Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The ‘Sin’ of Omission, History, and Philosophy

I picked up this afternoon, as a summer present to myself, a giant collection of fiction by Jorge Borges, who in the past year has become one of my favourite authors, especially in how I approach my shorter pieces of fiction. Thousands of ideas traversing all disciplines of knowledge animate his work, and his work inspires just as many ideas in his readers. Meditating on his work today has distilled in me the reasons for one of the only concrete, unequivocal stands I take in philosophy and art.

I have occasionally come across a philosopher who believes that the discipline’s goal is to discover ultimate universal truths through argument, and that these truths will be simple, clear, and comprehensive. I’ll omit names of those I’ve met personally, and mention one illustrative example that I’ve only read, Scott Shapiro. It’s an admirable goal, the admission and expectation that one day, philosophy will have completed its task, and in so doing, will be the greatest of all possible sciences. It will have explained all of existence in a short series of simple phrases.

It’s a beautiful dream, but an arrogant, hubristic, and ignorant dream. Consider the nature of expression, not in terms of what is meant or what is said or what is understood, but in terms of what is not said. I say a single word, for example, ‘symbol.’ Most of the time, we concentrate on that spoken word itself, and what it could mean, how we can understand it.

But when I say one word, I choose that one over all the thousands of words that I know in the languages I understand. So much of what is possible is omitted when I act. All the words that I could have said are thrown away and forgotten when I choose that one word. This enormous omission of what could have been, of possibility, of capacity, happens with each utterance of every person.

When I am silent, that is actually when I am closest to articulating those dreamy phrases that encompass all the universe, because I omit the least. In not acting, I certainly don’t omit, but I don’t say anything either. Perhaps that’s what Wittgenstein meant when he ended the Tractatus with “That of which we cannot speak, we must be silent.” There are some possibilities, some capacities, that we should not ignore and discard because of the occasional practical need to say stuff. This, I think Wittgenstein tried to say.

I don’t have Wittgenstein’s mystical leanings, but I think this is important for philosophers to consider when trying to articulate their mission statement. Every word said, every idea developed, requires the omission of all the ideas and words within our capacities apart from that one chosen. Articulating what is requires the omission of what could have been. If philosophy is to take capacity seriously, which I believe it must, then we must consider the radical finitude of all sensible statements. What is said cuts away all that could have been said. Can we really consider all that is said to be a complete picture of reality when so much is invariably omitted?

Monday, August 9, 2010

It Was So Much Easier with George W Bush

Earlier this summer, I was having coffee with an old friend of mine, and the conversation turned to American Presidents. I remember specifically when he asked me to compare George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. A few years ago, at the height of the second Iraq invasion (the ‘successful’ one), I would have put them on about the same level. But now, I’m not so sure.

Through the twisting webs of facebook, I discovered a blog post on Psychology Today written just after the Republican National Convention meeting officially ratifying John McCain and Sarah Palin as their Presidential nominees. Despite a hopelessly provocative title, the post described a high quality study of what psychological traits were most common among conservative thinkers. The study discovered paranoia, fear of death, fear of change, intolerance of ambiguous situations or answers.

It actually made a lot of sense to me. I no longer see a firm disconnect between one’s personality and one’s political beliefs. One’s political attitudes are shaped by personal thoughts about what people are, and how different groups of people interact. So the conservative thought patterns of hostility to foreigners, anti-pluralism, conformity, the retention of the status quo despite inequality, poverty, or counter-productive economics are the political articulations of these personalities.

I’ve been thinking about W lately because American conservatives today are so very different from him. When I compared W to Nixon in that conversation, I realized that W actually wasn’t so bad. He surrounded himself with advisors who brought out the worst in some of his policy positions, like the invasion of Iraq for the sake of ‘democracy.’ But W actually believed in democracy. He believed Islam was a religion of peace, having met people in his alcoholism programs who healed themselves through faith in Allah, while he chose Jesus.

And W understood that the repressive governments of the Middle East provoked the very radicalism they fought so violently. Of course, he completely screwed up any possible success he might have had, because the Iraq invasion was a ham-handed piece of political idiocy operated at almost every level by morons. But he was doing it for democracy, or at least that’s what he always believed.

What Cheney believed was another story altogehter.

W was never anti-immigrant in the racist way a lot of major conservatives are today. In a recent article on The Daily Beast, they quote W from his days as Texas governor speaking about Mexican illegal immigrants in a humanizing way. W understood that Mexican immigrants were sneaking across the border because Mexican workers are egregiously underpaid, and that jobs in the USA would bring much more income back to their families. It’s a far cry from Jan Brewer’s paranoid shrieking about invasions of Mexican coke mules onto every suburban street corner in Phoenix.

What fascinates me about W are the contradictions and paradoxes that inform his personality. He was a political idealist at the centre of a corrupt administration. He saw the good in many people, even though his campaign machine was based around polarizing Americans and provoking conflict among them. His universals were black and white, good and evil. But when you sat down to talk with him as a singular person, he listened and tried to understand.

The real tragedy is that the hateful American conservatisms on the rise are so much more poisonous and poisoned than the poster boy for twenty-first century conservatism. Enjoy your retirement, George.

Monday, August 2, 2010

There Is a Cut Under My Left Eye

Here is a story of how I got the small, but cosmetically noticeable cut under my left eye Friday night.

I was wandering home from The Brain on James North, having gotten a cab with my friend who lives in Dundas out of solidarity, even though I’m pretty sure I probably cost her extra because of Hamilton’s twisty one-way streets. I pay my share of the fare and get out at the convenience store plaza, wandering into the pizzerria because that always feels like a good idea after that much alcohol.

I’m approached by a guy in a beige leather jacket and sunglasses at night, a sign to anyone not this pathetically drunk that he was unstable, or Corey Hart, or an unstable Corey Hart. He barks at me in a mixture of Spanish and broken English. Apparently he thinks I’m someone named José, and that I’ll never get away with leaving his men in the jungle in Peru. He also says something about the Shining Path, which is enough that even I’m pretty sure I’m in trouble.

Next thing I know, we’re out in the parking lot with our left hands tied together and knives in our right hand. It’s like something out of the video for “Bad” by Michael Jackson. In fact, it’s so much like this that I’m feeling sorry for these Maoist terrorists who are still stealing all their tricks from mid-80s Michael Jackson. Some Lady Gaga would really chill these guys out, or at least give them a better fashion sense.

I know I’m no match in a knife fight for a Shining Path terrorist driven by a thirst for revenge against the traitor he thinks I am. So I did the only fair thing I could: cheated. As he lunged at my face with the knife, I jerked him forward while dropping back on my ass. I managed to throw him headfirst into the side of the dumpster, which was enough to knock him out cold. He managed to knick me under the left eye as he was sailing over my head, a shallow cut from above me.

Technically, I had still won the fight, which was enough to quiet his entourage of three other guerillas in cheesy leather jackets long enough for me to untie my hand and get my pizza. I still took the long way around the block back to my apartment. Apparently everybody, guerillas included, were still so drunk that I could get rid of any tail they might have put on me that way. I bought some polysporin Sunday afternoon to make sure it healed well, because the area was still pretty tender over Saturday.

Here’s how I really got that cut under my eye.

I was drunk and immovable sitting in the pizzerria at 2.15 in the morning, waiting for my evening-ending pizza when a fight broke out between three drunk idiots from Hess Village. One of them fell on my head, and the narrow-edged frame of my glasses was pushed down onto my face, giving me a centimetre-long incision. I still picked up that polysporin Sunday morning, though.