Thursday, November 23, 2017

Identity Politics


Identity Politics:

This is a reworking of a comment I made to a FB friend in a brief exchange we had a few months ago about identity politics. It reflects a few points he made that right away deepened, at least I think deepened, my understanding. 

Is this a good distinction better to understand the meaning of identity politics: the contrast between:

 a politics that is committed to--how to put this?--making oppressed, denied, marginalized groups fully equal citizens in their rights and liberties;

 and the interiorizing of the group self as a kind of group self obsession that asserts that group self to the virtual dismissal of other interests where these insistences and assertions strain against the commonalities a liberal democracy requires at its foundation? 

These commonalities, and encapsulated by the word "equal," represent the ideal of the movement from anachronistic status to merit. Hayek called it the move from status to contract.

Does this distinction reflect a more nuanced view that understands the historically rich play of groups vying for power in the securing of their fully equal civil rights isn't identity politics as such?

An example of this might be MLK's statement about the content of character in the context of the struggle he lead for equal civil rights. If so, then identity politics as such, as it ought to understood, might be seen as that very contrasting interiorizing I just touched on. 

The common understanding I perceive of identity politics is a politics that plays to groups, works off coalitions, rather than appealing to all citizens. But as my friend taught me, this view is naive; all politics does appeals to groups, works off group interests and coalitions. This common idea of identity politics is fatuous. 

There's of course much more to be considered. But maybe this is a helpful start.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Will And Wilful

The Nature of Will and the Difference Between Will and Wilful 

We so often speak of will without thinking carefully about what it means even as it is such a fundamental idea in understanding ourselves. In my own thinking about will I have ultimately conceptualized it as determination in the merging of two different ideas of determination: the singling out of something as a kind of judgment as in “I have determined that…” or “it is my determination that…;” and the single minded implementation of that determined judgment.

What I have in my own mind added to that conceptualization is that that determination must struggle—the more, the greater the exercise of will—against what stands in its way. Without straining against difficulty will does not operate; it doesn’t have to because it doesn't emerge. So I would add to the second meaning of determination-- "the single minded implementation of that judgment"—"against difficulty."

That addition needs refinement. Difficulty need not be external obstacles; it may inhere in the very project which is will’s object. So if a formidable man blocks my way to my destination and I need to steel myself to the difficulty of overcoming him, that is one mode of will. If my project requires great discipline in achieving it—practice, training, rehearsal, physical effort, exertion, creative effort and the like—that is another mode of will. The first may be thought of as self against the world; the second may be thought of as self against self.

These thoughts also lead me to want, as well, to distinguish between will and willful. The latter may be understood as “the unrelenting intent on having one's own way; being headstrong, obstinate; being habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition.” Determination is common to these meanings.

The dividing line between will and willful is transgression.

Will is determination in relation to accomplishment or achievement. Willful is determination in relation to what is disapprobative. 

If every morning I get up at 5:00 am to train for a marathon, that is an exercise of will. If in the course of my morning runs I cut through my neighbor’s flower beds after having been asked not to that is willful. 

So will involves self overcoming self in doing what is difficult to a purpose; whereas willful involves self succumbing to self in wrong doing. In this sense, will and willful can be seen as antitheses

Monday, November 20, 2017

Literary Criticism As An Argument Of A Certain Kind


In a long past life I was literature student, and not a bad one, with thoughts of a life in academe. The whole thing got to me in the end—note the play on “end”—and I switched horses. But I read this a few years ago and like it very much. It still forms what in literary criticism is essential as I see it.

...Finally behind all that is written in this essay rests the conviction that engaged literary criticism takes a position and argues for it. It argues for what it thinks, and says so clearly and accessibly, forming what it thinks into a coherent whole. Engaged literary criticism defends its position. In the view of literature taken here—seeing from as world, from as meaning, all resonating in theme—literary criticism is most engaged, meaningful and resonant when it grapples with form as world. For that fight brings the critic to the heart of literary meaning, in which form and content are one, which is to say literary works’ very nature and essence....

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Reading of Huck Finn


I was thinking about Huck Finn, having finished reading it and trying to work out some seeming ambivalence about it. A brief exchange with a friend, a former professor of American literature, caused me to try to put my thoughts together. In so doing I thought past my seeming ambivalence.


....Finished Huck Finn and am left with a conflicted, mixed-feelings critical self that I’m trying to work out.

It may be that the Phelps part of the novel is the first instance of black humour in U.S. literature.


Added note, here’s a view of black humour I agree with: ...the presentation of tragic, distressing, or morbid situations in humorous terms; humour that is ironic, cynical, or dry; gallows humour...


...OK, but then it is two books, not one....


...No, or at least no not necessarily.

Huck is always sensitive to his environment: he settles in up to a point wherever he is, including with his father till the beatings become too much.

He finds a temporary idyll on the raft with Jim right after the finale of the deadly family feud and before infection by the Duke and the King.

The pitiless, savage critique of society is relentless through the novel and it encompasses those who might seem good. 

So the Phelpses are “good Christians,” well meaning within their limits, loving of family, pillars of a kind of their community, God fearing to be sure, but they harbour slaves, keep Jim chained up, perceive him as chattel, and seek the “right way” to deal with him as a piece of property. 

Tom Sawyer is of the Phelpses, of the society that finds its true meaning in deathward ways, in the portrayal of the deadly, meaningless family feud, in the portrayal of Sherburn staring down and dismissing the would be lynchers even after his cold blooded murder of the drunken fool Boggs, and in its maintaining slavery, which by the time the novel was published, mid eighteen eighties, Clemens adamantly excoriated. 

The psychological portrayal of Huck is infinitely brilliantly acute. Bonded with Jim and isolated from society with him, his best humane instincts come out, though at constant war with how he has been socially formed. As Clemens wrote:

...It shows that that strange thing, the conscience—the unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it....

Clemens conveys with acute intuition that tension between Huck’s best instincts and his social formation. So, for example, not long after getting off the raft and finding the Phelps homestead to free Jim, and in the process of assuming the identity of Tom Sawyer, Huck, contriving to explain his delay in arriving, speaks of an accident on the steamer and answering whether anyone was killed says, slight paraphrase, “No’m killed a nigger.” 

Idyll gone, social formation makes its claim. And so Huck again falls under the pernicious sway of Tom Sawyer and is again ensconced, very comfortably, in the society Clemens in the novel reviles, the revulsion including that which appears nice and civilized and God fearing. 

We have for example the scabrous detail of Uncle Silas Phelps going to Jim, enchained, everyday to read the Bible to him. Tom’s wild and unknowingly evil plan to free an already free Jim is presented in bitter burlesque to pound home with relentless detail  the bottomlessly absurd cruelty of its errancy and to fulfill an intent of black humour, which is to expose to readers enjoying it, and to measure, their own deformed sensibilities.

The engine of irony, satire, sarcasm and black humour through the entirety of the novel is the abomination of slavery and racism. The reduction of the nobility of Huck and Jim at novel’s end is the apotheosis of that abomination. It devastates the society it portrays, a society that is a continuum from its degenerate dregs, its racist dregs, its murderous dregs, its inhumane dehumanizing dregs to its ostensible respectability. It’s scabrous that Miss Watson in her Will gives Jim his freedom. It may seem a good hearted act. But what underlies it and pillories it is society’s unrecognized evil in her owning him.

The loveliness of life on the raft is a temporary and magnificent dream of freedom and is a naked innocence—about all of which not enough can be said; it’s a peak of world literature—which can only have meaning isolated, apart from the dead land. Huck even within Tom’s sway at the end has some inchoate sense of this born of his experience when he declares: 

...But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before...

Saturday, November 11, 2017

More On Huck Finn In Approaching Its Last Part


More on Huck Finn for a sec.

In Chapter 32, Huckleberry winds up at the Phelps’s farm and takes on the identity of, first off, Tom, then in the forgivable crystallization of hard-to-believe fictional coincidence, Tom Sawyer. He keeps saying it’s easy to be Tom Sawyer and on learning that he is to be Tom Sawyer, Huck says, mild paraphrase, “I was glad to know who I am.” The references to identity are many in the Chapter.

My general idea is that all works of literature involve, maybe entail, a search for self, some searches more explicit than others. That idea is manifest in this novel. As Huck tries on various identities, as he symbolically keeps dying and arising anew, as he sheds what he tries on, as he must needs work past the likes of a Tom Sawyer to become free, as the themes of death and freedom thread through Huck Finn, so now, at the Phelps’s in planning and scheming wth Tom to free Jim, Huck’s smack in the middle of that working-past effort.

So I approach the last part of Huck Finn to test my reaction to it, to try to see whether, as has been said a lot, it comprises a cruel and disappointing anti climax after the idyllic heights Huck and Jim reach for a time or whether I can see in it scabrous indictment of what Huck comes finally to reject that is both thematically coherent and that doesn’t pit that thematic coherence against a feeling of frustration and let down, or, in a word or two, emotional incoherence.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Ho Hum


I just finished John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, which I found underwhelming.

It a made a big splash in its time, 1959 and right after but I don’t see much, not anything really, about it now.

My sense is that its literary legs proved shakier than might have been thought. It seems to have faded away.

As I say, I found it meh, and diffuse, yeah diffuse, that’s the word that comes to my mind about it, too spread out, not that much that was that affecting. But hey, that’s just me.

A Mere Few Words On Huck Finn


On Huck Finn:

I’m thinking that Huck and Jim, on finding each after the terrible Grangerford Shepherdson climax of violence, reach innocent, idyllic heights on the raft, away from the dead land:

...It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many....

But then the dead lands brings them “Bilgewater” and the Dauphin and paradise is lost.

I can say this without a doubt: Huckleberry Finn is my favorite character in literature. I’m unable to put into words my sheer pleasure in hearing him talk to me.