Friday, September 21, 2007

Dead Man Walking

In my previous post I ended with the statement that, “theory and moral formation is only as good as it postures the individual towards what I can only describe at this point as death.” This is one of the only viable options I can see in the hope of genuine movement or what should be better characterized as transformation. That is, if we want to discard magical or mechanistic appeals to the Big Other or flaccid hopes of the “power within”. It should be stated at the outset that murder and suicide do not have a monopoly on the social and existential importance of “death” as I am conceiving it. More often than not murder and suicide carry with them a sense of fierce preservation or control that does not allow the movement of death.
Death is of course the ultimate movement. Because of this artists and scientists alike give it much attention. Though it should be noted their pursuits often diverge in almost opposite directions. Scientists like Ray Kurzweil pursue, with hope and substantial funding, the possibility of immortal biological life. I make no critique here of modern medicine only the observation of its relationship to the artists engagement with death. Without the aid of technology or significant capital the artist reflects on the reality of life’s movement which is the movement towards death. The Russian novelist Boris Pasternak says that art “always meditates on death and thus always creates life.” What is significant is that consistently in history artists have found currency and in fact excess in their reflection on death. It has not taken it has repaid ten-fold. It is in these spaces that openings occur and with it the possibility of transformation.
In his reflections on art Rowan Williams looks to Flannery O’Connor as one who understands death as “getting somewhere”. This notion must be treated with some care so as not to fall into a vague nihilism. The artist points to death because it is the only perspective that maintains integrity (that is not falling into one of the “false options” noted at the beginning). In a recent seminar that I sat in on we were asked to bring for the first class images of transformation. Invariably there was a point of “death” in each one that preceded some sort of qualitative shift in life (Raskolnikov’s transformation at the end of Crime and Punishment). There is no great life that does not engage death. Otherwise death always holds the upper hand in any given “system”.
Unless true dispossession of self is accounted for in theory and reflection I would hold little hope transformation. If the entirety of a particular theory remains strictly within the movement of human reason or perhaps more specifically of logic, without so much a hint as to the immanent external (and perhaps beyond), then movement remains a reshuffling.


Anonymous said...

It's an interesting issue, this:

Unless true dispossession of self is accounted for in theory and reflection I would hold little hope transformation. If the entirety of a particular theory remains strictly within the movement of human reason or perhaps more specifically of logic, without so much a hint as to the immanent external (and perhaps beyond), then movement remains a reshuffling.

I'm not sure how it has come across in our previous conversations, but, on the one hand, I may personally be making fairly modest claims in relation to potentials for transformation, in that I tend to be talking about multiplicities of potential that can be shown already to exist, if in incompletely realised form, and then trying to thematise the choices we might make among those multiplicities. It's probably the case, though, that some of the theorists whose work I interpret were trying to (from my point of view) reach much farther than their work was ever going to allow them to justify. Part of the work that I do is intended to delimit - to talk about what we can talk about with a particular kind of theory. And a kind of theory that is limited, not only with reference to the sorts of questions you're trying to open up, but that is also limited with reference to many questions that pertain much more concretely to social circumstances: it can, in my opinion, grasp some strangely systematic dimensions of a particular slice of social experience, mainly because that slice of social experience is actually a bit atypical in having a systematic character. (Please note that I cannot speak for anyone else - I may work on an unusually small slice of social experience, compared to some of the other theorists and philosophers in the broader conversation in which we're both participating. There are reasons this "slice" is interesting in recent history, but a Grand Theory of Everything isn't going to arise from an investigation of the sort I'm conducting - and I think it does damage not to recognise this explicitly in my own work.)

At the same time, though, the poverty of formal logic - the poverty of trying to capture things through a particular notion of reason that apprehends things only in their universality and in their abstraction: this is probably a core point to many of the theorists whose work I like. A great deal of critical theory is concerned with the issue of how a particular - narrow - paradigm of reason becomes dominant. Some theory that makes this kind of critique is frankly irrationalist. Other theory - the sorts of theory with which I tend to work - tries to suggest that perhaps this "instrumental" vision of reason - the flattening of the notion of reason to only one of its conceivable aspects or dimensions - is the problem, and therefore the alternative needn't be "irrational", but does need to unfold a more multifaceted vision of reason itself. (This may sound extremely opaque if you're not familiar with the philosophical or theoretical traditions that do this - I'm just trying to say that many critical theoretic traditions also begin from the critique of what they would regard as a one-sided notion of rationality. They then move through this critique in many different directions, with very different implications...)

Apologies for not having time to develop these points adequately - I have some specific writing commitments I need to meet, and I'm trying to ration my time online... ;-)

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment. I have come to greatly appreciate the care and caution that I see in your work. I still want to run head-long into the "big" questions (or at least use them to leverage a discussion). My post below had more to do with the flavour I was tasting in Now-Times' comments on change. I certainly do not see your patience as a negative aspect of your work.

Anonymous said...

Certainly no problem going for the big questions :-) I mainly worry that sometimes my vocabulary, in part because it often derives from people who are trying to do more sweeping things, gives the wrong impression of how I see my work - in particular, I worry if it comes across that I'm making judgements against what other people are trying to do. Of course, part of the point of theoretical work is to make judgements - it's just the judgements that I think my own theoretical work might entitle me to make, are much more bounded than the sorts of questions you are asking. I just want to be clear when we're on a terrain where I wouldn't try to claim any particular theoretical insight...

Very late here - apologies if this isn't very coherent... :-)