August 23, 2008

Simon How or Howel

On 31st May 1688, Simon How or Howell (the Old Bailey records record both names) was sentenced to death. When we inquire why, we find this note in the records

Simon How , of the Parish of Stepney , in the County of Middlesex, was Indicted for Runing from his Colours, he being entertained as a Soldier in the Regiment of the Right Honourable the Lord Dartmouth; in which Regiment he continued for about the space of two Years and upward, and Received the Kingspay ; But in February last sented himself, and was taken in Rosemary Lane, The Prisoner did not deny his going away, said he was poor, and had Money oweing him f the Company, he being a Suttler, or Seller of drink to them. So upon the whole, the Evidence being plain against him that he Received the Kings pay, though not positive of his Receiving the Press Money he was found Guilty , &c.

How was sentenced to death for desertion. There are a couple of things of interest to note here. The first is the date- 1688. In 1688 James II was deposed by William III, he was deposed because of what his opponents saw as his Catholic tyranny. William was the stadtholder of Holland- and in November of 1688 mounted the last successful invasion of England. What is interesting about this note in the Old Bailey records is a simple thing- it is what it does not say rather than what it does say. We often presume that armies in the advance of war are made of ideological zealots and that desertion is an ideological action. That isn't true. How deserted because he was poor and the Company owed money to him that they would not pay, one presumes he thought that there were better markets for the drink he was selling- including markets who would redeem their debts. Ideology seems to have played no part- and James's courts were zealous in prosecuting people for political treason- this seems to have played no part in How's desertion and demonstrates that it is wrong to assume that desertion or indeed participation from and in an army are always ideological actions.

The second thing that is interesting here is How's job. We all often assume that armies are made up of people who are provided for by the state- the British army in Iraq are provided with everything they need (sometimes to a lower degree than they or we might wish!) by the state. Private contractors contract with the MoD to provide them with other services. The world of the pre-modern army was completely different. Firstly this army did not exist for a long time- James's army had been built up over the previous couple of years- it was not the permanent organisation that modern armies are and so didn't have the permanent logistical aparatus or contractual provision that modern armies have. Secondly this army was more like a marching market- behind it came a great deal of people who provided services from sex to drink. Some soldiers like How got involved in the trades and sold on to other men. Whenever we think of pre-modern armies, we are wrong to assume that they look like and behave like modern armies- despite having the same name, they were completely different organisms.

The case of Simon How therefore provides us with a lot of evidence to challenge what we think today about armies. His case suggests that we should not assume that armies are ideologically disposed to fight for their cause- and his case was not uncommon (my favourite is a soldier who in the English civil war fought for the Irish Catholic Rebels, the royal army in Ireland, the Scottish Presbyterians, the royal army in England and finally the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell). There is a last thing that it reminds us of- that pre-modern justice was a blunt and yet very cruel instrument. How fled the army because there was a reasonable chance that noone would find him- once he was found though, death was his reward for being unable to sustain himself as a soldier.

August 19, 2008

Hard Candy

Hard Candy is a film about paedopilia- the first image we see of the film is a computer screen on which a fourteen year old girl and a thirty two year old man are chatting, we just see the text and we know that this relationship should not exist. The fourteen year old girl and the man agree to meet at a cafe- they flirt- they joke about chocolate cakes- the man buys the girl a T shirt, the girl flashes her bra at him- she compliments his car- he compliments her on how mature she is- he charms, she yields or that's how the story grimly runs- only not in this film, not in this film. For in this film something else happens. They go back to his house. The man pours a glass for the girl, she turns it down saying you should never drink a drink someone else pours. She pours him a drink and the screen goes dark... and then we find out that Hayley is a girl on a mission, she is crazy, insane but the headline waiting to happen isn't the headline about paedophile abuse, its a headline about something else- about revenge for everyone that he has ever tormented. She has his measure- "you were speaking to me so selflessly, you don't want me to castrate you for my own benefit". There are uncomfortable lines here- "I am not fucking livestock./You keep telling yourself that, stud."

In some ways this plays as a better, darker version of Interview. Whereas Interview played idly with the conflict between two individuals- one of whom was bessotted with the other- this film goes further, goes darker. There is no question that during the scenes of torture, and almost none of them involve any actual violence or blood- everything here is imagined, that the paedophile is going through incredible suffering. He is literally panting and animalistically grunting and screaming. Hayley on the other hand is cruel- she is coldly vindictive- she uses every witty put down in the book. She smashes into his arrogance- the arrogance of a handsome man- throwing back his sins into his face. This is a battle of manipulators- the clever Paedophile, so expert at getting fourteen year olds into bed- comes up against this fourteen year old and faces intellectual as well as physical anihilation. "Why don't you just kill me?" he asks, we know the answer- because that would not be enough. Capitol Punishment is too easy for a paedophile- far better set up a camera and force him to watch his own mutilation.

This raises hard questions- some of them involving the sheer nastiness of the film's subject matter. But more what it raises are questions about this scenario- not only is this a young girl taking her revenge on a paedophile but there are potentially disturbing subtexts here, some of which are explored by Roger Ebert here and the Flick Filosopher here. At one point, she says 'I wonder why they don't teach this [castration] at girl's scout camp...this would be really useful'. Its a darkly ominous comment. Does he deserve it though? Does he deserve this pain, does he deserve being directed to eunuch' and to have a young girl talk about literally bouncing his testicles around? This film is really really cruel- Hayley takes a delight in humiliating and torturing the man. She enjoys every minute- again can we be pleased to see that kind of enjoyment? We should remember though that our sympathies are with him and not Hayley in part because we see him as a victim- but not his victims as victims. We don't hear their screams. We hear his.

But still that doesn't answer why we feel sympathy with him? I do not think its entirely about the torture- I feel no sympathy for Tarentino characters. I think though this character obtains our sympathy less because of the torture he undergoes than because of the mental torture he undergoes. His life is thrown back at him, his words turn like dogs upon their master. He is prosecuted in a court where he faces a lawyer who is more powerful than him and more adept and what is more, the verdict is presumed guilty. There is a justice in the film but it is a brute justice- you harm the perpetrator and there is no holding back. Hayley basically tells us that this man deserves not merely death but torture- he deserves not merely punishment but recrimination beyond the point of punishment to the point where it becomes not judicious but vindictive. This is vindictiveness- once he has entered into this process- in a Kafkaesque way it matters little if he is guilty, it matters that he is merely there. He is guilty of course- but still tied in that Kafkaesque world- he is no innocent, he is definitely a paedophile but the question this asks, just like the earlier and greater film on the same topic M asks, is whether a paedophile deserves a 'normal' punishment or whether any sin deserves a 'normal' punishment.

That works because of the work done by the actors- both Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson deserve praise here. Page's work is truly astounding- she not merely acts everyone else off the stage- she draws easy comparisons with Natalie Portman and then surpasses them. This announces her as a future presence in cinema- and hopefully she will not like Portman has, take the route to decay, Starwars and the Other Boleyn Girl. Wilson as the man has an equally difficult job, portraying a Paedophile as a person. Like Peter Lorre in M, he attempts to make us see the whole figure of this ghastly human being and he succeeds- you cannot see this man as a caricature, an evil monster- you see him as a man, a terrible horrible man, a sleazy slimeball but a man nonetheless. That acheivement is important- both of these actors have to be on their best form to make this film work in anyway and thankfully they both are.

Where the film fails is that in my view, it occasionally goes over the top. In truth the last twenty minutes should have been compressed- by the time we have him facing the dilemma of death or publicity, we have everything we really need- and then the director and writer should have sought to bring it to a close. This film would have been more powerful at 80 and not 104 minutes- but even so at its best it is powerful and interesting. The torture goes over the top, especially towards the end, but especially in the conversational segments in the beggining and middle of the film, this film captures something. Better than Interview, at its best it has the same format- a conversation. Poorer than M, at its best it aspires to the same themes- about punishment, politics and power. If it matches Interview it must be good, it doesn't match M it still is worth watching, for the power of the performances, if not for the restraint of the director.

August 18, 2008

Enter the Memory Palace

I have just begun reading Jonathan Spence's account of Matteo Ricci's life. Spence begins by outlining the medieval method of mnemonics- the science of memory. Ricci was interested in this and attempted to teach it in China. But I think it is interesting in its own right- as a means of considering the way that the medieval mind (if there was such a thing) approached the world. The idea was that instead of memorising a fact, you memorised an image associated with that fact. You created your own symbol for the thought and arranged that symbol in a pattern, an architectural pattern- a palace or street. Ricci said that you were better not to arrange your memories within a busy space but within a quiet one. There you could take a tour of your previous thoughts and recover your ideas. Take for example the student of history who faces a test about who were the Early Roman Emperors- asked the question who were the first four emperors of Rome, our student mentally enters her palace and turns to the room of Roman history. Immediatly as she enters she sees a frozen tortoise hanging in the basket of a fishing rod, and she can answer Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula. Why? Because she has remembered that image- and thus has the initial letters of all the Roman Emperors- A Tortoise Caught Cold.

This system was patronised by many of the writers about rhetoric in the ancient world- Quintilian wrote about it. The medievals even thought that the greatest ancient speaker of them all Marcus Cicero had used the same method. The idea of memorising images, as a more powerful device than a word, was common within medieval culture. One Italian handbook for religious women told them to imagine the scenes of the bible, one by one, with the faces of their friends on top of those of the apostles and Christ. Ignatius Loyola was also a stern advocate of this kind of memory training- Loyola wanted his missionaries to keep in their minds the brutal image of the suffering Christ so that they too could endure the torments of life as a missionary, as a potential martyr to the faith. Images for Loyola would be so much more effective than words at reminding the missionary of his calling. Memory skills were much prized in the middle ages- indeed one of the marks of the new science was to, as Cornelius Agrippa or Francis Bacon did, despise the tricks of mnemonic masters as just that tricks, without reason. (Remember if you have read it my last article and Hobbes's suggestion that prudence was inferior to wisdom.)

Memory was a resevoir for bringing forwards images to the mind- for nourishing spiritual resources in the great battle between Satan and Christ that dominated the medieval mind. Such nourishment of course could be dangerous- peasants were prosecuted in Italy and France for remembering too well- such a perfect memory could only be devilish. And of course, others wondered about the radical potential of memory- to divert one's gaze away from scripture to the mystical rapture of one's own mental creations. But memory was still central- especially this kind of visible memory- and central in particular to the way that the Catholic Church envisioned religion. When we look at the grotesque carvings of hell in the works of Bosche and others, it is worth remembering that we are seeing what the Medieval Catholic Church wanted all humans to carry in their heads all the time- the image of the darkness that would inevitably welcome us all but for the grace of Christ and the defiance of his Church.

August 17, 2008

Phillip Pettit's Hobbes

Phillip Pettit, the Professor of Political Philosophy at Princeton, is one of the most formidable political thinkers around today. Pettit's latest book explores an innovative line of interpretation which suggests a real connection between Hobbes's thinking about science and the mind and his thinking about politics. What Pettit argues is that Hobbes did something truly innovative- that he changed the face of political philosophy in a much more fundamental way. He suggests that Hobbes's thinking came out of the collapse of the medieval picture of the world, a world ordered by divinity to its own purposes. After the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, that divinely ordered world seemed implausible- Descartes and his followers believed in a more mechanistic universe. Descartes however argued that the world was dualistic- mind and matter both existed in the world and were different substances. Hobbes disagreed- he thought that mind was matter and that there was no distinction between the two. How then did he come to explain the unique faculties of the human mind? Descartes couldn't without inventing a separate substance from matter- mind- Hobbes had a different view.

Hobbes argued that human minds were similar to the minds of animals. Both were mechanical, responding to motion in the outside world. Both minds reacted to things that stimulated them with desire and to those that did not with aversion. Minds learnt- Hobbes called this prudence from experience. So animals tended to adopt certain trails or hideouts to catch their prey- and human beings extended that faculty into the construction of histories and proverbs. Prudence Hobbes suggested was a part of knowledge- imperfect but useful- and it was shared by both human beings and animals. But human beings did something different- they had located a technology- Hobbes does not provide an account of how but he does provide an account of why this technology was so significant- that technology being words.

Words enabled human beings to do a number of things. Firstly it enabled them to construct universals- to pick out characteristics common to their observation and suggest that these things constituted identities. Human beings made the identity of objects. Furthermore they constructed abstractions from those identities- so seeing shapes in the world meant that humans devised perfect shapes, that did not exist, and labelled them square, triangle, circle and gave them definitions. Secondly language constructed personhood- it gave human beings the ability to impersonate and represent each other to each other. It gave them the ability to argue from their own perspective. Thirdly it gave them the ability to incorporate- to create corporations or groups of individuals- Hobbes uses the example of a mercantile company or indeed a state to suggest to us how this might happen. But words created a problem or rather two problems: they created competition between humans- what Rousseau called amour-propre, a self love based upon the destruction of others- and furthermore they created a concept of the future in people's minds, a future which might and probably, given natural animal equality, would be insecure- such insecurity would lead humans to take measures to protect themselves- measures that would lead to life for everyone being 'nasty, brutish and short'.

So what did Hobbes believe would get you out of such a difficult situation. Hobbes argued that there was no single person in a state of nature (a place without a state) who could end this situation- no one could force everyone else into a state nor will people in a state of nature be able to accept a state of equality, after all they would have no guarantee that others would accept the state of equality. The only method to get out of the state of nature would be the appointment by contract of a sovereign who was completely absolute. Any other authority would be unable to guarantee the security of people- because another authority- be it legal or parliamentary would not be a safeguard for the people but a competing authority that would create conflict, argument and strife. Hobbes suggested that such a sovereign would be limited rather by the fact that its authority was limited by the condition of the contract- i.e. that he managed to perpetuate a peaceful society. The sovereign's main activity though was to extend and deliver legislation: that took two basic forms. One was a constitutive form- the sovereign would define the meaning of property- create rights from persons over the world which could not be competed with because they would be backed by sovereign power. Furthermore the sovereign would enable people to trust each others' words, and form corporations themselves, because he would guarantee that free riders would be prosecuted and dealt with.

The last key question Pettit introduces is Hobbes's concept of liberty. Most theorists of his time would have argued that Hobbes's sovereign would have seriously impinged upon his subject's liberty. They saw liberty as the opposite of slavery: and would have argued that the subject in Hobbes's state was unable to make any decision because he would always live in fear of what the sovereign might do to him. Hobbes argued that this was a false view of liberty- as he defined liberty, redefined liberty, as the ability to do something- and argued that whatever views might influence you in doing something were irrelevant. So for example Hobbes argued that the fact that the sovereign could decide to execute you for having done something, still meant you were free to do it. Therefore Hobbes argues that the sovereign that he has constructed does not impinge at all on your liberty but guarantees your security.

Pettit's argument about the construction of Hobbes's sovereign is fairly traditional and fits well with most other understandings on the subject. However his understanding of Hobbes's philosophy of language is very innovative and very interesting. Hobbes definitely spends a lot of time in most of his philosophical tracts- particularly his last one Leviathan- in discussing language. In Behemoth, his argument about the civil war's origins in England, he suggested that the English civil war owed much of its origins to the careless use of language by university professors. It is definitely a strand of thinking within Hobbes's thought- and though I have not investigated Pettit's work on the texts I find his theory plausible.

Where I do worry though is that Pettit treats Hobbes's philosophy as a monolithic enterprise. Hobbes wrote three books- the Elements of Law, De Cive, Leviathan- and a number of more minor treatises like the Dialogue between the Philosopher and the Common Lawyer and Behemoth. Pettit quotes mainly from the major works- but he does treat them as though they all had the same argument- which I'm not so sure is entirely accurate. He refers to Professor Skinner's argument that Hobbes's view on liberty changed but does not refute the argument that Professor Skinner makes. I do not mean to suggest that Professor Skinner is entirely right: but Hobbes made different choices in the set up of his works, published several works about the same subject over a decade (and then nothing afterwards apart from translations of previously published works- the Latin Leviathan!) and that suggests to me that his argument evolved rather than stayed exactly the same. However I have not investigated it and cannot prove that. Furthermore Pettit, like most of the rest of the literature about Hobbes, concentrates on the non-religious elements of Hobbes's thought- Hobbes though spent plenty of time examining and rejecting the claims of particular churches in politics and it would have been interesting to hear more about the strategies with which he undermined their use of the Bible.

However despite those minor caveats, this is a really interesting piece of work. Its a fine introduction to Hobbes which has a provocative theme and deserves to be read widely. It deserves to be read both because Pettit's interpretation and his argument are interesting, but more because of Hobbes's continuing relevance to the world in which we live. Hobbes is one of the thinkers who best articulated some of the problems of modernity- this new understanding of Hobbes through his anthropology of language merely supports that fundamental insight. Reexamining Hobbes has provided generations of political thinkers from Rousseau onwards with nourishment and his thinking, especially about liberty, underlies much of what people think about today. (A little recognised irony is that the begetter of the libertarian idea of liberty was himself a pronounced absolutist.) Hobbes may be wrong, but he is wrong in provocative and interesting way- and Pettit's take on Hobbes is one of the most fascinating around. In short this is an exciting argument about one of the indispensable philosophers- and it deserves a wide audience.