Archive

Affect

When I started graduate work many, many, years ago, I wanted specifically to write a project on Thucydides and Aristotle, and what they had to say about the passions, politics, and the philosophic life. What I didn’t realize at the time was how the path to this project would make an important detour through international relations theory.

I took the core IR Theory course specifically so I could fill my requirement for a minor field. It was soon clear to me that what I thought International Relations meant and how I thought about International Relations were severely underdeveloped and juvenile. The professor during that course work went on to become my PhD Supervisor. That early encouragement from him that my interests aligned with IR theory in more ways that were immediately clear to me was a pivotal moment in my education and training.

However, there was one particular moment when I could see the path forward for myself, and how to frame the problem of politics and passion that I wanted to write about. That moment was when I read Roland Bleiker’s seminal essay, “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory“.  The key point that I took away was this: Aesthetics and aesthetic representation conceal the entirety of the political problem. The movement from original thing to represented thing requires, as a matter of responsibility, a logos; it requires a reasoned and rational account of what the differences are between original and copy. Of course, this isn’t new. At the same time that I was reading Aesthetic Turn essays in IR I was also preparing a presentation on Book VI & VII of Plato’s Republic. Circumstances!

This notion of aesthetic distance concealing the political is the thread that wove together everything for me – from Aristotle’s teaching on the passions in Book 2 of his Rhetoric, to Rousseau’s teaching about masks and amour propre in Emile – and made the project that I wanted to write intelligible to an audience I wouldn’t have expected.

With all of this said, it’s wonderful to see this topic revisited so many years later by Bleiker and others in Millennium.  Here is a quote that inspired this post:

the aesthetic turn was and should continue to be about opening up thinking space…Opening up thinking space inevitably involves risks. It is to embrace creativity, and the uncertainty associated with it, over the comfort of time-honoured procedures and disciplinary conventions. It is to never stand still and to search for ever new ways of writ-ing, sensing, seeing and hearing the political.

There’s clearly an ethics, a morality, a duty upon writers, researchers, and practitioners, that is demanded by the aesthetic turn, once one is attuned to it.

Interests in Affect, Emotion, &c., eventually puts you into the orbit of some interesting literature in neuroscience.  I’m thinking especially here of the work of people like Antonio Damasio, Jonathan Mercer, and Rose McDermott.  But more interesting is the critical work on neuroscience from people like Ruth Leys, and Patricia Clough, and in a different way William Connolly.  Jan Slaby and the Critical Neuroscience project have produced some mind-bending yet spot-on philosophical critiques of the state and aims of neuroscience and politics (cf. Personhood v. Brainhood).  But none of this work really, truly, meets the challenge of neuroplasticity.  If our brain does change itself, if our biological structures are a result of our environment, then culture and politics have a much more important role than this work realizes (and anatamo- / bio- politics is even more powerful than Foucault might have anticipated).   In short, let’s listen to this interview with Norman Doidge at The Guardian.com, who is the pioneer in Neuroplasticity.

[Norman Doidge] started out as a poet and a student of philosophy, before moving into psychiatry. He authored guidelines for the practice of intensive psychotherapy, before working to integrate new discoveries in neuroscience with existing psychiatric, psychological and psychoanalytic knowledge.

In 2007, he published the best-selling book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and has just written the follow-up, The Brain’s Way of Healing.

Interview here.

From paragraph #171 of Natural Right & History, in the discussion of the mutability and immutability of natural right:

The Thomistic interpretation is connected with the view that there is a habitus of practical principles, a habitus which he call “conscience” or, more precisely, synderesis.  The very terms show that this view is alien to Aristotle; it is of Patristic origin.

“It is of Patristic origin” or perhaps, “it is of the Patristic, Origen”.  See his homilies on Ezekiel.  One cannot emphasize this point enough: the moral conscience is apparently not a Greek invention.  Is this invention the crisis of classic natural right? Is this what allows Thomas to so easily turn natural right into natural law? What about the comparison between the Nichomachean Ethics 1134b and Rhetoric 1.13.2?  To the Kuzari?  But first:

The doctrine of synderesis or of the conscience explains why natural law can always be duly promulgated to all men and hence be universally obligatory.  It is reasonable to assume these profound changes were due to the influence of belief in biblical revelation.  If this assumption should prove to be correct, one would be forced to wonder, however, whether the natural law as Thomas Aquinas understands it is natural law strictly speaking, i.e., a law knowable to the unassisted human mindto the human mind which is not illumined by divine revelation.  (p.163, emphasis not in original)

I’ll note only two circumstantial coincidences.  The Platonic chariot appears in a dialogue that occurs outside of the city walls.  Maimonides notes that the Account of the Chariot (III 6) implies an understanding of its audience as being outside the city: comparing two mean, one from a settle population and another from desert nomads, “the former knew that city people know in what state the ruler rides, [Isaiah] did not describe that state, but said only: I saw the ruler…whereas the people of Exile required these details [from Ezekiel].”  The biblical Chariot, like the Platonic one, is outside the city.  The biblical Chariot is a picture that is only possible outside of the Second Table, outside of the “minimum requirements for society” (NRH 158). The second circumstance: I usually write in this space in the dead of night, seeking the morning sun; at this moment, I am writing in the middle of the afternoon awaiting the evening dusk.

p.s. Origen postulates a parallel between Ezekiel and Christ on the basis of Luke 3:23, Matthew 3:13, and Luke 3:21. See the Scheck translation, p.32-3.

p.p.s. There are many, many, benefits to the current fashionable love for habitus, doxa, and field in my academic community. But much, much more resides on the surface of these concepts than their first impression admits. And the first impression is already powerful.

At some point, I don’t quite remember when, I began to hold the work of William James in high esteem.  My first impression of him, an impression which has yet to disappear, is that he begs us to recall a time when liberal education truly meant the freedom of the mind.  He was a philosopher who could speak to psychologists, and a psychologist who could speak to philosophers.  This outlook, such as it is a bird’s eye view of the human condition, is worth retrieving.  Before his volumes in the Library of America came into my possession I spent many hours at the indispensable William James cybrary.  I sometimes wonder – aside from the fantastic amount of talent that arrived in America after the World War Two – who, if any, are the American philosophers that might rank higher than James, especially given the scope of his expertise?  A small quote from The Moral Equivalent of War:

History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen.

Those wars were purely piratical. Pride, gold, women, slaves excitement were their only motives. In the Peloponesian war, for example, the Athenians ask the inhabitants of Melos (the island where the “Venus de Milo” was found), hitherto neutral, to own their lordship. The envoys meet, and hold a debate which Thucydides gives in full, and which, for sweet reasonableness of form, would have satisfied Matthew Arnold. “The powerful exact what they can,” said the Athenians, “and the weak grant what they must.” When the Meleans say that sooner than be slaves they will appeal to the gods, the Athenians reply, “Of the gods we believe and of men we know that, by a law of their nature, wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first to have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. So much for the gods; we have told you why we expect to stand as high in their good opinion as you.” Well, the Meleans still refused, and their town was taken. “The Athenians,” Thucydides quietly says, “thereupon put to death all who were of military age and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonized the island, sending thither five hundred settlers of their own.

Let us not forget about John Dewey…