Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Some views on the dialectic

We live in a cynical world. We live in a world where debate has stopped, to any real extent. There are no ideas. There is no art. Culture is stagnant. The symbol of our times is a carcass in formaldehyde. Politically, choice is restricted to, for example, Labour or Conservative, Republican or Democrat and, like Orwell’s pigs, it is impossible to look from one to the other and tell which is which. When there is rebellion against this faceless conformity, as there has been this week in Austria, as there increasingly is in Italy, as is beginning to emerge in France and in Germany, it is looking towards that tired, hackneyed old knacker’s-yard horse, fascism, the last refuge of the hopeless, worthless and valueless. Europe beware: fascism adores a vacuum. How has it come to this? The reason – standstill. It is the logical result of the dialectic. Here’s the dadaist view:

A philosophical question: from which angle to start looking at life, god, ideas, or anything else. Everything we look at is false… The way people have of looking hurriedly at things from the opposite point of view, so as to impose their opinions, indirectly, is called dialectic, in other words, heads I win and tails you lose, dressed up to look scholarly.
Tristan Tzara. Dada manifesto, 1918

It is the dialectic which rules philosophical and political debate. It is stifling. Victory goes to the best debater, not the best argument. Options are reduced to a proposal and its antithesis. Ideas wither. And so, the surrealist view:

We are still living under the reign of logic… But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Logical ends, on the contrary, escape us.
Andre Breton. First Surrealist manifesto, 1924

It is at the interchange of politics and art, ideas and words, civilisation and culture, barbarism and learning, that the fight is being lost. The dialectic rules. I tell you, you tell me, neither listens, but the dialectic slugs it out until one of us falls bloodied to the floor and accepts (not admits) defeat. And so, the individualist view:

Our war is with words and in their every aspect… Let none make a mistake: not because men use words to deceive; not even because words incline by capacity to deception and are the natural basis of Civilisation: the inoculators of men’s powers with the debilitating serum of “Culture”; not because they can be used, and are used, as readily for ends of diplomacy as of frankness; for hiding motives as much as for revealing them, for alluring and deceiving as much as for guiding and illuminating… Since deception is the human way of the strong with the weak, the ways of culture and civilisation are the natural human way of the strong with the weak. As long as there is interplay of intelligences of unequal degrees of power, the verbal deception, which in the bulk constitutes civilisation and culture, will continue. Only a dreamer: a dunce: could seriously expect it to be otherwise.
Dora Marsden. I am, 1915

Well, there’s me, the dreamer, the dunce. I don’t believe we have to expect, or accept. Indeed, that is why we are where we are. The dialectic, as Marsden infers, relies on rhetoric. And Foucault points out:

Rhetoric is a technique of speaking which allows one to persuade others to believe in statements that may or may not be true, that the speaker herself may or may not believe.

Sound familiar? Apply to our politicians? You bet it does. Apply to our writers? Yes, but only to the extent that they still feel any compunction to persuade anyone of anything, to the extent that they consider there is a truth or that they have any role in establishing that truth. Edward McGushin, in his study of Foucault, notes:

Access to the truth [now] is secured by method and by evidence. Thus, Foucault claims that one can see in the history of philosophy a process by which the relationship between the subject and the truth is despiritualized.

I am uneasy about the word despiritualized but the essence of this is correct. The end result of two hundred years of enlightenment and rationalism (in itself a good thing) has been the worship at the altar of what Barthelme called ‘the sovereign fact’. In the dialectic, knowledge and argument and result are all. Where is there room for feeling, for empathy, for art, for beauty? And without those, where is the soul of humanity? And without those, is it any wonder that we are disconnected, that we do not know what the truth is?

What is required is for the artist to stand at the interchange and ask, not about knowledge, but about truth. What is required is for the artist to become a parrhesiast. Foucault explains:

...the parrhesiast… reveals a difference and the “possibility of a rupture” in the relationship between the speaker and listener, through the “sting of the truth” spoken.

Parrhesia is frankness, the speaking of truth. Foucault describes it thus:

In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.

Who, today, will tell us the truth? Ignore politicians: they are morally spent. Our parrhesiasts will not come from there. So in the arts? The Hirsts and Banksys printing money? The pornographers of doom like Cormac McCarthy obliterating the future in the name of their God? The lost and confused and myopic who appear to see only the worst of our own culture and the best of that of our enemies and sink into tortured ambivalence? The stylists and show ponies who mistake form for function, fine words for grand ideas? Or the moralisers whose every thought should be your thought, who know the golden way?

Until there are parrhesiasts in political life rather than self-servers, the Browns and Camerons, McCains and Obamas, who seek office as an end in itself; until there are parrhesiasts in artistic life who are prepared to articulate a vision of truth rather than make money or write pretty, there is nothing for our culture but a slide towards the nihilism which seventy years bred before a generation of fascists and will, undoubtedly, be delighted to do so again.

RG Collingwood, in his 1940 survey of fascism and Nazism, noted:

When travellers are overcome by cold, it is said, they lie down quite happily and die. They put up no fight for life. If they struggled, they would keep warm; but they no longer want to struggle. The cold in themselves takes away the will to fight against the cold around them.
This happens now and then to a civilization.

His remedy, of course, was religion. I would argue against that, but his prognosis is correct. He continues: ‘The civilization dies because the people to whom it belonged have lost faith in it. They have lost heart to keep it going. They no longer feel it as a thing of absolute value.’

How valuable do we think our civilisation is today?

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