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On Station Eleven, Civilizational Collapse, and the PSR

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 13/05/2020 - 11:14pm in

We have been so many ways, have we not? We are blessed most of all in being alive today. We must ask ourselves, 'Why? Why were spared?'...I submit...that everything that has ever happened on this earth has happened for a reason....For it has been revealed to me that the plague of twenty years ago was just the beginning, my angels, only an initial culling of the impure, that last year's pestilence was but further preview and there will be more cullings, far more cullings to come. Emily St. John Mandel (2014) Station Eleven, 59-61 [HT Neil Levy]

Pandemics are never welcome. But the present pandemic is badly timed because the Anglophone and cultural heartland of liberal thought, which for better and for worse is the military and financial epicenter of our civilization, has been struggling with a badly bungled aftermath of a massive financial crisis that ended up reinforcing the advantages of the rich and well-connected by impoverishing state capacity and threatening the privileges and self-confidence of those that formed the bedrock of conservative majorities. These have put state power in the hands of celebrity demagogues and political adventurers with no sense of public welfare and common good, and who strategically try to entrench the politics of zero-sum, and with noxious efficiency try to reduce mutual trust in which they thrive. And so the very powers that were left standing after the cold war, are now more fragile than they have been in two centuries. 

The conceit behind Station Eleven, which has a resolutely Canadian orientation, is that a deadly pandemic, much more deadly than Covid-19, arrives in the aftermath of an "economic collapse, or so everyone called it at the time," (218); I quote from an elegiac moment, in fictional time it is supposed to resonate where we were half a decade ago, when Miranda, a shipping executive who had once been married to a famous actor (Arthur Leander), is looking at "the largest shipping fleet ever assembled...fifty miles east of Singapore Harbor" just before she receives word of the death of Arthur and the first inkling that "the fabric" of civilization would be "unravelling" for a true collapse (239). In her marriage, Miranda had been a kept woman and she sublimated her sense of isolation and entrapment with a cartoon entitled, Station Eleven. The cartoon appears in a limited edition and is the plot device that  ends up connecting the main characters of the story and the invitation to have us reflect obliquely on the meaning of the story told.  

Arthur Leander, by then a faded star, dies while performing Lear in Act 4 of Lear. He dies just as he has been asked (by Gloucester) "Dost thou know me?" And one of the very clever conceits of the novel is that the answer to that question, and the double-life between representation or acting and reality, is unfolded as we try to put the pieces together of the intersections of many lives as if they are a scrambled jigsaw puzzle with constant oblique references to the play and the cartoon. 

And just as a version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) -- "Nothing will come of nothing" -- structures the action of Lear, so, too, the PSR drives the action of Station Eleven (in addition the passage quoted above, see also p. 96) as we follow along a traveling troupe of musicians and actors (who perform Shakespeare), the so-called Travelling Symphony. And just as there are many oblique angles in the jigsaw, so the PSR has a multiplicity of meanings. For example, for some characters it entails that no moment has special standing and that "everything passes" (249). For others it is the ground for a new vision of life, such as Tyler (249, spoiler alert: "the prophet" quoted above). The vision is propelled by the explanatory demand "to know that" great suffering "happened for a reason." (259)

I read Station Eleven a month ago and it was uncanny how prescient the early pages of the book were then to the unfolding news. And while aesthetically Cormac McCarthy's The Road hangs like a shadow over the book,* and at times Station Eleven insists on making things too explicit -- "Shakespeare had lived in a plague-ridden society with no electricity and so did the Travelling Symphony"  --, there is plenty to admire in St. John Mandel's narrative. And I thought one of the (Sartre inspired) lines captures nicely what makes the present lockdown so harrowing: hell is the absence of the people you long for. (144).

The book stays far from the politics of the pre-pandemic period. A key political point exhibited is that in collapse human diversity reasserts itself; in the state of nature we are shown different kinds of social experiments in human living. At one point the narrator, who turns out to be less omniscient than one realizes, says:

Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn't go out of their way to welcome outsiders. (48)

I don't betray much when I note that in Year Twenty in addition to these towns, there there are more sinister forms of communal life and that one of the most idyllic spots of the former American midwest is a regional airport with enough tranquility and safety to develop a Museum of Civilization.

The book suggests that pandemics unsettle previous commitments about transcendence. The most unsettling new religious vision we're presented with, a veritable "death cult," originates in the grave explanatory demands of the PSR, when a boy searches for the hidden meaning behind his lucky survival "why did they die instead of us." (259; see also 260-261.) The boy's creativity is channeled into a new theology: "A new world requires new gods." (261) And, of course, this new theology will draw on familiar elements. Because in the search for meaning, there is also a desire for the safety we associate with (romanticized) childhood ("we long only for the world we born into." 302))  And I wouldn't be surprised to learn, if I am around in twenty years, that away from the current headlines a new popular religion has originated in our midst. As viruses spread death, deadly memes spread alongside them ("insanity is contagious" (261)). 

Like much of dystopian fiction (recall), Station Eleven presents us less with an image of the future and more with an oblique mirror of our times. I would betray its message if I claimed that civilizational collapse is foreseeable. In the book and, presumably, in reality collapse happens when one is making other plans. But what the history of civilizational collapse also tells us (recall here on Sallust; and more abstractly here) is that it is thinkable in advance and often occurs when the knowledge to prevent it is available yet can't be acted on. In the narrative of Station Eleven, such knowledge is lodged in the surviving plays of Shakespeare, which return from palatial theatres to the circulating knowledge of people in deserted landscapes. But it reminds us, too, that whatever may survive from us beyond collapse, may just be be mere ephemera among the interstices of the cult and culture of celebrity. 


*Unlike The Road, Station Eleven also points (throughout the action) toward a new beginning. The earliest signs will be news-reports in which the regularized "announcements of births and deaths and weddings" (263) form the bedrock. The recording of life and death presuppose community; and weddings presuppose possible offspring and property and a planning horizon in which expectations about these need to be regularized. 

Book Review: Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures by Tama Leaver, Tim Highfield and Crystal Abidin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 12/04/2020 - 6:30pm in

In Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures, Tama Leaver, Tim Highfield and Crystal Abidin elaborate on how and why Instagram has grown to become an icon that has altered understandings of visual social media cultures. Students, scholars, social media practitioners and platform users can all benefit from the book as a great introduction to how to approach and study … Continued

Roger Scruton, Roger Crisp, Pollution, and Modernity in Moral Philosophy (I)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/04/2020 - 11:31pm in

When considering Greek tragedy we observe two striking facts: first, that the tragic fault is seen as a pollution, by which others might be contaminated should it not be purged or purified; second, that the situations portrayed arouse the deepest feelings in us, without our really knowing why. Those facts did not escape the notice of Freud, of course, and he gave a contentious explanation of them. In the Greek tragedy we witness the residue of an older form of moral thinking, an archaeological stratum beneath the realm of personal choice. This older form of thinking, which anthropologists, following Mary Douglas, have called the “ethic of pollution and taboo,” sees moral faults as arising as much by contagion as by deed. It emphasizes purity and purification in sexual and familial relations; and it punishes people not by holding them liable for their actions and opening a path to contrition and forgiveness but by casting them out from the community and readmitting them only if some act of purification has changed their status. One might say that the tragic theater takes us into the hunter-gatherer cave, where things long hidden in darkness are briefly revealed, as though by a flash of lightning. The play is an exorcism, arousing fearful spirits, making them briefly visible, and then expelling them in a mystic act of purification. This revisiting of ancient terrors is a part of overcoming them, and it has its equivalent in our own tragic art, as well as our religious rituals.--Roger Scruton (2017) On Human Nature, Chapter 3, 87-88.

In my blogging, I have been unrelentingly critical of Scruton qua public philosopher. But I had never engaged with any of his books, so I figured a Pandemic would be as good a time as any to survey them independently. But a certain weariness made me opt for the shortest one I could find in my local bookshop. On Human Nature offers plenty of grounds of more criticism (not least its insidious way -- because allowing plausible deniability -- of sneaking in homophobia on p. 119), but today's post will bracket polemics. Rather, I want to use Scruton as a kind of useful exemplar of a philosophical mindset that presupposes successful moral progress associated with modernity. I use him because (i) in many ways he is a critic of modernity -- there is a reason conservatives of various stripes eulogized him so favorably --, and (ii) he is willing to use the language of pollution in his own theorizing (see, especially, chapter 4 of On Human Nature). But my diagnosis of Scruton also applies in crucial ways to philosophers that, at first blush, share very little in common with him (such as Roger Crisp). If you are the kind of philosopher whose response to experiencing Oedipus Rex is, 'I don't get the fuss, he was innocent,' I am probably also talking of you. 

Scruton treats examples of the 'ethic of pollution' even when displayed on the for us ancient, Athenian stage as a kind of prehistoric relic, "an archaeological stratum beneath the realm of personal choice." If I were a scholar of Scruton, I would be tempted to explore how Nietzschean Scruton's reading here is, with a society characterized by  law-governed, Apollonian sensibilities, being made to confront and then jointly excise a collective unconscious rooted in our breeding evolutionary history.

I am going to leave that aside. I  stipulate, by contrast, that modernity (and its cognates) itself presupposes a contrast between (a) the extended present, which is characterized by disenchantment and law-governed practices of moral accountability based on choice and (b) a distant past that involves ethic/practices centered on purity/pollution by way of contagion; (c) in which (a) has largely overcome or displaced (b). My account of modernity decouples it from a particular epoch although often people who understand themselves in light of a conception of modernity often think of it as having occurred once.  

In the sense that I am using 'modernity' here, Scruton is unabashedly modern, although unlike most moderns his views are compatible with the thought that different historical epochs instantiate modernity and that modernity may need or require elements of the pre-moderns to be worth endorsing. The more frequent position is that signs of pre-modern thought are disqualifying or grounds of debunking. Here's Roger Crisp commenting (also in 2017) on the piacular form of agent regret:

Could it really be that the nature of our current sentiments depends on the content of moralities far in the past? In fact, it is hard to see how it could not. Patterns of sentiment once established are, as Williams himself notes, hard, perhaps impossible, to uproot, and this certainly appears to have been the case with those in the western tradition involving pollution. As Mary Douglas pointed out long ago, St Paul’s attempt to characterize the Mosaic law as part of the  ‘old dispensation’ and similar moves within the early Church were unable to override the view, strongly supported by sentiment, that bodily states were relevant to ritual. Douglas focuses in particular on the idea of pollution by blood, noting that even the current Roman ritual for purification of a mother probably derives from the kind of Judaic practice outlined above (Douglas 2002, pp. 75–6).
   [Adam] Smith’s view, then, is that the apologies and assistance offered to the family of a person one has unintentionally and non-negligently killed are the modern analogue of an animal sacrifice....The special relation in question [of agent-regret] is most plausibly seen as involving a secularized version of the notion of ritual uncleanliness and pollution. And if we accept this account of the origin of our sense of the piacular in such cases, I take it that many would see it as providing the basis for a debunking argument credible enough at least to put the onus of justification on the defenders of the result-sensitive sentiments in these cases. Roger Crisp, (2017) "Moral Luck and Equality of Moral Opportunity," Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, Volume 91, p. 13

I happen to disagree with Crisp's analysis of moral luck (he cites one of my papers somewhat dismissively in a note). And, full disclosure, this post is in some sense motivated by a desire to give a kind of counter-diagnosis to his attempt to burden shift. Here I just want to call attention to the way characteristic features of modernity are on display (leaving aside the grip of Mary Douglas and Bernard Williams on Scruton and Crisp). But rather than treating the ethic of pollution as shaped by earlier stage of civilization (hunter-gathering) as Scruton does, it is now treated as a remnant of the Mosaic law. To put this with the aim of being clever: in Crisp's hands, St. Paul and the early Church try to be modern but fail, whereas the "many" today are confident in their modernity.

Now, people who exhibit modernity in the way I have diagnosed always take its existence for granted, as something obvious. They never treat it as a hypothesis worth establishing. (By contrast, I think modernity in this sense is a kind of ideology.) That's peculiar because it is possible that the ethics of pollution/purity track genuine moral phenomena or features of moral phenomenology.  

As an aside, and to signal what I am claiming, from a metaphysical point of view moral pollution/purity is less weird than, say, a personal god or  property dualism, and on par with (more controversially) the existence of persons and human rights. While, perhaps, a personal god has not survived modernity, the others have flourished just fine. Moral pollution/purity track genuine relations between people and their effects (and the causes on people) and the way people relate to the norms of the community they inhabit. 

The claim of the previous paragraph needs to be established by argument. That's for another time. But modernity would be wrong (or an ideology) if the elimination of purity/pollution means not tracking real relations. And then if modernity were true, it would be impoverished. 

That modernity, while true, is impoverished is, in fact, Scruton's position (but not Crisp's). He wants to claim that inter alia "piety, pollution, and the sacred are necessary to us." He goes on to say, "Without transgressing the ontological assumptions of liberal contractarianism, I want to restore the complete picture of the embodied moral agent, as we know this from the literature, art, and religion of our civilization." (133; one wonders who is included in 'our' here.)

Now, this post is quite long already. So, let me take stock. One can reject modernity either by denying (a), (b) or (c). Or one can show that modernity has a function in practice and thought that is, in a sense, not truth conducive (because, say, being ideological). So, in a series of pandemic-era posts, I am going to argue that we, who are reminded of the significance of contagion,  may never be modern. 


What is the Modern? Temporality, Aesthetics, and Global Melancholy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/04/2019 - 1:06am in

This talk from TORCH Global South Visiting Professor Supriya Chaudhuri will interrogate the temporality of the modern, the aesthetics of the modern, and as a somewhat cryptic afterthought, the mood of the modern, here categorized as melancholy. But it will also ask how this term travels, how it is translated between cultures, and what it means in specific contexts of use.

The terms ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’ are notorious, global itinerants, on the one hand associated with a narrative of power, and on the other with a profoundly asymmetrical reading of history, producing its own internal disjuncture through the tendency of ‘aesthetic modernity’ to deny or refuse history, and to produce a characteristic, melancholic, ‘hollowing-out’ of the world of technological modernization.

How are these terms, and the narratives associated with them, read back in contexts of translation or re-use? Professor Chaudhuri will look at some examples from 19th and 20th century India to examine how the term ‘modern’ is translated, understood, and incorporated into aesthetic and social practice.