Archive for July, 2007

The Politics of Dancing

July 23, 2007

What is politics? Is it a science? An art? A “way of being”? Really, it is all three and more. The ancients, particularly Aristotle, conceived of politics as an indivisible aspect of being human and living in a social setting. Postmodernists have taken up this idea and made politics into an essential — even all consuming — part of contemporary life.

A recent essay in The New Atlantis suggests that politics is twisted and misshaped by the discipline of political science. In grad school I spent a fair bit of time hanging around with aspiring political scientists and always felt there was something gravely wrong with their perspective. For one, they were all so smug and cynical about politics — not one of them had a sense of the value and power of ideology. In fact, ideology scared them. Beliefs scared them.

What they obsessed about was theories and, more importantly, methods. The idea that there was a method, a particular approach and understanding, one could just superimpose on a political problem or issue, seemed ridiculous to me. As a historian and philosopher of science, I’d always sit agape as people discussed the “science” of “politics” as if they were discussing a chemistry experiment. All that talk of method and no real sense of the philosophical underpinnings of it all — they even had their own unique definitions for words like “epistemology” and “ontology”.

So when I read an essay in the “public sphere” critical of political science for its poor science and even poorer politics I nod appreciatively. The author is correct, I feel, in suggesting that all the abstractions created by the discipline strangle creative inquiry and actually shift real world political ideas to a soft middle ground of rational conceits. What he doesn’t mention is the structural and institutional role of the discipline — as a breeding ground for policy analysts and government workers and as a statist and corporatist enclave that seeks little else than to provide rhetorical window dressing for the status quo. The essay I link to doesn’t go this far of course, because it can’t.

The key word here is technocrat. Most political scientists are technocrats — they are products, instruments and servants of the machine. Their ideas are rationalized, ordered, calculated, enumerated and denuded of any real humanity. The discourse they provide of politics, as the article suggests, robs it of any proper human context and, more importantly, reality. Political scientists have a definition for realism, but again, it bears little resemblance to the philosophical meaning of the word.

In sum, I think political science is of the very essence of what is problematic in the modern condition. It is a discipline without any real foundation (except in the rationalist, realpolitik Cold War political philosophies of the U.S.) driven by careerists and other number crunchers who would just as soon have everybody defer to their expertise on the subject. Little do they realize the greatest challenge to their enterprise is from outside of academia — even outside the halls of power — among people who have beliefs and values they’re strongly tied to, whether for reasons of ideology or tradition. These are people who continue to believe — rightly so — that politics is a surrogate for many of the most essential human needs, and that its nature is as diverse and multi-faceted as the human race itself. There’s no formula or method to encapsulate it either, and all the attempts to do so only further reinforce a system whose structural assumptions are gravely misguided.

Not everybody, after all, dances to the same tune.

Changes…

July 20, 2007

A slightly new look, with personalized (and appropriately lugubrious) header. Cleaner typeface, and the pictures show up better. Hope you enjoy. Real content forthcoming…I swear.

Language

July 19, 2007

Strange nostalgic thoughts brewing in my head about language, or more to the point, sounds. Today I suddenly felt as if I missed the sound of Montreal. Not Montreal proper…The sound of the city. In my current inhabitation of the academic isolation chamber I haven’t been in places to overhear much, but English certainly predominates at the coffee shops around here. This in contrast to the sound of Montreal, a cacophony at times, diverse in its tones and rhythms, yet always underlaid by the steady chirp of French.

Don’t know why I suddenly thought of this today, but now I’m hearing bits of français in my head. Stylish bits. Silly bits. Sacrilegious bits. So I’m having impromptu little conversations with myself en français. Yup, I’m starting to lose it. And just in case I felt that I’d forget it all, there’s the essential refrain — more symbolic than most realize.

Je me souviens.

Voegelin and Gnosticism

July 6, 2007

There’s been some banter on a few sites — like here and here — about Nietzsche and Gnosticism. Since most of this interpretation of Nietzchean thought is distilled from the work of the relatively obscure “political philosopher” Eric Voegelin, his ideas bear further investigation. With this notion in mind I have decided to revisit a reading of Voegelin, conveniently lying in stasis in one of my arcane tomes (err…I mean “spiraled notebooks of doom”).

In Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (1968), Voegelin sets out to explore Gnosticism (i.e. the Gnostic tendencies) in the works of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Further, he seeks to understand Gnosticism’s general relationship with the political sphere.

Voegelin takes as given some very basic conceits, assumptions that make his entire use of the word “Gnostic” questionable. One of these being the supposed Gnostic quest for immanence to become transcendence — the desire to escape the material. I’m not a Gnostic scholar, mind you, but I know this generalization is deeply problematic. Less problematic is his assertion that the Gnostic “state”, if you will, is the condition of “flungness” in an alien world. (10) The conclusions derived from this point of reference are complex, however, and difficult to summarize.

It is this quality of imbalance combined with a certain cavalier approach that is so disconcerting in Voegelin. There’s limited logical harmony in his argument, and he’s been twisted up into Gordian knots by his attempts to make sense of Gnosticism. Some of his passages are inspiring (on, for example, “the labor of salvation”) but others are merely opaque. What on earth does “analysis is concerned with the therapy of order” mean? Please. I’m less scandalized by him calling Marx an “intellectual swindler” than I am by attempts to find the influence of Gnosticism in his work. When I think of classic texts like The Eighteenth of Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), “Gnostic” is hardly the first thing that comes to mind…

Voegelin goes on to talk of Hegel, philo-sophia and Gnosis, coming up with this brilliant quote: “Philosophy springs from the love of being: it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the Gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a Gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one.” (42-3) I don’t know about you, but I think the buiding of systems is a fairly universal human form of reasoning. And as to Gnostic systems, I’m not aware there is one. But, as the saying goes, “if you build it, they will come.”

What really emerges is a picture of Gnosticism as applied political theory. Perhaps in this regard Voegelin is thinking of the Aristotelian sense of “politics”. And yet, underneath it all, what he really has in mind is a conservative Christian critique of certain aspects of political philosophy, which he wraps up in the (for him) heretical label of “Gnostic.” He speaks, for example, of the myth of the Golem and the murder of God (I guess this is where Nietzsche comes in…), issuing a warning that “in the process of self-idolization [brought about by a sense of mastery over nature] he (i.e. man) will become a demon willfully shutting himself off from God.” (60) Well, maybe, but there’s little in this that links to Gnosticism, properly understood. It is clear here that he is inspired by the totalistic qualities in Gnostic thought, seeing them as a root modernist mode comparable to fascism or totalitarianism. One can see here how the “occult roots of Nazism”, to borrow a phrase, haunt his historical conceptions. In allying Gnosticism with other totalistic systems of thought he has taken a short leap off the sheer cliff of speculation. If anything, I would argue, Gnosticism is fundamentally antithetical to hegemony in thought or action.

You can see Voegelin’s final departure from a clear definition of the idea beyond his own rhetoric when he starts talking about “Gnostic mass movements” and the growth of positivism. Again, I don’t know any Gnostic positivists, but maybe that’s just me. He comes to near histrionics when finally saying that “the will to power of the Gnostic who wants to rule the world has triumphed over…the humility of subordination to the constitution being.” (107)

All this to say that I’m less than convinced when Voegelin paints Nietzsche as a Gnostic. I think if Nietzsche was anything he was a vitalist, like his contemporary Henri Bergson in France. The two thinkers shared a lot of important commonalities. But that’s just a question of labels. As to the whole dualist/monist schism — it’s probably safe to say that these ontologies are not clearly resolvable, and that the burden of the “dynamic of dialectic” is an aspect of most creative thinkers in our era, Gnostic or not. That’s all that can be said about Voegelin in philsophical terms. The rest is just poor political science and mediocre history.

Bibliography

Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968).

Obsidian Soul

July 3, 2007

Venomous bile and dark ichor. Brewed from twisted and misshapen organs, percolating up through coarse pores to be spewed forth as hate, anger and despair. A black dog’s breakfast of mushy, messy mood. Irrational and unreasonable blackness — a burdensome weight heaved through foggy minefields of memory, pitted by blastholes of regret. The Maxim of reality unleashed, throwing a fine mist of lead/gold through thick air. Trying to dodge the bullets – disoriented, drained and flushed with frustration.

But, alas, finding the fetid field face first, drowning in malevolent miasmas, guts strewn out over the ominous skeletal branches of a nearby tree. An oak — charred and blackened, revealing a hard heart and obsidian soul…

Camping

July 1, 2007

tent.jpg

Out to Sombrio Beach on the Juan de Fuca to try out a rustic camp…Just a tent (see above) and a couple of sleeping bags. Arrived late, as the sun set, to discover there was little readily available wood. Suddenly it’s like a fight for survival…Set up and try and burn anything. In the frantic effort to be cozy the hatchet and I became acquaintances. Fatigue eventually overtook my night’s firebuilding efforts…

Awoken by a murder of crows clearly planning on offing someone. And a noise. Like the buzz of a small toy engine. Hovering just above the tent. Little aliens in very small ships? Nope. Hummingbirds. Lots of them. Confused about the big yellow intrusion into their flowery abode. Rise in the earliest morning, hummingbirds buzzing around curiously, accompanied by sullen crows and spry robins. All the camps along the beach silent, inactive. Fires dwindling from the night before. I play lazily with mine in the chill, but decide not to bother so early and head back into the tent and my warm new sleeping bag. A necessity now.

Up a couple of hours later, still early. Need to attend to survival — making breakfast and starting a fire. That morning the hatchet and I were lovers, in tune with each other. Married even. By the afternoon I’d be ready to pack it in, filing for divorce. After a warm meal, though, I was in fine form. Chopping steadily for a while, then bringing the meagre harvest to the fire, to sit in a chair warmed by the sun. This was the view…

sombriobeachbestjune302007.jpg

Decided to cut it short late in the afternoon, but only because of the threat of rain and a lack of proper gear. Next time it will be an axe, a good one, and a sleeping pad — things will be different.

Can’t wait. Camping on the beach is just plain unbelievable. Sleeping with the sound of the waves alone…


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