Tag Archives: freedom

Pulp History

1 May

in which bogey attends an awards function.

Happy May Day, all. This year, being a somewhat socialist/somewhat liberal, I decided to celebrate by recalling other ditherers in Indian history. Thus, the Romantic Revolutionary

 M.N. Roy straddles both ‘internal’ challenges to liberalism in the last century: socialism and nationalism. He used each to challenge the orthodoxies of the other, constructing an elegant (if neglected) analysis of self-determination movements along the way. Roy took upon himself the unenviable task of having faith but no obedience, and the price he paid for it was being right in obscurity.

No longer, etc. Bogey to the rescue!

In other news,

This post restores the original title of my Himal essay on Indian graphic novels, and was written to acknowledge a range of people. The good folk at mylaw allow me the freedom to chronicle my obsessions. One went from sniping about Kari to adoring Kavalier & Clay (Luna Moth is my inner superhero) to prophecies of interstitial living.

 I owe a great debt of thanks, further, to Bidisha Basu (of Leaping Windows) for putting me in touch with Alok Sharma. My gratitude to Alok is, I hope, well reflected in the essay, for he put me in touch with worlds I would had no hope of grasping without him. His documentary, once it comes out, looks to be a trove of info for comics nerds, especially those who would delve deeper than more Marvel this and DC that. I also owe Sarnath Banerjee, not so much because he helped my essay along- though he did- but because he redeemed my faith in human conversation.

Roberto Paez, illustrating Don Quixote

I was supposed to ask him questions about the ‘scene’ and industry finance and such, but our conversation soon drifted off into nerdy image/text deliberations and I abandoned all my Serious Relevant questions.

We discussed, in order: Luna Moth and the naming of Phantomville; psuedo-science; vicco vajradanti; Joe Sacco, ‘his abominable Gaza book’, and sexy locations in graphics journalism; empathy in writing; Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection; King Leopold of Belgium; Lewis Carroll; relative merits of the Scott Pilgrim and Ghostworld movies; Marshall McLuhan; the accurate pronunciation of Alain Robbet-Grillet and the mysterious tendency people have of acquiring accents after six hours at the Dubai airport.

 Things we didn’t talk about (but I wish we had) are Superman’s recent rhetoric about American foreign policy and the Swamp Thing cognition experiment. If you know you aren’t ‘alive’, but retain every memory of being human, what does that make you?  Do superheroes teach us a manichean ethic of malevolence/benevolence; do they ‘sublimate a culture of victimhood to manufacture one of enterprise and liberty’?  Do they foster a blind arrogance in human capacity? In human generosity? The American Dream is sold to us across millions of panels and genres: whether you read Archie or Flaming Arrow.  (Ok, so I made that last up. But she would be a neat superhero, non?).

For all the randomness of our conversation, it was not nearly as entertaining as the one the divine Kuzhali Manickavel had with a member of the Hyderabad Graphic Novel Project. They discuss kolams and fractals, speculate on furtive inspirations behind the Matrix trilogy, and decide that the classic song ‘If you come today’  is all about quantum indeterminacy.

VT Thomas, "Toms"

The Cult of the Big Book.

24 Sep

The unfolding of the Logos introduced directionality into history

Such as do build their faith upon
The Holy Text of pike and gun
Decide all controversy by
Infallible Artillery
And prove their doctrine orthodox
By Apostolic blows and knocks
call Fire and Sword and Desolation
A godly-thorough-Reformation.

Samuel Butler.

This monster-post, inspired by the book The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch,  has been in the works for a long time. I have been reading it for an even longer time (it is not quite a book one finishes). The history he tells bursts with anecdotes, people and ideas; they combine headily during a heady time. Writing about it was intended to illustrate the principle of Fortitude, eleventh in the Tarot; that one must practice what one preaches.  Often in the reading I felt like a lone sailor lost upon a vast vessel, nipping between coasts and trading information: had the priests became pastors and wives replaced concubines? Were they likely to? Who was invading whom? Had the Habsburgs blitzed through yet?

.

Storm At Sea, Bruegel

I am caught within the wave of the large book. There are primarily two reasons people read non-fiction, discounting the obvious motive of pleasure: one is to figure out a ‘position’ to a specific question/ related set of questions (what can you do about a problem like Sarah?), the hunt-for-data; the other is to get an inkling of perspective, context, the hunt-for-the-idea (How is American Conservatism different today from 100 years ago?). I defy you to find anyone willing to undertake a book longer than 300 pages for the former cause. If polemic cannot be condensed down to that size, it has no right for exist: any heft will simply be more excuses for the opinion, all the more suspect for being disguised. Passionate manifestos, incendiary reporting, pithy histories, reasoned commentary — these are all excellent reasons to read a book, but they are limited by the demand for relevancy, this devotion to defining the conventional wisdom of the times.

The pleasures of weighty tomes are that they allow detail and deliberation to build rather than argue.  A long history, a sustained piece of philosophy, these are written with the desire to enable the fashioning of an autonomous hypothesis from the broad welter of fact.  An essayist marshals facts that suit her story, a historian marshals stories that surround her every “fact”.

McCulloch’s history, in keeping with his tradition, doesn’t short-circuit by telling you who to side with in the multifaceted debates of his chosen time: it just lays them all out, in sometimes interminable detail, within a complex web of shared relationships and assumptions. He describes events and their ripples, ideas and their diaspora, people and their migrations; all set within a narrative best described as Transylvania talking to Scotland.   He demonstrates how the same scriptures led to many forms of worship in one city even as they’re being hacked down to meet the partisan requirements of its neighbour. It is this meandering quality that makes large books, especially those that aren’t anthologies, so damnably hard to write about. They pool in the shadows and form backdrops, but are rarely showpieces. It is impossible to pinpoint what such a book made you think about, which hunches it confirmed and which it dismissed, for the journey is made between amorphous hunches and nebulous conclusions.  I don’t know what I thought about the Reformation before I read this book: I began the book because I didn’t know what to think.

I can tell you, instead, why I am reading about the Reformation. First, as devoted readers (hullo parents) know, I am interested in the ways divinity interacts with humanity.  Not very much survives the tumult of human passage, save two truths: there are ideas, and there is matter; only a very few entities may transcend both. I am fascinated by the divine as a bridge between human eras: constantly evolving, yet always retaining the core kernel of faith every religion needs to survive.

Does one trick people into believing in the power of the metaphysical; persuade, coerce, or reason? Does one contemplate or act or purify one’s way into a happy immortality? Is there an insurance policy for the family we can invest in while alive?   Religion, it is easy to forget in our era of theocrats and evangelists, is the purest free market that exists. It is a barometer of human madness, as variable and contrarian as the spirit it seeks to channel. It is the fallacy of fundamentalism and rationalism alike to imagine that religion can shape the zeitgeist, rather than be shaped by it. Slavery was legalised by Papal Rome while Dominicans in Spain were reviving jus gentium and inventing the concept of human rights.

We live in an era the most determined humans call postmodern; which is unlucky for those of us who only achieved modernity meagre decades ago. Then again, perhaps we ought to be glad to have made the goalpost when so many others are consigned to the pre-modern. In any case, I felt it was time to get to the root of the uprising, back to when modernity was first fashioned. And thus we come to the Reformation, one bridge across time in one small part of the world. Pick any modern ill you find strewn across our conversations- nationalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, fascism, colonialism, liberalism- and you will find analogues or antecedents in the Latin Reformation, that brutal, cold time in history.  So, really, my question is: why aren’t you reading 800 pages about that?

Which is my way of saying I can’t think of any earthly reason you would want to know this stuff, so I shall just plug along and hope that I am entertaining enough to reward the effort this enterprise involves. If I must have fortitude, after all, so must you. What follows is my mini-history of the Reformation, for the curious, the insane, and the bored. It’s the broad outline of an infectious revolt, beaten back here and then there but never everywhere.

My aim is to sketch how this time folds into ours: how movements born with radical visions were trapped in fresh prisons woven out of ‘purity’, patriarchy, and racial pride. The Reformation is a study in how rights can grow broader even as the communities they accrue to grow ever narrower. My perspective diverges slightly from MacCulloch’s. He observes, with a tinge of triumph, the birth of tolerance amidst all the sectarian violence. You will forgive me for being less impressed by the miracle of pluralism. As with ‘plural’ Hinduism, tactical freedom was accessible only to the elite, not the general mass of humanity, upon whom most behaviours are imposed. MacCulloch, to give him due credit, ably argues that most lives were increasingly constrained by the renewed interest everyone had in their private life and souls.  The “Reformation of Manners” had a dramatic impact on longstanding social and sexual practices, and steadily degraded the rights of women. Many Free Cities, for instance, revoked the right to female citizenship during this era, as women began to be considered legal chattel.

Patriarchy was ceasing to be a microcosm of the God’s purpose and an expression of what was considered the the natural make-up of a mechanical universe… Society, once integrated by the cosmology of humours and by Galen’s theories, with gender a continuum, was from around 1700 conceived in terms of rigidly divided opposites- especially gender. By 1800, men were told that they must exercise rigid self-control and never shed tears; women that, after all, they were not uncontrollable and lustful like Eve, just passive and gentle crybabies, to be shielded from life’s brutalities.

Church weddings and the legitimacy of children rose in importance, as every Church rushed to exert their influence among the faithful, and marriage was now seen as a necessary sacrament, a ‘holy contract’. Cohabitation and premarital sex, once encouraged by the practice of long engagements, came under much fire in this era, as the clergy discovered the pleasures of marriages and insisted everyone ought join their state of bliss. Brothels found their licenses revoked across cities (rampant and fatal syphilis probably helped that along).  In the protestant world, clerical wives replaced nuns as the apogee of a pious woman’s ambition; the brides of god had become wives of men.  The growth of nuclear families proceeded apace in these lands, and the new justification that marriage was the ‘natural state of man’ made the social stigma surrounding homosexuality worse.  The patriarchal order within the family was emphasised even by so-called humanists, who would, one might think, feel compelled to ‘humanise’ women simply to be consistent.  Not a bit of it:

A good example [of humanist scholarship] is Mary I of England’s tutor Juan Luis Vives. He wrote the popular treatise The Education of a Christian Woman, which did indeed recommend education for all women, but that thought was overwhelmed by a good deal of talk about women’s need to control their passions, battle against their weak nature and obey their husbands. Vives also made explicit a double standard in chastity: ‘human laws do not require the same chastity of the man as the woman’, he said reassuringly, ‘men have to look after many things; women only for their chastity’

Yet, for all such instances of subtly reorganised dogma, it remains a revelation to learn how inexhaustibly diverse people are, even within close confines. What could more claustrophobic than the  revealed scripture of the Only God? Yet the ruckus, once raised, took two centuries to resolve.   Some bits of this story, it must be said, are right out of the plot of Lost: consider Martin Luther stamping out of the Diet at Worms in fury, declaring the Pope to be the Devil masquerading as the Saviour (the original ‘AntiChrist’) and suggesting that the faithful ought to follow his own example, stampede the false Church, and recreate the true Church. Substitute Jack Shepherd  for Luther, John Locke for Pope, and the Island for the Church, and tell me that isn’t the final season in a nutshell. Here I stand, and I can do no other, like the man (apocryphally) said.

This being a long essay, I divided it into pages. Look below the little facebook and twitter icons below to go further.

Library Daze.

23 Jun

Every so often, I ricochet between books.  When I am not  mired in this dismal chaos, I romanticise it to anyone who will listen as the best part of this crazy writing life and what not. Utter rot.

My library wanders between zoo and carnival.

There are always some islands. Last night, one was John Gray.  Someone that defines politics as “the art of devising temporary remedies for recurring evils- a series of expedients, not a project for salvation”  is after my very soul. It is someone to trust for lucidity and humour, someone that has the enough perspective to be anti-communist and yet write, in the heyday of Fukuyama’s festivities to celebrate the end of history, this:

Ours is the era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious and soon, perhaps, Malthusian are contesting one another.. If the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but instead a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great-power rivalries, secret diplomacies, and irredentist claims and wars

I am, short to say, hooked. That he enjoys Isaiah Berlin without getting all sentimental about the man (and quotes him accurately, a rare feat in Berlin fandom. Most people, self included, mutilate his argument in pursuit of their own) is the olive in my martini. I bring him up because his essays remind me of a review I wrote during college where I inadvertently make a clever point. See if you can spot it.

Book: Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom. 

Berlin.

The Choice between Freedom and Autonomy.

I chose Raz for this assignment for two reasons: one, he makes impeccably polished arguments; second, he’s an icon in the last bastions of unadulterated white maleness. Analysing Raz from a gendered perspective, especially  something as fragile and as controversial as freedom, is an interesting challenge. I didn’t understand half the book, but I do have opinions on some of it, and they are what I shall lay out in the course of this review.

The first thing I learned with Raz is to begin resolutely skeptical. This can only be done by sternly separating the conceptual philosopher from the normative philosopher. One must prise his arguments apart, herding the premises to a place they can be assessed independent of their conclusions. As a conceptualist, Raz is flawless.  I wasn’t able to spot a single instance where he’s inconsistent, vague or obvious.  When he differentiates between consent and agreement, or between duty and obligation, his subtlety is humbling.

The normative philosopher is more yielding to my pugnacity, probably because how things should be is that much more susceptible to opinion than how (or what) things are. The normative thrust of the book is simply this: that freedom (or, rather, autonomy, which he defines as a form of responsible freedom) has moral value, and so it is a worthy goal to protect in a polity.

Raz argues that autonomous individuals are the only way a plural society can survive, as they internalise an “ideal of toleration” necessary for any modern just society. Next, Raz suggests that the “legitimate state” in a political set up has a responsibility to try ensure that this liberal utopia succeeds and actively promote it (opposed to the framework where the state interferes as little as possible to create said utopia). His argument here is ingenious: it is impossible for a state to be value neutral; all actions it takes (including inaction) will have consequences; it may as well be judged by the consequences and not what it “ought” and “ought not” do, as general notions of limited government suggest.

I have two problems with this, after an unrelenting hunt-

  • I dislike utopias (din, 2011: *retracts*)
  • I don’t understand why an already autonomous person deserves so much attention or protection from the state, when most people aren’t autonomous and that’s generally a worse situation to be in.

I realise that what Raz is saying isn’t that autonomous people should somehow be singled out, but that autonomy itself should be, that the state should try make us all autonomous. The state has been called upon to do many ambitious things in the history of jurisprudence, but the scope of that charge led me down a weird new path: moments of overwhelming pity for this forlorn creature stuck playing good-fairy to an unrepentant humanity. But I digress. What Raz means by “autonomy”, as far as I understood it, is the agency possessed by a moral actor to make unhindered choices and shape (partially) her own life. It is the ability of a person to make both long term and short term decisions from a bouquet of options. An autonomous person essentially lives the good life, they face no overwhelming compulsions that might cloud their reason or their options- say, poverty, or disease, or war, or abusive marriage.

The role of the state in all this is to enable individuals (by extension, groups) to coexist without endless dither about core moral principles. Naturally, Raz concludes, a legitimate state determines when someone’s freedom ought to be curtailed in favour of another autonomous person.

The state isn’t the final judge on this point: it lays out a system with which ordinary individuals gauge prevalent social debates to act on them with temporary certitude. Should they feel that they have a compelling reason for acting a certain way, and that reason hasn’t been adequately considered by authority, Raz would argue that the individual is perfectly justified in doing what he thinks is right.

Raz never advocates an unilateral duty of obedience. What he does emphasise is are universal “moral goods” (like keeping promises and identifying with a ‘just’ society )  that form the basis of autonomous persons’ judgement. How they are to be reconciled and acted upon he leaves to individuals.

This is his theory about autonomy.

The fourth section of the book is a theory of value for freedom(s), to enable people to rank and sort them, but that’s the bit I found unfathomable. This kind of autonomy, one which is “morally” valuable for its social benefit, is really just another variant of hegemony. It replaces the structure of law and state with cerebral conformity. I’m not denying that we’re products of society, or that we all have a moral compass — but to suggest that this moral compass is ascertainable (and, goodness, measurable!) by some universally acceptable standard is to make a mockery of freedom. Orderly living demands we be responsible with freedom- but freedom and responsibility are distinct concepts. They differ symbolically as well as consequentially.

If I am free, I am allowed to be irrational, irresponsible, disorderly- an ‘idle, steady vagabond’- as long as I accept the consequences. I am  allowed to rant and change those consequences (all consequences: moral, social, legal, and religious ones). I am expected to have goals that aren’t determined by the society I live in. I am allowed amorality.  Raz seems to suggest that because we should all be respectable gentry, it’s worth constructing a potential society where we are/can be.

Utopias are profoundly ahistoric and make for excellent propaganda, which ensures they are fertile breeding-spots for all manner of lunacy. Raz is (obviously) no lunatic, but his assumptions venture too close to illusion for comfort. Benign statehood notwithstanding, I’m fairly certain that we won’t leap from extreme exploitation to an organic commune in Cockaigne. If one is to place an ideal of freedom at the heart of politics, and on this point I am in full agreement with Raz,  it can’t be done by obfuscating individual freedom.

Freedom is an individual good,  and to be free is not to be content nor tractable (it is possible to be all three; but they aren’t nested ideas). Freedom’s value can only be gauged through its benefit/outcome: creativity. The way forward in any battle for true freedom, in my opinion, is not to intertwine freedom and responsibility but to celebrate freedom and its twin manifestations in independence and debate. We don’t need to tolerate-sanitise diversity, we need to celebrate it, and that’s the only way enough people will be free for the word to be worth a damn.

***

I am saying, in the flammable fashion of yesteryear chaos, this:

For the ideal of toleration we have inherited [from the liberal tradition] embodies two incompatible philosophies. Viewed from one side, liberal toleration is the ideal of a rational consensus on the best way of life. From the other, it is the belief that human beings can flourish in many ways of life.

If liberalism has a future, it is giving up the search for a rational consensus on the best way of life. As a consequence of mass migration, new technologies of communication and continued cultural experience, nearly all societies today contain several ways of life, with many people belonging to more than one. The liberal ideal of toleration which looks to a rational consensus on the best way of life was born in societies divided on the claims of a single way of life. It cannot show us how live together in societies that harbour many ways of life

John Gray, “Modus Vivendi”, Gray’s Anatomy

Who knew? Not me. Weighty words like “Liberal Paradox” worked far better than my flimsy freedoms in law school.

***

A List for Today .

The Magician, First of the Major Arcana in a standard Tarot deck.

Four Things Christianity inherited from Persia-

1. “The belief salvation is a type of historical event is an innovation, most likely originating around three thousand years ago with the persian prophet Zoroaster.

2. The belief that history is a battle between good and evil, and good can win derives from Zoroastrian traditions.

3. So does the belief, which is unknown in ancient Hebrew thought, in an approaching end-time”. (John Gray)

4. The word “Magi”, which in Persian meant “Priest” (Ganeev, via Dalrymple’s In Xanadu)

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