Here at the Rotman conference on Climate Science, Paul Edwards is talking about "knowledge infrastructures" and how the production of knowledge has radically changed over the last 20 years from a much more individualistic enterprise, with pyramids of expertise, peer review, etc to a much more distributed model. He mentioned this popular book Too Big to Know. I wonder if this sort of transition is hiting philosophy and is being fought out in the various debates about the PGR and its possible more distributed alternatives. Is this a fight about whether Philosophy should be preserving its pyramids of expertise, or be moving to more distributed model of credibiility sanctioning?
The following letter was adopted by the Northwestern University Philosophy Graduate Students by way of a vote:
As many in the philosophical community already know, sexual misconduct is a prevalent problem in the discipline. Our department is currently bearing the weight of its own controversy regarding sexual misconduct, and we fear that particular developments in the situation at our institution could have far-reaching consequences for victims elsewhere and going forward. After being accused by two different students of sexual assault, and being found responsible for sexual harassment by the university’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Office in each case, a member of our faculty responded by suing (among others) the university, one of his colleagues, and, most troubling to us, a graduate student.
While some of the legal matters await final resolution, litigation itself raises new practical and ethical considerations. Anyone named as a defendant in a legal complaint will naturally be advised by her* attorney not to discuss the matter with others. The silencing effects for a student who is sued by a professor for alleging sexual misconduct within her university's own reporting procedures must be distressing: she will likely be isolated against her will from educational, professional, and personal support networks by someone who has proven willing to sue not only her, but also those who would support her.
Many instances of sexual misconduct go unreported, in large part because the risks of reporting are many and serious while the potential gains are very slim. The risks of further loss of community, of damaging actual and potential professional relationships, of not being believed, or of being reduced to how one has been treated, rather than being perceived as an intelligent, talented, and valuable individual and member of a community, already deter victims from reporting. Add to these risks the possibility of being named in a lawsuit (and the consequent potential for financial ruin if not indemnified) as well as having personal information and details of a traumatic experience made public, and the hazards are substantially multiplied.**
The pursuit of this legal strategy and its silencing effects should be troubling to the philosophical community. Suing a graduate student for filing an internal, and otherwise confidential, sexual misconduct complaint is intolerable. If the legal strategy implemented by this faculty member is treated as acceptable, it is not only injustice to our fellow graduate student that is at stake--though this is a substantial concern in itself. The implications for victims going forward, within the profession and otherwise, are staggering. Treating such an approach as acceptable effectively amounts to accepting those implications, as well as silence for ourselves. It should be noted that even if a faculty member feels that their due process rights have been infringed upon, and even if no university grievance process is available, there are other courses of action available under, for example, Title VII and Title IX. Consequently, we feel we must vigorously repudiate this legal tactic and provide vocal support to those whose voice would be taken from them.
One necessary step to adequately supporting victims is opening up communication between administrators, faculty, and graduate students, both within departments and across them. We hope that the discipline’s internal conversation regarding sexual misconduct will continue, that it is honest yet sensitive to issues of vulnerability and power dynamics, and that we do not avoid confronting discrimination and exclusion because we are too concerned with privacy to do anything at all. When we act as if privacy concerns cannot be appropriately balanced with substantive communication, we only exacerbate the stigma that victims already feel. The fact that philosophy departments have become a central battleground for rights to non-discrimination in academic settings is a result of a collective failure on the part of our discipline, and as such will require collective action to rectify it. We hope this letter will serve as a small step towards that end.
We admire our fellow graduate student for her strength and bravery and are proud to share an intellectual home with a colleague who is both uncommonly brilliant and courageous. We stand with her, and in support of victims everywhere.
*While we are using the feminine pronoun, this is applicable to persons of any gender.
**Here, we do not mean to claim that personal information need accurately be made public. Unfortunately, whoever initiates a legal complaint has the advantage of being able to make public a narrative of events that indeed need not be accurate, or even approximately accurate, unless it is to prevail in court. When filing a motion to dismiss, a defendant does not have the opportunity to dispute matters of fact. This only underscores our concern about the impact this new precedent may have on victims.
I am currently attending this exciting conference on Climate Modeling at the Rotman Institute at Western University. I'll try to get a few posts up over the next few days about some of the highlights.
Last night was related event: a public panel meeting on Climate Change: what should we do? One of the most interesting claims made, to my mind, was by Gary Brown. He argued for the city as a good agent for social change. His basic claim was that Cities are the kinds of political entities in which positive political change is within our grasp (think of London, ON and San Francisco banning plastic water bottles, or New York City almost banning large sugarry drinks) and that once Cities speak in this sort of way, they can change the political dialog of the whole country or beyond.
On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago's Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed--among others--parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago's broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.
Later that evening I received an email from a student, who noted that the graphic nature of the reading might have been traumatic to those in my class who might have been affected by similar trauma. She asked me to provide a 'trigger warning' for the readings in future.
I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.
Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received--without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class--a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature--was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute's On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of Cormac McCarthy's The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.
We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.
As I was taken unaware by my student's email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.
Jose Saramago's Blindnessis a very funny and a very sad book. It is a very sad book because it is about a cataclysmic event--an outbreak of blindness in an unspecified place and time--and the breakdown of social and moral order that follows; it is very funny because this apocalypse of sorts provides an opportunity for the novel's author--an omnipresent narrator--to deliver an ironic, caustic, hilariously satirical black commentary on the people--unnamed ones, all of them--and the culture affected by this mysterious outbreak.
This co-existence of the tragic and the comic is what makes Blindness into a wildly entertaining and thought-provoking read.
Of course, any novel about catastrophic, apocalyptic blindness, written by a member of a species whose overpowering sensory modality is sight, which so casually dabbles in homilies like 'seeing is believing', whose metaphors for ignorance speak of darkness and for knowledge as illumination, and one of whose central philosophical allegories is that of the Prisoners in the Cave, was bound to be philosophically provocative. We, the readers, wonder about the symbolic and allegoric value of the novel's characters being 'blinded by the light', the significance of their blindness leading to a world of overpowering milky white as opposed to coal-black, the relationship between moral, physical and spiritual blindness, about what may be 'seen' by those now blind, and what those who are not blind can no longer 'see', about what else, in a world no longer visible, becomes palpable and sensed and otherwise experienced. We wonder too, as readers, about our own blindness: what we might be blind to in the book and in our daily lives. (My first class meeting on Blindness was almost entirely taken up with a discussion of these issues and how the vehicle of blindness played into the author's larger political, ethical, and artistic vision; oops, can't stop dealing in these metaphors.)
In Blindness, there is ample description of the breakdown of social order that results from the epidemic of blindness, ample opportunity to shake one's head at the venality of man that becomes visible in desperate times--there is violence, filth, murder, sexual degradation. What makes these treatments of the aftermath of disaster distinctive is that Saramago's treatment is both kind and harsh: we sense an observer of the human condition whose heart breaks for the misery he can see around him, who feels the most exalted of human emotions, love, for those who suffer, and who yet, in moments of exasperation, cannot resist a cackle or two at the stupidity, crassness, and greed of the human race. But if the author is a cynic, one bursting to the seams with irony and witticism, then he didn't start out that way. This world and its peoples made him so. The disaster that has befallen them is not a punishment; it is not a judgment; it is merely an inexplicable event, like the ones this world specializes in, one that has produced this opportunity to carefully study, in some painful and revealing detail, the imperfect reactions of a kind of creature who is always, at the best of times, fumbling in the dark.
The academic literature on republicanism, in my experience, largely assumes one major distinction between kinds of republicanism. As I did not do conduct a major literature review just recently on the issue, I may have missed something, but it seems safe to say that the distinction I am getting onto is well established. That is the distinction between Roman and Athenian republicanism, with the two big names in the field, Philip Pettit and Hannah Arendt lined up on either side.
There are other distinctions between Pettit and Arendt, in the ways they approach political thouht but I will leave those aside here. In terms of general political thought, Pettit has a more individualised and reductive approach to rights, while Arendt refers to a lived experience of the political side of humanity. Pettit's 'Romanism' is indeed a claim to avoid the supposed denial of individuality and the right to be free from the political sphere, apparently inherent in 'Athenianism'. Arendt's 'Athenianism' is a claim to deal with the role that politics has in the life of humanity, which can never just be 'social', so lacking the competition for power in a public space. There are ways we might try to equate those with differences in political position with regard to issues other than pure political structures, but I do not believes that those really work out and that is again something I leave aside.
Pettit's approach also tends to lay claim to at least part of the Florentine republican tradition, particularly with regard to Machiavelli, and then to an Atlantic tradition extending through Dutch, English, and American Revolutions along with the associated literature. In this understanding, Arendt is left with an Athenian republicanism, which tends to resurface in moments of obviously destructive intensification of a violent political will in the Terror aspect of the French Revolution, and later attempts at radical politicisation of all human society. I don't think Pettit accuses Arendt of being a Jacobin fanatic, but he uses oppositions which leave her under suspicion of some degree of complicity with such a mentality.
Arendt was herself happy to suggest a deep split between Athenian and Roman republicanism, in which the Athenians had some insight into the heart of political humanity, while the Romans retreated in legal formalism, in which society has a less political existence. However, on the whole her thought does not seem to be against individual rights and a legal framework. There is some considerable degree of variety in the ways of taking Arendt politically, but I do not think anyone claims she advocated Revolutionary Terror or was unimpressed by the duration of the American constitutional experiment.
Looking at examples of liberal writing on ancient republics, Benjamin Constant put forward Athens as an example of a relative degree of individual liberty and commercial spirit in antiquity, and therefore the most acceptable example of liberty of the ancients for an advocate of th liberty of the moderns. That is the intense political life and intrusive demands for 'virtue' in antique republics had some mitigation in Athens, because of its more 'modern' aspects of individuality and a contractual market society. Sparta could be said to be more Roman than Athens, with its emphasis on the absoluteness of laws and the separation of powers between public bodies, rather than the exercise of a unified popular political will, but does not fit with what Pettit wants from a model republic.
Montesquieu is maybe closer to Pettit's assumptions than Constant was, as he was clearly suspicious of the demands of ancient republics on individuals, which he compares with those of a religious community. The problem there is that Montesquieu does not exactly go for a Roman model, as he sees Rome as moving from oppressively virtuous early republic to corrupted republic, and expresses preference for the commercial trading republic of the Carthaginians. Even more significantly, Montesquieu was an enthusiast for Gothic liberty, as in the liberty of German tribes living in the forests of northern Europe during the peak of the Roman Empire. In Montesquieu's time those tribes were understood as simple republics in which any prince was a war leader and judge only, elected by the people. There is an idealisation of the German forest tribes going back to Tacitus' use of them as reminders of early Roman liberty and virtue in the time of the corrupting emperor system.
So Montesquieu's understanding of liberty free from the seminarian constraints of antique republics is a monarchy, particularly the French monarchy stretching back to the Germanic Frank Clovis, which incorporates a Gothic liberty from the ancient teutonic forests. That form of primordial republican liberty is incorporated into the honour and cultivated individualism, of modern monarchy with the assistance of revived Roman law. At this point, we may be back with Pettit's Roman republicanism, but with the encumbrance of Germanic republicanism and hereditary or at least aristocratic dominated offices that defend law and liberty. Montesquieu's account is notoriously difficult to sort out, but has distinct resemblance with Vico's understanding of 'human monarchy', and is along with Vico part of a way of fusing monarchism and republicanism, or fusing violent primitive liberty with laws and moderating institutions.
Germanic and Carthaginian republicanism deserve a place in thought about types of republicanism, at last where any kind of historical (or genealogical) approach to political concepts is in play. The example of Sparta rally ought to be considered in relation to Rome as many have done so since Polybius. There are other historically significant examples, but that will have to wait for another time, but Sparta, Carthage, and Germanic examples of republicanism are all significant, as is the general variety of ways in which modern thinkers about political liberty have taken and combined these ancient examples.
In a forthcoming paper, John Schellenberg forwards the following argument: anatomically humans have been around 200,000 years. That's a very short span of time for any species, and only in the past few thousand years ago have we been reflecting on the world around us. If we our species survives even as long as Homo erectus did, we've only completed a very small part of a potentially long future of thinking about religion, metaphysics and other matters.
At present, philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition is quite narrowly focused:
"in the west – and I expect I am writing mainly for western readers – philosophy of religion has been largely preoccupied with one religious idea, that of theism, and it looks to be moving into a narrower and deeper version of this preoccupation, one focused on specifically Christian ideas, rather than broadening out and coming to grips with its full task."(p. 3).
Theism, in a generic, omni-property sort of way, is one position that philosophers of religion commonly defend. The other is scientific naturalism. These seem to be the only games in town:
"most naturalists too assume that theistic God-centered religion must succeed if any does. Naturalism or theism. These seem to be the only options that many see. The harshest critics of religion, including philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, seem to think their job is done when they have, to their own satisfaction, criticized personalistic, agential conceptions of a divine reality." (pp. 3-4).
At the end of 2013, I conducted a qualitative survey (summary here, but I am writing up the paper presently) among philosophers of religion. Next to a series of open questions, there was a question for open feedback. I was quite surprised to see so many philosophers of religion openly lament the lack of subject diversity in their discipline. Just a few choice examples written by anonymous respondents:
Many readers of this blog will be aware of the remarkable institution known as the Collège International de Philosophie, based in Paris and supported by the French government since 1983. During its more than 30-year existence, the Collège has offered an extraordinary range of very high-quality free and public programs in France and around the world. It is, as such, one of the world's foremost institutions dedicated to public philosophy.
Sadly, the Collège now stands days away from being forced to close because the funds to support its operations have not been paid. As is detailed here, the Collège has been the subject of a number of discussions concerning its maintenance since 2012, which led to its association with the new Université Paris Lumières in 2013. This administrative association was supposed to provide a sustainable home for the Collège; but the 240,000 Euros that form the Collège's annual operating budget have been withheld by the ministry responsible for the UPL and its associated elements—leaving the institution days away from bankruptcy.
There is a petition circulating where people can offer support for the Collège—below the fold you can find, with his permission, Gabriel Rockhill's translation of the original French text (which also details the situation that the Collège is facing, and its accomplishments and history, a bit further than my remarks above).
"No Rankings, Not Now, Not Ever" is the rallying cry for the October Statement, and over a hundred philosophers have signed. They think it would be better not to have rankings of philosophy departments. For all I say here, they might be right. The trouble is that there's no way to sustain an absence of rankings when the internet exists, so "no rankings" is not actually a live option.
Rankings are very easy to produce and distribute. With a few philosophers and a bottle of tequila, you can make up some idiosyncratic departmental rankings in an evening. With the internet, you can make it all instantly available to everyone. The funny thing is, I'd actually be more interested in your idiosyncratic tequila-driven rankings than the opinions of internet journalists with only a passing interest in philosophy, posting rankings promoted by the prominence of their media organizations. Even if I disagree with you, your rankings were made by philosophers who read lots of stuff while earning PhDs, and whose opinions I'm interested in engaging with. But in a battle for the attention of undergraduates from universities with few research-active philosophers (and worse, Deans!) the media and its promotional machinery can win.
Argumentation gets a bad press. It’s often portrayed as futile: people are so ridden with cognitive biases—less technically, they are pigheaded—that they barely ever change their mind, even in the face of strong arguments. In her last post, Helen points to some successes of argumentation in laboratory experiments with logical tasks, but she doubts whether these successes would extend to other domains such as politics or morality.
I think this view of argumentation is unduly pessimistic: argumentation works much better than people generally give it credit for. Moreover, even when argumentation fails to meet some standards, the problem might lay more with the standards than with argumentation. Here are some arguments in support of a view that is both more realistic in its aspirations and more optimistic in its depiction of argumentation—we’ll see if these arguments can change Helen’s mind about the power of arguments.
Continuing from my last post on 'Style of Living versus Juridification in Foucault', there seems to be me to be something to be gained by thinking about Kierkegaard's ethics here, even if Kierkegaard's Christianity and Foucault's aesthetic self seem rather distinct. The emphasis in Foucault on style or aesthetics of life or existence seems to be be already the object of criticism, in Kierkegaard's account of the aesthetic (as a mode of life rather than with regard to the appreciation of art and beauty). However, Foucault does refer on occasion to the self as acting on itself in Kierkegaard. So Kierkegaard has a particular importance in suggesting that the self is not just an observing consciousness.
Kierkegaard's attitude to the self , and modes of living, is in some degree structured by an understanding of the relation between individuality and the state as a political entity. It is an understanding that draws on Hegel, but which tries to resist what Kierkegaard takes to be an absorption of the self into history and communal morality in Hegel's philosophy. That continuation of aspects of Hegel includes a distinction between antique and modern communities, which itself draws on an enormous amount of earlier thought going back to the Renaissance regarding the distinction between antiquity and the present.
In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:
Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?
This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:
Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination--where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine.
It is well-attested that people are heavily biased when it comes to evaluating arguments and evidence. They tend to evaluate evidence and arguments that are in line with their beliefs more favorably, and tend to dismiss it when it isn't in line with their beliefs. For instance, Taber and Lodge (2006) found that people consistently rate arguments in favor of their views on gun control and affirmative action more strongly than arguments that are incongruent with their views on these matters. They also had a condition where people could freely pick and choose information to look at, and found that most participant actively sought out sympathetic, nonthreatening sources (e.g., those pro-gun control were less likely to read the anti-gun control sources that were presented to them).
Such attitudes can frequently lead to belief polarization. When we focus on just those pieces of information that confirm what we already believe, we get further and further strengthened in our earlier convictions. That's a bad state of affairs. Or isn't it? The argumentative theory of reasoning, put forward by Mercier and Sperber suggests that confirmation bias and other biases aren't bugs but design features. They are bugs if we consider reasoning to be a solitary process of a detached, Cartesian mind. Once we acknowledge that reasoning has a social function and origin, it makes sense to stick to one's guns and try to persuade the other.
Like an invisible hand, the joint effects of biases will lead to better overall beliefs in individual reasoners who engage in social reasoning: "in group settings, reasoning biases can become a positive force and contribute to a kind of division of cognitive labor" (p. 73). Several studies support this view. For instance, some studies indicate that, contrary to earlier views, people who are right are more likely to convince others in argumentative contexts than people who think they are right. In these studies, people are given a puzzle with a non-obvious solution. It turns out that those who find the right answer do a better job at convincing the others, because the arguments they can bring to the table are better. But is there any reason to assume that this finding generalizes to debates in science, politics, religion and other things we care about? It's doubtful.
A couple of decades ago, I strolled through Washington Square Park on a warm summer night, idly observing the usual hustle and bustle of students, tourists, drunks, buskers, hustlers, stand-up comedians, and sadly, folks selling oregano instead of good-to-honest weed. As I did so, I noticed a young man, holding up flyers and yelling, 'Legalize Marijuana! Impeach George Bush! [Sr., not Jr., though either would have done just fine.]." I walked over, and asked for a flyer. Was a new political party being floated with these worthy objectives as central platform issues? Was there a political movement afoot, one worthy of my support? Was a meeting being called?
The flyers were for a punk rock band's live performance the following night--at a club, a block or so away. Clickbait, you see, is as old as the hills.
I note here the existence of the October Statement, which 111 philosophers have signed to demonstrate their resistance to all ranking systems. (I have not signed this statement. As I say here, I favor a user-created ranking system.)
In addition, Brian Leiter released a list of those who will serve on the board of the PGR for 2014. I checked this list against the board of the 2011 PGR and an earlier announcement and found 7 missing names. I do not presume to know why all 7 of these people appear to have stepped down from the board, but Brian notes at his blog that "Five Board members resigned over the past two weeks, some because of the controversy, and some because of unrelated concerns about the PGR methodology." Here are the missing names: Alex Byrne, Craig Callender, Crispin Wright, David Brink, Graham Priest, Lisa Shapiro, and Samantha Brennan.
--for all of the departments in the top 50 of the 2011 worldwide PGR, a mean 17% faculty signed the document**. (I am attaching the Excel spreadsheet I used here.)
--there is little to no correlation between PGR rating and the percentage of faculty who signed for departments in the top 50 of the 2011 worldwide ranking (-.11). Of these departments, those with greater than 17% faculty signatures include: ANU, CUNY, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Indiana, King's College London, MIT, Northwestern, Rutgers, Syracuse, UCL, UCSD, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, U Mass Amherst, Michigan, Oxford, UPenn, Sheffield, USC, St Andrews/Stirling, UVA, Wisconsin.
*I updated the list at approximately 2:45 p.m. PDT , October 10th, 2014.
**I did not match the names of the signers to the names of members of faculty, but compared the number of people who signed the document claiming a particular affiliation to the number of faculty listed in the current PGR faculty lists. It is possible that persons not included in the PGR list for a department signed the document with that department's affiliation, which would potentially lower this percentage as well as the percentage for that particular department.
Update (October 6th, 2014): Sheffield is the second department to announce that it is not cooperating with the PGR this year. The October Statement has 111 signatures, as of October 4th. (I have not worked out how much overlap exists between these statements, so it would not be correct to say that these statements together constitute 745 signatures--the number is smaller than this, but I don't yet know by how much.)
Update (October 10th, 2014): Signatures on the September Statement have closed, and an announcement has been added, as below.
"The September Statement, signed by twenty-one philosophers on September 24, 2014, and its addendum, signed by six hundred twenty-four philosophers in the weeks following, was a pledge not to provide volunteer work for the Philosophical Gourmet Report under the control of Brian Leiter.
On October 10, Leiter publicly committed to stepping down from the PGR following the publication of the 2014 edition, which will be produced with Leiter and Berit Brogaard as co-editors. After its publication, Leiter will resign as editor, and become a member of the PGR's advisory board. (See Daily Nous's account here.)
The September Statement did not specify the conditions under which the PGR is considered to be "under the control of Brian Leiter". It is up to each individual signatory to decide whether it is consistent with the pledge to assist with the 2014 PGR with Leiter as a co-editor, or with future editions with Leiter as a board member.
We are grateful for the support of the philosophers who signed the September Statement, as well as that of those who worked in other ways to make clear that this kind of bullying behaviour is unacceptable in professional philosophy."
In Sons and Lovers (1913), D. H. Lawrence directs many glances at the Derbyshire landscape, often through his characters' distinctive visions. Here is one, this time through Paul Morel:
He was brooding now, staring out over the country from under sullen brows. The little, interesting diversity of shapes had vanished from the scene; all that remained was a vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy, the same in all the houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds; they were only shapen differently. And now that the forms seemed to have melted away, there remained the mass from which all the landscape was composed, a dark mass of struggle and pain. The factory, the girls, his mother, the large, uplifted church, the thicket of the town, merged into one atmosphere—dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit. [Bantam Classic, 1985, pp. 271]
In this vivid passage, Paul's melancholia affords him a lens through which to interpret his surroundings, now infected with his own subjectivity. The world he 'sees' has the shapes and forms that it does because they are the ones he has imposed on it. So overpowering is his current sense of desolation that the boundaries between objects break down, principles of individuation fail to hold sway, and the substratum that is the foundation of the visible world is revealed. In this state of mind it can only be the 'vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy', 'a dark mass of struggle and pain.' As a daily coping mechanism, this brooding assemblage is understood as, and interacted with, as physical objects, including animate and inanimate ones, like 'houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds' but at times like these--a characteristically intense interaction with a woman, in this case, Clara Dawes, his lover--this construction crumbles, and the artifice of it all is revealed. As is the grim underlying reality. (Paul's interpretive scheme is not a linguistic one; it seems to be constructed from felt emotions and sensations.)
An interesting analogy with Lawrence's technique here is that employed by Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver when showing us Travis Bickle's New York City. Scene after scene shows a grim tapestry of violence, sexual degradation, and corruption of all stripes--'the filth'--which so corrodes Bickle's sensibilities and generates an ultimately violent retaliation. So relentless is this depiction of 'the open sewer', so ubiquitous its presence outside Bickle's car window, that viewers of Taxi Driver might wonder if Bickle was driving around the same city block again and again. But that, of course, is the point of it all: the diversity of the city has been dissolved and made shapeless and formless by Bickle's gaze. What we see on the screen is Bickle's subjectivity imposed on the landscape outside, now understood and contextualized by his distinctive perspective into 'one vast matrix of of vice and dirt', with its streets and corners and peoples and street lights all merged into one atmosphere--dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit.'
Paul Morel and Travis Bickle live in distinctive worlds of their own.
As most kids (I suspect), my daughters sometimes play ‘upside down world’, especially when I ask them something to which they should say ‘yes’, but instead they say ‘no’ and immediately regret it: ‘Upside down world!’ The upside down world game basically functions as a truth-value flipping operator: if you say yes, you mean no, and if you say no, you mean yes.
My younger daughter recently came across the upside down world paradox: if someone asks you ‘are you playing upside down world?’, all kinds of weird things happen to each of the answers you may give. If you are not playing upside down world, you will say no; but if you are playing upside down world you will also say no. So the ‘no’ answer underdetermines its truth-value, a bit like the no-no paradox. Now for the ‘yes’ answer: if you are playing upside down world and say ‘yes’, then that means ‘no’, and so you are not playing the game after all if you are speaking truthfully. But then your ‘yes’ was a genuine yes in the first place, and so you are playing the game and said yes, which takes us back to the beginning. (In other words, 'no' is the only coherent answer, but it still doesn't say anything about whether you are actually playing the game or not.)
... here, have been approved. Some ended up in spam, some I lost track of in the flood of comments on other posts. Sorry about that! If you have submitted one and it's still not showing, please email me. I'm delighted that the discussion has been so fruitful!