Log in

Animal rights or rights of animals? (Sept/Oct LD)

Aug. 31st, 2011 | 03:16 am
mood: tiredtired
music: The Smiths - Nowhere Fast | Powered by Last.fm

Having previously complained about the lack of moral content in past resolutions, I'm pleased to see the upcoming resolution for LD debate -- "Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights" is so straightforwardly about ethical concerns. For people writing cases, if you haven't yet taken a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on the moral status of animals you're missing out.

The question I want to ask in this short post,1 though, is whether "animal rights" might be a misnomer, and whether justice might have very different things to say about "animal rights" and "rights held by animals"? To be clear about the distinction I'm making I'm using "animal rights" as the set of political goals set by animal rightist advocates (from the OED: "the rights of animals to live free from human exploitation and abuse,") while "rights held by animals" encompasses those rights animals would have if you took your preferred framework for developing rights and ethical duties (contractarianism, Kant's notion of universalizability, etc) and added in a clause about animals having moral standing, too (which wouldn't necessarily end in animals having equal rights with humans, but might possibly cover a lot more -- or maybe less -- than "animal rights").

To illustrate the difference it's worth considering some cases. I've attempted to provide concise, accessible summaries of the general shape of the theories of justice involved so that no prior knowledge is required. Much of the description here duplicates the work found in that big packet of core values and value criteria, but it seemed silly to separate how philosophers (might) answer the question of the rights of animals from the rest of their ethical thought.

  1. Utilitarianism (Bentham)

    (Skip to end of list)

    The first formulation of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, asserts that the only reliable measure of actions is their tendency to produce happiness or pain. Actions producing happiness are good, actions producing pain bad. It is the job of legislators to figure out what course of action produces the most pleasure in the greatest number of people, and avoids to the greatest extent possible, pains. No distinction is made to suggest one kind of pleasure is better than another, and so it is very difficult to exclude the pleasures and pains of animals. In fact it isn't even clear if there is a way to convincingly argue that an animals pleasure should count less than a humans pleasure. Though Bentham himself did not, to my knowledge, go so far as to say that animals and humans count equally, he undoubtedly did think the treatment of animals in society abominably unjust.

    Taken to its obvious conclusion Benthamite utilitarianism calls for a radical restructuring of human society. Here recognizing the rights of animals (namely the right to have their pains and pleasures counted equally with others, which is the only real right to clearly be found in Bentham's thought) results in far more drastic change than that envisioned by animal rights as a political movement.    

  2. Utilitarianism (Mill)

    (Skip to end of list)

    Unlike Bentham, John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism does recognize a difference between higher and lower pleasures. There is, to Mill, no comparison between the pleasure from gorging oneself on food and the pleasure of a good book. "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party knows both sides." It is not that per unit of consumption the book provides much more pleasure than the food, it's that the the pleasure from gorging oneself on food is inferior to the pleasure of a good book, and no amount of the lower pleasure can hope to equal even the tiniest sliver of higher pleasure. 

    On the one hand, this distinction between pleasures makes it a lot easier to reconcile utilitarianism with our ethical intuitions which are pretty clear -- I'd hope -- on things like "no killing, even if it'd be really really fun." At the same time, since all the evidence says animals don't enjoy higher pleasures, it gets much harder to explain why exploiting animals is wrong. If animal testing provides medical and scientific advances which prolong human life and prevent debilitating diseases it seems hard to say why, under Mill's rules of accounting, the pains of animals should be a concern when it's providing another two decades of life to humans who can can read and write books, watch and direct plays and films, etc. Though this framework might guarantee a minimal standard of care for animals, and might even force us to re-examine, say, eating meat it isn't obvious it covers the full range of claims by prominent animal rights groups.

  3. Contractarianism (Hobbes)

    (Skip to end of list)

    Here we come to the first idea of justice that, probably, completely leaves the treatment of animals out. It is also, and perhaps relatedly, the first theory of justice that tries to answer the question "why should I want to be just?" Hobbes' answer is, more or less,  "a world without justice really sucks." Except Hobbes phrases it in such a way that it's several pages long and contains some of the most memorable (and grim!) rhetoric in political theory. The problem, as Hobbes sees it, is that people are perpetually desiring more than what they have, and pursue power over others to obtain what they desire. Then, having obtained it, they find they need more power to hold on to what they have. This, as you can imagine, results in a lot of disputes over who own what and, since there's no clear notion of property beyond "I'm holding it right now, therefore it's mine," most of these disputes are resolved with big sticks and sharp rocks. There, consequently, isn't much agriculture because, were you to try farming your land, once crops were ready to be harvested your neighbor Thog from down the street would come to your house, club you to death, and take the food you grew. Except there aren't streets either because there's no reason to want to visit neighbors who are, invariably, planning how to club you to death and take your land and belongings.   

    Sensing that there might be a better arrangement of things, people agree to put constraints on their behavior ("I promise not to break into your house and steal from you") if their neighbors likewise agree to put constraints on theirs. People further agree to set up an enforcer of this agreement (the state) who comes in and beats you up if you try to go back on your promises. Once enough people have signed on to this agreement -- namely enough people to be able to credibly threaten everyone who hasn't signed on yet -- we have justice. Oh and the enforcer of the agreement winds up with absolute authority over everyone, but it still beats the state of nature so don't complain. Justice is simply those rules constraining behavior that people would agree to (no stealing, no killing, no lying, all the familiar stuff) and the answer to "why should I want to be just?" is "because, though it may not look like it, it's in your rational self-interest to be". The problem for animal rightists with describing justice as this kind of agreement, serving rational interests, is that, for animals, there's no way they could follow the terms of the agreement. Not many animals are capable of saying "I accept this abstract principle as constraining my behavior" so, so far as we can see, they remain in a state of nature where everything is fair game and, being outside the agreement that established justice, they don't have rights (except insofar as they're someone's property, which might constrain other people's treatment of them, but certainly not their owners). 

  4. Contractarianism (Rawls)

    (Skip to end of list)

    Rawls doesn't worry so much about explaining why we should accept justice as constraining our behavior, and focuses instead on what principles of justice it is just to follow. This may seem like a circular question, and it certainly comes across as odd to say one system of justice is more just than another one, but Rawls argues that we can share an understanding of what function an idea of justice performs for human society without agreeing on the particulars of the idea. This may come in useful when defining terms since most of the definitions of justice I've found in dictionaries don't meaningfully clarify the resolution, and I'll try to have a separate post on this subject up soon. In the meantime, you can read Chapter 1.1 (pp. 3-7) of Rawls' A Theory of Justice on Google Books.

    Rawls' version of the social contract is not one that sets up a particular state of affairs and definite moral prescriptions, as Hobbes' does for absolute monarchy and practical morals. Instead, Rawls' contract sets up the general principles that determine what is and isn't just. To accomplish this Rawls asks us to assume we had no knowledge of our specific talents, position in society, idea of what a good life would be, etc. He calls this hypothetical environment, in which we are kept behind a veil of ignorance about our preferences, the original position. Rawls does not assume humans are naturally selfish in the way Hobbes does, but he does assume people in the original position are concerned primarily with maximizing their own interests. Talking about maximizing our interests when we don't know anything about our preferences, what we want out of life, or our position in society may sound a bit odd at first -- if we don't know any of that how can we know what's in our interest? -- but that's precisely the point of the exercise: establishing principles of justice behind the veil of ignorance forces us to choose principles of justice that benefit everybody. That is, the original position helps us find a justice that isn't rigged to favor certain people over others, and is beneficial for everybody. 

    Rawls thinks the general strategy people will adopt in picking principles of justice while in the original position is to look at societies modeled on all the different sets of principles that might be adopted, and pick the principles which match the society where the well-being of the worst off is maximized. Essentially people say "well, I don't know who I'll be, but the worst-case scenario is that I'll be the single least-fortunate individual in all of society. But how badly off that least-fortunate individual is depends on the society they're in. Being worst-off in a society with a generous social welfare program and strong notions of human rights is way better than being the worst-off person in a society with slavery. So the question I should be asking is, assuming I get the shortest straw, what principles would I want shaping the society I live in?" To spoil the ending Rawls thinks people would, using that method, pick this idea of justice:

    1. Everybody has an equal claim to basic liberties such as political freedoms, religious freedoms, a right to life, a right to food and shelter (but not unlimited property), etc.
    2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
      to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and
      attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity."
    When these principles come into conflict, 1 trumps 2, and 2b trumps 2a.

    One way to set up animal rights would be to include the possibility of leaving the original position to find you were an animal in the wild, and it certainly seems like this would result in a very expansive definition of animal rights, but then we would also have to pick principles of justice under the assumption that a large number of people will be unable to follow them, which would probably land us with a much less trusting and charitable society. Rawls himself explicitly says he does not argue the contract approach is adequate for determining the moral status of animals. It might be best, then, to read Rawls' idea of justice as silent on the question of animal rights. Rawls is also unambiguous in saying he counts this as a serious omission, but if the moral status of animals comes from some other principle outside this contract, is there any reason to say they have rights? And what, other than rights, constrains how we treat animals? 

All of this is to say that there's something of a puzzle in that many prominent theories of ethics that concern themselves with duty fail to evenly match our moral intuitions about animals, and that it might be more plausible that the idea of animal rights isn't really a rights claim that can be derived from first principles so much as it is that animals have certain sypmathetic qualities that make us care about their well-being. If you're trying to affirm the resolution, then, it might be to your advantage to try to describe justice in more general terms about the morality of actions (and to have a look, say, at Joseph Butler's ethics which is criminally under-used in debate) rather than the familiar mostly-deontological framework discussed above. If you're looking to dispute the resolution, it might be to your benefit to play up the principled nature of rights and the difficulty of finding a clear way of explaining the particular bundle of rights at issue when we commonly say "animal rights."

It's also worth paying attention to the problem of how to define justice so you and your opponent don't talk past eachother, as I've already mentioned in the section on Rawls, but this entry has gone on long enough and that is a very murky discussion.

1. Well, I was planning for it to be short when I wrote that.

Link | Comment | Share

(no subject)

Apr. 11th, 2011 | 11:40 am
music: John Powell - Battling the Green Death | Powered by Last.fm

Philosophy of language paper. Don't usually post school work here, but I'm a little proud of this one I think.


Left Untitled


A. J. Ayer offers a simple, intuitively appealing account, of how sentences carry meaning: they are tautologies and express logical truths, or they are empirically verifiable and express a possible configuration of the world, or they are nonsense and express nothing at all. Having set out this criterion of meaningfulness, Ayer dismisses any philosophy purporting to “afford[ ] us knowledge of a world transcending the reality of common sense and science,”1 which turns out to be an extraordinarily large share of the discipline. This paper offers an interpretation of the somewhat hazy term “literal significance,” points out two problems with Ayer’s account and defends against these objections. It concludes that, though Ayer’s account is by no means without flaws, its snags and holes are not so bad as usually believed.

Ayer’s account of meaning concerns itself with the “literal significance of language,”2 and claims that metaphysical statements lack this sort of meaning. Although Ayer is very clear about what sorts of statements and questions lack literal significance – namely, those statements which pass the verifiability test: “Would any observations be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood?”3 – he is less direct about why these phrases lack literal significance (i.e., meaning) because of their unverifiability. The closest Ayer comes to giving us an answer is his introduction of his criticism of metaphysics:

One way of attacking a metaphysician who claimed to have knowledge of a reality which transcended the physical world would be to enquire from what premises his propositions were deduced. Must he not begin, as other men do, with the evidence of his senses? And if so, what valid process of reasoning can lead him to the idea of a transcendent reality? [...] But this objection would be met by a denial on the part of the metaphysician that his assertions were ultimately based on the evidence of his senses. [And even if they were], it would not follow that the assertions which he made concerning this non-empirical world could not be true.4

Ayer goes on to further develop the metaphysician’s counter-objections, including the claim that by saying there can be no metaphysical world, the anti-metaphysician is himself making metaphysical claims. This is not, Ayer is careful to say, applicable to his criticism. It is not, as Kant argued, that humans simply lack the capacity to navigate outside the phenomenal world – in which case the Metaphysician’s counter that one would have to have transcendent knowledge to deny the possibility of having transcendent knowledge would hold fine. Rather, it is logically impossible to have this sort of knowledge.5

But why should any of this suggest metaphysical statements are meaningless? Why aren’t they then “indeterminate” or “undecidable”? Ayer might implicitly be relying on an argument something like this. If a statement is metaphysical then it has to refer to either an object, action or relation which can not be observed in the empirical world, nor described purely in terms of logic. Now suppose someone, call him Oliver, sights the Platonic ideal of an ocelot living in his backyard.* Having checked the Audobon Guide to Local Wildlife, and finding no Platonic ocelots listed, Oliver calls up a nearby ecologist to notify them of this exciting discovery. “There’s the Platonic ideal of an ocelot in my backyard,” Oliver says. “Platonic what?” says the ecologist, “I’ve never heard of those.” What can Oliver say to clarify himself? That this ocelot is incorporeal and possesses precisely the necessary and sufficient features of ocelot-itude? The poor ecologist would only be more confused than ever! To what can Oliver point to explain the meaning of “Platonic ocelot?” What everyday language games exist in which, from observing the use of “Platonic ocelot” we can find its meaning? The problem with metaphysical statements and questions is that they contain language which, having no public use or empirically available example, can carry no meaning. With “red” we can point at apples, fire hydrants, and lobsters. For “greater than” we may play a language game of comparing the sizes of objects, or help someone with math homework. For “incorporeal, Ideal ocelot” we are out of luck. This is what gives us the criterion of verification: if a statement contains phrases whose meaning can not be clarified by example or practical use (empirical statements), or which is not given by definition of some arrangement of logical symbols (analytic ones), how can it be understood?

Fair enough for words like “noumenal” or “homoi-ousios.” But how does Ayer fit “the world of sense-experience [is] altogether unreal,” which expresses a metaphysical proposition in fairly common language, into the nonsense category?6 Each of those words looks like it has a fairly well established, practical meaning. An answer might be an odd use of the word “real.” If, out of some mean-spirited impulse to upset children, you tell a three year old “unicorns aren’t real,” they might set out to find one, and if they did in fact return with a unicorn you would have to admit that unicorns were real. In the upsetting-small-children-though-disilusionment game, “real” means something like “can be found in this universe.” On the other hand, if I claim the keyboard in front of me as I type this isn’t real I clearly don’t mean it can’t be found in this universe – it’s right there, and if asked to elaborate on what I really mean by this version of “real” I should certainly stumble on my words and make little progress toward clarifying what I intended to say. What game could give an observer equipped with only the normal senses a clearer idea of what I meant? Idiosyncratic uses of common words allow many metaphysical (and vacuous) statements to have the appearance of meaning without carrying literal significance. I admit this interpretation of what Ayer means by “literal significance” is largely extra-textual, but since an account of why unverifiable statements are meaningless is not given explicitly in Language, Truth, and Logic (and is necessary to discuss Ayer’s broader claims), and this one squares well with his proposed criterion for meaning, I will rely on it for my criticism below.

It is tempting – but mistaken – to say that Ayer’s account is self-negating. At first glance, the claim that if a statement is neither empirical nor analytic it is senseless appears to condemn itself. That is, “Only those sentences which satisfy the criterion of verification have meaning” does not appear to satisfy the criterion of verification. It certainly isn’t analytic unless we’re defining “meaningful” to be “satisfies criterion of verification,” but then it becomes hard to deny competing ideas of meaning. And it does not appear to be empirically verifiable because, to date, we haven’t invented a literal meaning detector which makes a sharp buzzing noise at the utterance of nonsensical statements or some other device. If Ayer’s central claim was unverifiable, the entire project would collapse. But this contradiction relies on the assumption that meaning is something removed from the empirical world. If we accept that meaning is, instead, to be found in daily language games the claim that the kind of statements Ayer condemns are meaningless becomes verifiable after all. What facts would be relevant for the determination that they were? I think either of the following observations would do: i) A large sample of observers not acquainted with certain classes of empirical statements and metaphysical statements regularly come to a clear and agreed-upon interpretation of the empirical statements but not the metaphysical ones. If one hundred people of diverse backgrounds and talents come to a consensus in how to use words from Halliday and Resnick’s Fundamentals of Physics but not Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s On the Divine Names, then the claim that Pseudo-Dionysius’ language does not have literal meaning appears more probable, or ii) standing questions in one area of empirical enquiry (say, chemistry) or analytic reasoning (group theory) are resolved more quickly than standing problems in a metaphysical discipline. This version of Ayer’s account however, even if not self-contradictory, is a little bit circular. It does not require meaning be defined as “satisfaction of the criterion of verification,” but it does rely on meaning not being itself a metaphysical or transcendental object. If a metaphysician were to claim that the meanings of words were metaphysical objects, I can think of no Verificationist reply that would not beg the question.

Up until now I have discussed the criterion of verification as if it were universal. This is not obviously true. Because Ayer uses a weak principle of verification – that there are some experiences which could corroborate and cast doubt upon a proposed factual proposition – but does not specify bounds on what experiences carry evidentiary weight, he leaves it open that each individual might adopt their own. This is an unappealing result. Extreme liberality on what can count as evidentiary experience might allow the sensation of an epiphany to stand as evidence of all manner of religious or metaphysical claim, undoing Ayer’s main thesis. Even within set and established bounds of what can count as evidentiary experience, if two people do not have identical definitions on all points this would lead to the possibility of conversations where the same statement would be meaningful when one person said it but senseless when their conversation partner heard it. To be charitable and fair, I think this possibility is probably very remote. If all that is necessary is there be some set of possible observations relevant to determining if a statement is or is not true, then I think it would be hard to find two distinct plausible rules of evidence that do not simply agree about what is necessary for something to be proven, but where one admits a whole class of experience as evidence that the other does not so that there could be a proposition on which the rules disagree about its meaningfulness. Having sat here for a while no example comes to mind. Still the possibility is unnerving and risks making the existence of meaning in language individualized and subjective.

But whatever the faults in the individualized account of Ayer’s theory of meaning, they have nothing on the problems with assuming the standard for empirical verification is universal. Ayer provides no universal standard for what experiences are or aren’t admissible as evidence, but he can hardly be blamed for that. The failure to resolve each and every problem of epistemology is a very common shortcoming of philosophical works. But let’s say that Ayer enjoyed academic success beyond his wildest dreams, that every single person on Earth found Language, Truth, and Logic so compelling they converted to verificationism and dedicated all of their energy to helping sort out what the new universal standard for empirical verification ought to be. Being practical-minded, the people of Earth start with a few example propositions which seem like they’ll represent the more troublesome cases. Once these particular classes of statement are sorted out, it will be smooth sailing. The person with the most legible handwriting on Earth writes the first proposition, P on an enormous blackboard in English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and few other commonly-spoken languages, and then begins taking down possible experiences which would suggest the truth or falsehood of the proposition. After ten or so are on the board someone in the back raises their hand “Could you clarify what you mean by P? I’m not sure if the experience I’m about to suggest would actually be relevant.” Silence. How can anyone clarify the meaning of a statement (which might not have a meaning at all) if they don’t know what experiences will corroborate it? How can they draw up a list of evidentiary experiences relevant to a statement if they don’t know how to interpret its meaning? A universal theory of verification relies on a robust epistemological theory, which for practical application to propositions relies on a well-developed and meaningful language. Ayer’s theory might work if it concerns only some high-level definition of meaning distinct from the meaning of everyday language, so that it’s possible to build up propositions which are verifiable (and therefore have higher-level meaning in Ayer’s theory), but then we would be discussing a meaning different from the one which we set out to understand.

The derivation of the verification principle from meaning as a non-metaphysical concept partially rescues Ayer from this problem as well. The verifiability of statements isn’t a consequence of their meaningfulness in the sense of causation, but a convenient byproduct of the fact that a meaningful (non-analytic) statement needs to be empirical (so that it can be used productively in day-to-day language games or have its meaning given by visible example), and if a statement is empirical it can be supported by experience. This doesn’t quite save debates over which rule of interpretation to use, and so agreeing upon a fixed standard for evidentiary experience is out, but it gives us the possibility of individual definitions of evidentiary experience. This also still leaves an incomplete idea of what counts as “relevant to the determination of [...] truth or falsehood,” and the objection that it is hard for a verificationist to say why epiphany isn’t evidence for religious phenomena stands, but this is hardly unique to verificationism since asking why epiphany can’t count as evidentiary experience is the same thing as asking why we should believe certain rules of inference rather than others, which is the sort of question that can cause mischief no matter what system is under discussion.

So the objections to Ayer’s account that still stand are these: i) that it is unable to disprove, or even argue against, competing theories of meaning (those which say meaning is in some way metaphysical) ii) that debate over a universal evidentiary standard is doomed under verificationist accounts to be unproductive iii) that in accounts where individuals set their own evidentiary standards of relevance, it is possible for a person to make a meaningful statement which, when heard by another person, becomes meaningless and iv) there’s no clear way to exclude standards using the criterion of verification which allow metaphysical claims through the back door, despite their lack of meaning (i.e. the criterion of verification gives false positives). How to fix these remaining problems, if they can be fixed at all, I do not know. I imagine the criterion of verification could be reformulated to avoid iv), and as I have already said I think iii) so rare that it would not be of practical concern. i) and ii) seem inescapable, but next to criticisms that Ayer’s project is self-negating, they also seem much less serious.

* Of course, if it is a Platonic ideal of an ocelot it wouldn’t actually live anywhere in this world, but humor me for the sake of the example.
This probably requires some elaboration since I say below that the same objection is not fatal to the case where individuals hold their own evidentiary standards. The account in which there is an agreed universal standard for the relevance of an experience to determining the truth of a statement assumes this standard comes about from public discussion, and not some innate human preference for a particular flavor of empiricism or very lucky coincidence that everyone picks the same private standard. Discussion over what standard to adopt however is fruitless because advocating the superiority of one standard over another relies on metaphysical claims (assuming advocating the superiority of a standard is saying it better matches types of experience to things in themselves). By contrast if each person individually adopted a standard there would be no need for this debate at the cost of a presumed loss of uniformity.
I do not know whether asking “why don’t we use these rules of inference?” counts as an analytic question or not. It is not meaningless the way metaphysical statements are, but suggests a different collection of true propositions (generated by taking your list of experiences and determine a new list of conclusions on the basis of this new set of rules of inference). It is certainly not empirical, and if it is not analytic a further category of meaningful statement might need to be added.
1. A. J. Ayer, Language Truth and Logic (New York, Dover Publications)(1952 ed.), 33.
2. Id., 35.
3. Id., 38.
4. Id., 33-34.
5. Id., 34-35.
6. Id., 38.

Link | Comment | Share

Great Art

Apr. 9th, 2011 | 04:45 pm
music: Pearl and the Beard - Voice in my Throat | Powered by Last.fm

Often I'll start writing a post about newspaper articles I think poorly represent their topic, or blog posts I find irritating, or what have you. Few of these make it to completion. This is largely because I'm rarely motivated to respond to what I read until I feel that saying "Oh, fuck you" would be more time and regard than the piece deserves, but a blog which mostly linked to other people's thoughts and called them stupid without elaboration would be unpleasant to read, unpleasant to write, and look a lot like childish jealousy, so I'm left writing about something I don't think is worth while.

Freddie DeBoer's response to this piece in Slate, however, deserves attention. I have been on the internet for most of my life. I trolled the comments sections to Yahoo! news articles in the early 2000s, and remember fondly the xenophobic and paranoid outbursts of lax_ride. His rants had none of the sophistication of SirMustapha at the xkcd fora or the wonderful shamelessness of Gaia Online's cigarette, but they possessed the same charm as Vaudeville melodramas: simple and to the point. I say all this so that my credentials in Troldom are clear and, when I pronounce DeBoer's glib and unreflective jab at Slate Great Art, the reader does not think the judgment comes from a novice or mere hobbyist in assholery.

Here is the entirety of the masterpiece:
Is Ulysses overrated?
It is a work of incredible genius?
Does its critics resorting to the old "you don't really like this" canard demonstrate the emptiness of their critique?
Has Ulysses endured?
Will it continue to endure?
Will it still be read 100 years from now?
Will anyone remember its many critics 100 years from now?
Is that a fair and relevant question?
It's the only question.
Like many of the great works of trolling, you can see DeBoer's post isn't really about anything save invective, but disguises itself under the superficial trappings of a coherent argument. Note, for example, he does not identify one thing about the work Ulysses which makes it praiseworthy. His responses, excepting the last, are single-word, yes/no answers which produce the illusion of methodical analysis, while the last sets the illusion tight by saying this pseudo-analysis is the only relevant procedure for determining aesthetic merit.  His glibness in conjunction with this imagined rigor allow him to simultaneously write as if he is giving exhaustive treatment and dismissing the Slate article out of hand. Admittedly DeBoer was handed a real blessing that Rosenbaum, the author in Slate, chose to use a question-answer format after Joyce in his article, but DeBoer is ingenious in taking advantage of the opportunity  presented.

Underneath all this is nothing. Is DeBoer motivated by a Hume-ian theory of consensus in aesthetic sentiment? Then how do we explain his pronouncement that the work is already genius despite its critics? Is he an objectivist about the value of art? Then how do we explain his appeal to Ulysses' future status? It is not that the aesthetic claims implicit in DeBoer's work are irreconcilable, so much as they suggest a nuanced and muti-faceted theory of aesthetic value, but reveal nothing in particular about the details of this theory. In response to criticism DeBoer may adopt whatever view suits him, or claim over and over again that the critic has wrongly presumed he believes in aesthetic views he does not. (The critic, of course, must presume or there is nothing of DeBoer's view to criticise).  

The crowning accomplishment here is DeBoer's hypocrisy. Observe how DeBoer complains that Rosenbaum fails to engage with the literary virtues supporters of Ulysses put forward (the "the old "you don't really like this" canard" part). Now try to find a point where Rosenbaum reduces his opponents' criticism to a single sentence. Or consider that DeBoer's own argument of "pretty soon all you philistines who don't appreciate this will be dead and history will laugh at you", in addition to being a canard in itself, isn't even remotely clear -- H. L. Mencken thought little of Ulysses then, as some do now, and he has certainly not been forgotten in the intervening ninety years, and I doubt he shall be forgotten in the next ten. If Ulysses has not made it a hundred years without a crowd of detractors yet, why should it make the next hundred? But I am straying into arguing against DeBoer, which misses the purpose and beauty of trolling. Compounding this hypocrisy is DeBoer's own oft-stated, never supported, view that pundits say what makes them appear clever, and what conforms with their own "brand", rather than what they believe or what is true. Political bloggers may well be merely signaling and negotiating a popularity contest when they hold an opinion. Suggesting someone claims to like Joyce to appear intelligent is a canard. I could go on, but really you should read the Slate piece, scroll back up, and appreciate DeBoer's genius. I have no reservations about calling this the most sublime piece of trolling I have ever encountered.

Or at least I wouldn't if DeBoer weren't dead serious and hadn't managed all this, not by artistry, but by sheer bad temper and lack of reflection.

EDIT: To be clear, I don't endorse the article in Slate at all. I just think that, as I said, Mr. DeBoer simply so glib and dismissive as to deserve recognition.

Link | Comment | Share

Question on Civil Liberties: Harry Potter and the Hobbesean Sovereign

Apr. 6th, 2011 | 09:59 pm
music: John Hiatt - Back Of My Mind | Powered by Last.fm

From the comments on the last Harry Potter post:

reasonandmusic:I was actually looking up the Wizengamot today and both the Lexicon and the wikia agree that it's rare for the accused to have the equivalent of our lawyers. It can happen, but it's only an option. Despite this making me go o______o at Hogwarts' legal system, it might shed some light on the lack of things like debating at Hogwarts.
The idea that the Wizarding world has few to no guaranties for the rights of the accused, a limited free press if Fudge's leverage with the Daily Prophet is any indication, etc. makes me go 0______0, too. And I've since been trying to puzzle out why wizards would accept an autocratic bureaucracy. And, maybe I have an idea of sorts about why that might be? Feedback or suggestions on this would be great.


The International Statute of Secrecy, the agreement that settled Wizards would be going into hiding, was signed in 1689 and took effect 1692. I think it's probable that, probably, many individual nations had gone into secrecy before the international agreement passed, and even in nations which hadn't already formally gone into secrecy my totally unsupported intuition would be that already wizards were setting up a highly insular and detached society of their own with little to no interaction with social and political movements in the Muggle world. If that's the case, then some of the most famous works on the Rights and Liberties of citizens of the Enlightenment might not have received the same currency in the Wizarding world as our own. Locke's Two Treatises of Government was first published in 1690, and Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government in 1698 (posthumously, with Sidney having been put to death for treason in 1683). Jean-Jeacques Rousseau wouldn't be born until 1712, and among contractarian thinkers before Locke: Grotius, Pufendorf (who has the best name ever), and Suárez, I don't think there's much talk, other than in Suárez, of a right of revolution. (I think, but my reading in those three is pretty shallow) All of which is to say that I imagine Wizarding society developed apart from a bunch of the people who shaped political thinking as it exists today. 

More importantly, Wizarding society is secret. I've mentioned this point in previous posts, but I don't think until recently I've appreciated the enormity of the collective action problem presented. You have a few thousand wizards in a country, plus the families of muggle-born wizards, aware of a secret society. You need almost perfect compliance to keep the secret, and the consequences for failing are exposure among a much larger people who, with near unanimity, want you dead (although admittedly they suffer under some grave misconceptions about the most efficient way of killing you). And, assuming the secret does get out, a response needs to be immediate. How can a secret among thousands of people stay secret if all that is necessary for a return to witch hunts and persecution is one person breaking trust or being careless? Managing slip-ups needs is a large enough job that it needs a dedicated organization: a very large, very intrusive organization that knows what is happening in all Wizardom at any given time.  Enforcing secrecy requires the ability to swiftly punish anyone who might break the trust of the Wizarding community. More shortly, wizards are a society in an unceasing state of paranoia, and their laws reflect it: they tolerate a corrupt and self-serving bureaucracy because it has thus far succeeding in keeping them secret, and the instability of its removal itself might attract muggle attention (the Wars against Lord Voldemort pushed the ministry nearly to its limits in preserving the secret of wizarding society). It is, almost exactly, Hobbes' solution to the state of nature applied to the very different circumstances -- the problem being solved here differs in the notable respect that the incentives to break the trust of wizarding society come from a desire to share one's abilities with friends or neighbors rather than human selfishness. It is not the prisoner's dilemma of getting out of the state of nature which is the same, but the use of a powerful sovereign to enforce and prevent the dissolution of a public agreement which is the same.

Some corollary points. I asked in previous posts what defined membership in wizarding society, and if it was even meaningful to ask that question. These remarks offer a potential answer: knowing and keeping the secret is what it means to be a witch or wizard. Whatever differences the community might have, however alienated one individual might feel, they do not expose wizarding society (it's worth pointing out that Gellert Grindlewald didn't believe in remaining secret and, though I can't be sure of it, I faintly recall Voldemort intending the same eventually? Neither were terrifically popular). This also offers some insight, maybe, into the thinking behind anti-muggle-born and anti-werewolf bigotry. Both, for different reasons, pose a greater risk to keeping the secret than a pure-blooded wizard might. Muggle-born wizards might be tempted to tell close friends or extended family, having not been born into wizarding society. Their attachment to muggle society is a threat to the continued secrecy of wizards. Werewolves, who periodically lose control of themselves, pose the threat of revealing wizards by accident. In the end, both appear as risks toward the secrecy that allows wizarding society to exist.

But I could be totally wrong or way off.  Also I haven't proof-read this at all so if something's unclear please point it out.

Link | Comment {2} | Share

Proposal: An index of ...I'm not sure what this measures.

Mar. 9th, 2011 | 02:16 am
music: John Cale - Fear (Is a Man's Best Friend) | Powered by Last.fm

Possibly a cool idea, possibly very boring. Your mileage may vary.

It all started when I observed that i) the frequency of those "iPod shuffle fic anthologies" seems tightly correlated with the cheerfulness of the fandom as a whole (e.g. despite having roughly comparably-sized samples on ff.net, the Zelda fandom has far fewer than the pokemon fandom) ii) a fic which is an iPod shuffle fic anthology... thing seems slightly more likely to be focused on interpersonal relations -- particularly shipping -- than a fic that is not.

Which led me to note that, any playlist I might assemble for such a hypothetical anthology would be hilariously unsuited to expectations i) and ii). I am pleased to say iTunes did not disappoint.

  1. John Cale, Fear is a Man's Best Friend
  2. Dire Straits, Industrial Disease
  3. Janet Baker (Gustav Mahler), Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredgit
  4. 梶浦由記, Rain and Storm
  5. Slim Dusty, One Truckie's Epitaph
  6. Joan Baez (John Prine), Hello in There
  7. Tom Waits, Murder in the Red Barn
  8. Warren Zevon, Play it All Night Long
  9. Kate Bush, Under Ice
  10. 梶浦由記, M03
  11. Jacques Brel, Les Singes
  12. Gordon Lightfoot, The Watchman's Gone
I don't see many of these songs as particularly "dark" or "dreary" (John Prine, Tom Waits, John Cale and Kajiura Yuki's M03 are probably the only ones I'd put firmly in the "dark, gloomy stuff" box), most have a sense of humor or irony about them that prevents them from being really at all depressing or scary, but neither are they in any way cheerful (except maybe Rain and Storm, depending on your feelings about rainstorms).

But of more interest is how completely this avoids (ii). What are the odds, I wondered, of managing to avoid love songs for twelve consecutive tracks? I was under the impression that, oh, maybe half of all songs are love songs? It's certainly a wildly popular topic. So, here's something to try. Run shuffle and skip through tracks, keeping count of how many consecutive non-love songs you come across. Once you come to a love song write down your count and start again from zero. Take the average of twenty or so such runs (or a larger sample if you have more time). What number did you get, do you think it accurately represents your musical tastes? I got an average of 4.8, so a chain of twelve songs like this is probably very unusual for my library.

Link | Comment | Share

Some incoherent mumbling about LoZ: Twilight Princess

Feb. 28th, 2011 | 02:17 pm
music: Warren Zevon - Ain't That Pretty at All | Powered by Last.fm

This is all elanaranne's fault. I deny any responsibility for my getting sucked back into Legend of Zelda fandom when I have a ton of work to do. Nope. I'm not choosing to procrastinate, it is being forced upon me. Curse you, Naranne, destroyer of productivity.
(I'm pretty sure it's abundantly clear already, but just to be on the safe side: I'm only teasing and don't actually blame you for my inability to get anything done today)

  1. Wealth, Class, Status
    • Viability of commercial establishments for games/entertainment at Castle Town (STAR) and Lake Hylia (Rafting, being shot out of a cannon) suggest existence of a fairly broad set of people with disposable income.
    • Important to note: at no point in game do we actually encounter hereditary nobility outside the queen. No evidence that if there is hereditary nobility they exercise formal control over territories or land.
    • Shad, Auru, suggest however that the crown is perhaps very active in patronage in scholarly pursuits. No evidence of scholarship sponsored outside Castletown. Scholarly positions as quasi-nobility? (Important question: how much of Sheikah lore survives from OoT era? How well do Hylians know their own history?) To what extent does the monarch have authority to confer status on current non-nobility.
  2. Gender Norms, Family 
  3. Positive law.
  4. Mythos, Monarchical thought
  5. Popular opinion, and its influence
    • I have no damn idea how this works, the best I can say is that there doesn't appear to be a printing press in Hyrule yet and the elite may exercise a tremendous amount of influence on what knowledge is public, making popular opinion more malleable to elites than in our days.
  6. Miscellany/outstanding questions
    • To what extent are political elites (monarch/others) involved in promulgating doctrine (religious/academic)? How, in what circumstances? (Oddly, we see Princess Zelda spoken of in overwhelmingly secular terms, despite being one of the Goddesses' elect. Possibly Hyrule never developed organized religion in the same way as our world because the Goddesses made far less use of intermediaries and when they want a person to know or do something they see to it themselves? So maybe not so much religion, academic/scholastic doctrine is an open problem)
I'll be updating this from time to time, I think.

Link | Comment {2} | Share

A rant about Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Feb. 19th, 2011 | 01:42 pm
mood: grumpygrumpy
music: Marina & the Diamonds - Girls | Powered by Last.fm

Resolved: The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.

Seriously, NFLfolk? Seriously, seriously?

I realize that it's hard to come up with different and interesting resolutions centering around ethical questions month after every other month. But this really reads just like someone stuck the word "justified" into a policy debate resolution and shipped it off. I mean, this is ridiculously specific. One particular country! Just talking about private military firms! Grrr! How do you begin disputing this in ethical terms? I'm coming up mostly blank for the aff (Value premise? V.c? I've got nothing, though I haven't really been thinking much about it), and for the neg I guess there's some sort of argument you could maybe make from contractarian premises that you aren't allowed to delegate when it comes to promoting a world stable for U.S. interests (I can't even say "defense," accursed resolution). I've no doubt this resolution, more often than not in classrooms, will degenerate into "Private military forces, useful or ineffective?"

I think, when you have the luck to have a good teacher, Lincoln-Douglas debates offer an excellent first (or at least very early) opportunity to develop analytical thinking and some familiarity with a particular series of Great Books. Provided, you know, you're still in some sort of values debate rather than one of practical use or policy (not that there's anything wrong with policy debate). With resolutions like this one, though it's hard to see how you learn to do that. (I've no doubt an experienced LDer could develop a case if they really sat down to it, but I'm worried about people learning.)

Link | Comment {2} | Share

Writer's Block: The name game

Feb. 1st, 2011 | 05:20 am
music: Edvard Grieg - Op. 68 Nr. 4, Aften på højfjeldet (Orchestral) | Powered by Last.fm

What's the origin of your username? If you could change it to anything else, would you, and what would it be?

Oh boy. Um. Congratulations, LiveJournal, you found the narcissistic-babbling-question. I'm going to go on and on about this for a while.

I've gone by some variation on Troldtog (Trold, most often) for ~6 years. Trold is:

1. A compilation of supernatural folktales from northern Norway by Jonas Lie which my dad used to tell me before bedtime. My (and Roald Dahl's) favorite, Elias and the Draug is available here in translation thanks to R. Nisbet Bain (1893). I actually was completely unaware that my favorite childhood ghost stories were compiled by a single person, let alone published in a volume called Trold, at the time I first started going by the name online. I picked it knowing only that it was: 

2. Danish (and some particular, possibly no longer extant though I don't really know, dialects of Norwegian) for troll. I picked it largely because I liked the idea of a username that explicitly identified the person behind it as a troll (you know, the kind that cause trouble on webforums). I think -- though on this point my memory is a bit hazy -- it appealed to me because, at the time, I'd found that, by expressing some opinions, or not being as careful as I ought to with words, I'd offend someone (almost always extended family, though a few school mates too). Usually they'd find me irreverent, and I'd really have no idea what it was I'd done or said that was so dreadful. For the most part I still don't (I don't really think of myself as the sort of person to say shocking things, and I'd bet a reader of this journal wouldn't expect it of me either, though I could be wrong).  But I got people, wholly unintentionally, to gasp and clutch pearls or to take a sudden and keen interest in my moral education.

Rather than worry I was a menace to society or something melodramatic and silly, I chose to just own it and appreciate the comedy in the fact that I could say something I thought was totally innocuous and still get people to frown and shift uncomfortably. I still do, though I've had fewer occasions to think the username fitting in the past few years (I chalk it up to different sensibilities in the people I hang out with, rather than improvement in my sense of tact which is, for good or bad, as it always was).

Unfortunately, Trold was already taken when I created this account. Since I love Grieg I went with Troldtog, the name of one of his lyric pieces. Grieg's home was, also, called Troldhaugen ("the Hill of Trolls") after a local story about the place.

Link | Comment {1} | Share

Groundwork for the Long Boring Aesthetics Entry

Jan. 26th, 2011 | 04:13 am
music: 10,000 Maniacs - Hey Jack Kerouac | Powered by Last.fm

Conveniently posted a whole week after the long boring aesthetics entry.
Except, of course, when a person reads what I do share they don't have any knowledge of what went into its creation. S/he can't see where I stopped and revised and revised and revised until a phrase was -- at last! -- to my liking, s/he (probably) can't guess at my particular psychological states when writing this paragraph or that. What appears to him or her is the literal meaning of a finite sequence of words, and whatever inferences s/he makes from that finite sequence. Those inferences will be influenced by who and what else he or she has read, what sort of mood he or she is in, and that background for his or her inferences is as invisible to me as my actual writing is to him. What I made, and what a reader makes of it will probably be similar, but they aren't the same thing.

This paragraph does an extraordinary amount of heavy-lifting in the previous post and probably deserves its own explanation.

I linked, back when I was still babbling about Harry Potter (more on that to come), to a piece at The Awl by Maria Bustillos which argues -- well it argues a lot of stuff, and doesn't lend itself to concise (charitable) summary, you should probably just go read it. Since I must give it a one-sentence summary, Bustillos says Harry Potter adheres to a highly classist narrative. I've already made it pretty clear I really, really don't think Bustillos makes much sense, or relies upon enormous misunderstandings of key plot points in the story, but I bring it up again because the comments to that article have a particularly instructive example.

@barnhouse: [...]

Again, I'm not saying that Harry Potter isn't a product of our particular culture, or that it doesn't resonate with a particular cultural mind-set. If it didn't, it would hardly have garnered enough attention for us to be talking about it! But that's not the same as saying, "Oh, it also implies all these other things." Because in real life, yes, one could very likely make a case that Dumbledore was dominating the Muggle world in an insidiously subtle way. But Dumbledore is not a real person. He is a metaphor. And the fact that he is a metaphor for a certain type of real-life authority figure does not mean that all other qualities historically observed in such authority figures actually obtain in him. It just means that he's essentially a one-dimensional construct (as nearly all fictional characters are) meant to convey a necessarily limited set of ideas. To say that the presence of that set of ideas must necessarily signal the hidden presence of a bunch of other ideas to me misses the point of stories, which is partly to mimic the real world in service of focusing on one or a few key themes. [...]

(None of which is to say that the stories don't imply some things — uncomfortable or unpleasant things, even — about our culture. They must! Because there are uncomfortable and unpleasant aspects of our culture, and the stories do a pretty authentic job of reconstructing a slice of that culture.)

[ Barnhouse:]
@Moff: If we were in the same vicinity and supplied with a decent bottle of wine, maybe I would try to inveigle you into a poststructuralist discussion. But as matters stand, I'll just say that I disagree profoundly with the idea that "nearly all" fictional characters are "one-dimensional constructs." Even second-rate characters in fiction have to evoke enough complex human characteristics to compel the reader's trust.[...]

A large part of the argument between Bustillos and a horde of indignant commenters stems from the interpretive weight given to not just the tropes a story uses, but those tropes' cultural baggage. Harry was chosen, and in many cases stories about chosen ones carry some quiet and awkward anti-egalitarian notions that some people are just naturally better or more special than others, so therefore Harry Potter must carry that same subtext. British boarding schools are giant hives of class privilege in fiction, so Hogwarts must be some sort of similar hive of aristocratic privilege. Never mind that the prophecy about Harry isn't some innate wonderful Harry thing, rather Voldemort himself accidentally Chose Harry, and it's explicitly said in that HBP that, even were Harry not chosen, he'd still be off hunting Horcruxes and the like.

I feel a bit like I'm punching a strawman -- no one (well, no one save Maria Bustillos) seriously advocates just ignoring plot details and substituting cultural baggage to interpret stories, but I think that too often we acknowledge the capacity of cultural baggage to give a story meaning without looking at what exactly is going as we interpret a story. Namely, words, characters and plots appear so frequently for a particular function, or in association with other words, characters, and plots, that the very appearance of one by itself begins to suggest its associates. If some author were to, say, write about wizards at a boarding school, and in the particular country where these totally hypothetical novels were set, if people outside certain social classes appeared in boarding school stories, it was only in a subservient role, it might be that the mere invocation of boarding school would bring criticism on the author for classism.1 You know. Hypothetically.

To put this back in the context of Marilyn French's essay, when French says a particular work is sexist she means either 1) "the work explicitly argues for the inferiority of women" or 2) "the work contains a collection of tropes, themes, characters, symbols, and other miscellaneous literary whatcha-ma-call-ems that 2.1) are pervasive throughout storytelling and 2.2) taken together, suggest the inferiority of women, even if any one individual work on its own wouldn't necessarily suggest the same."2 with the result that the frequency of the misogynist tropes reinforces the patriarchal assumptions that brought them about and creates a body of literature hostile to (some) female readers.3 What I think gets forgotten in some criticism is the contingency of the second kind of sexism on external conditions. I think, in the second cases calling a work misogynist. That what we're facing is a collective action problem in which to get literature that's better for a society we need to ask authors to give up particular habits which they may be very attached to and which, if writing is a deeply personal activity, it's not clear we can demand of them. And I think words as loaded as misogynist and patriarchy aren't really suited to collective action problems.4   

1. Other critiques along a similar theme exist, though were left out here because of they did not specifically cite objections to HP being set in a boarding school. See e.g., Ilias Yocaris, Harry Potter, Market Wiz N. Y. Times, July 18, 2004 for one of the best known of these critiques.
2. French's critique focuses upon the general preference for the masculine in literature (and corresponding depreciation of anything feminine), with the rigidity of gender roles sort of pushed into the background of her argument. It's tempting to cast the statement of "this work is sexist" in terms of conformity to rigid gender roles, which has the benefit of being more inclusive, but it would not be a fair summary of French's argument which focuses specifically on misogyny in literature.
3. See excerpt from Is There a Feminist Aesthetic? in previous post.
4. Your willingness to believe this probably depends on your willingness to believe it's morally acceptable to not get involved in the cause of particular strains of feminism. Or more accurately, for one's writing to not reflect involvement in the cause.

Link | Comment | Share

Aesthetics. Or flamebait. One of the two.

Jan. 21st, 2011 | 09:34 pm
music: Blossom Dearie - Everything I've Got | Powered by Last.fm

Specifically, some undeveloped and rambly thoughts about literature, aesthetics, and ideological messages.

A few years ago, as part of a sort of intro philosophy survey course I was required to write a short reading-response to an article by Marilyn French.1 This article proposed a definition of what aesthetics would have to look like to be compatible with feminism and more-or-less free of misogyny. What came out was, if I am to judge by the instructor's comments on my paper, not so much a  response as it was an indignant squawk. This was of some concern to me then -- and still reappears from time to time in the back of my head -- since, if the best a person, a professor fairly well acquainted with the material no less, can manage in response to your criticism of a possible feminist aesthetic is "Wait. Huh? What?" you're left to wonder if maybe you've stumbled upon some sort of gender blindspot and you really ought to rethink your opinions and attitudes. I still find the idea that aesthetics should be anything like what French described awful. I haven't, with any great success, tracked down a set of embedded patriarchal assumptions which might be responsible for the clash, but I haven't found a better critique of French either.

Or rather, I hadn't until a few hours ago, and now have some possible rambly and undeveloped thoughts that might sorta-kinda-maybe be the criticism I was trying to get at four years ago?  Alternatively I'll just expose an embarrassing blindspot, but in the latter case I assume, eventually, someone will call me on it and let me know.

French's article, Is there a Feminist Aesthetic?, does not keep the reader long in suspense. A paragraph in, she remarks "[t]he clearest proof of the existence of a feminist aesthetic is the distaste or rage feminists feel on encountering works that violate it."2 The substance of French's feminist aesthetic is, in excerpt: 
"There are two fundamental, related principles that mark a work of art as feminist: 1.) it approaches reality from a feminist perspective and 2.) it endorses female experience. [...]

In a work with a feminist perspective,the narrational point of view, the point of view lying behind the characters and events, penetrates, demystifies, or challenges patriarchal ideologies. [...] The [patriarchal] assumptions are, first: males are superior to females. Their superiority may be granted by a deity or by nature, but it is absolute in conferring on men authority over women. Second: males have individual destinies; they are promised domination, a surrogate godhead, transcendence over the natural world through power in heroism, sainthood, or some form of transcendent paternity -- founding a dynasty, an institution, a religion, or a state, or creating an enduring work of art or technology. Third: the form taken by patriarchy is hierarchy, a structure designed to maintain and transmit power from spiritual father to spiritual son. This form absolutely excludes females unless they "make themselves male" [...]  Females have only a "natural" destiny; interchangeable parts of nature's cycles, they are maids (in both senses), who become mothers, and finally widows (or hags), in which avatar they are expendable.

Finally, domination is divine, so to pursue it is noble, heroic, glorious.The material to be dominated is, essentially, nature -- all women; the body and emotions; "bestial" men; and natural processes, the flux and transitoriness of time, material decay, life itself. Patriarchal works focus on individual males who pursue glory; lonely, self-made and self-defeating, men are isolated from community and exiled forever from the "female" fate of happiness.

Since almost all modern worlds are patriarchal, feminist literature necessarily depicts patriarchy. But it does not underwrite its standards. Feminist literature may show patriarchal attitudes destroying a character or a world, but the narrative does not approve the destruction. When, in The Faerie Queene, Guyon destroys the luscious female world called The Bower of Bliss, Spenser, who has used his highest imaginative skills to create the Bower, judiciously approves its ruin. This is true also of Vergil in The Aeneid. The poet sighs about the tears of things (lacrimae rerum),regretting that beauty and feeling (Dido and sexual love for instance) are destroyed in the pursuit of glory, yet approves Aeneas's desertion of Dido, and his slaughter of those who oppose his domination. Aeneas's destiny is to found Rome; it overrides humanitarian or emotional concerns. Clearly, despite their feelings, both poets uphold patriarchy.

It is less clear where Tolstoy stands in Anna Karenina, or Austen in Pride and Prejudice. Both authors accept the patriarchal societies in which they live. Yet the pity Tolstoy lavishes on Anna, and the acute irony with which Austen pricks upper-class pretention and the unctuous ambition of the middle-classes, subvert patriarchal standards. This sympathy is not in the eye of the reader; it is built-in. Tolstoy's novel induces readers to feel the world lessened by Anna's death, rather than to feel that it was necessary, like Dido's, to a greater purpose. Austen's heroines maintain self-respect and integrity (wholeness) even as they triumph within a patriarchal structure. Many works of the past three centuries stretch patriarchal standards in this way; they are not feminist, but do not wholly support patriarchy either.

[... In feminist aesthetics] Domination is not divine but lethal to dominator and dominated. It harms the dominator by cutting him off from trust and mutuality, the foundations of friendship and love, the two primary values[.]"3
French goes on to elaborate upon what it means for a work to "endorse female experience," but I have omitted it here because I find her commentary on that point, so far as I've thought about it, unobjectionable. In sum, feminist art identifies pernicious forces (especially domination) in human society, and works to undermine them through depicting their consequences. Art is, first and foremost, a vehicle for the improvement of a people:
"For feminists [...] Art nourishes a society, feeds it; sturdy, not delicate, it arises from the life of a people like food from the ground, teaching us what we do not know, reminding us of what we tend to forget, emphasizing what is important, grieving over pain, celebrating vitality. It is useful and beautiful and moral-not moralistic. [...] I have always accepted the Horatian definition of the purpose of art -- to teach and to delight -- and I believe feminist art can make us better, just as I think a feminist world would make us better."4
My difficulty in articulating why I didn't think French was right was this: I believed that racist, sexist, or otherwise immoral messages in a book could certainly prevent a person from enjoying it -- my own very awkward fondness/distaste for H. L. Mencken was easily proof of that. But at the same time, the idea the the aesthetic value of a work is determined by whether its message fits within some ideological orthodoxy is positively loathsome to me. I had attempted, numerous times, to find a way to draw a line between intolerable sorts of offensive messages, which prevented something from being art (or good art), and the remainder of a very broad field of opinions a work could espouse. Naturally, this failed spectacularly.

It occurred to me this evening that the reason the idea of measuring the worth of writing based on its message or societal benefits is so appalling is because it is completely at odds with how I understand the act of writing. Writing is, at least to me, synonymous with thinking. I have exceedingly few thoughts more complicated than "I am hungry and could really go for a sandwich" which do not find their way onto paper (or .tex computer files). This makes a great deal of writing, as you might have guessed, a very private act. A standard which measures the value of a piece based on what it can teach us leaves no room for introspection. Most of my writing is kept to myself, but when others read it I cannot honestly say I much care what they take away from it or whether they think it is good. My thoughts are my own and my writing is my own, and that is all there is to it. I suspect that this is, to one degree or another, universal in artists -- I can't imagine anyone has ever liked a creation solely for its technical virtue.

Except, of course, when a person reads what I do share they don't have any knowledge of what went into its creation. S/he can't see where I stopped and revised and revised and revised until a phrase was -- at last! -- to my liking, s/he (probably) can't guess at my particular psychological states when writing this paragraph or that. What appears to him or her is the literal meaning of a finite sequence of words, and whatever inferences s/he makes from that finite sequence. Those inferences will be influenced by who and what else he or she has read, what sort of mood he or she is in, and that background for his or her inferences is as invisible to me as my actual writing is to him. What I made, and what a reader makes of it will probably be similar, but they aren't the same thing.

This may all seem like a digression from the main point -- why I don't like French's feminist aesthetic -- but it is, in fact, the solution. If we acknowledge that writing a story and reading it are fundamentally different activities, there's no reason we should expect to evaluate them with the same set of aesthetic standards (I am doubtful what a book means from the author's eyes could ever be evaluated, maybe not even described). If we assume that aesthetics tells us at once what it is like to read a good work, and offers some general hints on what to aim for, French's feminism asks authors to set, as their highest aspiration, conformity to a publicly useful ideological orthodoxy (and of course that the story is somehow compelling). No thank you. Not even for an ideology for which I have strong sympathies. On the other hand, if we take it only as a theory of what makes a story memorable, pleasant to read, enlightening, and generally beautiful to the observer (but not as standards to which the artist should necessarily aspire), it seems almost obvious that it's preferable to not have passages which strike a large fraction of possible readers as attacks upon who they are. 

But I don't thing there's anything in French's essay that suggests that kind of decoupling of creative aesthetic experience and interpretive aesthetic experience.

1. Marilyn French, Is There a Feminist Aesthetic? 5 Hypatia 32 (1990)(SPOILER ALERT: Yes. Yes there is.)
2. Id., 33.
3. Id., 34-35.
4. Id., 41-42.

Link | Comment | Share