‘Prison Literature: Constraints And Creativity’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay, ‘Prison Literature: Constraint and Creativity,’ is up at Three Quarks Daily.  Here is an introduction/abstract:

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll attributes “great sociological and psychological insight” to Hegel in ascribing to him the insight that “the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration” and that “where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought.”

In my essay I claim that the perspicuity of this “insight” of Hegel is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance–is populated with luminaries–Boethius, Bunyan, De Sade, Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Jean Genet etc. Here, constraint is conducive to creativity; the slamming shut of one gate is the prompt to the unlocking of another. For the prison writer, confinement may produce a search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not appropriately directed toward alternative artistic expression it can become pathologically repressed instead (as the Nietzsche of The Genealogy of Morals indicated.)

For the prison writer, freedom has changed from being a purely practical affair to one grounded in the act of writing. I explore this stance of the prison writer, its resonances with the perennial struggles of all writers, everywhere, and the truth of the claim–to which Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism and the Orwell of 1984 resonate–that those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for oppressors: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to totality. I explore this via a consideration of the relationship between repression and creativity–a general one, and the  more specific variant to be found in Nietzsche and Freud.

Goethe On The ‘Inexhaustible’ Poet

In Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm credits Goethe as having “developed the idea of man’s productivity into a central point of his philosophical thinking….all decaying cultures are characterized by the tendency for pure subjectivity, while all progressive periods try to grasp the world as it is, by one’s own subjectivity, but not as separate from it.” Fromm then cites Goethe directly on the ‘poet’:

As long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new, while his purely subjective nature has exhausted itself and ceases to have anything to say….Man knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.

The ‘purely subjective nature’ of man comes about because of a radical dissociation of man’s place in the world into a subject-object model and relationship; there is the world as object, and here is man, as subject. Man remains divorced, cast asunder; he can only view, and interact with, the world passively. It is finite, bounded, separate. When man sees the world as one of his own making, acting back on him to make him anew, he sees the world as the poet does, as one awaiting completion, because he himself is not complete; this world will, in its ongoing becoming, change him too. That ongoing, and yes, dialectical, relationship means that knowledge ceases to have limits; new depths become visible because there is no bottom here, other than that imposed by a static vision of an inert world awaiting discovery. Small wonder that Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower” and “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” The world becomes an invented one; poets–and all those who encapsulate a ‘poetic vision’ in their being in this world–are inventors.

Goethe will not be studied in philosophy reading lists as a philosopher; we will insist on pigeonholing him as ‘only a poet’ or ‘artist’ or ‘dramatist.’ But he shows us here, quite clearly, that he is a philosopher; moreover, he tells us that philosophers are poets too–when they make us see this world anew. Perhaps by offering us an ‘insight,’ perhaps by using a ‘new language’ or ‘vocabulary.’ Science too, can do the same: its equations and wondrous panoply of unobservable objects show us one way in which it may conceive of the world in an entirely new scheme.

When we step back and observe the scene before us, we realize the triviality of the distinctions and boundaries we seek to impose on our knowledge–which is but another name for all those ways in which we interact with the world and continue to conceive it for ourselves–and see instead, its unity.

John David Mabbott And Two Influential Paragraphs

In the summer of 1992, I had begun to consider the possibility of returning to graduate school–this time for a new program in study in an unfamiliar field: philosophy. I had no previous academic exposure to philosophy so I would have to begin at the ‘bottom’: by taking classes as a non-matriculate student, and then on the basis of the grades secured in those, seeking admission in a graduate program. I was not entirely decided on this course of action; much uncertainty, a reduced income, and possible unemployment lay ahead.

That same summer I traveled home to India, met my mother, told her of my plans and was gratified to find out she approved. While in India, I went rummaging through my father’s book collection and brought back a few tomes to adorn my shelves. Among them was J. D. Mabbott‘s The State and the Citizen: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. An inscription on the book’s frontispiece–in my father’s distinctive handwriting–informed me my father had bought the book in 1962 at a bookstore in Bombay. In the first section ‘From Hobbes to Hegel,’ in the first chapter ‘The Use of Authorities,’ on page 9 I came across the following passage:

The philosopher does not discover new facts. His concern is our everyday view with its common landmarks, duty, obedience, law, desire. He does not set out, as the scientist does, grasping his compass, towards lands no man has trod, nor return thence bearing strange treasures and stranger tales. He is rather to be pictured ascending the tower of some great cathedral such as was St. Stephen’s, Vienna. As he goes up the spiral stairway, the common and particular details of life, the men and tramcars, shrink to invisibility and the big landmarks shake themselves clear. Little windows open at his elbow with widening views. There is conscience; over there is duty; there is conscience again looking quite different from this new level; now he is high enough to see law and liberty from one window. And ever there haunts the vision of the summit, where there is a little room with windows all round, where he may recover his breath and see the view as a whole, and the Schottenkirche and the Palace of Justice in their true relative proportions, and where that gargoyle (determinism, was it?) which loomed in on him so menacingly at one stage in his ascent shall have shrunk to the speck that it is.

We shall be told that no one reaches the top. A philosopher who ceases to climb does so only because he gets tired; and he remains crouched against some staircase window, commanding but a dusty and one-sided view at best, obstinately proclaiming to the crowds below who do not listen, that he is at the summit and can see the whole city. That may be so. Yet the climb itself is not without merit for those whose heads can stand the height and the circling of the rising spiral; and, even at the lowest windows, one is above the smoke and can see proportions more clearly so that men and tramcars can never look quite the same again.

Once I was done reading that passage, I knew my decision to study philosophy was the correct one. I was exhilarated; I felt new adventures, new journeys, novel sights and experiences lay ahead. I had felt, just by Mabbott’s description of the philosopher’s elevation, elevated myself. No description of any academic field I had ever read before had ever captivated me so. I wanted more; I couldn’t wait to start studying philosophy seriously.

John David Mabbott remains an obscure philosopher to this day. I’ve never read anything else by him, or seen a citation to him anywhere in any philosophical text I’ve read. But without exaggeration, these two paragraphs of his rank among the most influential pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  And of course, my father, by buying his book, had made it possible for me to encounter them. Many thanks to the both of them.

Note: Needless to say, I still own The State and the Citizen–it’s falling apart but I won’t let go.

Reflections On ‘Imagined Communities’ – II: Newspaper Reading As Modern Prayer

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, New York, 2006, pp. 34-35), Benedict Anderson writes:

[T]he newspaper is merely an ‘extreme form’ of the book, a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity. Might we say: one-day best-sellers? The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing….creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (‘imagining’) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only this day, not that. The significance of this mass ceremony–Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers–is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by…others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion….the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.

The modern version of ‘mass ceremony’ that Hegel terms a ‘substitute for morning prayer’ is–I suspect, from my vantage, privileged viewpoint–the morning email/social media check-in. Coffee mug in hand, we head over to our desktops, our laptops, our smartphones, hit space bars or tap screens, and get to reattaching the umbilical cord. (Some folks have no time and energy for this ritual and never have had, even in the times that Anderson is referring to above; reading newspapers has always been a luxury of sorts.) The sense of shared community is similar to those of newspapers: as I read shared links, I’m aware that many others have done the same. I sense, of course, that there are many overlapping communities here, just because each of our social media ‘contacts’ is a node in many other social networks besides ours. (This makes for an interesting contrast from the readership of a newspaper.)

Still, my sense of participating in a common, widely dispersed ritual as I interact with my social media feed grows: interactions and notifications are soon forthcoming, informing me that my social media ‘community’ is attentive and engaged. And if a variety of links on some topic of interest soon becomes visible, presenting the varied facets and dimensions of a hotly debated issue, this feeling becomes ever more entrenched. Indeed, I might want to participate in this ‘conversation’ – a possibility not available in the older model of readers reading their newspapers in their personal spaces. Through these interactions, I am reassured my ‘imagined community’ does not just exist and participate in the ritual of the modern morning prayer like I do, but it also engages with itself, with its constituents, about the meaning and significance of the liturgies performed and the prayers chanted.

Social media interactions such as the ones I describe are often not quite as local, provincial, or national, as in Anderson’s formulation of the shared newspaper experience: my ‘imagined communities’ straddle nations.  And yet, no global community, no ‘global village,’ despite the feverish imaginings and speculations of the early net-enthusiasts has emerged; news and issues on social media still bear a distinct national imprint and are still intended, primarily, for ‘local’ consumption. The nation still reigns supreme.

Beware the Easily Defined Philosophical Term

Over the course of my philosophy career, I’ve come to realize I sometimes use technical philosophical terms without an exceedingly determinate conception of their precise meaning. But I do, however, know how to use them in a particular philosophical context that will make sense to an interlocutor–reader, discussant, student–who has a background similar to mine. (Perhaps this is all that is required with just about any word? What more could be required after all? But I digress.) Thus, I muddle through, talking about philosophy, writing on it, teaching it, debating it. Heck, I’ve made a career out of it.

A classic example of an ambiguous, yet useful and widely used term is ‘humanism.’ I made heavy use of it in the first paper I wrote in graduate school, in a paper on Marx and Feuerbach‘s views on religion. I described Marx and Feuerbach (and possibly Hegel) as humanists, referred to the Young Marx as an arch-humanist in distinguishing him from the Later ‘Das Kapital‘ Marx, and so on. Over the years though, I’ve come to sense that I don’t have a real handle on the term other than to say it refers to ‘human-centered philosophies.’ When asked to explicate that term, I launch into various examples: early Marxism, existentialism, secularism–stress its affinities–philosophical naturalism, for instance–and point to other schools of thought that employ the term, like, say, renaissance humanism. Within the context of these examples, I am then able to try to clarify what is meant by ‘human-centered.’ This past fall, when introducing students to existentialism via Sartre–besides the obvious import of the slogan that ‘(human) existence precedes (human) essence’–I stressed his claim that Sartrean existentialism is humanism because it emphasizes, centrally, the human freedom and ability to make choices. And as I’ve mentioned affinities above, it is worth mentioning humanism’s affinities with pragmatism. In particular, William James, who took ‘humanism’ to describe his pragmatism, offers us some wonderful characterizations of it:

[I]t is impossible to strip the human element out from even our most abstract theorizing

[T]o an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products.

The ambiguity of philosophical terms should not be too shocking: many philosophical terms have been employed in a wide variety of disciplinary contexts; they have extensive histories of usage and thus resist precise definition (as Nietzsche usefully pointed out a long time ago); they are used to clarify, extend, and resolve philosophical debates in more than one arena of disputation; sometimes, they are drawn from different languages and then encountered in translation; they often enjoy extensive deployment in non-philosophical contexts, and thus create ambiguities between antecedent and  current usage. Furthermore, philosophical traditions that stress conceptual analysis can sometimes exacerbate the confusion: by emphasizing necessary and sufficient conditions for usage, they risk smoothing out, by force and fiat, the rough, serrated edges of meaning that make the term as useful and ubiquitous as it has been.

A philosophical term that is all too easily defined should make us just a little suspicious about its  usefulness.

Movies on Philosophers: Rare, Hard to Make, Desirable

Having viewed the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love over the weekend, I’m struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers’ lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made–or rather, that I am aware of–haven’t exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman‘s Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.

What gives?  Have philosophers lived particularly dull lives–devoid of dramatic involvement in world affairs, the cultural history of their times, or matters of the heart? Does the philosopher’s life, supposedly all inwardly directed contemplation,  need plenty of faux external action to make it palatable for the screen? I don’t think so. Both the philosophers named above serve as immediate counterexamples to any such facile generalization. And certainly, movies on Enlightenment philosophers would make for some rather spectacular story-telling and serve as grand historical dramas as well. I suspect the problem lies elsewhere.

Most prominently, it seems to me the subject matter, while not intractably resistant to cinematic adaptation, does pose special challenges to directors, screenwriters and actors: the centerpieces of a philosopher’s life are philosophical doctrines after all, and if the movie is to do justice to that life, then the doctrines have to be woven skillfully into both the form and the content of the movie. By this I mean it is not enough that the philosopher merely mouth off a selection of the greatest lines from his oeuvre. This would be an utter disaster. The doctrines have to, instead, be shown in their historical context; the problems they tackle have to be shown to be relevant to ordinary mortals; their poetic content needs to be made visible; and their philosophical content made comprehensible by showing its resonance with larger human themes. This would be easier obviously in the case of those considered political or moral philosophers and much harder with those writing on metaphysical or epistemological themes. (I wonder how Leibnizian  or Hegelian metaphysics would be brought to the big screen; but Descartes‘ epistemological doctrines in the Meditations seem amenable to an adaptation featuring a dialog with fictional interlocutors.)

The screenwriter and director have to find a way too, to incorporate a didactic or expository flavor that doesn’t overpower the story-telling they have in mind. Jarman’s Wittgenstein was never intended as a guide to Wittgenstein’s philosophizing but the minor flirtations it engaged in in that dimension, were, I think, utter failures. In this regard, I’m curious whether Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club could serve as the basis for a cinematic introduction to the American pragmatists.

That last point leads me to cast a quick vote for a movie I’d love to see: the life and times of the brilliant, tortured and singularly unfortunate Charles Sanders Peirce. Any movie-maker willing to take that task on will have a sympathetic, thoughtful biography–that written by Joseph Brent–to draw on. I doubt any directors read this blog, but if you’re one, think about it. It’s a great story, one worth bringing to the screen.

Studying Political Philosophy via Revolutions (Well, Three of Them)

Today, I’m going to think out loud about the syllabus I’m designing for the coming fall semester’s seminar on Political Philosophy. (I’m conducting this rumination in a public forum in the hope of helping me finalize this pesky business; please do chime in with suggestions, critiques, bouquets, brickbats etc.) My class will meet twice a week–two hundred-minute classroom sessions–count for four credits, and is roughly re-describable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’ (This would clear things up considerably were it not for the fact that our department also offers Social Philosophy, which I’m told, is also redescribable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’)

In the fall, I plan to center my class’ discussions and readings on political revolutions; to use the French, American and Haitian Revolutions to introduce and illustrate  many central questions of political philosophy: the nature of political power and the state, political resistance, the rights of citizens, the nature of citizenship, the legitimacy of legal regimes, the varieties of political unions, the nature of conservatism etc. The readings then, should be a mix of contemporary polemics and retrospective evaluation.

For the French Revolution, we’ll begin with SieyesWhat is the Third Estate, then read Edmund Burke‘s classic, Reflections on The Revolution in France, followed by some yet-to-settled-on excerpts from Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution and Tocqueville‘s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, and close with Maistre‘s Considerations on France. I will probably include: some material by Robespierre and William Doyle’s A Very Short History (to start things off).

For the American Revolution, we will probably begin with excerpts from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters before reading Thomas Paine‘s The Rights of Man and Common Sense. (A new Verso edition that collects these two looks promising.) Then we’ll read some of The Federalist Papers. The current list includes 1-3, 9-10, 14-15; time permitting: 22-23, 26-27, 37, 39, 47-48; and then 84, 78, 70, 39, 51.

Having read a bit about the French and American Revolutions, we will read Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution before moving on to the Haitian Revolution. As historical background, we’ll read CLR JamesBlack Jacobins. (I’m also considering Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World.) For theoretical assessments, we’ll read excerpts from Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation (I’m inclined to think the Nesbitt’s writing is likely to present a challenge to many of my students) and Susan Buck-MorssHegel and Haiti. (I’ve just been pointed to Aristide’s edited collection of Toussaint L’ouverture‘s writings, collected in The Haitian Revolution (Verso) and will probably include selections from there.)

So: This isn’t a perfect syllabus by any means. There is possibly too much reading–but I had to leave so much out!–and too little balance. But I think it does well in providing a historically situated debate on most of the central questions of political philosophy. The writing is accessible; indeed, there are a few stylists in there (Burke,Paine, the Federalist Papers etc) so the reading assignments should be quite enjoyable. Most of the pieces are provocative with a few that have real polemical bite.

It should make for an entertaining fourteen weeks.