Urban poverty is common in developing countrie...
Image via Wikipedia

All attempts to listen to nature are social constructions-except one. Even the most radical postmodernist must acknowledge the distinction between physical existence and non-existence. As I have said, postmodernists accept that there is a physical substratum to the phenomenal world even if they argue about the different meanings we ascribe to it. This acknowledgment of physical existence is crucial. We can’t ascribe meaning to that which doesn’t appear. What doesn’t exist can manifest no character. Put differently, yes, the postmodernist should rightly worry about interpreting nature’s expressions. And all of us should be wary of those who claim to speak on nature’s behalf (including environmentalists who do that). But we need not doubt the simple idea that a prerequisite of expression is existence. This in turn suggests that preserving the nonhuman world-in all its diverse embodiments-must be seen by eco-critics as a fundamental good. Eco-critics must be supporters, in some fashion, of environmental preservation. Postmodernists reject the idea of a universal good. They rightly acknowledge the difficulty of identifying a common value given the multiple contexts of our value-producing activity. In fact, if there is one thing they vehemently scorn, it is the idea that there can be a value that stands above the individual contexts of human experience. Such a value would present itself as a metanarrative and, as Jean-François Lyotard has explained, postmodernism is characterized fundamentally by its “incredulity toward meta-narratives.”  Nonetheless, I can’t see how postmodern critics can do otherwise than accept the value of preserving the nonhuman world. The nonhuman is the extreme “other”; it stands in contradistinction to humans as a species. In understanding the constructed quality of human experience and the dangers of reification, postmodernism inherently advances an ethic of respecting the “other.” At the very least, respect must involve ensuring that the “other” actually continues to exist. In our day and age, this requires us to take responsibility for protecting the actuality of the nonhuman. Instead, however, we are running roughshod over the earth’s diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems. Postmodern critics should find this particularly disturbing. If they don’t, they deny their own intellectual insights and compromise their fundamental moral commitment. (Wapner 2003, online)

Here we have an interesting defense of nature, however, this argument still bothers me the same way ‘greens’ bother me.  Preserving nature is all well and good, but often that preservation comes at the expense of material conditions that could improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  For example, I am not talking about tearing down an old-growth forest so we can produce more pink mini-skirts, but rather tearing it down so we can plant more soy, or cilantro or some other food product.

Being ‘green’ is often a privileged position that requires a certain flexibility only affluence can provide.  The criticism to cutting down the old-growth forest for food production then turns to current inefficient productions: we could easily feed everyone if less meat were eaten.  I have no dispute with that argument, however, poor people are often not in the position where they can meet the ‘green’ alternative.  The greens are good about trying to change those conditions but in their cautions and delays it is the poor and not the overconsumptive that bear the costs.

Wapner makes the same error when he talks about the ‘other.’  There is no single other, instead there are others.  Wapner, however, reduces them to the same and then treats them all with the same ethic.  Applauding his consistency aside, this is too easy.  The starving child in the favela deserves more respect than the still-unkown, and hence unexpressed, flora/fauna in the rain forest.  I can get on board with Wapner in a larger criticism about the way the world is structured, but this argument only further shackles the poor as we wait for a change in that structure to happen.

This is precisely what happens in our haste to shuck the grand narratives a la Lyotard.  While I am willing to reform and accommodate, it is important to keep in mind that there are grand struggles.  I am not persuaded that postmodernity’s toolkit necessarily results in relativism resembling apathy, but I am persuaded that the toolkit is easily misapplied into a consumptive apathy.  We must constantly be on guard for this deflation of concern for the other.  One tool the system uses for that deflation is to push us into a concern for an other that cannot speak, allowing us to instead neglect the other that is not only speaking but yelling at us.

Wapner, Paul.  (2003).  Leftist criticism ofDissent, Winter.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
London, UK
Image via Wikipedia

Paul la Farge has a review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the newest issue of The Believer.  Criticized as too encyclopedic and too sadistic (the protagonist is an SS officer that killed his mother and stepfather, anally rapes his sister and enjoys his job overseeing the Lublin concentration camp) la Farge, agreeing with those sentiments, wants to find out why it is such a compelling read.

La Farge seems particularly captivated by the encyclopedic nature of the book.  Max Aue, the protagonist, is painted by la Farge more as a scanner and less person, taking in everything and remembering everything with inhumane clarity in a strategic realism– a “refusal to sort important from unimportant”. (4)

There is then a meander through Eichmann’s trials and Arendt’s reporting of the trial culminating in her Banality of Evil.  To avoid the banality of citing the banality (la Farge’s joke, not mine) he paraphrases it (well done, in my opinion) as “the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away…?” (6)  Why is this banality, this overemphasis of information over knowledge so compelling?  La Farge does not venture a guess except to cite the constitutive lack, that people are intrinsically incomplete.  This is also the reason la Farge claims The Kindly Ones is so compelling: “it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.” (8)

I do not believe la Farge is honest when he says this method is persuasive to the lazy, young or sad.  La Farge was compelled by The Kindly Ones and I doubt he would group himself into those pejorative labels.  Instead, it is quite likely that la Farge believes all people are compelled by the constitutive lack and consequently all people find the totalitarian story compelling.  This is where la Farge’s argument breaks down: psychoanalysis can reduce people’s urges to a primal cause but all people then interpret the solution to that same cause differently.

Some may be drawn to the totalitarian state and yet others may be drawn to classic auto shows while some are drawn to Furry Conventions or picking navel lint.  In a strict reduction we may appear alike but we all manifest differently.  The constituent lack does not explain why The Kindly Ones is compelling.  La Farge knows this problem exists for his argument which is why he sets out the purpose of the essay with a qualification that denies the very exigency for the purpose: “The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers[emphasis mine].  The question I want to ask is, why?”  Why does the question need to be asked if this book, like all books, is about preference?

What la Farge’s essay completely overlooks in the success of The Kindly Ones is style.  I am surprised to see this error in a post-Seinfeld world.  Jerry and George launched a sitcom about nothing.  They realized that content is irrelevant as long as the writing is good.  People want to be entertained and what they find entertaining is nearly irrelevant.  ER also provided this lesson.  Critics and producers told Michael Crichton the show was to jargon filled.  Too technical.  Crichton correctly took the chance that people were engaged not by the accuracy of a technology but by compelling characters and stories.   No content can sell and too much content can sell.  It’s all about storytelling.  La Farge spends no time talking about style.  He does, however, cite (4) a passage towards the end of the book to demonstrate his scanner theory, but the passage really demonstrates less realism and more style.  Good writing sells even if, nay especially if, we hate the protagonist.

La Farge’s essay is useful for other questions though.  His description and paraphrasing of Arendt’s banality of evil is one of the better concisions I have ever encountered.  La Farge also provides a persuasive account, not at all unlike Erich Fromm’s, of why people are drawn to submission.  There is also a nice walk through ancient Greek literature particularly the Orestes (otherwise known as The Kindly Ones.)  The best part of la Farge’s essay though is a theory about information and knowledge drawn out of Arendt’s theorizations.  Eichmann had information about the camps he oversaw but he did not know the camps.  This break is helpful when analyzing our own world for resistance to change.

For example, Easterly has recently decided to take on the critics who call poverty a human rights violation.  He claims a human rights violation is best reserved for when a victim and a perpetrator can be (easily?) identified.  Easterly then says that while he knows how bad poverty is that these calls are counterproductive.  I will admit that history is on Easterly’s side but that is only because the game is rigged.  The transcript of success can only measure immediate causes and their effects.  The larger calls which shape policies are ignored and the ‘true’ human rights violations are treated as deus ex machina.  Easterly’s criticism fails because of the information/knowledge distinction la Farge raises.  Easterly has information about the ravages of poverty but he does not know poverty.  If he knew poverty he would be more adamant about solving it if for no other reason than he would not sit in his current position en-privileged by the very poverty he wants to fight.

In conclusion I offer William Blake’s words in “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

Easterly, William.  (2009).  Aid Watch, http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/2009/06/paul_farmer_and_the_human_righ.html.

la Farge, Paul.  (2009).  A scanner darkly.  The Believer, 66, 3-8.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Scott devastates hegemonic incorporation theories based on their methodological error of collecting evidence from spurious sources.  First, secrecy and coded conduct are major resources of resistance that by their very nature are invisible in the public transcript: The goal of slaves and other subordinate groups, as they conduct their ideological and material resistance, is to escape detection; to the extent that they achieve their goal, such activities do not appear in the archives (87).  Second, what does appear about subordinates in the official, i.e. elite public transcript must not be read uncritically.  Scholars must remember that the official transcript is but a self-portrait of dominant elites (18).  The theatrical imperatives of domination, therefore, produce an official transcript that provides convincing evidence of willing, even enthusiastic complicity because disempowered people have a vested interest in avoiding any explicit display of insubordination (86).  Question-begging theories of peasant passivity to oppression will find corroborative evidence in the public record because the process of domination generates the social evidence that apparently confirm notions of hegemony (77).  It seems that scholars, as well as overseers, get hoodwinked by the performing art of the weak. (Conquergood, Dwight.  1992.  Quarterly Journal of Speech, 78. p. 89)

This passage has always concerned me because of its susceptibility for misuse by conservatives.   Why help the marginal, when they are secretly happy?  We are only looking for unhappiness to prove the liberal thesis.  Where Conquergood’s argument does not support that proposition is the difference between coding and material conditions.

Living among filth can be recoded to be beautiful and an experience-rich life.  The graffiti can be called street art and the life without a limb can be seen as special.

Urban poverty is common in developing countrie...
Image via Wikipedia

But that does not change the fear one may feel walking down the street, or that people who have lost a limb tend to have shorter lives than their more fortunate counterparts.  Conquergood does not make this conflation, but the above passage does not expose it out either.  It is this confusion that needs to be hedged against.

The movie Slumdog Millionaire makes this mistake.  The movie is a textbook of how the poor trick the rich.  Poverty appears to be merely uncomfortable and not necessarily fatal.  The real tragedy of poverty is not shown.  Instead what is shown are the coping mechanisms and even the success the two brothers have had in lifting themselves out of poverty.  This is not to say poverty is a caste system, oh wait, the movie is set in India where there is a caste system.  Again the movie provides no scrutiny of this system.  It is a fun movie to watch, very entertaining with an engaging system but I worry that movie is like watching pornography: serving a libidinal desire to see others suffer and simultaneously smile all the while saving us from the real tragedies and our responsibilities in them.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]