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Art, Politics, Paradox

October 24, 2010 1 comment

Yesterday I saw John Pilger speak at the London Anarchist Bookfair.  It was heartening to see that he continues to see value in speaking truth to power, and challenging it’s various forms. He admirably challenges the corrupt behaviour of those in power around the world. I have a lot of respect for someone who can maintain their integrity over as many years as he has, and still manage to deliver some quality investigative journalism.

However, a throwaway comment that he made got me thinking.  In fact, I found what he said illuminating and rather disappointing.  Pilger was asked why it is hard to get people, especially young people, engaged in political activism, in criticising the system in a thoughtful and productive way, and then acting on their thoughts in a collective way.  One of the things he said in response to this question was that (he said this with a bit of a sneer on his face) young people ‘have postmodernism nowadays’ (?!)  to ‘keep them distracted’.  I am not really sure what he meant by this, but what I think he meant (given the context he said it in) is that there is too much moral ambivalence, there is no ‘Truth’, everything is relative and today’s culture seduces and distracts us from the ‘truth’.  This comment got me thinking about why some of the major critics of power can see things in such a simplistic way. I remembered how similar Pilger sounded yesterday to the late playwright Harold Pinter in his 2005 Nobel lecture, which was pre-recorded as he was too ill to travel to Stockholm to receive his award. And then I remembered a paper I gave a while ago at a number of conferences, which addresses this question, and looks at how a philosopher, TW Adorno, can help us to understand this simplistic and rather unhelpful approach.  I called it ‘Art, Politics, Paradox’.  It’s quite long, but I have posted it here.  I have posted the abstract first so that you can see if you would like to read the paper once you know what it’s about.  As usual, all comments are very welcome.

The Abstract:

It might seem that Harold Pinter and Theodor W. Adorno have little in common.  The former, a dramatist and poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, is also an outspoken political activist. The latter, a philosopher, musicologist and critic of the ‘culture industry’ is not usually associated with Pinter’s kind of public dialogue, indeed, he has often been mistakenly caricatured as an “aloof mandarin”. However, in the light of British academia’s renewed interest in Adorno, the question of the continuing relevance of his work needs to be addressed.  In this paper, I argue that Adorno’s relevance can be gauged through the exploration of some of the contradictions and tensions in his writings on art.  Essentially, it is in these contradictions and tensions that we find Adorno ruthlessly questioning notions of truth, experience, the political, and the limits of philosophy itself.  In order to illustrate this argument, I explore a rather illuminating dialogue between Pinter and Adorno, focusing on how each thinker conceives of aesthetic truth. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Pinter argues for two kinds of truth, aesthetic truth (which is open, ambiguous and flexible) and political truth (which is, he says, ‘accurate’, and ‘real’). Adorno, on the other hand, argues for two kinds of aesthetic truth, although they are also polarised; one account of truth is anti-essentialist and the other is absolutist. I explore these various accounts of truth, arguing that the similarity between Pinter and Adorno lies in each thinker’s paradoxical construction of truth.  I argue that what is interesting is how each thinker confronts the paradox that he constructs.

 

I go on to claim that Pinter presents us with an interesting problem: unlike Adorno, he resolves his paradox.  For political reasons, Pinter sacrifices aesthetic truth for political truth. He argues that we must reject the ambiguity and elusiveness of dramatic truth and assert political truth in order to expose the lies of the powerful. Thus Pinter privileges absolutism over anti-essentialism and absolutism wins the day, which in effect leads to the scepticism he is trying to avoid, and contradicts his political commitment to democracy. What I take issue with here is the idea that there has to be resolution; Pinter refuses to concede to paradox or even ambiguity in his work. However, Pinter is not necessarily right about this; one can live with contradiction, indeed, I would add that one should. This is where Adorno is more successful: Although his account of truth is also paradoxical, the dialectical negativity that Adorno maintains through contradiction and tension requires that his paradox is sustained rather than resolved. Thus Adorno strives to avoid absolutism, although this attempt often, and inevitably, fails.  But failure is insignificant.  For it is in this attempt to negate absolutes, in the non-identical, that we find the space for reflection, speculation, interpretation and, thus, perhaps freedom and the good.  It is here that we find the considerable ‘ethical and political force’ in Adorno’s work.  I conclude by arguing that Adorno shows us philosophy’s continuing significance for orienting ourselves in today’s complex world lies in asking pertinent questions, rather than searching for answers.

Pinter’s Nobel Lecture is recorded here:

http://nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=620


The paper:

It might seem that Harold Pinter and Theodor W. Adorno have little in common.  The former, a dramatist and poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, is also an outspoken political activist. The latter, a philosopher, musicologist and critic of the ‘culture industry’ is not usually associated with Pinter’s kind of public dialogue, indeed, he has often been mistakenly caricatured as an “aloof mandarin”. However, in the light of British academia’s renewed interest in Adorno, the question of the continuing relevance of his work needs to be addressed.  One way in which we might address this issue is by loosely comparing how Pinter and Adorno conceive of truth in art and in the political.

 

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Pinter develops an interesting distinction between aesthetic and political truth.  He argues that the language of contemporary politics has thrown his life as an artist and his life as a citizen into an unfortunate state of contradiction.  Pinter conceives of this contradiction in terms of the different ways in which art and politics view ‘what is real and what is unreal…what is true and what is false’ (Pinter 2005. p. 9). For Pinter the artist, the ‘exploration of reality through art’ (ibid. p.9) reveals that language is full of ambiguity.  Dramatic art presents us with many truths.  He writes, ‘[t]hese truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other’ (ibid.).

 

What art shows us, Pinter claims, is that ‘a thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false’ (ibid. p.9).  Conversely, for Pinter, his life as a citizen demands that he reject the ambiguity and elusiveness of dramatic truth.  This is primarily because, for him, mainstream politics is concerned with the exercise of power at the expense of truth. Pinter argues that ‘politicians…are interested not in truth, but in power and in the maintenance of that power.  To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives’ (ibid. p. 10).  The United States, the most powerful country in the world, has a monopoly on language: in US politics, ‘language is actually employed to keep thought at bay’ and citizens are led to believe that what is false is actually true. This denigration of the truth, Pinter argues, is an affront to ‘our moral sensibility’ (ibid. p.12).  In the present political climate, we should, more than ever, engage in the struggle to restore ‘what is nearly lost to us – the dignity of man’ (ibid. p. 13). Citizens are morally obliged to take a stand against this degradation of humanity by ‘defining the real truth of our lives and our societies’ (ibid. p.13). In his concluding statement, Pinter asserts that if we look for it, this ‘real’ truth will eventually manifest itself to us:

When we look into a mirror, we think that the image that confronts us is accurate.  But move a millimetre and the image changes.  We are actually looking at a never ending range of reflections.  But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us (ibid.).

Pinter claims that that we have to recover our lost dignity as human beings by being determined in our assertion of the ‘real’ truth when we come across lies. If we smash the mirror, we find ‘real’ truth, the binding element that the community needs in order to claim back its dignity.

 

Here, we see that for the sake of the urgency of the task at hand, Pinter’s political self overrides his artistic self and thus the unequivocal wins the day. The ambiguity and uncertainty of creative thought is replaced by Pinter’s assumption that there is such a thing as ‘the real truth’ (ibid.) – we might think of this as absolute objective certainty – which can be found behind the mirror.  Although it is impossible to disagree with Pinter’s demand that we stand up to the lies which politicians often claim to be true, it is also clear that if we follow this demand in the way that he conceives of it, something important is sacrificed. In effect, Pinter the artist, who maintains an interesting anti-essentialism, steps aside for the sake of Pinter the citizen’s political imperative.  Thus, Pinter suggests that we privilege absolutism over anti-essentialism.

 

Pinter implies in his acceptance speech that there has to be resolution; it is impossible for him to concede to ambiguity or contradiction.  However, Pinter is not necessarily right about this; one can live with contradiction, indeed, I would add that one should. Pinter’s ruminations on art, politics and truth have an interesting affinity with Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth in his posthumously published  Aesthetic Theory. The affinity lies in the fact that, like Pinter, Adorno conceives of truth in two, apparently paradoxical ways.  Unlike Pinter, however, Adorno both tries to resolve contradiction and attempts to turn living with contradiction into an ethical imperative.  In fact, Adorno’s success lies in how he constructs multiple, dialectical arguments.  He discusses aesthetic truth in ways which overlap, contradict and interplay, so that contradiction isn’t a problem and becomes a resource, which potentially informs our ethical and our political considerations.  This claim clearly requires some elaboration.

 

Albrecht Wellmer, who writes extensively about Adorno, argues that ‘[n]o one has succeeded better than Theodor W. Adorno in analysing modern culture with all its ambiguities – ambiguities which herald the possible unleashing of aesthetic and communicative potentials as well as the possibility of a withering away of culture’ (ibid.). Adorno examines the ambiguities of modern culture at length in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970a, 1997a).  In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno makes a central claim, not unlike Nietzsche’s claim about ancient Greek art in The Birth of Tragedy, that a specific kind of art in modern capitalist society has an important social function.  Adorno is specifically interested in the social function of what he calls ‘autonomous’ artworks. These artworks are social both historically and materially, but they have no function or meaning, they ‘step outside’ of what Adorno (rather problematically) calls ‘the constraining spell of empirical reality’ (ibid.). Because they do not use universalising conceptual language (they appear to be “meaningless”), artworks are vehicles of particularity. Adorno points out that it is an artwork’s non-conceptual language that makes it a bearer of truth.

 

Artworks contain the ‘capacity to express the ineffable [and] represent the unrepresentable’ (Wolin, 1992). In other words, authentic artworks do not summon concepts to mind, instead they point towards the possibility of expressing particularity. Thus, it is art’s mimetic sensuousness that refutes the universality of reason based on the processes of identity thinking which Adorno claims is fundamental to domination, repression and suffering in modernity. By refusing to communicate, authentic artworks communicate this essential truth.  However, not all modern artworks are authentic. Art is authentic when it manages to (somewhat paradoxically) express, or at least hint at, both reification and reconciliation. What makes this sort of art important is its critical nature.  Essentially, because they do not communicate in a conceptually meaningful way, autonomous artworks highlight the possibility for experience beyond the restrictive and damaging conventions of identity thinking. This argument leads Adorno to claim that ‘[a]rtworks must act as if the impossible were for them possible’, they aim at ‘perfection which it is impossible for them to reach’ (ibid. p.169), thus signifying that this is not all there is.

 

For Adorno, autonomous art ‘confronts existing society with a principle of radicality and negativity, with the postulate of the possibility of the impossible’ (Schafhausen, Muller & Hirsch, 2003 p.9) and thus, ‘truth is revealed through [artworks]’ (ibid. p. 284).  Despite the all-encompassing nature of the system in which we live, where freedom, morality, the good, even ‘positive meaning’ (Adorno 1997a p. 152) are impossible, ‘art is the ever broken promise of happiness’ (ibid. p.136).  Here aesthetic truth is an antidote to what Adorno, rather problematically, describes as the social ‘spell’.   However, he also views truth in art as something more open and flexible, and it is here that the paradox  lies.  At once, autonomous art embodies  the post-metaphysical, anti-essentialist negation of absolutes and, more problematically, it confronts what Adorno calls the social ‘spell’, the ‘totality’ and the all-encompassing nature of ‘what exists’.

The key to understanding Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth lies in what he writes about the relationship between art and philosophy, and the relationship between the actual, or the social – which he calls ‘what is’, the ‘totality’, the Verblendungszusammenhang (Adorno 1973, 1997a, 1999) – and the possible, the redeemed and the reconciled. Lambert Zuidervaart comments on this relationship: ‘To the extent that disclosure of artistic truth requires philosophical interpretation, it is ultimately because of philosophy that art can express social antagonisms and suggest the possibility of reconciliation’ (Zuidervaart 1991 p. 209). Conversely, philosophy needs art in order to fulfil its purpose, to ‘break the magic spell’ (Adorno 1998 p. 13).  In the essay ‘Why Still Philosophy?’, Adorno explains why art and philosophy are in this relationship.  ‘What is right for art is just as right for philosophy’, he writes, ‘whose truth content converges with that of art, by virtue of the technical procedures of art diverging from those of philosophy.  The undiminished suffering, fear and menace dictates that the thought that cannot be realised should not be discarded’ (ibid. p. 14).

 

A serious problem with Adorno’s analysis of the social function of art is that he employs concepts like utopia, redemption and reconciliation, which tend to take precedence over more interesting, less restrictive concepts like astonishment or shock and shudder. Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth tends towards totalising claims, for instance he claims that society is totally dominating, which it clearly isn’t: human beings are occasionally able to make free choices, to say no to the system, despite what Adorno may claim. This flawed approach has the effect of undermining the negativity that is vital for his dialectic, and it is not at all necessary for the considerable ethical and political force in much of what he writes. A related problem is that statements like ‘artworks have no truth without determinate negation’ (ibid. p. 129) mean that Adorno has no choice but to characterise art’s social function in terms of a negative utopia. Behind this problematic view of aesthetic truth is Adorno’s assumption that somehow art offers ‘big answers’ to the big questions of philosophy, that it is possible to pose, and solve big questions about the “nature of reality”.

 

A major problem with Adorno’s account of aesthetic truth is that, like Pinter, he prioritises a misguided (we might call it a realist) notion of truth and thus a problematic notion of redemption which he really doesn’t need. The reasons why Adorno pursues this notion of redemption are to be found primarily in his relationship with certain materialist and messianic aspects of the work of Marx and Walter Benjamin. Although Adorno argues for the sake of maintaining his all important dialectic, that we should not let thought ‘atrophy’ (Adorno 1998  292-3) at the same time he allows his own thought to distance itself from the negativity required to resist ‘atrophy’ (ibid.) by taking a problematic, absolutist position when he writes about aesthetic truth.  So why does Adorno, like Pinter, counter absolutism with absolutism? Here, we again find the paradox that we find in Pinter; Adorno employs absolutist concepts in order to undermine the absolute nature of what he calls the totality. The problem is that Adorno takes his negativity into the theological.  This sort of language is the only way in which it is possible to question what he believes to be the absolute nature of the social totality.  Thus, because Adorno attaches theological implications to what he says about the critical social role of autonomous art, he forfeits the negativity that makes his work critical in the way he wishes it to be. The question is: does, or can, Adorno reconcile redemption with his negative dialectic? Is this theological, messianic impulse necessary?  As Raymond Geuss writes, ‘it would be a shame if it turned out to the case that Adorno remained dependent on the tired, diffuse Romantic religiosity from which it was one of the glories of the twentieth century to have freed us’ (Geuss 2005 p. 247).  I would argue that no, Adorno does not need this theological messianic impulse, it is both unnecessary and misguided.  But it does show us something interesting about philosophy, the ethical and the political.

 

A central issue here is that Adorno often tries to make a strong claim out of a more interesting weak one. He tends to turn his interesting claims about the social role of art into unproductive metaphysical claims about redemption and reconciliation, rather than exploring the less structured or rigid possibilities suggested by these concepts. In Minima Moralia (1999), Adorno is clearly aware of doing this.  ‘Did not Karl Kraus, Kafka, even Proust prejudice and falsify the image of the world in order to shake off falsehood and prejudice?’ (Adorno 1999 p.72). Despite this self-awareness, the problem is that this tendency to totalise obscures his more interesting arguments. On the other hand, Adorno’s less structured, anti-essentialist  approach is reflected in his productive notion of art’s cognitive potential, where ‘thinking empirical incommensurability’ criticises identity thinking. Here, what Adorno says about aesthetic experience can direct and enrich how we think about experience in general. We find this experimentalism in this wonderful line from Minima Moralia: ‘[t]he task of art today is to bring chaos into order’ (Adorno 1999 p.222).

 

This contradiction creates a tension of some interest.  Essentially, Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth is paradoxical; he at the same time tries to think in absolutes and he attempts to undermine absolutism. However, unlike Pinter, Adorno does not attempt to resolve this tension.  Indeed, for Adorno it is an imperative that such tensions should be sustained rather than resolved, despite the theoretical paradoxes that may ensue. Adorno’s refusal to resolve the paradoxes in Aesthetic Theory is significant because it shows us that thinking in absolutes is ultimately bound to fail.  The point here is if we no longer see the need for thinking in absolutes, what we have left is merely a question: what do we do? Gadamer points out that we should ask this more productive question, which concerns ‘the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now.  The philosopher of all people, must, I think, be aware of this tension between what he claims to achieve and the reality in which he finds himself’ (ibid.).  This tension is central to the successes and inadequacies in Adorno’s account of aesthetic truth. In Aesthetic Theory this tension manifests itself as a theme of struggle and inevitable failure, and of the consequent struggle between the denial of, and acceptance of, that failure.  Despite (and perhaps because of) its metaphysical implications, Aesthetic Theory’s key point is that art’s great achievement lies in its failure. Art ‘signals the possibility of the non-existing’ (ibid. p. 132) but fails to give us what it promises.

However, in this failure also lies art’s success.  It is because of this failure that we keep trying, that we don’t give up, that we can go on. It is only when we try, and inevitably fail, that we can “let go” of absolutism and turn to Gadamer’s ‘weak’ ethical question of what we should do here and now. Perhaps, in the light of this failure, we are able to consider what we should do, in ethical social and political terms, without recourse to final resolution, to strong arguments and big answers. When he writes about the possibility of the impossible, Adorno is trying to capture this moment of anti-absolutism. This is why the concept of negation is important for him.  IT is also why resolution is not necessarily a good thing. It is in this moment of openness, similar to the one we find in Gadamer’s hermeneutic notion of play (Gadamer 2004), that we experience non-identity; here we do not have to, or need to ‘take a standpoint’ (Adorno 1973, p 5).  In the negation of absolutes, in the non-identical, we find the space for reflection, speculation, interpretation, and thus perhaps for experience of the other, freedom and the good.

 

There are further implications of privileging absolutism, particularly when conceptions of the political are at stake.  For instance, although the American pragmatist Richard Rorty would agree with Pinter that the desire to ‘uncover’ truth is often the binding principle of a community committed to democracy, he argues that this is actually a counter-productive way of doing politics. Rorty’s criticism here is based on his more general argument, considered earlier that truth is a ‘contingent’ property of language rather than something that ‘corresponds to facts’ or that is ‘discovered’ (Rorty 1989 p. 9). Given the premise that truth is ‘agreement among human beings about what to do’ (Rorty 1999 p. xxv), ‘[t]he more of that truth we uncover, the more common ground we shall share and the more tolerant and inclusivist we shall become’ (Brandom, 2000 p. 1). However, for Rorty, the desire for an ‘object cannot be made relevant to democratic politics’ (ibid. p. 2) and truth in the sense of correspondence is such an object. Instead of trying to uncover truth, we should be working out how to reach a temporary consensus on justified belief, in terms of what is true for now.  Perhaps Pinter would argue here with the urgency of political struggle in mind; we can only win the battle for truth by responding to the (false) truth-claims of the powerful with our own (true) truth-claims.  However, Rorty would respond by questioning why we need these sort of truth claims at all. Rorty suggests that thinking about truth in this way, is essentially thinking about truth as redemption.  For Rorty, redemptive truth is

 

…a set of beliefs which would end, once and for all, the process of reflection on what we do with ourselves.  Redemptive truth would not consist in theories about how things interact causally, but instead would fulfil the need that religion and philosophy have attempted to satisfy.  This is the need to fit everything into a single context, a context that will somehow reveal itself as natural, destined and unique (Rorty 2000 p.1).

 

What is particularly interesting in Pinter’s speech is his view that, in the end, truth is a redemptive force. Redemption here is a sort of rescuing, a recovering of something that has been lost. Pinter argues that if we assert the truth we can counter the immorality of untruth. If we do this, we recover our dignity and thus individual and community are redeemed.

 

Clearly, Pinter is trying to fit everything into the single, specific context of what he believes to be the ‘real’ truth.  But, however much we want to, we can never claim to have the complete picture, we can never obtain the absolute. All we have is language, which we use to describe the world and orient ourselves within it. In Holzwege (1959, 2002) Heidegger argues that modernity is characterised by the ‘conquest of the world picture’ (Heidegger 2002 p. 67).  He claims that the ‘essence’ of modernity (ibid.) is the objectifying, institutional research mode of explaining and understanding the world.  This leads us to believe we can ‘represent’ the world through ‘the unlimited process of calculation, planning and breeding’ (ibid. p.71).  This damaging objectification of things, and ultimately ourselves, is characterised through a ‘battle of world views’, with each world view believing itself to be the correct picture of reality.  Like Rorty, Heidegger claims that the problem is the belief that we can accurately picture reality.  Human beings dominate and master beings ‘as a whole’ because their relationship with other beings is inauthentic, they have forgotten that they share an essential Dasein with all other beings in the world.  For Heidegger, technology, scientific research discourse and the related objectification of the world have made humanity forget its authentic Being, its ‘is-ness’ that it shares with all other beings. One way to counter this drive for ‘picturing’ for Heidegger is the quest for ‘authenticity’, which involves ‘creative questioning and forming from out of the power of genuine reflection.  Reflection transports the man of the future into that “in-between” in which he belongs to being and yet, amidst beings, remains a stranger’ (ibid. p.72).

 

The claim Heidegger makes here about reflection is interesting for our understanding of the role and limits of politics and philosophy.  The problem arises when, like Pinter, we privilege redemptive truth in political and philosophical discourse.  Paradoxically, the downfall of political and philosophical language lies in the claim that they are privileged discourses, because this assumes that they can get to ‘the truth’.  Similarly, although Pinter privileges political discourse over artistic language in his claim about the redemptive nature of political realism, he paradoxically exposes the essential poverty of the discourse he privileges.  In fact, as the writer Siri Hustvedt argues in a similar vein to the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘language can’t be disentangled from seeing and recognition.  When Marco Polo first saw a rhinoceros on Java, he recognised it as a unicorn’ (Hustvedt 2003).  Of course, we now know that a rhino is not a unicorn.  Thus,

…nobody sees everything.  All vision is partial, as is every descriptive sentence.  We are all a bit blind, and when we tell a story, we all leave out parts of it.  If language orients vision and words create pictures, then the reliable cliché crumbles to bits, and we find ourselves in another landscape altogether – a mysterious island where we must always be on the lookout for unicorns (ibid.)

This is the sort of landscape in which it is possible to imagine Heidegger’s stranger; such a place requires the creative reflection of the imagination.  There is an interesting affinity here with a major subtext in Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1999), a book which concerns itself with the notion of exile and what it means to live in a strange culture. Although his notion of the ‘totality’, or the ‘spell’ is problematic because of its tendency to totalise, something of interest can be gleaned from what Adorno says about the potential for individual freedom, represented by the strangeness of the emigré experience.  Adorno writes, ‘Every intellectual in emigration…lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him’ (Adorno 1999 p. 33).  Although Adorno writes of the experience of exile as a negative and stifling one, because of his insistence on the dialectic we are constantly reminded of the possibility for freedom of expression and creativity that exile brings.

 

Perhaps, in the moment of chance, of creativity, of naming a unicorn, we might experience otherness. We could say, then, that it is in the gaps that we find the good, even if Adorno does insist that modern life is irreparably damaged and hence ‘in the bad life a good life is not possible’ (Adorno 2001b p. 167).  For Adorno, then, the key to drawing out the implications of these ideas can be found in the incommensurable or non-identical in art. What is important here is that what might be called imagination, or creative ambiguity –  despite Pinter’s objections –  does have a distinctly ethical edge because it criticises the limits of redemptive absolutist thinking and opens up possibilities for thinking and practice. The Iranian writer Azar Nafisi paraphrases Adorno when she argues that ‘ “The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home”…most great works of the imagination…always forced us to question what we took for granted.  It questions traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable’ (Nafisi 2003 p.94).  Adorno himself writes, in the appropriately titled ‘Gaps’ in Minima Moralia,  ‘the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar (Adorno 1999 p. 80).

 

However, this sort of anti-essentialism can easily be sacrificed by pursuing truth as a redemptive force.  This feeling of in-between, of gaps, of what Pinter calls ‘never ending reflections’ (Pinter 2005 p. 13), constitutes an openness, an uncertainty, a capacity for imagination.  Anti-essentialism not only exposes the poverty of redemptive language that can lead to entrenched religious, moral and political positions.  It also advocates the kind of ethical deliberation that Iris Murdoch refers to in her claim that moral reasoning is not a ‘privileged activity’ done by philosophers, but should instead be thought of as something that we all do, in everyday life. Certainly, Murdoch would agree with Heidegger’s claim that ‘[r]eflection is the courage to put up for question the truth of one’s own presuppositions and the space of one’s own goals’ (Heidegger 2002 p. 57).  On this account, our reasons for doing things are more akin to Pinter the writer’s anti-foundational claim that things can be both true and false, rather than Pinter the citizen’s desire for redemption (Pinter 2005 p. 9).  Perhaps, then, Pinter is mistaken to separate his political and artistic selves; maybe his citizen could learn from his artist.  For example, Pinter’s citizen could learn that politics needs more description and evaluation, more of the ambiguity, complexity and anti-essentialism common to the language of art. For Nafisi, in literature, we find ‘an affirmation of life…[which]…lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in its own way, thus creating a new world’ (Nafisi 2003 p. 47). This sort of approach is useful for thinking about how we might create a more progressive politics because the open and reflective retelling of our lives that art encourages can help us to rationalise, discuss and evaluate with more understanding and less prejudice. As Richard Rorty writes, art provides ‘glimpses of alternative ways of being human’ (Rorty 2000 p.2). This tells us that we should be aiming for more, not less uncertainty; the more alternatives and possibilities there are, the more likely we are to devise new, more productive ways of doing things.

 

Of course, the uncertainty that is required for this sort of reflective anti-essentialism is a threat to absolutism, and it is in politics that we most clearly see absolutism’s response to this threat.  Absolutism comes down hard, to show it is not afraid.  After all, it has redemption on its side.  We only need to think of the cases of Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk, two writers who, in their respective challenges to the orthodoxies of Shi’ah Islam and the Turkish state, called for more, not less, uncertainty. Because they celebrated ambiguity where there is no room for it and championed Heidegger’s ‘creative questioning’ (Heidegger 2002 p.72), both Rushdie and Pamuk were subjected to the force of absolutism.  Despite Pinter’s claims to the contrary, then, perhaps pursuing redemptive truth is, in the end, less effective than looking for unicorns.

 

 

Laugh at the truth. Forge an alliance with wisdom.

August 15, 2010 13 comments

In 1900, the Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died after a very long illness.  Nietzsche died just as a new Century was born – the Century of the internet, the atomic bomb, the motor car, factory-scale murder, mass production and consumption, of universal suffrage, civil rights; the century where we saw human beings on the moon but also still in mass graves.

I have had a long love affair with Nietzsche’s work, which has in many ways given me a (very challenging) framework with which to understand, criticise and make sense of things, of ‘modern life’, or whatever you might want to call it. For me, Nietzsche is one of the very few true giants of philosophical thinking. In order to do justice to Nietzsche’s ideas that are relevant, this post is quite long. I am being quite self-indulgent but my hope is that a discussion of these ideas now will inform further posts and hopefully stimulate some debate.

I really don’t think you can think about what I want to think about, without bringing Nietzsche into it.  His influence has been so far reaching in so many ways, culturally, politically, philosophically, it is astonishing.  For instance without Nietzsche there would be no Freud, without Freud contemporary Western culture would be very different: those baby boomers may not have made the break from the culture of their parents generation and so much of what we take for granted in culture and politics would be different now.  I would suggest watching some Adam Curtis documentaries here (if you can get hold of them – I got a knock-off from ebay that didn’t work…) http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/

Here we should probably get one thing out of the way: Nietzsche’s unfortunate appropriation by the Nazis (this was instigated by his sister Elisabeth Nietzsche who went to Paraguay with her crazy husband to found an Aryan colony but it didn’t work so she came back to Germany to interfere with her brother’s work instead).  This is ironic considering his disgust for anti- Semitism and mass political movements of any kind (including democracy), which he contemptuously refers to as aspects of the ‘herd mentality’. This appropriation also negatively affected Nietzsche’s reception in Europe and the USA for a long time after World War 2. But over the last 50 years, this shadow has passed over his work. He does say some things that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, but the point is really that everything Nietzsche writes is controversial – he pretty much despises everyone, because pretty much everyone is unable/not willing to think for themselves. Nietzsche is often seen as a negative thinker because he criticises just about everything, and doesn’t give any easy answers. His contempt is part of his charm and it reflects the challenging nature of his ideas. Really he is a profoundly positive thinker, which is moving when considered in the light of his painful and difficult life.

Nearly eleven years before his death, Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown and then a series of strokes. Nietzsche had suffered all his life from very poor health including crippling migraine.  He was a very lonely person. The one time he fell in love that we know about was with the very interesting Lou Salome (above on the left, posing in the cart; Nietzsche is the one with the massive ‘tache) who turned Nietzsche’s advances down and later went on to have a relationship with Freud.  But Nietzsche was a pioneer. He knew this, but very few other people did and so his usual reaction was contempt. The peak of his career came in his 20s but because of his bad health he had to resign his prestigious professorship and move to the mountains where the climate was better for him.  With his academic career pretty much over, his work became more and more difficult for people to engage with and he had few friends.  Yet he kept on writing and he knew that one day his work would be taken seriously. If only he had known how seriously his work is now taken, Nietzsche probably would have been proud of his legacy but also disgusted by the people reading it, and the institutionalization of his ideas.

What I find so inspiring about Nietzsche’s work is that he thinks the most serious thing one should do is not take anything too seriously. He wrote a book called The Science of Joy (unhelpfully translated into English as ‘The Gay Science’): that’s how seriously he took not being serious. Nietzsche is often a very funny writer. The chapters of his last book Ecce Homo have absolutely classic titles: ‘Why I am so Wise’, ‘Why I am so Clever’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’.  He was probably already a bit bonkers by then.  You have to love this man.

One of the main themes in his work is the death of God, what he calls the advent of nihilism, and the subsequent revaluation of values.  If we follow this line of thinking we can begin to see how Nietzsche can help us negotiate the ethical maze, or at least see it from a different, perhaps rather radical perspective.  The idea is that Nietzsche is challenging us to act despite there being no way that we can know what is objectively right or wrong.  The more I think about this, the more unsettling it becomes.  It is very hard to feel liberated by this imperative as Nietzsche wants us to.  However that is the challenge.

For Nietzsche, nihilism occurs when modern society experiences the loss of what we might call objective truth.  This means that there is no longer a satisfactory and all-encompassing answer to the question ‘why’ that can show us in a convincing manner how things “really are”.  The loss of objective truth can be explained as being particular to the modern age or ‘modernity’, because modernity is characterised by a rapid destabilising and undermining of traditional structures of authority, meaning and discourse. Like the decline of religion for instance.  Nietzsche highlights the loss of objective truth in modernity by examining our moral belief-systems. He argues that crucial to these structures of authority, meaning and discourse is the idea that truth is a property of things.

For example, we might say that something is good. When we say this, we are also saying that we believe that it is true that something is good.  The fact that we think it is true in effect ascribes a property to an object/person/idea, in this case “goodness”. We might say, for example,  “I wonder where all the good in the world has gone”.  The outcome of this is the belief that we can match language to reality, that the words we use actually correspond to “the facts” about something in the world, and this is what makes them true.  Nietzsche argues, particularly in two of his books ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and ‘The Science of Joy’, that this whole way of thinking is a fiction.  Truth does not correspond to any facts about reality. Truth is, he believes, actually no more than a series of authoritative metaphors that we use to describe our world and with which we keep our values in place.  We do this in order to satisfy what he calls ‘the desire for certainty’. The desire for certainty is motivated by our drive for survival. We all have it, all life is driven by self-preservation.   You may see Nietzsche’s influence on Freud here.  Nietzsche’s account of truth really says that when we call something good, we might believe that our doing so matches language to reality.  But we are deceiving ourselves.  In fact, we are more likely to call something good because it asserts our individual or group power, thus satisfying our survival-drive. This is what he says about the subject:

…man needs to believe in an unbiased ‘subject’ with freedom of choice, because he has an instinct of self-preservation and self-affirmation in which every lie is sanctified.  The reason the subject (or, as we more colloquially say, the soul) has been, until now, the best doctrine on earth, is perhaps because it facilitated the sublime self-deception whereby the majority of the dying, the weak and the oppressed of every kind could construe weakness itself as freedom, and their particular mode of existence as an accomplishment.

I love the way he writes; those italics drip with sarcasm.  Anyway so following on from this we have Nietzsche’s take on religion and the death of God.

Nietzsche claims that among the discourses of science, metaphysics and religion, the ‘best doctrine on earth’ for sustaining objective truth is theological truth: the established authority of God. In The Science of Joy, Nietzsche describes the ‘death of God’, the moment when the highest value is devalued. ‘The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives’.  Nietzsche’s challenge in this famous passage is the accusation that we have killed God.  We have to recognise that the loss of the ultimate objective truth is our doing, because we ourselves created the story that there is objective truth in order to satisfy the desire for certainty.  Once truth vanishes, we are left with nothing theological or philosophical upon which we can rely to orient ourselves in an increasingly complex and disorienting world.

Once we recognise that truth is merely a set of psychologically motivated values we are left with a sense of horror at the absurdity of the lack of meaning in life. Nietzsche calls the drive to keep our values in place, thus avoiding this absurdity, the ‘will to truth’. He claims that the will to truth is just a means of concealing the terrifying fact that truth is merely what we call various values, which are themselves motivated by psychological drives.  As such he writes, ‘truth is a useful deception’.  It is useful because it keeps the values we have invented in place, making them look like values that are something to do with the way things really are.  The greatest and therefore most dangerous cultural expression of the nihilistic will to truth for Nietzsche is Judeo-Christian morality. Nietzsche argues that God, as the ultimate expression of truth, is the ‘great justifier’.  This is because Christianity prevents us from seeing the absurd nothingness of life by directing our attention away from the physical to the metaphysical. Because it is concerned with the metaphysical rather than the physical, Nietzsche argues, Christianity is life denying. Christianity is the embodiment of disgust for life, because it focuses on the metaphysical rather than the physical world. Why look to another world, why deny life? He asks.

For Nietzsche, the only thing to do under the conditions of nihilism is to affirm life, to confront the absurdity of existence and then bravely embrace it. Nihilism thus represents the complete breakdown of the traditional order of meaning and values, allowing those who embrace nihilism to experience the opportunity for revaluation and reinterpretation. This revaluation is really an ethical practice. It focuses on the creation of new meaning after the breakdown of traditional meaning, allowing the individual to ‘laugh at the truth’ and ‘forge an alliance with wisdom’.

In defiance of the idea that it is the task of the wise philosopher to seek the truth, Nietzsche claims that it is not wise to seek truth. Instead he argues it is wise to give up the idea that truth can be sought after or discovered as if it is something objective or ‘out there’, a property of things which can be found or revealed to us.

This idea, I believe is truly challenging. It’s inherent scepticism forms the basis of an interesting theoretical and ethical imperative. In other words, this idea can perhaps inform us when we are trying to understand what is the right thing to do. The challenge of course is to try to avoid both objective truth and relativism. One problem with Nietzsche as an ethical thinker is that with the collapse of values, everything is relative.  So actually what we do doesn’t matter, because every thought and action is of equal value.  Clearly this isn’t the case.  For instance you may believe that it is wrong to torture and kill someone, not because your religious values say it is, but more because you have no right to make anyone else suffer.  Here, Nietzsche may ask why don’t you have the right to make anyone suffer.  Your answer may be because you have respect for the integrity of someone else’s life.  This may well actually be based on the remnants of religious sentiment (the soul etc), or it may not.

However is it the case that if we take a Nietzschean view then why shouldn’t we torture and kill? If all values are relative, why should we have any respect for life at all? Whether the intention is there or not, I see this question being dealt with in the extremely creepy Michael Haneke film Funny Games (1997) where two young men utterly without empathy kidnap and torture a family just because they can.  Similarly in the fantastic Hitchcock film Rope (1948) two young men (why is it always young men? Would women do this?) commit murder, again just because they can, but here we have some sort of rationale. They wish to exert their intellectual and social superiority (a misinterpretion of Nietzsche) and see the crime as an experiment.  In both films there is no moral anchor as all actions are conceived as relative.  However, what we could say here is that although the young men in each film are laughing at the truth, they fail to forge an alliance with wisdom. So they fail in Nietzschean terms. Nietzsche is charging us to revaluate and reinterpret our moral values but this does not mean we should have no moral values. If we are brave enough we are supposed to create our own values and delight in our ability to do so, and our ability to choose the course of our own actions and stick to it.  At the very least Nietzsche’s challenge can help us to negotiate a world without the absolutes we once had. I think that Nietzsche can help inform really tricky moral issues and I will come back to this in subsequent blogs.