Category: Meaning and Life and the Humanities

Rachel Kushner

I have recently read Rachel Kushner’s novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.  They are both compelling reads.  Telex is more coherent, telling the story of Castro’s take-over of Cuba, mostly from the perspective of Americans living and working in Cuba at the time.  The narrative evokes both the blindness of those Americans to what is happening—and the nostalgia for pre-Castor Cuba (and their lives there) that afflicts these Americans after they return to the States. 

The Flamethrowers is a mess.  The story wanders all over the place, with various characters and incidents offered up with no subsequent follow through.  But is it always interesting.  In its second half, it wanders into narrating radical (and violent) political action, specifically the Italian Red Brigade of the 1970s and their kidnappings and executions of business executives.  The narrative voice during this section of the novel is curiously disengaged.  It is not best described as a recording of the events that refuses to suggest any stance (moral or emotional) to them.  Rather, there is a kind of unreality about the whole narration, as if (without ever explicitly stating this) the events are presented as an unbelievable fiction, as a visit to an alternative world neither the narrator nor her readers could actually credit.  It’s like the play violence of a video game rather than violence that is actually experienced as a shock or a grim fact.  There is something pro forma about these sections of the novel, as contrasted to the tale of the heroine’s experiences in the first half.  Adding to this effect is the fact that the heroine walks away from the violence in Italy (in which she has become entangled) with little to no discernible effect on her life or attitudes. It’s as if it didn’t happen.

The violence in Telex is not sidestepped in the same way.  Maybe it’s because we are dealing with a successful revolution—and with a civil war that saw wide-spread violence on both sides.  In any case, Telex contends with the issue of the ways violence is utilized in political struggles—and with the divide between those willing (able?) to deploy violence in cold-hearted, “calculated” ways and those to whom violence is beyond the pale (for whatever emotional or moral reasons). 

The following passage leads me to think about the connection between meaning and “the deliberate.”  Obviously, we can do things that convey meanings we never intended to convey.  But there are also cases where we very carefully set out to communicate something, to insure that what we do or say is fraught with meaning.  Cases where we take special care to see that our meaning gets across.  Kushner ties this heightened attention to meaning to certain acts of violence, ones that can be deemed “rhetorical,” through a speech given by the character La Maziere to a group of Castro’s guerillas after they have captured two of the counter-revolutionary forces.

“Executions, La Maziere continued, his voice rising to be sure everyone heard, was an act of intent, purpose, and exactitude. Assassination was a far lower act, an act of opportunity, or worse, ‘necessity’—a word he said as if it were a soiled, smelly rag he held between two fingers.  Execution was a ritualized killing, he emphasized.  It was never, ever, an act of necessity.  It was always an act of choice, a calculated delivery of justice.  And only by the elevated loft of choice, he explained, could the act of killing take on symbolic meaning.  Killing, he said, had meaning, voluptuous and mystical meaning that should never be squandered.  An execution was a rhetorical weapon, a statement that could not be disproved, just as a man could not be restored from death” (pg. 232 of Telex from Cuba).

Meaning is enhanced by ritual, by the elaborate staging/demonstration of deliberate choice, and by full publicity, full openness to view.

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it. 

Ontological Egalitarianism, Or, Can We Derive an Ethics from “Life”

My colleague and friend Matthew Taylor has a terrific essay in the current issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 3: 474-491 [May 2020]).  His topic is the “new materialism,” aka “the ontological turn,” although it also crops up under various other aliases.

Most simply put, the “new materialism” declares that all matter is animate; humans lived surrounded by other entities that should be recognized as having agency, as possessing “life.” Specifically, all things act to sustain themselves, perhaps even to better themselves (William James’ meliorism).  One version is Latour’s “trajectories of subsistence” contrasted to a more static notion of “substance.”   The idea is a) to reduce any qualitative distinction between humans and other entities; and b) to introduce a dynamic interactive web of relationships in which both humans and non-humans are entangled to replace the more traditional subject/object split where activity resides in the human subject who works upon passive material objects.  In that traditional view, all the entities have their stable identities, their essences, their abiding substance.

Matt’s essay ties current thinking along these lines back to the “philosophies of life” current in the post-Darwinian intellectual world of (roughly) 1870 to 1920.  I am more familiar with the characterization of Bergson, Nietzsche, James, Pater, and Whitehead as champions of “life.”  Matt shows how “hylozoism” or “panpsychism” (basically, the assertion that all matter is “alive”) was the prevailing view of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century biology as well.  From this point of view, Nietzsche does not look like an outlier, a lonely rebel (as he loved to portray himself), but very much in tune with the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of his time.

Current day versions of hylozoism often think there is an ethical pay-off.  There are two ways to go in an ethical direction from the assertion that all matter is alive.  First, you can preach a deontological respect for “life,” basically extending the Kantian “kingdom of ends” to include everything—thus erasing the privilege of “the human” to arrive at “posthumanism.”  Second, you can use life (as Ruskin wants to do in “Unto the Last”) as your ethical standard.  Whatever promotes life is good; whatever harms life is bad. 

In both cases, it is easy to see that the ethicists among the new materialists are driven by a concern about climate change.  The “respect” position addresses the massive extinctions of our era and bemoans an exclusionary focus on what is good for humans. 

The “promotion of life” position is basically utilitarian.  We judge actions in terms of whether they serve the interests of life—or not.  Since climate change will be a disaster (is already a disaster) for many varieties of life (human and non-human), it is ethically wrong to perform actions that fail to work against that change.

Matt is having none of it.  He does not think you can derive an ethics from an allegiance to life.  I want to consider his reasons for this conclusion—some of which I agree with and others that I want to resist.

He presents four major arguments (as I understand the essay).

1.  There is a central—and fatal—imprecision lurking in the term “life.”  No one is ever able to nail down just what “life” means or entails.  It is hard to deploy something so vague as a standard.  I don’t quite know what to do with this argument, so will leave it be.

A different, but related, argument along these lines seems to me to have real bite.  If you say mountains are alive as are protozoa as are human beings, you obviously need to have a very capacious (and perhaps vacuous) notion of life.  However, at the same time, you can’t simply ignore the differences between mountains, protozoa, and humans.  Inevitably (in other words), forms of life are going to be differentiated within the overarching category of life.  And Matt argues that this differentiation will lead to a hierarchy; some things will be deemed “more alive” than others; there will be “degrees” of life. 

This is the familiar post-structuralist insistence that wherever there is difference, there will be the privileging of one term over the others.  Humans just aren’t equipped (mentally? in terms of the deep structures of thought?) to be egalitarians.  I have always been suspicious of this transcendental move—transcendental because it posits a fundamental form that is endemic to all human mental processes.  I always suspect “false necessity” at such junctures.  Why can’t we equally value things that we recognize to be different?  I don’t see any logical or ontological or psychological impediment to that possibility.

2.  But Matt has a much better argument for the inevitability of hierarchy.  Ethics, he says, requires judgments about better and worse.  You don’t have an ethics is you have a pure egalitarianism.  If you value life, then you must declare some actions harmful to life, even as you applaud others as life-sustaining or promoting.  What is our stance going to be toward the mosquitos that carry malaria, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and the virus that causes COVID-19, not to mention white supremacists?  How are we going to avoid valuing some forms of life over others when some agents pose a threat to other agents?  In other words, the new ontology repeats the classic liberal mistake of imagining a conflict-free world.  But ethics is precisely about conflict—about choosing between competing visions of the good.  The mosquito who infects me is pursuing life; from its point of view, its actions are not harmful. 

This insistence that ethics must take sides, cannot be universally affirmative, is deeply troubling.  For one thing, this insistence is at the root of many tragic and conservative worldviews.  The tragic version is highlighted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud expresses outrage in that text at the Christian injunction to love one’s enemies.  Such an injunction takes away the very meaning of love, Freud says.  As Yeats puts it, “hearts are to be earned, not had.”  But Freud adds that our only bestowing our love in some cases goes hand-in-hand with our aggressive feelings (and actions) toward those we cannot (or will not) love.  And numbered among those we cannot love is our own self.  The superego’s aggression is directed at myself—as well as at my “enemies.” 

Ethics—the self-righteous attempt to justify our aggressions—hoists us on own petard even as it stands as the crippling condition of an unending and inescapable tragedy: the tragedy of our uncontrolled and uncontrollable aggression.

Conservative thought holds onto the self-righteousness that the tragic vision (which deems all humans trapped in the same play) eschews.  Conservatives hold onto a strong version of the righteous few and the reprobate many; they scorn the idea of “social justice” precisely because it would bestow benefits on the unworthy.  Justice is about getting what you deserve—and thus the equal distribution of any good (whether it be health care, a decent education, or a basic income) is an outrage against morality. 

The liberal/left tries to use the notion of “social justice” to place some things out of the conflict zone.  The liberal must avoid the mistake of wishing away conflict, even as she tries to develop strategies for its mitigation.  More on that later in this post.  For now, Matt’s point against the new ontologists is well-taken.  A univeralist ethos of respect for all forms of life sounds wonderful, but it is so general, so vague, that it can’t stand up for very long when actually encountering facts on the ground.  “Life” pits some forms of life against others, so “life” itself can’t be the standard for adjudicating those conflicts.

3.  This last point—that “life” can’t be the standard—leads Matt to adopt a strict fact/value dichotomy.  You can’t read values out of “life” (or “nature”) is his fairly explicit position.  “Justice” or “equality” or even “reverence for life” are human notions; there is no evidence at all (in Matt’s view) that the world or nature or some basic “life force” cares for any of those human values.  Life carelessly and prodigally deals out death. 

Life, we might say, is deaf and mute.  It has nothing to say to us—and cannot hear anything we say to it.  Humans, like the other life forms identified/celebrated by the new ontology, are the random, utterly contingent, result of long evolutionary processes that were not aiming to produce what ended up being produced.  If ethical ideals are going to get any purchase in this evolutionary production, then it will because humans act to make their ethical values effective. 

      I want to be careful about adopting fact/value canyons.  I am going to skip that can of worms here, only gesturing toward my intuition that the dichotomy functions differently in different contexts, and should be resisted in some of those contexts.  But in this ontological context, I am inclined to accept a fairly drastic nature/human split.  I am uncomfortable doing so, but don’t see a good alternative.

     Two observations underline my willingness to accept that nature and life are amoral, while the human is the realm of value and moral judgments.  The first is that we humans are not inclined to morally condemn hurricanes or animals for their destruction of life.  We will bemoan the fact that the grizzly bear killed a person, but will not be morally indignant.  In other words, we do not hold nature accountable for life-harming actions the way that we do human beings. 

     The second is the point made so forcefully in Plato’s Euthyphro—and in the scene in Genesis where Abraham bargains with Yahweh about saving Sodom from destruction if a certain number of just inhabitants can be identified there.  In both cases, the point is that humans have self-generated standards that they wish/hope/try to get the non-human to adhere to.  “Innocence” is a human concept—and the gods and nature are to be condemned when they inflict suffering on the innocent.  The ethical standard is being imposed on the non-human—rather than the standard being derived from the non-human.  Oedipus at Colonus thus becomes an attempt to save the gods from human condemnation.

The upshot would be a kind of humanism that is hard to evade as long as you want to maintain ethics.  Nietzsche, of course, saw this clearly.  To escape humanism, you had to go “beyond good and evil” and simply embrace the ruthless indifference of the non-human to human values and to life itself.  Wanton destructive indifference, nature red in tooth and claw, is the fact of the matter—and you might as well join ‘em rather than trying to convert them over to (pathetically weak and sentimental) human values.  (Of course, there is also plenty of cooperation among living creatures as well, a fact Nietzsche neglects.  Sometimes, cooperation proves better than competition in advancing one’s life chances.)

4.  Matt also argues that hylozoism almost always leads to a form of Platonism.  He doesn’t put it that way.  But I think it a fair account of the argument.  Basically, the idea is that the general standard (or “form” if we use Platonic vocabulary) of “life” renders every actual instantiation of life an inadequate copy of that ideal.  The logic here is endemic to versions of evolution that see each novelty an improvement on what went before.  (For that reason, hylozoism in the 1870-1920 period was very, very often tied to eugenics, as Matt demonstrates.)  Nietzsche’s “uber-mensch” displays this kind of thinking.  The “true” or “ideal” embodiment of life is always out in front of us, which renders current forms unsatisfactory—perhaps even suitable for sacrifice in order to usher in the better future, just as Stalin and Mao murdered millions in the name of a world to come.  (But, then again, Christianity committed similar murders long before the justification of a warped Darwinism.)

“Life” thus becomes the bringer of, the justification for, death—an argument found in Foucault and Agamben, but perhaps lurking as well in Arendt’s emphatic contempt for “life.”  Certainly, Nietzsche (in another of his guises) points the way here.  Platonism and Christianity preach a disregard for, a nihilistic rejection of, the here and now.  With Christianity, we get the added hope that a non-human force will “redeem” the human—and the whole world.  Against that nihilism, Nietzsche wants to find his way to “affirmation.”  How can we affirm what is here before us, instead of whoring after strange gods and wish-fulfilling futures? 

I am not convinced that an affirmation of “life” necessarily leads to a denigration of the life currently available.  I don’t, in other words, buy the paradox that a stated commitment to life in fact generates a murderous aggression against actually existing life.  I am, however, convinced by Matt’s other argument, i.e. that a bland egalitarianism cannot do the ethical work that needs doing.

So how would I propose going forward?  At this point, I actually think pushing hard at the fact/value dichotomy might prove productive.  We (everything that exists) are not going to be redeemed from the natural (and evolutionary) conditions that set the stage for singular life spans.  But there is a social/cultural world that humans construct in their efforts to respond/adapt to that natural setting.  That social world develops notions of what a “good” or “flourishing” life looks like (where the notion of flourishing in no way needs to be confined to only human life forms).  Life (“bare life”) is a good, but a very minimal one if the means for “flourishing” are not available. 

Egalitarianism is tied to ideals of “social justice” when we define what resources are required to afford the possibility of flourishing—and the political/ethical imperative is to work toward social arrangements where those resources are afforded to all. 

This is a minimalist position.  What goods are needed—clean water and air, enough food, a decent education, health care, security from violence, etc.—to have a life that escapes the sufferings that social arrangements can alleviate?  What tribulations are remediable—not in terms of a redemption from the terms of existence, but in terms of having what is needed to cope with those terms?  These are questions that can only be answered through political processes of deliberation and negotiation. 

The liberal gambit is that providing those necessities to all would mitigate conflict.  Yes, there is conflict now over doing such providing.  But for many countries the idea of providing health care is no longer a live issue.  Constitutionalism is a strategy for removing certain questions from the realm of conflict, of deciding them once and for all.  Not a fool-proof strategy, but it works some time for certain issues.  And some seemingly dead issues can rise again, zombie fashion. 

But the liberal social democrat has this basic agenda: to increasingly make the provision of “basic goods” to all a matter of settled social practice.  That is a way to serve “life” without promoting the death of those currently alive.  But it is serving “life” in relation to human standards of what a “good” or “flourishing” life requires.  So, in that sense, Matt is right to say you can’t derive those standards from life itself.

What about non-human forms of life?  What about climate change?  I do think that comes back to where I started.  We can take the position that respect for all life forms is an ethical imperative—although that will run us into the kinds of problems Matt identifies (namely, that such universal respect is not possible where some life forms actively harm others).  The utilitarian position seems more plausible.  The new ontology can help cement the lesson that human flourishing is dependent in various ways on the larger ecological network of relations in which humans are embedded.  Destroying the planet for short term gain is suicidal.  Still, utilitarianism also has its limits.  It is not utterly convincing to say humans could not flourish if the snow leopard went extinct.  That’s why the deontological argument of respect gets trotted out so often. 

Such puzzles remind us that ethical positions—despite the hopes of philosophers like Kant, Bentham, and Rawls—are never logically air-tight.  Much more important, in my view, is ethical sensibility.  What things outrage us?  What things do we admire?  Unless unnecessary deaths and lives lived in abject poverty strike us as unacceptable, as demeaning to our human capacities to make life well worth the living, we humans cannot expect either rational arguments nor non-human entities (like “life” or “god”) to generate the ethically affirmable life we claim to desire.  Similarly, unless the extinction of the snow leopard strikes us emotionally as a diminishment of the world, we are unlikely to be argued into caring.

Ben Lerner (2)

Floating beneath the surface in Lerner’s 10:24 is a longing for connection, for art’s communicative possibilities to open up a pathway to community.

“[I] felt the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I look at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers.  It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurablity of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate register, were nevertheless addressed.  Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community. . . . [W]henever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of this possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.  What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline—and instead was taken in by it—was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranging itself around her.  If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred.  You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight, my hair matted down by the bandanna, eating an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango, and having, as I projected myself into the future, a mild lacrimal event” (108-109).

The theme returns in a short lecture given by the narrator at a round-table featuring three writers.  He has explained how the Challenger disaster and its aftermath (a poetic speech by Ronal Reagan, the rash of anonymously generated jokes about the event that circulate through the culture) set him on the road to becoming a writer.

“If I had to trace my origins as a poet to a specific moment, I’d locate it there, in those modes of recycling.  I make no claims for ‘High Flight’ [a poem Reagan quotes in his speech] as a poem—in fact, I think it’s a terrible poem—and Ronald Reagan I consider a mass murderer.  I don’t see anything formally interesting in the Challenger jokes, I can’t find anything to celebrate there; they weren’t even funny at the time.  But I wonder if we can think of them as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as figures of its real possibility: prosody and grammars the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all” (115-116).

The wistfulness here reminds me of John Lennon’s Imagine—and seems tied to the author’s (and our?) inability to access Whitmanian mysticism with any conviction.  The skyline is a monument to collectivity.  It could never have been built except by many human hands working in concert.  And even if the various activities encompassed by city life—“bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity” (108)—are “bad forms of collectivity” they are “figures” of the possibility of collectivity.  Selves share the “meanings” by which “we build a social world.”  The boundaries between selves are utterly porous; we dissolve into one another—and into the stories that we share, the images that guide us.  If only we could tweak those facts, shift them slightly on their axes—then the world and each one of us would be “the same but a little bit different” (a formula for utopia that comes from  Benjamin or Brecht or someone of that ilk; I can’t find the exact source).

We always already exist in collectivities; the struggle is to make them better, to make them serve our deepest longings rather than to stifle and frustrate them.  We fight collectivity (cling to selfishness in all its senses) even as we long for it.  Art is connected to that longing; think of how movies and plays move us to tears, even those of us who almost never cry in “real life.”  We only indulge our longings in the safe space of art, while living our prudent, advantage-seeking, lives in the everyday world.  We know—as Adorno says—what our better selves and a better world look like, and we live out the shame (no matter how deeply we manage to bury it) of the gap between that vision of the good and the sordid realities we inhabit and reproduce.

The web of shared meanings is what we might call “myth”—and what is frightening about the current moment in American history is that the prevailing “myth” is no longer shared. (Probably it never was; more likely is that those who held alternative visions were more ruthlessly silenced in the past.) There are two (at least) utterly incompatible set of meanings circulating through the culture—and they appear so incompatible that the proponents of each find it close to unimaginable to share the national space with the other side.

In a sense, the power of art has never been so dramatically on display.  The left/liberal vision occupies the lion’s share of official culture, from the high art bastions of museums and universities to the culture industry’s popular music, film, and TV.  But the unofficial, unsanctioned world of the internet has spawned the alternative vision of the populist right, which now has its spokesperson in the White House.  Fed by a not inaccurate understanding of its exclusion from “respectable” opinion, populism has developed its alternative modes of communication alongside its refusal to credit anything the official world has to say.

Communication, “spin,” how and to whom facts and meanings are articulated, command the field.  Only catastrophic natural events—the virus, hurricanes, wildfires—seem capable of breaking through the morass of words and images, and not in any definitive, unequivocal way.  That supposed objective barometer of facts on the ground—the market—has proved as fictitious (if not more) than other “social indicators.”  Printing money and piling up debt have become disconnected from any actual consequences.  Inflation remains low, faith in government bonds remains unshaken, the stock market indices remain high.  We do appear to have left a reality-based world far behind.

And yet.  There is so much real and remediable suffering out there.  How did we, the human race, manage to turn all our possibilities, all our astounding capacities, into shit?  Collectively, we have built an amazing world.  But it amazes far more often by its byzantine dysfunctions than its praise-worthy accomplishments.  We can work wonders in medicine, but have developed a bureaucracy for delivering medical care that creates massive amounts of spiritually deadening labor and places obstacles in the way of getting treatment to those in need of it. We can feed seven billion people through our farming practices, but have built a system with perverse incentives that lead to the destruction of food while people go hungry and encourages the depletion of the natural sources of agricultural productivity.  We spend billions of dollars on military hardware, but claim we can’t afford to help the 20% of children who live in poverty.

I have always disliked Lennon’s Imagine.  It seems so removed from actual engagement, so enchanted with its own melancholy.  I find Lerner’s wistfulness more substantial.  He more fully articulates the sense of being both outside and inside of the collective failure.  Outside of it because seemingly unable to effect its unfolding disasters in any way—and outside of it because viewing it from a perspective that makes one unable to take its madness for granted or as inevitable or as immune from harsh judgment.  Inside because one is fully engorged by this whale; one can’t pretend not to be a participant, day in and day out, as one struggles to construct a life, a way of negotiating through this minefield.  Coming to terms with the devil is what we do even if we dream of living otherwise.  Driving one’s car, paying one’s insurance and tax bills to underwrite inhumane systems, consuming then throwing away plastic. The list of contributions we make toward perpetuating the world as currently constituted is endless.

Stop the world, I want to get off.  Whitman’s optimism is no longer available, even if his dreams are.  Lerner returns to Whitman later in the book and wonders about the “ecstasy” that runs through Whitman’s encounters with wounded Union soldiers in the hospitals in Washington DC.  There is something inhuman, deeply disturbing, in how Whitman gets off on the sight of these suffering bodies.  Optimism in such circumstances is reprehensible—and seems linked to an ideology of “glorious sacrifice” that was, I would hope, finally put to rest by World War I.

Where to find that optimism today?  Clearly, some people find in the collectivities created by the demonstrations that have become a recurrent feature of American civil life in 2020.  Insofar as the demonstrations attempt to construct—and make stick—a counter-narrative, a vision of American society antithetical to the racism and division Trump wants to amplify, the battle is on.  It is a war of meanings, and a war between an inclusive vision of collectivity against a divisive one.  Lerner articulates for us the forlorn, but still deeply felt, longing for that inclusive collectivity (the beloved community) even as he reminds us that art (if understood in the widest possible sense) is where articulation takes place, where the meanings we hope to share are first presented.  We can never quite believe that Shelley was right about poets being the unacknowledged legislators, but it is less incredible to recognize how the arts are powerful creators of community—and of the shared meanings that hold communities together.