April 14, 2012

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog says in his film at the beggining that he opposes the death penalty. One might assume this is a film which opposes the death penalty, which campaigns against it- but if you did think that you would be wrong. What Herzog does is describe what happened in a particular case. In 2001, in Conroe, Texas, two 19 year olds, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry shot a nurse Sandra Stotler- and later her son and his friend. According to the police, the killing was motivated by Perry and Burkett's desire to steal Stotler's car. That was all that they wanted- a red sports car- and for that as the officer on the case said, three people died. By the end of the film that three becomes four, because Michael Perry was executed in July 2010. Burkett faces a forty year prison term and will be released- if he receives parole- in 2042 when he will be 59. The film describes these events and interviews the families of the victims, people who knew Burkett and Perry in Texas, the killers themselves- Perry is interviewed eight days before his execution and an interview with Burkett's current wife. Interviews with the Prison Chaplain who holds the ankle of each prisoner as the lethal injection is administered and with a former captain of the death squad at the jail are included in the film. All in all this is neither a light nor a pleasant film: its a good film.

Some critics have argued that Herzog didn't really know what he was doing with the film- that it is not polemical enough or whimsical enough. I think the film is powerful as a description rather than a political polemic. Herzog may say he is against the death penalty but this is neither an expose of a clear injustice nor is it a statistical argument. It is an observation. As such though it has an argument but it requires the viewer to switch their attention from the political to the personal context for what happens in the film. We hear plenty about the lives that the two perpetrators lived up until the murders, hear plenty about what they were like outside the jail (Jason Burkett sounds like a thug for example) and hear about their troubled up bringings (particularly Burkett's). Burkett's father is interviewed in incredibly powerful scenes- himself a convict in prison for a similar time to his son, the sheer sense of his own failure is a difficult and important thing for Herzog and the viewer to capture. When he describes the feeling of being locked to his own son in handcuffs as they leave the court house, the feeling of despair is probably the greatest I have felt in a cinema.

Likewise Herzog captures something about the families of the victims that I think we seldom do. What is left for them after a murder? It must feel like so much has gone, senselessly, into the past. Both the family members of victims we see here look and feel anguished: interestingly both are siblings and the sense of loss is palpable- almost unbearable at points. The important thing about these sections of the film is not that it does not make you feel angry- or at least did not make me feel angry- it made me feel compassion and sadness. There are two feelings on the screen during the film- when you see the Burkett's father, you feel the anguish of honesty about failure- when you see the families of the victims, you see the anguish of loss. These two very different emotions suffuse a film that really is about two types of abyss, one of sin, the other of death. Looking at it another way, what Herzog presents is a murder which has produced two devastating consequences- shame and despair.

The interviews with the two murderers fit into the rest of the film slightly askew. Reviewers have asked why Herzog didn't probe these men more- he asks questions but does not strive for a gotcha moment where the killer breaks down in tears. Nor does he probe the stories of either man. Both deny the murders now. Perry until his death insisted that a police conviction was coerced. Both blame the other man. Herzog seems clear that they did it though- even though Burkett's wife insists he did not. Neither admit to any guilt: Perry says that he feels sorry for those who have visited the atrocity of what he calls murder upon him. Burkett's father clearly does believe his son did something. Burkett's wife- a post-prison acquisition who he has hugged but not spent time with outside of prison- clearly disagrees. Some of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film involve her talking about her love for the convict. The emptiness, particularly from Perry, is terrifying but it stands between the two emotions I discussed above- between shame and despair is what caused both- emptiness, an abyss.

That sense of a parenthesis that lies around the devastation of the event is something that Herzog plays upon. The two most redemptive images of the film come from the prison chaplain and the captain of the death squad, for them parentheses are moments of pity (in the first case- the parenthesis around a pause to watch a squirrel) or common sense (that life in the latter case is the dash between death and birth on a tombstone) but the director plays with that parenthesis throughout. He plays with what might be called the abyss- with the abyss between interviewee and interviewer inside a prison where glass separates them physically, the abyss between two lovers separated by a wall, the abyss which defines our lives and gives meaning to them. Lastly the abyss that is the event itself that determined all this: Herzog makes a point of showing us that the murders happened for almost no reason. All this devastation and destruction came from a moment that seemed thoughtless, that itself was an abyss where action took over from deliberation, where 'I want' trammelled up the consequence of that desire. Where 72 hours of possession of a sports car justified the murders of three people.

Herzog is against the death penalty, but though his film is about death row, its not about the death penalty. Its about the ways in which we can destroy our own lives, slipping into worlds where violence is a convention, where you learn to read in prison, where the sins of the fathers become the sins of the sons and so on infinitum down to the end of recorded time. Herzog's vision of that is dark- between the parenthesis of shame and despair, you find nothingness, the nothingness of sin. The redeeming moments of  this film are moments when the chaplain and death captain tell us about other ways of thinking about moments, ways that bring out the positive nature of life, but over them hangs a stench of what happened ten years ago and the consequences that to this day continue to unravel from that one event.

April 13, 2012

Michael Oakeshott's history of ideas

Embedded within Oakeshott's account of politics is an account of history and in particular the history of ideology. Oakeshott faces a problem with ideology, because having dismissed empirical attempts to discuss politics, he faces in the essay on political education the challenge of the thinker who suggests that ideology is the basis for our political decisions. Oakeshott wants and needs to dismiss this account of the way in which ideology is generated because if ideology can be sat outside of a political tradition, it provides a means of critique which is outside of the political languages to which Oakeshott wants to confine his political education. Essentially if Oakeshott is wrong about ideology, then one can turn away from his political education without losing anything: because national traditions are not sufficient alone to generate political ideas.

This challenge gives rise to one of Oakeshott's most interesting statements:

The pedigree of every political ideology shows it to be the creature, not of premeditation in advance of political activity, but of meditation upon a manner of politics.
This is a very radical statement. Essentially what the philosopher means is that there is no ideological position that doesn't develop out of an empirical situation. Politics proceeds before any conception of the right path within it. Oakeshott provides what he thinks of as clear historical cases of this happening:
consider Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrrangements- a brilliant abridgement of the political habits of Englishmen. 
Leave aside whether Oakeshott's history is correct, what he is arguing here is that political argument arises out of national traditions of thinking and is inspired by particular historical moments or understandings of them. Oakeshott doesn't deny that new ideas occur but he suggests that they are intimations, born from within the system of politics as it functions, hence he suggests that women's suffrage happened because there was an inconsistency in the law rather than because of an abstract right that was discovered to appertain to women.

This is a very radical and important move within Oakeshott's philosophy- he later suggests that such movements within a tradition may be unconscious, the Russian revolution was as Russian as it was Marxist (for him). This is not merely a truism in Oakeshott's mind: because its the basis for saying that if you want to understand a political movement, you must understand not the abstraction which the political actor mouthed, but the society from whence he or she sprung. If you think about that for a second it becomes a very interesting observation: take Locke: Professor Oakeshott is quite simply wrong if he thinks Locke's treatise was motivated either by what Locke believed England was like or what England was actually like in 1682. What Locke was motivated by was a desire to shape England into a different realm, but his context was as Dutch as it was English and as Protestant as it was either. Oakeshott dismisses the relevance of non-national context- and furthermore of context which is not empirical. The contrast with Neitsche for whom the empirical context is nothing, but for whom the context of abstraction is everything: so Neitsche says that the reason that there is no definition of punishment is because that concept has been described in an infinity of different ways. Oakeshott downplays the ideological and the non-empirical because what he wants is this separate language of politics that cannot be reduced to its abstraction.

April 12, 2012

Oakeshott and the state

Reading Michael Oakeshott's essay on political education, something struck me. The classic notion of the state- developed by Bentham and others- is that the state is a coercive power which is managed by a group of individuals. The state is defined by them as the actor who possesses the power or action of sovereignty: its how most political scientists and historians would define the state. Michael Oakeshott, in his essay on Political Education, defines the state rather differently and the difference is important for the essay and his conception of politics itself. Oakeshott says

Politics I take to be the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together. In this sense families, clubs and learned societies have their 'politics'. But the communities in which this manner of activity is pre-eminent are the hereditary co-operative groups, many of them of ancient lineage, which we call states.
That definition is very very different from the conventional definition. What Oakeshott doesn't do is define the state by its powers- he instead defines the state as a community of individuals who participate in a political tradition. There is an obvious problem with this: how does he distinguish between a state and one of the earlier named groups- however we can leave that issue aside for the moment.

This is important because one of major issues running through Oakeshott's discussion of political education is his insistence on a national conversation, in which political action, consciously or not, forms an inevitable part. That understanding is dependent on the fact that the major actor in Oakeshott's work here within politics is the state, conceptualised as the community. To conceptualise the state as the bearer of power would be to empty politics of that communitarian component: in that sense, Oakeshott's redefinition of the state is the key move within the essay. It does something else though- because not only does his definition shape his conception of politics, it shapes his perception of national politics. Oakeshott can argue that all states are different because they are bearers of different conversations, the agency is the same but defining the state by its political tradition enables the philosopher to hypothesise that each state is unique and hence- as we can see from the quotation above, the politics of each state is unique. Oakeshott's redefinition of the state in this essay is therefore key to his conceptualisation of politics as a linguistic rather than an empirical arena.

If the study of the state is truly the matter of politics, and Oakeshott thinks it is, then the only way he can say that the citizen is not scientist but anthropologist and historian is if he redefines the state. Redefining it so that every state is the individual subject of an anthropologists scrutiny, rather than an interchangeable function which experiments with interchangeable individuals.

April 11, 2012

Can Literature do Philosophy and if so how?

Can novels do ideas? It seems like an odd question. There are plenty of novels which do purport to 'do' ideas- whatever that means. Yet think about it for a second and it becomes slightly less strange. Literature and philosophy are by their very nature different. Iris Murdoch in a conversation she had with Bryan Magee- the first part of which is below:

Murdoch argues that literature and philosophy are distinct activities. Philosophy tries to do one thing- to seek truth- and literature many which include some ressemblance to truth but also other things like fun. Philosophy she says seeks to clarify, literature to mystify. Despite Murdoch's arguments, this week in the FT Jennie Erdal makes the opposite argument- she suggests that philosophy and literature can be wedded and that there is such a thing as the sophisticated novel of ideas.

These positions are not absolute. I have no doubt that Erdal would agree that novelists can often be bad philosophers- can even be social theorists or political theorists or makers of ideas (to use Murdoch's phrase)- and have no doubt that Murdoch would agree that there is philosophical work in novels- indeed she identifies one, Sarte's Nausee. There is a great burden here though in terms of the distinction that's being made. One can feel in the article that Erdal really wants to list philosophical novels, whereas in the interview one can feel Murdoch's reluctance, indeed she protests, about naming philosophical novels. Part of this I suspect is down to Murdoch's proffessionalism as a philosopher and her wish to keep philosophy as a hard subject, as opposed to one exposed to art. But there may be more at the root of the distinction.

I think added to it is the idea that literature does something which is separate from philosophy. Erdal talks about the way in which literature enables her to live her philosophy or realise how a theory can be lived. What I find very interesting about that is both that it is tempting and that it is in some sense deceitful- there is an aspect to presenting people with a lived example which is both extraordinary as an education but propagandistic as an argument. Art cannot ultimately- and I think Murdoch is right here- make arguments easily- she argues that often in Sartre the argument itself becomes aesthetically unpleasing. For me this happens in War and Peace with the long tracts on the meaning of history. Possibly in that sense, novelists need to be aware and beware of philosophy in their writing.

April 10, 2012

Whatever happened to Charley Bates

So at the end of Oliver Twist, Fagin gets hanged, Sikes is dead, Bet goes mad, Noah Claypole begins a career as a thief, Charlotte his paramour becomes a whore, the Artful is transported and Monks becomes destitute. Villainy obviously isn't a good career choice for any of them- even Sikes' dog ends up falling to its death, dashing its brains out and an obviously sympathetic character like Nancy has hers bludgeoned out on her bedroom floor. There is one exception to this tide of woe- and that's Charley Bates. Why?

Well first off- who? Charley Bates is the only other direct member of Fagin's gang named in the novel- you could make an argument for one other but everyone else functions like Sikes as an associate of Fagin. Charley is the Artful Dodger's best friend- he accompanies him and Oliver to pickpocket Mr Brownlow, gambles with the Dodger and generally plays the role of ally and friend. The difference between them appears to be that whereas the Artful is more calculated Bates is addicted to humour: so when they lose Oliver, the Artful immediately realises that Fagin will be furious, Bates finds it funny. Likewise in gambling, the Dodger is deceitful and cheats: Bates finds losing funny and does nothing to stop the cheating- even though he loses money. The distinction between the two young criminals is one of maturity but its also one of philosophy.

This is crucial- because Dickens wants to establish crime not as a deed but as a way of seeing the world- it is he says at one point a poison. That's why Oliver despite his criminal acquaintance is not a criminal- his upright heart protects him (even implausibly) against contagion. Nancy is a criminal but recognises the stain on her conscience- and hence can be redeemed (even if that redemption is at the cost of her life). Mr Bumble has committed no crime- but in essense is as one with Fagin's gang because his philosophy is the same as theirs- and Dickens continuously asks his readers to think about the logic of the thief and the fence and how many of their allies it applies to. The comic device of calling the Artful a gentleman is not merely a parody of his presumption- but also a satire which asks the question what exactly apart from his ill fitting clothes makes him no gentleman.

To return to Charley: what distinguishes Charley is in a lesser sense to Oliver, that which distinguishes the other boy. Charley is a lighthearted fool, but that isn't a crime. Charley is a criminal- but unlike the rest he does not think as a criminal. He is not so philosophical as to cheat at cards or understand Fagin's wrath- thus as he is less of the politician, he is less culpable. Whereas the Dodger cannot be redeemed- nor can Fagin or Sikes- Charley can because his intentions are not purely evil. Ultimately when judged against someone like Noah Claypole, the pickpocket emerges as a less criminally minded figure than the savage youth. This distinction- which I've not quite managed to capture- is I think very important to what Dickens wanted to say: Charley Bates is vital to the novel's message, which isn't that we should all feel smug that we aren't Fagin and Sikes- but to ask which of us has behaved like Fagin or Sikes and saved ourselves from their position, by virtue of our wealth and power.

April 09, 2012

What Nancy did

Oliver Twist is remembered for a number of things- Fagin and antisemitism, Sikes and his dog, the Artful Dodger, Master Bates and much more. Nancy is one of the characters that everyone remembers- mainly because of her death. Ferociously bludgeoned to death by Sikes after she is suspected of betraying the gang, Nancy dies in a peculiarly horrific way- so horrific that her friend Bet who identifies the body, is led away to Bedlam straight afterwards. The press have ever since concentrated on the melodrama of Nancy's end. There is an interesting question that has to be answered about why Dickens killed Nancy in this horrific way- some have argued for a feminist interpretation of Nancy's death or an interpretation about Dickens's rejection of his own working class past. Others might argue that Dickens was thinking as a novelist, trying to design a shocking end for Nancy and finally undermine any sympathy that we might have for Sikes and Fagin.

Attending too much to Nancy's end though misses I think the way that contemporaries read the novel- they had to wait weeks between segments- and therefore something crucial about Nancy's character. If one interesting question about Nancy is why was she killed so horrifically (in a way that no film maker save for (to his credit) David Lean has ever tried to convey)- then another is why did she sympathise so much for Oliver and therefore why does she come to Rose Maylie. Again its worth thinking about when she does this- she is sympathetic to Oliver when he comes back to the gang after his kidnap (by her and Sikes) on the street. She is sympathetic before the house breaking that Oliver goes to with Sikes. By the time that she goes to Rose Maylie, Oliver is actually safe in the Maylie household: again this is an important absense from most of the film versions. Most of the film versions have Nancy directly saving Oliver from Fagin and Sikes by revealing his place of concealment: but that is not what she does. Instead she is the person who reveals the deception by Monks to conceal Oliver's true birth.

Most of the film versions change this I think because it renders Nancy more sympathetic- its less convoluted. Dickens doesn't do it though. The answer I think to the question about Nancy's 'betrayel' reveals why she does what she does regarding Monks. Nancy we are told throughout is a strong willed girl- her own declared age is probably in her late teens or early twenties, what she says about Oliver is interesting. She tells Fagin when she first fears he will enter the trade, that he like her might learn to live with a home on the streets. She tells Rose that she will in the end end up in the Thames, her body floating down river. She doesn't envisage living beyond forty. She says to Fagin and Sikes that they will ruin Oliver's life. So what she does in the exchange with Rose is not merely try and rescue Oliver directly, she does something more noble- she tries to rescue Oliver's future and she succeeds. Nancy's strength is not just her sympathy for Oliver's immediate plight but her sympathy for Oliver as a human being with a future of his own that cannot and should not be betrayed. I think its that that the Monks declaration reveals and that's the quality that leads her to betray Sikes.

That also places Nancy on the other side of Dickens's philosophy (to say the Bumbles)- philosophy leads people to evaluate others directly on their immediate circumstances- it leads people to evaluate others as objects or numbers. What Nancy does is in direct contravention to that principle- obeyed by Fagin as much as anyone else- because she takes an irrational sympathy to Oliver and eventually acts on that principle and dies. That's why Nancy is such a key character in Oliver Twist- she embodies empathy.