. Didn't do him any good.

The prime anthropic distortion here, I suppose, is fitting the non-human semiotic forms of animals to a specifically human, Christian God. As far as that goes, it might have been interesting to have commissioned essays in this volume from Muslim or Jewish scholars, who would then be unburdened by that specifically central-to-faith non-animal incarnation. The editor's brief didn't run so far. What we're left with is a conceptual hole that none of essays even acknowledges, let alone attempts to address: Christ incarnated God as a human being. In Lewis's Narnia (also not discussed here) Christ incarnates as an animal, but a talking animal, because Lewis believed Christ to be the logos. I am unaware of any culture text in which Christ incarnates as a dumb creature. Derrida is at least aware that the logos is not the frame of a properly bestial being-in-the-word. I wonder if there's a sense that the animal theology of the moment hopes simply to elide that difference. In my blogpost on Andrew Linzey's most recent collection, I quoted him as follows:
"Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering ... Christians haven’t got much further than thinking that the whole world was made for us, with the result that animals are only seen in an instrumental way as objects, machines, tools, and commodities, rather than fellow creatures."
I need a proper believer to steer me through this, I think: but to me the notion of (say) a dog crucified upon a cross flirts with blasphemy, even with Satanism. Linzey I suppose doesn't want to suggest anything so literal-minded; but he also doesn't explain to what degree it makes sense to call an animal 'innocent'. It seems to me that animals are neither innocent nor not innocent. Now, I'm being a little awkward when I say so, of course. In one sense (in frequent popular usage, for example) it's clear enough what is meant by 'an innocent animal': the IRA blow up certain British soldiers who happen to be parading on horseback. The soldiers are killed, but they chose to be soldiers, and so our grief for them is 'limited' by that fact. Ah, but the horses are 'innocent victims'; they never consented to being put in the line of danger. I don't agree with that, I must say; although I can I suppose see why people might believe it. But surely if we want to think the question through a bit more thoroughly, we have to ask ourselves: can it be meaningful to call a being innocent if there's no possibility of it ever being guilty? I'm not sure it can.

Christian theology also has problems, it seems to me, with what the New Testament actually says about animals. Laura Hobgood-Oster, above, cites two apochryphal books because they show St Paul and St Peter interacting with the animal kingdom on terms of mutual respect, and that suits her argument, and indeed the overall thesis of this volume. But neither she nor any of the other contributors discuss St Peter's vision of the sheet filled with all the world's animals in Acts of the Apostles chapter 10:
Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. [Acts 10:10-16]
Rise, humans; kill, and eat. I'm not snarking about Christians picking and choosing which Biblical verses they want to follow and which not; I suppose that's how all but the most extreme Christians and Jews behave. But I am suggesting that this major strand in New Testament Christianity, one of the things that obviously separates Christian religious praxis from the praxis of Muslims and Jews, cannot simply be wished away, ignored or not discussed. In this context, of all contexts, especially not!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Andrew Linzey (ed), The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence (2014)

Andrew Linzey is one of the more famous figures in 'animal rights' discourses: an Anglican priest and theologian who has argued across many books (amongst them Animal Rights: A Christian Perspective (1976), Christianity and the Rights of Animals (1987), Animal Theology (1994) and Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics (2009)) that humans have a divinely sanctioned duty of care to regard animals as innocent beings-in-the-world, to avoid causing them suffering and what's more to adopt a fundamentally Kantian ethical position in regard to them: to treat them as ends in themselves and not means to an end. Wikipedia quotes a few representative positions: 'Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering.' He also believes that 'Christians haven’t got much further than thinking that the whole world was made for us, with the result that animals are only seen in an instrumental way as objects, machines, tools, and commodities, rather than fellow creatures.'

This latest collection is true to its, we can be honest, tendentious title: it aims to show that people who are cruel to animals are more likely to be violent to other people. Linzey discusses some of the broader framing of this in his introduction, from two perspectives (one 'from the "human" side' that belongs to those who argue some people who abuse children can be very caring where their pets are concerned, which Linzey simply doesn't believe; the other 'from some animal advocates who fear that the focus on the link [between animals abuse and human violence] obscures the moral case for animals. Animal abuse should be regarded as wrong in itself, they claim, regardless of its adverse effects on human beings' [4-5]). But this doesn't go very far. Mostly the book simply presents papers that in turn present data as evidence for the claim that the kind of people who abuse animals are more likely to be the kind of people who hurt other people. This is pretty convincing, not least because it chimes with common sense. We're all aware of the cliché of the serial killer who learns his trade by torturing cats and so on. Turns out that's not so much a cliché as it is an actual fact in the world. It's worth noting that the sample sizes here are not especially large, mostly. Still: 'of 429 adult inpatient admissions to psychiatric hospital divided into aggressive and non-aggressive samples, 23% killed dogs and cats and 18% tortured dogs and cats (aggressive sample) and 10% killed and 5% tortured dogs and cats (non-aggressive sample) [1979]'; 'of 28 sexual homicide perpetrators, 36% committed acts of animal cruelty in childhood and 46% in adolescence' and so on [31-34]. I can believe it.

There are 27 separate articles in this anthology, not including Linzey's introduction (plus extra introductions to the eight sections into which the collection is disposed): and most of them repeat this point with varying degrees of statistically meaningful evidence bases. The social science idiom of these pieces has the smack of precision about it, but there are larger vaguenesses in the volume that trouble me. One is the core definition of 'animal'. Almost all the papers refer to 'animal abuse'; very few actually define what they mean by animal ('abuse' is more precisely defined). The volume kicks off with an epigraph by R D Laing, quoted approvingly by Andrew Linzey: 'it is quite clear that in abusing animals we abuse our relationship with animals, and that we abuse ourselves. We become less human to the extent that we treat any living beings as things.' It's the sort of hugely over-reaching assertion to which Laing was sometimes prone, and it doesn't stand up very well to hard thought. Any living being? Really? I treat the yeast that turns my mash into beer as a means to an end rather than an end in itself; this hardly diminishes my humanity. I treat my gut flora the same way. This is to make the extreme point, of course; but the case studies of animal abuse in the book as a whole in fact detail a remarkably narrow set of examples: dogs and cats, smaller pets like hamsters, horses and some other farm animals. Mary Louise Petersen and David P Farrington ('Measuring Animal Cruelty and Case Histories') confess that they are concerned with 'domesticated' animals; 'cruelty to other species (insects, fish, etc.) is excluded' [15]. Several essays specify that cruelty entails intentional violence and cruelty towards 'companion animals' and pets: 'given the broad-ranging utilitarian attitudes towards non-human animals (eg farming and husbandry practices), conceptualising behaviours serving a purely instrumental goal in the absence of intention to harm as examples of aggression would clearly be problematic' [Eleonora Gullone, 'A Lifespan Perspective on Human Aggression and Animal Abuse', 39]. But that's a very large tranche of sentient beasts to exclude from your theory. And limiting yourself, as almost all the essays here draw on pet abuse, implies a blurring of the core thesis: is it that people who abuse pets are more likely to abuse animals because abusing pets has that effect because of the pets, or because of the violation of the quasi-familial place pets have in human groups? It's an important distinction, I think. A group of essays (in 'Part V: Ethical Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations', 173-220) do discuss broader ethical questions, but without expanding the discussion very far. At the same time, Linzey certainly wants to cast the net of human moral delinquency wider:
And then there is the phenomenon of "denial" which functions as a way of pushing aside uncomfortable moral reality. What might be called a mechanism of "willed ignorance", of looking the other way, of moral pretence. As T. S. Eliot once remarked: "Mankind can bear little realty." Most of us are animal abuse deniers in that sense; we have some inkling that—for example—the products we buy and our food preferences have some costs to the animals involved, but we push such reality aside. [7]
This passage annoyed me, if I'm honest. In part it's the mangling misquotation of Eliot; partly its a simple disagreement that there is such a thing as 'moral reality'; but mostly its the 'animal abuse deniers' phrase, coined presumably on the model of 'Holocaust deniers'. A number of animal rights thinkers make the comparison between factory farming and mass butchery of edible animals on the one hand and the Holocaust on the other. It nonplusses me. Complicity with the Shoah is one of the gravest moral delinquencies its possible to imagine; it's hard to believe people truly believe that living in a country that ran multiple abattoirs is precisely equivalent to this, morally. Perhaps they do. It's hard to think it possible to believe that, in one's heart, except that one would then do everything in one's power to bring it to an end. But here the problematic rears its head. European Jewry existed before Hitler was born: and would have existed, living, working, raising families, telling stories and so on, had he never come into the world. Cows, pigs, chickens and sheep exist in prodigious numbers in the world today because we raise them for food, and for no other reason. A world in which the entire population converted to vegetarianism would be a world in which these creatures wouldn't exist, because there would be no economic reason to grow them. The claim that non-existence is morally preferable to an existence that terminates in a premature abattoir death seems to me, at the very least, a dubitable proposition. It's one thing to agree that farm animals should not be subject to egregious cruelty; it's quite another to argue that it's better they not exist in the first place.

Cynthia Willett, Interspecies Ethics (2014)

I thought it would be an idea to read through Willett's latest book and notate some responses, aiming not at comprehensiveness of reaction (yet), but only an initial bounce-off. The worry, of course, is that such an approach will tend towards the unconsidered, and that would be unfair to Willett, who (though I cannot claim to be an expert in her thought) is very evidently a deeply-considered philosopher of intersectionality, ethics-diversity and environmental responsibility. So, when the book opens:
Low-level warfare has been raging across Africa, India and parts of South-east Asia for decades ... adolescent males alone or in gangs have been attacking villages and plowing under swaths of crops in retaliation for the murder of their families and the destruction of their tribal land. The rogue males terrorising African parks and jungles are not the orphaned youths of the Lord's Resistance Army, those kidnapped children pressed into service for the Ugandan revels. However, like child soldiers, those adolescents too are caught in downward spirals of destruction and self-injury triggered by decades of violence. They are among the last surviving members of the elephants of Uganda. [1]
...and my temptation is to make a sort of tch! noise, I need to take care. The aim is, presumably, rhetorical force and vehemence, but this seems to me to strike a tendentious note, already assuming what the book need to show, the ethical equivalence of animal and people: that elephant behaviour is straightforwardly equivalent to human behaviour (they wage war; they feel the injustice of their territorial situation, they are exactly like 'child soldiers' and so on). This is a position that sets out to recruit our sympathy for the plight of the elephants by assuring us that we must feel for them as we would for any human faced with the same situation. I remain, so far, unrecruited.

I should, of course, register the preconceptions (if you like: the biases, the horizons of closure of my mind) with which I sit down to read a book like this. Naturally I hope to open the arthritic portals of my brain sufficiently to read it fairly, and without prejudice; but we work with what we're given, and it's less dishonest to acknowledge one's ideological structures of thought at the get go. Let's talk about 'animal rights'. So, I am committed (I guess) to a model of rights as simultaneously inalienable and as defined by their reciprocal relationship to social duties. I'm not sure I can make sense of a concept of 'rights' that doesn't include a concept of 'responsibilities'. My rights are the limit cases of how society must treat me; my responsibilities are the structures of obligation I owe to society; the two necessarily go together. I would say my rights are larger than my responsibilities, and I'm very comfortable with that asymmetry. It is entailed, I think, by the fundamental disclosure of being alive at all, the inherent dignity and sanctity of life as such, as against the often restrictive and sometimes petty nature of responsibilities. But surely rights can never be one-sided. When it comes to animal rights I wonder: if an animal has rights, what are its concomitant responsibilities? If a lion has the right not to be hunted to death by humans, does it also have the responsibility not to eat me? That would be the Millesque liberal model of ethical interchange, and the problem is I don't trust the lion to keep up his half of the deal. Or if lions (as per Willett's opening gambit, noted above) are too tendentiously 'majestic' an example, let's try: if rats have the right to be left in peace do they also have the responsibility not to spread disease and wreck our sewage system? If the smallpox bacillus has the right not to be exterminated completely, does it not also have the responsibility to abstain from killing off human beings, as it has been doing since prehistoric times, with a death toll that almost certainly exceeds a billion (up to 500 million died of the disease in the 20th-century alone)?

OK, now I'm being tendentious myself. Of course elephants (16 references in Willett's index, many of them stretching over multiple pages) are large and noble animals; of course the smallpox bacillus (no references in Willett's index) is small and horrid. But if 'interspecies' is to mean more than intramammalian we need surely to open to the larger issue. The elephant in this room (sorry about that) is political; and the question about how far Green politics' progressive commitment to ideas of social justice, equality and respect marry-up with a fundamentally small-c, and sometimes large-C, conservative vision of a social paradigm based on traditional communities, village life, old-fashioned, small-scale interactions and so on. The people who enjoy such life nowadays are the very rich; most of the poor live in cities not through choice but by economic necessity. When Willett writes that
Moral philosophy has much to learn from ancient wisdom traditions ... [5]
the snarky part of me wants to retort: 'what, wise old ancient moral traditions like slavery and exposing unwanted babies on the hillside to die?' If Willett thinks a sustainable future can only happen via a retreat to the deep past ('until the recent past, small-scale human and elephant societies passed on ethical practices that sustained their cohabitation') then she'll need to convince me there's a way to turn the inescapably large-scale needs of today's heptabillion population into a small-scale solution that doesn't involve simply annihilating the vast majority of people now alive. This is not a question the book Interspecies Ethics addresses.

But then it's clear, I think, that Willett and I have a different sense of the possibility of community in the 21st-century world as it is constituted. She says
Today new technologies of electronic media and social networking (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) promise to recharge communal-based networks. However, pressured by our entrepreneurial culture, the new social media may just as likely shift humans further away from that communitarian ethos that characterized our species along with elephants and other mammals for eons. [3]
It seems to me that 'may', there, is a doing a lot of work. Maybe they will; but then again maybe they won't, and that Willett has no time for the latter and much more optimistic possibility seems to me a weakness in her book.


I start by wanting to nit-pick, and that's probably not healthy. Willett's fundamental ethical frame finds value in community, hospitality to others, laughter (especially the laughter of the subaltern), and I consider all those things to be very good things. But when she talks of 'hubris' I fear she doesn't know what she is talking about. The emphatic italics in the first sentence here are hers:
Ancient drama depicts hubris as an assault and an insult on selves-in-communitis [sic] by the powerful. This drama warns of the excess of power and privilege accumulated by elites in a social realm warped by conflict and power differentials. In contrast, modern liberal law, by aiming for a formal equality, abstracts from, rather than confronting, the sharp gradients in power that are ever the tragic source of blind arrogance. Ancient codes against hubris impose restraints on the asymmetries of power and provide rituals for reconciling differences through mourning and forgiveness, in this way differing from modern legal codes backed up by prison systems. [25]
This I think abstracts a 'pure' form of ὕβρις as an embodiment of the wisdom of ancient moral codes that has very little to do with the way ὕβρις actually figured in ancient Greece; and as such it seems to me dangerously symptomatic of a tendency to procede from an idealisation of a notionally more-harmonious past. For the Greeks, hubris was closely bound up with concepts of honour (τιμή, which could be as arrogant and vaunting as you like without sacrificing its honourableness) and shame (αἰδώς, which exists in a zero-sum relation to τιμή). Hubris defined actions that shamed victim and therefore abuser, and could only be applied in a situation where rightful vengeance was not the proper response. Revenge is fine, more or less; hubris is not. It comes clearer when you consider the examples of hubris in Athenian legal speechifying: in Against Midias Demosthenes accuses Midias of hubris for slapping him (Demosthenes) in the face in the theatre for no better reason than that they had certain political differences. And in Aeschines' Against Timarchus, Timarchus is accused of hubris, and therefore unfitness for public office, insofar as he submitted himself to passive anal intercourse with a variety of men (active anal intercourse would have been fine). Aeschines' arguments succeeded, and Timarchus was barred from political office. I do not believe that Willett has this form of hubris in mind when she valorises opposing it as a contemporary moral salient. I wonder if she is aware of it at all, actually.

Shame is certainly part of the (watch out! scare quotes!) 'wisdom' of ancient ethics, and Willett discusses it with a kind of tentative positivity: 'modern moral theory asserts sharp distinctions between so-called primitive shame culture and guilt culture. But these distinctions may break down when moral phenomena are reinterpreted in terms of their bio-social significance for social animals ... shame may be more telling than modern theories of individual guilt for understanding the symbolic impact and social relevance of crimes and moral violations ... shame and moral disgust share a visceral component that could well function in trans-species ethics' [115-17]. I really don't think this is right. Shame is surely very much more destructive than it is constructive. I also tend to think it's out of step with modern progressive understandings of ethics (though that in itself doesn't disqualify it, of course), where 'shaming' is positioned as a way of enforcing social conformity and normativity in those areas where the law does not provide disapprovers with the traction to do anything official about it: so it is that sexually promiscuous women are 'slut-shamed', overweight women are 'fat-shamed' and so on. Modern progressives tend to see this as a bad thing, and I tend to think they're right to do so. In a very particular sense, Aeschines' Against Timarchus is a successful example of faggot-shaming.

After a lengthy introduction we get to chapter 1, 'Can the Animal Subaltern Laugh?', and another chime from my pedantry alarm. I'm with Willett when she says that 'subaltern studies have established that ridicule and other forms of humor serve not only as accessories of cruelty and props of power but also provide discourses and technologies of reversal, levelling hierarchies by turning stratified structures upside down' [30] (well: I'm with her up to the last eight words, where I part company). But the question of whether and which animals laugh happens to be an area in which I've read quite widely, and I cannot agree with the sentence that follows: 'animal studies have begun to document the capacity for laughter in primates, dogs, and even in the chirping of mice' [30-31]. That 'even in the' phrase is there to gesture in an open-handed way: it used to be thought that only humans laugh, but now it seems that all these other animals—and who knows maybe all animals?—laugh as well. Therefore laughter enables 'an infrapolitics of cross-species outrage and solidarity'. Willett's footnote to her 'chimps, dogs and mice all laugh' claim cites Frans De Waal's The Age of Empathy (2010) and Robert Provine's Laughter: a Scientific Investigation (2000) but the first is by no means a scientific study of laughter and the latter deals only with humans and chimps. In fact scientific research suggests that 'laughter' is only found in three species: humans, chimps and rats. Not dogs, and certainly not all the animals in the world: the sound hyenas make might sound like laughter but is not. Horses do not laugh, and neither do bees. Indeed, the sense I have is that what makes us, chimps and rats unique in the laughter game is that (like horses and bees) we live in heirarchised social groups, but (unlike horses and bees) those hierarchies are relatively fluid, or at least not fixed. When we interact with a new individual we don't at first know whether we stand in a superior or an inferior relationship to them, where the pecking order it concerned; and laughter, in its many forms, is one of the ways we negotiate that anxious uncertainty. That's why it can be both the superior mocking put down (Nelson from The Simpsons: ha-ha!) and the subaltern snicker and subversion of authority: it lubricates the social interaction and micro-adjustments of behaviour both up and down. I daresay Willett would not agree, and of course she's under no obligation to; but this model strikes me as much less empowering than is compatible with the argument she advances here.


Chapter 2 is called 'Paleolithic Ethics', and discusses amongst other things the 'left Darwinian' tradition that balances out a sense of 'the natural world' as defined by tooth-and-claw competition with a sense that 'affective networks and social affinities' [61] are also motors of evolution. I don't suppose any Darwinian, left or right, would deny the evolutionary advantage of such strategies; the point surely is that they only work within the group, and provide a tenuous basis for an inter-species ethics. But Willett doesn't think so. She cites De Waal on kindness, Donna Haraway on an 'autre-ethics' and 'autre-mondalisation' (old fashioned utopianism?) and attempts to make an, I thought, unconvincing link between Bakhtin's 'carnivalesque' and what she calls 'carnivore play'. She claims: 'dogs laugh through a dry panting noise' [79] which I fear is simply not true. (Dogs pant through a dry panting noise, and so cool themselves down. This is not laughter in the way true of chimps, rats and humans). She's perfectly correct, of course, that carnivores do sometimes 'play': dogs roll over to expose tender bellies, play-bite and so on; but they do this in an intraspecies way that, when it includes humans, treats humans as other dogs. But carnivores also do rather less fluffy and playful things, including (interspecies-ially) ripping the throats out of prey and eating the dead bodies of their own. Picking and choosing behaviour as the basis for an interspecies ethics seems to me arbitrary and unsustainable.

Chapter 3 ('Discourse ethics across species') argues that some communication between species is possible, which gets no argument from me. But I'd say it leans too heavily on its 'human parents love their children, and chimp parents love their children too, and so we all live in the same ethical cosmos' line. There's a repeat of the earlier 'we modern humans might relearn this older knowledge' [98] gubbins, too. What the chapter doesn't discuss is the Timothy Treadwell misprison of communication, whereby he thought he had established a discursive connection with bears, and the bears thought he looked tasty. The scene in Werner Herzog's excellent Grizzly Man (2008) where the director listens, horrified, to the tape of Treadwell's final minutes of life, which we do not hear, and then turns to Palovak (the owner of the tape) and says ‘you should never listen to it, and you should rather destroy it' is an exceptionally powerful rebuttal to Willett's argument here, I think. Treadwell is not in the index.

Chapter 4, called 'Water and Wing Give Wonder: Meditations on Cosmopolitan Peace', rather rubbed me up the wrong way I'm sorry to say (too gosh-wow and credulous for my admittedly cynical English palate, perhaps) although it does manage some small degree of dialectical turn with a 'digression' on 'the disgusting as the ridiculous'. Chapter 5 is a summary: 'Reflections: A Model and a Vision of Ethical Life', and starts with a koan from Chi Yuan:
How is it
Other Species know courtesy
And limits?
to which the ghost of Thomas Treadwell might respond: 'uh, hello? I'm standing right here!' Sections such as 'Animal Spirituality and Compassion' [pages 141-43] assert rather than demonstrate their concepts; the characterisation of the animal kingdom as defined by play and 'intersubjective atunement' strikes me as so fundamentally one-sided as to be almost mendacious, and nowhere do I find the preconceptions with which I started reading (rights imply responsibilities, why draw our examples from fluffy kittens, happy dogs and noble elephants rather than from rats, cockroaches and the smallpox bacillus?) addressed. On the plus side, there's a pretty well-handled coda which reads Coetzee's Disgrace in interesting ways.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Thoughts: Time Travel and Cinema 3

Thinking about the relationship between still photographs and motion pictures, with particular reference to time travel cinema, I had a read of what Vivian Sobchack argued in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992) about the peculiar existential potency of the still image. This is where I had got to before consulting Sobchack:

1. Cinema is itself not only a time-defined but a time-travel-ish idiom. As its inherent obviousness implies, this is an observation very far from being original to me. Films can easily speed up or slow down the apparent passage of time; running film backwards gives a sense of how the exterior world might look like to somebody travelling against the vector of the arrow of time. Cutting between shots effortlessly disposes of intervening time (the most famous jump-cut in cinema—between the prehistoric monkey-man’s bone tossed into the air and the complex space ship falling through its earth orbital path in 2001—is a nicely extreme illustration of this). Whilst watching a film we do not, of course, literally travel forward in time hundreds of thousands of years; but the illusion of such time travel is more compelling for the viewer because it has been visually rendered. Film can realise a counter-clock world. Film also has at least two methods of slowing time down: one by filming at a much higher rate, such that the footage projected back at the normal rate creates a sense of fluid and graceful slowness which in turn can bring to light things (the bumblebee's wing action, the bullet emerging from the muzzle amongst pleats and folds of smoke like a white paper rose) hidden from the normally observant eye. But another way of slowing film is simply to slow it down, a jerkier process which eventually reveals the constituent images out of which the original footage is composed. The end-point for this strategy might indeed be a movie like La Jetée; which we can read, if we choose, not as a string of still photographs so much as a monstrously slowed-down, temporally retarded motion picture.

2. Accordingly, it should not surprise us that there have been so many and such popular examples of time travel cinema. A thumbnail history of this form brings out two main phases. Despite the popularity of H G Wells' 1895 novella, it is not until 1960 that a film text is made that resonates in a broader sense. This is George Pal's technicolour film of The Time Machine, There are, of course, earlier examples of time travel cinema: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was filmed twice (dir Emmett J Flynn, 1921 and Tay Garnett 1949); and there are such movies as Time Flies (Walter Forde, 1944) in which an actor uses a professor's time machine to travel back to Elizabethan England, and Fiddlers Three (Harry Watt, 1944) in which two sailors and a WREN visit Stonehenge and find themselves back in Ancient Rome. But these are all very minor film texts; I'd be amazed if you've heard of, et alone seen, them. Pal's Time Machine was a different matter: not only was it a hit in its own time, and an enduring film with a broad cultural penetration, it also inaugurated a particular mode of 1960s time travel story. . BBC TV serials like Doctor Who (1963-present) and Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-68) also construed a fundamentally cosy, Edwardian text out of their SF conceits. The US production The Time Travelers (dir Ib Melchior, 1964) though little known inspired the short-running but much syndicated US TV Show The Time Tunnel (1966-67). More enduring were the various Planet of the Apes movies from 1968 to 1971. What these texts share is a strange construal of the future (often the far future) in the habiliments of the past.

The mode went rather out of fashion in the 1970s, but came back in a big way in the 1980s, occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in future-set nostalgia but instead high-tech cyber terror: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) connects time travel with a sense of the danger posed by mechanisation: both the alarming implacability of the Big Machines that have increasingly come to dominate life in the west, but also a nascent fear of the possibilities of what was in the 80s a new kind of technology: computers.

The other big ‘time travel’ franchise of 1980s cinema was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). This movie played complexly satisfying plot games with the paradoxes of time travel; grounding its appeal in the opportunity to revisit ones family’s own past, back to that sinkhole is US collective nostalgia, the Happy Days 1950s of small town America. Its sequel attempted a minimally satirical vision of a commodified near-future, and is the less successful, a fact underscored by the much more successful final film in the trilogy, which reanimated the series’ nostalgia and moving back to a cleaned-up vision of ‘How The West Was Won’.

Yet despite tonal differences the through-line of this immensely popular series is not unlike that of The Terminator. ‘History’ in the larger sense must not be changed—the timeline registers such change slowly, and marks its occurrence by slowly rubbing out the hero Marty McFly from a photograph (shades again of La Jetée) to signify his existential un-becoming. Instead what must change is individual personality. In particular, Marty’s Dad must learn to stand up to bullies and not to be a coward, whilst Marty himself must learn something like the opposite—he must learn to control his temper, not to rise to taunts that he is ‘chicken’ and generally behave himself in a less belligerent, unconsidered manner. Both men learn these lessons, and are rewarded—not only does the ‘present’ of Marty’s Dad see him much more materially successful, but his childhood dream of becoming a writer of science fiction is realised. Marty gets the girl, and avoids existential annihilation, which outcomes are effectively presented as being the same thing.

3. Since the 80s there have been a number of often interesting time travel movies, but I don't think there has been a text or franchise with quiet the cultural impact of resonance of these. A few—let's say Groundhog Day (1993); Bill and Ted (1989); Donnie Darko (2001); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)—made a splash. Others have cult followings: the goofily ribald Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) or the clever but ultimately over-intricate thriller Looper (2012). But none of these titles have the cultural importance of those 1980s blockbusters. It would be only mildly distorting to see these twin peaks in the conceptual landscape of the Time Travel movie as expressing broader cultural concerns in concentrated form. Of many things that occur to me, a couple: these are films that construe the future in terms of the past, either by travelling to a future that is in some sense a version of the past (back to an ancient Greek idyll with the Eloi, or back to an alt-evolutionary deep past where the apes speak), or else by conceiving the future in terms of its threat to the present, as with the Terminator franchise. A commitment to the past, as with (say) the Beatles dressing in Edwardian clobber to front up Sgt Pepper, or Rod Sterling's splendid three piece suit, or Doctor Who's old world English eccentricity and dress -- this is the antithesis to the thesis of futurism, modernism, concrete, the white heat of technology. That's the dialectic these films work out, and the interesting this is how many of them go into the future in order to the return to the past. Which is precisely the arc of La Jetée. Funny how I keep coming back to that movie.

4. Finally, for now (and following on from 3., obviously enough) is the way the still photograph is so crucial an icon of this mode of film.

What's this about? It has something to do with memory, I'd say (obviously enough); and something to do with an implicit connection with an ideal baseline and an extra-temporal baseline. And so to Sobchack, whose Merleau-Ponty inspired phenomenological readings of film seemed so startling and original back in the 80s and 90s after decades of deconstructive and post-Freudian heterodox orthodoxies of interpretation. This is what The Address of the Eye has to say about the still photograph.
In the still photograph time and space are abstractions. Although the image still has a presence, it neither partakes of nor describes the present. Indeed, the photograph’s fascination is that it is a figure of transcendental time made available against the ground of a lived and finite temporality. Although included in our experience of the present, the photograph transcends both our immediate present and our lived experience of temporality because it exists for us as never engaged in the activity of becoming. Although it announces the possibility of becoming, it never presents itself as the coming into being of being. It is a presence without past, present future. Thus, when we experience the “timelessness” that a photograph confers on its subject matter, we are experiencing the photograph’s compelling emptiness; it exists as the possibility of temporality, but is a vacancy within it. This temporal vacancy, this lack of finitude, affects the space of the still photograph. It is peculiarly flattened. … The lack of depth and dimension in the still photograph seems less a function of the phenomenal thickness of the subjects and objects that it displays than of the temporal hole it opens within the world in which we gaze at it. [59-60]
She goes on to discuss La Jetée specifically:
On the other hand, although necessarily dependent upon the possibility of temporality that the still photograph announces but does not fulfil, the motion picture is not a transcendental structure. If the photograph is a “hole” in temporality and announces a vacancy, then the motion picture in its motion sufficiently fills up that vacancy and inaugurates a fullness. The images of a film exist in the world as a temporal flow, within finitude and situation. Indeed, the fascination of the film is that it does not transcend out lived-experience of temporality, but rather than it seems to partake of it, to share it. Unlike the still photograph, the film exists for us as always the act of becoming. Thus, although made almost entirely using still photographs rather than live action, a film such as La Jetée (1962) nonetheless projects temporality and an existential becoming, even as it foregrounds the transcendental and atemporal potentiality of the photograph and its non-becoming. It is this explicit dialectic between the transcendental moment and existence as momentum that gives La Jetée its power and peculiar significance, providing both its structure and its theme and explicitly representing the dialectical impulse of all film. [60-61]
I don't want to make too facile a point, but this 'transcendence' from time is what time travel actualises as a narrative shift or imaginative conceit. Perhaps it's not surprising that still photos have this special place in such stories. I'm on the edge of declaring that Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn is the first true time travel story -- which it sort-of is, I suppose.