Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Fewtril #160

How sickly and typically modern it would be if, upon all of us having conformed to the same view, we were to congratulate ourselves on the remarkable degree of tolerance amongst us.

Fewtril #159

As a prescription against Emerson’s admirably idealistic notion that all human beings should be regarded as divine, I suggest you take a brisk stroll through an English city on a Friday night. If it doesn’t cure you, it will at least exercise your imagination.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Fewtril #158

It is in turns both amusing and distressing to observe members of an audience concede with an almost unanimous quiescence as some politician tells them for the umpteenth time that they – as blessed habitants in this particular time and of this particular soil – are the most diverse and dynamic creatures ever to have been ennobled under the title Homo sapiens.

Fewtril #157

Of the misfortunes that he feels must come, Man prefers a certain regularity to an uncertain frequency and magnitude. Nothing shows this more clearly than that since the earliest times he has preferred to be taxed rather than robbed.

Free Will and Ridicule

A man may believe that no one should be ridiculed for those things over which he has no control – the colour of his skin, the formation of his body, and so on – and also believe that there is no such thing as free will. If he is consistent, then he should believe that no one should be ridiculed for anything – not even for the colour of his opinions or the formation of his views, be they ever so abhorrent or stupid. If such consistency were widespread, I cannot say for certain what life would be like. Ridicule is “a sort of duel without bloodshed,” thought Chamfort, “and, like the real thing, it makes men more polite and more circumspect.” [1]
[1] Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, Reflections on Life, Love and Society, tr. & ed. by Douglas Parmée (London: Short Books, 2003), §158, p.82. (“That some catatonics are people who have ceased to believe in their own free will is an interesting hypothesis,” says Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p.157.)

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Enemies of Virtue

“However mean men may be, they dare not appear as enemies of virtue; and when they want to persecute it, they feign to believe that it is false or they credit it with crimes.”

[“Quelque méchants que soient les hommes, ils n’oseraint paraître ennemis de la vertu, et lorsqu’ils la veulent persécuter, ils feignent de croire qu’elle est fausse ou ils lui supposent des crimes.”]

La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, tr. S.D. Warner & S. Douard (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2001), p.84 (§465).

Fewtril #156

That charity must be made into entertainment, demonstrates just how deeply people care for entertainment.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

The Thrill of Revolution

Revolution has always had some ostensible end by which its means have been thought justified; and yet, whilst there has never been a revolution that has had for its express purpose the causing of wrack and slaughter, or the causing of a state of society worse than had existed before, such is how it tends to turn out. One might say this is tragically and foolishly accidental, and for the most part, that is how it is; for men are wont to suspend their faculties of sense and sell off their funds of experience for the promise of something great or noble but hitherto unattained. Robespierre for his part wrote:
What is the end of our revolution? The tranquil enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice, the laws of which are graven, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of men. [1]
This undying optimism partly accounts for why — even in the knowledge that revolution causes great misery, and rarely, if ever, brings about the conditions that might compensate for that misery — some are still willing to fly the flag.
…..As I say, however, this optimism only partly accounts for its appeal. Revolution upsets the order, knocks the world off its hinges, and thereby affords a wealth of excitement and new opportunities. Lively and impetuous spirits — erstwhile bottled and corked — are set free, the burdens of responsibility are lessened, and action becomes spontaneous, no longer fettered by the old social obligations. The thrill and infectious enthusiasm may even be enough to sweep along the most pessimistic souls, as Burckhardt noted:
[E]ven a Chamfort, . . . otherwise a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist, . . . becomes with the outbreak of the revolution an accusatory optimist. [2]
Deeds that would thitherto have been thought unjustifiable become in the minds of many not only justified but necessary. The revolution makes manifold the spirit that had formerly been found haunting only the foulest minds:
[T]here is only one way to shorten, simplify, and concentrate the murderous death-throws of the old society and the birth pains of the new, one way only: revolutionary terrorism. [3]
So wrote Marx. Moreover, in the revolutionary’s view, terror may not only be the necessary means but the moral force by which the injustices of the old world are swept away and by which the revolution is sanctified. As Robespierre wrote:
Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue. [4]
It is this eager submission to the terrible means by which the revolution must be carried out, that provokes in me the suspicion that to some extent the means — and the thrill of revolution itself — are the ends. Revolution is such that not even feckless youth could find it boring.
[1] Maximilien Robespierre, Report upon the Principles of Political Morality Which Are to Form the Basis of the Administration of the Interior Concerns of the Republic (Philadelphia, 1794), reproduced online at the Modern History Sourcebook. (Lichtenberg sardonically noted what liberty and justice meant at the time: “In free France, where one can now have strung up whom one wants.” [“In dem freien Frankreich, wo man jetzt aufknüpfen lassen kann, wen man will.”] G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), J.912 from Sudelbuch J:1789-1793, p. 412.)
[2] [“[S]elbst ein Chamfort, . . . sonst ein in der Wolle gefärbter Pessimist, . . . wird beim Ausbruch der Revolution anklagender Optimist.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Krefeld: Scerpe-Verlag, 1948), p.183. (As Nietzsche also noted: “[T]he Revolution as a spectacle has seduced even the noblest spirits. In the end, that is no reason for respecting it more.” F.W. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. & ed. by W. Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1976), p.553; original emphasis.)
[3] [“ . . . es nur ein Mittel gibt, die mörderischen Todeswehen der alten Gesellschaft, die blutigen Geburtswehen der neuen Gesellschaft abzukürzen, zu vereinfachen, zu konzentrieren, nur ein Mittel - den revolutionären Terrorismus.”] Karl Marx, “Sieg der Kontrerevolution zu Wien”, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Nr. 136, 7. November 1848, reprinted in Karl Marx - Friedrich Engels - Werke, Band 5, pp.455-457 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1959), p.457, reproduced online at Stimmen der Proletarischen Revolution. (As one communist recently pointed out: “Revolutions are not schools of humanity.” Gerry Downing, “
The April theses and permanent revolution”, Weekly Worker, 655, 11th January 2007.)
[4] Maximilien Robespierre, op.cit. (Sartre in his time noted approvingly: “Violence, spontaneity, morality: for the Maoists these are the three immediate characteristics of revolutionary action.” Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Maoists in France”, in Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), online at geocities.com.)

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

The Trouble with Latin

On the democratic concern that Latin is elitist, one chap finds decrying proof that Tacitus was not of the people:
I don’t recall any arguments for social-democratic reform in the Annals, Histories, Agricola, [or] Germania. [1]
Ah, damned by our age! And what are all the erstwhile ages of the world for such a mind? Nothing, unless they lead the way to its thoughts. Stultus loquitur, se audit, putat omnium sapientiam saeclorum superatam esse.
[1] Dave69, commenting on Mary Beard, “Tacitus was no elitist”, The Guardian, 16th January 2007.

Monday, 15 January 2007

The Antipathy against Exclusiveness

I have never heard a satisfactory answer to the question of what is wrong with exclusiveness per se, and yet it is a common enough — one might say, thoughtless enough — assumption nowadays that there is something wrong with it. The answer usually comes as a restatement of the assumption: “Well, it excludes people, and that’s bad”. The ostensible concern, I presume, is that no one should be excluded from society, or some part thereof, if he does not wish to be [1]; but that does not explain the antipathy against exclusiveness per se. This antipathy is a curious phenomenon, and a destructive one too, as Richard Weaver noted:
The questioning of apartness, the suspicion of difference, the distrust of distinction, the jealousy about allowing privacy—these are all features of a modern mentality which, often without even knowing what it is doing, may put an end to what has always been the source of culture — a particular kind of development in response to particular values. Thus the plight of the individual is re-enacted on a larger scale. Not only is the single human individual being pushed toward conformity, but the individual group or culture is met with the same demand to go along, to become more like the generality, and so give up character. [2]
Perhaps once again we see the insatiable nature of power, which lusts for the inclusion of everything, such that an ostensible concern for the inclusion of everyone can become the insistence that no one may set himself apart.
[1] The belief that no one should be unwillingly excluded from society, or some part thereof, has its own problems.
[2] R.M. Weaver, “Reflections of Modernity”, Speeches of the Year, Pamphlet, (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1961), reprinted in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, ed. by T.J. Smith III (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p.113.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Živiljenje je Prekratka

Alas and alack, the auspices are not good, for the New Year has brought us the International Journal of Žižek Studies. It is but another sign that posturing and piffle and political knavery are to be celebrated still further as the fundaments of scholarship. For, to one and another of the journal’s wayward contributors, Professor Žižek is “some kind of lighthouse” [1], whose “very ‘impossible’ positions . . . render theoretical thought possible” [2].
[He] is one of the rare thinkers that could be named ‘it’ by the contemporary revolutionary Left, because he is the perfect instance of their search, the most excessive representative of both their present ambiguity and their intended radicalism. [3]
It is not all praise, however. Contributors should be prepared “to pinpoint the instances he failed to go too far[4], competitive excess after all being the lifeblood of radicalism.
.....The journal also comes as an opportunity to stress the seriousness of his work; for, buffoonery aside, no wary radical should ever forget that,
Serious theory involves thinking about the ideological ramifications of the structure of toilets. [5]
Far be it from me to say that the structure of lavatories cannot have ideological ramifications; after all, a well-furnished bog with a strong flush might well stir up thoughts on the purifying power of violence; a smooth-cornered, pastel-coloured khazi might soothe momentarily one’s rage against the totalizing regime of the status quo; and should the seat not stay up, or the ball-cock be stuck down, one might well become distracted from ruminating on the contradictions of capitalism until a handyman or plumber could be found.
.....Pepped up on dialectical materialism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, such brainwork on the minutiae of social life is all in a day’s work for our Slovenian marvel. No stone is left untheorized. Indeed, as the man himself says, “life exists only insofar as I can theorize it” [6].
.....For what it’s worth, I lived in Professor Žižek’s homeland for a year, and I must say that I had no trouble with the lavatories, and consequently did not spare them a thought beyond the perfunctory: perhaps this was a failure of imagination under the sufferance of false consciousness. Foreign food can do that to me, you know.

[1] Bulent Somay, “Is this it?” International Journal of Žižek Studies, Vol1:1, p.9.
[3] Bulent Somay, op.cit., p.14
[4] Ibid, p.10; original emphasis.
[5] Todd McGowan, “
Serious Theory”, ibid., p.65.
[6] Quoted by Robert Boynton “Enjoy Your Zizek: A profile of Slavoj Zizek”, Lingua Franca, October 1998, online at www.robertboynton.com.

Fewtril #155

“X has no place in a democracy” — the instances of x grow by the day.

Fewtril #154

There are no barbarians quite like those who consider themselves to be on the highroad to enlightenment.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Merely a Nuisance

“In discourse these days, whether about politics, religion, philosophy, or any of the other topics that seem so effectively to get everybody’s knickers in a twist, we will all have observed by now that some people have what is known as a ‘short fuse’. I’ve been noticing more and more that quite a few folks go one better, and operate on what might be thought of, if we are willing to test the metaphor’s tensile strength, as a ‘proximity’ fuse: they detonate at the expression of any thought that so much as reminds them of whatever it is that they are crusading against.
.....Such minds are like eels lurking in the coral, snapping at whatever shiny object paddles by. I suppose other eels find them attractive, but to swimmers they are merely a nuisance.”

Malcolm Pollack, “That’s a Moray”, Waka Waka Waka (Weblog), 9th January 2007.

Monday, 8 January 2007

A Sometime Tonic

Mr Thomas Fuller has suggested that I give up reading The Guardian for the sake of my sanity and general wellbeing; but then I should have to forgo such delights as the following:
Students used to be people of principle. Always ready to hurl a rotten egg and tomato. Now they’re mostly corporate-sponsored Tories. The ugly apprentice face of Western capitalism. [1]
For sure, it is often a depressant, perhaps with long-term ill-effect, but sometimes such sixth-form silliness feels like a veritable tonic.

[1] Thomas, commenting on Brendon O’Neill, “All the young prudes”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 7th January 2007.

Monday, 1 January 2007

A Political Redefinition of Vociferousness

Simone Clarke, a ballerina with the English National Opera, makes no public statement of her support for the British National Party until The Guardian exposes her as a member [1], whereupon she gives an interview to The Mail on Sunday in reply to her critics [2], whereupon Lee Jaspers, chairman of the National Assembly Against Racism, calls her “a vociferous member” of said party [3].
.....Perhaps, in this spirit, we should redefine politics as above all that which holds language sacrosanct.

[1] “Exclusive: inside the secret and sinister world of the BNP”, The Guardian, 21st December 2006.
[2] Elizabeth Sanderson, “The BNP Ballerina”, The Mail on Sunday, 30th December 2006.
[3] Quoted by Hugh Muir, “BNP ballerina defies rising clamour to sack her”, The Guardian, 1st January 2007.