Sunday, October 29, 2006

Good for the goose

It seems, as it has done for what has been the longest time, that after my education I will become a teacher. Assessing precisely what I can do about the educational experience of my charges - whether I can encourage them to become critical and responsible human beings - will be a difficult and probably forlorn task, but one best left until then. Recent experience, however, forces upon me the probably arrogant and condescending task of trying to understand the merit of regulative discourses and how to implement them. That is to say, how to force (in a sense) someone to admit that they lack knowledge.

This amounts to asking how to ensure that the other person is interested in the truth or otherwise of the argument. Or asking on what grounds can an agreement to dialectical progress be committed to. If this kind of agreement is laid down, both parties will be singularly aware of breaking their bond, and will have to admit with regret their inability to find the truth or make genuine progress.

And yes, it seems initially that I am not heeding the warning of Nietzsche, who might ask what I mean by truth, along with I'm sure many other objections. But in the notion that 'wisdom is a woman, she loves only a warrior' we might read the recognition of the necessity of regulative discourses, of condescension and oppression, of the affirmation that the intellect causes suffering and is sometimes right to do so.

So what kind of regulative discourses work? It has appeared to me that we have come to deny the reality of precisely those discourses that lead to genuine dialectic, but this is thankfully a consequence and perhaps not a necessary one. Thankfully a consequence because when we throw out babies with bathwaters we usually stop at political ideals. If the inference is drawn nonetheless to the philosophical system of dialectic, which we can then not seem to smuggle in undetected, can we show that this inference is an erroneous one - what appeal, specifically, would this involve?

I have noted that throwing open the floor and asking for comments hasn't been very useful in the past, but I'm sure my good friend News might offer up an answer?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Deal? No deal.

  An article on the subject of Deal or No Deal from Jon Ronson:
  As Noel explains to me the ins and outs of cosmic ordering, I involuntarily look dubious. Immediately, Noel changes tack to insist he hasn't gone "off with the fairies".
  "Yes, the word cosmos might sound off-putting," he says, "but you don't have to call it cosmos. Cosmos is just a word. You can call it anything you like. You can call it Argos, or MFI... I wrote to the cosmos that I would like to meet a woman who'll make me laugh and make me happy," Noel tells me. "I wrote that I'd like a relationship that's not too heavy, with an attractive lady, and I'd like her to walk into my life by the end of September 2005. And she did!"
  There is a short silence.
  "She wasn't the person who sold her story to the Sunday People back in July, was she?" I ask.
  There's another silence.
  "Yes," says Noel.

  This is a fascinating belief. Noel Edmonds is saying that if you write down a request for something, and it is positive (for example, 'I wish you would shut up, you blithering idiot' is not positive at all), you have ordered it from the cosmos. And it will come!
  The obvious reason for someone believing in Cosmic Ordering is because they are desperate. They feel low. They have taken knocks. They aren't what they once were, and want to be there again. So, it offers this hope - the hope that 'positivity' will see you through. There is nothing more in life than to be nice and wait for the rewards! The meek will inherit the cosmos.

  Then again, he doesn't quite believe in it. 'Cosmos' is just a word - it could be anything giving you what you want. Is he really saying that, when he writes down that he'd like a relationship with an attractive woman, Argos or MFI delivered it? Obviously not, because I do not think that he believes his ex-girlfriend came as a flat-pack assembly.
  It is open to question then, what he really believes. Something, whatever it is - obviously maddeningly metaphorical - responds to positivity. And it makes good things happen. Want good things and they come. It might be the cosmos delivering your order, or a mundane business, or most probably it just happens because it should. Justice for all, and for all, justice!

  The sad and sickening logical conclusion to these thoughts is that the world is just. And people get what they deserve. And all the world's poor - including the starving babies, the physically and sexually abused, the tortured, those left to die who don't get the message and go on dying for years - must not be asking for nice things.
  Therefore, they do not deserve nice things. They are not being nice.
  Furthermore, they cannot be helped. In a great and beneficent universe, they are not getting what is only a request away. Does Noel believe in charity? Is there any point, when everything is everybody's as long as they ask for it? Does he see any point in giving what he has asked for when anyone could have it, or more, if they only requested positively?
  I do not know, and I'm not sure I want to know. Either his immoral flounderings or immense perversion of logic would depress me.
  And that leads me to...
  "I simply will not get involved with people who are negative," Noel replied. "I won't tolerate people in the workplace who are negative. I like realistic people, but negative people? No. Just get rid of them."
  "I have a habit of being a bit negative sometimes," I said.   "I'd hate my wife to read Positively Happy and dump me as a result."
  "Then be careful," Noel said, looking me in the eye, "because she might."

  Let's ignore the quandary of Noel implying a brutally negative outcome while not getting involved with negative people, as it bends the brain like a pretzel. Instead - would he even be able to talk about the awful realities that went totally against his theory, as I outline above? Would he be able to face the petty and routine destructions of innocent lives without simply shouting 'negativity!' at his interlocutor? And perhaps also 'ye olde witchecrafte!'.

  Then he says, "Take Edward. Edward, I'm really not sure about. I've got a funny feeling it may go horribly wrong for Edward."
  Noel says he knows this just by the way Edward walks, by his aura. You can tell winners by the way they walk, and Edward doesn't walk this way. Yesterday, another contestant, Mark, told me that Edward needed a big win more than anyone here: "Edward's got nothing," Mark said. "Literally nothing. He's completely skint."

  Of course, this is a realistic, and not negative evaluation of Ed's chances by Mr. E. Does Noel believe in Cosmic Ordering, or Ordering from the Great and Benevolent God of Ikea, or 'winning auras'? I don't know. It is obvious that he doesn't profess, at least in this article, the wish for those who are the poorest and the most needy to get some. Hey, it might be that Edward is just a loser, who's too negative, who doesn't deserve to win. I admit, reader, that this is an unfair supposition, based on the evidence, yet there is something compelling to negative old me about this conclusion.

  To me, the most negative thing I can concieve of is Noel Edmonds and his shitty belief system. It is one that gets rid of any form of social responsibility. It gets rid of any notion of aspiration to goodness, save that of asking for nice things. We can all succeed, we can all do well, as long as we ask for it. And those who are not doing as well as us can be ignored - for they are faulty.
  This is my understanding of his Cosmic Ordering Service, an illogical and inconsistent construct of a person's material worth that is not based on evidence whatsoever. It serves to oppress the oppressed even further, because it is their negativity that is their problem - the problem lies entirely with the poor themselves. It serves to award the lucky and the priviliged, because they only ever asked for positive things. It serves to make Noel Edmonds feel good, because he can think of no-one but himself, and his own needs. Maybe we can trust the words of those who purport to have known him, those who the universe brought to him:
  Marjan Simmons, The Sunday People, August 2006: "He was a very tender and lovely kisser. When I woke up with him the following morning, I felt completely at ease and his first words were, 'Cup of tea, darling?' He was a very giving man in all aspects and satisfied me in every way. Noel had his own special song for us. It was You're Beautiful by James Blunt. But once he was back at the top he didn't need me any more. I felt he just discarded me. He was a hypocrite who used me to make himself feel more positive about himself."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The philosophical spirit and aporia

This is an extension to my other posts regarding belief, and I’d like here to address quickly the impossibility of the ‘philosophical spirit’. The ‘philosophical spirit’ is something one is said to have when impartially considering a proposed theory or fact, such that the philosopher’s own belief is suspended while the problems is worked through. This is impossible because the nature of belief is dogmatic, which is to say (as I have remarked before) that we think things are true absolutely. Belief cannot be suspended – to suspend belief is to no longer believe. When we genuinely (and I want to stress ‘genuinely’) ask whether something is true or false we have already gotten past our previous attitude about the matter; our former beliefs are thrown out.

Is impartiality possible? We might well ask: How far can we go in genuinely asking a question? It seems to me that we cannot expect to erase our beliefs about a matter completely, and our interest in a problem is a matter of degree, where the depth of philosophical inquiry - our ability to include as much reality as possible in breaking the problem open – is a process of excavating and endangering as many beliefs as we can. It is worth noting at this point that while philosophy pulls down our reality, it nonetheless always erects a new one. I’m sure that the reader will agree that any problems one may be holding in question (genuinely) come to be differently supported or rejected through this process, and so there is always real transformation occurring.

This transformation is also strikingly suggested by the act of questioning itself, where the belief is thrown out – for why does this questioning come about? On the one hand, questions seem to happen because our beliefs are rejected due to new beliefs (new conclusions). This cannot be questioning per se, since the outcome of the enquiry is a foregone conclusion – it will simply be a matter of refining the expression of these new beliefs – but it will either be a process of logically identifying other beliefs involved (which can only be found through this kind of self-conscious exercise), or attempting to understand what is involved in the refuting belief and why it worked the way it did. On the other hand, the refuting belief can be too vague, and could be considered to be all sorts of theories and ideas – this probably happens when the original belief isn’t very strong (for who throws away a strong belief for no concrete reasons?) – and the questioning is genuine because of the manifest confusion involved. Sticking my neck out slightly, I’d say that reading and understanding the philosophers, literature, the arts etc. allows for the former notion of questioning to occur smoothly, in preparation for the second – aporia.

The relationship between aporia and the so-called 'philosophical spirit' is, I suspect, that the latter is precisely the pretense of the former. The 'philosophical spirit' is held as the ideal only because we don't understand that the nature of belief makes it impossible.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Inside Plato's Cave

From The Guardian:
One of them is the journalist Kate Bevan. She says she is "completely addicted" to this hyperreal simulation. "One of the great things about the whole online thing is you can be whatever you want to be," she says. And indeed this is the lure of the 3D online digital world - the notion that you can be whoever you want to be. Your first life may be disappointing, but your second life need not be. You can change gender, be more talkative, or less, or you can have sex (I'm not yet certain how) of the kind you wouldn't dare experience in real life. In Second Life, you can visit Mars (or, rather, an edifyingly detailed simulation of the red planet). You can treat Second Life as a game, similar to earlier computer simulation games such as the Sims series, or you can treat it as a business - although, in fact, some residents are annoyed at the site's growing commercialism. But for many, it seems, Second Life is better than the real world.

"It is by engaging its users in the act of creation that Second Life provides opportunities that are not necessarily available in real life," says Donald Jones, of Georgetown University, Washington, author of I, Avatar: Constructions of Self and Place in Second Life and the Technological Imagination. In Second Life, he argues, users construct personae that are either normative or fantastical.

I have attempted to research, in the past, the desire (often called an 'addiction') to play online games. There isn't much to say about it, to be honest - the more you read about it, the less you know, as there is no real reason to play such games apart from human stupidity.
But I am constantly annoyed by the focus on 'you can re-make yourself'. Can you?
Let's think about what sort of fantasies run wild. Will a racist play out the life of a black person to test their own prejudices? Can you imagine a homophobe roleplaying homosexual relationships with an unwitting partner, just to see if their ideas about such relationships are founded in truth? It seems to me far more likely that people play such games to let their beliefs run wild, free to provoke others and have more leeway to annoy. If a man plays as a woman, folklore says that it is to get halfway through a virtual sexual act and then say, "I have a penis, and now you are a dirty gay".

There is huge freedom in these games, which people think they are exploiting. They can remake themselves in a new image. They can hang around with millions of other people. They can make money and buy designer clothes, and make a house, and invite people. They can cruise gay areas, they can make friends, they can harrass people they dislike. So many physical restrictions are lifted, such as teleportation and body transmogrification. There is less sense of legal boundaries. In many ways, moral codes are lax, as actions will not have consequences in the same way - possibility is so much more mutable in a virtual space.
The biggest freedom, though, is interpretation. Everyone can lie so freely that trust is hard to come by, and is itself suspect. Is your longstanding virtual partner really what they say they are? And this is what is missed. In the vapid talk of vast, social areas where people can be who they want to be, and everything is brilliant, the social implications themselves are being ignored. Not only are you who you want to be, you can assume freely everything about everyone else - suspicions and guardedness are in fact necessary for survival in an everchanging world.
In my view, it is this aspect of the world that is most importance. Let's stop asserting the primacy of self-determination of your avatar's image, and your own personality. Let's look at the vast flipside, which is the way each person will see others as flimsy representations of (mostly) unverifiable realities; both physical and psychological. This is where I think I have found the true reason people play these games, and the true reason why I dislike them.

In Second Life, the gap between actions and consequences are large. The gaps between actions and reasons for doing them are large. And the ability to find out true reasons is severely hampered, so everyone can have the laziest assumptions and beliefs about others and never have to question them.
All actors have immense freedom to choose how they seem, but they, as far as I have ever observed, stick to a set of values that directly comes from their real life and their actual prejudices. Racists are racist, homophobes are homophobes, political conservatives are politically conservative. If they act otherwise, it will be only to mock groups which they define themselves against. And everyone has the choice to act in a way to exacerbate these aspects of themselves - and as the corollary to see others in this way, as interpretation of others is so free and easy.
This is what has gained the reputation of internet arguments as useless. There is no evident truth. And there is no reason to reach a consensus, there are loose groups and conglomerates of people who display similar opinions who are quite free to hate each other, and to intepret other groups however they want. There is no reality in which consensus is needed, as everyone is entirely free to set up their own reality and stay there.

Second Life is better than real life because, to the people there, they can be who they want (although they seem absolutely determined in this, they play 'true to type'). And in a resolutely unreal world they can see others how they want, and belittle them how they want, and ignore them as they want. Second Life is a space where you can choose to learn nothing, just assert your values in an obnoxious way, create in-groups and out-groups, and get away from all the difficulties of the real world.
Decisions? They don't need to be made. Other people? They can't really get in the way. The chance of having to encounter other viewpoints, and make changes to yourself? Only if you really want to go that far.

Virtual spaces are great because all the problems of reality can be resolved by abolishing reality. There is no truth to observe, no need for common understandings based on this truth, and no reason not to base all your judgements on a priori assumptions. You can truly be yourself on Second Life, and stay that way forever. Because who needs to realise that they were wrong? Who needs anything to get in the way of their assumptions and beliefs? The world, it seems, would be preferable to people if their actions just did not matter, and anything was allowed, and other people paled in significance to themselves and what they thought.

Muslims covering up

Yesterday Jack Straw decided to spark the debate over the Muslim headscarf-veil combo. News reports were saturated with young Muslim women invoking the ideas that clothing is the realm of personal choice, and/or that their clothing is the expression of a moral choice, implying in both cases that it is not within the scope of politicians to place limits upon them. (Fortunately the cloth that covers the women’s faces is not mentioned in any scripture, so I didn’t have to sit and listen to chauvinistic theology).

But I want to leave all these concerns behind, and say that, with all of this as it may be, there is an issue so important that it dwarfs all discussion on the topic to date and by reflection on which alone we shall come to the most solid agreement.

Women are beautiful. This is the positive account that deserves genuine and careful thought, that it is beauty itself that is at stake here; that we are allowing beauty to be suppressed and removed from daily life. Covering up the faces of women and the shapes of their bodies – with the result that they look more like tumours than human beings – is an assault against the value of life itself. For, you see, I am convinced that it is beauty and the potential for beauty that makes life worth living, and I will argue to the ends of the Earth that it is proper that you believe this too. And by simple observation, should we accept that the meaning of life is beauty, I say that the most crucial aspect of real beauty – the beauty of women – is the most piercing and central concern of our lives.

It would constitute a very major disaster to those who love women if we should find ourselves no longer preoccupied by pretty faces and elegant movements, quirky expressions and seductive gestures. And to degrees and mixtures beyond the requirements of any banal sexuality, for it is in their subtle combination of these behaviours and others, in their delightful intelligence, charm and good nature that women are so deeply beautiful and utterly irreplaceable. To hide their hair and their skin, their shapes and very faces, is to banish elements from the most magical formulae, the discoveries of which rend our hearts from our bodies, take from us our hopes and fears and do with them we know not what, set light to our souls and bid us never to recover.

Unfortunately, as the moral arguments in favour of covering women go, it is said that it is done to avoid the sexual attention of men. And while we know that this is a chauvinistic concern about the availability to other men of a man’s property (his wife), the women on television these days seem to want to present this as a way of stepping outside of mainstream culture where women are sex-objects. We must resist this. To do away with women’s bodies because of the way pop culture treats them is akin to destroying great art simply to avoid letting idiots look at it.