Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

Following the release of the Christopher Nolan Film: The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) I think most people are aware of the tragic events in Colorado in one premiere screening. What happened was hard to comprehend in a moral sense, as it reflects a very disturbing moral sentiment on the part of the perpetrator. Sensitive reviewers have acknowledged that this was a very sad event and threatens the percieved safety of what should be an enjoyable experience in civil life, namely, going to the movies.

It is also within good taste to acknowledge univocally that the Colorado shooting was morally abhorrent. Christopher Nolan commented on the shooting with absolute condemnation, as someone who considers the cinema a safe space and an important cultural venue. There is a lingering sense of discomfort about the event, however, especially because James Holmes declared himself as a Joker-style copycat.

When I saw DKR with Antisophie, she told me how her thoughts led back to The Dark Knight film of 2008, and DKR essentially improved her appreciation of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight has since become a cultural artefact of our times. Villains and Heroes are completely confused in Nolan’s world. Government departments are corrupt while a criminally violent vigilante holds the protagonist role, but by his own recognition is performing a task that has no moral legitimacy compared to say, the police or the legal system.

I wish to address a few aspects of the film, and avoid repeating good points from other reviews. Firstly I wish to address the soundtrack. Following, wish to address the theme of ‘Truth and Lies’. I shall then consider how the representation of Batman is subverted by the Nolan Brothers and forms a kind of critique about the very idea of such a character. Finally I wish to consider the social dimensions of the film as a closing reflection.

Soundtrack

Perhaps one of the most interesting aesthetic things I enjoyed about the film was its soundtrack. In my view there hasn’t been a film soundtrack this good since Inception, and that was also a collaboration between Hans Zimmer (composer) and Christopher Nolan. If there are two things that I found especially powerful about the soundtrack it would be the use of leitmotif and the nature of the ‘Bane’ theme.

Leitmotif, as Michael is very eager to talk about, is the use of a melodic line to represent a feeling or character that is consistent in (say) an opera. Leitmotif is said by some to be pinnacle of programme music and thematic works, because of the unity that they try to stress. After watching DKR, I was inspired to watch Batman Begins and Dark Knight again, and I realised throughout Batman Begins (particularly in the origin scenes of Batman) there were melodic motifs subtly used that were referenced in DKR, the resonance of this is that there is a sense of birth and rebirth (eternal recurrence?) to Bruce Wayne’s character. In becoming Batman and training under the League of Shadows, Wayne had to face his sense of fear. When Wayne was placed in the prison pit by Bane seriously injured, he also had to face a rebirth, by embracing his fear of death. This was, I believe, the allusion that was trying to be achieved by the use of melodic phrases in DKR that borrowed from Batman Begins.

Coming on to the Bane theme. I thought that was particularly moving how the chant was used as a rhythmic frame, as opposed to using a melody line as the basis of a theme. Rhythm has a very powerful place in music, and European art music does not use it in as many interesting ways as other musical traditions compared to say, Bhangra. The use of a rhythmic cell rather than a melodic one makes for a very powerful soundtrack, and its one that will stick in my mind for a long time.

Truth and Lies

One moral dimension of the film was the moral role of truth telling. Perhaps this could be construed as a Kantian moral about the absolute good of maintaining the institution of being truthful. Throughout the film there are lies, or withheld truths kept in the 8 years between the Dark Knight and DKR in the series timeline. The climate has changed fundamentally due to two actions, one is that the behaviour of Harvey Dent murdering police officers is explained by Batman allegedly doing the deed, in order to keep the prosecution case against organised criminals (which was the slightly complicated plot of Dark Knight).

The other aspect of this is that Batman/Bruce Wayne had to accept false responsibility for this. As a result of his faith destroyed in Harvey Dent, and perhaps the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne decides to retire from being Batman. Another crucial truth is withheld. Bruce Wayne believed that if he ever were to relinquish his Batman identity he could have a relationship with Dawes. What was not revealed to him was that Dawes ultimately chose to accept Dent’s marriage proposal, just before she died. Alfred withheld this information as a way to spare him from a painful truth.

Lying has consequences, and it shows the way that morality and ethics pulls apart. For most putative conceptions, morality is about ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’, or ‘Goodness’ and ‘Bad’ in terms of perhaps decisions or effects. Ethics by contrast, may be said to pertain to character. Michael told me in an editorial email that he believed the meanings were reversed for these terms but I still hold to this distinction. For Jim Gordon, the cost of lying to Gotham about Harvey Dent destroyed his family relationship (Gordon, as you may remember, also faked his death as well). The cost of peace comes at the coin of his character and moral legitimacy.

Alfred’s withholding of the truth has also had an effect on his character. By withholding the truth about Dawes, Alfred thought that he would spare Wayne from unnecessary pain by letting him believe that he could have made a relationship with Dawes, but he realises that the consequences of not telling his employer is that it made a hermit out of him, who believed that there was ‘nothing out there anymore’ in the world, causing an inward retreat. There is something distinctly philosophical about this theme of the film, moral/ethical decisions can have an impact on the character of a person, some decisions which may cause less harm may be destructive on one’s character. Posed in this way, DKR may sound more like an elongated moral parable by Plato’s Socrates on a discourse on truth-telling.

Batman turned on its head

I think that DKR represents a critique of previous Batman representations, and the idea of Bruce Wayne/Batman in general. It has been commented how Bruce Wayne lives in extreme wealth in lieu of a gamut of social woes while he dedicates himself to what may be seen as street level crime. Wayne retreats in his economic luxury while the ills of the world do not lay in organised crime, but unemployment and those other things that the real world contains. Batman Begins acknowledges a period of ‘depression’ which created mass unemployment and suggestibly fertilised a period of corruption and organised crime. One thing that brought Wayne out of retirement is that he chose to ignore the social problems of the world, represented by John Blake pointing out that Wayne’s charitable funds have been allocated away from an orphanage which he used to support.

Batman recognises the limitations of what a vigilante can do throughout the series of films. There are other shortcomings which are acknowledged about the Batman character, one notable thing is that Bruce Wayne tends to have a soft spot for women, at the expense of keeping his secret identity! This is the case certainly for many of the other Batman films where Wayne has a romantic interest. In short, he just can’t help telling the woman he likes that he’s a superhero! I think one flaw of the character is that he’s too trusting of ‘nurturing’ female types. I thought it was absurd how Wayne gave all of his assets to Miranda Tate, a woman that he met only a few times before essentially giving her ultimate control of Wayne Enterprises. This of course was his folly, as Tate ended up being the main villain of the film! Batman is definitely a flawed character, both in terms of what he represents and how futile his ventures are to real social problems, and in terms of how the character is often represented in films. Kevn Conroy’s animated Batman by contrast hardly has such a weakness for women or rather, not so easily he reveals his real identity!

Social themes

I have remarked that poverty was one aspect of the Nolan world in the Batman films. Other socially poignant issues are also alluded to but not well developed throughout the films. A brief suggestion towards the importance of renewable energy mainly is a foil for a plot device, which is almost so brief it makes me think it is a unnecessary aspect of the film with so much else going on. There is a general sense of malaise created by the dark camera filters and the way that a sense of paranoia or moral panic is created in the films, from Batman as a vigilante, to the way in which copycat Bat-men appear as a form of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Selina Kyle’s character points to the injustice of mass wealth distribution with the very poor said to be working in the sewers (as it turns out to be for Bane), and that this inequality cannot last forever without a violent form of revolution. There is an ambiguity to the film in that the issues addressed do not go one way or another to these perennial thoughts. I think every society has had an issue with wealth inequalities or the scarcity gap between what we need and what we have (and subsequently, what we need but cannot have).

I would like to reference a contrasting example of the superhero narrative in relation to social themes. At the moment, Marvel Comics have an ‘Avengers Vs. X Men’ serial, which involves 5 of the X-Men receiving a powerful cosmic power called the Phoenix, which gives them near absolute power. The fear of the Avengers is that this power will be corrupting and destructive. The X-Men who received this power have decided to try and solve world problems by sealing the San Andreas Fault, attempting to create a good harvest yield around the world to sustain a growing population Cyclops, Namor, Colossus, Emma Frost and Magik attempt to ‘save’ the world through dealing with fundamental human problems of survival and attempt to create a form of Pax Romana, or as they call it Pax Utopia. I think something like the X-Men represent a useful commentary on the utility of superheroes against the issues that form the backdrop of their world. Exactly what is the Batman character changing, or what exactly can one individual do to make a difference? The conclusion of DKR involves a play between not just Batman, but collaborators such as the Police, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox all having a small part to save the city. Although Batman ultimately saves the day through a single action, Nolan shows that a single actor cannot do all the change, but it comes from collaboration. Perhaps this is a salient moral to add to the superhero mythos.

Sinistre

Individuals and Corporations: The Janus faced Olympics

I am a little bit reluctant to write about the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics, as a Londoner and as someone who blogs normally about philosophy and social thought. I feel that there is something distinctly good about the Olympics, and something distinctly bad, and bizarrely they are necessary cohabitants for this four week event to occur. I say Four Week Event as I include both Olympics and Paralympics. Maybe I’ll start with the good stuff:

Good things

It is my belief that generally any exposure about disability is better than no exposure, even if that includes a naff joke in the special episode of Absolutely Fabulous about how a blind man is not discriminating about women’s appearances. The Paralympic events will be something I am particularly interested in seeing. Partly because I have an interest in disability, but also as I personally saw some paralympians last year (that’s another story) and they were lovely people and very passionate about their respective sport. I’ve heard a lot of things especially about the Wheelchair Basketball and the affectionately named ‘Murderball’. The more exposure that these sports get the better. Personally, anything with some kind of brutality appeals to me, so I’m definately looking forward to seeing coverage of the Murderball!

There are lots of personalities attached to individual sports and these individuals can raise the profile of their nations and the sports that they represent. Sporting events can bring virtues out of people. The essence of the Hellenic concept of virtue is translatable to the english word ‘excellence’, and physical excellence is an ideal to be celebrated, as is say, mental excellence or temperance of character. Sporting competitions emphasise the best in human ability.

Raising awareness of sports can get ordinary people involved. I myself am particularly interested in following the Tennis, Michael is interested in following the Weightlifting and Badminton. We are hardly the sporting types, but seeing personalities like Oscar Pistorious or Usain Bolt. Inspiring future olympians is also something particularly special, to encourage young people to get engaged with a sport and be able to train competitively on a wider level, whether that’s county, national or international. There is not only the aspect of physical fitness but also a wider sense of wellbeing and cultural identity towards sports, and often cultural trends that may not be expected. Michael tells me that countries in Southeast Asia are quite good on the international scene of Badminton, while for decades there has been a great football following in Iraq.The things which are really great about the Olympics are particularly individualist, egoist and agent-focussed. There’s something Homeric about an event like this, seeing the heroes compete against each other and representing their nations.

Bad things

I suppose many people can think of bad things, but the things that I’d consider particularly bad are the organisation of the sponsorships and the influence they have on a taxpayer funded event as stakeholders. Corporations may legally be persons, but what of the British taxpayer and their interests? (gosh this sounds incredibly right wing) There seems to be a juxtaposition involved, in order for an event which involves the representation and participation of great athletes, corporations must support it. This may involve sponsor parties, but also the corporations such as the UK Government, contracted construction corporations and other such associated organisations which were required to facilitate these events being possible at all.

There seems to be an essential conflict: in order for great individuals to compete with their peers, their has to be he machinations of wider corporate interests. Delphi, Athens and Olympus had their games, and those citystates were a precondition for their local celebrations. Just like the Ancient games, the Olympics is dragged long by the underlying political and corporate interests.

N.B. the use of ‘corporate’ is a purposeful equivocation between ‘collection of persons’ and the putative use of the term.

Sinistre

On being opinionated

(Willy Wonka speaks the truth)

(Willy Wonka speaks the truth)

Having a view is overrated especially when you actually haven’t thought about an issue with much depth. I find it odd how some seemingly innocuous questions are a dividing line, or how issues which may seem arbitrary to someone without any familiarity can be the basis of heated disputes. I remember observing a conversation where someone pointed out that one Latin American country had a very good healthcare system and research funding infrastructure in medicine. However, the person who took offence happened to be from another Latin American country and the facticity of this issue was a matter of national pride.

I think the age of media has a lot to blame for this need for answers all the time. This morning I was on the BBC news website (a prelude to getting to work in the morning) and I saw a story that Prime Minister Cameron refused to disclose the names of his guests, I then saw an opinion piece by editor Nick Robinson, which I subsequently opened to read. As I went back to the previous home page for BBC News, I immediately then found a change in story that Cameron was in fact going to disclose his private guest list.

Social media, and the traditional press is oriented towards opinions, talking heads and having a point of view on an issue. What ever happened to ‘I’m need to think about this issue some more’. Perhaps it is the staple of conversations which are not going very well, when one has to ask ‘what do you think of this issue?’, which I find very often very wooden and unconvincing when I ask this question. I am however very animated about some issues and I would genuinely ask if I cared what someone thinks on an issue if they had relevantly interesting insights.

I am not interested in pre-fabricated diatribes that read like a bad undergraduate essay that didn’t actually understand the examination question. I am not interested in your opinions if they are regurgigated from somewhere more interesting or influential where you didn’t think for yourself. I also don’t care for your non expert opinion on a technical issue. Why should we be interested in the views of non experts? Why should we care about the views of celebrities?

I must concede that some famous people use their reputation to raise awareness of issues, to an uncertain degree of success at times, and this is done purposefully to show a world away from their own experience to talk about something vastly away from the cult of personality, and I’ll accept thats a pretty good use of attention when they know the weight of their moralistic perspective is undeserved. George Clooney’s activism relating to the Sudan comes into mind.

I am self conscious about having an opinion often. When I saw that Cameron story that he refused to disclose the names of his private lobbying funders, I thought that was despicable, but then the story developed and he changed his mind, and then I felt, in a manner that Spinoza eloquently observed; my sense of indignation dissipated.

I also must be aware of my own sense of righteous indignation. In a previous post Michael made on self-critique, I considered the ways in which I have my own shortcomings on having pre-prepared diatribes on issues, or how I don’t actually answer questions people ask me if I don’t have a view. I’m reminded of Adorno’s strategy in the essay ‘Resignation’ where he addresses a criticism he has laid against him that is quite important, and he responds in no way actually addressing the criticism, but critically unpacking certain assumptions about the view someone might take on social change. I’m aware that I’ve written an opinion piece on how I am tired of people being opinionated, which means I am the subject of this criticism myself.

So I’ll need to think about this some more.

Sinistre

On offensive language

If you are reading this blog post, and if you read the blog in general on a regular basis then thank you for your readership. I don’t think we ever thank you readers for reading us. We are aware that your activity in reading our blog is a choice, and you can choose to read something else, or do something else right now. It is this very consideration that people often consider modification of their behaviour in accord to the locus of activity or set of social presumptions that are acceptable.

On this blog we talk about a lot of things, and speaking for only myself, I endure a lot of self-censorship and modification, which is partly why I hardly post these days. I’ve been thinking about the topic of offensive language for some time, partly from my working experiences and also from the apology advanced by the UK feminist F-Word blog on the use of the words ‘idiots’ and ‘cretins’. This does make me think a little bit. On most things I read, this doesn’t rate highly in terms of offense, but on a second thought, the apology reminded me of the different kinds of fora for discussions.

Michael has a story of how a prominent philosopher of science said ‘Fuck Empiricism’ as an expression of his motivations towards a dispositional account of natural kinds. That was exceptionally funny because this individual was a very proper gentleman in every professional interaction, plus the rarity of his use of swearing and his presumed politeness served as a comical foil for this bizarre outburst of which the two words are rarely combined together. Michael has also told me an anecdote about when he gave a talk on Utopias last year and felt uneasy about referencing the film ‘Gayniggers from outer space’, which led to a discussion from the audience where they constantly repeated the word as a mention and not a use.

Some of my favourite stand up routines are about offensive language. Marc Maron has a routine about how he reserves the right for the use of the term ‘retarded’ where he instigates a point that he needs the word and knowingly distinguishes it from those with mental disabilities. Likewise, Doug Stanhope (who rates high on the Noumenal playlist right now) has a routine on how some words are too good to be banned, and its about using offensive words in an imaginative or confusing way. Of course there are comedians who don’t choose to do blue or edgy routines who are also laugh out loud funny, such as Tim Vine.

I’m a person who really enjoys stand up comedy, I enjoy politically incorrect action films and I enjoyed pre-Nutty Professor films of Eddie Murphy. One of the few joys of my life is to laugh, and I laugh at pretty offensive and reprehensible jokes. I am uncomfortable when people say ‘fuck’ at work in a casual way, when something really goes wrong at work however, I think it’s the perfect thing to say when it’s my responsibility to sort out someone else’s problem.Context of course, is everything, like knowing when it’s a good time to drink single malt Scotch.

I appreciate that there are levels of appropriateness, and social situations vary in what are acceptable forms of behaviour from a low tier comedy venue to a high tier one; or from an inclusive environment emphasising safety and welcomeness, to a leisurely and colloquial one. for me, knowing when not to swear is like knowing when its appropriate to talk about Kant: I can’t fucking do it anywhere else than here. I want to end the post by saying thank you for your continued regular or irregular readership.

Sinistre

Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

As with many other important things, I found out on a regular visit to the BBC’s news website that Christopher Hitchens had died. Many of his regular readers, or fans, if you will, were expecting this news ever since his cancer was discovered. It is normally the custom in honouring the dead, to start with a platitude about life, living or death. I feel that this would be a tired cliche, and could be found in orbituaries and other such memoriam posts around the internet and print media.

If there’s one thing I can say about Hitchens is that he wrote broadly. Hitchens was well read and the ‘texts’ which he imbibed in varied from political philosophy, new atheism, English Literature to the more lowbrow nuances of popular culture. Hitchens covered a wide range of bases which captured the zeitgeist of the past three or four decades, and from my limited life experience, he captured the 2000s pretty well, for an author of a elder age where youth was emphasised in the public sphere, he showed a razor sharp understanding of the times and even when his interpretations and analyses were often disputed vehemently, he provoked a discussion on topics which one would not normally consider.

Hitchens in various parts of his ‘Arguably’ anthology, alludes to figures whom he has been compared to, such as Gore Vidal and George Orwell. The former in his social views and public profile, and perhaps the latter, in that both were journalists with a conscientious socialist bent. Hitchens proved that the journalist could be an intellectual, and in an ever changing world, the agenda and focii of the intellectual should also broaden.My own influence from Hitchens would be that he showed the possibility and desirability of combining elements from disperate subject matters, traditions and merging of a ‘high’ cultural corpus with a ‘low’ cultural focus to create focussed articles which were more readable than the literary and intellectual figures which he would reference. The passing of his life also represents to me a changing mindset and environment going on around the world. In the way that people would talk about historical moments such as the 1968 student movement, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. I suspect that 2011 would be the year of dissent and global disquiet about the status quo.

Sinistre

Reading Kant: Transcendental Logic

In the section entitled Transcendental Logic, Kant introduces terms which may be familiar to the 18thC audience, and notions of philosophies past, but within his own gloss.This post will concern some thoughts on Kant’s Transcendental Logic chapter from the First Critique

Kant’s notion of perception: concepts and intuitions

Kant introduces his notion of idealism as it is typically understood, in quite pithy a phrase: Thoughts without content are empty, Intuitions without Concepts are blind.

Kant introduces a world of knowledge where sensory data is contrasted with ideas. This is not a particularly original move as it is something philosophers since Plato have been thinking about. What Kant does that is unique, however, is to elucidate a unique relationship between the two worlds. In contemporary eyes this kind of distinction still cuts ice: we can have a perception of some given thing, and then, we can also have the idea or thought of it. Perception examples are a little redundant in the sense that philosophy lectures and seminars often involve examples where people literally point at something and say THIS as the essential example, however in the form of the written word, it doesn’t wordk so well. If I were to say ‘this is a cat’, that would be the thought of what would essentailly be:

Kant cat lol

There is a certain intertwined nature about thoughts and our perceptions of objects. For Kant, one requires the other in a manifold of cases.If we didn’t have the idea of a cat as a thought, or the faculty of thought itself then the image above would make no sense. Concepts, or generalised notions establish the form of a thought, what that means is that our concepts about the image (it’s a white cat, the cat is next to a laptop, this is an internet meme template) are presumed and understood in order to grasp the image. One might be able to ask what is the nature of these general concepts: white, cat, laptop, and ask questions such as: is the cat an instance of a general concept cat (yes), and if so is that entity (Cat – genus) an entity suis generis. I think that by taking a different approach from the usual ontological realism/nominalism kind of frame, and focusing on perspective and human perception, Kant sidesteps the issue. Perhaps I’ll have more to say on this as I continue to read the Critique.

Intuitions without content are blind: I’ve tried to explain this by establishing the necessity of conceptual boundaries in order to organise experience.

Thoughts without content are empty, for Kant to maintain this, Kant will have to make a big disambiguation process by clarifying what he means. Kant maintains there is still such a thing as the a priori (and in his account gives differing kinds of a priorist structures in the mind – categories, time/space, logic). There are thoughts which are about the world, if we are to push the question about ontology and realism/nominalism, we might say that both are two sides of the same coin. If cats were a real suis generis entity, but cats did not exist in the world at all: that would be an empty notion. If we identify such and such to be a cat, and another such and such to be a cat, and then say that ‘cat’ is not a valid independent term, we’d need some kind of generic ideal to describe a plethora of similar items. Kant acknowledges that both the idea and the percept (whether its cat or some other object) are required as constituents of thought and perception. Observations seem to be a mix of the understanding and experience. Kant goes on to say more about elements of thought which are ‘unmixed’, in his disambiguation.

Transcendental vs. General logic

General Logic is introduced as what I would presume would be the syllogistical figures and inferential schemes of his day. Logic today is largely more formal, but still works within the remit of its original project of being an exploration in the rule of thought and inference. General logic concerns the rules of the world at a most general level, these rules would apply whether our perceptual selves existed or not. Transcendental logic, however, involves the agent. As the form of the Critique’s chapter structure will show, Kant’s exploration of this notion dictates the further structure of the book. Logic has three categories: analytic, dialectic and general. Analytic and dialectic are themselves divisions of transcendnetal logic, so Kant is using multiple distinctions here (getting confusing yet?).

For Kant, general logic concerns itself with aspects of what regular syllogistical logic does which is hardly anything new, such as the conditions of illegitimate inferences, or the general structure of valid and true objective statements. Transcendental logic by contrast, Kant seems to distance by some kind of contradistinction. Kant seems to say that transcendental logic, or that which concerns perception does not have as high the rigour of general logic. Again, Kant would have sidestepped a later issue in 19thC philosophy, namely, whether the laws of (syllogistical, or formal) logic were in fact, the laws of the mind. By making this distinction, Kant avoids this issue at the least, and I think would perhaps even answer that question in the negative.

Kant will eventually pad out his notion of analytic (transcendent) logic and dialectical (transcendent) logic as the main theses of his metaphysical and epistemological account, namely: the analytic concerns the confines in which experiential claims: perception and thought are possible and the illegitimate use of the mental faculties as a way of interring too much  (and falsely so) about the world. Reason is a great thing, but you can only go so far with it: that’s the punchline of Kant’s Critique, but lets not get too ahead of ourselves, and focus on some little points

Two notions of Objectivity

Kant mentions that objectivity is a signifier of something that is true. What is objectivity however? Kant will later say something such as: the categories operate as a grounds for objective knowledge. Kant also says that it is the exemplar of general logic (when applied correctly) that it is objective. I’ve mentioned that Kant divided between transcendental and general logic; where the former concerns the operation of the subject’s mind. Historically speaking, the construal of the word ‘objective’ has previously (to Kant) meant something more like ‘representational’ or ‘object of the mind’, so when Descartes says that God is an objective notion, he is speaking of God as an object that can be represented in the mind, which is very different to our more putative notion of objective, which means something like: true independent of the subject’s experience.

However, I’m not at least at this moment which sense Kant wants to use. It is often acknowledged that Kant is indeed moving away from this representational notion of objectivity towards this more putative sense, but it does seem in some ways muddled. Consider:

  1. The categories imposed by the perceiving subject are a grounds for objectivity
  2. General logic is characterised by objectivity (putative sense)
  3. To speak of objective truth for logic in the transcendental sense is impossible insofar as it applies to sensation (a concession to Hume)

These three are all claims of Kant, but their use of ‘objective’ dont seem to meld well in my view.

Michael (following conversations with Sinistre)

LSE’s ‘blood money’ allegation

We at the Noumenal Realm have taken a conscious decision to abstain from writing about a great many of the current affairs, but this is more because many of us are in conversation and we seem to end up at a lot of moot points that don’t really go anywhere (but then again, the same can be said about our thoughts on philosophy being moot). We have considered trying to write on the recent events over the Arab world but we are struggling to establish a ‘frame’ about it.

Anyway, one story has taken our irk lately. Michael has sent us a large spate of articles from the British broadsheet press of late and much of it has come out so quickly and reports are legion that clarity and erudition is sacrificed over sensationalism and repetition. Let’s focus on a specific story that has flared up the (otherwise) quiet area of Higher Education News. The civil unrest that began in Tunisia which has spread to Libya has led many media pundits to call out the behaviour of certain Heads of State and other officials who have made efforts to bridge a relationship with Libya in (what seems) predominantly economic relationships with the suggested intention of fostering also a cultural/political exchange. With this going on in the background, there have been reports which have emerged almost concurrently over the LSE which include:

  • The allegation that Col. Gadaffi’s son plagiarised his Doctoral thesis awarded by the London School of Economics (University of London)
  • The (substantiated) fact of Saif Gadaffi’s financial input into the LSE for a North African Research project
  • Reports of senior figures in the LSE involved with Libya with the suggested intent of educating the future political elite of the country

These allegations are seperate, but understandably, when public scrutiny comes into one specific issue, a variety of related issues will then emerge, this is natural for the inquisitive journalist to seek a story. However, the issues relating to each of them suggest that they are taken all together and amount to a single judgment or criticism, namely, the undermining of the intellectual independence of the LSE and the suggestion that Gadaffi’s doctorate was ‘bought’.

There are seperate stories here, which Lord Desai notably points out in a piece on the issue this week. Plagiarism is a serious issue, but it is also an issue for the internal scrutiny of the degree awarding body. Like legal cases, this is not the matter of public judgment. It is the primed conclusion (considering the cognitive bias literature) to bring up this story and then conjoin it with the suggestion that Gadaffi also had influence over the LSE by means of a charitable donation. Conjunction is a natural way to accrue beliefs, as Hume pointed out, but also as Hume pointed out, just because we see a phenomenon of class E(ffect) consequent to class C(ause), does not follow that all E’s follow C’s, but it is natural to believe so.

The issue of the LSE’s financial influence with Libya is a more complex issue which very much makes the nature of higher education necessarily political. The consequence of the sullying of the LSE’s reputation culminated in the resignation of its head. In some ways the LSE is a victim, but that is not to say it is without guilt. It may well be the case that the LSE accepted a donation from the Gadaffi family, but funds in higher education can be very political. Consider the case of the Templeton Foundation which Dawkins infamously called out as being a religiously oriented research body. Consider how much of the funding in Engineering departments come from organisations which are either directly or indirectly involved with the arms trade. Universities have been, and to a much larger extent currently are encouraged to find a wider range of funds which includes establishing relationships with a variety of bodies, and many of them have political or ideological commitments. With the culling of public funds that go to the university, the state has virtually handed this option of forging relationships as a strong suggestion.

The LSE is no different to many universities who make relationships to improve funds. I deem it an equivalence to call out the LSE’s involvement with Libya with all other universities who forge partnerships with organisations which conduct research into aerospace who then also are involved as defense contractors. The blood money accusation is the same, but there is much more than an allegation and accusation here in play with the LSE set of stories, it is a loss of face. The loss of face is in the fact that a history of British officials (not limited to the LSE) forging relationships with Arab states who are now facing serious criticism from within their own countries and without. Calling out such relationships and partnerships is important and a fairly legitimate excercise in journalism, but this story is obscured by the obvious demagogue terms on which the stories set themselves out.

Sinistre

Wikileaks as the hostile ‘other’

I have resisted writing a post on the Wikileaks phenomenon for quite some time. Partly because I’ve not made up my mind as to whether they are liberators and a stronger social critic by the evidences they release alone than any ‘theorist’ or countercultural stirrer, or, if as the official dominant discourses say: they are a threat to international security on a variety of fronts. I’ll leave that topic for another day, and more evaluation.

One thing that can be said of late is that the latest leaks of the diplomatic cables, and a proposal that there is even more data which will come from banks and energy companies which promises to change our perspective on world affairs permanently, is that it is certainly an interesting and unique situation. It is interesting how virtually all nations (except noble Ecuador) have called for Wikileaks’ head Julian Assange’s proverbial and literal head. If one is to buy the mainstream media story, Wikileaks is some universal threat which would in some ironic way (ironic in that the documents reveal many diplomatic tensions) unite everyone against a common enemy. I am reminded of two insights, one philosophical, and one literary.

1. The case of aliens. In the last chapter of Paul Churchland’s ‘Matter and Consciousness’, the subjects concern somewhat eccentric or ‘new’ philosophical issues concerning consciousness and the mind. If we are introduced to a consciousness which by virtue of other reasons is somehow entirely unlike us (e.g. it is an artificial life, or nonhuman or ‘post-human’ life form), all differences between human beings are diminished as the ‘other’ which is largely unlike us, highlights the similarities human beings have. That can be a good thing, but it can also undermine the subtleties of difference that make individuals unique in a positive way. I am interested in how this ‘other’ of wikileaks will fare as it emerges as a political actor in the global world. In a sense, it is like terrorism, or multi-nation coalistions in that it a non geographical actor.

2. I am also reminded of the character ‘Adrian Veidt’ from the Watchmen comic. Whose strategy is (spoiler alert) to dissolve the impending doom of the cold war by posing threat of an ‘other’ for world nations to unify against and in so doing pursue a course for peace. Veidt’s notion of heroism was of a dark, almost Pax Romana manner. In order to save the world, he must make something so big that everyone feels threatened enough to forget their disputes.

This looks like an interesting turn in historical events. I just hope Assange doesn’t consider himself to be an Ozymandias figure.

Sinistre

Two pessimistic thoughts

I have been delving a little into some 19thC literature of late in leisurely pursuits, and I thought I would come to bring up these two insights:

1. Freud, in an essay on death; wrote that the very thought of our own death in some respect is inconceivable. For every thought that we have presumes at least a third personal perspective, as ourselves being the author of those thoughts. Yet, with the event of death, it is the thought that the self is absent in a way that the living self cannot conceive of without presuming the third-personal perspective of the living thinker.

This strikes me as being both a Wittgensteinian thought, and a Kantian one. It reminds me of a passage towards the end of the Tractatus (I think) where almost the very same notion is addressed, namely, the inconceivability of death. Wittenstein, by constrast, appeals to the inconceivability of death by means of a zeno paradox, as well as the notion that a finite thing cannot conceive of its end. Both of these thoughts would either be prima facie false, or reveal some paradoxical (dialetheia) truth.

The Kantian thought is that Freud’s assertion seems to resemble the appeal of Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception, namely, the notion that there is no thought without the presumption of an “I think”, or agent who has the capacity of such a thought.

2. From Schopenhauer’s ‘On Suffering’; suffering is the privation of pleasure. I am surprised to take a liking to the philosophy of Schopenhauer. There are distinct ethical dimensions to his psychological insights. Schopenhauer’s writings are ethics in the most sincere sense of the word, that is, a guide on how to live well.

schopenhauer turns the Augustinian thought that evil is nonexistent on its head. Pleasure is ultimately a frivolous thing because it is transient, and the only immortal thing about pleasant experiences or fond moments, are the recollection; or shared recollection of them. It is also the sign of a wretched old life if one is always reminiscing a past that has long gone.

Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism is surprising. Not least for the appeal to eastern philosophy, but the extent in which I find it a life-affirming way of approaching life. If a fond experience, like a first kiss or the birth of a child will inevitably end, it also has the immortal quality of being in one’s memory and summoned any time that the memory is recalled. Pessimism as a way of life seems to be the precept, or starting point. Once you accept it, you get on with one’s life, and contemplation becomes less effort in terms of whether the notion of pleasure or the good life are arguable issues. In cruder terms; Accept life is shit, and get on with it. It might be more fun once we accept that.

Sinistre

The anti-secular

As a default position, I would say that I’d consider secularism to be a reasonable notion. That is, if we are to understand the notion of secularism as the separation of the influence of religious groups onto social and civic institutions. That said, it has come to my attention of two things that seem interesting cases.

1. Judaism has a system of ethics which is referred to as ‘law’. The significance of Jewish law that makes it really distinct is that a great many issues are considered under the Jewish framework of beliefs. Whether to turn a light on or off on the Sabbath is considered to some, a difficult issue. What kind of car should one buy, what food to eat and so on. It would be absurd to say that one should not be allowed to be informed by a religious conviction or doctrine or system of beliefs, but this seems to stand in a tension (but by no means a contradiction), with the notion that religious institutions should have no influence over social and civic affairs. There seems an important sense in which the notion of the secular is lacking in acknowledging this.

2. There is such a thing as an Islamic bank. I don’t know too much about it but I do understand that it has different problems and different benefits. In the current climate where finance and the financial system is in turmoil, it may seem an interesting and perhaps welcome difference to consider doing things differently. What makes an Islamic bank ‘Islamic’? The early bankers (so Max Weber will have us believe) were Calvinist protestants, we wouldn’t say that those early banks were ‘calvinist banks’ or ‘religious banks’, but happened to be in such and such a social background and situation that most of the banking founders were protestant calvinists afraid of going to hell*.

*Caveat: Consider the Weber thought as a counterfactual, in the sense that Weber’s actual historical evidence and account is wholly questionable.

We need more terminology about the notion of the secular.

Sinistre