November 22, 2011

Milton contra Hobbes

His widow assures me that Mr. T Hobbes was not one of his acquaintance, that her husband did not like him at all, but he would acknowledge him to be a man of great parts, and a learned man. Their interests and tenets did run counter to each other vide Mr. Hobbes' Behemoth.
       -Minutes of the Life of Mr. John Milton by John Aubrey 
Well after the Authorized version of the Bible became standard issue in churches and the translation of choice for private reading, Thomas Hobbes drew a clear connection between what he described as an “anarchy of interpretations” and the political unrest that characterized the 1640s and 1650s (documented and analyzed in his Behemoth, written at behest of King Charles II in 1668), insisting that the king authorize a singular reading of Scripture, or at least install official interpreters of Scripture to monitor its meaning. Hobbes’ anxiety over competing interpretations of Scripture and the proliferation of disparate sects in mid-seventeenth century England was common among royalists. This diffuse outcome of the Reformation’s elevation of individualized authority provided conservative commentators with a clear cause behind the civil war and revolution.

At issue for Hobbes was not the availability of the vernacular Bible, but interpretation itself, which, as an outward activity, must be ordered and regulated so as not to contradict the established order of the state. As Hobbes puts it in his Leviathan, “the question [of Biblical interpretation] is not of obedience to God, but of when, and what God hath said; which to Subjects that have no supernaturall revelation, cannot be known, but by that natural reason, which guided them, for the obtaining of Peace and Justice, to obey the authority of their severall Comonwealths; that is to say, of their lawful Soveraigns.” Because he understands faith as a gift of God that “never follow[s] men’s commands,” Hobbes distinguishes it from the activity of interpretation, instead arguing that it can only be made visible through subordination to power, in accord with natural law. 

At the same time, Hobbes maintained an important distinction between internal and external behavior—shared by other Reformers including Milton— which led him to argue that internal belief cannot and should not be regulated (Rosendale 164). The difference between the positions of more radical English Reformers and that of Hobbes is that the latter privileges outward actions as the only means by which the state can ensure its peaceful conformity. Indeed, Leviathan is itself an attempt to show how the collective will of state subjects are brought into outward unity through the “artificial” representation of the sovereign ruler. Milton, by contrast, cannot easily accept this contradiction between private belief and political subjectivity, just as he cannot accept such an appeal to an ultimately allegorical model of social life. 

November 16, 2011

postmodernism remembered

Marcus A. Jansen, "Surreal" (2009)
Postmodernism was certainly an expression of the late capitalist economy. Indeed, it's rare to find this much derided period of American optimism mentioned in academic writing without a reference to Fredric Jameson, who first coined the expression ("postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism") in the mid 1980s. On many fronts, it appears that we've entered something of a new cultural moment, where contemporary anxieties over life and death have trounced the optimistic attitudes of previous decades and demystified the ideals of free play and ironic detachment which came to define an aesthetic. And yet despite our return to the "hard truths" of the Real (or as Mark Fisher describes it, "capitalist realism") following 9/11, we've carried this cultural logic still further. If we have, in fact, moved into something beyond postmodernism, it might be worth asking what's at stake in breaking from it. Jameson's point is that the denigration of meta-narratives serves an important function in the perpetuation of capitalism. In literary terms, we might say, capital continues to play the main character in a meta-narrative perhaps even more insidious than those which postmodernism had sought to upend.

Marcus Jansen's "Surreal," featured above, illustrates the tenacity but also the continued appeal of the postmodern aesthetic. It also reminds me of one of my favourite book covers: Faber and Faber's first edition of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Its cover perfectly captures the neo-noir aesthetic of Auster's postmodern detective story with its pastiche of American objects cast, along with the solitary figure, against a monochromatic backdrop. As much as I love this book, it's hard not to see a similar logic (recall Marx's explanation of the process of commodification in Capital) at work in Auster's description of the detective genre. "In the good mystery," Auster writes in City of Glass, "there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the power to be so – which amounts to the same thing…even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence." 

November 14, 2011

catholic commons (shout out)

My previous post on PJ Harvey and Walter Benjamin was the offshoot of a piece I was writing for a blog called Catholic Commons. The full article is now up, but there's plenty of other good writing to check out as well, most of it by friends and former colleagues.

November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day with Walter Benjamin and PJ Harvey

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.
~ Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Leading up to Remembrance Day, I've spent a lot of time with Let England Shake, PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning release from earlier this year. For me, it invites the kind of reflections on memory and history that were made by Walter Benjamin. Such an awareness of historical representation seems all the more necessary on a day when we are constantly met with the imperative to "remember." Much of the media recites this platitude as though the task at hand is self-evident, but I think Harvey's album, like the work of Benjamin, draws such rituals of remembrance into question. Remember how? What's at stake in such practices? How do they help construct and inform our current condition?

The celebrated war photographer Seamus Murphy shot a video for each of the album's twelve tracks. Each one is quite remarkable. I've posted several here, but I'd highly recommend searching out all of them.