Thursday, December 15, 2005

Divide THIS!

I’ve been meaning to respond to Bob Archambeau’s big post on aesthetic disinterestedness for some time now, but I find that Eric Selinger, now happily (for us) back online, has said many of the things that were rumbling inarticulately in my own mind. “Modernity is disinterest,” Bob sums himself up with relish (& risotto on the side), drawing parallels between a gesellschaftlich division of roles in the contemporary western subject (we’re loving parents at home who go to work in SUVs and pollute the environment our children will have to inhabit, we believe in all sorts of socially responsible goals, including a “freedom of speech” which allows various right-wing loonies to spread doctrines that would end up silencing everybody except right-wing loonies and putting an end to everything we hope for) and a “disinterestedness” in our aesthetic responses, where we can appreciate the fine points of Pound's spondaic line while still being good philosemitic lefties. (By the way, there’s an interesting take on this issue in the latest APR, of all places: Robert Hass’s meditation Zukofsky’s elegy for Lenin, a slightly touched-up version of the talk he gave at last year’s University of Chicago Zuk-fest – suffice it to say that Hass doesn’t allow the political naïveté of LZ’s Lenin-worship to go entirely uninterrogated.)

But I’m with Eric: I don’t buy that a theorizing of aesthetic “disinterest” – the segregation of aesthetic judgments from ethical or political judgments – started by Shaftsbury & others is the beginning of a slippery slope to ethical relativism, or self-division. As Bob puts it,
once we become divided from parts of ourselves at the level of aesthetics (where the stakes seem so low to so many people), we’re ready to become divided from other parts of ourselves, like ethics. We’re ready to treat people with the same disinterest Coleridge’s Milton treated the Cathedral, without bias regarding our personal prejudices. We’re ready to treat our own actions that way, too, without reference our own ethics (“business is business,” we tautologically opine, while doing things we wouldn’t countenance if we weren’t enabled in the divorcing of individual ethics from professional ethics).
I’ll be blunter than Reb Selinger: I’m not just “deeply skeptical” about this slippery slope (as my old philosophy professor taught me to be skeptical about every slippery slope argument) – I think it’s (as Cartman would say) Bullcrap.

It’s unconvincing (don’t take that “bullcrap” the wrong way, Bob) because the splitting-up of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Western subject is entirely overdetermined, entertwined and inter-influenced in so many directions that it seems patently reductive to point to this one aspect of division of psychic labor (yes, it all does come down to capitalism, somewhere) and premise another aspect upon it. A disinterested aesthetics is no doubt part and parcel of the ambivalent project of enlightenment (cf. here Fredric Jameson’s wonderful parsing of the “Odysseus and the Sirens” section of Adorno/Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, where – roughly – the rowers with their ears blocked correspond to the proletariat, while Odysseus is the bourgeoisie who allows himself to attend to the experience of beauty, but only by imposing upon himself the disinterest of the “aesthetic” – the cords which tie him to the mast, & prevent him from physically responding to it), but I can’t buy it as somehow a “triggering” element.

Eric somehow restrains himself at the end from quoting Winston Churchill on democracy (“the worst of all possible systems, the only problem is that none of the others is better”). It’s worth for the moment quoting Zizek on elections, if only in glancing acknowledgment of what’s going on in Iraq:
At the moment of elections, the whole hierarchical network of social relations is in a way suspended, put in parentheses; ‘society’ as an organized unity ceases to exist, it changed into a contingent collection of atomized individuals, of abstract units, and the result depends on a purely quantitative mechanism of counting, ultimately on a stochastic process…. In vain do we conceal this thoroughly ‘irrational’ character of what we call ‘formal democracy’: at the moment of an election, the society is delivered to a stochastic process. Only the acceptance of such a risk, only such a readiness to hand over one’s fate to ‘irrational’ hazard, renders ‘democracy’ possible…. It is true that democracy makes possible all sorts of manipulation, corruption, the rule of demagogy, and so on, but as soon as we eliminate the possibility of such deformations, we lose democracy itself – a net example of the Hegelian Universal which can realize itself only in impure, deformed, corrupted forms; if we want to remove these deformities and to grasp the Universal in its intact purity, we obtain its very opposite. So-called ‘real democracy’ is just another name for non-democracy… (The Sublime Object of Ideology 148)

Now where will I find the time to start thinking about Bob's "I"s?


Archambeau said...

Yow! I mean, yow! I meant to say (and thought I did say) that the whole disinterest thing is a double-edged sword. I mean, it allows us to be quite tolerant (good), but it can also allow us to justify doing things we find loathsome (bad).

As for the overdetermined nature of these things. Yeah. I hear you.

Got some good feedback via email, some making points like yours (minus the "bullcrap" bit -- which I'm trying to take the 'right' way). Will blog it when I dig out from under these exams.

Mark Scroggins said...

Sorry, Bob -- maybe a little too much late night "South Park," plus a little too much coffee...