25 March 2017

Wilde's 'Critic as Artist'

Is the artist the best critic of art? Who else is to be the proper critic of art in all its various forms? Oscar Wilde pursues these questions with intensity in his noteworthy bipartite dialogical essay, 'The Critic as Artist', published in 1891. Ernest is the interrogator of Gilbert, who enlightens Ernest about the meaning of criticism. Here a few selected excerpts:

"ERNEST:  [...] Each art must appeal primarily to the artist who works in it. His judgment will surely be the most valuable?
GILBERT: [...]   so far from its being true that the artist is the best judge of art, a really great artist can never judge of other people's work at all, and can hardly, in fact, judge of his own. That very concentration of vision that makes a man an artist, limits by its sheer intensity his faculty of fine appreciation.  [...]  Creation employs all its critical faculty within its own sphere. It may not use it in the sphere that belongs to others. It is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it."

If, then, the artist himself is not the proper critic of art, who is? Ernest had already asked beforehand:

"ERNEST. But where in this is the function of the critical spirit?
GILBERT: [...]   the contemplative life, the life that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being merely, but becoming — that is what the critical spirit can give us.  [...] To us, at any rate, the _BIOS THEORAETIKOS_ is the true ideal. From the high tower of Thought we can look out at the world. [...] The aim of art is simply to create a mood. Is such a mode of life unpractical? Ah! it is not so easy to be unpractical as the ignorant Philistine imagines. It were well for England if it were so."

'Contemplation' is a traditional translation of Greek _theoria_ (from _theorein_ 'to view, to contemplate') which, in Aristotle, is synonymous with philosophy, and in this dialogue Wilde refers both to Plato and especially Aristotle's Poetics as primary sources for his reflections on criticism, e.g.:

"GILBERT: [...]    It may be that it is as a critic of Beauty that Plato is destined to live, and that by altering the name of the sphere of his speculation we shall find a new philosophy. But Aristotle, like Goethe, deals with art primarily in its concrete manifestations, taking Tragedy, for instance, and investigating the material it uses, which is language, its subject-matter, which is life, the method by which it works, which is action, the conditions under which it reveals itself, which are those of theatric presentation, its logical structure, which is plot, and its final aesthetic appeal, which is to the sense of beauty realized through the passions of pity and awe."

Is it a question of Beauty with a capital B, of philosophical aesthetics, today? No matter. It is clear that Wilde is returning to the Greeks for orientation:

"GILBERT: [...]   For, after all, what is our primary debt to the Greeks? Simply the critical spirit."

And today? What philosophical Geist is to criticize art contemplatively? From what kind of philosophical thinking do today's artists take an orientation, if they seek a philosophical orientation at all? Don't both artists and art critics alike today orient themselves primarily within the historical trends of a particular genre? If the aim of art is "simply to create a mood", which moods of today's Zeit-Geist are the ones seeking an artistic form, and are artists at all aware of them?

"GILBERT: [...]   Creation is always behind the age. It is Criticism that leads us. The Critical Spirit and the World-Spirit are one."

Today's prevailing, barren philosophy, that proceeds from the unquestioned presupposition of the encapsulated conscious subject vis-à-vis an external objective world, is hardly resonating with the Welt-Geist and capable of providing orientation to artistic creation. On the contrary, it is itself entangled in the endless, inane ping-pong of subjective vs. objective. Is contemporary art, independently of today's impoverished philosophy, attuned to the Welt-Geist and able to creatively catch its moods? Or, lacking leadership as never before, has art lost its way too?

23 March 2017

What is phallocracy?

The time for a phenomenology of whoness is long overdue. It's not a matter of mere psychology.

Despite all the religious damnation of vanity, etc. over the centuries, this has obviously not made the least dent in the narcissistic striving to erect one's status, whose core is one's own name, out in the open and as high as possible, for the admiration, acclamation and adulation of all. Call it fame (preferably immortal), mere celebrity, or just social status and reputation, or making a name for oneself. Almost everyone is out to have his (or her) erect, standing whoness reflected esteemingly by others. Note that the erect phallus here is not the tumescent dick.

The suck-my-phallus rituals that prevail everywhere in public and private life are the core 'normal perversion' of whoness focused on by a phenomenology of whoness concerned with the existential modes in which we humans come to stand as who we are in the mutually estimating social interplay of life. Over the centuries, it is above all men who have been adept and more favourably positioned for erecting their phallic stands in the public agora which, of course, carried over to their not-so-visible private lives. As old masters, men are not about to give up their advantages in the phallic power plays.

But it is a mistake to identify phallic standingness purely and simply with being a man, and the exclusion from the power play of suck-my-phallus games with being a woman. Rather, masculinity as the phallic mode of ec-static (out-standing) existence, vis-à-vis the less conspicuous, self-effacing, diffident, even hidden existential modes of femininity, are adopted and lived out in various admixtures by both men and women. In short, there exist both feminine men and masculine women, and this circumstance demands ultimately philosophical explication (not explanation) of such ways of being.

The dance of desire around the erect phallus has been universally well-known and understood implicitly, as a matter of course, for millennia. All patriarchy partakes in it as one historical way of engaging in phallocracy. All androcracy partakes in phallocracy without, however, being identical with it. What is the difference between phallocracy and patriarchy? Under patriarchy, only men are permitted to vie with each other in the competitive dance around the phallus for who-standing. Whereas the East today remains deeply mired in extremely repressive patriarchal customs, in those Western countries in which patriarchy has lost its stranglehold through long historical politico-cultural struggles, women, too, have been more or less admitted to the phallocentric round dance, albeit without the phallus itself having become philosophically visible.

Western philosophy has never taken on the challenge of explicating phallocracy by thinking through a phenomenology of whoness (quissitas) as an existential mode of being, Instead, Western philosophy has been concerned exclusively, on its deepest metaphysico-ontological level, with thinking through whatness (quidditas, essence). This continues to apply even after Descartes' positing of the conscious ego-subject as the fundamental being. The modern subject remains, paradoxically, a what, addressed scientifically — say, in psychology — in the third person.

Modern literature's explorations of the supposedly 'inner life' of its characters, too, remain bereft of philosophical orientation with regard to the phallus. And feminism's ongoing, centuries-old struggles have yet to get the phenomena of whoness clearly in its sights. Hence it conceives itself largely as women's struggle. In a philosophical context, the first signs of whoness emerged falteringly in the nineteenth century with German dialogical philosophy that culminated in the 1920s with philosophies of you-and-I, when the concept of whoness (Wersein, Werheit) was first coined and fashioned incipiently by Heidegger, then taken up by Arendt.

It is not hard to see that and why today's academic philosophers, both male and female, who themselves dance the dance of desire around the phallus of professorial erectness, are disinclined to engage in a phenomenology of whoness. They flee the question like the plague. It would cut too close to the bone, indelicately unmasking themselves in their most secret desires and earnest strivings within departmental intrigues to establish and further their careers.

Further reading: Phänomenologie der Männlichkeit and 'Was heißt Männlichkeit?'.

17 March 2017

Vorurteil und Nachurteil

Es gibt Vorurteile und Nachurteile.
Vorurteile sind das Übliche, daß die meisten unfähig sind,
sich aus ihren eigenen verengten Blickwinkeln zu befreien.
Dagegen sind Nachturteile langsam und mit Vorsicht getroffene Urteile,
die auf langen Erfahrungen beruhen.
Wenn sie aber einmal getroffen sind, haben sie eine Festigkeit
und handeln sich gleich den Vorwurf des Vorurteils ein.
So blöd sind die Menschen -- einschließlich der Philosophen --,
daß sie zwischen Vorurteil und Nachurteil nicht unterscheiden können.

Nicht selten befreit das gewissenhafte Nachurteil vom Vorurteil.

Prejudice and postjudice

There are prejudices as well as postjudices.
The former are quite usual;
most people are incapable of freeing themselves from their own narrow perspectives.
By contrast, postjudices are those judgements,
very slowly and cautiously made,
that draw on long experience.
Once they have been made, however, postjudices have a firmness
that immediately attracts the accusation of being mere prejudices.*
Such is the stupidity of most people, including even philosophers,
that they cannot distinguish between prejudice and postjudice.

Not infrequently conscientious postjudice liberates from prejudice.

* "Hence what people call my prejudiced views of things,—which are, in fact, the exact contrary, namely, postjudiced."   John Ruskin Præterita I. vi. 174 1886.

16 March 2017

Psyche inside or outside?

Modern psychology conceives itself as the science of the human psyche. The psyche, in turn, is conceived as situated within each individual human subject. Hence the psyche is conceived as individual and internal. It is also associated intimately with the individual's brain inside the cranium. (The various occurrences of as in this piece stand for the hermeneutic As through which the world is interpreted from the ground up.) The pathology of the psyche, normally called mental illness, thus concerns the subject's individual psyche and is closely associated with malfunctions or defects of the brain. This opens the possibility for modern medicine to develop psychotropics that affect the individual's physical brain and, via this effect, affect the mentally ill patient's psychic state of mind for the better.

Even when the psyche's relationship with the individual's physical body is conceived in a more subtle, psychosomatic way, as in psychoanalysis, according to which, say, painful, repressed, unconscious memories of the patient find an expression nonetheless in physical symptoms, the psyche is still conceived as individual and as located somehow inside the patient, in the unconscious which itself is a part of encapsulated consciousness.

What if these conceptions of the human psyche are misconceptions that do not do justice to the phenomena of mind and psyche once a closer look is taken at the elementary phenomena themselves? What justifies treating the human psyche as individualized? What justifies locating the human psyche somehow inside the individual's body? What justifies relating the human psyche with the individual physical brain that even goes as far as treating the psyche as somehow efficiently caused by the brain's activity?

One main consequence of conceiving the psyche as individual is that psychopathology itself is individualized. If you're mentally ill, it's ultimately your individual problem. This holds even when psychological disturbances are conceived as resulting from the interaction of individual psyches, say, in a family 'system'. The psychotherapist's aim then is to uncover and improve interpsychic interaction among the system's members. The mentally ill individual needs to gain insight into what kind of games are being played with him or her that cause mental illness so as to regain mental health by changing the rules of psychic interplay.

But if the human psyche is individual and located somehow inside the subject, how could these individual psyches ever have anything to do with each other? That's easy, you say: They communicate with each other via language. But this move only shifts the problem: How is it possible that individuals share a language with each other through which they can communicate? To participate in any language, to learn it, the individual must be always already in the world with others from which he or she picks up the language. But picking up a language is an achievement of the individual's psyche, so it, too, must be always already in the world with others. It cannot be encapsulated inside an individual, especially not within an individual body.

Ah, you say, the individual is out there in the world via his or her physical senses which are receptive to what's happening in the world. According to current ways of thinking, however, the physical senses receive only physical sense impressions that are conveyed to the brain which interprets them as meaning this or that. How could it possibly be that such internal, individual interpretations of physical signals coincide? Through evolution, you say. How is that supposed to bridge the gulf between the individual psyche inside and the world outside? The world itself must be always already shared in some psychic way. And I don't mean the intellectually demented notion of telepathy.

What?! The psyche is always already out there in the world or even envelops the world!? And each individual human only ever partakes of this all-encompassing, shared psyche that must be conceived as openness for the world itself. This world is not merely the external, physical world taken in by the senses, but the world always already interpreted in various ways by the psyche by virtue of its originary openness that is open three-dimensionally to all that occurs at present, has occurred (memory) or will occur (expectation). Hence the world itself must not be taken as a given but conceived as taking place in the psyche, and not conversely, the psyche being conceived as taking in the world via sense perception.

Such a recasting of the psyche opens the vista on psychic disturbance that goes beyond a defective brain, the distorted perspective of a damaged individual's soul, the deformations of a dysfunctional social unit such as the family, to the hermeneutic blind spots in the psyche of an age.

In light of such an hermeneutic recasting, modern psychology would have some deep rethinking to do.

Further reading: A Question of Time, especially the chapters 'Out of your mind? Parmenides’ message' and 'Thinking in Clichés'.

14 March 2017

Individual, Egoism, Democracy

Marx writes in Zur Judenfrage (On the Jewish Question in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Paris, 1844):
"Das Menschenrecht des Privateigentums ist also das Recht, willkürlich (à son gré), ohne Beziehung auf andre Menschen, unabhängig von der Gesellschaft, sein Vermögen zu genießen und über dasselbe zu disponieren, das Recht des Eigennutzes. Jene individuelle Freiheit, wie diese Nutzanwendung derselben, bilden die Grundlage der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Sie läßt jeden Menschen im andern Menschen nicht die Verwirklichung, sondern vielmehr die Schranke seiner Freiheit finden." (MEW1:365)

English: "The human right of private property is thus the right, arbitrarily (at will), without any relation to other humans, independently of society, to enjoy his property and to dispose over it, the right of self-interest. That individual freedom, along with the exercise of it, form the foundation of civil society. It lets every human find in the other human not the realization, but rather the barrier to his freedom." (I retain the sexist language of the time)

After discussing other rights proclaimed in Article 2 of the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (i.e. the French Constitution of 1793), namely, "l'égalité, la liberté, la sûreté, la propriété" (equality, liberty, security, property), Marx concludes,

"Keines der sogenannten Menschenrechte geht also über den egoistischen Menschen hinaus, über den Menschen, wie er Mitglied der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, nämlich auf sich, auf sein Privatinteresse und seine Privatwillkür zurückgezogenes und vom Gemeinwesen abgesondertes Individuum ist." (MEW1:366)

English: "Hence none of the so-called human rights goes beyond the egoistic human, beyond the human as he is a member of civil society, namely, an individual withdrawn to himself, his private interest and his private, arbitrary will, and so separated off from the community."

According to Marx, therefore, civil society is the realm of self-interest (Eigennutz), of the "egoistic, independent individual" (MEW1:370) who is the bearer of individual human rights. On the other hand, this bourgeois human has his double and better half in the citoyen, the citizen of state, who is the "moral person" (ibid.). This doubling of the human being into bourgeois and citoyen follows Hegel's distinction between civil society as the realm of particularity in its partiality, and the state as the realm of universality, whose will is directed at the well-being of society as a whole. To participate in the life of the state, the human subject must raise himself beyond egoistic particularity to the level of the citizen concerned with the universal affairs of state.

Citizens actually take part in the universal realm of the state through the mediation of democratic institutions, first and foremost, democratic elections of the representatives to the legislative body of government, flanked by the media, one of whose main duties is to keep the citizenry well-informed on matters of government and state affairs.

Do these neat distinctions in Marx and Hegel hold water without seepage? Is human egoism to be located essentially in private property? Are the rights of private property simply self-interested without qualification? Does the human as bourgeois leave his/her egoistic interests behind when participating as a citizen in the institutions of the bourgeois-democratic state? Does the citizen have exclusively and impartially the universal interests of society as a whole in mind?

Here I mention more as an aside Marx's vision of the human as a "Gattungswesen" (species-being), achieved
"wenn der Mensch seine 'forces propres' |'eigene Kräfte'| als gesellschaftliche Kräfte erkannt und organisiert hat und daher die gesellschaftliche Kraft nicht mehr in der Gestalt der politischen Kraft von sich trennt, erst dann ist die menschliche Emanzipation vollbracht." (MEW1:370)

"when man has recognized and organized his 'own powers' as social forces and therefore no longer separates social power from himself in the form of political power, only then will human emancipation be consummated."

and focus instead on today's bourgeois-democratic society that also goes under other names, such as Western liberal, capitalist society.

Firstly, Marx is right to point out that the declarations of human rights proclaim "rights of man" understood at the time as the rights of the male human as an individual. Article 6 of the 1793 Constitution, for instance, reads:
"La liberté est le pouvoir qui appartient à l'homme de faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas aux droits d'autrui."
"Freedom is the power that belongs to man to do all that which does not interfere with the rights of others."

This formulation describes a kind of private sphere or bubble encapsulating an individual that does not overlap with the similar bubbles of other individuals and within which each individual has to right to exercise its personal powers freely at will. This accords with the notion of an individual isolated and insulated from society and community. But does such an encapsulated individual exist at all? And least of all in civil society? Doesn't the individual always already live in the world with others in various relations of interdependency, thus rendering the notion of individual, atomistic monads or capsules jostling extrinsically against each other fictitious?

The power that belongs to an individual in civil society is exercised for the sake of gain of some form, whether it be to earn income or to purchase or hire someone else's property, usually a useful everyday commodity of some kind. This requires entering into a contract with another individual who is similarly motivated. An individual power may be labour-power, whether it be skilled or unskilled, or it may be money owned by the individual in which the power inheres to rightly acquire someone else's property. The exercise of these individual powers requires that an agreement be reached between two parties in which they agree, i.e. please, and are pleased with, each other (cf. OED). This implies that, although both parties are motivated by self-interest, their agreement results in the mutually pleasing satisfaction of self-interests, thus raising their egoistic self-interests beyond themselves in a mutually beneficial exchange of powers.

These moments of agreement and mutual benefit (a.k.a. win-win situation) imply that civil society cannot be characterized purely and simply as the "sphere of egoism, of the bellum omnium contra omnes" (MEW1:356), as Marx does. A war of all against all would only be the case if the individuals exerted their powers over others either without any quid prop quo or grossly unfairly. All freedom in civil society is exercised as a play of powers of various kinds, starting with individual abilities and proceeding with the power of reified value, first and foremost in the shape of money.

The sociation of civil society is basically what Aristotle already called _synallagae_ (exchange, commutation) in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, the book that Marx drew on to formulate his infamous -- and largely misunderstood and neglected -- value-form analysis. _Synallagae_ means that the realm of civil society is essentially one of having dealings, exchanges with one another, especially, but not only, of the economic kind. Such dealings can always be viewed as a power play. To be just and fair, such exchanges must be mutually beneficial power plays. Even power plays that are vigorous power struggles may be fair, but there are also countless instances of unfair dealings with one another among the members of civil society, including within the bounds of the rule of law. Fairness in civil society always remains contestable and must often be struggled for. Even in such struggles, individual egoisms are raised beyond themselves to some kind of mutual benefit attained in an agreement that reconciles opposing, but nevertheless complementary, interests.

From this discussion I conclude that the exercise of property rights cannot be characterized as bald egoism. Furthermore, isn't it  naive to tie egoism essentially to private property ownership? Does the bourgeois individual leave his/her egoistic interests behind when donning the garb of citizen and participating in the institutions of the bourgeois-democratic state? Are citizens non-egoistic?

Even if the citizen raises him/herself above mere individual self-interest when participating in the modern democratic state, does this defuse the mass egoism of social groupings of all kinds with shared particular, partial interests that do not deserve the name of universal interests? Doesn't the consensus reached in democratic politics amount to the elevation of particular group-egoisms into a mutual agreement and concord, on a par with individuals' agreeing contractually in economic dealings within civil society? Is this the best that can be attained, presupposing that selfless altruism is not only an unrealistic ideal, a moralistic self-delusion, but not even desirable?

Are not democratic politics played out largely as power struggles among various mass-group interests that can be identified and assessed by commentators in the electoral analysis of such political power games? Do not democratic politicians fight for election by catering to the perceived mass-egoistic interests of their electoral constituencies?

Even when an entire people or nation unites politically, with a large majority, in a common cause, is this not mostly the case in a power struggle with some foreign power which may not be simply a foreign state but the 'foreign power' of foreigners that impinges upon the free exercise of citizens' powers in some way? For instance, when these foreigners want to immigrate to better their lives by exercising their powers and abilities in the domestic economy?

In short, don't both individual and mass egoism leak liberally into the political power plays of the democratic state? Isn't the contest of mass egoisms one fitting name also for liberal democracy? Even supposing ideally some kind of socialist or communist society as envisaged by Marx, don't the individual or mass interests of those engaged with organizing the affairs of a consciously sociated, socialist society continue to play out in political power struggles? Hasn't the self-delusory hermeneutic fore-casting of solely the individual bourgeois property-owner as egoistic already long since come to light and disgraced itself through the bitter 20th century historical experience of 'real, existing socialism'?  Isn't the struggle of mass egoisms a fitting name also for the very idea of democratic socialism?

Further reading: Critique of Competitive Freedom...Capital and Technology and Social Ontology.