An Ethical Conceptual Persona, Composing, 12/02/2014

Gilles Deleuze wrote about a philosopher’s conceptual personae, the personality or character of a writer’s ideas. As I was sorting through, packing up, and re-organizing old papers and books today for my coming move of apartments, I found myself looking through notes I had made on old papers and readings, noticing ideas that still recur, in different forms and articulations, in my thinking today. 

Many ideas came out of this sorting process, but what I want to discuss today was a thought I had about the fact that the basic ideas behind many of my philosophical projects took shape nearly a decade ago. But first, what may look like a digression.

Dostoyevsky's Myshkin was the first character in a novel
whose personality could rip my heart from its chest.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of my favourite writers. What I love about his work is the complexity of his characters. People often talk about a Dostoyevsky character as if he were the embodiment of some abstract idea, like nihilistic atheism. Ivan Karamazov is probably the creation most abused by this idea. But while his characters are often swept along by these abstract ideas, they retain the singularity of individual people. 

Yet these individuals can also, through the narratives of their lives, make profound points about the ideas to which they devote their lives (or find their lives devoted, in the lens of a reader, as in the case of Prince Myshkin, the unwilling embodiment of that beautifully and tragically impulsive kindness). In this way, the character as a singular expression of some abstract idea in a complicating social and temporal context, Dostoyevsky constructs the most vibrant conceptual personae of ethics. But as I was formulating the Utopias project, my next major philosophical work, I was reading his often-underrated novel, Demons

Another digression, this time to a much smaller scale.

My friend B wrote a very hifalutin facebook status the other day. It was a wonderful expression of his own idealism, even though I’m no longer capable of sharing it.* I hope he doesn’t mind if I quote from him.
"BREAKING NEWS: The messianic proletariat Revolution to bring about the birth of a classless society which will kick-start a more actualized human history will never happen, despite all the redundant efforts of 'agitating the working-class.' The 'authentic' moment of 'true' revolt is forever deferred by those who purport to be the 'real' harbingers of communism if only to maintain their self-serving interests."
* Consider this an early birthday present, B.

There followed an immensely long comment thread to which I contributed very little, and which I don’t wish to summarize in any more detail other than to describe it as a discussion of the validity of Marxist agitation and theory, as well as whether the organization of the working classes for revolutionary political goals was still possible. Now, I’m rather skeptical about the prospects for intensely educated Marxist university academics to organize the working class for anything. Forget the alienation of the proletariat and bourgeoisie; no two groups are more alienated from each other than most North American Marxist political theorists and the actual factory workers, clerical staff, and tradesmen out there. 

I made only a few small points. One was that B’s status seemed to indicate the inevitable vulnerability of humans to corruption and greed, which another commenter described as depressingly Hobbesian. Another of my comments was that this idea is at the very heart of the Utopias project. 

You see, what I loved about Demons was that it described, in the fractally detailed singularity of the father and son Stepan and Pyotr Verkhovensky, the corruption of progressive and utopian ideals, ideals of a perfect society. Stepan is the academic whose devotion to these ideals for society has become an impotent parody of itself, the revolutionary theorist whose livelihood is dependent on the very oligarchies whose control of society and the economy his books have aimed to smash. 

His son, Pyotr, is practically working toward the political overthrow of this oligarchy, but he has let himself become corrupted by the violence of the cause, and kills without reason, burning down a city with no conceptions of what to craft from its ruins. Both of them have let their egos, their desire for adulation and glory, overcome their ability to think through and act on their ideals. No matter how or why, a political system of humans will inevitably grow corrupt. That is the pessimism of the project.

The optimism of the project, and indeed in all my major philosophical ideas, lies in my faith in the ability to change what it means to be human, to collect and gather enough little innovations to change the character of a species itself. If the character of each individual changes, then the character of the whole society changes. Each of my major philosophical ideas is one of these conceptual personae for which we can strive. 

The Utopias project builds on the hypothesis that a particular conception of time, with all its implications for the human character spelled out explicitly, will constitute an incorruptible human. The Ecophilosophy project hypothesizes that a particular conception of subjectivity’s genesis will constitute a genuinely ecologically conscious human. If I had not abandoned philosophy of mind, I would likely have written a project in that context of empowered materialism, a conception of matter as capable of all that, traditionally, we have postulated a soul, mind, or consciousness separate in substance from the body, to achieve. 

When I taught a full class of philosophy for the first time, I closed my last lecture with a quote from George Clinton, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” You won’t conceive of a new way of life without philosophical thinking, which is itself the techniques to conceive of a new way of life. We can never change for the better unless we can imagine ourselves there first. 

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